There is, as every schoolboy knows in this scientific age, a very
close chemical relation between coal and diamonds. It is the reason, I
believe, why some people allude to coal as "black diamonds." Both these
commodities represent wealth; but coal is a much less portable form
of property. There is, from that point of view, a deplorable lack of
concentration in coal. Now, if a coal-mine could be put into one's
waistcoat pocket--but it can't! At the same time, there is a fascination
in coal, the supreme commodity of the age in which we are camped like
bewildered travellers in a garish, unrestful hotel. And I suppose
those two considerations, the practical and the mystical, prevented
Heyst--Axel Heyst--from going away.
The Tropical Belt Coal Company went into liquidation. The world of
finance is a mysterious world in which, incredible as the fact may
appear, evaporation precedes liquidation. First the capital evaporates,
and then the company goes into liquidation. These are very unnatural
physics, but they account for the persistent inertia of Heyst, at which
we "out there" used to laugh among ourselves--but not inimically. An
inert body can do no harm to anyone, provokes no hostility, is scarcely
worth derision. It may, indeed, be in the way sometimes; but this could
not be said of Axel Heyst. He was out of everybody's way, as if he
were perched on the highest peak of the Himalayas, and in a sense as
conspicuous. Everyone in that part of the world knew of him, dwelling on
his little island. An island is but the top of a mountain. Axel Heyst,
perched on it immovably, was surrounded, instead of the imponderable
stormy and transparent ocean of air merging into infinity, by a tepid,
shallow sea; a passionless offshoot of the great waters which embrace
the continents of this globe. His most frequent visitors were shadows,
the shadows of clouds, relieving the monotony of the inanimate, brooding
sunshine of the tropics. His nearest neighbour--I am speaking now of
things showing some sort of animation--was an indolent volcano which
smoked faintly all day with its head just above the northern horizon,
and at night levelled at him, from amongst the clear stars, a dull red
glow, expanding and collapsing spasmodically like the end of a gigantic
cigar puffed at intermittently in the dark. Axel Heyst was also a
smoker; and when he lounged out on his veranda with his cheroot, the
last thing before going to bed, he made in the night the same sort of
glow and of the same size as that other one so many miles away.
In a sense, the volcano was company to him in the shades of the
night--which were often too thick, one would think, to let a breath of
air through. There was seldom enough wind to blow a feather along. On
most evenings of the year Heyst could have sat outside with a naked
candle to read one of the books left him by his late father. It was not
a mean store. But he never did that. Afraid of mosquitoes, very likely.
Neither was he ever tempted by the silence to address any casual remarks
to the companion glow of the volcano. He was not mad. Queer chap--yes,
that may have been said, and in fact was said; but there is a tremendous
difference between the two, you will allow.
On the nights of full moon the silence around Samburan--the "Round
Island" of the charts--was dazzling; and in the flood of cold light
Heyst could see his immediate surroundings, which had the aspect of
an abandoned settlement invaded by the jungle: vague roofs above low
vegetation, broken shadows of bamboo fences in the sheen of long grass,
something like an overgrown bit of road slanting among ragged thickets
towards the shore only a couple of hundred yards away, with a black
jetty and a mound of some sort, quite inky on its unlighted side. But
the most conspicuous object was a gigantic blackboard raised on two
posts and presenting to Heyst, when the moon got over that side, the
white letters "T. B. C. Co." in a row at least two feet high. These were
the initials of the Tropical Belt Coal Company, his employers--his late
employers, to be precise.
According to the unnatural mysteries of the financial world, the T. B.
C. Company's capital having evaporated in the course of two years, the
company went into liquidation--forced, I believe, not voluntary. There
was nothing forcible in the process, however. It was slow; and while the
liquidation--in London and Amsterdam--pursued its languid course, Axel
Heyst, styled in the prospectus "manager in the tropics," remained at
his post on Samburan, the No. 1 coaling-station of the company.
And it was not merely a coaling-station. There was a coal-mine there,
with an outcrop in the hillside less than five hundred yards from the
rickety wharf and the imposing blackboard. The company's object had been
to get hold of all the outcrops on tropical islands and exploit them
locally. And, Lord knows, there were any amount of outcrops. It was
Heyst who had located most of them in this part of the tropical belt
during his rather aimless wanderings, and being a ready letter-writer
had written pages and pages about them to his friends in Europe. At
least, so it was said.
We doubted whether he had any visions of wealth--for himself, at any
rate. What he seemed mostly concerned for was the "stride forward,"
as he expressed it, in the general organization of the universe,
apparently. He was heard by more than a hundred persons in the islands
talking of a "great stride forward for these regions." The convinced
wave of the hand which accompanied the phrase suggested tropical
distances being impelled onward. In connection with the finished
courtesy of his manner, it was persuasive, or at any rate silencing--for
a time, at least. Nobody cared to argue with him when he talked in this
strain. His earnestness could do no harm to anybody. There was no danger
of anyone taking seriously his dream of tropical coal, so what was the
use of hurting his feelings?
Thus reasoned men in reputable business offices where he had his entree
as a person who came out East with letters of introduction--and modest
letters of credit, too--some years before these coal-outcrops began to
crop up in his playfully courteous talk. From the first there was
some difficulty in making him out. He was not a traveller. A traveller
arrives and departs, goes on somewhere. Heyst did not depart. I met a
man once--the manager of the branch of the Oriental Banking Corporation
in Malacca--to whom Heyst exclaimed, in no connection with anything in
particular (it was in the billiard-room of the club):
"I am enchanted with these islands!"
He shot it out suddenly, a propos des bottes, as the French say, and
while chalking his cue. And perhaps it was some sort of enchantment.
There are more spells than your commonplace magicians ever dreamed of.
Roughly speaking, a circle with a radius of eight hundred miles drawn
round a point in North Borneo was in Heyst's case a magic circle. It
just touched Manila, and he had been seen there. It just touched Saigon,
and he was likewise seen there once. Perhaps these were his attempts to
break out. If so, they were failures. The enchantment must have been
an unbreakable one. The manager--the man who heard the exclamation--had
been so impressed by the tone, fervour, rapture, what you will, or
perhaps by the incongruity of it that he had related the experience to
more than one person.
"Queer chap, that Swede," was his only comment; but this is the origin
of the name "Enchanted Heyst" which some fellows fastened on our man.
He also had other names. In his early years, long before he got so
becomingly bald on the top, he went to present a letter of introduction
to Mr. Tesman of Tesman Brothers, a Sourabaya firm--tip-top house. Well,
Mr. Tesman was a kindly, benevolent old gentleman. He did not know what
to make of that caller. After telling him that they wished to render his
stay among the islands as pleasant as possible, and that they were
ready to assist him in his plans, and so on, and after receiving Heyst's
thanks--you know the usual kind of conversation--he proceeded to query
in a slow, paternal tone:
"And you are interested in--?"
"Facts," broke in Heyst in his courtly voice. "There's nothing worth
knowing but facts. Hard facts! Facts alone, Mr. Tesman."
I don't know if old Tesman agreed with him or not, but he must have
spoken about it, because, for a time, our man got the name of "Hard
Facts." He had the singular good fortune that his sayings stuck to him
and became part of his name. Thereafter he mooned about the Java Sea in
some of the Tesmans' trading schooners, and then vanished, on board an
Arab ship, in the direction of New Guinea. He remained so long in that
outlying part of his enchanted circle that he was nearly forgotten
before he swam into view again in a native proa full of Goram vagabonds,
burnt black by the sun, very lean, his hair much thinned, and a
portfolio of sketches under his arm. He showed these willingly, but
was very reserved as to anything else. He had had an "amusing time," he
said. A man who will go to New Guinea for fun--well!
Later, years afterwards, when the last vestiges of youth had gone off
his face and all the hair off the top of his head, and his red-gold
pair of horizontal moustaches had grown to really noble proportions,
a certain disreputable white man fastened upon him an epithet. Putting
down with a shaking hand a long glass emptied of its contents--paid
for by Heyst--he said, with that deliberate sagacity which no mere
water-drinker ever attained:
"Heyst's a puffect g'n'lman. Puffect! But he's a ut-uto-utopist."
Heyst had just gone out of the place of public refreshment where this
pronouncement was voiced. Utopist, eh? Upon my word, the only thing
I heard him say which might have had a bearing on the point was his
invitation to old McNab himself. Turning with that finished courtesy of
attitude, movement voice, which was his obvious characteristic, he had
said with delicate playfulness:
"Come along and quench your thirst with us, Mr. McNab!"
Perhaps that was it. A man who could propose, even playfully, to quench
old McNab's thirst must have been a utopist, a pursuer of chimeras; for
of downright irony Heyst was not prodigal. And, may be, this was the
reason why he was generally liked. At that epoch in his life, in the
fulness of his physical development, of a broad, martial presence, with
his bald head and long moustaches, he resembled the portraits of Charles
XII., of adventurous memory. However, there was no reason to think that
Heyst was in any way a fighting man.
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