The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 1

The Strange Behaviour of Captain Van Toch

If you looked up the little island of Tana Masa on the map you would find it just on the Equator, not far south of Sumatra; but if you were on the deck of the Kandong Bandoeng and asked its captain, J. van Toch, what he thought of this Tana Masa where you’ve just dropped anchor he would first curse for a short while and then he would tell you that it’s the dirtiest hole all the Sunda Islands, even more loathsome than Tana Bala and easily as damnable as Pini or Banyak; that the only apology for a human being that lives there - not counting these louse-ridden Bataks, of course - is a drunken commercial agent, a cross between a Cuban and a Portuguese, and an even bigger thief, pagan and pig than the whole of Cuba and the whole of the white race put together; if there’s anything in this world that’s damnable then it’s the damned life on this damned Tana Masa. And then, you might cautiously ask him why it is that he’s just dropped his damned anchor as if he wanted to spend three damned days here; at which he would snort in irritation and grumble something about not being so damned stupid as to sail all the way to Kandon Bandoeng just to get this damned copra or palm oil, and there’s nothing else here, but I’ve got my damned orders, and you will please be so kind as to mind your own damned business. And he would carry on cursing as widely and as fully as you might expect from a sea captain who was no longer young but still lively for his age.

But if, instead of asking all sorts of impertinent questions, you left Captain J. van Toch to grumble and curse by himself you might find out something more. Surely it’s obvious the man needs a rest. Just leave him alone, he can sort out his foul mood by himself. “Listen!” the captain said suddenly. “Those damned Jew-boys back in Amsterdam, all they seem to think about is pearls. Have a look around you; can you see any pearls? They say the people are crazy round here for pearls and that sort of thing.” At this point the captain spat in anger. “We know all about that, load up with pearls! That’s because you people always want to start a war or something. All you’re worried about is money. And then you call it a crisis.” For a short while, Captain J. van Toch considered whether he ought to start discussing political economics, considering that that’s all they ever do talk about nowadays. But it’s too hot and languid to talk about that sort of thing here, anchored off Tana Masa; so the captain merely waved his hand and grumbled: “That’s what they say, pearls! In Ceylon they’ve got enough pearls piled up to last them for five years, on Formosa they’ve put a ban on gathering them - and so they say to me, Captain van Toch, go and see if you can find somewhere new to gather pearls. Go on down to those damned little islands, you might find whole bays full of oysters down there . . .” The captain pulled out his light-blue handkerchief and blew his nose in contempt. “Those rats in Europe, they think there’s still something to find down here, something they don’t already know about. God, what a bunch of fools they are! Next they’ll be wanting me to look up the Bataks snouts to see if they don’t have them full of pearls. New pearl fisheries! I know there’s a new brothel in Padang, but new pearl fisheries? I know these islands like my trousers, all the way from Ceylon down to that damned Clipperton Island, and if anyone thinks there’s anything new still left to find there that they can make any money out of, well good luck to them. Thirty years I’ve been sailing these waters, and now these fools think I’m going to discover something new!” This was a task so insulting it made Captain van Toch gasp. “Why can’t they send some green kid to find something for them if they want to gape in astonishment; but instead they expect someone to do that who knows the area as well as Captain J. van Toch . . . Please try and understand this. In Europe there might still be something left to discover; but here - people only come here to sniff out something they could eat, or rather not even to eat, to find something to buy and sell. If in all these damned tropics there was still something they could double the price of there’d be three commercial agents standing there waving their snotty handkerchiefs at the ships of seven countries to stop for it. That’s how it is. I know about these things better than the colonial office of Her Majesty the Queen, if you’ll forgive me.” Captain van Toch made a great effort to overcome his righteous indignation, and after a prolonged period of exertion he was successful. “D’you see those two contemptible layabouts down there? They’re pearl fishers from Ceylon, Sinhalese, God help us, just as the Lord made them; but what He made them for, I don’t know. I have them on board with me, and when we find any stretch of coast that doesn’t have a sign up saying Agency or Bata or Customs Office down they go in the water to look for oysters. That small bugger, he can dive down eighty meters deep; in the Princes Islands he went down to ninety meters to get the handle from a film projector. But pearls? Nothing! Not a sniff of them! Worthless rabble, these Sinhalese. And that’s the sort of worthless work I do. Pretend to be buying palm oil and all the time looking for new pearl fisheries. Next they’ll be wanting me to find a new virgin continent for them. This isn’t a job for an honest captain in the merchant navy. Captain J. van Toch isn’t some cursed adventurer, no. And on he would go; the sea is wide and the ocean of time has no limits; spit in the sea, my friend, and it will not return, berate your destiny and you will never change it; and so on through many preparations and circumstances until we finally arrive at the point when J. van Toch, captain of the Dutch vessel, Kandong Bandoeng, will sigh and climb down into the boat for the trip to Tana Masa where he will negotiate with the drunken half-cast of Cubanese and Portuguese extraction about certain business matters.

“Sorry, Captain,” the half-cast of Cubanese and Portuguese extraction finally said, “but here on Tana Masa there aren’t any oysters. These filthy Bataks,” he would inform him with boundless disgust, “will even eat the jellyfish; there are more of them in the water than on the land, the women here smell of fish, you cannot imagine what it is like - what was I saying? Ah, yes, you were asking about women.”

“And is there not even any stretch of coastline round here,” the captain asked, “where these Bataks don’t go in the water?” The half-cast of Cubanese and Portuguese shook his head.

“There is not. Unless you count Devil Bay, but that would not interest you.”

“Why not?”

“Because . . . no-one is allowed to go there. Another drink, Captain?”

“Thanks. Are there sharks there?”

“Sharks and everything else besides,” the half-cast mumbled. “Is a bad place, Captain. The Bataks would not like to see anyone going down there.”

“Why not?”

“There are demons there, Captain. Sea demons.”

“What is that, a sea demon? A kind of fish?”

“Not a fish,” the half-cast corrected him. “Simply demons, Captain. Underwater demons. The Bataks call them tapa. Tapa. They say that that’s where they have their city, these demons. Another drink?”

“And what do they look like, these sea demons?” The half cast of Cubanese and Portuguese shrugged his shoulders.

“Like a demon, Captain. I once saw one of them . . . or just its head, at least. I was coming back in a boat from Cape Haarlem . . . and suddenly, in front of me, a kind of lump stuck up out of the water.”

“And what did it look like?”

“It had a head . . . like a Batak, Captain, but entirely without hair.”

“Sure it wasn’t a real Batak?”

“Not a real Batak, Captain. In this place no Batak would ever go into the water. And then . . . the thing blinked at me with an eyelid from beneath its eye.”  The half-cast shuddered with the horror of it. “An eyelid from beneath its eye, which reached up to cover the whole eye. That was a tapa.” Captain J. van Toch turned his glass of palm wine around between his chubby fingers.

“And you hadn’t been drinking, had you? You weren’t drunk?”

“I was drunk, Captain. How else would I ever had rowed into that place. The Bataks don’t like it when anyone . . . anyone disturbs these demons.” Captain van Toch shook his head.

“Listen, demons don’t exist And if they did exist they would look like Europeans. That must have been some kind of fish you saw or something.”

“A fish!” the half-cast of Cubanese and Portuguese spluttered. “A fish does not have hands, Captain. I am not some Batak Captain, I went to school in Badyoeng . . . I might even still know my ten commandments and other scientifically proven facts; and an educated man will know the difference between a demon and an animal. Ask the Bataks, Captain.”

“Negro superstitions,” the captain declared with the jovial confidence of an educated man. “This is scientific nonsense. A demon can’t live in water anyway. What would he be doing in the water? You shouldn’t listen to all the nonsense talked by the natives, lad. Somebody gave the place the name Devil Bay and ever since then the Bataks have been afraid of it. That’s all there is to it,” the captain declared, and threw his chubby hand down on the table. “There’s nothing there, lad, that is scientifically obvious.”

“There is, Captain,” affirmed the half-cast who had been to school in Badyoeng. “But no sensible person has any business going to Devil Bay.” Captain J. van Toch turned red.

“What’s that?” he shouted. “You dirty Cuban, you think I’m afraid of these demons? We’ll see about that,” he said as he stood up with all the mass of his honest two hundred pounds. “I’m not going to waste my time with you here, not when I’ve got business to attend to. But just remember this; the Dutch colonies don’t have any demons in them; even if there are in the French.  There, there might well be. And now call the mayor of this damned Kampong over to speak to me.”

It did not take long to find the aforementioned dignitary; he was squatting down beside the half-casts shop chewing sugar cane. He was an elderly man, naked, but a lot thinner than mayors usually are in Europe.  Some way behind him, keeping the appropriate distance, the entire village was also squatting, complete with women and children. They were clearly expecting to be filmed. “Now listen to this, son,” Captain van Toch said to him in Malay (he could just as well have spoken to him in Dutch or English as the honourable old Batak knew not a word of Malay, and everything said by the captain had to be interpreted into Batak by the half-cast of Cubanese and Portuguese, but for some reason the captain thought Malay would be more appropriate). “Now listen to this, son, I need a few big, strong, powerful lads to go out on a fishing trip with me. Understand what I mean? Out on a fishing trip.”  The half-cast translated this and the mayor nodded his head to show he understood; then he turned round to face the wider audience and said something to them, clearly meeting with great success.

“Their chief says,” translated the half-cast, “that the whole village will go out with the captain wherever the captain might wish.”

“Very well. So tell him were going to fish for clams in Devil Bay.”

There followed about fifteen minutes of animated discussion with the whole village taking part, especially the old women. Finally the half-cast turned to the captain. “They say it’s not possible to go to Devil Bay, Captain.” The captain began to turn red. “And why not?” The half-cast shrugged his shoulders.

“Because there are the tapa-tapa there. Demons, Captain.” The captain’s colour began to rise to purple.

“Tell them, then, that if they don’t go . . . I’ll knock all their teeth out . . . I’ll tear their ears off . . . I’ll hang the lot of them . . . and that I’ll burn down their entire flea-ridden village. Understand?”

The half-cast dutifully translated what the captain had said, at which there was more lively discussion. The half-cast finally turned to the captain. “They say they intend to make a complaint to the police in Padang, Captain, because you’ve threatened them. There seem to be laws about that. The mayor says he can’t allow that sort of thing.” Captain J. van Toch began to turn blue.

“Tell him, then,” he snarled, “that he is a . . .” and he spoke without pausing for breath for a good eleven minutes.

The half-cast translated what he had said, as far as his vocabulary was able; and then he once again translated the Bataks long, but objective, verdict back to the captain. “They say they might be willing to relinquish taking you to court, Captain, if you pay a fine into the hands of the local authorities. They suggest,” here he hesitated, “two hundred rupees, Captain; but that seems rather a lot. Offer them five.” Captain van Toch’s complexion began to break out in purple blotches. First he offered to murder all the Bataks in the world, then the offer went down to giving them all three hundred good kickings, and finally he agreed to content himself with stuffing the mayor and putting him on display in the colonial museum in Amsterdam; for their part, the Bataks went down from two hundred rupees to an iron pump with a wheel, and finally insisted on no more than that the captain give the mayor his petrol cigarette lighter as a token. (“Give it to him, Captain,” urged the half-cast of Cubanese and Portuguese, “I’ve got three cigarette lighters in my store, even if they don’t have wicks.”) Thus, peace was restored on Tana Masa; but Captain J. van Toch now knew that the dignity of the white race was at stake.

That afternoon a boat set out from the Dutch ship, Kandon Bandoeng, with the following crew: Captain J. van Toch, Jensen the Swede, Gudmundson the Icelander, Gillemainen the Finn, and two Sinhalese pearl fishers. The boat headed straight for Devil Bay.

At three o’clock, when the tide was at its highest, the captain stood on the shore, the boat was out watching for sharks about a hundred meters offshore, and both the Sinhalese divers were waiting, knife in hand, for the signal to jump into the water.

“Now you go in,” the captain told the farther of the two naked savages. The Sinhalese jumped into the water, waded out a few paces and then dived. The captain looked at his watch.

After four minutes and twenty seconds a brown head emerged to his left, about sixty meters away; with a strange, desperate shudder which seemed at the same time as if paralysed, the Sinhalese clawed at the rocks, in one hand he had the knife, in the other some pearl bearing oysters. The captain scowled. “So, what’s wrong?” he asked, sharply. The Sinhalese was still slithering up the rock, unable to speak with the horror of it. “What has happened?” the captain shouted.

“Saheb, Saheb,” said the Sinhalese as he sank down on the beach, gasping for breath. “Saheb . . . Saheb . . .”

“Sharks?”

“Djinns,” groaned the Sinhalese. “Demons, Captain. Thousands and thousands of demons!” He pressed his fist into his eye. “Everywhere demons, Captain!”

“Show me those oysters,” the captain ordered him, and began to open one with the knife. Inside, there was a small, perfect pearl. “Find any more of these?” The Sinhalese drew another three oysters out from the bag he had hanging round his neck.

“There are oysters down there, Captain, but they are guarded by these demons . . . They were watching me as I cut them off . . .” The curls on his head stuck out with shock. “Not here, Saheb, not here!”

The captain opened the oysters; two of them were empty and in the third there was a pearl the size of a pea, as round as a drop of mercury. Captain van Toch looked at the pearl and then at the Sinhalese collapsed on the ground.

“won’t you,” he said hesitantly, “dive in there one more time?” Without a word, the Sinhalese shook his head. Captain J. van Toch felt a strong urge to castigate and shout at the Sinhalese; but to his surprise he found that he was speaking quietly and almost gently: “Don’t you worry, lad. And what did they look like, these . . . demons?”

“Like little children,” said the Sinhalese with a sigh. “They have a tail, Captain, and they’re about this high,” indicating about one meter twenty above the ground. “They stood all around me and watched what I was doing . . . a sort of circle of them . . . “  The Sinhalese shuddered. “Saheb, not here Saheb, not here!” Captain van Toch thought for a while.

“And what about when they blink; was it with their lower eyelid or what?”

“I don’t know, Captain,” the Sinhalese croaked. “There are ten thousand of them there!” The captain looked round to find the other Sinhalese; he stood about fifty meters away, waiting without interest with his hands crossed over on his shoulders; perhaps because when a person is naked he has nowhere else to put his hands than on his own shoulders. The captain gave him a silent signal and the gaunt Sinhalese jumped into the water. After three minutes and fifty seconds he re-emerged, clawing at the slippery rocks.

“Come on, hurry up,” the captain shouted, but then he began to look more carefully and soon he himself was jumping and clambering over the rocks to the Sinhalese; no-one would have thought that a body like that could jump so nimbly. At the last moment he caught hold of the Sinhalese hand and pulled him breathless from the water. Then he lay him on the rock and wiped the sweat off his brow. The Sinhalese lay without moving; his shin had been scraped and the bone underneath was exposed, clearly he had injured it on some rock, but he was otherwise unhurt. The captain raised the man’s eyelid; all he could see was the white. There was no sign of any oysters or the knife. Just then, the boat and its crew came in close to shore.

“Captain,” Jensen the Swede called, “there are sharks around here. Are you going to search for oysters any longer?”

“No,” said the captain. “Come in here and pick up these two.”

On the way back to the ship Jensen drew the captains attention to something; “Look how it suddenly becomes shallow just here. It goes on just like this as far as the shore.” And he demonstrated his point by pushing his oar down into the water. “it’s as if there were some kind of weir under the water.”

The little Sinhalese did not come round until they were back on board; he sat with his knees under his chin, shaking from head to toe. The captain sent everyone away and sat down facing him with his legs wide apart. “Out with it,” he said. “What did you see down there?”

“Djinns, Saheb,” whispered the slender Sinhalese; now even his eyelids had begun to shake, and the whole of his skin came out in goosepimples. 

“And . . . what did they look like?” the captain spluttered.

“Like . . . like . . .” A strip of white appeared once more in the Sinhalese eyes. Captain J. van Toch, with unexpected liveliness, slapped him on both cheeks with his full hand to bring him back to consciousness. “Thanks, Saheb,” the gaunt Sinhalese sighed, and the pupils re-appeared in his eyes.

“Alright now?”

“Yes, Saheb.”

“Were there oysters down there?”

“Yes, Saheb.”

With a great deal of patience and thoroughness, Captain J. van Toch went on with the cross questioning. Yes, there were demons down there. How many? Thousands and thousands. About the size of a ten year old child, Captain, and almost black. They swim in the water, and on the bottom they walk on two legs. Two legs, Saheb, just like you or me, but always swaying from side to side, like this, like this, like this . . . Yes Captain, they have hands too, just like people; no, they don’t have claws, they’re more like a child’s hands. No, Saheb, they don’t have horns or fur. Yes, they have a tail, a little like a fish’s tail but without the fins. And a big head, round like a Bataks. No, they don’t say anything, Captain, only a sort of squelch. When the Sinhalese had been cutting an oyster off, about sixteen metres down, he felt something like little cold fingers touch his back. He had looked round and there were hundreds and hundreds of them all around him. Hundreds and hundreds, Captain, swimming around and standing on stones and all of them were watching what the Sinhalese was doing. So he dropped the knife and the oyster and tried to swim up to the surface. Then he struck against some of the demons who had been swimming after him, and what happened next he did not know.

Captain J. van Toch looked thoughtfully at the little diver as he sat there shivering. Hell be no good for anything from now on, the said to himself, he would send him to Padang and back on home to Ceylon. Grumbling and snorting, the captain went to his cabin, where he spilled the two pearls out onto the table from a paper bag. One of them was as small as a grain of sand and the other as a pea, with a shimmer of silver and pink. And with that, the captain of the Dutch ship, Kandong Bandoeng, snorted; and then he reached into the cupboard for his bottle of Irish whiskey.

At six o clock he had himself rowed back to the village and went straight to the half cast of Cubanese and Portuguese. “Toddy,” he said, and that was the only word he uttered; he sat on the corrugated-iron veranda, clutched a thick glass tumbler in his chubby fingers and drank and spat and stared out from under his bushy eyebrows at the dirty and trampled yard where some emaciated yellow chickens pecked at something invisible between the palm trees. The half cast avoided saying anything, and merely poured the drinks. Slowly, the captain’s eyes became bloodshot and his fingers began to move awkwardly. It was almost dark when he stood up and tightened his trousers.

“Are you going to bed, Captain?” the half cast of demon and devil asked politely. The captain punched his fist in the air.

“I’m going to go and see if there are any demons in this world that I’ve never seen before. You, which damned way is north-west?”

“This way,” the half cast showed him. “Where are you going?”

“To Hell,” Captain J. van Toch rasped. “Going to have a look at Devil Bay.”

It was from that evening on that Captain J. van Toch’s behaviour became so strange. He did not return to the village until dawn; said not a word to anyone but merely had himself taken back to the ship, where he locked himself in his cabin until evening. Nobody thought this very odd as the Kandong Bandoeng had some of the blessings of Tana Masa to load on board (copra, pepper, camphor, guttapercha, palm oil, tobacco and labourers); but that evening, when they went to tell him that everything had been loaded, he just snorted and said, “Boat. To the village.” And he did not return until dawn. Jensen the Swede, who helped him back on board, merely asked him politely whether they would be setting sail that day. The captain turned on him as if he had just been knifed in the back. “And what’s it to you?” he snapped. “You mind your own damned business!” All that day the Kandong Bandoeng lay at anchor off the coast of Tana Masa and did nothing. In the evening the captain rolled out of his cabin and ordered, “Boat. To the village.” Zapatis, the little Greek, stared at him with his one blind eye and the other eye squinting. “Look at this lads,” he crowed, “either the old mans got some girl or he’s gone totally mad.” Jensen the Swede scowled. “And what’s it to you?” he snapped at Zapatis. “You mind your own damned business!” Then, together with Gudmundson the Icelander, he took the little boat and rowed down to Devil Bay. They stayed in the boat behind the rocks and waited to see what would happen. The captain came across the bay and seemed to be waiting for someone; he stopped for a while and called out something like ts-ts-ts. “Look at this,” said Gudmundson, pointing to the sea which now glittered red and gold in the sunset. Jensen counted two, three, four, six fins, as sharp as little scythes, which glided across Devil Bay. “Oh God,” grumbled Jensen, “there are sharks here!” When, shortly afterwards, one of the little scythes submerged, a tail swished out above the water and created a violent eddy. At this, Captain J. van Toch on the shore began to jump up and down in fury, issued a gush of curses and threatened the sharks with his fist. Then the short tropical twilight was over and the light of the moon shone over the island; Jensen took the oars and rowed the boat to within a furlong of the shore. Now the captain was sitting on a rock calling ts-ts-ts. Nearby something moved, but it was not possible to see exactly what. It looks like a seal, thought Jensen, but seals don’t move like that. It came out of the water between the rocks and pattered along the beach, swaying from side to side like a penguin. Jensen quietly rowed in and stopped half a furlong away from the captain. Yes, the captain was saying something, but the Devil knew what it was; he must have been speaking in Tamil or Malay. He opened his hands wide as if about to throw something to these seals (although Jensen was now sure they were not seals), and all the time babbling his Chinese or Malay. Just then the raised oar slipped out of Jensen’s hand and fell in the water with a splash. The captain lifted his head, got up and walked about thirty paces into the water; there was a sudden flashing and banging; the captain was shooting with his browning in the direction of the boat. Almost simultaneously there was a rustling and a splashing in the bay as, with a whirl of activity, it seemed as if a thousand seals were jumping into the water; but Jensen and Gudmundson were already pressing on the oars and driving the boat so hard that it swished through the water until it was behind the nearest corner. When they got back to the ship they said not a word to anyone. The northern races know how to keep silent. In the morning the captain returned; he was angry and unhappy, but said nothing. Only, when Jensen helped him on board both men gave each other a cold and inquisitive look.

“Jensen,” said the captain.

“Yes sir.”

“Today, we set sail.”

“Yes sir.”

“In Surabai you get your papers.”

“Yes sir.”

And that was it. That day the Kandong Bandoeng sailed into Padang. In Padang Captain J. van Toch sent his firm in Amsterdam a parcel insured for a thousand two hundred pounds sterling. At the same time he sent a telegram asking for his annual leave. Urgent medical reasons, and so on. Then he wandered around Padang until he found the man he was looking for. This was a native of Borneo, a Dayak who English tourists would sometimes hire as a shark hunter just for the show; as this Dayak still worked in the old way, armed with no more than a long knife. He was clearly a cannibal but he had his fixed terms: five pounds for a shark plus his board. He was also quite startling in appearance, as both hands, his breast and his legs were heavily scarred from contact with shark skin and his nose and ears were decorated with shark teeth. He was known as Shark.

With this Dayak, Captain J. van Toch set off back to the island of Tana Masa.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:34