The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 2

Mister Golombek and Mister Valenta

As far as the newspapers were concerned, it was the sort of hot day when nothing, absolutely nothing, happens, when no politics is done and there aren’t even any tensions in Europe; but it is just on days like this that newspaper readers, lying in an agony of boredom on the beaches or in the sparse shade of trees, demoralised by the heat, the view, the quiet of the countryside and all that makes up their healthy and simple life on holiday, hope in vain to find something in the newspapers, something that will be new and refreshing, some murder, some war or some earthquake, in short, anything; and when they are disappointed they throw the paper down and declare in irritation that there is nothing there, nothing whatsoever, that it is not worth reading and they will stop buying a newspaper in future.

Meanwhile in the editorial office, there are five or six people left by themselves, as their colleagues are also all on holiday, who throw the paper down in irritation and complain that there is nothing there, nothing whatsoever. And the type-setter comes out of the composing-room and warns them: “Gentlemen, we still don’t have a leader for tomorrow’s issue”.

“Well how about, er, that thing about the economic situation in Bulgaria?” suggests one of the gentlemen in the abandoned office. The type-setter sighs deeply:

“And who’s going to want to read that? Once again, there’s going to be nothing in the whole paper worth reading.” The six gentlemen left all by themselves raised their eyes to the ceiling as if they might find something worth reading about there.

“If only something would happen,” said one of them uncertainly.

“Or what about, er, some kind of interesting reportage,” suggested another.

“What about?”

“I don’t know.”

“We could think up . . . some new vitamin or something,” grumbled a third.

“What now? In the middle of the summer?” a fourth objected. “Look, vitamins are scientific things, that’s more suitable for the Autumn.”

“God it’s hot!” yawned the fifth. “Whatever it is it ought to come from the polar regions.”

“Such as what?”

“Something like that Eskimo story. Frozen fingers, eternal ice, that sort of thing.”

“That’s easy enough to say,” said the sixth, “but where do we get the story from?” The silence of despair spread across the editorial office.

“Last Sunday,” began the typesetter hesitantly, “I was in the Moravian hills.”

“So what?”

“Well, I heard something about some Captain Vantoch who was on holiday there. Seems he was born in the area.”

“Vantoch? Who’s he?”

“Fat sort of bloke. A sea captain or something. They said he’d been out looking for pearls.” Mister Golombek looked at Mister Valenta.

“And whereabouts was he looking?”

“In Sumatra . . . and the Celebese . . . all round that sort of area. They said he’d spent thirty years out there.”

“Now there’s an idea,” said Mister Valenta. “That could be a great reportage. Shall we go with it, Golombek?”

“Can give it a try, I suppose,” Mister Golombek opined, and got off his chair.

“It’s that gentleman, over there,” said the landlord in Moravia. At a table in the garden sat a fat man in a white cap with his legs wide apart, he was drinking beer and seemed thoughtful as he drew broad lines on the table with his finger. Both men went over to him.

“I’m Valenta, editorial staff.”

“I’m Golombek, editorial staff.” The fat man raised his eyes:

“Eh, what?”

“Valenta, from the newspaper.”

“And I’m Golombek. From the newspaper.” The fat man stood up with dignity.

“Captain van Toch. Very glad. Take a seat, lads.” Both men obligingly sat down and lay writing pads down in front of themselves. “What’ll you have to drink, boys?”

“Raspberry juice,” said Mister Valenta.

“Raspberry juice?” repeated the captain in disbelief. “What for? Landlord, bring them each a beer. - Now what was it you wanted?” he asked, putting his elbows on the table.

“Is it true that you were born here, Mister Vantoch?”

“Ja. Born here.”

“And tell us, please, how come you went to sea?”

“I went via Hamburg.”

“And how long have you been a captain?”

“Twenty years, lads. Got my papers here,” he said, emphasising his point by tapping on his breast pocket. “Can show you if you like.” Mister Golombek would have liked to see what a captains papers look like, but he restrained himself.

“I’m sure you must have seen a good part of the world in those twenty years, Captain.”

“Ja, I’ve seen a bit, ja.”

“And what places have you seen?”

“Java. Borneo. Philippines. Fiji Islands. Solomon Islands. Carolines. Samoa. Damned Clipperton Island. A lot of damned islands, lads. Why do you ask?”

“Well, it’s just that it’s all very interesting. Wed like to hear some more about it, you see.”

“Ja. All just very interesting, eh?” The captain fixed his pale blue eyes on them. “You’re from the police then, are you?”

“No, were not from the police, Captain, were from the newspapers.”

“Ah ja, from the newspapers. Reporters, are you? We’ll write this down: Captain J. van Toch, captain of the Kandong Bandoeng . . . ”

“What’s that?”

“The Kandong Bandoeng, port of Surabai. Reason for journey: vacances . . . how do you say that?”

“On holiday.”

“Ja, dammit, holiday. So you can put that in your newspapers, who’s sailed in. And now put your notes away, lads. Your health.”

“Mister Vantoch, we’ve come to find you so that you might tell us something about your life.”

“What for?”

“We’ll write it down in the papers. People are very interested in reading about distant islands and all the things seen and experienced there by their compatriots, by another Czech . . .” The captain nodded.

“That’s all true, lads, I’m the only sea captain ever from this town, that’s true. I’ve heard about one other captain from . . . from . . . somewhere, but I think,” he added intimately, “that he’s not a proper captain. It’s all to do with the tonnage, you see.”

“And what was the tonnage of your ship?”

“Twenty thousand tons, lads.”

“You were a great captain, were you?”

“A great one,” the captain said with dignity. “Have you got any money, boys?”  Both gentlemen looked at each other a little uncertainly.

“We have some money, but not a lot. Are you in need of money, Captain?”

“Ja. I might need some”

“Well listen. If you tell us lots of things we’ll write it up for the paper and you’ll get money for it.”

“How much?”

“It could be . . . could be several thousand,” said Mister Golombek generously.

“Pounds sterling?”

“No, only Czechoslovak koruny.” Captain van Toch shook his head.

“No, that won’t do. I’ve got that much myself, lads,” and he drew a thick wad of banknotes out of his trouser pocket. “See?” Then he put his elbows back on the table and leant forward to the two men. “Gentlemen, I might have some big business for you. And that would mean you giving me fifteen . . . hold on . . . fifteen or sixteen million koruny. How about it?” Once again, the two gentlemen looked at each other uncertainly. Newspaper men have experience of all sorts of the strangest madmen, cheats and inventors. “Wait,” said the captain, “I’ve got something here I can show you.” His chubby fingers reached into a pocket in his waistcoat and he hunted out something which he placed on the table. It was five pink pearls, the size of cherry stones. “Do you know anything about pearls?”

“What might they be worth?” gasped Mister Valenta.

“Ja, lots of money, lads. But I carry them around just to show people, just as a sample. So how about it, are you in with me?” he asked, reaching his broad hand across the table. Mister Golombek sighed.

“Mister Vantoch, as much money as . . .”

“Halt,” the captain interrupted him. “I realise you don’t know me; but ask about Captain van Toch anywhere in Surabaya, in Batavia, in Padang or anywhere you like. Go and ask and anyone will tell you ja, Captain van Toch, he is as good as his word.”

“Mister Vantoch, we don’t doubt your word,” Mister Golombek protested, “but . . . ”

“Wait,” the captain ordered. “I know you want to be careful about where you give away your precious money; and quite right too. But here you’ll be spending it on a ship, see? You buy a ship, that makes you a ship owner and you can come with me; ja, you can sail with me to see how I’m looking after it. And the money we make, we can share it fifty-fifty. That’s honest business, isn’t it?”

“But Mister Vantoch,” Mister Golombek finally exclaimed anxiously, “we just don’t have that much money!”

“Ja, in that case it’s different,” said the captain. “Sorry. But now I don’t know why you’ve come to find me.”

“So that you can tell us about yourself, Captain, you must have had so many experiences . . . ”

“Ja, that I have, lads. A damned lot of experiences.”

“Have you ever been shipwrecked?”

“What? What shipwreck? No I haven’t. Who do you think I am? If they give me a good ship then nothing can happen to it. You can even go and ask about my references in Amsterdam. Go there and ask.”

“And what about the natives? Have you met many natives?” Captain van Toch snorted. “This is nothing for an educated man. I’m not going to talk about that.”

“Then tell us about something else.”

“Ja, tell you something else,” the captain grumbled mistrustfully. “And then you can sell it to some other company which then sends its ships out there. I can tell you, my lad, people are all thieves. And the biggest thieves of all are these bankers in Colombo.”

“Have you been to Colombo many times?

“Ja, many times. And Bangkok too, and Manila . . . Lads,” he suddenly interrupted himself, “I know of a ship. A very good ship, and cheap at the price. It’s in Rotterdam. Come and have a look at it. Rotterdam is no distance,” and he indicated over his shoulder with his thumb. “Ships are very cheap nowadays, lads. Like old iron. As soon as a ship is six years old they want to replace it with something with a diesel motor. Do you want to see it?”

“We can’t, Mister Vantoch.”

“You’re very strange people,” the captain sighed, and blew his nose noisily into a pale blue handkerchief. “And you don’t know of anyone here who might want to buy a ship?”

“Here in Moravia?”

“Ja, here, or anywhere nearby. I’d like a big deal like this to come here, to my country.”

“That’s very nice of you, Captain . . . ”

“Ja. Those others are enormous thieves. And they don’t have any money. People like you, from the newspapers, you must know some important people here, bankers and ship owners and the like.”

“We don’t know anyone, Mister Vantoch.”

“Well, that’s a pity,” said the captain, sadly. Mister Golombek remembered something.

“You don’t know Mister Bondy, do you?”

“Bondy? Bondy?”  Captain van Toch tried to remember. “Wait, that name does sound familiar. Bondy. Ja, there’s a Bond Street in London, where all the very rich people live. Does he have some business on Bond Street, this Mister Bondy?”

“No, he lives in Prague, but I think he was born here in Moravia.”

“Jesus!” Captain van Toch burst out gaily, “you’re right lads. Had a tailors shop on the square. Ja, Bondy, what was his name? Max. Max Bondy. So he’s in business in Prague now, is he?”

“No I think that must have been his father. This Bondy is called G.H. President G.H. Bondy, Captain.”

“G.H.,” the captain puzzled. “There was never any G.H. here. Unless you mean Gustl Bondy - but he was never any president. Gustl was a sort of freckle-faced Jew. Can’t be him.”

“It can be him, Mister Vantoch. Don’t forget it’s many years since you’ve seen him.”

“Ja, you could be right. It is many years,” the captain agreed. “Forty years, lads. I suppose Gustl could have become important by now. And what is he?”

“He’s the president of the MEAS organisation - you know? - that enormous factory making boilers and so on, and the president of abut twenty companies and cartels. He’s a very important man, Mister Vantoch. They call him a captain of Czech industry.”

“Captain?” said Captain van Toch in amazement. “So I’m not the only captain from this town! Jesus! That Gustl is a captain too. I suppose I ought to meet up with him. Has he got any money?”

“Has he? Enormous amounts of money, Mister Vantoch. He must have hundreds of millions. The richest man in Czechoslovakia.” Captain van Toch became very serious.

“And a captain, too. Thank you, lads. I’ll have to go and see him, this Bondy. Ja, Gustl Bondy, I know. Jewish boy, he was. And now its Captain G.H. Bondy. Ja, ja, things change,” he added with a melancholy sigh.

“Captain Vantoch, we’ll have to go soon so that we don’t miss the evening train . . .”

“I’ll come down to the harbour with you, then,” the captain suggested and he began to weigh anchor. “Very glad to have met you, lads. I know a newspaper man in Surabaya, good lad, ja, a good friend of mine. Hell of a drinker. I could find you both a place on the paper in Surabaya if you like. No? Well, as you like.”

And as the train drew out of the station Captain van Toch waved to them slowly and triumphantly with his enormous blue handkerchief. As he did so, one large, slightly mis-shapen pearl dropped down into the sand. A pearl which nobody ever found again.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52