The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 3

G. H. Bondy and the Captain

It is a well known fact that the more important a man is the less he has written on his door. Above his shop in Moravia, and all round the door and on the windows, old Max Bondy had to announce in big letters that here was Max Bondy, dealer in sartorial goods of every sort, wedding outfitter, sheets, towels, teatowels, tablecloths and coverings, calico and serge, silks, curtains, lambrequins, and all tailoring and sewing requisites. Founded 1885. His son, G.H. Bondy, captain of industry, president of the MEAS corporation, commercial adviser, brokering adviser, deputy president of the Confederation of Industry, Consulado de la República Ecuador, member of many advisory committees etc. etc. has nothing more on his house door than one small, black, glass panel with gold letters that spell the word:

BONDY

That is all. Just Bondy. Others might have Julius Bondy, Representative of General Motors on their doors, or Ervín Bondy, Doctor of Medicine, or S. Bondy and Company; but there is only one Bondy who is simply Bondy without any further details. (I think the Pope has simply Pius written on his door without any title or number. And God doesn’t have a name plate at all, neither in Heaven nor on Earth. You have to work out for yourself who it is that lives where He lives. But none of this belongs to this story, and it is only mentioned in passing.)

One burning hot day, in front of the glass panel there stood a gentleman in a white sailors cap, wiping the massive folds of his neck with a blue handkerchief.  Damned grand sort of house to live in, he thought, and somewhat uncertainly he pulled on the brass knob of the doorbell.

Mister Povondra, the doorman, appeared, took the measure of the heavy man at the door by looking him up and down from his feet to the gold braid on the cap, and with some reserve asked: “Can I help you?”

“Yes you can, lad,” the gentleman replied loudly. “Does a Mister Bondy live here?”

“What is your business with Mister Bondy?” was Mister Povondra’s icy reply.

“Tell him that Captain van Toch from Surabaya wants to speak to him. Ja,” he remembered, “here’s my card.” And he handed Mister Povondra a visiting card bearing an embossed anchor and the name:

CAPTAIN J. VAN TOCH

E. I. & P. L. Co S. Kandong Bandoeng

Surabaya Naval Club

Mister Povondra lowered his eyes and considered this. Had he better tell him that Mister Bondy is not at home? Or that he was afraid that Mister Bondy is at an important conference? There are some callers who need to be announced, and there are some others that a good doorman will deal with himself. Mister Povondra felt a troubling failure of the instinct that normally guides him in these matters; this fat man at the door did not somehow fall into the usual class of unannounced visitors, he did not seem to be a commercial representative, or a functionary of a charitable organisation. Meanwhile, Captain van Toch was snorting and wiping his brow with his handkerchief; at the same time he was blinking ingenuously with his pale blue eyes. Mister Povondra suddenly decided to take the responsibility for this man onto himself. “Please come in Captain van Toch,” he said, “I will announce you to Mister Bondy”.

Captain J. van Toch wiped his brow with his blue handkerchief and looked round the ante-room. Hell, this Gustl has got things alright; it’s like the saloon on one of those ships that sail from Rotterdam to Batavia. It must have cost a fortune. And all that by a freckly little Jew, the captain thought in admiration.

Meanwhile, in his study, G.H. Bondy was contemplating the captain’s visiting card. “And what does he want with me?” he asked suspiciously.

“I’m afraid I don’t know, Sir,” mumbled Mister Povondra unctuously. Mister Bondy was still holding the card in his hand. And embossed ships anchor. Captain J. van Toch, Surabaya - where actually is Surabaya? Is it somewhere in Java? that seemed a very long way away to Mister Bondy. Kandong Bandoeng, that sounds like a gong being struck. Surabaya. And it feels just like the tropics here, today. Surabaya.

“Well, you’d better show him in,” Mister Bondy ordered.

The heavy man in the captain’s cap stood in the doorway and saluted. G.H. Bondy went over to welcome him. “Very glad to meet you, Captain. Please, come in,” he said in English.

“Hello, hello Mister Bondy,” proclaimed the captain cheerfully in Czech.

“Are you Czech?” asked Mister Bondy in surprise.

“Ja, Czech. And we even know each other, Mister Bondy. From Moravia. Vantoch the grain merchant, do you remember?”

“That’s right, that’s right,” G.H. Bondy replied with enthusiasm, although he did feel a little disappointment that this was not a Hollander after all. “Vantoch the grain merchant, on the town square, wasn’t it. And you haven’t changed at all, Mister Vantoch! Still just the same! And how’s the grain business going?”

“Thanks,” the captain replied politely. “It’s been a long time now since Dad . . . how do you say . . . ”

“Since he died? Oh, of course, you must be his son . . .” Mister Bondy’s eyes came alive with a sudden memory. My dear Vantoch! You must be that Vantoch who used to fight with me when we were lads!”

“Yes, that will have been me, Mister Bondy,” agreed the captain seriously. “In fact that’s why they sent me away, to Ostrava, up in the north.”

“You and I were always fighting. But you were stronger than me,” Mister Bondy acknowledged sportingly.

“Ja, I was stronger than you. You were such a weak little Jew-boy, Mister Bondy. And you were given Hell for it.”

“I was, that’s true,” mused G.H. Bondy, somewhat moved.  But sit down, my friend! How nice of you to think of me! What brings you here?”  Captain van Toch sat down with dignity into a leather armchair and laid his cap on the floor.

“I’m here on holiday, Mister Bondy. That’s so.”

“Do you remember,” asked Mister Bondy as he sank into his memories, “how you used to shout at me: Jew-boy, Jew-boy, you go to Hell.

“Ja,” the captain admitted, and he trumpeted with some emotion into his blue handkerchief. “Oh yes, they were good times, lad. But what does it matter now? Time passes. Now were both old men and both captains.”

“That’s true, you’re a captain,” Mister Bondy reminded himself. “Who’d have thought it? A Captain of Long Distances.”

“Yessir. A highseaer. East India and Pacific Lines, Sir.”

“A wonderful career,” said Mister Bondy with a sigh. “I’d change places with you straight away, Captain. You must tell me about yourself.”

“Alright then,” said the captain as he became more lively. “There’s something I’d like to tell you about, Mister Bondy. Something very interesting, lad.” Captain van Toch looked around uneasily.

“Are you looking for something, Captain?”

“Ja. Don’t you drink beer, Mister Bondy? The journey here from Surabaya made me so thirsty.” The captain began to rummage in the copious pockets of his trousers and drew out his blue handkerchief, a canvas bag containing something, a bag of tobacco, a knife, a compass and a wad of banknotes. “I think we should send someone out for some beer. What about that steward who showed me in here to your cabin.” Mister Bondy rang a bell.

“Nothing to worry about, Captain. Meanwhile you could light a cigar . . .” The captain took a cigar with a red and gold band and drew in the aroma.

“Tobacco from Lombok. Bunch of thieves there, for what it’s worth.” And with that, to Mister Bondy’s horror, he crumbled the costly cigar in his massive hands and put the it into a pipe. “Ja, Lombok. Lombok or Sumba.” By this time, Mister Povondra had made his silent appearance in the doorway.

“Bring us some beer,” Mister Bondy ordered. Mister Povondra raised his eyebrow.

“Beer? And how much beer?”

“A gallon,” the captain grumbled as he stepped on a used match on the carpet. “In Aden, the heat was awful, lad. Now, Mister Bondy, I’ve got some news for you. From the Sunda Islands, see? There’s a chance there to do some fantastic business. But I’ll need to tell you the whole story. Wait.” The captain’s eyes turned to the ceiling as he remembered. “I don’t really know where to begin.” (Yet another business deal, thought G.H. Bondy to himself. God, this is going to be boring. He’s going to talk to me about exporting sewing machines to Tasmania or boilers and safety pins to Fiji. Fantastic business, yes, I know. That’s what I’m good for. But I’m not some junk dealer, damn it! I’m an adventurer. I’m a poet in my own way. Tell me about Sinbad, sailor-man! Tell me about Surabaya or the Phoenix Islands. Have you never been pulled of course by a magnetic mountain, have you never been captured by the bird, Noh, and taken up to its nest? Don’t you come back to port with a cargo of pearls and cinnamon and hardwoods? No? Better start your lies, then.) “I suppose I could start with these lizards,” the captain began.

“What lizards?” asked the businessman in surprise.

“Well, these astonishing lizards they have there, Mister Bondy.”

“Where?”

“On one of these islands. I can’t tell you the name, lad. That is a big secret, worth millions.” Captain van Toch wiped his brow with his handkerchief. “Where the Hell has that beer got to?”

“It will be right here, Captain.”

“Yes, that’s good. And you ought to know that these are very decent and likable animals, these lizards. I know them, lad.” The captain slammed his hand down on the table; “and if anyone says they’re demons they’re a liar, a damned liar, Sir. You and me are more like demons than they are, me, Captain van Toch, Sir. You can take my word for it.” G.H. Bondy was startled. Delirium, he thought. Where is that damned Povondra? “There are several thousand of them there, these lizards, but a lot of them are eaten by sharks. That’s why these lizards are so rare and only in one place, in this bay that I can’t give you the name of.”

“You mean these lizards live in the sea?”

“Ja. In the sea. But at night they come out onto the shore, although after a while they have to go back into the water.”

“And what do they look like?” (Mister Bondy was trying to gain time before that damned Povondra came back.)

“Well, about as big as a seal, but when they walk on their hind legs they’d be about this high,” the captain demonstrated. “I won’t tell you they’re nice to look at, they’re not. And they haven’t got any scales. They’re quite bare, Mister Bondy, naked, like a frog or a salamander. And their front paws, they’re like the hands on a child, but they’ve only got four fingers. Poor things,” the captain added in sympathy. “But they’re nice animals, Mister Bondy, very clever and very likable.” The captain crouched down and, still in that position, began to waddle forward. “And this is how they walk, these lizards.”

The captain, with some effort and still squatting down, carried his body along in a wave-like movement; at the same time he held his hand out in front of himself like a dog begging for something and fixed his eyes on Mister Bondy in a way that seemed to beg him for sympathy. G.H. Bondy was deeply touched by this and almost felt ashamed. While this was going on, Mister Povondra appeared in the doorway with a jug of beer and raised his eyebrows in shock when he saw the captain’s undignified behaviour. “Give us the beer and get out,” Mister Bondy exclaimed. The captain stood up, wheezing.

“Well, that’s what these animals are like, Mister Bondy. Your health,” he added as he took a draught of the beer. “This is good beer you’ve got here, lad. But in a house like this . . .” The captain wiped his moustache.

“And how did you come across these lizards, Captain?”

“That’s just what I wanted to tell you about, Mister Bondy. It happened like this; I was looking for pearls on Tana Masa . . .” the captain stopped short. “Or somewhere round those parts. Ja, it was some other island, but for the time being that’s still my secret. People are enormous thieves, Mister Bondy, you have to be careful what you say. And while those two damned Sinhalese were under water cutting away the oysters - the oysters hold as fast to the rocks like a Jew holds to his faith and have to be cut away with a knife - the lizards were there watching them, and the Sinhalese thought they were sea monsters. They’re very ignorant people, these Sinhalese and Bataks. Anyway, they thought they were demons. Ja.” The captain trumpeted noisily into his handkerchief. “You know, lad, it’s a strange thing. I don’t know whether us Czechs are more inquisitive than other people but whenever I’ve come across another Czech he’s always had to stick his nose into everything find out what’s there. I think, us Czechs, we don’t want to believe in anything. So I got it into my stupid, old head that I should go and get a closer look at these demons. True, I was drunk at the time, but that was only because I couldn’t get these stupid demons out of my mind. Down there on the equator, lad, down there anything’s possible. So that evening I went down and had a look at Devil Bay. . . .” Mister Bondy did his best to imagine a bay in the tropics, surrounded by cliffs and jungle.

“And then?”

“So there I was sitting by the bay and going ts-ts-ts so that the demons would come. And then, lad, after a while, a kind of lizard crawled up out of the water. It stood up on its hind legs, twisting its whole body. And it went ts-ts-ts at me. If I hadn’t been drunk I probably would have shot it; but, my friend, I was sloshed as an Englishman, so I said to it, come here, hey you tapa-boy come here, I won’t harm you.”

“Were you speaking to it in Czech?”

“No, Malay. That’s what they speak most down there, lad. He did nothing, just made a few steps here and there and looked sideways at me like a child that’s too shy to talk. And all around in the water were a couple of hundred of these lizards, poking their paws up out of the water and watching me. So I, well yes I was drunk, I squatted down and began to twist about like these lizards so that they wouldn’t be afraid of me. Then another lizard crawled out of the water, about the size of a ten year old boy, and he started waddling about too. And in his front paw he had an oyster.” The captain took a draught of beer. “Cheers, Mister Bondy. Well it’s true that I was very drunk, so I said to him, what a clever lad you are, eh, what is it you want then? Want me to open that oyster for you, do you? Come here then, I can open it with my knife. But he just stood there, still didn’t dare come any closer. So once again, I started to twist about like I was a shy little girl. Then he pattered up closer to me, I slowly held out my hand to him and took the oyster from his paw. Now, you can understand we were both a bit afraid, but I was drunk. So I took my knife and opened that oyster; I felt inside to see if there was a pearl there but there wasn’t, only that vile snot, like one of those slimy molluscs that live in those shells. Alright then, I said, ts-ts-ts, you can eat it if you like. And I tossed the open oyster over to him. You should have seen how he licked it up, lad. It must have been a wonderful titbit for these lizards. Only, the poor animals weren’t able to get into the hard shells with their little fingers. Life is hard, ja!” The captain took another drink of beer. “So I worked it out in my head, lad. When these lizards saw how the Sinhalese cut away the oysters they must have said to themselves, aha, so they eat oysters, and they wanted to see how these Sinhalese would open them. One of these Sinhalese looks pretty much like a lizard when he’s in the water, but one of these lizards was more clever than a Sinhalese or a Batak because he wanted to learn something. And a Batak will never want to learn anything unless it’s how to thieve something,” Captain J. van Toch added in disgust. “So when I was on that shore going ts-ts-ts and twisting about like a lizard they must have thought to themselves that I’m some kind of great-big salamander. That’s why they weren’t really scared of me and came closer, so that I would open the oysters for them. That’s how intelligent and trusting these animals are.” Captain van Toch went red. “When I’d got to know them better I took all my clothes off, so that I’d look more like them, naked; but they were still puzzled at the hairs on my chest and that sort of thing. Ja.” The captain wiped his handkerchief over his blushing neck. “But I hope I’m not boring you, Mister Bondy.” G.H. Bondy was enchanted.

“No, no. Not at all. Please carry on, Captain.”

“Yes, yes alright then. So when this lizard had licked out the shell with all the others watching him they climbed up onto the shore. Some of them even had oysters in their paws - something odd about this, lad, is that they were able to pull them off the cliffs when they only had these little fingers without a thumb, like a child’s fingers. At first they were too shy, but then they let me take the oyster out of their hands. True, they weren’t proper oysters with pearls in them, all sorts of things it was they brought me, the sort of clams and the like that don’t have pearls in them, but I threw them back in the water and told them, that’s no good children, they’re not worth opening, I’m not going to use my knife on them. But when they brought me a pearl-oyster I opened it with my knife and checked carefully to see if there wasn’t a pearl there. Then I gave it back to them for them to lick it out. So by then there was a couple of hundred of these lizards sitting round me and watching to see how it was I opened the oysters. Some of them tried to do it themselves, tried to cut round the oyster with the bits of shell that were lying around. I found that very strange, lad. No animal knows how to use tools; all that an animal knows is what’s been shown to it by nature. I admit, I once saw in Buitenzorg a monkey that could open a tin can with a knife; but a monkey, that s not really a proper animal. But I did find it strange.” The captain took a drink of beer. “That night, Mister Bondy, I found about eighteen pearls in those shells. Some of them were small and some were bigger and three of them were as big as the stone in a peach, Mister Bondy, as big as the stone in a peach.” Captain van Toch nodded his head earnestly. “After I’d got back to my ship in the morning I said to myself, Captain van Toch, sir, it was all just dream, you were drunk, and so on. But I couldn’t believe what I told myself, not when I had eighteen pearls in my pocket. Ja.”

“That is the best story I’ve ever heard,” said Mister Bondy, with a sigh. Captain van Toch was pleased at this and said,

“There, you see, lad. I thought about what had happened all that day. I would tame these lizards, wouldn’t I. Ja. Tame them and train them to bring me these pearl oysters. There must have been an enormous number of them down there in Devil Bay. So that evening I went down again, but a bit earlier. When the Sun began to go down the lizards began to stick their noses out from the water, one here, then one there, until the water was full of them. I sat on the shore and went ts-ts-ts. Then I looked and saw a shark, just its fin poking up from the water. And then there was a lot of splashing and one of the lizards had had it. I counted twelve of those sharks cruising into Devil Bay in the sunset. Mister Bondy, in just one evening those monsters ate more than twenty of my lizards,” the captain exclaimed and blew his nose angrily. “Ja! More than twenty! It stands to reason, a naked lizard like that with those little paws, he can’t defend himself. It was enough to make you cry to see a sight like that. You should have seen it, lad . . . ”

The captain stopped and thought for a while. “I’m quite fond of animals, you see,” he said finally, and lifted his blue eyes to G.H. Bondy. “I don’t know what you think of all this, Captain Bondy . . . “ Mister Bondy nodded to show his agreement, and this pleased Captain van Toch. “That’s alright, then. “They’re very good and intelligent, these tapa-boys; if you tell them something they pay attention like a dog listening to its master. And most of all, these little hands they have, like children’s hands. You know lad, I’m an old man and I have no family . . . Ja, an old man can be very lonely,” the captain complained as he overcame his emotion. “It’s very easy to become fond of these lizards, for what it’s worth. But if only the sharks didn’t keep eating them like that! Then when I went after them, after those sharks, and I threw stones at them, then they started throwing stones too, these tapa-boys. You won’t believe it, Mister Bondy. True, they couldn’t throw the stones very far because their hands were so small, but it was all very strange. As you’re so clever, I said to them, you can try and open some of these oysters yourselves with my knife. So I put the knife down on the ground. They were a bit shy at first, but then one of them tried it, pushing the point of the knife between the two halves of the shell. You’ve got to lever it open, I told him, lever it, see? Twist the knife round, like this, and there, that’s it. And he kept on trying, poor thing, until it gave way and the shell opened. There, you see, I said. Not that hard, is it. If some pagan Batak or Sinhalese can do it then why shouldn’t a tapa-boy do it too, eh? Now, Mister Bondy, I wasn’t going to tell these lizards how it was wonderful, marvellous, astonishing to see what an animal like that could do, but now I can tell you that I was . . . I was . . . well simply thunderstruck.”

“As I can see,” answered Mister Bondy.

“Yes, that’s right. As you can see. I was so confused at all this that I stayed there another day with my ship, and then in the evening went back to Devil Bay and once more I watched how the sharks were eating my lizards. That night I swore that I would put an end to that, lad. I even gave them my word of honour. Tapa-boys, I said, Captain J. van Toch hereby promises, under the majesty of all these stars, that I will help you.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/capek/karel/newts/chapter3.html

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