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Prologue

"For what is a man profited,
if he shall gain the whole world
and lose his own soul?
or what shall a man give
in exchange for his soul?"


At Surat, by a window of his private office in the East India Company's factory, a middle-aged man stared out upon the broad river and the wharves below. Business in the factory had ceased for the day: clerks and porters had gone about their own affairs, and had left the great building strangely cool and empty and silent. The wharves, too, were deserted--all but one, where a Hindu sat in the shade of a pile of luggage, and the top of a boat's mast wavered like the index of a balance above the edge of the landing-stairs.

The luggage belonged to the middle-aged man at the window: the boat was to carry him down the river to the Albemarle, East Indiaman, anchored in the roads with her Surat cargo aboard. She would sail that night for Bombay and thence away for England.

He was ready; dressed for his journey in a loose white suit, which, though designed for the East, was almost aggressively British. A Cheapside tailor had cut it, and, had it been black or gray or snuff-coloured instead of white, its wearer might have passed all the way from the Docks to Temple Bar for a solid merchant on 'Change--a self-respecting man, too, careless of dress for appearance' sake, but careful of it for his own, and as part of a habit of neatness. He wore no wig (though the date was 1723), but his own gray hair, brushed smoothly back from a sufficiently handsome forehead and tied behind with a fresh black ribbon. In his right hand he held a straw hat, broad-brimmed like a Quaker's, and a white umbrella with a green lining. His left fingered his clean-shaven chin as he gazed on the river.

The ceremonies of leave-taking were done with and dismissed; so far as he could, he had avoided them. He had ever been a hard man and knew well enough that the clerks disliked him. He hated humbug. He had come to India, almost forty years ago, not to make friends, but to make a fortune. And now the fortune was made, and the room behind him stood ready, spick and span, for the Scotsman who would take his chair to-morrow. Drawers had been emptied and dusted, loose papers and memoranda sorted and either burnt or arranged and docketed, ledgers entered up to the last item in his firm handwriting, and finally closed. The history of his manhood lay shut between their covers, written in figures terser than a Roman classic: his grand coup in Nunsasee goods, Abdul Guffere's debt commuted for 500,000 rupees, the salvage of the Ramillies wreck, his commercial duel with Viltul Parrak . . . And the record had no loose ends. He owed no man a farthing.

The door behind him opened softly and a small gray-headed man peered into the room.

"Mr. Annesley, if I might take the liberty--"

"Ah, MacNab?" Samuel Annesley swung round promptly.

"I trust, sir, I do not intrude?"

"'Intrude,' man? Why?"

"Oh, nothing, sir," answered the little man vaguely, with a dubious glance at Mr. Annesley's eyes. "Only I thought perhaps--at such a moment--old scenes, old associations--and you leaving us for ever, sir!"

"Tut, nonsense! You have something to say to me. Anything forgotten?"

"Nothing in the way of business, sir. But it occurred to me--" Mr. MacNab lowered his voice, "--Your good lady, up at the burial-ground. You will excuse me--at such a time: but it may be years before I am spared to return home, and if I can do anything in the way of looking after the grave, I shall be proud. Oh no--" he went on hurriedly with a flushed face: "for love, sir; for love, of course: or, as I should rather say, for old sake's sake, if that's not too bold. It would be a privilege, Mr. Annesley."

Samuel Annesley stood considering his late confidential clerk with bent brows. "I am much obliged to you, MacNab; but in this matter you must do as you please. You are right in supposing that I was sincerely attached to my wife--"

"Indeed yes, sir."

"But I have none of the sentiment you give me credit for. 'Let the dead bury the dead'--that is a text to which I have given some attention of late, and I hope to profit by it in--in the future."

"Well, God bless you, Mr. Annesley!"

"I thank you. We are delaying the boat, I fear. No"--as Mr. MacNab made an offer to accompany him--"I prefer to go alone. We have shaken hands already. The room is ready for Mr. Menzies, when he comes to-morrow. Good-bye."

A minute later Mr. MacNab, lingering by the window, saw him cross the road to the landing-stage and stand for a moment in talk with the Hindu, Bhagwan Dass. Then his straw hat disappeared down the steps. The boat was pushed off; and Bhagwan Dass, after watching it for a while, turned without emotion and came strolling across to the factory.

On board the Albemarle Mr. Annesley found the best cabin prepared for him, as became his importance. He went below at once and was only seen at meal-times during the short voyage to Bombay, a town that of late years had almost eclipsed Surat in trade and importance. Here Captain Bewes was to take in the bulk of his passengers and cargo, and brought his vessel close alongside the Bund. During the three days occupied in lading and stowing little order was maintained, and the decks lay open to a promiscuous crowd of coolies and porters, waterside loafers, beggars and thieves. The officers kept an eye open for these last: the rest they tolerated until the moment came for warping out, when the custom was to pipe all hands and clear the ship of intruders by a general rush.

The first two days Mr. Annesley spent upon the poop, watching the mob with a certain scornful interest. On the third he did not appear, but was served with tiffin in his cabin. At about six o'clock, the second mate--a Mr. Orchard--sought the captain to report that all was ready and waiting the word to cast off. His way led past Mr. Annesley's cabin, and there he came upon an old mendicant stooping over the door handle and making as if to enter and beg; whom he clouted across the shoulders and cuffed up the companion-ladder. Mr. Orchard afterwards remembered to have seen this same beggar man, or the image of him, off and on during the two previous days, seated asquat against a post on the Bund, and watching the Albemarle, with his crutch and bowl beside him.

When the rush came, this old man, bent and blear-eyed, was swept along the gangway like a chip on the tide. In pure lightness of heart a sailor, posted at the head of the plank, expedited him with a kick. "That'll do for good-bye to India," said he, grinning.

The old man showed no resentment, but was borne along bewildered, gripping his bowl to his breast. On the quay's edge he seemed to find his feet, and shuffled off towards the town, without once looking back at the ship.


Arthur Quiller-Couch