The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

Chapter 5

How Captain J. Van Toch Trained the Lizards

“Well I’m blowed,” said a man in Marseille. “It’s Jensen, isn’t it?” Jensen, the Swede, raised his eyes.

“Wait,” he said, “and don’t say a word until I’ve placed you.” He put his hand to his brow. “The Seagull, wasn’t it? No. Empress of India? No. Pernambuco? No. I’ve got it. Vancouver. Five years ago on the Vancouver, Osaka Line, Frisco. And your name is Dingle, you rascal, Irish.” The man grinned and exposed his yellow teeth as he sat down to join Jensen.

“Dat’s right, Jensen. And if there’s a drink goin I’ll have it, whatever it is. What brings you to dese parts?” Jensen nodded toward the dock.

“I do the Marseille to Saigon route these days. And you?”

“I’m on leave,” said Dingle with a swagger. “I’m on me way home to see how many children I’ve got now.” Jensen nodded his head earnestly.

“So they sacked you again, did they? Drunk on duty were you? If you went to the YMCA like I do then . . .” Dingle grinned cheerfully.

“Dey’ve got a YMCA here, you mean?”

“Today is Saturday,” Jensen grumbled. “And where have you been sailing?”

“On a kind of a tramp steamer,” said Dingle evasively. “All the islands you can tink of down under.”


“Some fella called van Toch. Dutchman or sometin.” Jensen the Swede became thoughtful.

“Captain van Toch. I have travelled with him also, brother, some years back. Ship: the Kandong Bandoeng. Line: from demon to Devil. Fat, bald and able to swear in Malay for better effect. I know him well.”

“Was he already such a lunatic in dem days?” The Swede shook his head.

“Old man Toch is all right.”

“And had he started carrying dem lizards of his about wid him by den?”

“No.” Jensen thought for a while. “I heard something about that . . . in Singapore. Someone was talking all that rubbish there.” The Irishman seemed somewhat offended.

“Dat is not rubbish, Jensen. Dat’s de holy truth about dese lizards.”

“This man in Singapore, he said it was true as well,” the Swede grumbled. “So I gave him a smack in the teeth,” he added in triumph.

“Well just you listen to me,” Dingle defended himself. “I ought to know about dese tings, cause I’ve seen dese brutes wid me own eyes.”

“So have I,” mumbled Jensen. “Almost black, with a tail about six feet long, and they run about on two feet. I know.”

“Hideous brutes,” shuddered Dingle. “Notting but warts.  Holy Mary, I wouldn’t touch em for anyting. And I’m sure dey must be poisonous and all!”

“Why not?” grumbled the Swede. “Listen. I served once on a ship that was full of people. All over the upper deck and the lower deck, nothing but people, full of women and all that sort of thing, dancing and playing cards. I was the stoker there, see. And now you tell me, you idiot, which do you think is more poisonous?”

Dingle spat. “Well if it’s Caymans you’re talking about, den I won’t say notting against you. There was one time I was takin a shipload of snakes to a zoo, from Bandjarmasin they were, and God how they stank! But dese lizards, Jensen, dese are some very strange animals were talkin about. All through the day they stay in that tank o water o theirs; but in the night they climb up out of it - tip-tap tip-tap tip-tap - and the whole ship was crawlin wid em. Stood up on their hind legs, they did, twistin their heads round to get a good look at you . . .” The Irishman crossed himself. “And they’d go ts-ts-ts at you, just like dem whores in Hong Kong. God forgive me, but I tink there’s sometin funny going on there. If it wasn’t so hard to get a job I wouldn’t have stayed there a minute, Jens. Not one minute.”

“Aha,” said Jensen. “So that is why you are running home to your mummy, is it?”

“Well, dat’s part of it. Just to stay there at all a fella had to keep drinking a Hell of a lot, and you know the captains got a ting about that. And the funny ting is, they say that one day I kicked one o the horrors. D’ye hear dat, kicked one o dem, and kicked it so hard that I broke its spine. You should have seen how the captain went on about it; he turned blue, lifted me up by the neck and he would have thrown me overboard into the water if Gregory, the mate, hadn’t been there. D’ye know Gregory?” The Swede merely nodded. “That’s enough now, Captain, says the mate, and he pours a bucket of water over me head. So in Kokopo I went on shore.” Mister Dingle spat in a long, flat curve. “The old man cares more about dem vermin then he does about people. D’ye know he taught em how to speak? On my soul, he used to shut himself in wid em and spend hours talking to them. I tink he’s trainin em for a circus or sometin. But the strangest ting of all is that then he lets them out into the water. He’d weigh anchor by some pathetic little island, take a boat out to the shore and check how deep it is there; then he’d come back to these tanks, open the hatch in the side o the ship and let these vermin out into the water. And you should see them jumpin out through this hatch one after the other like trained seals, ten or twenty o them. Then in the night old Toch would row out to the shore again with some kind o crates. And no-one was ever allowed to know what was in them. Then we’d sail on again somewhere else. So that’s how it is wid old Toch, Jens. Very strange. Very, very strange.” Mister Dingle’s eyes lost their sparkle. “Almighty God, Jens, it gave me the creeps! And I drank, Jens, drank like a lunatic; and in the night, when there was this tip-tappin all over the ship, and you could hear them going ts-ts-ts, sometimes I’d tink it was just because of the drink. I’d already had that once in Frisco, well you already know about that, don’t you Jensen; only in them days it was just millions of spiders I saw. De-li-rium, the doctors called it in the sailor-hospital. Well, I don’t know. But then I asked Big Bing about it, whether he’d been seein tings in the night and all, and he said he had been. Said he’d seen them wid his own eyes how one o these lizards turned the handle on the door and went into the captains cabin. Well, I don’t know; this Joe, he was a Hell of a drinker and all. What do you tink, Jens, do you tink Bing had this de-lirium too? What do you tink?” Jensen the Swede merely shrugged his shoulders. “And dat German fella, Peters, he said that when they rowed the captain down to the shore in the Manihiki Islands they hid behind some boulders and watched what the old man was doing wid dem crates of his. Now he says them lizards opened the crates all by themselves, that the old man gave them the chisel to do it with. And d’you know what was in them crates? Knives, he said. Great big long knives and harpoons and that sort o ting. Now I don’t believe a word of what Peters said meself cause he has to wear them glasses on his nose, but it’s very strange all the same. Now what do you tink of all this?”

The veins on Jensen’s brow bulged. “What I think of this,” he growled, “is that this German of yours in sticking his nose into things that are none of his business, understand? And I can tell you I don’t think that’s wise of him.”

“You’d better write and tell him, then,” smirked the Irishman. “The safest address to write to would be Hell, you can get hold of him there. And d’you know what it is that I find strange about all o dis? That old Toch goes and visits those lizards of his now and then, down in whatever place he’s set them down in. ‘Pon my soul, Jens. He has himself put down on shore in de middle o de night and doesn’t come back till mornin. Now you tell me, Jensen, what is it he goes down there for? And you tell me, what is it he’s got in dem parcels he sends off to Europe? Parcels as big as this, look, and he has them insured for up to a thousand pounds.”

“How do you know that?” asked the Swede, scowling even more.

“A fella knows what he knows,” replied Mister Dingle evasively. “And do you know where old Toch got dese lizards from? From Devil Bay. Now there’s a fella I know down there, an agent he is, and an educated man, like, and he told me that dese tings are not trained lizards. Nottin o de sort. And if anyone says dese are nottin more than animals you can go and tell dat to the fairies. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, lad.” Mister Dingle gave a significant wink. “Dat’s how it is, Jensen, just so’s you know. And are you gonna tell me now that Captain van Toch is alright?”

“Say that again,” grunted the big Swede threateningly.

“If old man Toch was alright he wouldn’t be carrying demons round the world wid him . . . and he wouldn’t be settlin em down in all the islands he can find like lice in a fur coat. Listen, just in the time that I was on board wid him he must have settled a good couple o thousand o them. The old mans sold his soul, man. And I know what it is that these devils are givin him for it. Rubies and pearls and all o that sort o ting. And you can well believe he wouldn’t be doin it for nottin.”

Jens Jensen turned a deep red. “And what business is it of yours?” he yelled, slamming his hand down on the table. “You mind your own damned business!” Little Dingle jumped back in alarm.

“Please,” he stuttered in confusion, “what’s suddenly . . . I was only telling you what it was I’d seen. And if you like, . . . it was just the impression I got. This is you, Jensen, I can tell you it’s all just delirium if dat’s what you want. You needn’t get cross wid me like dat, Jensen. I’ve already had that meself once in Frisco, you know about that. Serious case it was, that’s what the doctors in the sailor-hospital said. You have me word of honour I saw these lizards or demons or whatever they were. But maybe there weren’t any.”

“You did see them, Pat,” said the Swede gloomily. “I saw them too.”

“No Jens,” answered Dingle, “you were just delirious. He’s all right, old man Toch, only he shouldn’t be carryin demons about all round the world. Tell you what, once I get back home I’ll have a mass said for the good of his soul. Hang me if I don’t.”

“We don’t do that in our faith,” said Jensen, deep in thought and quieter now. “And do you really think it would help someone to have a mass said for him?”

“Enormous help,” exclaimed the Irishman. “I’ve heard of lots of cases in Ireland when it’s been of help, even in the most serious cases. Even when it’s involved demons and the like.”

“Then I shall also have a Catholic mass said for him,” Jens Jensen decided. “Only I’ll have it done here in Marseille. I think they’ll do it cheaper in the big church here, factory prices.”

“You could be right there, but an Irish mass is better. You see, in Ireland they’ve got these priests that really can work magic. Just like some fakir or pagan.”

“Listen Pat,” said Jensen, “I would give you twelve francs for this mass here and now. But you are riff-raff, brother; you would just drink it.”

“Now Jens, man, d’ye tink I’d take a sin like dat on meself? But listen, just so that you’ll believe me I’ll write you out an IOU for that twelve francs, will that do you?”

“That would be all right,” thought the Swede, who liked to see things done properly. Mister Dingle borrowed a pen and a piece of paper and laid it out flat on the table.

“Now what am I to write down here?” Jens Jensen looked over the Irishman’s shoulder.

“So write down at the top that this is a receipt.” And Mister Dingle, slowly and with his slimey tongue protruding from his mouth with the effort of it, wrote:




“Is dat all right, like dat?” asked Mister Dingle uncertainly. “And which of us is going keep dis piece o paper?

“You are of course, you fool,” said the Swede. “A receipt is so that a person won’t forget he has been given money.”

Mister Dingle drank those twelve francs away in Le Havre. He also, instead of going to Ireland, sailed off down to Djibouti; in short, that mass was never said, with the result that no higher power ever did interfere in the course of the events to follow.

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