Tropical nature had been kind to the failure of the commercial
enterprise. The desolation of the headquarters of the Tropical Belt Coal
Company had been screened from the side of the sea; from the side where
prying eyes--if any were sufficiently interested, either in malice or
in sorrow--could have noted the decaying bones of that once sanguine
Heyst had been sitting among the bones buried so kindly in the grass of
two wet seasons' growth. The silence of his surroundings, broken only by
such sounds as a distant roll of thunder, the lash of rain through the
foliage of some big trees, the noise of the wind tossing the leaves of
the forest, and of the short seas breaking against the shore, favoured
rather than hindered his solitary meditation.
A meditation is always--in a white man, at least--more or less an
interrogative exercise. Heyst meditated in simple terms on the mystery
of his actions; and he answered himself with the honest reflection:
"There must be a lot of the original Adam in me, after all."
He reflected, too, with the sense of making a discovery, that his
primeval ancestor is not easily suppressed. The oldest voice in the
world is just the one that never ceases to speak. If anybody could have
silenced its imperative echoes, it should have been Heyst's father, with
his contemptuous, inflexible negation of all effort; but apparently he
could not. There was in the son a lot of that first ancestor who,
as soon as he could uplift his muddy frame from the celestial mould,
started inspecting and naming the animals of that paradise which he was
so soon to lose.
Action--the first thought, or perhaps the first impulse, on earth! The
barbed hook, baited with the illusions of progress, to bring out of the
lightless void the shoals of unnumbered generations!
"And I, the son of my father, have been caught too, like the silliest
fish of them all." Heyst said to himself.
He suffered. He was hurt by the sight of his own life, which ought to
have been a masterpiece of aloofness. He remembered always his last
evening with his father. He remembered the thin features, the great mass
of white hair, and the ivory complexion. A five-branched candlestick
stood on a little table by the side of the easy chair. They had been
talking a long time. The noises of the street had died out one by one,
till at last, in the moonlight, the London houses began to look like the
tombs of an unvisited, unhonoured, cemetery of hopes.
He had listened. Then, after a silence, he had asked--for he was really
"Is there no guidance?"
His father was in an unexpectedly soft mood on that night, when the moon
swam in a cloudless sky over the begrimed shadows of the town.
"You still believe in something, then?" he said in a clear voice,
which had been growing feeble of late. "You believe in flesh and blood,
perhaps? A full and equable contempt would soon do away with that, too.
But since you have not attained to it, I advise you to cultivate
that form of contempt which is called pity. It is perhaps the least
difficult--always remembering that you, too, if you are anything, are as
pitiful as the rest, yet never expecting any pity for yourself."
"What is one to do, then?" sighed the young man, regarding his father,
rigid in the high-backed chair.
"Look on--make no sound," were the last words of the man who had spent
his life in blowing blasts upon a terrible trumpet which filled heaven
and earth with ruins, while mankind went on its way unheeding.
That very night he died in his bed, so quietly that they found him
in his usual attitude of sleep, lying on his side, one hand under his
cheek, and his knees slightly bent. He had not even straightened his
His son buried the silenced destroyer of systems, of hopes, of beliefs.
He observed that the death of that bitter contemner of life did not
trouble the flow of life's stream, where men and women go by thick as
dust, revolving and jostling one another like figures cut out of cork
and weighted with lead just sufficiently to keep them in their proudly
After the funeral, Heyst sat alone, in the dusk, and his meditation took
the form of a definite vision of the stream, of the fatuously jostling,
nodding, spinning figures hurried irresistibly along, and giving no sign
of being aware that the voice on the bank had been suddenly silenced
. . . Yes. A few obituary notices generally insignificant and some grossly
abusive. The son had read them all with mournful detachment.
"This is the hate and rage of their fear," he thought to himself, "and
also of wounded vanity. They shriek their little shriek as they fly
past. I suppose I ought to hate him too . . ."
He became aware of his eyes being wet. It was not that the man was his
father. For him it was purely a matter of hearsay which could not in
itself cause this emotion. No! It was because he had looked at him so
long that he missed him so much. The dead man had kept him on the bank
by his side. And now Heyst felt acutely that he was alone on the bank of
the stream. In his pride he determined not to enter it.
A few slow tears rolled down his face. The rooms, filling with shadows,
seemed haunted by a melancholy, uneasy presence which could not express
itself. The young man got up with a strange sense of making way for
something impalpable that claimed possession, went out of the house, and
locked the door. A fortnight later he started on his travels--to "look
on and never make a sound."
The elder Heyst had left behind him a little money and a certain
quantity of movable objects, such as books, tables, chairs, and
pictures, which might have complained of heartless desertion after many
years of faithful service; for there is a soul in things. Heyst, our
Heyst, had often thought of them, reproachful and mute, shrouded and
locked up in those rooms, far away in London with the sounds of the
street reaching them faintly, and sometimes a little sunshine, when
the blinds were pulled up and the windows opened from time to time in
pursuance of his original instructions and later reminders. It seemed
as if in his conception of a world not worth touching, and perhaps not
substantial enough to grasp, these objects familiar to his childhood and
his youth, and associated with the memory of an old man, were the only
realities, something having an absolute existence. He would never have
them sold, or even moved from the places they occupied when he looked
upon them last. When he was advised from London that his lease had
expired, and that the house, with some others as like it as two peas,
was to be demolished, he was surprisingly distressed.
He had entered by then the broad, human path of inconsistencies. Already
the Tropical Belt Coal Company was in existence. He sent instructions
to have some of the things sent out to him at Samburan, just as any
ordinary, credulous person would have done. They came, torn out from
their long repose--a lot of books, some chairs and tables, his father's
portrait in oils, which surprised Heyst by its air of youth, because he
remembered his father as a much older man; a lot of small objects, such
as candlesticks, inkstands, and statuettes from his father's study,
which surprised him because they looked so old and so much worn.
The manager of the Tropical Belt Coal Company, unpacking them on the
veranda in the shade besieged by a fierce sunshine, must have felt like
a remorseful apostate before these relics. He handled them tenderly;
and it was perhaps their presence there which attached him to the island
when he woke up to the failure of his apostasy. Whatever the decisive
reason, Heyst had remained where another would have been glad to be off.
The excellent Davidson had discovered the fact without discovering the
reason, and took a humane interest in Heyst's strange existence, while
at the same time his native delicacy kept him from intruding on the
other's whim of solitude. He could not possibly guess that Heyst, alone
on the island, felt neither more nor less lonely than in any other
place, desert or populous. Davidson's concern was, if one may express it
so, the danger of spiritual starvation; but this was a spirit which had
renounced all outside nourishment, and was sustaining itself proudly on
its own contempt of the usual coarse ailments which life offers to the
common appetites of men.
Neither was Heyst's body in danger of starvation, as Schomberg had so
confidently asserted. At the beginning of the company's operations the
island had been provisioned in a manner which had outlasted the need.
Heyst did not need to fear hunger; and his very loneliness had not been
without some alleviation. Of the crowd of imported Chinese labourers,
one at least had remained in Samburan, solitary and strange, like a
swallow left behind at the migrating season of his tribe.
Wang was not a common coolie. He had been a servant to white men before.
The agreement between him and Heyst consisted in the exchange of a few
words on the day when the last batch of the mine coolies was leaving
Samburan. Heyst, leaning over the balustrade of the veranda, was looking
on, as calm in appearance as though he had never departed from the
doctrine that this world, for the wise, is nothing but an amusing
spectacle. Wang came round the house, and standing below, raised up his
yellow, thin face.
"All finished?" he asked. Heyst nodded slightly from above, glancing
towards the jetty. A crowd of blue-clad figures with yellow faces and
calves was being hustled down into the boats of the chartered steamer
lying well out, like a painted ship on a painted sea; painted in crude
colours, without shadows, without feeling, with brutal precision.
"You had better hurry up if you don't want to be left behind."
But the Chinaman did not move.
"We stop," he declared. Heyst looked down at him for the first time.
"You want to stop here?"
"What were you? What was your work here?"
"Do you want to stay with me here as my boy?" inquired Heyst, surprised.
The Chinaman unexpectedly put on a deprecatory expression, and said,
after a marked pause:
"You needn't," said Heyst, "unless you like. I propose to stay on
here--it may be for a very long time. I have no power to make you go if
you wish to remain, but I don't see why you should."
"Catchee one piecee wife," remarked Wang unemotionally, and marched off,
turning his back on the wharf and the great world beyond, represented by
the steamer waiting for her boats.
Heyst learned presently that Wang had persuaded one of the women of
Alfuro village, on the west shore of the island, beyond the central
ridge, to come over to live with him in a remote part of the company's
clearing. It was a curious case, inasmuch as the Alfuros, having been
frightened by the sudden invasion of Chinamen, had blocked the path over
the ridge by felling a few trees, and had kept strictly on their own
side. The coolies, as a body, mistrusting the manifest mildness of these
harmless fisher-folk, had kept to their lines, without attempting to
cross the island. Wang was the brilliant exception. He must have been
uncommonly fascinating, in a way that was not apparent to Heyst, or else
uncommonly persuasive. The woman's services to Heyst were limited to
the fact that she had anchored Wang to the spot by her charms, which
remained unknown to the white man, because she never came near the
houses. The couple lived at the edge of the forest, and she could
sometimes be seen gazing towards the bungalow shading her eyes with her
hand. Even from a distance she appeared to be a shy, wild creature,
and Heyst, anxious not to try her primitive nerves unduly, scrupulously
avoided that side of the clearing in his strolls.
The day--or rather the first night--after his hermit life began, he was
aware of vague sounds of revelry in that direction. Emboldened by the
departure of the invading strangers, some Alfuros, the woman's friends
and relations, had ventured over the ridge to attend something in the
nature of a wedding feast. Wang had invited them. But this was the only
occasion when any sound louder than the buzzing of insects had troubled
the profound silence of the clearing. The natives were never invited
again. Wang not, only knew how to live according to conventional
proprieties, but had strong personal views as to the manner of arranging
his domestic existence. After a time Heyst perceived that Wang had
annexed all the keys. Any keys left lying about vanished after Wang had
passed that way. Subsequently some of them--those that did not belong
to the store-rooms and the empty bungalows, and could not be regarded
as the common property of this community of two--were returned to Heyst,
tied in a bunch with a piece of string. He found them one morning
lying by the side of his plate. He had not been inconvenienced by their
absence, because he never locked up anything in the way of drawers and
boxes. Heyst said nothing. Wang also said nothing. Perhaps he had always
been a taciturn man; perhaps he was influenced by the genius of the
locality, which was certainly that of silence. Till Heyst and Morrison
had landed in Black Diamond Bay, and named it, that side of Samburan had
hardly ever heard the sound of human speech. It was easy to be taciturn
with Heyst, who had plunged himself into an abyss of meditation over
books, and remained in it till the shadow of Wang falling across the
page, and the sound of a rough, low voice uttering the Malay word
"makan," would force him to climb out to a meal.
Wang in his native province in China might have been an aggressively,
sensitively genial person; but in Samburan he had clothed himself in
a mysterious stolidity and did not seem to resent not being spoken to
except in single words, at a rate which did not average half a dozen per
day. And he gave no more than he got. It is to be presumed that if he
suffered he made up for it with the Alfuro woman. He always went back to
her at the first fall of dusk, vanishing from the bungalow suddenly at
this hour, like a sort of topsy-turvy, day-hunting, Chinese ghost with a
white jacket and a pigtail. Presently, giving way to a Chinaman's ruling
passion, he could be observed breaking the ground near his hut, between
the mighty stumps of felled trees, with a miner's pickaxe. After a
time, he discovered a rusty but serviceable spade in one of the empty
store-rooms, and it is to be supposed that he got on famously; but
nothing of it could be seen, because he went to the trouble of pulling
to pieces one of the company's sheds in order to get materials for
making a high and very close fence round his patch, as if the growing
of vegetables were a patented process, or an awful and holy mystery
entrusted to the keeping of his race.
Heyst, following from a distance the progress of Wang's gardening and of
these precautions--there was nothing else to look at--was amused at
the thought that he, in his own person, represented the market for
its produce. The Chinaman had found several packets of seeds in the
store-rooms, and had surrendered to an irresistible impulse to put them
into the ground. He would make his master pay for the vegetables which
he was raising to satisfy his instinct. And, looking silently at the
silent Wang going about his work in the bungalow in his unhasty,
steady way; Heyst envied the Chinaman's obedience to his instincts, the
powerful simplicity of purpose which made his existence appear almost
automatic in the mysterious precision of its facts.
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