A Smile of Fortune By Joseph Conrad
Ever since the sun rose I had been looking ahead. The ship glided
gently in smooth water. After a sixty days’ passage I was anxious
to make my landfall, a fertile and beautiful island of the tropics.
The more enthusiastic of its inhabitants delight in describing it
as the “Pearl of the Ocean.” Well, let us call it the “Pearl.”
It’s a good name. A pearl distilling much sweetness upon the
This is only a way of telling you that first-rate sugar-cane is
grown there. All the population of the Pearl lives for it and by
it. Sugar is their daily bread, as it were. And I was coming to
them for a cargo of sugar in the hope of the crop having been good
and of the freights being high.
Mr. Burns, my chief mate, made out the land first; and very soon I
became entranced by this blue, pinnacled apparition, almost
transparent against the light of the sky, a mere emanation, the
astral body of an island risen to greet me from afar. It is a rare
phenomenon, such a sight of the Pearl at sixty miles off. And I
wondered half seriously whether it was a good omen, whether what
would meet me in that island would be as luckily exceptional as
this beautiful, dreamlike vision so very few seamen have been
privileged to behold.
But horrid thoughts of business interfered with my enjoyment of an
accomplished passage. I was anxious for success and I wished, too,
to do justice to the flattering latitude of my owners’ instructions
contained in one noble phrase: “We leave it to you to do the best
you can with the ship.” . . . All the world being thus given me for
a stage, my abilities appeared to me no bigger than a pinhead.
Meantime the wind dropped, and Mr. Burns began to make disagreeable
remarks about my usual bad luck. I believe it was his devotion for
me which made him critically outspoken on every occasion. All the
same, I would not have put up with his humors if it had not been
my lot at one time to nurse him through a desperate illness at sea.
After snatching him out of the jaws of death, so to speak, it would
have been absurd to throw away such an efficient officer. But
sometimes I wished he would dismiss himself.
We were late in closing in with the land, and had to anchor outside
the harbor till next day. An unpleasant and un-restful night
followed. In this roadstead, strange to us both, Burns and I
remained on deck almost all the time. Clouds swirled down the
porphyry crags under which we lay. The rising wind made a great
bullying noise amongst the naked spars, with interludes of sad
moaning. I remarked that we had been in luck to fetch the
anchorage before dark. It would have been a nasty, anxious night
to hang off a harbor under canvas. But my chief mate was
uncompromising in his attitude.
“Luck, you call it, sir! Ay–our usual luck. The sort of luck to
thank God it’s no worse!”
And so he fretted through the dark hours, while I drew on my fund
of philosophy. Ah, but it was an exasperating, weary, endless
night, to be lying at anchor close under that black coast! The
agitated water made snarling sounds all round the ship. At times a
wild gust of wind out of a gully high up on the cliffs struck on
our rigging a harsh and plaintive note like the wail of a forsaken
By half-past seven in the morning, the ship being then inside the
harbor at last and moored within a long stone’s-throw from the
quay, my stock of philosophy was nearly exhausted. I was dressing
hurriedly in my cabin when the steward came tripping in with a
morning suit over his arm.
Hungry, tired, and depressed, with my head engaged inside a white
shirt irritatingly stuck together by too much starch, I desired him
peevishly to “heave round with that breakfast.” I wanted to get
ashore as soon as possible.
“Yes, sir. Ready at eight, sir. There’s a gentleman from the
shore waiting to speak to you, sir.”
This statement was curiously slurred over. I dragged the shirt
violently over my head and emerged staring.
“So early!” I cried. “Who’s he? What does he want?”
On coming in from sea one has to pick up the conditions of an
utterly unrelated existence. Every little event at first has the
peculiar emphasis of novelty. I was greatly surprised by that
early caller; but there was no reason for my steward to look so
“Didn’t you ask for the name?” I inquired in a stern tone.
“His name’s Jacobus, I believe,” he mumbled shamefacedly.
“Mr. Jacobus!” I exclaimed loudly, more surprised than ever, but
with a total change of feeling. “Why couldn’t you say so at once?”
But the fellow had scuttled out of my room. Through the
momentarily opened door I had a glimpse of a tall, stout man
standing in the cuddy by the table on which the cloth was already
laid; a “harbor” table-cloth, stainless and dazzlingly white. So
I shouted courteously through the closed door, that I was dressing
and would be with him in a moment. In return the assurance that
there was no hurry reached me in the visitor’s deep, quiet
undertone. His time was my own. He dared say I would give him a
cup of coffee presently.
“I am afraid you will have a poor breakfast,” I cried
apologetically. “We have been sixty-one days at sea, you know.”
A quiet little laugh, with a “That’ll be all right, Captain,” was
his answer. All this, words, intonation, the glimpsed attitude of
the man in the cuddy, had an unexpected character, a something
friendly in it–propitiatory. And my surprise was not diminished
thereby. What did this call mean? Was it the sign of some dark
design against my commercial innocence?
Ah! These commercial interests–spoiling the finest life under the
sun. Why must the sea be used for trade–and for war as well? Why
kill and traffic on it, pursuing selfish aims of no great
importance after all? It would have been so much nicer just to
sail about with here and there a port and a bit of land to stretch
one’s legs on, buy a few books and get a change of cooking for a
while. But, living in a world more or less homicidal and
desperately mercantile, it was plainly my duty to make the best of
My owners’ letter had left it to me, as I have said before, to do
my best for the ship, according to my own judgment. But it
contained also a postscript worded somewhat as follows:
“Without meaning to interfere with your liberty of action we are
writing by the outgoing mail to some of our business friends there
who may be of assistance to you. We desire you particularly to
call on Mr. Jacobus, a prominent merchant and charterer. Should
you hit it off with him he may be able to put you in the way of
profitable employment for the ship.”
Hit it off! Here was the prominent creature absolutely on board
asking for the favor of a cup of coffee! And life not being a
fairy-tale the improbability of the event almost shocked me. Had I
discovered an enchanted nook of the earth where wealthy merchants
rush fasting on board ships before they are fairly moored? Was
this white magic or merely some black trick of trade? I came in
the end (while making the bow of my tie) to suspect that perhaps I
did not get the name right. I had been thinking of the prominent
Mr. Jacobus pretty frequently during the passage and my hearing
might have been deceived by some remote similarity of sound.
The steward might have said Antrobus–or maybe Jackson.
But coming out of my stateroom with an interrogative “Mr. Jacobus?”
I was met by a quiet “Yes,” uttered with a gentle smile. The “yes”
was rather perfunctory. He did not seem to make much of the fact
that he was Mr. Jacobus. I took stock of a big, pale face, hair
thin on the top, whiskers also thin, of a faded nondescript color,
heavy eyelids. The thick, smooth lips in repose looked as if glued
together. The smile was faint. A heavy, tranquil man. I named my
two officers, who just then came down to breakfast; but why Mr.
Burns’s silent demeanor should suggest suppressed indignation I
could not understand.
While we were taking our seats round the table some disconnected
words of an altercation going on in the companionway reached my
ear. A stranger apparently wanted to come down to interview me,
and the steward was opposing him.
“You can’t see him.”
“Why can’t I?”
“The Captain is at breakfast, I tell you. He’ll be going on shore
presently, and you can speak to him on deck.”
“That’s not fair. You let–”
“I’ve had nothing to do with that.”
“Oh, yes, you have. Everybody ought to have the same chance. You
let that fellow–”
The rest I lost. The person having been repulsed successfully, the
steward came down. I can’t say he looked flushed–he was a
mulatto–but he looked flustered. After putting the dishes on the
table he remained by the sideboard with that lackadaisical air of
indifference he used to assume when he had done something too
clever by half and was afraid of getting into a scrape over it.
The contemptuous expression of Mr. Burns’s face as he looked from
him to me was really extraordinary. I couldn’t imagine what new
bee had stung the mate now.
The Captain being silent, nobody else cared to speak, as is the way
in ships. And I was saying nothing simply because I had been made
dumb by the splendor of the entertainment. I had expected the
usual sea-breakfast, whereas I beheld spread before us a veritable
feast of shore provisions: eggs, sausages, butter which plainly
did not come from a Danish tin, cutlets, and even a dish of
potatoes. It was three weeks since I had seen a real, live potato.
I contemplated them with interest, and Mr. Jacobus disclosed
himself as a man of human, homely sympathies, and something of a
“Try them, Captain,” he encouraged me in a friendly undertone.
“They are excellent.”
“They look that,” I admitted. “Grown on the island, I suppose.”
“Oh, no, imported. Those grown here would be more expensive.”
I was grieved at the ineptitude of the conversation. Were these
the topics for a prominent and wealthy merchant to discuss? I
thought the simplicity with which he made himself at home rather
attractive; but what is one to talk about to a man who comes on one
suddenly, after sixty-one days at sea, out of a totally unknown
little town in an island one has never seen before? What were
(besides sugar) the interests of that crumb of the earth, its
gossip, its topics of conversation? To draw him on business at
once would have been almost indecent–or even worse: impolitic.
All I could do at the moment was to keep on in the old groove.
“Are the provisions generally dear here?” I asked, fretting
inwardly at my inanity.
“I wouldn’t say that,” he answered placidly, with that appearance
of saving his breath his restrained manner of speaking suggested.
He would not be more explicit, yet he did not evade the subject.
Eyeing the table in a spirit of complete abstemiousness (he
wouldn’t let me help him to any eatables) he went into details of
supply. The beef was for the most part imported from Madagascar;
mutton of course was rare and somewhat expensive, but good goat’s
“Are these goat’s cutlets?” I exclaimed hastily, pointing at one of
Posed sentimentally by the sideboard, the steward gave a start.
“Lor’, no, sir! It’s real mutton!”
Mr. Burns got through his breakfast impatiently, as if exasperated
by being made a party to some monstrous foolishness, muttered a
curt excuse, and went on deck. Shortly afterwards the second mate
took his smooth red countenance out of the cabin. With the
appetite of a schoolboy, and after two months of sea-fare, he
appreciated the generous spread. But I did not. It smacked of
extravagance. All the same, it was a remarkable feat to have
produced it so quickly, and I congratulated the steward on his
smartness in a somewhat ominous tone. He gave me a deprecatory
smile and, in a way I didn’t know what to make of, blinked his fine
dark eyes in the direction of the guest.
The latter asked under his breath for another cup of coffee, and
nibbled ascetically at a piece of very hard ship’s biscuit. I
don’t think he consumed a square inch in the end; but meantime he
gave me, casually as it were, a complete account of the sugar crop,
of the local business houses, of the state of the freight market.
All that talk was interspersed with hints as to personalities,
amounting to veiled warnings, but his pale, fleshy face remained
equable, without a gleam, as if ignorant of his voice. As you may
imagine I opened my ears very wide. Every word was precious. My
ideas as to the value of business friendship were being favorably
modified. He gave me the names of all the disposable ships
together with their tonnage and the names of their commanders.
From that, which was still commercial information, he condescended
to mere harbor gossip. The Hilda had unaccountably lost her
figurehead in the Bay of Bengal, and her captain was greatly
affected by this. He and the ship had been getting on in years
together and the old gentleman imagined this strange event to be
the forerunner of his own early dissolution. The Stella had
experienced awful weather off the Cape–had her decks swept, and
the chief officer washed overboard. And only a few hours before
reaching port the baby died.
Poor Captain H- and his wife were terribly cut up. If they had
only been able to bring it into port alive it could have been
probably saved; but the wind failed them for the last week or so,
light breezes, and . . . the baby was going to be buried this
afternoon. He supposed I would attend–
“Do you think I ought to?” I asked, shrinkingly.
He thought so, decidedly. It would be greatly appreciated. All
the captains in the harbor were going to attend. Poor Mrs. H- was
quite prostrated. Pretty hard on H- altogether.
“And you, Captain–you are not married I suppose?”
“No, I am not married,” I said. “Neither married nor even
Mentally I thanked my stars; and while he smiled in a musing,
dreamy fashion, I expressed my acknowledgments for his visit and
for the interesting business information he had been good enough to
impart to me. But I said nothing of my wonder thereat.
“Of course, I would have made a point of calling on you in a day or
two,” I concluded.
He raised his eyelids distinctly at me, and somehow managed to look
rather more sleepy than before.
“In accordance with my owners’ instructions,” I explained. “You
have had their letter, of course?”
By that time he had raised his eyebrows too but without any
particular emotion. On the contrary he struck me then as
“Oh! You must be thinking of my brother.”
It was for me, then, to say “Oh!” But I hope that no more than
civil surprise appeared in my voice when I asked him to what, then,
I owed the pleasure. . . . He was reaching for an inside pocket
“My brother’s a very different person. But I am well known in this
part of the world. You’ve probably heard–”
I took a card he extended to me. A thick business card, as I
lived! Alfred Jacobus the other was Ernest–dealer in every
description of ship’s stores! Provisions salt and fresh, oils,
paints, rope, canvas, etc., etc. Ships in harbor victualed by
contract on moderate terms.
“I’ve never heard of you,” I said brusquely.
His low-pitched assurance did not abandon him.
“You will be very well satisfied,” he breathed out quietly.
I was not placated. I had the sense of having been circumvented
somehow. Yet I had deceived myself–if there was any deception.
But the confounded cheek of inviting himself to breakfast was
enough to deceive any one. And the thought struck me: Why! The
fellow had provided all these eatables himself in the way of
business. I said:
“You must have got up mighty early this morning.”
He admitted with simplicity that he was on the quay before six
o’clock waiting for my ship to come in. He gave me the impression
that it would be impossible to get rid of him now.
“If you think we are going to live on that scale,” I said, looking
at the table with an irritated eye, “you are jolly well mistaken.”
“You’ll find it all right, Captain. I quite understand.”
Nothing could disturb his equanimity. I felt dissatisfied, but I
could not very well fly out at him. He had told me many useful
things–and besides he was the brother of that wealthy merchant.
That seemed queer enough.
I rose and told him curtly that I must now go ashore. At once he
offered the use of his boat for all the time of my stay in port.
“I only make a nominal charge,” he continued equably. “My man
remains all day at the landing-steps. You have only to blow a
whistle when you want the boat.”
And, standing aside at every doorway to let me go through first, he
carried me off in his custody after all. As we crossed the
quarter-deck two shabby individuals stepped forward and in mournful
silence offered me business cards which I took from them without a
word under his heavy eye. It was a useless and gloomy ceremony.
They were the touts of the other ship-chandlers, and he placid at
my back, ignored their existence.
We parted on the quay, after he had expressed quietly the hope of
seeing me often “at the store.” He had a smoking-room for captains
there, with newspapers and a box of “rather decent cigars.” I left
him very unceremoniously.
My consignees received me with the usual business heartiness, but
their account of the state of the freight-market was by no means so
favorable as the talk of the wrong Jacobus had led me to expect.
Naturally I became inclined now to put my trust in his version,
rather. As I closed the door of the private office behind me I
thought to myself: “H’m. A lot of lies. Commercial diplomacy.
That’s the sort of thing a man coming from sea has got to expect.
They would try to charter the ship under the market rate.”
In the big, outer room, full of desks, the chief clerk, a tall,
lean, shaved person in immaculate white clothes and with a shiny,
closely-cropped black head on which silvery gleams came and went,
rose from his place and detained me affably. Anything they could
do for me, they would be most happy. Was I likely to call again in
the afternoon? What? Going to a funeral? Oh, yes, poor Captain
He pulled a long, sympathetic face for a moment, then, dismissing
from this workaday world the baby, which had got ill in a tempest
and had died from too much calm at sea, he asked me with a dental,
shark-like smile–if sharks had false teeth–whether I had yet made
my little arrangements for the ship’s stay in port.
“Yes, with Jacobus,” I answered carelessly. “I understand he’s the
brother of Mr. Ernest Jacobus to whom I have an introduction from
I was not sorry to let him know I was not altogether helpless in
the hands of his firm. He screwed his thin lips dubiously.
“Why,” I cried, “isn’t he the brother?”
“Oh, yes. . . . They haven’t spoken to each other for eighteen
years,” he added impressively after a pause.
“Indeed! What’s the quarrel about?”
“Oh, nothing! Nothing that one would care to mention,” he
protested primly. “He’s got quite a large business. The best
ship-chandler here, without a doubt. Business is all very well,
but there is such a thing as personal character, too, isn’t there?
He went away mincingly to his desk. He amused me. He resembled an
old maid, a commercial old maid, shocked by some impropriety. Was
it a commercial impropriety? Commercial impropriety is a serious
matter, for it aims at one’s pocket. Or was he only a purist in
conduct who disapproved of Jacobus doing his own touting? It was
certainly undignified. I wondered how the merchant brother liked
it. But then different countries, different customs. In a
community so isolated and so exclusively “trading” social standards
have their own scale.
I would have gladly dispensed with the mournful opportunity of
becoming acquainted by sight with all my fellow-captains at once.
However I found my way to the cemetery. We made a considerable
group of bareheaded men in somber garments. I noticed that those
of our company most approaching to the now obsolete sea-dog type
were the most moved–perhaps because they had less “manner” than
the new generation. The old sea-dog, away from his natural
element, was a simple and sentimental animal. I noticed one–he
was facing me across the grave–who was dropping tears. They
trickled down his weather-beaten face like drops of rain on an old
rugged wall. I learned afterwards that he was looked upon as the
terror of sailors, a hard man; that he had never had wife or chick
of his own, and that, engaged from his tenderest years in deep-sea
voyages, he knew women and children merely by sight.
Perhaps he was dropping those tears over his lost opportunities,
from sheer envy of paternity and in strange jealousy of a sorrow
which he could never know. Man, and even the sea-man, is a
capricious animal, the creature and the victim of lost
opportunities. But he made me feel ashamed of my callousness. I
had no tears.
I listened with horribly critical detachment to that service I had
had to read myself, once or twice, over childlike men who had died
at sea. The words of hope and defiance, the winged words so
inspiring in the free immensity of water and sky, seemed to fall
wearily into the little grave. What was the use of asking Death
where her sting was, before that small, dark hole in the ground?
And then my thoughts escaped me altogether–away into matters of
life–and no very high matters at that–ships, freights, business.
In the instability of his emotions man resembles deplorably a
monkey. I was disgusted with my thoughts–and I thought: Shall I
be able to get a charter soon? Time’s money. . . . Will that
Jacobus really put good business in my way? I must go and see him
in a day or two.
Don’t imagine that I pursued these thoughts with any precision.
They pursued me rather: vague, shadowy, restless, shamefaced.
Theirs was a callous, abominable, almost revolting, pertinacity.
And it was the presence of that pertinacious ship-chandler which
had started them. He stood mournfully amongst our little band of
men from the sea, and I was angry at his presence, which,
suggesting his brother the merchant, had caused me to become
outrageous to myself. For indeed I had preserved some decency of
feeling. It was only the mind which–
It was over at last. The poor father–a man of forty with black,
bushy side-whiskers and a pathetic gash on his freshly-shaved chin-
-thanked us all, swallowing his tears. But for some reason, either
because I lingered at the gate of the cemetery being somewhat hazy
as to my way back, or because I was the youngest, or ascribing my
moodiness caused by remorse to some more worthy and appropriate
sentiment, or simply because I was even more of a stranger to him
than the others–he singled me out. Keeping at my side, he renewed
his thanks, which I listened to in a gloomy, conscience-stricken
silence. Suddenly he slipped one hand under my arm and waved the
other after a tall, stout figure walking away by itself down a
street in a flutter of thin, grey garments:
“That’s a good fellow–a real good fellow”–he swallowed down a
belated sob–“this Jacobus.”
And he told me in a low voice that Jacobus was the first man to
board his ship on arrival, and, learning of their misfortune, had
taken charge of everything, volunteered to attend to all routine
business, carried off the ship’s papers on shore, arranged for the
“A good fellow. I was knocked over. I had been looking at my wife
for ten days. And helpless. Just you think of that! The dear
little chap died the very day we made the land. How I managed to
take the ship in God alone knows! I couldn’t see anything; I
couldn’t speak; I couldn’t. . . . You’ve heard, perhaps, that we
lost our mate overboard on the passage? There was no one to do it
for me. And the poor woman nearly crazy down below there all alone
with the . . . By the Lord! It isn’t fair.”
We walked in silence together. I did not know how to part from
him. On the quay he let go my arm and struck fiercely his fist
into the palm of his other hand.
“By God, it isn’t fair!” he cried again. “Don’t you ever marry
unless you can chuck the sea first. . . . It isn’t fair.”
I had no intention to “chuck the sea,” and when he left me to go
aboard his ship I felt convinced that I would never marry. While I
was waiting at the steps for Jacobus’s boatman, who had gone off
somewhere, the captain of the Hilda joined me, a slender silk
umbrella in his hand and the sharp points of his archaic,
Gladstonian shirt-collar framing a small, clean-shaved, ruddy face.
It was wonderfully fresh for his age, beautifully modeled and lit
up by remarkably clear blue eyes. A lot of white hair, glossy like
spun glass, curled upwards slightly under the brim of his valuable,
ancient, panama hat with a broad black ribbon. In the aspect of
that vivacious, neat, little old man there was something quaintly
angelic and also boyish.
He accosted me, as though he had been in the habit of seeing me
every day of his life from my earliest childhood, with a whimsical
remark on the appearance of a stout negro woman who was sitting
upon a stool near the edge of the quay. Presently he observed
amiably that I had a very pretty little barque.
I returned this civil speech by saying readily:
“Not so pretty as the Hilda.”
At once the corners of his clear-cut, sensitive mouth dropped
“Oh, dear! I can hardly bear to look at her now.”
Did I know, he asked anxiously, that he had lost the figurehead of
his ship; a woman in a blue tunic edged with gold, the face perhaps
not so very, very pretty, but her bare white arms beautifully
shaped and extended as if she were swimming? Did I? Who would
have expected such a things . . . After twenty years too!
Nobody could have guessed from his tone that the woman was made of
wood; his trembling voice, his agitated manner gave to his
lamentations a ludicrously scandalous flavor. . . . Disappeared at
night–a clear fine night with just a slight swell–in the gulf of
Bengal. Went off without a splash; no one in the ship could tell
why, how, at what hour–after twenty years last October. . . . Did
I ever hear! . . .
I assured him sympathetically that I had never heard–and he became
very doleful. This meant no good he was sure. There was something
in it which looked like a warning. But when I remarked that surely
another figure of a woman could be procured I found myself being
soundly rated for my levity. The old boy flushed pink under his
clear tan as if I had proposed something improper. One could
replace masts, I was told, or a lost rudder–any working part of a
ship; but where was the use of sticking up a new figurehead? What
satisfaction? How could one care for it? It was easy to see that
I had never been shipmates with a figurehead for over twenty years.
“A new figurehead!” he scolded in unquenchable indignation. “Why!
I’ve been a widower now for eight-and-twenty years come next May
and I would just as soon think of getting a new wife. You’re as
bad as that fellow Jacobus.”
I was highly amused.
“What has Jacobus done? Did he want you to marry again, Captain?”
I inquired in a deferential tone. But he was launched now and only
“Procure–indeed! He’s the sort of chap to procure you anything
you like for a price. I hadn’t been moored here for an hour when
he got on board and at once offered to sell me a figurehead he
happens to have in his yard somewhere. He got Smith, my mate, to
talk to me about it. ‘Mr. Smith,’ says I, ‘don’t you know me
better than that? Am I the sort that would pick up with another
man’s cast-off figurehead?’ And after all these years too! The
way some of you young fellows talk–”
I affected great compunction, and as I stepped into the boat I said
“Then I see nothing for it but to fit in a neat fiddlehead–
perhaps. You know, carved scrollwork, nicely gilt.”
He became very dejected after his outburst.
“Yes. Scrollwork. Maybe. Jacobus hinted at that too. He’s never
at a loss when there’s any money to be extracted from a sailorman.
He would make me pay through the nose for that carving. A gilt
fiddlehead did you say–eh? I dare say it would do for you. You
young fellows don’t seem to have any feeling for what’s proper.”
He made a convulsive gesture with his right arm.
“Never mind. Nothing can make much difference. I would just as
soon let the old thing go about the world with a bare cutwater,” he
cried sadly. Then as the boat got away from the steps he raised
his voice on the edge of the quay with comical animosity:
“I would! If only to spite that figurehead-procuring bloodsucker.
I am an old bird here and don’t you forget it. Come and see me on
board some day!”
I spent my first evening in port quietly in my ship’s cuddy; and
glad enough was I to think that the shore life which strikes one as
so pettily complex, discordant, and so full of new faces on first
coming from sea, could be kept off for a few hours longer. I was
however fated to hear the Jacobus note once more before I slept.
Mr. Burns had gone ashore after the evening meal to have, as he
said, “a look round.” As it was quite dark when he announced his
intention I didn’t ask him what it was he expected to see. Some
time about midnight, while sitting with a book in the saloon, I
heard cautious movements in the lobby and hailed him by name.
Burns came in, stick and hat in hand, incredibly vulgarized by his
smart shore togs, with a jaunty air and an odious twinkle in his
eye. Being asked to sit down he laid his hat and stick on the
table and after we had talked of ship affairs for a little while:
“I’ve been hearing pretty tales on shore about that ship-chandler
fellow who snatched the job from you so neatly, sir.”
I remonstrated with my late patient for his manner of expressing
himself. But he only tossed his head disdainfully. A pretty dodge
indeed: boarding a strange ship with breakfast in two baskets for
all hands and calmly inviting himself to the captain’s table!
Never heard of anything so crafty and so impudent in his life.
I found myself defending Jacobus’s unusual methods.
“He’s the brother of one of the wealthiest merchants in the port.”
The mate’s eyes fairly snapped green sparks.
“His grand brother hasn’t spoken to him for eighteen or twenty
years,” he declared triumphantly. “So there!”
“I know all about that,” I interrupted loftily.
“Do you sir? H’m!” His mind was still running on the ethics of
commercial competition. “I don’t like to see your good nature
taken advantage of. He’s bribed that steward of ours with a five-
rupee note to let him come down–or ten for that matter. He don’t
care. He will shove that and more into the bill presently.”
“Is that one of the tales you have heard ashore?” I asked.
He assured me that his own sense could tell him that much. No;
what he had heard on shore was that no respectable person in the
whole town would come near Jacobus. He lived in a large old-
fashioned house in one of the quiet streets with a big garden.
After telling me this Burns put on a mysterious air. “He keeps a
girl shut up there who, they say–”
“I suppose you’ve heard all this gossip in some eminently
respectable place?” I snapped at him in a most sarcastic tone.
The shaft told, because Mr. Burns, like many other disagreeable
people, was very sensitive himself. He remained as if
thunderstruck, with his mouth open for some further communication,
but I did not give him the chance. “And, anyhow, what the deuce do
I care?” I added, retiring into my room.
And this was a natural thing to say. Yet somehow I was not
indifferent. I admit it is absurd to be concerned with the morals
of one’s ship-chandler, if ever so well connected; but his
personality had stamped itself upon my first day in harbour, in the
way you know.
After this initial exploit Jacobus showed himself anything but
intrusive. He was out in a boat early every morning going round
the ships he served, and occasionally remaining on board one of
them for breakfast with the captain.
As I discovered that this practice was generally accepted, I just
nodded to him familiarly when one morning, on coming out of my
room, I found him in the cabin. Glancing over the table I saw that
his place was already laid. He stood awaiting my appearance, very
bulky and placid, holding a beautiful bunch of flowers in his thick
hand. He offered them to my notice with a faint, sleepy smile.
From his own garden; had a very fine old garden; picked them
himself that morning before going out to business; thought I would
like. . . . He turned away. “Steward, can you oblige me with some
water in a large jar, please.”
I assured him jocularly, as I took my place at the table, that he
made me feel as if I were a pretty girl, and that he mustn’t be
surprised if I blushed. But he was busy arranging his floral
tribute at the sideboard. “Stand it before the Captain’s plate,
steward, please.” He made this request in his usual undertone.
The offering was so pointed that I could do no less than to raise
it to my nose, and as he sat down noiselessly he breathed out the
opinion that a few flowers improved notably the appearance of a
ship’s saloon. He wondered why I did not have a shelf fitted all
round the skylight for flowers in pots to take with me to sea. He
had a skilled workman able to fit up shelves in a day, and he could
procure me two or three dozen good plants–
The tips of his thick, round fingers rested composedly on the edge
of the table on each side of his cup of coffee. His face remained
immovable. Mr. Burns was smiling maliciously to himself. I
declared that I hadn’t the slightest intention of turning my
skylight into a conservatory only to keep the cabin-table in a
perpetual mess of mold and dead vegetable matter.
“Rear most beautiful flowers,” he insisted with an upward glance.
“It’s no trouble really.”
“Oh, yes, it is. Lots of trouble,” I contradicted. “And in the
end some fool leaves the skylight open in a fresh breeze, a flick
of salt water gets at them and the whole lot is dead in a week.”
Mr. Burns snorted a contemptuous approval. Jacobus gave up the
subject passively. After a time he unglued his thick lips to ask
me if I had seen his brother yet. I was very curt in my answer.
“No, not yet.”
“A very different person,” he remarked dreamily and got up. His
movements were particularly noiseless. “Well–thank you, Captain.
If anything is not to your liking please mention it to your
steward. I suppose you will be giving a dinner to the office-
“What for?” I cried with some warmth. “If I were a steady trader
to the port I could understand it. But a complete stranger! . . .
I may not turn up again here for years. I don’t see why! . . . Do
you mean to say it is customary?”
“It will be expected from a man like you,” he breathed out
placidly. “Eight of the principal clerks, the manager, that’s
nine, you three gentlemen, that’s twelve. It needn’t be very
expensive. If you tell your steward to give me a day’s notice–”
“It will be expected of me! Why should it be expected of me? Is
it because I look particularly soft–or what?
His immobility struck me as dignified suddenly, his imperturbable
quality as dangerous. “There’s plenty of time to think about
that,” I concluded weakly with a gesture that tried to wave him
away. But before he departed he took time to mention regretfully
that he had not yet had the pleasure of seeing me at his “store” to
sample those cigars. He had a parcel of six thousand to dispose
of, very cheap.
“I think it would be worth your while to secure some,” he added
with a fat, melancholy smile and left the cabin.
Mr. Burns struck his fist on the table excitedly.
“Did you ever see such impudence! He’s made up his mind to get
something out of you one way or another, sir.”
At once feeling inclined to defend Jacobus, I observed
philosophically that all this was business, I supposed. But my
absurd mate, muttering broken disjointed sentences, such as: “I
cannot bear! . . . Mark my words! . . .” and so on, flung out of
the cabin. If I hadn’t nursed him through that deadly fever I
wouldn’t have suffered such manners for a single day.
Jacobus having put me in mind of his wealthy brother I concluded I
would pay that business call at once. I had by that time heard a
little more of him. He was a member of the Council, where he made
himself objectionable to the authorities. He exercised a
considerable influence on public opinion. Lots of people owed him
money. He was an importer on a great scale of all sorts of goods.
For instance, the whole supply of bags for sugar was practically in
his hands. This last fact I did not learn till afterwards. The
general impression conveyed to me was that of a local personage.
He was a bachelor and gave weekly card-parties in his house out of
town, which were attended by the best people in the colony.
The greater, then, was my surprise to discover his office in shabby
surroundings, quite away from the business quarter, amongst a lot
of hovels. Guided by a black board with white lettering, I climbed
a narrow wooden staircase and entered a room with a bare floor of
planks littered with bits of brown paper and wisps of packing
straw. A great number of what looked like wine-cases were piled up
against one of the walls. A lanky, inky, light-yellow, mulatto
youth, miserably long-necked and generally recalling a sick
chicken, got off a three-legged stool behind a cheap deal desk and
faced me as if gone dumb with fright. I had some difficulty in
persuading him to take in my name, though I could not get from him
the nature of his objection. He did it at last with an almost
agonized reluctance which ceased to be mysterious to me when I
heard him being sworn at menacingly with savage, suppressed growls,
then audibly cuffed and finally kicked out without any concealment
whatever; because he came back flying head foremost through the
door with a stifled shriek.
To say I was startled would not express it. I remained still, like
a man lost in a dream. Clapping both his hands to that part of his
frail anatomy which had received the shock, the poor wretch said to
“Will you go in, please.” His lamentable self-possession was
wonderful; but it did not do away with the incredibility of the
experience. A preposterous notion that I had seen this boy
somewhere before, a thing obviously impossible, was like a delicate
finishing touch of weirdness added to a scene fit to raise doubts
as to one’s sanity. I stared anxiously about me like an awakened
“I say,” I cried loudly, “there isn’t a mistake, is there? This is
Mr. Jacobus’s office.”
The boy gazed at me with a pained expression–and somehow so
familiar! A voice within growled offensively:
“Come in, come in, since you are there. . . . I didn’t know.”
I crossed the outer room as one approaches the den of some unknown
wild beast; with intrepidity but in some excitement. Only no wild
beast that ever lived would rouse one’s indignation; the power to
do that belongs to the odiousness of the human brute. And I was
very indignant, which did not prevent me from being at once struck
by the extraordinary resemblance of the two brothers.
This one was dark instead of being fair like the other; but he was
as big. He was without his coat and waistcoat; he had been
doubtless snoozing in the rocking-chair which stood in a corner
furthest from the window. Above the great bulk of his crumpled
white shirt, buttoned with three diamond studs, his round face
looked swarthy. It was moist; his brown moustache hung limp and
ragged. He pushed a common, cane-bottomed chair towards me with
I glanced at it casually, then, turning my indignant eyes full upon
him, I declared in precise and incisive tones that I had called in
obedience to my owners’ instructions.
“Oh! Yes. H’m! I didn’t understand what that fool was saying. .
. . But never mind! It will teach the scoundrel to disturb me at
this time of the day,” he added, grinning at me with savage
I looked at my watch. It was past three o’clock–quite the full
swing of afternoon office work in the port. He snarled
imperiously: “Sit down, Captain.”
I acknowledged the gracious invitation by saying deliberately:
“I can listen to all you may have to say without sitting down.”
Emitting a loud and vehement “Pshaw!” he glared for a moment, very
round-eyed and fierce. It was like a gigantic tomcat spitting at
one suddenly. “Look at him! . . . What do you fancy yourself to
be? What did you come here for? If you won’t sit down and talk
business you had better go to the devil.”
“I don’t know him personally,” I said. “But after this I wouldn’t
mind calling on him. It would be refreshing to meet a gentleman.”
He followed me, growling behind my back:
“The impudence! I’ve a good mind to write to your owners what I
think of you.”
I turned on him for a moment:
“As it happens I don’t care. For my part I assure you I won’t even
take the trouble to mention you to them.”
He stopped at the door of his office while I traversed the littered
anteroom. I think he was somewhat taken aback.
“I will break every bone in your body,” he roared suddenly at the
miserable mulatto lad, “if you ever dare to disturb me before half-
past three for anybody. D’ye hear? For anybody! . . . Let alone
any damned skipper,” he added, in a lower growl.
The frail youngster, swaying like a reed, made a low moaning sound.
I stopped short and addressed this sufferer with advice. It was
prompted by the sight of a hammer (used for opening the wine-cases,
I suppose) which was lying on the floor.
“If I were you, my boy, I would have that thing up my sleeve when I
went in next and at the first occasion I would–”
What was there so familiar in that lad’s yellow face? Entrenched
and quaking behind the flimsy desk, he never looked up. His heavy,
lowered eyelids gave me suddenly the clue of the puzzle. He
resembled–yes, those thick glued lips–he resembled the brothers
Jacobus. He resembled both, the wealthy merchant and the pushing
shopkeeper (who resembled each other); he resembled them as much as
a thin, light-yellow mulatto lad may resemble a big, stout, middle-
aged white man. It was the exotic complexion and the slightness of
his build which had put me off so completely. Now I saw in him
unmistakably the Jacobus strain, weakened, attenuated, diluted as
it were in a bucket of water–and I refrained from finishing my
speech. I had intended to say: “Crack this brute’s head for him.”
I still felt the conclusion to be sound. But it is no trifling
responsibility to counsel parricide to any one, however deeply
I despised the emphatic growl at my back; only, being much vexed
and upset, I regret to say that I slammed the door behind me in a
most undignified manner.
It may not appear altogether absurd if I say that I brought out
from that interview a kindlier view of the other Jacobus. It was
with a feeling resembling partisanship that, a few days later, I
called at his “store.” That long, cavern-like place of business,
very dim at the back and stuffed full of all sorts of goods, was
entered from the street by a lofty archway. At the far end I saw
my Jacobus exerting himself in his shirt-sleeves among his
assistants. The captains’ room was a small, vaulted apartment with
a stone floor and heavy iron bars in its windows like a dungeon
converted to hospitable purposes. A couple of cheerful bottles and
several gleaming glasses made a brilliant cluster round a tall,
cool red earthenware pitcher on the center table which was littered
with newspapers from all parts of the world. A well-groomed
stranger in a smart grey check suit, sitting with one leg flung
over his knee, put down one of these sheets briskly and nodded to
I guessed him to be a steamer-captain. It was impossible to get to
know these men. They came and went too quickly and their ships lay
moored far out, at the very entrance of the harbor. Theirs was
another life altogether. He yawned slightly.
“Dull hole, isn’t it?”
I understood this to allude to the town.
“Do you find it so?” I murmured.
“Don’t you? But I’m off to-morrow, thank goodness.”
He was a very gentlemanly person, good-natured and superior. I
watched him draw the open box of cigars to his side of the table,
take a big cigar-case out of his pocket and begin to fill it very
methodically. Presently, on our eyes meeting, he winked like a
common mortal and invited me to follow his example. “They are
really decent smokes.” I shook my head.
“I am not off to-morrow.”
“What of that? Think I am abusing old Jacobus’s hospitality?
Heavens! It goes into the bill, of course. He spreads such little
matters all over his account. He can take care of himself! Why,
I noted a shadow fall over his well-satisfied expression, a
momentary hesitation in closing his cigar-case. But he ended by
putting it in his pocket jauntily. A placid voice uttered in the
doorway: “That’s quite correct, Captain.”
The large noiseless Jacobus advanced into the room. His quietness,
in the circumstances, amounted to cordiality. He had put on his
jacket before joining us, and he sat down in the chair vacated by
the steamer-man, who nodded again to me and went out with a short,
jarring laugh. A profound silence reigned. With his drowsy stare
Jacobus seemed to be slumbering open-eyed. Yet, somehow, I was
aware of being profoundly scrutinized by those heavy eyes. In the
enormous cavern of the store somebody began to nail down a case,
expertly: tap-tap . . . tap-tap-tap.
Two other experts, one slow and nasal, the other shrill and snappy,
started checking an invoice.
“A half-coil of three-inch manilla rope.”
“Six assorted shackles.”
“Six tins assorted soups, three of pate, two asparagus, fourteen
pounds tobacco, cabin.”
“It’s for the captain who was here just now,” breathed out the
immovable Jacobus. “These steamer orders are very small. They
pick up what they want as they go along. That man will be in
Samarang in less than a fortnight. Very small orders indeed.”
The calling over of the items went on in the shop; an extraordinary
jumble of varied articles, paint-brushes, Yorkshire Relish, etc.,
etc. . . . “Three sacks of best potatoes,” read out the nasal
At this Jacobus blinked like a sleeping man roused by a shake, and
displayed some animation. At his order, shouted into the shop, a
smirking half-caste clerk with his ringlets much oiled and with a
pen stuck behind his ear, brought in a sample of six potatoes which
he paraded in a row on the table.
Being urged to look at their beauty I gave them a cold and hostile
glance. Calmly, Jacobus proposed that I should order ten or
fifteen tons–tons! I couldn’t believe my ears. My crew could not
have eaten such a lot in a year; and potatoes (excuse these
practical remarks) are a highly perishable commodity. I thought he
was joking–or else trying to find out whether I was an unutterable
idiot. But his purpose was not so simple. I discovered that he
meant me to buy them on my own account.
“I am proposing you a bit of business, Captain. I wouldn’t charge
you a great price.”
I told him that I did not go in for trade. I even added grimly
that I knew only too well how that sort of spec. generally ended.
He sighed and clasped his hands on his stomach with exemplary
resignation. I admired the placidity of his impudence. Then
waking up somewhat:
“Won’t you try a cigar, Captain?”
“No, thanks. I don’t smoke cigars.”
“For once!” he exclaimed, in a patient whisper. A melancholy
silence ensued. You know how sometimes a person discloses a
certain unsuspected depth and acuteness of thought; that is, in
other words, utters something unexpected. It was unexpected enough
to hear Jacobus say:
“The man who just went out was right enough. You might take one,
Captain. Here everything is bound to be in the way of business.”
I felt a little ashamed of myself. The remembrance of his horrid
brother made him appear quite a decent sort of fellow. It was with
some compunction that I said a few words to the effect that I could
have no possible objection to his hospitality.
Before I was a minute older I saw where this admission was leading
me. As if changing the subject, Jacobus mentioned that his private
house was about ten minutes’ walk away. It had a beautiful old
walled garden. Something really remarkable. I ought to come round
some day and have a look at it.
He seemed to be a lover of gardens. I too take extreme delight in
them; but I did not mean my compunction to carry me as far as
Jacobus’s flower-beds, however beautiful and old. He added, with a
certain homeliness of tone:
“There’s only my girl there.”
It is difficult to set everything down in due order; so I must
revert here to what happened a week or two before. The medical
officer of the port had come on board my ship to have a look at one
of my crew who was ailing, and naturally enough he was asked to
step into the cabin. A fellow-shipmaster of mine was there too;
and in the conversation, somehow or other, the name of Jacobus came
to be mentioned. It was pronounced with no particular reverence by
the other man, I believe. I don’t remember now what I was going to
say. The doctor–a pleasant, cultivated fellow, with an assured
manner–prevented me by striking in, in a sour tone:
“Ah! You’re talking about my respected papa-in-law.”
Of course, that sally silenced us at the time. But I remembered
the episode, and at this juncture, pushed for something
noncommittal to say, I inquired with polite surprise:
“You have your married daughter living with you, Mr. Jacobus?”
He moved his big hand from right to left quietly. No! That was
another of his girls, he stated, ponderously and under his breath
as usual. She . . . He seemed in a pause to be ransacking his mind
for some kind of descriptive phrase. But my hopes were
disappointed. He merely produced his stereotyped definition.
“She’s a very different sort of person.”
“Indeed. . . . And by the by, Jacobus, I called on your brother the
other day. It’s no great compliment if I say that I found him a
very different sort of person from you.”
He had an air of profound reflection, then remarked quaintly:
“He’s a man of regular habits.”
He might have been alluding to the habit of late siesta; but I
mumbled something about “beastly habits anyhow”–and left the store
My little passage with Jacobus the merchant became known generally.
One or two of my acquaintances made distant allusions to it.
Perhaps the mulatto boy had talked. I must confess that people
appeared rather scandalized, but not with Jacobus’s brutality. A
man I knew remonstrated with me for my hastiness.
I gave him the whole story of my visit, not forgetting the tell-
tale resemblance of the wretched mulatto boy to his tormentor. He
was not surprised. No doubt, no doubt. What of that? In a jovial
tone he assured me that there must be many of that sort. The elder
Jacobus had been a bachelor all his life. A highly respectable
bachelor. But there had never been open scandal in that
connection. His life had been quite regular. It could cause no
offence to any one.
I said that I had been offended considerably. My interlocutor
opened very wide eyes. Why? Because a mulatto lad got a few
knocks? That was not a great affair, surely. I had no idea how
insolent and untruthful these half-castes were. In fact he seemed
to think Mr. Jacobus rather kind than otherwise to employ that
youth at all; a sort of amiable weakness which could be forgiven.
This acquaintance of mine belonged to one of the old French
families, descendants of the old colonists; all noble, all
impoverished, and living a narrow domestic life in dull, dignified
decay. The men, as a rule, occupy inferior posts in Government
offices or in business houses. The girls are almost always pretty,
ignorant of the world, kind and agreeable and generally bilingual;
they prattle innocently both in French and English. The emptiness
of their existence passes belief.
I obtained my entry into a couple of such households because some
years before, in Bombay, I had occasion to be of use to a pleasant,
ineffectual young man who was rather stranded there, not knowing
what to do with himself or even how to get home to his island
again. It was a matter of two hundred rupees or so, but, when I
turned up, the family made a point of showing their gratitude by
admitting me to their intimacy. My knowledge of the French
language made me specially acceptable. They had meantime managed
to marry the fellow to a woman nearly twice his age, comparatively
well off: the only profession he was really fit for. But it was
not all cakes and ale. The first time I called on the couple she
spied a little spot of grease on the poor devil’s pantaloons and
made him a screaming scene of reproaches so full of sincere passion
that I sat terrified as at a tragedy of Racine.
Of course there was never question of the money I had advanced him;
but his sisters, Miss Angele and Miss Mary, and the aunts of both
families, who spoke quaint archaic French of pre-Revolution period,
and a host of distant relations adopted me for a friend outright in
a manner which was almost embarrassing.
It was with the eldest brother (he was employed at a desk in my
consignee’s office) that I was having this talk about the merchant
Jacobus. He regretted my attitude and nodded his head sagely. An
influential man. One never knew when one would need him. I
expressed my immense preference for the shopkeeper of the two. At
that my friend looked grave.
“What on earth are you pulling that long face about?” I cried
impatiently. “He asked me to see his garden and I have a good mind
to go some day.”
“Don’t do that,” he said, so earnestly that I burst into a fit of
laughter; but he looked at me without a smile.
This was another matter altogether. At one time the public
conscience of the island had been mightily troubled by my Jacobus.
The two brothers had been partners for years in great harmony, when
a wandering circus came to the island and my Jacobus became
suddenly infatuated with one of the lady-riders. What made it
worse was that he was married. He had not even the grace to
conceal his passion. It must have been strong indeed to carry away
such a large placid creature. His behavior was perfectly
scandalous. He followed that woman to the Cape, and apparently
travelled at the tail of that beastly circus to other parts of the
world, in a most degrading position. The woman soon ceased to care
for him, and treated him worse than a dog. Most extraordinary
stories of moral degradation were reaching the island at that time.
He had not the strength of mind to shake himself free. . . .
The grotesque image of a fat, pushing ship-chandler, enslaved by an
unholy love-spell, fascinated me; and I listened rather open-
mouthed to the tale as old as the world, a tale which had been the
subject of legend, of moral fables, of poems, but which so
ludicrously failed to fit the personality. What a strange victim
for the gods!
Meantime his deserted wife had died. His daughter was taken care
of by his brother, who married her as advantageously as was
possible in the circumstances.
“Oh! The Mrs. Doctor!” I exclaimed.
“You know that? Yes. A very able man. He wanted a lift in the
world, and there was a good bit of money from her mother, besides
the expectations. . . Of course, they don’t know him,” he added.
“The doctor nods in the street, I believe, but he avoids speaking
to him when they meet on board a ship, as must happen sometimes.”
I remarked that this surely was an old story by now.
My friend assented. But it was Jacobus’s own fault that it was
neither forgiven nor forgotten. He came back ultimately. But how?
Not in a spirit of contrition, in a way to propitiate his
scandalized fellow-citizens. He must needs drag along with him a
child–a girl. . . .
“He spoke to me of a daughter who lives with him,” I observed, very
“She’s certainly the daughter of the circus-woman,” said my friend.
“She may be his daughter too; I am willing to admit that she is.
In fact I have no doubt–”
But he did not see why she should have been brought into a
respectable community to perpetuate the memory of the scandal. And
that was not the worst. Presently something much more distressing
happened. That abandoned woman turned up. Landed from a mail-
boat. . . .
“What! Here? To claim the child perhaps,” I suggested.
“Not she!” My friendly informant was very scornful. “Imagine a
painted, haggard, agitated, desperate hag. Been cast off in
Mozambique by somebody who paid her passage here. She had been
injured internally by a kick from a horse; she hadn’t a cent on her
when she got ashore; I don’t think she even asked to see the child.
At any rate, not till the last day of her life. Jacobus hired for
her a bungalow to die in. He got a couple of Sisters from the
hospital to nurse her through these few months. If he didn’t marry
her in extremis as the good Sisters tried to bring about, it’s
because she wouldn’t even hear of it. As the nuns said: ‘The
woman died impenitent.’ It was reported that she ordered Jacobus
out of the room with her last breath. This may be the real reason
why he didn’t go into mourning himself; he only put the child into
black. While she was little she was to be seen sometimes about the
streets attended by a negro woman, but since she became of age to
put her hair up I don’t think she has set foot outside that garden
once. She must be over eighteen now.”
Thus my friend, with some added details; such as, that he didn’t
think the girl had spoken to three people of any position in the
island; that an elderly female relative of the brothers Jacobus had
been induced by extreme poverty to accept the position of
gouvernante to the girl. As to Jacobus’s business (which certainly
annoyed his brother) it was a wise choice on his part. It brought
him in contact only with strangers of passage; whereas any other
would have given rise to all sorts of awkwardness with his social
equals. The man was not wanting in a certain tact–only he was
naturally shameless. For why did he want to keep that girl with
him? It was most painful for everybody.
I thought suddenly (and with profound disgust) of the other
Jacobus, and I could not refrain from saying slily:
“I suppose if he employed her, say, as a scullion in his household
and occasionally pulled her hair or boxed her ears, the position
would have been more regular–less shocking to the respectable
class to which he belongs.”
He was not so stupid as to miss my intention, and shrugged his
“You don’t understand. To begin with, she’s not a mulatto. And a
scandal is a scandal. People should be given a chance to forget.
I dare say it would have been better for her if she had been turned
into a scullion or something of that kind. Of course he’s trying
to make money in every sort of petty way, but in such a business
there’ll never be enough for anybody to come forward.”
When my friend left me I had a conception of Jacobus and his
daughter existing, a lonely pair of castaways, on a desert island;
the girl sheltering in the house as if it were a cavern in a cliff,
and Jacobus going out to pick up a living for both on the beach–
exactly like two shipwrecked people who always hope for some
rescuer to bring them back at last into touch with the rest of
But Jacobus’s bodily reality did not fit in with this romantic
view. When he turned up on board in the usual course, he sipped
the cup of coffee placidly, asked me if I was satisfied–and I
hardly listened to the harbor gossip he dropped slowly in his low,
voice-saving enunciation. I had then troubles of my own. My ship
chartered, my thoughts dwelling on the success of a quick round
voyage, I had been suddenly confronted by a shortage of bags. A
catastrophe! The stock of one especial kind, called pockets,
seemed to be totally exhausted. A consignment was shortly
expected–it was afloat, on its way, but, meantime, the loading of
my ship dead stopped, I had enough to worry about. My consignees,
who had received me with such heartiness on my arrival, now, in the
character of my charterers, listened to my complaints with polite
helplessness. Their manager, the old-maidish, thin man, who so
prudishly didn’t even like to speak about the impure Jacobus, gave
me the correct commercial view of the position.
“My dear Captain”–he was retracting his leathery cheeks into a
condescending, shark-like smile–“we were not morally obliged to
tell you of a possible shortage before you signed the charter-
party. It was for you to guard against the contingency of a delay-
-strictly speaking. But of course we shouldn’t have taken any
advantage. This is no one’s fault really. We ourselves have been
taken unawares,” he concluded primly, with an obvious lie.
This lecture I confess had made me thirsty. Suppressed rage
generally produces that effect; and as I strolled on aimlessly I
bethought myself of the tall earthenware pitcher in the captains’
room of the Jacobus “store.”
With no more than a nod to the men I found assembled there, I
poured down a deep, cool draught on my indignation, then another,
and then, becoming dejected, I sat plunged in cheerless
reflections. The others read, talked, smoked, bandied over my head
some unsubtle chaff. But my abstraction was respected. And it was
without a word to any one that I rose and went out, only to be
quite unexpectedly accosted in the bustle of the store by Jacobus
“Glad to see you, Captain. What? Going away? You haven’t been
looking so well these last few days, I notice. Run down, eh?”
He was in his shirt-sleeves, and his words were in the usual course
of business, but they had a human note. It was commercial amenity,
but I had been a stranger to amenity in that connection. I do
verily believe (from the direction of his heavy glance towards a
certain shelf) that he was going to suggest the purchase of
Clarkson’s Nerve Tonic, which he kept in stock, when I said
“I am rather in trouble with my loading.”
Wide awake under his sleepy, broad mask with glued lips, he
understood at once, had a movement of the head so appreciative that
I relieved my exasperation by exclaiming:
“Surely there must be eleven hundred quarter-bags to be found in
the colony. It’s only a matter of looking for them.”
Again that slight movement of the big head, and in the noise and
activity of the store that tranquil murmur:
“To be sure. But then people likely to have a reserve of quarter-
bags wouldn’t want to sell. They’d need that size themselves.”
“That’s exactly what my consignees are telling me. Impossible to
buy. Bosh! They don’t want to. It suits them to have the ship
hung up. But if I were to discover the lot they would have to–
Look here, Jacobus! You are the man to have such a thing up your
He protested with a ponderous swing of his big head. I stood
before him helplessly, being looked at by those heavy eyes with a
veiled expression as of a man after some soul-shaking crisis.
“It’s impossible to talk quietly here,” he whispered. “I am very
busy. But if you could go and wait for me in my house. It’s less
than ten minutes’ walk. Oh, yes, you don’t know the way.”
He called for his coat and offered to take me there himself. He
would have to return to the store at once for an hour or so to
finish his business, and then he would be at liberty to talk over
with me that matter of quarter-bags. This programme was breathed
out at me through slightly parted, still lips; his heavy,
motionless glance rested upon me, placid as ever, the glance of a
tired man–but I felt that it was searching, too. I could not
imagine what he was looking for in me and kept silent, wondering.
“I am asking you to wait for me in my house till I am at liberty to
talk this matter over. You will?”
“Why, of course!” I cried.
“But I cannot promise–”
“I dare say not,” I said. “I don’t expect a promise.”
“I mean I can’t even promise to try the move I’ve in my mind. One
must see first . . . h’m!”
“All right. I’ll take the chance. I’ll wait for you as long as
you like. What else have I to do in this infernal hole of a port!”
Before I had uttered my last words we had set off at a swinging
pace. We turned a couple of corners and entered a street
completely empty of traffic, of semi-rural aspect, paved with
cobblestones nestling in grass tufts. The house came to the line
of the roadway; a single story on an elevated basement of rough-
stones, so that our heads were below the level of the windows as we
went along. All the jalousies were tightly shut, like eyes, and
the house seemed fast asleep in the afternoon sunshine. The
entrance was at the side, in an alley even more grass-grown than
the street: a small door, simply on the latch.
With a word of apology as to showing me the way, Jacobus preceded
me up a dark passage and led me across the naked parquet floor of
what I supposed to be the dining-room. It was lighted by three
glass doors which stood wide open on to a verandah or rather loggia
running its brick arches along the garden side of the house. It
was really a magnificent garden: smooth green lawns and a gorgeous
maze of flower-beds in the foreground, displayed around a basin of
dark water framed in a marble rim, and in the distance the massed
foliage of varied trees concealing the roofs of other houses. The
town might have been miles away. It was a brilliantly colored
solitude, drowsing in a warm, voluptuous silence. Where the long,
still shadows fell across the beds, and in shady nooks, the massed
colors of the flowers had an extraordinary magnificence of effect.
I stood entranced. Jacobus grasped me delicately above the elbow,
impelling me to a half-turn to the left.
I had not noticed the girl before. She occupied a low, deep,
wickerwork arm-chair, and I saw her in exact profile like a figure
in a tapestry, and as motionless. Jacobus released my arm.
“This is Alice,” he announced tranquilly; and his subdued manner of
speaking made it sound so much like a confidential communication
that I fancied myself nodding understandingly and whispering: “I
see, I see.” . . . Of course, I did nothing of the kind. Neither
of us did anything; we stood side by side looking down at the girl.
For quite a time she did not stir, staring straight before her as
if watching the vision of some pageant passing through the garden
in the deep, rich glow of light and the splendor of flowers.
Then, coming to the end of her reverie, she looked round and up.
If I had not at first noticed her, I am certain that she too had
been unaware of my presence till she actually perceived me by her
father’s side. The quickened upward movement of the heavy eyelids,
the widening of the languid glance, passing into a fixed stare, put
that beyond doubt.
Under her amazement there was a hint of fear, and then came a flash
as of anger. Jacobus, after uttering my name fairly loud, said:
“Make yourself at home, Captain–I won’t be gone long,” and went
away rapidly. Before I had time to make a bow I was left alone
with the girl–who, I remembered suddenly, had not been seen by any
man or woman of that town since she had found it necessary to put
up her hair. It looked as though it had not been touched again
since that distant time of first putting up; it was a mass of
black, lustrous locks, twisted anyhow high on her head, with long,
untidy wisps hanging down on each side of the clear sallow face; a
mass so thick and strong and abundant that, nothing but to look at,
it gave you a sensation of heavy pressure on the top of your head
and an impression of magnificently cynical untidiness. She leaned
forward, hugging herself with crossed legs; a dingy, amber-
colored, flounced wrapper of some thin stuff revealed the young
supple body drawn together tensely in the deep low seat as if
crouching for a spring. I detected a slight, quivering start or
two, which looked uncommonly like bounding away. They were
followed by the most absolute immobility.
The absurd impulse to run out after Jacobus (for I had been
startled, too) once repressed, I took a chair, placed it not very
far from her, sat down deliberately, and began to talk about the
garden, caring not what I said, but using a gentle caressing
intonation as one talks to soothe a startled wild animal. I could
not even be certain that she understood me. She never raised her
face nor attempted to look my way. I kept on talking only to
prevent her from taking flight. She had another of those
quivering, repressed starts which made me catch my breath with
Ultimately I formed a notion that what prevented her perhaps from
going off in one great, nervous leap, was the scantiness of her
attire. The wicker armchair was the most substantial thing about
her person. What she had on under that dingy, loose, amber wrapper
must have been of the most flimsy and airy character. One could
not help being aware of it. It was obvious. I felt it actually
embarrassing at first; but that sort of embarrassment is got over
easily by a mind not enslaved by narrow prejudices. I did not
avert my gaze from Alice. I went on talking with ingratiating
softness, the recollection that, most likely, she had never before
been spoken to by a strange man adding to my assurance. I don’t
know why an emotional tenseness should have crept into the
situation. But it did. And just as I was becoming aware of it a
slight scream cut short my flow of urbane speech.
The scream did not proceed from the girl. It was emitted behind
me, and caused me to turn my head sharply. I understood at once
that the apparition in the doorway was the elderly relation of
Jacobus, the companion, the gouvernante. While she remained
thunderstruck, I got up and made her a low bow.
The ladies of Jacobus’s household evidently spent their days in
light attire. This stumpy old woman with a face like a large
wrinkled lemon, beady eyes, and a shock of iron-grey hair, was
dressed in a garment of some ash-colored, silky, light stuff. It
fell from her thick neck down to her toes with the simplicity of an
unadorned nightgown. It made her appear truly cylindrical. She
exclaimed: “How did you get here?”
Before I could say a word she vanished and presently I heard a
confusion of shrill protestations in a distant part of the house.
Obviously no one could tell her how I got there. In a moment, with
great outcries from two negro women following her, she waddled back
to the doorway, infuriated.
“What do you want here?”
I turned to the girl. She was sitting straight up now, her hands
posed on the arms of the chair. I appealed to her.
“Surely, Miss Alice, you will not let them drive me out into the
Her magnificent black eyes, narrowed, long in shape, swept over me
with an indefinable expression, then in a harsh, contemptuous voice
she let fall in French a sort of explanation:
I made another low bow to the old woman.
She turned her back on me in order to drive away her black
henchwomen, then surveying my person in a peculiar manner with one
small eye nearly closed and her face all drawn up on that side as
if with a twinge of toothache, she stepped out on the verandah, sat
down in a rocking-chair some distance away, and took up her
knitting from a little table. Before she started at it she plunged
one of the needles into the mop of her grey hair and stirred it
Her elementary nightgown-sort of frock clung to her ancient,
stumpy, and floating form. She wore white cotton stockings and
flat brown velvet slippers. Her feet and ankles were obtrusively
visible on the foot-rest. She began to rock herself slightly,
while she knitted. I had resumed my seat and kept quiet, for I
mistrusted that old woman. What if she ordered me to depart? She
seemed capable of any outrage. She had snorted once or twice; she
was knitting violently. Suddenly she piped at the young girl in
French a question which I translate colloquially:
“What’s your father up to, now?”
The young creature shrugged her shoulders so comprehensively that
her whole body swayed within the loose wrapper; and in that
unexpectedly harsh voice which yet had a seductive quality to the
senses, like certain kinds of natural rough wines one drinks with
“It’s some captain. Leave me alone–will you!”
The chair rocked quicker, the old, thin voice was like a whistle.
“You and your father make a pair. He would stick at nothing–
that’s well known. But I didn’t expect this.”
I thought it high time to air some of my own French. I remarked
modestly, but firmly, that this was business. I had some matters
to talk over with Mr. Jacobus.
At once she piped out a derisive “Poor innocent!” Then, with a
change of tone: “The shop’s for business. Why don’t you go to the
shop to talk with him?”
The furious speed of her fingers and knitting-needles made one
dizzy; and with squeaky indignation:
“Sitting here staring at that girl–is that what you call
“No,” I said suavely. “I call this pleasure–an unexpected
pleasure. And unless Miss Alice objects–”
I half turned to her. She flung at me an angry and contemptuous
“Don’t care!” and leaning her elbow on her knees took her chin in
her hand–a Jacobus chin undoubtedly. And those heavy eyelids,
this black irritated stare reminded me of Jacobus, too–the wealthy
merchant, the respected one. The design of her eyebrows also was
the same, rigid and ill-omened. Yes! I traced in her a
resemblance to both of them. It came to me as a sort of surprising
remote inference that both these Jacobuses were rather handsome men
after all. I said:
“Oh! Then I shall stare at you till you smile.”
She favored me again with an even more viciously scornful “Don’t
The old woman broke in blunt and shrill:
“Hear his impudence! And you too! Don’t care! Go at least and
put some more clothes on. Sitting there like this before this
The sun was about to leave the Pearl of the Ocean for other seas,
for other lands. The walled garden full of shadows blazed with
color as if the flowers were giving up the light absorbed during
the day. The amazing old woman became very explicit. She
suggested to the girl a corset and a petticoat with a cynical
unreserved which humiliated me. Was I of no more account than a
wooden dummy? The girl snapped out: “Shan’t!”
It was not the naughty retort of a vulgar child; it had a note of
desperation. Clearly my intrusion had somehow upset the balance of
their established relations. The old woman knitted with furious
accuracy, her eyes fastened down on her work.
“Oh, you are the true child of your father! And THAT talks of
entering a convent! Letting herself be stared at by a fellow.”
“Old sorceress,” the girl uttered distinctly, preserving her
meditative pose, chin in hand, and a far-away stare over the
It was like the quarrel of the kettle and the pot. The old woman
flew out of the chair, banged down her work, and with a great play
of thick limb perfectly visible in that weird, clinging garment of
hers, strode at the girl–who never stirred. I was experiencing a
sort of trepidation when, as if awed by that unconscious attitude,
the aged relative of Jacobus turned short upon me.
She was, I perceived, armed with a knitting-needle; and as she
raised her hand her intention seemed to be to throw it at me like a
dart. But she only used it to scratch her head with, examining me
the while at close range, one eye nearly shut and her face
distorted by a whimsical, one-sided grimace.
“My dear man,” she asked abruptly, “do you expect any good to come
“I do hope so indeed, Miss Jacobus.” I tried to speak in the easy
tone of an afternoon caller. “You see, I am here after some bags.”
“Bags! Look at that now! Didn’t I hear you holding forth to that
“You would like to see me in my grave,” uttered the motionless girl
“Grave! What about me? Buried alive before I am dead for the sake
of a thing blessed with such a pretty father!” she cried; and
turning to me: “You’re one of these men he does business with.
Well–why don’t you leave us in peace, my good fellow?”
It was said in a tone–this “leave us in peace!” There was a sort
of ruffianly familiarity, a superiority, a scorn in it. I was to
hear it more than once, for you would show an imperfect knowledge
of human nature if you thought that this was my last visit to that
house–where no respectable person had put foot for ever so many
years. No, you would be very much mistaken if you imagined that
this reception had scared me away. First of all I was not going to
run before a grotesque and ruffianly old woman.
And then you mustn’t forget these necessary bags. That first
evening Jacobus made me stay to dinner; after, however, telling me
loyally that he didn’t know whether he could do anything at all for
me. He had been thinking it over. It was too difficult, he
feared. . . . But he did not give it up in so many words.
We were only three at table; the girl by means of repeated “Won’t!”
“Shan’t!” and “Don’t care!” having conveyed and affirmed her
intention not to come to the table, not to have any dinner, not to
move from the verandah. The old relative hopped about in her flat
slippers and piped indignantly, Jacobus towered over her and
murmured placidly in his throat; I joined jocularly from a
distance, throwing in a few words, for which under the cover of the
night I received secretly a most vicious poke in the ribs from the
old woman’s elbow or perhaps her fist. I restrained a cry. And
all the time the girl didn’t even condescend to raise her head to
look at any of us. All this may sound childish–and yet that
stony, petulant sullenness had an obscurely tragic flavor.
And so we sat down to the food around the light of a good many
candles while she remained crouching out there, staring in the dark
as if feeding her bad temper on the heavily scented air of the
Before leaving I said to Jacobus that I would come next day to hear
if the bag affair had made any progress. He shook his head
slightly at that.
“I’ll haunt your house daily till you pull it off. You’ll be
always finding me here.”
His faint, melancholy smile did not part his thick lips.
“That will be all right, Captain.”
Then seeing me to the door, very tranquil, he murmured earnestly
the recommendation: “Make yourself at home,” and also the
hospitable hint about there being always “a plate of soup.” It was
only on my way to the quay, down the ill-lighted streets, that I
remembered I had been engaged to dine that very evening with the S-
family. Though vexed with my forgetfulness (it would be rather
awkward to explain) I couldn’t help thinking that it had procured
me a more amusing evening. And besides–business. The sacred
In a barefooted negro who overtook me at a run and bolted down the
landing-steps I recognized Jacobus’s boatman, who must have been
feeding in the kitchen. His usual “Good-night, sah!” as I went up
my ship’s ladder had a more cordial sound than on previous
I kept my word to Jacobus. I haunted his home. He was perpetually
finding me there of an afternoon when he popped in for a moment
from the “store.” The sound of my voice talking to his Alice
greeted him on his doorstep; and when he returned for good in the
evening, ten to one he would hear it still going on in the
verandah. I just nodded to him; he would sit down heavily and
gently, and watch with a sort of approving anxiety my efforts to
make his daughter smile.
I called her often “Alice,” right before him; sometimes I would
address her as Miss “Don’t Care,” and I exhausted myself in
nonsensical chatter without succeeding once in taking her out of
her peevish and tragic self. There were moments when I felt I must
break out and start swearing at her till all was blue. And I
fancied that had I done so Jacobus would not have moved a muscle.
A sort of shady, intimate understanding seemed to have been
established between us.
I must say the girl treated her father exactly in the same way she
And how could it have been otherwise? She treated me as she
treated her father. She had never seen a visitor. She did not
know how men behaved. I belonged to the low lot with whom her
father did business at the port. I was of no account. So was her
father. The only decent people in the world were the people of the
island, who would have nothing to do with him because of something
wicked he had done. This was apparently the explanation Miss
Jacobus had given her of the household’s isolated position. For
she had to be told something! And I feel convinced that this
version had been assented to by Jacobus. I must say the old woman
was putting it forward with considerable gusto. It was on her lips
the universal explanation, the universal allusion, the universal
One day Jacobus came in early and, beckoning me into the dining-
room, wiped his brow with a weary gesture and told me that he had
managed to unearth a supply of quarter-bags.
“It’s fourteen hundred your ship wanted, did you say, Captain?”
“Yes, yes!” I replied eagerly; but he remained calm. He looked
more tired than I had ever seen him before.
“Well, Captain, you may go and tell your people that they can get
that lot from my brother.”
As I remained open-mouthed at this, he added his usual placid
formula of assurance:
“You’ll find it correct, Captain.”
“You spoke to your brother about it?” I was distinctly awed. “And
for me? Because he must have known that my ship’s the only one
hung up for bags. How on earth–”
He wiped his brow again. I noticed that he was dressed with
unusual care, in clothes in which I had never seen him before. He
avoided my eye.
“You’ve heard people talk, of course. . . . That’s true enough. He
. . . I . . . We certainly. . . for several years . . .” His voice
declined to a mere sleepy murmur. “You see I had something to tell
him of, something which–”
His murmur stopped. He was not going to tell me what this
something was. And I didn’t care. Anxious to carry the news to my
charterers, I ran back on the verandah to get my hat.
At the bustle I made the girl turned her eyes slowly in my
direction, and even the old woman was checked in her knitting. I
stopped a moment to exclaim excitedly:
“Your father’s a brick, Miss Don’t Care. That’s what he is.”
She beheld my elation in scornful surprise. Jacobus with unwonted
familiarity seized my arm as I flew through the dining-room, and
breathed heavily at me a proposal about “A plate of soup” that
evening. I answered distractedly: “Eh? What? Oh, thanks!
Certainly. With pleasure,” and tore myself away. Dine with him?
Of course. The merest gratitude
But some three hours afterwards, in the dusky, silent street, paved
with cobble-stones, I became aware that it was not mere gratitude
which was guiding my steps towards the house with the old garden,
where for years no guest other than myself had ever dined. Mere
gratitude does not gnaw at one’s interior economy in that
particular way. Hunger might; but I was not feeling particularly
hungry for Jacobus’s food.
On that occasion, too, the girl refused to come to the table.
My exasperation grew. The old woman cast malicious glances at me.
I said suddenly to Jacobus: “Here! Put some chicken and salad on
that plate.” He obeyed without raising his eyes. I carried it
with a knife and fork and a serviette out on the verandah. The
garden was one mass of gloom, like a cemetery of flowers buried in
the darkness, and she, in the chair, seemed to muse mournfully over
the extinction of light and colour. Only whiffs of heavy scent
passed like wandering, fragrant souls of that departed multitude of
blossoms. I talked volubly, jocularly, persuasively, tenderly; I
talked in a subdued tone. To a listener it would have sounded like
the murmur of a pleading lover. Whenever I paused expectantly
there was only a deep silence. It was like offering food to a
“I haven’t been able to swallow a single morsel thinking of you out
here starving yourself in the dark. It’s positively cruel to be so
obstinate. Think of my sufferings.”
I felt as if I could have done her some violence–shaken her,
beaten her maybe. I said:
“Your absurd behavior will prevent me coming here any more.”
“What’s that to me?”
“You like it.”
“It’s false,” she snarled.
My hand fell on her shoulder; and if she had flinched I verily
believe I would have shaken her. But there was no movement and
this immobility disarmed my anger.
“You do. Or you wouldn’t be found on the verandah every day. Why
are you here, then? There are plenty of rooms in the house. You
have your own room to stay in–if you did not want to see me. But
you do. You know you do.”
I felt a slight shudder under my hand and released my grip as if
frightened by that sign of animation in her body. The scented air
of the garden came to us in a warm wave like a voluptuous and
“Go back to them,” she whispered, almost pitifully.
As I re-entered the dining-room I saw Jacobus cast down his eyes.
I banged the plate on the table. At this demonstration of ill-
humor he murmured something in an apologetic tone, and I turned on
him viciously as if he were accountable to me for these “abominable
eccentricities,” I believe I called them.
“But I dare say Miss Jacobus here is responsible for most of this
offensive manner,” I added loftily.
She piped out at once in her brazen, ruffianly manner:
“Eh? Why don’t you leave us in peace, my good fellow?”
I was astonished that she should dare before Jacobus. Yet what
could he have done to repress her? He needed her too much. He
raised a heavy, drowsy glance for an instant, then looked down
again. She insisted with shrill finality:
“Haven’t you done your business, you two? Well, then–”
She had the true Jacobus impudence, that old woman. Her mop of
iron-grey hair was parted, on the side like a man’s, raffishly, and
she made as if to plunge her fork into it, as she used to do with
the knitting-needle, but refrained. Her little black eyes sparkled
venomously. I turned to my host at the head of the table–
menacingly as it were.
“Well, and what do you say to that, Jacobus? Am I to take it that
we have done with each other?”
I had to wait a little. The answer when it came was rather
unexpected, and in quite another spirit than the question.
“I certainly think we might do some business yet with those
potatoes of mine, Captain. You will find that–”
I cut him short.
“I’ve told you before that I don’t trade.”
His broad chest heaved without a sound in a noiseless sigh.
“Think it over, Captain,” he murmured, tenacious and tranquil; and
I burst into a jarring laugh, remembering how he had stuck to the
circus-rider woman–the depth of passion under that placid surface,
which even cuts with a riding-whip (so the legend had it) could
never raffle into the semblance of a storm; something like the
passion of a fish would be if one could imagine such a thing as a
That evening I experienced more distinctly than ever the sense of
moral discomfort which always attended me in that house lying under
the ban of all “decent” people. I refused to stay on and smoke
after dinner; and when I put my hand into the thickly-cushioned
palm of Jacobus, I said to myself that it would be for the last
time under his roof. I pressed his bulky paw heartily
nevertheless. Hadn’t he got me out of a serious difficulty? To
the few words of acknowledgment I was bound, and indeed quite
willing, to utter, he answered by stretching his closed lips in his
melancholy, glued-together smile.
“That will be all right, I hope, Captain,” he breathed out
“What do you mean?” I asked, alarmed. “That your brother might
“Oh, no,” he reassured me. “He . . . he’s a man of his word,
My self-communion as I walked away from his door, trying to believe
that this was for the last time, was not satisfactory. I was aware
myself that I was not sincere in my reflections as to Jacobus’s
motives, and, of course, the very next day I went back again.
How weak, irrational, and absurd we are! How easily carried away
whenever our awakened imagination brings us the irritating hint of
a desire! I cared for the girl in a particular way, seduced by the
moody expression of her face, by her obstinate silences, her rare,
scornful words; by the perpetual pout of her closed lips, the black
depths of her fixed gaze turned slowly upon me as if in
contemptuous provocation, only to be averted next moment with an
Of course the news of my assiduity had spread all over the little
town. I noticed a change in the manner of my acquaintances and
even something different in the nods of the other captains, when
meeting them at the landing-steps or in the offices where business
called me. The old-maidish head clerk treated me with distant
punctiliousness and, as it were, gathered his skirts round him for
fear of contamination. It seemed to me that the very niggers on
the quays turned to look after me as I passed; and as to Jacobus’s
boatman his “Good-night, sah!” when he put me on board was no
longer merely cordial–it had a familiar, confidential sound as
though we had been partners in some villainy.
My friend S- the elder passed me on the other side of the street
with a wave of the hand and an ironic smile. The younger brother,
the one they had married to an elderly shrew, he, on the strength
of an older friendship and as if paying a debt of gratitude, took
the liberty to utter a word of warning.
“You’re doing yourself no good by your choice of friends, my dear
chap,” he said with infantile gravity.
As I knew that the meeting of the brothers Jacobus was the subject
of excited comment in the whole of the sugary Pearl of the Ocean I
wanted to know why I was blamed.
“I have been the occasion of a move which may end in a
reconciliation surely desirable from the point of view of the
proprieties–don’t you know?”
“Of course, if that girl were disposed of it would certainly
facilitate–” he mused sagely, then, inconsequential creature, gave
me a light tap on the lower part of my waistcoat. “You old
sinner,” he cried jovially, “much you care for proprieties. But
you had better look out for yourself, you know, with a personage
like Jacobus who has no sort of reputation to lose.”
He had recovered his gravity of a respectable citizen by that time
and added regretfully:
“All the women of our family are perfectly scandalized.”
But by that time I had given up visiting the S- family and the D-
family. The elder ladies pulled such faces when I showed myself,
and the multitude of related young ladies received me with such a
variety of looks: wondering, awed, mocking (except Miss Mary, who
spoke to me and looked at me with hushed, pained compassion as
though I had been ill), that I had no difficulty in giving them all
up. I would have given up the society of the whole town, for the
sake of sitting near that girl, snarling and superb and barely clad
in that flimsy, dingy, amber wrapper, open low at the throat. She
looked, with the wild wisps of hair hanging down her tense face, as
though she had just jumped out of bed in the panic of a fire.
She sat leaning on her elbow, looking at nothing. Why did she stay
listening to my absurd chatter? And not only that; but why did she
powder her face in preparation for my arrival? It seemed to be her
idea of making a toilette, and in her untidy negligence a sign of
great effort towards personal adornment.
But I might have been mistaken. The powdering might have been her
daily practice and her presence in the verandah a sign of an
indifference so complete as to take no account of my existence.
Well, it was all one to me.
I loved to watch her slow changes of pose, to look at her long
immobility composed in the graceful lines of her body, to observe
the mysterious narrow stare of her splendid black eyes, somewhat
long in shape, half closed, contemplating the void. She was like a
spellbound creature with the forehead of a goddess crowned by the
disheveled magnificent hair of a gipsy tramp. Even her
indifference was seductive. I felt myself growing attached to her
by the bond of an irrealizable desire, for I kept my head–quite.
And I put up with the moral discomfort of Jacobus’s sleepy
watchfulness, tranquil, and yet so expressive; as if there had been
a tacit pact between us two. I put up with the insolence of the
old woman’s: “Aren’t you ever going to leave us in peace, my good
fellow?” with her taunts; with her brazen and sinister scolding.
She was of the true Jacobus stock, and no mistake.
Directly I got away from the girl I called myself many hard names.
What folly was this? I would ask myself. It was like being the
slave of some depraved habit. And I returned to her with my head
clear, my heart certainly free, not even moved by pity for that
castaway (she was as much of a castaway as any one ever wrecked on
a desert island), but as if beguiled by some extraordinary promise.
Nothing more unworthy could be imagined. The recollection of that
tremulous whisper when I gripped her shoulder with one hand and
held a plate of chicken with the other was enough to make me break
all my good resolutions.
Her insulting taciturnity was enough sometimes to make one gnash
one’s teeth with rage. When she opened her mouth it was only to be
abominably rude in harsh tones to the associate of her reprobate
father; and the full approval of her aged relative was conveyed to
her by offensive chuckles. If not that, then her remarks, always
uttered in the tone of scathing contempt, were of the most
How could it have been otherwise? That plump, ruffianly Jacobus
old maid in the tight grey frock had never taught her any manners.
Manners I suppose are not necessary for born castaways. No
educational establishment could ever be induced to accept her as a
pupil–on account of the proprieties, I imagine. And Jacobus had
not been able to send her away anywhere. How could he have done
it? Who with? Where to? He himself was not enough of an
adventurer to think of settling down anywhere else. His passion
had tossed him at the tail of a circus up and down strange coasts,
but, the storm over, he had drifted back shamelessly where, social
outcast as he was, he remained still a Jacobus–one of the oldest
families on the island, older than the French even. There must
have been a Jacobus in at the death of the last Dodo. . . . The
girl had learned nothing, she had never listened to a general
conversation, she knew nothing, she had heard of nothing. She
could read certainly; but all the reading matter that ever came in
her way were the newspapers provided for the captains’ room of the
“store.” Jacobus had the habit of taking these sheets home now and
then in a very stained and ragged condition.
As her mind could not grasp the meaning of any matters treated
there except police-court reports and accounts of crimes, she had
formed for herself a notion of the civilized world as a scene of
murders, abductions, burglaries, stabbing affrays, and every sort
of desperate violence. England and France, Paris and London (the
only two towns of which she seemed to have heard), appeared to her
sinks of abomination, reeking with blood, in contrast to her little
island where petty larceny was about the standard of current
misdeeds, with, now and then, some more pronounced crime–and that
only amongst the imported coolie laborers on sugar estates or the
negroes of the town. But in Europe these things were being done
daily by a wicked population of white men amongst whom, as that
ruffianly, aristocratic old Miss Jacobus pointed out, the wandering
sailors, the associates of her precious papa, were the lowest of
It was impossible to give her a sense of proportion. I suppose she
figured England to herself as about the size of the Pearl of the
Ocean; in which case it would certainly have been reeking with gore
and a mere wreck of burgled houses from end to end. One could not
make her understand that these horrors on which she fed her
imagination were lost in the mass of orderly life like a few drops
of blood in the ocean. She directed upon me for a moment the
uncomprehending glance of her narrowed eyes and then would turn her
scornful powdered face away without a word. She would not even
take the trouble to shrug her shoulders.
At that time the batches of papers brought by the last mail
reported a series of crimes in the East End of London, there was a
sensational case of abduction in France and a fine display of armed
robbery in Australia. One afternoon crossing the dining-room I
heard Miss Jacobus piping in the verandah with venomous animosity:
“I don’t know what your precious papa is plotting with that fellow.
But he’s just the sort of man who’s capable of carrying you off far
away somewhere and then cutting your throat some day for your
There was a good half of the length of the verandah between their
chairs. I came out and sat down fiercely midway between them.
“Yes, that’s what we do with girls in Europe,” I began in a grimly
matter-of-fact tone. I think Miss Jacobus was disconcerted by my
sudden appearance. I turned upon her with cold ferocity:
“As to objectionable old women, they are first strangled quietly,
then cut up into small pieces and thrown away, a bit here and a bit
there. They vanish–”
I cannot go so far as to say I had terrified her. But she was
troubled by my truculence, the more so because I had been always
addressing her with a politeness she did not deserve. Her plump,
knitting hands fell slowly on her knees. She said not a word while
I fixed her with severe determination. Then as I turned away from
her at last, she laid down her work gently and, with noiseless
movements, retreated from the verandah. In fact, she vanished.
But I was not thinking of her. I was looking at the girl. It was
what I was coming for daily; troubled, ashamed, eager; finding in
my nearness to her a unique sensation which I indulged with dread,
self-contempt, and deep pleasure, as if it were a secret vice bound
to end in my undoing, like the habit of some drug or other which
ruins and degrades its slave.
I looked her over, from the top of her disheveled head, down the
lovely line of the shoulder, following the curve of the hip, the
draped form of the long limb, right down to her fine ankle below a
torn, soiled flounce; and as far as the point of the shabby, high-
heeled, blue slipper, dangling from her well-shaped foot, which she
moved slightly, with quick, nervous jerks, as if impatient of my
presence. And in the scent of the massed flowers I seemed to
breathe her special and inexplicable charm, the heady perfume of
the everlastingly irritated captive of the garden.
I looked at her rounded chin, the Jacobus chin; at the full, red
lips pouting in the powdered, sallow face; at the firm modeling of
the cheek, the grains of white in the hairs of the straight somber
eyebrows; at the long eyes, a narrowed gleam of liquid white and
intense motionless black, with their gaze so empty of thought, and
so absorbed in their fixity that she seemed to be staring at her
own lonely image, in some far-off mirror hidden from my sight
amongst the trees.
And suddenly, without looking at me, with the appearance of a
person speaking to herself, she asked, in that voice slightly harsh
yet mellow and always irritated:
“Why do you keep on coming here?”
“Why do I keep on coming here?” I repeated, taken by surprise. I
could not have told her. I could not even tell myself with
sincerity why I was coming there. “What’s the good of you asking a
question like that?”
“Nothing is any good,” she observed scornfully to the empty air,
her chin propped on her hand, that hand never extended to any man,
that no one had ever grasped–for I had only grasped her shoulder
once–that generous, fine, somewhat masculine hand. I knew well
the peculiarly efficient shape–broad at the base, tapering at the
fingers–of that hand, for which there was nothing in the world to
lay hold of. I pretended to be playful.
“No! But do you really care to know?”
She shrugged indolently her magnificent shoulders, from which the
dingy thin wrapper was slipping a little.
“Oh–never mind–never mind!”
There was something smoldering under those airs of lassitude. She
exasperated me by the provocation of her nonchalance, by something
elusive and defiant in her very form which I wanted to seize. I
“Why? Don’t you think I should tell you the truth?”
Her eyes glided my way for a sidelong look, and she murmured,
moving only her full, pouting lips:
“I think you would not dare.”
“Do you imagine I am afraid of you? What on earth. . . . Well,
it’s possible, after all, that I don’t know exactly why I am coming
here. Let us say, with Miss Jacobus, that it is for no good. You
seem to believe the outrageous things she says, if you do have a
row with her now and then.”
She snapped out viciously:
“Who else am I to believe?
“I don’t know,” I had to own, seeing her suddenly very helpless and
condemned to moral solitude by the verdict of a respectable
community. “You might believe me, if you chose.”
She made a slight movement and asked me at once, with an effort as
if making an experiment:
“What is the business between you and papa?”
“Don’t you know the nature of your father’s business? Come! He
sells provisions to ships.”
She became rigid again in her crouching pose.
“Not that. What brings you here–to this house?”
“And suppose it’s you? You would not call that business? Would
you? And now let us drop the subject. It’s no use. My ship will
be ready for sea the day after to-morrow.”
She murmured a distinctly scared “So soon,” and getting up quickly,
went to the little table and poured herself a glass of water. She
walked with rapid steps and with an indolent swaying of her whole
young figure above the hips; when she passed near me I felt with
tenfold force the charm of the peculiar, promising sensation I had
formed the habit to seek near her. I thought with sudden dismay
that this was the end of it; that after one more day I would be no
longer able to come into this verandah, sit on this chair, and
taste perversely the flavor of contempt in her indolent poses,
drink in the provocation of her scornful looks, and listen to the
curt, insolent remarks uttered in that harsh and seductive voice.
As if my innermost nature had been altered by the action of some
moral poison, I felt an abject dread of going to sea.
I had to exercise a sudden self-control, as one puts on a brake, to
prevent myself jumping up to stride about, shout, gesticulate, make
her a scene. What for? What about? I had no idea. It was just
the relief of violence that I wanted; and I lolled back in my
chair, trying to keep my lips formed in a smile; that half-
indulgent, half-mocking smile which was my shield against the
shafts of her contempt and the insulting sallies flung at me by the
She drank the water at a draught, with the avidity of raging
thirst, and let herself fall on the nearest chair, as if utterly
overcome. Her attitude, like certain tones of her voice, had in it
something masculine: the knees apart in the ample wrapper, the
clasped hands hanging between them, her body leaning forward, with
drooping head. I stared at the heavy black coil of twisted hair.
It was enormous, crowning the bowed head with a crushing and
disdained glory. The escaped wisps hung straight down. And
suddenly I perceived that the girl was trembling from head to foot,
as though that glass of iced water had chilled her to the bone.
“What’s the matter now?” I said, startled, but in no very
She shook her bowed, over weighted head and cried in a stifled voice
but with a rising inflection:
“Go away! Go away! Go away!”
I got up then and approached her, with a strange sort of anxiety.
I looked down at her round, strong neck, then stooped low enough to
peep at her face. And I began to tremble a little myself.
“What on earth are you gone wild about, Miss Don’t Care?”
She flung herself backwards violently, her head going over the back
of the chair. And now it was her smooth, full, palpitating throat
that lay exposed to my bewildered stare. Her eyes were nearly
closed, with only a horrible white gleam under the lids as if she
“What has come to you?” I asked in awe. “What are you terrifying
She pulled herself together, her eyes open frightfully wide now.
The tropical afternoon was lengthening the shadows on the hot,
weary earth, the abode of obscure desires, of extravagant hopes, of
“Never mind! Don’t care!” Then, after a gasp, she spoke with such
frightful rapidity that I could hardly make out the amazing words:
“For if you were to shut me up in an empty place as smooth all
round as the palm of my hand, I could always strangle myself with
For a moment, doubting my ears, I let this inconceivable
declaration sink into me. It is ever impossible to guess at the
wild thoughts that pass through the heads of our fellow-creatures.
What monstrous imaginings of violence could have dwelt under the
low forehead of that girl who had been taught to regard her father
as “capable of anything” more in the light of a misfortune than
that of a disgrace; as, evidently, something to be resented and
feared rather than to be ashamed of? She seemed, indeed, as
unaware of shame as of anything else in the world; but in her
ignorance, her resentment and fear took a childish and violent
Of course she spoke without knowing the value of words. What could
she know of death–she who knew nothing of life? It was merely as
the proof of her being beside herself with some odious
apprehension, that this extraordinary speech had moved me, not to
pity, but to a fascinated, horrified wonder. I had no idea what
notion she had of her danger. Some sort of abduction. It was
quite possible with the talk of that atrocious old woman. Perhaps
she thought she could be carried off, bound hand and foot and even
gagged. At that surmise I felt as if the door of a furnace had
been opened in front of me.
“Upon my honor!” I cried. “You shall end by going crazy if you
listen to that abominable old aunt of yours–”
I studied her haggard expression, her trembling lips. Her cheeks
even seemed sunk a little. But how I, the associate of her
disreputable father, the “lowest of the low” from the criminal
Europe, could manage to reassure her I had no conception. She was
“Heavens and earth! What do you think I can do?”
“I don’t know.”
Her chin certainly trembled. And she was looking at me with
extreme attention. I made a step nearer to her chair.
“I shall do nothing. I promise you that. Will that do? Do you
understand? I shall do nothing whatever, of any kind; and the day
after to-morrow I shall be gone.”
What else could I have said? She seemed to drink in my words with
the thirsty avidity with which she had emptied the glass of water.
She whispered tremulously, in that touching tone I had heard once
before on her lips, and which thrilled me again with the same
“I would believe you. But what about papa–”
“He be hanged!” My emotion betrayed itself by the brutality of my
tone. “I’ve had enough of your papa. Are you so stupid as to
imagine that I am frightened of him? He can’t make me do
All that sounded feeble to me in the face of her ignorance. But I
must conclude that the “accent of sincerity” has, as some people
say, a really irresistible power. The effect was far beyond my
hopes,–and even beyond my conception. To watch the change in the
girl was like watching a miracle–the gradual but swift relaxation
of her tense glance, of her stiffened muscles, of every fiber of
her body. That black, fixed stare into which I had read a tragic
meaning more than once, in which I had found a somber seduction,
was perfectly empty now, void of all consciousness whatever, and
not even aware any longer of my presence; it had become a little
sleepy, in the Jacobus fashion.
But, man being a perverse animal, instead of rejoicing at my
complete success, I beheld it with astounded and indignant eyes.
There was something cynical in that unconcealed alteration, the
true Jacobus shamelessness. I felt as though I had been cheated in
some rather complicated deal into which I had entered against my
better judgment. Yes, cheated without any regard for, at least,
the forms of decency.
With an easy, indolent, and in its indolence supple, feline
movement, she rose from the chair, so provokingly ignoring me now,
that for very rage I held my ground within less than a foot of her.
Leisurely and tranquil, behaving right before me with the ease of a
person alone in a room, she extended her beautiful arms, with her
hands clenched, her body swaying, her head thrown back a little,
reveling contemptuously in a sense of relief, easing her limbs in
freedom after all these days of crouching, motionless poses when
she had been so furious and so afraid.
All this with supreme indifference, incredible, offensive,
exasperating, like ingratitude doubled with treachery.
I ought to have been flattered, perhaps, but, on the contrary, my
anger grew; her movement to pass by me as if I were a wooden post
or a piece of furniture, that unconcerned movement brought it to a
I won’t say I did not know what I was doing, but, certainly, cool
reflection had nothing to do with the circumstance that next moment
both my arms were round her waist. It was an impulsive action, as
one snatches at something falling or escaping; and it had no
hypocritical gentleness about it either. She had no time to make a
sound, and the first kiss I planted on her closed lips was vicious
enough to have been a bite.
She did not resist, and of course I did not stop at one. She let
me go on, not as if she were inanimate–I felt her there, close
against me, young, full of vigor, of life, a strong desirable
creature, but as if she did not care in the least, in the absolute
assurance of her safety, what I did or left undone. Our faces
brought close together in this storm of haphazard caresses, her
big, black, wide-open eyes looked into mine without the girl
appearing either angry or pleased or moved in any way. In that
steady gaze which seemed impersonally to watch my madness I could
detect a slight surprise, perhaps–nothing more. I showered kisses
upon her face and there did not seem to be any reason why this
should not go on for ever.
That thought flashed through my head, and I was on the point of
desisting, when, all at once, she began to struggle with a sudden
violence which all but freed her instantly, which revived my
exasperation with her, indeed a fierce desire never to let her go
any more. I tightened my embrace in time, gasping out: “No–you
don’t!” as if she were my mortal enemy. On her part not a word was
said. Putting her hands against my chest, she pushed with all her
might without succeeding to break the circle of my arms. Except
that she seemed thoroughly awake now, her eyes gave me no clue
whatever. To meet her black stare was like looking into a deep
well, and I was totally unprepared for her change of tactics.
Instead of trying to tear my hands apart, she flung herself upon my
breast and with a downward, undulating, serpentine motion, a quick
sliding dive, she got away from me smoothly. It was all very
swift; I saw her pick up the tail of her wrapper and run for the
door at the end of the verandah not very gracefully. She appeared
to be limping a little–and then she vanished; the door swung
behind her so noiselessly that I could not believe it was
completely closed. I had a distinct suspicion of her black eye
being at the crack to watch what I would do. I could not make up
my mind whether to shake my fist in that direction or blow a kiss.
Either would have been perfectly consistent with my feelings. I
gazed at the door, hesitating, but in the end I did neither. The
monition of some sixth sense–the sense of guilt, maybe, that sense
which always acts too late, alas!–warned me to look round; and at
once I became aware that the conclusion of this tumultuous episode
was likely to be a matter of lively anxiety. Jacobus was standing
in the doorway of the dining-room. How long he had been there it
was impossible to guess; and remembering my struggle with the girl
I thought he must have been its mute witness from beginning to end.
But this supposition seemed almost incredible. Perhaps that
impenetrable girl had heard him come in and had got away in time.
He stepped on to the verandah in his usual manner, heavy-eyed, with
glued lips. I marveled at the girl’s resemblance to this man.
Those long, Egyptian eyes, that low forehead of a stupid goddess,
she had found in the sawdust of the circus; but all the rest of the
face, the design and the modeling, the rounded chin, the very
lips–all that was Jacobus, fined down, more finished, more
His thick hand fell on and grasped with force the back of a light
chair (there were several standing about) and I perceived the
chance of a broken head at the end of all this–most likely. My
mortification was extreme. The scandal would be horrible; that was
unavoidable. But how to act so as to satisfy myself I did not
know. I stood on my guard and at any rate faced him. There was
nothing else for it. Of one thing I was certain, that, however
brazen my attitude, it could never equal the characteristic Jacobus
He gave me his melancholy, glued smile and sat down. I own I was
relieved. The perspective of passing from kisses to blows had
nothing particularly attractive in it. Perhaps–perhaps he had
seen nothing? He behaved as usual, but he had never before found
me alone on the verandah. If he had alluded to it, if he had
asked: “Where’s Alice?” or something of the sort, I would have
been able to judge from the tone. He would give me no opportunity.
The striking peculiarity was that he had never looked up at me yet.
“He knows,” I said to myself confidently. And my contempt for him
relieved my disgust with myself.
“You are early home,” I remarked.
“Things are very quiet; nothing doing at the store to-day,” he
explained with a cast-down air.
“Oh, well, you know, I am off,” I said, feeling that this, perhaps,
was the best thing to do.
“Yes,” he breathed out. “Day after to-morrow.”
This was not what I had meant; but as he gazed persistently on the
floor, I followed the direction of his glance. In the absolute
stillness of the house we stared at the high-heeled slipper the
girl had lost in her flight. We stared. It lay overturned.
After what seemed a very long time to me, Jacobus hitched his chair
forward, stooped with extended arm and picked it up. It looked a
slender thing in his big, thick hands. It was not really a
slipper, but a low shoe of blue, glazed kid, rubbed and shabby. It
had straps to go over the instep, but the girl only thrust her feet
in, after her slovenly manner. Jacobus raised his eyes from the
shoe to look at me.
“Sit down, Captain,” he said at last, in his subdued tone.
As if the sight of that shoe had renewed the spell, I gave up
suddenly the idea of leaving the house there and then. It had
become impossible. I sat down, keeping my eyes on the fascinating
object. Jacobus turned his daughter’s shoe over and over in his
cushioned paws as if studying the way the thing was made. He
contemplated the thin sole for a time; then glancing inside with an
“I am glad I found you here, Captain.”
I answered this by some sort of grunt, watching him covertly. Then
I added: “You won’t have much more of me now.”
He was still deep in the interior of that shoe on which my eyes too
“Have you thought any more of this deal in potatoes I spoke to you
about the other day?”
“No, I haven’t,” I answered curtly. He checked my movement to rise
by an austere, commanding gesture of the hand holding that fatal
shoe. I remained seated and glared at him. “You know I don’t
“You ought to, Captain. You ought to.”
I reflected. If I left that house now I would never see the girl
again. And I felt I must see her once more, if only for an
instant. It was a need, not to be reasoned with, not to be
disregarded. No, I did not want to go away. I wanted to stay for
one more experience of that strange provoking sensation and of
indefinite desire, the habit of which had made me–me of all
people!–dread the prospect of going to sea.
“Mr. Jacobus,” I pronounced slowly. “Do you really think that upon
the whole and taking various’ matters into consideration–I mean
everything, do you understand?–it would be a good thing for me to
trade, let us say, with you?”
I waited for a while. He went on looking at the shoe which he held
now crushed in the middle, the worn point of the toe and the high
heel protruding on each side of his heavy fist.
“That will be all right,” he said, facing me squarely at last.
“Are you sure?”
“You’ll find it quite correct, Captain.” He had uttered his
habitual phrases in his usual placid, breath-saving voice and stood
my hard, inquisitive stare sleepily without as much as a wink.
“Then let us trade,” I said, turning my shoulder to him. “I see
you are bent on it.”
I did not want an open scandal, but I thought that outward decency
may be bought too dearly at times. I included Jacobus, myself, the
whole population of the island, in the same contemptuous disgust as
though we had been partners in an ignoble transaction. And the
remembered vision at sea, diaphanous and blue, of the Pearl of the
Ocean at sixty miles off; the unsubstantial, clear marvel of it as
if evoked by the art of a beautiful and pure magic, turned into a
thing of horrors too. Was this the fortune this vaporous and rare
apparition had held for me in its hard heart, hidden within the
shape as of fair dreams and mist? Was this my luck?
“I think”–Jacobus became suddenly audible after what seemed the
silence of vile meditation–“that you might conveniently take some
thirty tons. That would be about the lot, Captain.”
“Would it? The lot! I dare say it would be convenient, but I
haven’t got enough money for that.”
I had never seen him so animated.
“No!” he exclaimed with what I took for the accent of grim menace.
“That’s a pity.” He paused, then, unrelenting: “How much money
have you got, Captain?” he inquired with awful directness.
It was my turn to face him squarely. I did so and mentioned the
amount I could dispose of. And I perceived that he was
disappointed. He thought it over, his calculating gaze lost in
mine, for quite a long time before he came out in a thoughtful tone
with the rapacious suggestion:
“You could draw some more from your charterers. That would be
quite easy, Captain.”
“No, I couldn’t,” I retorted brusquely. “I’ve drawn my salary up
to date, and besides, the ship’s accounts are closed.”
I was growing furious. I pursued: “And I’ll tell you what: if I
could do it I wouldn’t.” Then throwing off all restraint, I added:
“You are a bit too much of a Jacobus, Mr. Jacobus.”
The tone alone was insulting enough, but he remained tranquil, only
a little puzzled, till something seemed to dawn upon him; but the
unwonted light in his eyes died out instantly. As a Jacobus on his
native heath, what a mere skipper chose to say could not touch him,
outcast as he was. As a ship-chandler he could stand anything.
All I caught of his mumble was a vague–“quite correct,” than which
nothing could have been more egregiously false at bottom–to my
view, at least. But I remembered–I had never forgotten–that I
must see the girl. I did not mean to go. I meant to stay in the
house till I had seen her once more.
“Look here!” I said finally. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll
take as many of your confounded potatoes as my money will buy, on
condition that you go off at once down to the wharf to see them
loaded in the lighter and sent alongside the ship straight away.
Take the invoice and a signed receipt with you. Here’s the key of
my desk. Give it to Burns. He will pay you.
He got up from his chair before I had finished speaking, but he
refused to take the key. Burns would never do it. He wouldn’t
like to ask him even.
“Well, then,” I said, eyeing him slightingly, “there’s nothing for
it, Mr. Jacobus, but you must wait on board till I come off to
settle with you.”
“That will be all right, Captain. I will go at once.”
He seemed at a loss what to do with the girl’s shoe he was still
holding in his fist. Finally, looking dully at me, he put it down
on the chair from which he had risen.
“And you, Captain? Won’t you come along, too, just to see–”
“Don’t bother about me. I’ll take care of myself.”
He remained perplexed for a moment, as if trying to understand; and
then his weighty: “Certainly, certainly, Captain,” seemed to be
the outcome of some sudden thought. His big chest heaved. Was it
a sigh? As he went out to hurry off those potatoes he never looked
back at me.
I waited till the noise of his footsteps had died out of the
dining-room, and I waited a little longer. Then turning towards
the distant door I raised my voice along the verandah:
Nothing answered me, not even a stir behind the door. Jacobus’s
house might have been made empty for me to make myself at home in.
I did not call again. I had become aware of a great
discouragement. I was mentally jaded, morally dejected. I turned
to the garden again, sitting down with my elbows spread on the low
balustrade, and took my head in my hands.
The evening closed upon me. The shadows lengthened, deepened,
mingled together into a pool of twilight in which the flower-beds
glowed like colored embers; whiffs of heavy scent came to me as if
the dusk of this hemisphere were but the dimness of a temple and
the garden an enormous censer swinging before the altar of the
stars. The colors of the blossoms deepened, losing their glow one
The girl, when I turned my head at a slight noise, appeared to me
very tall and slender, advancing with a swaying limp, a floating
and uneven motion which ended in the sinking of her shadowy form
into the deep low chair. And I don’t know why or whence I received
the impression that she had come too late. She ought to have
appeared at my call. She ought to have . . . It was as if a
supreme opportunity had been missed.
I rose and took a seat close to her, nearly opposite her arm-chair.
Her ever discontented voice addressed me at once, contemptuously:
“You are still here.”
I pitched mine low.
“You have come out at last.”
“I came to look for my shoe–before they bring in the lights.”
It was her harsh, enticing whisper, subdued, not very steady, but
its low tremulousness gave me no thrill now. I could only make out
the oval of her face, her uncovered throat, the long, white gleam
of her eyes. She was mysterious enough. Her hands were resting on
the arms of the chair. But where was the mysterious and provoking
sensation which was like the perfume of her flower-like youth? I
“I have got your shoe here.” She made no sound and I continued:
“You had better give me your foot and I will put it on for you.”
She made no movement. I bent low down and groped for her foot
under the flounces of the wrapper. She did not withdraw it and I
put on the shoe, buttoning the instep-strap. It was an inanimate
foot. I lowered it gently to the floor.
“If you buttoned the strap you would not be losing your shoe, Miss
Don’t Care,” I said, trying to be playful without conviction. I
felt more like wailing over the lost illusion of vague desire, over
the sudden conviction that I would never find again near her the
strange, half-evil, half-tender sensation which had given its acrid
flavor to so many days, which had made her appear tragic and
promising, pitiful and provoking. That was all over.
“Your father picked it up,” I said, thinking she may just as well
be told of the fact.
“I am not afraid of papa–by himself,” she declared scornfully.
“Oh! It’s only in conjunction with his disreputable associates,
strangers, the ‘riff-raff of Europe’ as your charming aunt or
great-aunt says–men like me, for instance–that you–”
“I am not afraid of you,” she snapped out.
“That’s because you don’t know that I am now doing business with
your father. Yes, I am in fact doing exactly what he wants me to
do. I’ve broken my promise to you. That’s the sort of man I am.
And now–aren’t you afraid? If you believe what that dear, kind,
truthful old lady says you ought to be.”
It was with unexpected modulated softness that the affirmed:
“No. I am not afraid.” She hesitated. . . . “Not now.”
“Quite right. You needn’t be. I shall not see you again before I
go to sea.” I rose and stood near her chair. “But I shall often
think of you in this old garden, passing under the trees over
there, walking between these gorgeous flower-beds. You must love
“I love nothing.”
I heard in her sullen tone the faint echo of that resentfully
tragic note which I had found once so provoking. But it left me
unmoved except for a sudden and weary conviction of the emptiness
of all things under Heaven.
“Good-bye, Alice,” I said.
She did not answer, she did not move. To merely take her hand,
shake it, and go away seemed impossible, almost improper. I
stooped without haste and pressed my lips to her smooth forehead.
This was the moment when I realized clearly with a sort of terror
my complete detachment from that unfortunate creature. And as I
lingered in that cruel self-knowledge I felt the light touch of her
arms falling languidly on my neck and received a hasty, awkward,
haphazard kiss which missed my lips. No! She was not afraid; but
I was no longer moved. Her arms slipped off my neck slowly, she
made no sound, the deep wicker arm-chair creaked slightly; only a
sense of my dignity prevented me fleeing headlong from that
I traversed the dining-room slowly. I thought: She’s listening to
my footsteps; she can’t help it; she’ll hear me open and shut that
door. And I closed it as gently behind me as if I had been a thief
retreating with his ill-gotten booty. During that stealthy act I
experienced the last touch of emotion in that house, at the thought
of the girl I had left sitting there in the obscurity, with her
heavy hair and empty eyes as black as the night itself, staring
into the walled garden, silent, warm, odorous with the perfume of
imprisoned flowers, which, like herself, were lost to sight in a
world buried in darkness.
The narrow, ill-lighted, rustic streets I knew so well on my way to
the harbor were extremely quiet. I felt in my heart that the
further one ventures the better one understands how everything in
our life is common, short, and empty; that it is in seeking the
unknown in our sensations that we discover how mediocre are our
attempts and how soon defeated! Jacobus’s boatman was waiting at
the steps with an unusual air of readiness. He put me alongside
the ship, but did not give me his confidential “Good-evening, sah,”
and, instead of shoving off at once, remained holding by the
I was a thousand miles from commercial affairs, when on the dark
quarter-deck Mr. Burns positively rushed at me, stammering with
excitement. He had been pacing the deck distractedly for hours
awaiting my arrival. Just before sunset a lighter loaded with
potatoes had come alongside with that fat ship-chandler himself
sitting on the pile of sacks. He was now stuck immovable in the
cabin. What was the meaning of it all? Surely I did not–
“Yes, Mr. Burns, I did,” I cut him short. He was beginning to make
gestures of despair when I stopped that, too, by giving him the key
of my desk and desiring him, in a tone which admitted of no
argument, to go below at once, pay Mr. Jacobus’s bill, and send him
out of the ship.
“I don’t want to see him,” I confessed frankly, climbing the poop-
ladder. I felt extremely tired. Dropping on the seat of the
skylight, I gave myself up to idle gazing at the lights about the
quay and at the black mass of the mountain on the south side of the
harbor. I never heard Jacobus leave the ship with every single
sovereign of my ready cash in his pocket. I never heard anything
till, a long time afterwards, Mr. Burns, unable to contain himself
any longer, intruded upon me with his ridiculously angry
lamentations at my weakness and good nature.
“Of course, there’s plenty of room in the after-hatch. But they
are sure to go rotten down there. Well! I never heard . . .
seventeen tons! I suppose I must hoist in that lot first thing to-
“I suppose you must. Unless you drop them overboard. But I’m
afraid you can’t do that. I wouldn’t mind myself, but it’s
forbidden to throw rubbish into the harbor, you know.”
“That is the truest word you have said for many a day, sir–
rubbish. That’s just what I expect they are. Nearly eighty good
gold sovereigns gone; a perfectly clean sweep of your drawer, sir.
Bless me if I understand!”
As it was impossible to throw the right light on this commercial
transaction I left him to his lamentations and under the impression
that I was a hopeless fool. Next day I did not go ashore. For one
thing, I had no money to go ashore with–no, not enough to buy a
cigarette. Jacobus had made a clean sweep. But that was not the
only reason. The Pearl of the Ocean had in a few short hours grown
odious to me. And I did not want to meet any one. My reputation
had suffered. I knew I was the object of unkind and sarcastic
The following morning at sunrise, just as our stern-fasts had been
let go and the tug plucked us out from between the buoys, I saw
Jacobus standing up in his boat. The nigger was pulling hard;
several baskets of provisions for ships were stowed between the
thwarts. The father of Alice was going his morning round. His
countenance was tranquil and friendly. He raised his arm and
shouted something with great heartiness. But his voice was of the
sort that doesn’t carry any distance; all I could catch faintly, or
rather guess at, were the words “next time” and “quite correct.”
And it was only of these last that I was certain. Raising my arm
perfunctorily for all response, I turned away. I rather resented
the familiarity of the thing. Hadn’t I settled accounts finally
with him by means of that potato bargain?
This being a harbor story it is not my purpose to speak of our
passage. I was glad enough to be at sea, but not with the gladness
of old days. Formerly I had no memories to take away with me. I
shared in the blessed forgetfulness of sailors, that forgetfulness
natural and invincible, which resembles innocence in so far that it
prevents self-examination. Now however I remembered the girl.
During the first few days I was for ever questioning myself as to
the nature of facts and sensations connected with her person and
with my conduct.
And I must say also that Mr. Burns’ intolerable fussing with those
potatoes was not calculated to make me forget the part which I had
played. He looked upon it as a purely commercial transaction of a
particularly foolish kind, and his devotion–if it was devotion and
not mere cussedness as I came to regard it before long–inspired
him with a zeal to minimize my loss as much as possible. Oh, yes!
He took care of those infamous potatoes with a vengeance, as the
Everlastingly, there was a tackle over the after-hatch and
everlastingly the watch on deck were pulling up, spreading out,
picking over, rebagging, and lowering down again, some part of that
lot of potatoes. My bargain with all its remotest associations,
mental and visual–the garden of flowers and scents, the girl with
her provoking contempt and her tragic loneliness of a hopeless
castaway–was everlastingly dangled before my eyes, for thousands
of miles along the open sea. And as if by a satanic refinement of
irony it was accompanied by a most awful smell. Whiffs from
decaying potatoes pursued me on the poop, they mingled with my
thoughts, with my food, poisoned my very dreams. They made an
atmosphere of corruption for the ship.
I remonstrated with Mr. Burns about this excessive care. I would
have been well content to batten the hatch down and let them perish
under the deck.
That perhaps would have been unsafe. The horrid emanations might
have flavored the cargo of sugar. They seemed strong enough to
taint the very ironwork. In addition Mr. Burns made it a personal
matter. He assured me he knew how to treat a cargo of potatoes at
sea–had been in the trade as a boy, he said. He meant to make my
loss as small as possible. What between his devotion–it must have
been devotion–and his vanity, I positively dared not give him the
order to throw my commercial-venture overboard. I believe he would
have refused point blank to obey my lawful command. An
unprecedented and comical situation would have been created with
which I did not feel equal to deal.
I welcomed the coming of bad weather as no sailor had ever done.
When at last I hove the ship to, to pick up the pilot outside Port
Philip Heads, the after-hatch had not been opened for more than a
week and I might have believed that no such thing as a potato had
ever been on board.
It was an abominable day, raw, blustering, with great squalls of
wind and rain; the pilot, a cheery person, looked after the ship
and chatted to me, streaming from head to foot; and the heavier the
lash of the downpour the more pleased with himself and everything
around him he seemed to be. He rubbed his wet hands with a
satisfaction, which to me, who had stood that kind of thing for
several days and nights, seemed inconceivable in any non-aquatic
“You seem to enjoy getting wet, Pilot,” I remarked.
He had a bit of land round his house in the suburbs and it was of
his garden he was thinking. At the sound of the word garden,
unheard, unspoken for so many days, I had a vision of gorgeous
color, of sweet scents, of a girlish figure crouching in a chair.
Yes. That was a distinct emotion breaking into the peace I had
found in the sleepless anxieties of my responsibility during a week
of dangerous bad weather. The Colony, the pilot explained, had
suffered from unparalleled drought. This was the first decent drop
of water they had had for seven months. The root crops were lost.
And, trying to be casual, but with visible interest, he asked me if
I had perchance any potatoes to spare.
Potatoes! I had managed to forget them. In a moment I felt
plunged into corruption up to my neck. Mr. Burns was making eyes
at me behind the pilot’s back.
Finally, he obtained a ton, and paid ten pounds for it. This was
twice the price of my bargain with Jacobus. The spirit of
covetousness woke up in me. That night, in harbor, before I
slept, the Custom House galley came alongside. While his
underlings were putting seals on the storerooms, the officer in
charge took me aside confidentially. “I say, Captain, you don’t
happen to have any potatoes to sell.”
Clearly there was a potato famine in the land. I let him have a
ton for twelve pounds and he went away joyfully. That night I
dreamt of a pile of gold in the form of a grave in which a girl was
buried, and woke up callous with greed. On calling at my ship-
broker’s office, that man, after the usual business had been
transacted, pushed his spectacles up on his forehead.
“I was thinking, Captain, that coming from the Pearl of the Ocean
you may have some potatoes to sell.”
I said negligently: “Oh, yes, I could spare you a ton. Fifteen
He exclaimed: “I say!” But after studying my face for a while
accepted my terms with a faint grimace. It seems that these people
could not exist without potatoes. I could. I didn’t want to see a
potato as long as I lived; but the demon of lucre had taken
possession of me. How the news got about I don’t know, but,
returning on board rather late, I found a small group of men of the
coaster type hanging about the waist, while Mr. Burns walked to and
fro the quarterdeck loftily, keeping a triumphant eye on them.
They had come to buy potatoes.
“These chaps have been waiting here in the sun for hours,” Burns
whispered to me excitedly. “They have drank the water-cask dry.
Don’t you throw away your chances, sir. You are too good-natured.”
I selected a man with thick legs and a man with a cast in his eye
to negotiate with; simply because they were easily distinguishable
from the rest. “You have the money on you?” I inquired, before
taking them down into the cabin.
“Yes, sir,” they answered in one voice, slapping their pockets. I
liked their air of quiet determination. Long before the end of the
day all the potatoes were sold at about three times the price I had
paid for them. Mr. Burns, feverish and exulting, congratulated
himself on his skillful care of my commercial venture, but hinted
plainly that I ought to have made more of it.
That night I did not sleep very well. I thought of Jacobus by fits
and starts, between snatches of dreams concerned with castaways
starving on a desert island covered with flowers. It was extremely
unpleasant. In the morning, tired and un-refreshed, I sat down and
wrote a long letter to my owners, giving them a carefully-thought-
out scheme for the ship’s employment in the East and about the
China Seas for the next two years. I spent the day at that task
and felt somewhat more at peace when it was done.
Their reply came in due course. They were greatly struck with my
project; but considering that, notwithstanding the unfortunate
difficulty with the bags (which they trusted I would know how to
guard against in the future), the voyage showed a very fair profit,
they thought it would be better to keep the ship in the sugar
trade–at least for the present.
I turned over the page and read on:
“We have had a letter from our good friend Mr. Jacobus. We are
pleased to see how well you have hit it off with him; for, not to
speak of his assistance in the unfortunate matter of the bags, he
writes us that should you, by using all possible dispatch, manage
to bring the ship back early in the season he would be able to give
us a good rate of freight. We have no doubt that your best
endeavors . . . etc. . . etc.”
I dropped the letter and sat motionless for a long time. Then I
wrote my answer (it was a short one) and went ashore myself to post
it. But I passed one letter-box, then another, and in the end
found myself going up Collins Street with the letter still in my
pocket–against my heart. Collins Street at four o’clock in the
afternoon is not exactly a desert solitude; but I had never felt
more isolated from the rest of mankind as when I walked that day
its crowded pavement, battling desperately with my thoughts and
feeling already vanquished.
There came a moment when the awful tenacity of Jacobus, the man of
one passion and of one idea, appeared to me almost heroic. He had
not given me up. He had gone again to his odious brother. And
then he appeared to me odious himself. Was it for his own sake or
for the sake of the poor girl? And on that last supposition the
memory of the kiss which missed my lips appalled me; for whatever
he had seen, or guessed at, or risked, he knew nothing of that.
Unless the girl had told him. How could I go back to fan that
fatal spark with my cold breath? No, no, that unexpected kiss had
to be paid for at its full price.
At the first letter-box I came to I stopped and reaching into my
breast-pocket I took out the letter–it was as if I were plucking
out my very heart–and dropped it through the slit. Then I went
straight on board.
I wondered what dreams I would have that night; but as it turned
out I did not sleep at all. At breakfast I informed Mr. Burns that
I had resigned my command.
He dropped his knife and fork and looked at me with indignation.
“You have, sir! I thought you loved the ship.”
“So I do, Burns,” I said. “But the fact is that the Indian Ocean
and everything that is in it has lost its charm for me. I am going
home as passenger by the Suez Canal.”
“Everything that is in it,” he repeated angrily. “I’ve never heard
anybody talk like this. And to tell you the truth, sir, all the
time we have been together I’ve never quite made you out. What’s
one ocean more than another? Charm, indeed!”
He was really devoted to me, I believe. But he cheered up when I
told him that I had recommended him for my successor.
“Anyhow,” he remarked, “let people say what they like, this Jacobus
has served your turn. I must admit that this potato business has
paid extremely well. Of course, if only you had–”
“Yes, Mr. Burns,” I interrupted. “Quite a smile of fortune.”
But I could not tell him that it was driving me out of the ship I
had learned to love. And as I sat heavy-hearted at that parting,
seeing all my plans destroyed, my modest future endangered–for
this command was like a foot in the stirrup for a young man–he
gave up completely for the first time his critical attitude.
“A wonderful piece of luck!” he said.