Part 3 - Lord Jim Audiobook by Joseph Conrad (Chs 13-19)


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Transcript:
-CHAPTER 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 ..."
'The shuffle of his feet under the table interrupted me.
He drew up his heavy eyelids.
Drew up, I say--no other expression can describe the steady deliberation of the
act--and at last was disclosed completely to me.
I was confronted by two narrow grey circlets, like two tiny steel rings around
the profound blackness of the pupils.
The sharp glance, coming from that massive body, gave a notion of extreme efficiency,
like a razor-edge on a battle-axe. "Pardon," he said punctiliously.
His right hand went up, and he swayed forward.
"Allow me...I contended that one may get on knowing very well that one's courage does
not come of itself (ne vient pas tout seul).
There's nothing much in that to get upset about.
One truth the more ought not to make life impossible....But the honour--the honour,
monsieur!...The honour ... that is real-- that is!
And what life may be worth when"...he got on his feet with a ponderous impetuosity,
as a startled ox might scramble up from the grass..."when the honour is gone--ah ca!
par exemple--I can offer no opinion.
I can offer no opinion--because--monsieur-- I know nothing of it."
'I had risen too, and, trying to throw infinite politeness into our attitudes, we
faced each other mutely, like two china dogs on a mantelpiece.
Hang the fellow! he had pricked the bubble.
The blight of futility that lies in wait for men's speeches had fallen upon our
conversation, and made it a thing of empty sounds.
"Very well," I said, with a disconcerted smile; "but couldn't it reduce itself to
not being found out?" He made as if to retort readily, but when
he spoke he had changed his mind.
"This, monsieur, is too fine for me--much above me--I don't think about it."
He bowed heavily over his cap, which he held before him by the peak, between the
thumb and the forefinger of his wounded hand.
I bowed too.
We bowed together: we scraped our feet at each other with much ceremony, while a
dirty specimen of a waiter looked on critically, as though he had paid for the
performance.
"Serviteur," said the Frenchman. Another scrape.
"Monsieur"..."Monsieur."... The glass door swung behind his burly back.
I saw the southerly buster get hold of him and drive him down wind with his hand to
his head, his shoulders braced, and the tails of his coat blown hard against his
legs.
'I sat down again alone and discouraged-- discouraged about Jim's case.
If you wonder that after more than three years it had preserved its actuality, you
must know that I had seen him only very lately.
I had come straight from Samarang, where I had loaded a cargo for Sydney: an utterly
uninteresting bit of business,--what Charley here would call one of my rational
transactions,--and in Samarang I had seen something of Jim.
He was then working for De Jongh, on my recommendation.
Water-clerk.
"My representative afloat," as De Jongh called him.
You can't imagine a mode of life more barren of consolation, less capable of
being invested with a spark of glamour-- unless it be the business of an insurance
canvasser.
Little Bob Stanton--Charley here knew him well--had gone through that experience.
The same who got drowned afterwards trying to save a lady's-maid in the Sephora
disaster.
A case of collision on a hazy morning off the Spanish coast--you may remember.
All the passengers had been packed tidily into the boats and shoved clear of the
ship, when Bob sheered alongside again and scrambled back on deck to fetch that girl.
How she had been left behind I can't make out; anyhow, she had gone completely crazy-
-wouldn't leave the ship--held to the rail like grim death.
The wrestling-match could be seen plainly from the boats; but poor Bob was the
shortest chief mate in the merchant service, and the woman stood five feet ten
in her shoes and was as strong as a horse, I've been told.
So it went on, pull devil, pull baker, the wretched girl screaming all the time, and
Bob letting out a yell now and then to warn his boat to keep well clear of the ship.
One of the hands told me, hiding a smile at the recollection, "It was for all the
world, sir, like a naughty youngster fighting with his mother."
The same old chap said that "At the last we could see that Mr. Stanton had given up
hauling at the gal, and just stood by looking at her, watchful like.
We thought afterwards he must've been reckoning that, maybe, the rush of water
would tear her away from the rail by-and-by and give him a show to save her.
We daren't come alongside for our life; and after a bit the old ship went down all on a
sudden with a lurch to starboard--plop. The suck in was something awful.
We never saw anything alive or dead come up."
Poor Bob's spell of shore-life had been one of the complications of a love affair, I
believe.
He fondly hoped he had done with the sea for ever, and made sure he had got hold of
all the bliss on earth, but it came to canvassing in the end.
Some cousin of his in Liverpool put up to it.
He used to tell us his experiences in that line.
He made us laugh till we cried, and, not altogether displeased at the effect,
undersized and bearded to the waist like a gnome, he would tiptoe amongst us and say,
"It's all very well for you beggars to
laugh, but my immortal soul was shrivelled down to the size of a parched pea after a
week of that work."
I don't know how Jim's soul accommodated itself to the new conditions of his life--I
was kept too busy in getting him something to do that would keep body and soul
together--but I am pretty certain his
adventurous fancy was suffering all the pangs of starvation.
It had certainly nothing to feed upon in this new calling.
It was distressing to see him at it, though he tackled it with a stubborn serenity for
which I must give him full credit.
I kept my eye on his shabby plodding with a sort of notion that it was a punishment for
the heroics of his fancy--an expiation for his craving after more glamour than he
could carry.
He had loved too well to imagine himself a glorious racehorse, and now he was
condemned to toil without honour like a costermonger's donkey.
He did it very well.
He shut himself in, put his head down, said never a word.
Very well; very well indeed--except for certain fantastic and violent outbreaks, on
the deplorable occasions when the irrepressible Patna case cropped up.
Unfortunately that scandal of the Eastern seas would not die out.
And this is the reason why I could never feel I had done with Jim for good.
'I sat thinking of him after the French lieutenant had left, not, however, in
connection with De Jongh's cool and gloomy backshop, where we had hurriedly shaken
hands not very long ago, but as I had seen
him years before in the last flickers of the candle, alone with me in the long
gallery of the Malabar House, with the chill and the darkness of the night at his
back.
The respectable sword of his country's law was suspended over his head.
To-morrow--or was it to-day?
(midnight had slipped by long before we parted)--the marble-faced police
magistrate, after distributing fines and terms of imprisonment in the assault-and-
battery case, would take up the awful weapon and smite his bowed neck.
Our communion in the night was uncommonly like a last vigil with a condemned man.
He was guilty too.
He was guilty--as I had told myself repeatedly, guilty and done for;
nevertheless, I wished to spare him the mere detail of a formal execution.
I don't pretend to explain the reasons of my desire--I don't think I could; but if
you haven't got a sort of notion by this time, then I must have been very obscure in
my narrative, or you too sleepy to seize upon the sense of my words.
I don't defend my morality.
There was no morality in the impulse which induced me to lay before him Brierly's plan
of evasion--I may call it--in all its primitive simplicity.
There were the rupees--absolutely ready in my pocket and very much at his service.
Oh! a loan; a loan of course--and if an introduction to a man (in Rangoon) who
could put some work in his way...Why! with the greatest pleasure.
I had pen, ink, and paper in my room on the first floor And even while I was speaking I
was impatient to begin the letter--day, month, year, 2.30 A.M....for the sake of
our old friendship I ask you to put some
work in the way of Mr. James So-and-so, in whom, &c., &c....I was even ready to write
in that strain about him.
If he had not enlisted my sympathies he had done better for himself--he had gone to the
very fount and origin of that sentiment he had reached the secret sensibility of my
egoism.
I am concealing nothing from you, because were I to do so my action would appear more
unintelligible than any man's action has the right to be, and--in the second place--
to-morrow you will forget my sincerity along with the other lessons of the past.
In this transaction, to speak grossly and precisely, I was the irreproachable man;
but the subtle intentions of my immorality were defeated by the moral simplicity of
the criminal.
No doubt he was selfish too, but his selfishness had a higher origin, a more
lofty aim.
I discovered that, say what I would, he was eager to go through the ceremony of
execution, and I didn't say much, for I felt that in argument his youth would tell
against me heavily: he believed where I had already ceased to doubt.
There was something fine in the wildness of his unexpressed, hardly formulated hope.
"Clear out!
Couldn't think of it," he said, with a shake of the head.
"I make you an offer for which I neither demand nor expect any sort of gratitude,"
I said; "you shall repay the money when convenient, and ..."
"Awfully good of you," he muttered without looking up.
I watched him narrowly: the future must have appeared horribly uncertain to him;
but he did not falter, as though indeed there had been nothing wrong with his
heart.
I felt angry--not for the first time that night.
"The whole wretched business," I said, "is bitter enough, I should think, for a man of
your kind ..."
"It is, it is," he whispered twice, with his eyes fixed on the floor.
It was heartrending.
He towered above the light, and I could see the down on his cheek, the colour mantling
warm under the smooth skin of his face. Believe me or not, I say it was
outrageously heartrending.
It provoked me to brutality. "Yes," I said; "and allow me to confess
that I am totally unable to imagine what advantage you can expect from this licking
of the dregs."
"Advantage!" he murmured out of his stillness.
"I am dashed if I do," I said, enraged.
"I've been trying to tell you all there is in it," he went on slowly, as if meditating
something unanswerable. "But after all, it is my trouble."
I opened my mouth to retort, and discovered suddenly that I'd lost all confidence in
myself; and it was as if he too had given me up, for he mumbled like a man thinking
half aloud.
"Went away...went into hospitals....Not one of them would face it....They!..."
He moved his hand slightly to imply disdain.
"But I've got to get over this thing, and I mustn't shirk any of it or...I won't shirk
any of it." He was silent.
He gazed as though he had been haunted.
His unconscious face reflected the passing expressions of scorn, of despair, of
resolution--reflected them in turn, as a magic mirror would reflect the gliding
passage of unearthly shapes.
He lived surrounded by deceitful ghosts, by austere shades.
"Oh! nonsense, my dear fellow," I began. He had a movement of impatience.
"You don't seem to understand," he said incisively; then looking at me without a
wink, "I may have jumped, but I don't run away."
"I meant no offence," I said; and added stupidly, "Better men than you have found
it expedient to run, at times." He coloured all over, while in my confusion
I half-choked myself with my own tongue.
"Perhaps so," he said at last, "I am not good enough; I can't afford it.
I am bound to fight this thing down--I am fighting it now."
I got out of my chair and felt stiff all over.
The silence was embarrassing, and to put an end to it I imagined nothing better but to
remark, "I had no idea it was so late," in an airy tone...."I dare say you have had
enough of this," he said brusquely: "and to
tell you the truth"--he began to look round for his hat--"so have I."
'Well! he had refused this unique offer.
He had struck aside my helping hand; he was ready to go now, and beyond the balustrade
the night seemed to wait for him very still, as though he had been marked down
for its prey.
I heard his voice. "Ah! here it is."
He had found his hat. For a few seconds we hung in the wind.
"What will you do after--after ..."
I asked very low. "Go to the dogs as likely as not," he
answered in a gruff mutter. I had recovered my wits in a measure, and
judged best to take it lightly.
"Pray remember," I said, "that I should like very much to see you again before you
go." "I don't know what's to prevent you.
The damned thing won't make me invisible," he said with intense bitterness,--"no such
luck."
And then at the moment of taking leave he treated me to a ghastly muddle of dubious
stammers and movements, to an awful display of hesitations.
God forgive him--me!
He had taken it into his fanciful head that I was likely to make some difficulty as to
shaking hands. It was too awful for words.
I believe I shouted suddenly at him as you would bellow to a man you saw about to walk
over a cliff; I remember our voices being raised, the appearance of a miserable grin
on his face, a crushing clutch on my hand, a nervous laugh.
The candle spluttered out, and the thing was over at last, with a groan that floated
up to me in the dark.
He got himself away somehow. The night swallowed his form.
He was a horrible bungler. Horrible.
I heard the quick crunch-crunch of the gravel under his boots.
He was running. Absolutely running, with nowhere to go to.
And he was not yet four-and-twenty.'
>
-CHAPTER 14
'I slept little, hurried over my breakfast, and after a slight hesitation gave up my
early morning visit to my ship.
It was really very wrong of me, because, though my chief mate was an excellent man
all round, he was the victim of such black imaginings that if he did not get a letter
from his wife at the expected time he would
go quite distracted with rage and jealousy, lose all grip on the work, quarrel with all
hands, and either weep in his cabin or develop such a ferocity of temper as all
but drove the crew to the verge of mutiny.
The thing had always seemed inexplicable to me: they had been married thirteen years;
I had a glimpse of her once, and, honestly, I couldn't conceive a man abandoned enough to
plunge into sin for the sake of such an unattractive person.
I don't know whether I have not done wrong by refraining from putting that view before
poor Selvin: the man made a little hell on earth for himself, and I also suffered
indirectly, but some sort of, no doubt, false delicacy prevented me.
The marital relations of seamen would make an interesting subject, and I could tell
you instances....However, this is not the place, nor the time, and we are concerned
with Jim--who was unmarried.
If his imaginative conscience or his pride; if all the extravagant ghosts and austere
shades that were the disastrous familiars of his youth would not let him run away
from the block, I, who of course can't be
suspected of such familiars, was irresistibly impelled to go and see his
head roll off. I wended my way towards the court.
I didn't hope to be very much impressed or edified, or interested or even frightened--
though, as long as there is any life before one, a jolly good fright now and then is a
salutary discipline.
But neither did I expect to be so awfully depressed.
The bitterness of his punishment was in its chill and mean atmosphere.
The real significance of crime is in its being a breach of faith with the community
of mankind, and from that point of view he was no mean traitor, but his execution was
a hole-and-corner affair.
There was no high scaffolding, no scarlet cloth (did they have scarlet cloth on Tower
Hill?
They should have had), no awe-stricken multitude to be horrified at his guilt and
be moved to tears at his fate--no air of sombre retribution.
There was, as I walked along, the clear sunshine, a brilliance too passionate to be
consoling, the streets full of jumbled bits of colour like a damaged kaleidoscope:
yellow, green, blue, dazzling white, the
brown nudity of an undraped shoulder, a bullock-cart with a red canopy, a company
of native infantry in a drab body with dark heads marching in dusty laced boots, a
native policeman in a sombre uniform of
scanty cut and belted in patent leather, who looked up at me with orientally pitiful
eyes as though his migrating spirit were suffering exceedingly from that unforeseen-
-what d'ye call 'em?--avatar--incarnation.
Under the shade of a lonely tree in the courtyard, the villagers connected with the
assault case sat in a picturesque group, looking like a chromo-lithograph of a camp
in a book of Eastern travel.
One missed the obligatory thread of smoke in the foreground and the pack-animals
grazing. A blank yellow wall rose behind overtopping
the tree, reflecting the glare.
The court-room was sombre, seemed more vast.
High up in the dim space the punkahs were swaying short to and fro, to and fro.
Here and there a draped figure, dwarfed by the bare walls, remained without stirring
amongst the rows of empty benches, as if absorbed in pious meditation.
The plaintiff, who had been beaten,--an obese chocolate-coloured man with shaved
head, one fat breast bare and a bright yellow caste-mark above the bridge of his
nose,--sat in pompous immobility: only his
eyes glittered, rolling in the gloom, and the nostrils dilated and collapsed
violently as he breathed.
Brierly dropped into his seat looking done up, as though he had spent the night in
sprinting on a cinder-track.
The pious sailing-ship skipper appeared excited and made uneasy movements, as if
restraining with difficulty an impulse to stand up and exhort us earnestly to prayer
and repentance.
The head of the magistrate, delicately pale under the neatly arranged hair, resembled
the head of a hopeless invalid after he had been washed and brushed and propped up in
bed.
He moved aside the vase of flowers--a bunch of purple with a few pink blossoms on long
stalks--and seizing in both hands a long sheet of bluish paper, ran his eye over it,
propped his forearms on the edge of the
desk, and began to read aloud in an even, distinct, and careless voice.
'By Jove!
For all my foolishness about scaffolds and heads rolling off--I assure you it was
infinitely worse than a beheading.
A heavy sense of finality brooded over all this, unrelieved by the hope of rest and
safety following the fall of the axe.
These proceedings had all the cold vengefulness of a death-sentence, and the
cruelty of a sentence of exile.
This is how I looked at it that morning-- and even now I seem to see an undeniable
vestige of truth in that exaggerated view of a common occurrence.
You may imagine how strongly I felt this at the time.
Perhaps it is for that reason that I could not bring myself to admit the finality.
The thing was always with me, I was always eager to take opinion on it, as though it
had not been practically settled: individual opinion--international opinion--
by Jove!
That Frenchman's, for instance. His own country's pronouncement was uttered
in the passionless and definite phraseology a machine would use, if machines could
speak.
The head of the magistrate was half hidden by the paper, his brow was like alabaster.
'There were several questions before the court.
The first as to whether the ship was in every respect fit and seaworthy for the
voyage. The court found she was not.
The next point, I remember, was, whether up to the time of the accident the ship had
been navigated with proper and seamanlike care.
They said Yes to that, goodness knows why, and then they declared that there was no
evidence to show the exact cause of the accident.
A floating derelict probably.
I myself remember that a Norwegian barque bound out with a cargo of pitch-pine had
been given up as missing about that time, and it was just the sort of craft that
would capsize in a squall and float bottom
up for months--a kind of maritime ghoul on the prowl to kill ships in the dark.
Such wandering corpses are common enough in the North Atlantic, which is haunted by all
the terrors of the sea,--fogs, icebergs, dead ships bent upon mischief, and long
sinister gales that fasten upon one like a
vampire till all the strength and the spirit and even hope are gone, and one
feels like the empty shell of a man.
But there--in those seas--the incident was rare enough to resemble a special
arrangement of a malevolent providence, which, unless it had for its object the
killing of a donkeyman and the bringing of
worse than death upon Jim, appeared an utterly aimless piece of devilry.
This view occurring to me took off my attention.
For a time I was aware of the magistrate's voice as a sound merely; but in a moment it
shaped itself into distinct words..."in utter disregard of their plain duty," it
said.
The next sentence escaped me somehow, and then..."abandoning in the moment of danger
the lives and property confided to their charge"...went on the voice evenly, and
stopped.
A pair of eyes under the white forehead shot darkly a glance above the edge of the
paper. I looked for Jim hurriedly, as though I had
expected him to disappear.
He was very still--but he was there. He sat pink and fair and extremely
attentive. "Therefore, ..." began the voice
emphatically.
He stared with parted lips, hanging upon the words of the man behind the desk.
These came out into the stillness wafted on the wind made by the punkahs, and I,
watching for their effect upon him, caught only the fragments of official
language...."The Court ...
Gustav So-and-so...master...native of Germany...James So-and-
so...mate...certificates cancelled." A silence fell.
The magistrate had dropped the paper, and, leaning sideways on the arm of his chair,
began to talk with Brierly easily. People started to move out; others were
pushing in, and I also made for the door.
Outside I stood still, and when Jim passed me on his way to the gate, I caught at his
arm and detained him.
The look he gave discomposed me, as though I had been responsible for his state he
looked at me as if I had been the embodied evil of life.
"It's all over," I stammered.
"Yes," he said thickly. "And now let no man ..."
He jerked his arm out of my grasp. I watched his back as he went away.
It was a long street, and he remained in sight for some time.
He walked rather slow, and straddling his legs a little, as if he had found it
difficult to keep a straight line.
Just before I lost him I fancied he staggered a bit.
'"Man overboard," said a deep voice behind me.
Turning round, I saw a fellow I knew slightly, a West Australian; Chester was
his name. He, too, had been looking after Jim.
He was a man with an immense girth of chest, a rugged, clean-shaved face of
mahogany colour, and two blunt tufts of iron-grey, thick, wiry hairs on his upper
lip.
He had been pearler, wrecker, trader, whaler too, I believe; in his own words--
anything and everything a man may be at sea, but a pirate.
The Pacific, north and south, was his proper hunting-ground; but he had wandered
so far afield looking for a cheap steamer to buy.
Lately he had discovered--so he said--a guano island somewhere, but its approaches
were dangerous, and the anchorage, such as it was, could not be considered safe, to
say the least of it.
"As good as a gold-mine," he would exclaim. "Right bang in the middle of the Walpole
Reefs, and if it's true enough that you can get no holding-ground anywhere in less than
forty fathom, then what of that?
There are the hurricanes, too. But it's a first-rate thing.
As good as a gold-mine--better! Yet there's not a fool of them that will
see it.
I can't get a skipper or a shipowner to go near the place.
So I made up my mind to cart the blessed stuff myself."...This was what he required
a steamer for, and I knew he was just then negotiating enthusiastically with a Parsee
firm for an old, brig-rigged, sea- anachronism of ninety horse-power.
We had met and spoken together several times.
He looked knowingly after Jim.
"Takes it to heart?" he asked scornfully. "Very much," I said.
"Then he's no good," he opined. "What's all the to-do about?
A bit of ass's skin.
That never yet made a man. You must see things exactly as they are--if
you don't, you may just as well give in at once.
You will never do anything in this world.
Look at me. I made it a practice never to take anything
to heart." "Yes," I said, "you see things as they
are."
"I wish I could see my partner coming along, that's what I wish to see," he said.
"Know my partner? Old Robinson.
Yes; the Robinson.
Don't you know? The notorious Robinson.
The man who smuggled more opium and bagged more seals in his time than any loose
Johnny now alive.
They say he used to board the sealing- schooners up Alaska way when the fog was so
thick that the Lord God, He alone, could tell one man from another.
Holy-Terror Robinson.
That's the man. He is with me in that guano thing.
The best chance he ever came across in his life."
He put his lips to my ear.
"Cannibal?--well, they used to give him the name years and years ago.
You remember the story?
A shipwreck on the west side of Stewart Island; that's right; seven of them got
ashore, and it seems they did not get on very well together.
Some men are too cantankerous for anything- -don't know how to make the best of a bad
job--don't see things as they are--as they are, my boy!
And then what's the consequence?
Obvious! Trouble, trouble; as likely as not a knock
on the head; and serve 'em right too. That sort is the most useful when it's
dead.
The story goes that a boat of Her Majesty's ship Wolverine found him kneeling on the
kelp, naked as the day he was born, and chanting some psalm-tune or other; light
snow was falling at the time.
He waited till the boat was an oar's length from the shore, and then up and away.
They chased him for an hour up and down the boulders, till a marihe flung a stone that
took him behind the ear providentially and knocked him senseless.
Alone?
Of course. But that's like that tale of sealing-
schooners; the Lord God knows the right and the wrong of that story.
The cutter did not investigate much.
They wrapped him in a boat-cloak and took him off as quick as they could, with a dark
night coming on, the weather threatening, and the ship firing recall guns every five
minutes.
Three weeks afterwards he was as well as ever.
He didn't allow any fuss that was made on shore to upset him; he just shut his lips
tight, and let people screech.
It was bad enough to have lost his ship, and all he was worth besides, without
paying attention to the hard names they called him.
That's the man for me."
He lifted his arm for a signal to some one down the street.
"He's got a little money, so I had to let him into my thing.
Had to!
It would have been sinful to throw away such a find, and I was cleaned out myself.
It cut me to the quick, but I could see the matter just as it was, and if I must share-
-thinks I--with any man, then give me Robinson.
I left him at breakfast in the hotel to come to court, because I've an idea....Ah!
Good morning, Captain Robinson....Friend of mine, Captain Robinson."
'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.'
>
-CHAPTER 15
'I did not start in search of Jim at once, only because I had really an appointment
which I could not neglect.
Then, as ill-luck would have it, in my agent's office I was fastened upon by a
fellow fresh from Madagascar with a little scheme for a wonderful piece of business.
It had something to do with cattle and cartridges and a Prince Ravonalo something;
but the pivot of the whole affair was the stupidity of some admiral--Admiral Pierre,
I think.
Everything turned on that, and the chap couldn't find words strong enough to
express his confidence.
He had globular eyes starting out of his head with a fishy glitter, bumps on his
forehead, and wore his long hair brushed back without a parting.
He had a favourite phrase which he kept on repeating triumphantly, "The minimum of
risk with the maximum of profit is my motto.
What?"
He made my head ache, spoiled my tiffin, but got his own out of me all right; and as
soon as I had shaken him off, I made straight for the water-side.
I caught sight of Jim leaning over the parapet of the quay.
Three native boatmen quarrelling over five annas were making an awful row at his
elbow.
He didn't hear me come up, but spun round as if the slight contact of my finger had
released a catch. "I was looking," he stammered.
I don't remember what I said, not much anyhow, but he made no difficulty in
following me to the hotel.
'He followed me as manageable as a little child, with an obedient air, with no sort
of manifestation, rather as though he had been waiting for me there to come along and
carry him off.
I need not have been so surprised as I was at his tractability.
On all the round earth, which to some seems so big and that others affect to consider
as rather smaller than a mustard-seed, he had no place where he could--what shall I
say?--where he could withdraw.
That's it! Withdraw--be alone with his loneliness.
He walked by my side very calm, glancing here and there, and once turned his head to
look after a Sidiboy fireman in a cutaway coat and yellowish trousers, whose black
face had silky gleams like a lump of anthracite coal.
I doubt, however, whether he saw anything, or even remained all the time aware of my
companionship, because if I had not edged him to the left here, or pulled him to the
right there, I believe he would have gone
straight before him in any direction till stopped by a wall or some other obstacle.
I steered him into my bedroom, and sat down at once to write letters.
This was the only place in the world (unless, perhaps, the Walpole Reef--but
that was not so handy) where he could have it out with himself without being bothered
by the rest of the universe.
The damned thing--as he had expressed it-- had not made him invisible, but I behaved
exactly as though he were.
No sooner in my chair I bent over my writing-desk like a medieval scribe, and,
but for the movement of the hand holding the pen, remained anxiously quiet.
I can't say I was frightened; but I certainly kept as still as if there had
been something dangerous in the room, that at the first hint of a movement on my part
would be provoked to pounce upon me.
There was not much in the room--you know how these bedrooms are--a sort of four-
poster bedstead under a mosquito-net, two or three chairs, the table I was writing
at, a bare floor.
A glass door opened on an upstairs verandah, and he stood with his face to it,
having a hard time with all possible privacy.
Dusk fell; I lit a candle with the greatest economy of movement and as much prudence as
though it were an illegal proceeding.
There is no doubt that he had a very hard time of it, and so had I, even to the
point, I must own, of wishing him to the devil, or on Walpole Reef at least.
It occurred to me once or twice that, after all, Chester was, perhaps, the man to deal
effectively with such a disaster. That strange idealist had found a practical
use for it at once--unerringly, as it were.
It was enough to make one suspect that, maybe, he really could see the true aspect
of things that appeared mysterious or utterly hopeless to less imaginative
persons.
I wrote and wrote; I liquidated all the arrears of my correspondence, and then went
on writing to people who had no reason whatever to expect from me a gossipy letter
about nothing at all.
At times I stole a sidelong glance. He was rooted to the spot, but convulsive
shudders ran down his back; his shoulders would heave suddenly.
He was fighting, he was fighting--mostly for his breath, as it seemed.
The massive shadows, cast all one way from the straight flame of the candle, seemed
possessed of gloomy consciousness; the immobility of the furniture had to my
furtive eye an air of attention.
I was becoming fanciful in the midst of my industrious scribbling; and though, when
the scratching of my pen stopped for a moment, there was complete silence and
stillness in the room, I suffered from that
profound disturbance and confusion of thought which is caused by a violent and
menacing uproar--of a heavy gale at sea, for instance.
Some of you may know what I mean: that mingled anxiety, distress, and irritation
with a sort of craven feeling creeping in-- not pleasant to acknowledge, but which
gives a quite special merit to one's endurance.
I don't claim any merit for standing the stress of Jim's emotions; I could take
refuge in the letters; I could have written to strangers if necessary.
Suddenly, as I was taking up a fresh sheet of notepaper, I heard a low sound, the
first sound that, since we had been shut up together, had come to my ears in the dim
stillness of the room.
I remained with my head down, with my hand arrested.
Those who have kept vigil by a sick-bed have heard such faint sounds in the
stillness of the night watches, sounds wrung from a racked body, from a weary
soul.
He pushed the glass door with such force that all the panes rang: he stepped out,
and I held my breath, straining my ears without knowing what else I expected to
hear.
He was really taking too much to heart an empty formality which to Chester's rigorous
criticism seemed unworthy the notice of a man who could see things as they were.
An empty formality; a piece of parchment.
Well, well. As to an inaccessible guano deposit, that
was another story altogether. One could intelligibly break one's heart
over that.
A feeble burst of many voices mingled with the tinkle of silver and glass floated up
from the dining-room below; through the open door the outer edge of the light from
my candle fell on his back faintly; beyond
all was black; he stood on the brink of a vast obscurity, like a lonely figure by the
shore of a sombre and hopeless ocean.
There was the Walpole Reef in it--to be sure--a speck in the dark void, a straw for
the drowning man.
My compassion for him took the shape of the thought that I wouldn't have liked his
people to see him at that moment. I found it trying myself.
His back was no longer shaken by his gasps; he stood straight as an arrow, faintly
visible and still; and the meaning of this stillness sank to the bottom of my soul
like lead into the water, and made it so
heavy that for a second I wished heartily that the only course left open for me was
to pay for his funeral. Even the law had done with him.
To bury him would have been such an easy kindness!
It would have been so much in accordance with the wisdom of life, which consists in
putting out of sight all the reminders of our folly, of our weakness, of our
mortality; all that makes against our
efficiency--the memory of our failures, the hints of our undying fears, the bodies of
our dead friends. Perhaps he did take it too much to heart.
And if so then--Chester's offer....At this point I took up a fresh sheet and began to
write resolutely. There was nothing but myself between him
and the dark ocean.
I had a sense of responsibility. If I spoke, would that motionless and
suffering youth leap into the obscurity-- clutch at the straw?
I found out how difficult it may be sometimes to make a sound.
There is a weird power in a spoken word. And why the devil not?
I was asking myself persistently while I drove on with my writing.
All at once, on the blank page, under the very point of the pen, the two figures of
Chester and his antique partner, very distinct and complete, would dodge into
view with stride and gestures, as if
reproduced in the field of some optical toy.
I would watch them for a while. No!
They were too phantasmal and extravagant to enter into any one's fate.
And a word carries far--very far--deals destruction through time as the bullets go
flying through space.
I said nothing; and he, out there with his back to the light, as if bound and gagged
by all the invisible foes of man, made no stir and made no sound.'
CHAPTER 16
'The time was coming when I should see him loved, trusted, admired, with a legend of
strength and prowess forming round his name as though he had been the stuff of a hero.
It's true--I assure you; as true as I'm sitting here talking about him in vain.
He, on his side, had that faculty of beholding at a hint the face of his desire
and the shape of his dream, without which the earth would know no lover and no
adventurer.
He captured much honour and an Arcadian happiness (I won't say anything about
innocence) in the bush, and it was as good to him as the honour and the Arcadian
happiness of the streets to another man.
Felicity, felicity--how shall I say it?--is quaffed out of a golden cup in every
latitude: the flavour is with you--with you alone, and you can make it as intoxicating
as you please.
He was of the sort that would drink deep, as you may guess from what went before.
I found him, if not exactly intoxicated, then at least flushed with the elixir at
his lips.
He had not obtained it at once.
There had been, as you know, a period of probation amongst infernal ship-chandlers,
during which he had suffered and I had worried about--about--my trust--you may
call it.
I don't know that I am completely reassured now, after beholding him in all his
brilliance.
That was my last view of him--in a strong light, dominating, and yet in complete
accord with his surroundings--with the life of the forests and with the life of men.
I own that I was impressed, but I must admit to myself that after all this is not
the lasting impression.
He was protected by his isolation, alone of his own superior kind, in close touch with
Nature, that keeps faith on such easy terms with her lovers.
But I cannot fix before my eye the image of his safety.
I shall always remember him as seen through the open door of my room, taking, perhaps,
too much to heart the mere consequences of his failure.
I am pleased, of course, that some good-- and even some splendour--came out of my
endeavours; but at times it seems to me it would have been better for my peace of mind
if I had not stood between him and Chester's confoundedly generous offer.
I wonder what his exuberant imagination would have made of Walpole islet--that most
hopelessly forsaken crumb of dry land on the face of the waters.
It is not likely I would ever have heard, for I must tell you that Chester, after
calling at some Australian port to patch up his brig-rigged sea-anachronism, steamed
out into the Pacific with a crew of twenty-
two hands all told, and the only news having a possible bearing upon the mystery
of his fate was the news of a hurricane which is supposed to have swept in its
course over the Walpole shoals, a month or so afterwards.
Not a vestige of the Argonauts ever turned up; not a sound came out of the waste.
Finis!
The Pacific is the most discreet of live, hot-tempered oceans: the chilly Antarctic
can keep a secret too, but more in the manner of a grave.
'And there is a sense of blessed finality in such discretion, which is what we all
more or less sincerely are ready to admit-- for what else is it that makes the idea of
death supportable?
End! Finis! the potent word that exorcises from
the house of life the haunting shadow of fate.
This is what--notwithstanding the testimony of my eyes and his own earnest assurances--
I miss when I look back upon Jim's success. While there's life there is hope, truly;
but there is fear too.
I don't mean to say that I regret my action, nor will I pretend that I can't
sleep o' nights in consequence; still, the idea obtrudes itself that he made so much
of his disgrace while it is the guilt alone that matters.
He was not--if I may say so--clear to me. He was not clear.
And there is a suspicion he was not clear to himself either.
There were his fine sensibilities, his fine feelings, his fine longings--a sort of
sublimated, idealised selfishness.
He was--if you allow me to say so--very fine; very fine--and very unfortunate.
A little coarser nature would not have borne the strain; it would have had to come
to terms with itself--with a sigh, with a grunt, or even with a guffaw; a still
coarser one would have remained
invulnerably ignorant and completely uninteresting.
'But he was too interesting or too unfortunate to be thrown to the dogs, or
even to Chester.
I felt this while I sat with my face over the paper and he fought and gasped,
struggling for his breath in that terribly stealthy way, in my room; I felt it when he
rushed out on the verandah as if to fling
himself over--and didn't; I felt it more and more all the time he remained outside,
faintly lighted on the background of night, as if standing on the shore of a sombre and
hopeless sea.
'An abrupt heavy rumble made me lift my head.
The noise seemed to roll away, and suddenly a searching and violent glare fell on the
blind face of the night.
The sustained and dazzling flickers seemed to last for an unconscionable time.
The growl of the thunder increased steadily while I looked at him, distinct and black,
planted solidly upon the shores of a sea of light.
At the moment of greatest brilliance the darkness leaped back with a culminating
crash, and he vanished before my dazzled eyes as utterly as though he had been blown
to atoms.
A blustering sigh passed; furious hands seemed to tear at the shrubs, shake the
tops of the trees below, slam doors, break window-panes, all along the front of the
building.
He stepped in, closing the door behind him, and found me bending over the table: my
sudden anxiety as to what he would say was very great, and akin to a fright.
"May I have a cigarette?" he asked.
I gave a push to the box without raising my head.
"I want--want--tobacco," he muttered. I became extremely buoyant.
"Just a moment."
I grunted pleasantly. He took a few steps here and there.
"That's over," I heard him say. A single distant clap of thunder came from
the sea like a gun of distress.
"The monsoon breaks up early this year," he remarked conversationally, somewhere behind
me.
This encouraged me to turn round, which I did as soon as I had finished addressing
the last envelope.
He was smoking greedily in the middle of the room, and though he heard the stir I
made, he remained with his back to me for a time.
'"Come--I carried it off pretty well," he said, wheeling suddenly.
"Something's paid off--not much. I wonder what's to come."
His face did not show any emotion, only it appeared a little darkened and swollen, as
though he had been holding his breath.
He smiled reluctantly as it were, and went on while I gazed up at him mutely...."Thank
you, though--your room--jolly convenient-- for a chap--badly hipped."...
The rain pattered and swished in the garden; a water-pipe (it must have had a
hole in it) performed just outside the window a parody of blubbering woe with
funny sobs and gurgling lamentations,
interrupted by jerky spasms of silence...."A bit of shelter," he mumbled
and ceased.
'A flash of faded lightning darted in through the black framework of the windows
and ebbed out without any noise.
I was thinking how I had best approach him (I did not want to be flung off again) when
he gave a little laugh.
"No better than a vagabond now"...the end of the cigarette smouldered between his
fingers..."without a single--single," he pronounced slowly; "and yet ..."
He paused; the rain fell with redoubled violence.
"Some day one's bound to come upon some sort of chance to get it all back again.
Must!" he whispered distinctly, glaring at my boots.
'I did not even know what it was he wished so much to regain, what it was he had so
terribly missed.
It might have been so much that it was impossible to say.
A piece of ass's skin, according to Chester....
He looked up at me inquisitively.
"Perhaps. If life's long enough," I muttered through
my teeth with unreasonable animosity. "Don't reckon too much on it."
'"Jove!
I feel as if nothing could ever touch me," he said in a tone of sombre conviction.
"If this business couldn't knock me over, then there's no fear of there being not
enough time to--climb out, and ..."
He looked upwards. 'It struck me that it is from such as he
that the great army of waifs and strays is recruited, the army that marches down, down
into all the gutters of the earth.
As soon as he left my room, that "bit of shelter," he would take his place in the
ranks, and begin the journey towards the bottomless pit.
I at least had no illusions; but it was I, too, who a moment ago had been so sure of
the power of words, and now was afraid to speak, in the same way one dares not move
for fear of losing a slippery hold.
It is when we try to grapple with another man's intimate need that we perceive how
incomprehensible, wavering, and misty are the beings that share with us the sight of
the stars and the warmth of the sun.
It is as if loneliness were a hard and absolute condition of existence; the
envelope of flesh and blood on which our eyes are fixed melts before the
outstretched hand, and there remains only
the capricious, unconsolable, and elusive spirit that no eye can follow, no hand can
grasp.
It was the fear of losing him that kept me silent, for it was borne upon me suddenly
and with unaccountable force that should I let him slip away into the darkness I would
never forgive myself.
'"Well. Thanks--once more.
You've been--er--uncommonly--really there's no word to...Uncommonly!
I don't know why, I am sure.
I am afraid I don't feel as grateful as I would if the whole thing hadn't been so
brutally sprung on me. Because at bottom...you, yourself ..."
He stuttered.
'"Possibly," I struck in. He frowned.
'"All the same, one is responsible." He watched me like a hawk.
'"And that's true, too," I said.
'"Well. I've gone with it to the end, and I don't
intend to let any man cast it in my teeth without--without--resenting it."
He clenched his fist.
'"There's yourself," I said with a smile-- mirthless enough, God knows--but he looked
at me menacingly. "That's my business," he said.
An air of indomitable resolution came and went upon his face like a vain and passing
shadow. Next moment he looked a dear good boy in
trouble, as before.
He flung away the cigarette.
"Good-bye," he said, with the sudden haste of a man who had lingered too long in view
of a pressing bit of work waiting for him; and then for a second or so he made not the
slightest movement.
The downpour fell with the heavy uninterrupted rush of a sweeping flood,
with a sound of unchecked overwhelming fury that called to one's mind the images of
collapsing bridges, of uprooted trees, of undermined mountains.
No man could breast the colossal and headlong stream that seemed to break and
swirl against the dim stillness in which we were precariously sheltered as if on an
island.
The perforated pipe gurgled, choked, spat, and splashed in odious ridicule of a
swimmer fighting for his life. "It is raining," I remonstrated, "and I
..."
"Rain or shine," he began brusquely, checked himself, and walked to the window.
"Perfect deluge," he muttered after a while: he leaned his forehead on the glass.
"It's dark, too."
'"Yes, it is very dark," I said. 'He pivoted on his heels, crossed the room,
and had actually opened the door leading into the corridor before I leaped up from
my chair.
"Wait," I cried, "I want you to ..." "I can't dine with you again to-night," he
flung at me, with one leg out of the room already.
"I haven't the slightest intention to ask you," I shouted.
At this he drew back his foot, but remained mistrustfully in the very doorway.
I lost no time in entreating him earnestly not to be absurd; to come in and shut the
door.'
CHAPTER 17
'He came in at last; but I believe it was mostly the rain that did it; it was falling
just then with a devastating violence which quieted down gradually while we talked.
His manner was very sober and set; his bearing was that of a naturally taciturn
man possessed by an idea.
My talk was of the material aspect of his position; it had the sole aim of saving him
from the degradation, ruin, and despair that out there close so swiftly upon a
friendless, homeless man; I pleaded with
him to accept my help; I argued reasonably: and every time I looked up at that absorbed
smooth face, so grave and youthful, I had a disturbing sense of being no help but
rather an obstacle to some mysterious,
inexplicable, impalpable striving of his wounded spirit.
'"I suppose you intend to eat and drink and to sleep under shelter in the usual way,"
I remember saying with irritation.
"You say you won't touch the money that is due to you."...He came as near as his sort
can to making a gesture of horror. (There were three weeks and five days' pay
owing him as mate of the Patna.)
"Well, that's too little to matter anyhow; but what will you do to-morrow?
Where will you turn? You must live ..."
"That isn't the thing," was the comment that escaped him under his breath.
I ignored it, and went on combating what I assumed to be the scruples of an
exaggerated delicacy.
"On every conceivable ground," I concluded, "you must let me help you."
"You can't," he said very simply and gently, and holding fast to some deep idea
which I could detect shimmering like a pool of water in the dark, but which I despaired
of ever approaching near enough to fathom.
I surveyed his well-proportioned bulk. "At any rate," I said, "I am able to help
what I can see of you. I don't pretend to do more."
He shook his head sceptically without looking at me.
I got very warm. "But I can," I insisted.
"I can do even more.
I am doing more. I am trusting you ..."
"The money ..." he began.
"Upon my word you deserve being told to go to the devil," I cried, forcing the note of
indignation. He was startled, smiled, and I pressed my
attack home.
"It isn't a question of money at all. You are too superficial," I said (and at
the same time I was thinking to myself: Well, here goes!
And perhaps he is, after all).
"Look at the letter I want you to take. I am writing to a man of whom I've never
asked a favour, and I am writing about you in terms that one only ventures to use when
speaking of an intimate friend.
I make myself unreservedly responsible for you.
That's what I am doing. And really if you will only reflect a
little what that means ..."
'He lifted his head. The rain had passed away; only the water-
pipe went on shedding tears with an absurd drip, drip outside the window.
It was very quiet in the room, whose shadows huddled together in corners, away
from the still flame of the candle flaring upright in the shape of a dagger; his face
after a while seemed suffused by a
reflection of a soft light as if the dawn had broken already.
'"Jove!" he gasped out. "It is noble of you!"
'Had he suddenly put out his tongue at me in derision, I could not have felt more
humiliated.
I thought to myself--Serve me right for a sneaking humbug....His eyes shone straight
into my face, but I perceived it was not a mocking brightness.
All at once he sprang into jerky agitation, like one of those flat wooden figures that
are worked by a string. His arms went up, then came down with a
slap.
He became another man altogether. "And I had never seen," he shouted; then
suddenly bit his lip and frowned.
"What a bally ass I've been," he said very slow in an awed tone...."You are a brick!"
he cried next in a muffled voice.
He snatched my hand as though he had just then seen it for the first time, and
dropped it at once.
"Why! this is what I--you--I ..." he stammered, and then with a return of his
old stolid, I may say mulish, manner he began heavily, "I would be a brute now if I
..." and then his voice seemed to break.
"That's all right," I said. I was almost alarmed by this display of
feeling, through which pierced a strange elation.
I had pulled the string accidentally, as it were; I did not fully understand the
working of the toy. "I must go now," he said.
"Jove!
You have helped me. Can't sit still.
The very thing ..." He looked at me with puzzled admiration.
"The very thing ..."
'Of course it was the thing. It was ten to one that I had saved him from
starvation--of that peculiar sort that is almost invariably associated with drink.
This was all.
I had not a single illusion on that score, but looking at him, I allowed myself to
wonder at the nature of the one he had, within the last three minutes, so evidently
taken into his bosom.
I had forced into his hand the means to carry on decently the serious business of
life, to get food, drink, and shelter of the customary kind while his wounded
spirit, like a bird with a broken wing,
might hop and flutter into some hole to die quietly of inanition there.
This is what I had thrust upon him: a definitely small thing; and--behold!--by
the manner of its reception it loomed in the dim light of the candle like a big,
indistinct, perhaps a dangerous shadow.
"You don't mind me not saying anything appropriate," he burst out.
"There isn't anything one could say. Last night already you had done me no end
of good.
Listening to me--you know. I give you my word I've thought more than
once the top of my head would fly off..."
He darted--positively darted--here and there, rammed his hands into his pockets,
jerked them out again, flung his cap on his head.
I had no idea it was in him to be so airily brisk.
I thought of a dry leaf imprisoned in an eddy of wind, while a mysterious
apprehension, a load of indefinite doubt, weighed me down in my chair.
He stood stock-still, as if struck motionless by a discovery.
"You have given me confidence," he declared, soberly.
"Oh! for God's sake, my dear fellow-- don't!"
I entreated, as though he had hurt me. "All right.
I'll shut up now and henceforth.
Can't prevent me thinking though....Never mind!...I'll show yet ..."
He went to the door in a hurry, paused with his head down, and came back, stepping
deliberately.
"I always thought that if a fellow could begin with a clean slate...And now you...in
a measure...yes...clean slate."
I waved my hand, and he marched out without looking back; the sound of his footfalls
died out gradually behind the closed door-- the unhesitating tread of a man walking in
broad daylight.
'But as to me, left alone with the solitary candle, I remained strangely unenlightened.
I was no longer young enough to behold at every turn the magnificence that besets our
insignificant footsteps in good and in evil.
I smiled to think that, after all, it was yet he, of us two, who had the light.
And I felt sad. A clean slate, did he say?
As if the initial word of each our destiny were not graven in imperishable characters
upon the face of a rock.'
>
-CHAPTER 18
'Six months afterwards my friend (he was a cynical, more than middle-aged bachelor,
with a reputation for eccentricity, and owned a rice-mill) wrote to me, and
judging, from the warmth of my
recommendation, that I would like to hear, enlarged a little upon Jim's perfections.
These were apparently of a quiet and effective sort.
"Not having been able so far to find more in my heart than a resigned toleration for
any individual of my kind, I have lived till now alone in a house that even in this
steaming climate could be considered as too big for one man.
I have had him to live with me for some time past.
It seems I haven't made a mistake."
It seemed to me on reading this letter that my friend had found in his heart more than
tolerance for Jim--that there were the beginnings of active liking.
Of course he stated his grounds in a characteristic way.
For one thing, Jim kept his freshness in the climate.
Had he been a girl--my friend wrote--one could have said he was blooming--blooming
modestly--like a violet, not like some of these blatant tropical flowers.
He had been in the house for six weeks, and had not as yet attempted to slap him on the
back, or address him as "old boy," or try to make him feel a superannuated fossil.
He had nothing of the exasperating young man's chatter.
He was good-tempered, had not much to say for himself, was not clever by any means,
thank goodness--wrote my friend.
It appeared, however, that Jim was clever enough to be quietly appreciative of his
wit, while, on the other hand, he amused him by his naiveness.
"The dew is yet on him, and since I had the bright idea of giving him a room in the
house and having him at meals I feel less withered myself.
The other day he took it into his head to cross the room with no other purpose but to
open a door for me; and I felt more in touch with mankind than I had been for
years.
Ridiculous, isn't it?
Of course I guess there is something--some awful little scrape--which you know all
about--but if I am sure that it is terribly heinous, I fancy one could manage to
forgive it.
For my part, I declare I am unable to imagine him guilty of anything much worse
than robbing an orchard. Is it much worse?
Perhaps you ought to have told me; but it is such a long time since we both turned
saints that you may have forgotten we, too, had sinned in our time?
It may be that some day I shall have to ask you, and then I shall expect to be told.
I don't care to question him myself till I have some idea what it is.
Moreover, it's too soon as yet.
Let him open the door a few times more for me...."
Thus my friend.
I was trebly pleased--at Jim's shaping so well, at the tone of the letter, at my own
cleverness. Evidently I had known what I was doing.
I had read characters aright, and so on.
And what if something unexpected and wonderful were to come of it?
That evening, reposing in a deck-chair under the shade of my own poop awning (it
was in Hong-Kong harbour), I laid on Jim's behalf the first stone of a castle in
Spain.
'I made a trip to the northward, and when I returned I found another letter from my
friend waiting for me. It was the first envelope I tore open.
"There are no spoons missing, as far as I know," ran the first line; "I haven't been
interested enough to inquire.
He is gone, leaving on the breakfast-table a formal little note of apology, which is
either silly or heartless. Probably both--and it's all one to me.
Allow me to say, lest you should have some more mysterious young men in reserve, that
I have shut up shop, definitely and for ever.
This is the last eccentricity I shall be guilty of.
Do not imagine for a moment that I care a hang; but he is very much regretted at
tennis-parties, and for my own sake I've told a plausible lie at the club...."
I flung the letter aside and started looking through the batch on my table, till
I came upon Jim's handwriting. Would you believe it?
One chance in a hundred!
But it is always that hundredth chance! That little second engineer of the Patna
had turned up in a more or less destitute state, and got a temporary job of looking
after the machinery of the mill.
"I couldn't stand the familiarity of the little beast," Jim wrote from a seaport
seven hundred miles south of the place where he should have been in clover.
"I am now for the time with Egstrom & Blake, ship-chandlers, as their--well--
runner, to call the thing by its right name.
For reference I gave them your name, which they know of course, and if you could write
a word in my favour it would be a permanent employment."
I was utterly crushed under the ruins of my castle, but of course I wrote as desired.
Before the end of the year my new charter took me that way, and I had an opportunity
of seeing him.
'He was still with Egstrom & Blake, and we met in what they called "our parlour"
opening out of the store.
He had that moment come in from boarding a ship, and confronted me head down, ready
for a tussle. "What have you got to say for yourself?"
I began as soon as we had shaken hands.
"What I wrote you--nothing more," he said stubbornly.
"Did the fellow blab--or what?" I asked.
He looked up at me with a troubled smile.
"Oh, no! He didn't.
He made it a kind of confidential business between us.
He was most damnably mysterious whenever I came over to the mill; he would wink at me
in a respectful manner--as much as to say 'We know what we know.'
Infernally fawning and familiar--and that sort of thing ..."
He threw himself into a chair and stared down his legs.
"One day we happened to be alone and the fellow had the cheek to say, 'Well, Mr.
James'--I was called Mr. James there as if I had been the son--'here we are together
once more.
This is better than the old ship--ain't it?'...Wasn't it appalling, eh?
I looked at him, and he put on a knowing air.
'Don't you be uneasy, sir,' he says.
'I know a gentleman when I see one, and I know how a gentleman feels.
I hope, though, you will be keeping me on this job.
I had a hard time of it too, along of that rotten old Patna racket.'
Jove! It was awful.
I don't know what I should have said or done if I had not just then heard Mr.
Denver calling me in the passage.
It was tiffin-time, and we walked together across the yard and through the garden to
the bungalow. He began to chaff me in his kindly way...I
believe he liked me ..."
'Jim was silent for a while. '"I know he liked me.
That's what made it so hard. Such a splendid man!...
That morning he slipped his hand under my arm....He, too, was familiar with me."
He burst into a short laugh, and dropped his chin on his breast.
"Pah!
When I remembered how that mean little beast had been talking to me," he began
suddenly in a vibrating voice, "I couldn't bear to think of myself...I suppose you
know ..."
I nodded...."More like a father," he cried; his voice sank.
"I would have had to tell him. I couldn't let it go on--could I?"
"Well?"
I murmured, after waiting a while. "I preferred to go," he said slowly; "this
thing must be buried." 'We could hear in the shop Blake upbraiding
Egstrom in an abusive, strained voice.
They had been associated for many years, and every day from the moment the doors
were opened to the last minute before closing, Blake, a little man with sleek,
jetty hair and unhappy, beady eyes, could
be heard rowing his partner incessantly with a sort of scathing and plaintive fury.
The sound of that everlasting scolding was part of the place like the other fixtures;
even strangers would very soon come to disregard it completely unless it be
perhaps to mutter "Nuisance," or to get up
suddenly and shut the door of the "parlour."
Egstrom himself, a raw-boned, heavy Scandinavian, with a busy manner and
immense blonde whiskers, went on directing his people, checking parcels, making out
bills or writing letters at a stand-up desk
in the shop, and comported himself in that clatter exactly as though he had been
stone-deaf.
Now and again he would emit a bothered perfunctory "Sssh," which neither produced
nor was expected to produce the slightest effect.
"They are very decent to me here," said Jim.
"Blake's a little cad, but Egstrom's all right."
He stood up quickly, and walking with measured steps to a tripod telescope
standing in the window and pointed at the roadstead, he applied his eye to it.
"There's that ship which has been becalmed outside all the morning has got a breeze
now and is coming in," he remarked patiently; "I must go and board."
We shook hands in silence, and he turned to go.
"Jim!" I cried.
He looked round with his hand on the lock.
"You--you have thrown away something like a fortune."
He came back to me all the way from the door.
"Such a splendid old chap," he said.
"How could I? How could I?"
His lips twitched. "Here it does not matter."
"Oh! you--you--" I began, and had to cast about for a suitable word, but before I
became aware that there was no name that would just do, he was gone.
I heard outside Egstrom's deep gentle voice saying cheerily, "That's the Sarah W.
Granger, Jimmy.
You must manage to be first aboard"; and directly Blake struck in, screaming after
the manner of an outraged cockatoo, "Tell the captain we've got some of his mail
here.
That'll fetch him. D'ye hear, Mister What's-your-name?"
And there was Jim answering Egstrom with something boyish in his tone.
"All right.
I'll make a race of it." He seemed to take refuge in the boat-
sailing part of that sorry business.
'I did not see him again that trip, but on my next (I had a six months' charter) I
went up to the store.
Ten yards away from the door Blake's scolding met my ears, and when I came in he
gave me a glance of utter wretchedness; Egstrom, all smiles, advanced, extending a
large bony hand.
"Glad to see you, captain....Sssh....Been thinking you were about due back here.
What did you say, sir?...Sssh....Oh! him! He has left us.
Come into the parlour."...After the slam of the door Blake's strained voice became
faint, as the voice of one scolding desperately in a wilderness...."Put us to a
great inconvenience, too.
Used us badly--I must say ..." "Where's he gone to?
Do you know?" I asked.
"No.
It's no use asking either," said Egstrom, standing bewhiskered and obliging before me
with his arms hanging down his sides clumsily, and a thin silver watch-chain
looped very low on a rucked-up blue serge waistcoat.
"A man like that don't go anywhere in particular."
I was too concerned at the news to ask for the explanation of that pronouncement, and
he went on.
"He left--let's see--the very day a steamer with returning pilgrims from the Red Sea
put in here with two blades of her propeller gone.
Three weeks ago now."
"Wasn't there something said about the Patna case?"
I asked, fearing the worst. He gave a start, and looked at me as if I
had been a sorcerer.
"Why, yes! How do you know?
Some of them were talking about it here.
There was a captain or two, the manager of Vanlo's engineering shop at the harbour,
two or three others, and myself.
Jim was in here too, having a sandwich and a glass of beer; when we are busy--you see,
captain--there's no time for a proper tiffin.
He was standing by this table eating sandwiches, and the rest of us were round
the telescope watching that steamer come in; and by-and-by Vanlo's manager began to
talk about the chief of the Patna; he had
done some repairs for him once, and from that he went on to tell us what an old ruin
she was, and the money that had been made out of her.
He came to mention her last voyage, and then we all struck in.
Some said one thing and some another--not much--what you or any other man might say;
and there was some laughing.
Captain O'Brien of the Sarah W. Granger, a large, noisy old man with a stick--he was
sitting listening to us in this arm-chair here--he let drive suddenly with his stick
at the floor, and roars out, 'Skunks!'...Made us all jump.
Vanlo's manager winks at us and asks, 'What's the matter, Captain O'Brien?'
'Matter! matter!' the old man began to shout; 'what are you Injuns laughing at?
It's no laughing matter. It's a disgrace to human natur'--that's
what it is.
I would despise being seen in the same room with one of those men.
Yes, sir!' He seemed to catch my eye like, and I had
to speak out of civility.
'Skunks!' says I, 'of course, Captain O'Brien, and I wouldn't care to have them
here myself, so you're quite safe in this room, Captain O'Brien.
Have a little something cool to drink.'
'Dam' your drink, Egstrom,' says he, with a twinkle in his eye; 'when I want a drink I
will shout for it. I am going to quit.
It stinks here now.'
At this all the others burst out laughing, and out they go after the old man.
And then, sir, that blasted Jim he puts down the sandwich he had in his hand and
walks round the table to me; there was his glass of beer poured out quite full.
'I am off,' he says--just like this.
'It isn't half-past one yet,' says I; 'you might snatch a smoke first.'
I thought he meant it was time for him to go down to his work.
When I understood what he was up to, my arms fell--so!
Can't get a man like that every day, you know, sir; a regular devil for sailing a
boat; ready to go out miles to sea to meet ships in any sort of weather.
More than once a captain would come in here full of it, and the first thing he would
say would be, 'That's a reckless sort of a lunatic you've got for water-clerk,
Egstrom.
I was feeling my way in at daylight under short canvas when there comes flying out of
the mist right under my forefoot a boat half under water, sprays going over the
mast-head, two frightened niggers on the
bottom boards, a yelling fiend at the tiller.
Hey! hey! Ship ahoy! ahoy!
Captain!
Hey! hey! Egstrom & Blake's man first to speak to
you! Hey! hey!
Egstrom & Blake!
Hallo! hey! whoop! Kick the niggers--out reefs--a squall on at
the time--shoots ahead whooping and yelling to me to make sail and he would give me a
lead in--more like a demon than a man.
Never saw a boat handled like that in all my life.
Couldn't have been drunk--was he? Such a quiet, soft-spoken chap too--blush
like a girl when he came on board....'
I tell you, Captain Marlow, nobody had a chance against us with a strange ship when
Jim was out. The other ship-chandlers just kept their
old customers, and ..."
'Egstrom appeared overcome with emotion. '"Why, sir--it seemed as though he wouldn't
mind going a hundred miles out to sea in an old shoe to nab a ship for the firm.
If the business had been his own and all to make yet, he couldn't have done more in
that way. And now...all at once...like this!
Thinks I to myself: 'Oho! a rise in the screw--that's the trouble--is it?'
'All right,' says I, 'no need of all that fuss with me, Jimmy.
Just mention your figure.
Anything in reason.' He looks at me as if he wanted to swallow
something that stuck in his throat. 'I can't stop with you.'
'What's that blooming joke?'
I asks. He shakes his head, and I could see in his
eye he was as good as gone already, sir. So I turned to him and slanged him till all
was blue.
'What is it you're running away from?' I asks.
'Who has been getting at you? What scared you?
You haven't as much sense as a rat; they don't clear out from a good ship.
Where do you expect to get a better berth?- -you this and you that.'
I made him look sick, I can tell you.
'This business ain't going to sink,' says I.
He gave a big jump. 'Good-bye,' he says, nodding at me like a
lord; 'you ain't half a bad chap, Egstrom.
I give you my word that if you knew my reasons you wouldn't care to keep me.'
'That's the biggest lie you ever told in your life,' says I; 'I know my own mind.'
He made me so mad that I had to laugh.
'Can't you really stop long enough to drink this glass of beer here, you funny beggar,
you?'
I don't know what came over him; he didn't seem able to find the door; something
comical, I can tell you, captain. I drank the beer myself.
'Well, if you're in such a hurry, here's luck to you in your own drink,' says I;
'only, you mark my words, if you keep up this game you'll very soon find that the
earth ain't big enough to hold you--that's all.'
He gave me one black look, and out he rushed with a face fit to scare little
children."
'Egstrom snorted bitterly, and combed one auburn whisker with knotty fingers.
"Haven't been able to get a man that was any good since.
It's nothing but worry, worry, worry in business.
And where might you have come across him, captain, if it's fair to ask?"
'"He was the mate of the Patna that voyage," I said, feeling that I owed some
explanation.
For a time Egstrom remained very still, with his fingers plunged in the hair at the
side of his face, and then exploded. "And who the devil cares about that?"
"I daresay no one," I began ...
"And what the devil is he--anyhow--for to go on like this?"
He stuffed suddenly his left whisker into his mouth and stood amazed.
"Jee!" he exclaimed, "I told him the earth wouldn't be big enough to hold his caper."'
CHAPTER 19
'I have told you these two episodes at length to show his manner of dealing with
himself under the new conditions of his life.
There were many others of the sort, more than I could count on the fingers of my two
hands.
They were all equally tinged by a high- minded absurdity of intention which made
their futility profound and touching.
To fling away your daily bread so as to get your hands free for a grapple with a ghost
may be an act of prosaic heroism.
Men had done it before (though we who have lived know full well that it is not the
haunted soul but the hungry body that makes an outcast), and men who had eaten and
meant to eat every day had applauded the creditable folly.
He was indeed unfortunate, for all his recklessness could not carry him out from
under the shadow.
There was always a doubt of his courage. The truth seems to be that it is impossible
to lay the ghost of a fact.
You can face it or shirk it--and I have come across a man or two who could wink at
their familiar shades.
Obviously Jim was not of the winking sort; but what I could never make up my mind
about was whether his line of conduct amounted to shirking his ghost or to facing
him out.
'I strained my mental eyesight only to discover that, as with the complexion of
all our actions, the shade of difference was so delicate that it was impossible to
say.
It might have been flight and it might have been a mode of combat.
To the common mind he became known as a rolling stone, because this was the
funniest part: he did after a time become perfectly known, and even notorious, within
the circle of his wanderings (which had a
diameter of, say, three thousand miles), in the same way as an eccentric character is
known to a whole countryside.
For instance, in Bankok, where he found employment with Yucker Brothers, charterers
and teak merchants, it was almost pathetic to see him go about in sunshine hugging his
secret, which was known to the very up- country logs on the river.
Schomberg, the keeper of the hotel where he boarded, a hirsute Alsatian of manly
bearing and an irrepressible retailer of all the scandalous gossip of the place,
would, with both elbows on the table,
impart an adorned version of the story to any guest who cared to imbibe knowledge
along with the more costly liquors.
"And, mind you, the nicest fellow you could meet," would be his generous conclusion;
"quite superior."
It says a lot for the casual crowd that frequented Schomberg's establishment that
Jim managed to hang out in Bankok for a whole six months.
I remarked that people, perfect strangers, took to him as one takes to a nice child.
His manner was reserved, but it was as though his personal appearance, his hair,
his eyes, his smile, made friends for him wherever he went.
And, of course, he was no fool.
I heard Siegmund Yucker (native of Switzerland), a gentle creature ravaged by
a cruel dyspepsia, and so frightfully lame that his head swung through a quarter of a
circle at every step he took, declare
appreciatively that for one so young he was "of great gabasidy," as though it had been
a mere question of cubic contents. "Why not send him up country?"
I suggested anxiously.
(Yucker Brothers had concessions and teak forests in the interior.)
"If he has capacity, as you say, he will soon get hold of the work.
And physically he is very fit.
His health is always excellent." "Ach!
It's a great ting in dis goundry to be vree vrom tispep-shia," sighed poor Yucker
enviously, casting a stealthy glance at the pit of his ruined stomach.
I left him drumming pensively on his desk and muttering, "Es ist ein' Idee.
Es ist ein' Idee." Unfortunately, that very evening an
unpleasant affair took place in the hotel.
'I don't know that I blame Jim very much, but it was a truly regrettable incident.
It belonged to the lamentable species of bar-room scuffles, and the other party to
it was a cross-eyed Dane of sorts whose visiting-card recited, under his
misbegotten name: first lieutenant in the Royal Siamese Navy.
The fellow, of course, was utterly hopeless at billiards, but did not like to be
beaten, I suppose.
He had had enough to drink to turn nasty after the sixth game, and make some
scornful remark at Jim's expense.
Most of the people there didn't hear what was said, and those who had heard seemed to
have had all precise recollection scared out of them by the appalling nature of the
consequences that immediately ensued.
It was very lucky for the Dane that he could swim, because the room opened on a
verandah and the Menam flowed below very wide and black.
A boat-load of Chinamen, bound, as likely as not, on some thieving expedition, fished
out the officer of the King of Siam, and Jim turned up at about midnight on board my
ship without a hat.
"Everybody in the room seemed to know," he said, gasping yet from the contest, as it
were.
He was rather sorry, on general principles, for what had happened, though in this case
there had been, he said, "no option."
But what dismayed him was to find the nature of his burden as well known to
everybody as though he had gone about all that time carrying it on his shoulders.
Naturally after this he couldn't remain in the place.
He was universally condemned for the brutal violence, so unbecoming a man in his
delicate position; some maintained he had been disgracefully drunk at the time;
others criticised his want of tact.
Even Schomberg was very much annoyed. "He is a very nice young man," he said
argumentatively to me, "but the lieutenant is a first-rate fellow too.
He dines every night at my table d'hote, you know.
And there's a billiard-cue broken. I can't allow that.
First thing this morning I went over with my apologies to the lieutenant, and I think
I've made it all right for myself; but only think, captain, if everybody started such
games!
Why, the man might have been drowned! And here I can't run out into the next
street and buy a new cue. I've got to write to Europe for them.
No, no!
A temper like that won't do!"...He was extremely sore on the subject.
'This was the worst incident of all in his- -his retreat.
Nobody could deplore it more than myself; for if, as somebody said hearing him
mentioned, "Oh yes! I know.
He has knocked about a good deal out here," yet he had somehow avoided being battered
and chipped in the process.
This last affair, however, made me seriously uneasy, because if his exquisite
sensibilities were to go the length of involving him in pot-house shindies, he
would lose his name of an inoffensive, if
aggravating, fool, and acquire that of a common loafer.
For all my confidence in him I could not help reflecting that in such cases from the
name to the thing itself is but a step.
I suppose you will understand that by that time I could not think of washing my hands
of him. I took him away from Bankok in my ship, and
we had a longish passage.
It was pitiful to see how he shrank within himself.
A seaman, even if a mere passenger, takes an interest in a ship, and looks at the
sea-life around him with the critical enjoyment of a painter, for instance,
looking at another man's work.
In every sense of the expression he is "on deck"; but my Jim, for the most part,
skulked down below as though he had been a stowaway.
He infected me so that I avoided speaking on professional matters, such as would
suggest themselves naturally to two sailors during a passage.
For whole days we did not exchange a word; I felt extremely unwilling to give orders
to my officers in his presence.
Often, when alone with him on deck or in the cabin, we didn't know what to do with
our eyes.
'I placed him with De Jongh, as you know, glad enough to dispose of him in any way,
yet persuaded that his position was now growing intolerable.
He had lost some of that elasticity which had enabled him to rebound back into his
uncompromising position after every overthrow.
One day, coming ashore, I saw him standing on the quay; the water of the roadstead and
the sea in the offing made one smooth ascending plane, and the outermost ships at
anchor seemed to ride motionless in the sky.
He was waiting for his boat, which was being loaded at our feet with packages of
small stores for some vessel ready to leave.
After exchanging greetings, we remained silent--side by side.
"Jove!" he said suddenly, "this is killing work."
'He smiled at me; I must say he generally could manage a smile.
I made no reply.
I knew very well he was not alluding to his duties; he had an easy time of it with De
Jongh.
Nevertheless, as soon as he had spoken I became completely convinced that the work
was killing. I did not even look at him.
"Would you like," said I, "to leave this part of the world altogether; try
California or the West Coast? I'll see what I can do ..."
He interrupted me a little scornfully.
"What difference would it make?"...I felt at once convinced that he was right.
It would make no difference; it was not relief he wanted; I seemed to perceive
dimly that what he wanted, what he was, as it were, waiting for, was something not
easy to define--something in the nature of an opportunity.
I had given him many opportunities, but they had been merely opportunities to earn
his bread.
Yet what more could any man do? The position struck me as hopeless, and
poor Brierly's saying recurred to me, "Let him creep twenty feet underground and stay
there."
Better that, I thought, than this waiting above ground for the impossible.
Yet one could not be sure even of that.
There and then, before his boat was three oars' lengths away from the quay, I had
made up my mind to go and consult Stein in the evening.
'This Stein was a wealthy and respected merchant.
His "house" (because it was a house, Stein & Co., and there was some sort of partner
who, as Stein said, "looked after the Moluccas") had a large inter-island
business, with a lot of trading posts
established in the most out-of-the-way places for collecting the produce.
His wealth and his respectability were not exactly the reasons why I was anxious to
seek his advice.
I desired to confide my difficulty to him because he was one of the most trustworthy
men I had ever known.
The gentle light of a simple, unwearied, as it were, and intelligent good-nature
illumined his long hairless face.
It had deep downward folds, and was pale as of a man who had always led a sedentary
life--which was indeed very far from being the case.
His hair was thin, and brushed back from a massive and lofty forehead.
One fancied that at twenty he must have looked very much like what he was now at
threescore.
It was a student's face; only the eyebrows nearly all white, thick and bushy, together
with the resolute searching glance that came from under them, were not in accord
with his, I may say, learned appearance.
He was tall and loose-jointed; his slight stoop, together with an innocent smile,
made him appear benevolently ready to lend you his ear; his long arms with pale big
hands had rare deliberate gestures of a pointing out, demonstrating kind.
I speak of him at length, because under this exterior, and in conjunction with an
upright and indulgent nature, this man possessed an intrepidity of spirit and a
physical courage that could have been
called reckless had it not been like a natural function of the body--say good
digestion, for instance--completely unconscious of itself.
It is sometimes said of a man that he carries his life in his hand.
Such a saying would have been inadequate if applied to him; during the early part of
his existence in the East he had been playing ball with it.
All this was in the past, but I knew the story of his life and the origin of his
fortune.
He was also a naturalist of some distinction, or perhaps I should say a
learned collector. Entomology was his special study.
His collection of Buprestidae and Longicorns--beetles all--horrible miniature
monsters, looking malevolent in death and immobility, and his cabinet of butterflies,
beautiful and hovering under the glass of
cases on lifeless wings, had spread his fame far over the earth.
The name of this merchant, adventurer, sometime adviser of a Malay sultan (to whom
he never alluded otherwise than as "my poor Mohammed Bonso"), had, on account of a few
bushels of dead insects, become known to
learned persons in Europe, who could have had no conception, and certainly would not
have cared to know anything, of his life or character.
I, who knew, considered him an eminently suitable person to receive my confidences
about Jim's difficulties as well as my own.'
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