The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 4

Captain Van Toch’s Business

While Captain van Toch was saying this the hair on the back of his neck had risen with his anger and excitement. “And so I swore. And ever since then, lad, I’ve not had a moments peace. In Padang I took some leave due to me and sent a hundred and seven pearls to those Jew-boys in Amsterdam, everything those animals of mine had brought me. Then I found a kind of lad, Dayak he was, a shark-killer, they go in the water and kill the sharks with a knife. Terrible thief and murderer he was, this Dayak. And then with him on a little tramp-steamer, we went back to Tana Masa, and now, lad, in you go and kill these sharks with your knife. I wanted him to kill the sharks so that they’d leave my lizards in peace, but this Dayak was such a cut-throat and pagan he didn’t do a thing, not even for those tapa-boys. He didn’t give a damn about the job. And all this time I was making my own observations and experiments with these lizards - just a minute, I’ve got a ships logbook here where I noted everything down every day.” The captain drew a voluminous set of notes out from his breast pocket and began to leaf through them . “What’s the date today? I know, the twenty-fifth of June. Now, the twenty-fifth June for instance - last year, this was - I was here and the Dayak was out killing sharks. These lizards have a real big liking for carrion. Toby - that was one of the lizards, a smallish one, clever though,” explained the captain. “I had to give them some sort of a name, didn’t I, so that I could write about them in this book. So, Toby pushed his fingers into the hole the knife had left. Evening, they brought a dry branch for my fire. No, that’s nothing,” the captain grumbled. “I’ll find another day. Lets say, the twentieth of June, shall we? The lizards continued building their jetty. This was some kind of dam. They were building a new dam at the north-western end of Devil Bay. And this was a fantastic piece of work, lad,” the captain explained, “a proper breakwater. And they brought their eggs down to this side of it where the water would be quiet. They thought it up all by themselves, this dam; and I can tell you, no clerk or engineer from Waterstaat in Amsterdam could have made a better plan for a submerged breakwater than they did. An amazingly skilled piece of work. And they dug out, sort of, deep holes in the banks under the water and lived in them during the day. Amazingly clever animals, just like beavers, those great big mice that build dams on a river. And they had a lot of these dams in Devil Bay, big ones and small ones, lovely smooth and level dams, it looked like a city. In the end they wanted to put a dam right across the whole of Devil Bay. That’s how it was. They can now lift boulders with a lever,” he read on. “Albert - that was one of the tapa-boys - crushed two of his fingers. Twenty-first: The Dayak ate Albert! But it made him ill. Fifteen drops of opium. Promised not to do it again. Rain all day. Thirtieth of June: Lizards finished building dam. Toby did not want to work. Now, he was clever, Toby,” the captain explained with admiration. “The clever ones never want to do anything. He was always working things out with his hands, this Toby. For what it’s worth, there are big differences between lizards just like between people. Third of July: Sergeant got the knife. This Sergeant, he was a big strong lizard. And very clever with it. Seventh of July: Sergeant used knife to kill a cuttle-fish. Tenth of July: Sergeant killed big jelly-fish with knife. Strange sort of animal, a jelly-fish is. Looks like jelly but stings like a nettle. And now, Mister Bondy, listen to this. I’ve got it underlined. Sergeant killed a small shark with the knife. Seventy pounds weight. So there you see it, Mister Bondy,” Captain J. van Toch declared in triumph. “Here it is in black and white. That was the big day, lad. To be precise, the thirteenth of July last year.” The captain closed his notes. “I’m not ashamed to admit it, Mister Bondy; I knelt down on the shore by that Devil Bay and wept for sheer joy. I knew then that my tapa-boys would not give up. Sergeant got a lovely new harpoon as a reward - a harpoon is best if you’re going to go hunting sharks, lad - and I said to him, be a man, Sergeant, and show these tapa-boys they can defend themselves. And do you know,” here the captain raised his voice, jumped up and thumped the table in his excitement, “within three days there was a dead shark floating in the bay, horribly mutilated, full of gashes. And all the gashes made by this harpoon.” The captain gulped down some more beer. “That’s just how it was, Mister Bondy. It was then that I made a kind of a contract with these tapa-boys. That is, I gave them my word that if they would bring me these pearl oysters then I would give them these harpoons and knives for them to defend themselves, see? That’s fair business. Whatever he does, a man should be honest even to animals like these. And I gave them some wood too, and two iron wheelbarrows for them to carry the stones for the dam. And the poor things had to pull everything in those tiny hands of theirs. Terrible for them, that’s how it was. And I wouldn’t have wanted to cheat them. Hold on, lad, I’ll show you something.” Captain van Toch lifted his belly with one hand and with the other pulled a canvas bag out of his trouser pocket. “Look what I’ve got here,” he said, and emptied it out onto the table. There was a thousand pearls there of all different sizes: some as small as a seed, some the size of a pea and some of them were the size of a cherry; perfectly round pearls, lumpy and irregular pearls, silvery pearls, blue pearls, yellowish pearls like persons skin and pearls of all colours from black to pink. G.H. Bondy’s jaw dropped; he could not help himself and had to touch them, roll them around in the tips of his fingers, cover them in both his hands.

“These are beautiful,” he sighed in wonder and amazement. “Captain, this is like a dream!”

“Ja,” said the captain without emotion. “They are nice. And that year that I was down there they killed about thirty of those sharks. I’ve got it written down here,” he said, tapping on his breast pocket. “And all with the knives I’d given them, them and the five harpoons. Those knives cost me nearly two American dollars a piece. Very good knives, lad, stainless steel, won’t go rusty in the water, not even sea water. And those Bataks cost me a lot of money too.

“What Bataks?”

“Those native Bataks on that island. They think the tapa-boys are some kind of demon and they’re terribly afraid of them. And when they saw me talking with these demons of theirs they just wanted to kill me. All night long they were banging on a kind of gong so that they would chase the demons away from their village. Made a Hell of a noise. And then in the morning they wanted me to pay them for it. For all the work they’d had in doing it. For what it’s worth, I can tell you that these Bataks are terrible thieves. But the tapa-boys, the lizards, you can do honest business with them. Very good honest business, Mister Bondy.” To Mister Bondy it seemed like he was in a fairy tale.

“Buying pearls from them?”

“Ja. Only there aren’t any pearls left now in Devil Bay, and on other islands there aren’t any tapa-boys. And that’s the whole problem, lad.” Captain J. van Toch looked up as if in triumph. “And that’s the big business that I thought out in my head. “Listen lad,” he said, stabbing the air with his chubby finger, “there’s a lot more of those lizards there now than when I first found them! They can defend themselves now, you see. Eh? And there are going to be more and more of them! Now then, Mister Bondy, don’t you think this is a fantastic business opportunity?”

“I still don’t quite see,” replied G.H. Bondy uncertainly, “what exactly it is you have in mind, Captain.”

“To transport these tapa-boys to other islands where there are other pearl-fishing grounds,” the captain finally exclaimed. I saw myself how these lizards can’t get across the deep and open sea. They can swim for a little way and they can walk a little way along the seabed, but where the sea is very deep the pressure there is too much for them; they’re very soft, you see. But if I had some sort of ship with some kind of tank built into it for them I could take them wherever I wanted, see? And there they could look for the pearls and I would follow behind and provide them with the knives and harpoons and anything else they need. The poor lads increased their population so much in Devil Bay that they soon won’t have enough there to eat. They eat the smallest of the fish and molluscs, and those water insects they have there; but they can eat potatoes too, and rusks and ordinary things like that. So that means they could be fed while they’re in the tanks on the ship. And I could let them out into the water in suitable places where there aren’t many people and there I could have sort of . . . sort of farms for these lizards of mine. And I’d want them to be able to feed themselves, these animals. They’re very likable, Mister Bondy, and very clever too. And when you see them, lad, you’ll say, Hullo Captain, useful animals you’ve got here. Ja. And they’re mad about pearls now, just like people. That’s the big business I thought up.”

All this left G.H. Bondy in some embarrassment and confusion. “I’m very sorry, Captain,” he began hesitantly, “I . . . I really don’t know . . .” The clear blue eyes of Captain J. van Toch filled with tears.

“That is not good, lad. I could leave you all these pearls here as . . . as collateral for the ship, but I can’t buy the ship all by myself. I know of a very good ship here in Rotterdam . . . it’s fitted with a diesel engine . . .”

“Why did you not suggest this business to someone in Holland?” The captain shook his head.

“I know these people, lad. I can’t talk about this sort of thing with them. They,” he said thoughtfully, “would make me carry all sorts of other things on the ship, and I’d have to sell them all round these islands. Ja. That’s something I could do. I know a lot of people, Mister Bondy. And at the same time I could have the tanks on board with my lizards in them . . .”

“That’s something it might well be worth thinking about,” considered G.H. Bondy. “As it happens, you see . . . Well you see we need to find new markets for our products, and I was talking about this with some people not long ago. I would need to buy one or two ships, one for south America and the other for these eastern places . . .” The captain became more lively.

“That’s very wise of you, Mister Bondy. Ships are very cheap right now, you could buy a whole harbour full of them . . .” The captain launched into a deep and technical explanation of what vessels are for sale where and at what prices and boats and tank-steamers; G.H. Bondy did not listen to him but merely watched; G.H. Bondy was a good judge of character. He had not taken Captain van Toch’s story about the lizards seriously for one moment; but the captain himself was somebody worth taking seriously. Honest, yes. And he knew his way around down there. Mad, obviously. But very likeable. All this struck a chord in G.H. Bondy’s heart and chimed with his love of fantasy. Ships carrying pearls and coffee, ships with spices and all the scents of Arabia. There was a particular, indescribable feeling that G.H. Bondy had before each major and successful decision he made; a sensation which might have been expressed in words thus: It’s true I don’t really know why, but I think I’ll go along with this. He had this feeling now. Meanwhile Captain van Toch was waving his enormous hands in the air to outline ships with awning decks or quarter decks, fantastic ships, lad . . .

“I’ll tell you what, Captain Vantoch,” G.H. Bondy suddenly said, “come back here in two weeks time. We can talk about this ship again then.” Captain van Toch understood just how much these words meant. He blushed in happiness and said,

“And what about the lizards, can I take them on my ship too?”

“Yes, of course. Only please don’t mention them to anyone. People would think you’ve gone mad - and so would I.”

“And can I leave these pearls here with you?”

“Yes, if you want to.”

“Ja, but I’ll choose two of the nicest of them that I need to send off to someone.”

“Who’s that?”

“Just a couple of newspaper men I know, lad. Oh Hell, wait a minute.”

“What is it?”

“What the Hell were their names?” Captain van Toch blinked his blue eyes thoughtfully. “This head of mine is so stupid, lad. I’ve completely forgotten what those two lads were called.”

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