Written late 1910-early 1911; first published in Metropolitan Magazine and London Magazine in early 1912 and July 1912, respectively; collected in ’Twixt Land and Sea 1912.
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One day — and that day was many years ago now — I received a long, chatty letter from one of my old chums and fellow-wanderers in Eastern waters. He was still out there, but settled down, and middle-aged; I imagined him — grown portly in figure and domestic in his habits; in short, overtaken by the fate common to all except to those who, being specially beloved by the gods, get knocked on the head early. The letter was of the reminiscent “do you remember” kind — a wistful letter of backward glances. And, amongst other things, “surely you remember old Nelson,” he wrote.
Remember old Nelson! Certainly. And to begin with, his name was not Nelson. The Englishmen in the Archipelago called him Nelson because it was more convenient, I suppose, and he never protested. It would have been mere pedantry. The true form of his name was Nielsen. He had come out East long before the advent of telegraph cables, had served English firms, had married an English girl, had been one of us for years, trading and sailing in all directions through the Eastern Archipelago, across and around, transversely, diagonally, perpendicularly, in semi-circles, and zigzags, and figures of eights, for years and years.
There was no nook or cranny of these tropical waters that the enterprise of old Nelson (or Nielsen) had not penetrated in an eminently pacific way. His tracks, if plotted out, would have covered the map of the Archipelago like a cobweb — all of it, with the sole exception of the Philippines. He would never approach that part, from a strange dread of Spaniards, or, to be exact, of the Spanish authorities. What he imagined they could do to him it is impossible to say. Perhaps at some time in his life he had read some stories of the Inquisition.
But he was in general afraid of what he called “authorities”; not the English authorities, which he trusted and respected, but the other two of that part of the world. He was not so horrified at the Dutch as he was at the Spaniards, but he was even more mistrustful of them. Very mistrustful indeed. The Dutch, in his view, were capable of “playing any ugly trick on a man” who had the misfortune to displease them. There were their laws and regulations, but they had no notion of fair play in applying them. It was really pitiable to see the anxious circumspection of his dealings with some official or other, and remember that this man had been known to stroll up to a village of cannibals in New Guinea in a quiet, fearless manner (and note that he was always fleshy all his life, and, if I may say so, an appetising morsel) on some matter of barter that did not amount perhaps to fifty pounds in the end.
Remember old Nelson! Rather! Truly, none of us in my generation had known him in his active days. He was “retired” in our time. He had bought, or else leased, part of a small island from the Sultan of a little group called the Seven Isles, not far north from Banka. It was, I suppose, a legitimate transaction, but I have no doubt that had he been an Englishman the Dutch would have discovered a reason to fire him out without ceremony. In this connection the real form of his name stood him in good stead. In the character of an unassuming Dane whose conduct was most correct, they let him be. With all his money engaged in cultivation he was naturally careful not to give even the shadow of offence, and it was mostly for prudential reasons of that sort that he did not look with a favourable eye on Jasper Allen. But of that later. Yes! One remembered well enough old Nelson’s big, hospitable bungalow erected on a shelving point of land, his portly form, costumed generally in a white shirt and trousers (he had a confirmed habit of taking off his alpaca jacket on the slightest provocation), his round blue eyes, his straggly, sandy-white moustache sticking out all ways like the quills of the fretful porcupine, his propensity to sit down suddenly and fan himself with his hat. But there’s no use concealing the fact that what one remembered really was his daughter, who at that time came out to live with him — and be a sort of Lady of the Isles.
Freya Nelson (or Nielsen) was the kind of girl one remembers. The oval of her face was perfect; and within that fascinating frame the most happy disposition of line and feature, with an admirable complexion, gave an impression of health, strength, and what I might call unconscious self-confidence — a most pleasant and, as it were, whimsical determination. I will not compare her eyes to violets, because the real shade of their colour was peculiar, not so dark and more lustrous. They were of the wide-open kind, and looked at one frankly in every mood. I never did see the long, dark eyelashes lowered — I dare say Jasper Allen did, being a privileged person — but I have no doubt that the expression must have been charming in a complex way. She could — Jasper told me once with a touchingly imbecile exultation — sit on her hair. I dare say, I dare say. It was not for me to behold these wonders; I was content to admire the neat and becoming way she used to do it up so as not to conceal the good shape of her head. And this wealth of hair was so glossy that when the screens of the west verandah were down, making a pleasant twilight there, or in the shade of the grove of fruit-trees near the house, it seemed to give out a golden light of its own.
She dressed generally in a white frock, with a skirt of walking length, showing her neat, laced, brown boots. If there was any colour about her costume it was just a bit of blue perhaps. No exertion seemed to distress her. I have seen her land from the dinghy after a long pull in the sun (she rowed herself about a good deal) with no quickened breath and not a single hair out of its place. In the morning when she came out on the verandah for the first look westward, Sumatra way, over the sea, she seemed as fresh and sparkling as a dewdrop. But a dewdrop is evanescent, and there was nothing evanescent about Freya. I remember her round, solid arms with the fine wrists, and her broad, capable hands with tapering fingers.
I don’t know whether she was actually born at sea, but I do know that up to twelve years of age she sailed about with her parents in various ships. After old Nelson lost his wife it became a matter of serious concern for him what to do with the girl. A kind lady in Singapore, touched by his dumb grief and deplorable perplexity, offered to take charge of Freya. This arrangement lasted some six years, during which old Nelson (or Nielsen) “retired” and established, himself on his island, and then it was settled (the kind lady going away to Europe) that his daughter should join him.
As the first and most important preparation for that event the old fellow ordered from his Singapore agent a Steyn and Ebhart’s “upright grand.” I was then commanding a little steamer in the island trade, and it fell to my lot to take it out to him, so I know something of Freya’s “upright grand.” We landed the enormous packing-case with difficulty on a flat piece of rock amongst some bushes, nearly knocking the bottom out of one of my boats in the course of that nautical operation. Then, all my crew assisting, engineers and firemen included, by the exercise of much anxious ingenuity, and by means of rollers, levers, tackles, and inclined planes of soaped planks, toiling in the sun like ancient Egyptians at the building of a pyramid, we got it as far as the house and up on to the edge of the west verandah — which was the actual drawing-room of the bungalow. There, the case being ripped off cautiously, the beautiful rosewood monster stood revealed at last. In reverent excitement we coaxed it against the wall and drew the first free breath of the day. It was certainly the heaviest movable object on that islet since the creation of the world. The volume of sound it gave out in that bungalow (which acted as a sounding-board) was really astonishing. It thundered sweetly right over the sea. Jasper Allen told me that early of a morning on the deck of the Bonito (his wonderfully fast and pretty brig) he could hear Freya playing her scales quite distinctly. But the fellow always anchored foolishly close to the point, as I told him more than once. Of course, these seas are almost uniformly serene, and the Seven Isles is a particularly calm and cloudless spot as a rule. But still, now and again, an afternoon thunderstorm over Banka, or even one of these vicious thick squalls, from the distant Sumatra coast, would make a sudden sally upon the group, enveloping it for a couple of hours in whirlwinds and bluish-black murk of a particularly sinister aspect. Then, with the lowered rattan-screens rattling desperately in the wind and the bungalow shaking all over, Freya would sit down to the piano and play fierce Wagner music in the flicker of blinding flashes, with thunderbolts falling all round, enough to make your hair stand on end; and Jasper would remain stock still on the verandah, adoring the back view of her supple, swaying figure, the miraculous sheen of her fair head, the rapid hands on the keys, the white nape of her neck — while the brig, down at the point there, surged at her cables within a hundred yards of nasty, shiny, black rock-heads. Ugh!
And this, if you please, for no reason but that, when he went on board at night and laid his head on the pillow, he should feel that he was as near as he could conveniently get to his Freya slumbering in the bungalow. Did you ever! And, mind, this brig was the home to be — their home — the floating paradise which he was gradually fitting out like a yacht to sail his life blissfully away in with Freya. Imbecile! But the fellow was always taking chances.
One day, I remember I watched with Freya on the verandah the brig approaching the point from the northward. I suppose Jasper made the girl out with his long glass. What does he do? Instead of standing on for another mile and a half along the shoals and then tacking for the anchorage in a proper and seamanlike manner, he spies a gap between two disgusting old jagged reefs, puts the helm down suddenly, and shoots the brig through, with all her sails shaking and rattling, so that we could hear the racket on the verandah. I drew my breath through my teeth, I can tell you, and Freya swore. Yes! She clenched her capable fists and stamped with her pretty brown boot and said “Damn!” Then, looking at me with a little heightened colour — not much — she remarked, “I forgot you were there,” and laughed. To be sure, to be sure. When Jasper was in sight she was not likely to remember that anybody else in the world was there. In my concern at this mad trick I couldn’t help appealing to her sympathetic common sense.
“Isn’t he a fool?” I said with feeling.
“Perfect idiot,” she agreed warmly, looking at me straight with her wide-open, earnest eyes and the dimple of a smile on her cheek.
“And that,” I pointed out to her, “just to save twenty minutes or so in meeting you.”
We heard the anchor go down, and then she became very resolute and threatening.
“Wait a bit. I’ll teach him.”
She went into her own room and shut the door, leaving me alone on the verandah with my instructions. Long before the brig’s sails were furled, Jasper came up three steps at a time, forgetting to say how d’ye do, and looking right and left eagerly.
“Where’s Freya? Wasn’t she here just now?”
When I explained to him that he was to be deprived of Miss Freya’s presence for a whole hour, “just to teach him,” he said I had put her up to it, no doubt, and that he feared he would have yet to shoot me some day. She and I were getting too thick together. Then he flung himself into a chair, and tried to talk to me about his trip. But the funny thing was that the fellow actually suffered. I could see it. His voice failed him, and he sat there dumb, looking at the door with the face of a man in pain. Fact. . . . And the next still funnier thing was that the girl calmly walked out of her room in less than ten minutes. And then I left. I mean to say that I went away to seek old Nelson (or Nielsen) on the back verandah, which was his own special nook in the distribution of that house, with the kind purpose of engaging him in conversation lest he should start roaming about and intrude unwittingly where he was not wanted just then.
He knew that the brig had arrived, though he did not know that Jasper was already with his daughter. I suppose he didn’t think it was possible in the time. A father naturally wouldn’t. He suspected that Allen was sweet on his girl; the fowls of the air and the fishes of the sea, most of the traders in the Archipelago, and all sorts and conditions of men in the town of Singapore were aware of it. But he was not capable of appreciating how far the girl was gone on the fellow. He had an idea that Freya was too sensible to ever be gone on anybody — I mean to an unmanageable extent. No; it was not that which made him sit on the back verandah and worry himself in his unassuming manner during Jasper’s visits. What he worried about were the Dutch “authorities.” For it is a fact that the Dutch looked askance at the doings of Jasper Allen, owner and master of the brig Bonito. They considered him much too enterprising in his trading. I don’t know that he ever did anything illegal; but it seems to me that his immense activity was repulsive to their stolid character and slow-going methods. Anyway, in old Nelson’s opinion, the captain of the Bonito was a smart sailor, and a nice young man, but not a desirable acquaintance upon the whole. Somewhat compromising, you understand. On the other hand, he did not like to tell Jasper in so many words to keep away. Poor old Nelson himself was a nice fellow. I believe he would have shrunk from hurting the feelings even of a mop-headed cannibal, unless, perhaps, under very strong provocation. I mean the feelings, not the bodies. As against spears, knives, hatchets, clubs, or arrows, old Nelson had proved himself capable of taking his own part. In every other respect he had a timorous soul. So he sat on the back verandah with a concerned expression, and whenever the voices of his daughter and Jasper Allen reached him, he would blow out his cheeks and let the air escape with a dismal sound, like a much tried man.
Naturally I derided his fears which he, more or less, confided to me. He had a certain regard for my judgment, and a certain respect, not for my moral qualities, however, but for the good terms I was supposed to be on with the Dutch “authorities.” I knew for a fact that his greatest bugbear, the Governor of Banka — a charming, peppery, hearty, retired rear-admiral — had a distinct liking for him. This consoling assurance which I used always to put forward, made old Nelson (or Nielsen) brighten up for a moment; but in the end he would shake his head doubtfully, as much as to say that this was all very well, but that there were depths in the Dutch official nature which no one but himself had ever fathomed. Perfectly ridiculous.
On this occasion I am speaking of, old Nelson was even fretty; for while I was trying to entertain him with a very funny and somewhat scandalous adventure which happened to a certain acquaintance of ours in Saigon, he exclaimed suddenly:
“What the devil he wants to turn up here for!”
Clearly he had not heard a word of the anecdote. And this annoyed me, because the anecdote was really good. I stared at him.
“Come, come!” I cried. “Don’t you know what Jasper Allen is turning up here for?”
This was the first open allusion I had ever made to the true state of affairs between Jasper and his daughter. He took it very calmly.
“Oh, Freya is a sensible girl!” he murmured absently, his mind’s eye obviously fixed on the “authorities.” No; Freya was no fool. He was not concerned about that. He didn’t mind it in the least. The fellow was just company for her; he amused the girl; nothing more.
When the perspicacious old chap left off mumbling, all was still in the house. The other two were amusing themselves very quietly, and no doubt very heartily. What more absorbing and less noisy amusement could they have found than to plan their future? Side by side on the verandah they must have been looking at the brig, the third party in that fascinating game. Without her there would have been no future. She was the fortune and the home, and the great free world for them. Who was it that likened a ship to a prison? May I be ignominiously hanged at a yardarm if that’s true. The white sails of that craft were the white wings — pinions, I believe, would be the more poetical style — well, the white pinions, of their soaring love. Soaring as regards Jasper. Freya, being a woman, kept a better hold of the mundane connections of this affair.
But Jasper was elevated in the true sense of the word ever since the day when, after they had been gazing at the brig in one of those decisive silences that alone establish a perfect communion between creatures gifted with speech, he proposed that she should share the ownership of that treasure with him. Indeed, he presented the brig to her altogether. But then his heart was in the brig since the day he bought her in Manilla from a certain middle-aged Peruvian, in a sober suit of black broadcloth, enigmatic and sententious, who, for all I know, might have stolen her on the South American coast, whence he said he had come over to the Philippines “for family reasons.” This “for family reasons” was distinctly good. No true CABALLERO would care to push on inquiries after such a statement.
Indeed, Jasper was quite the CABALLERO. The brig herself was then all black and enigmatical, and very dirty; a tarnished gem of the sea, or, rather, a neglected work of art. For he must have been an artist, the obscure builder who had put her body together on lovely lines out of the hardest tropical timber fastened with the purest copper. Goodness only knows in what part of the world she was built. Jasper himself had not been able to ascertain much of her history from his sententious, saturnine Peruvian — if the fellow was a Peruvian, and not the devil himself in disguise, as Jasper jocularly pretended to believe. My opinion is that she was old enough to have been one of the last pirates, a slaver perhaps, or else an opium clipper of the early days, if not an opium smuggler.
However that may be, she was as sound as on the day she first took the water, sailed like a witch, steered like a little boat, and, like some fair women of adventurous life famous in history, seemed to have the secret of perpetual youth; so that there was nothing unnatural in Jasper Allen treating her like a lover. And that treatment restored the lustre of her beauty. He clothed her in many coats of the very best white paint so skilfully, carefully, artistically put on and kept clean by his badgered crew of picked Malays, that no costly enamel such as jewellers use for their work could have looked better and felt smoother to the touch. A narrow gilt moulding defined her elegant sheer as she sat on the water, eclipsing easily the professional good looks of any pleasure yacht that ever came to the East in those days. For myself, I must say I prefer a moulding of deep crimson colour on a white hull. It gives a stronger relief besides being less expensive; and I told Jasper so. But no, nothing less than the best gold-leaf would do, because no decoration could be gorgeous enough for the future abode of his Freya.
His feelings for the brig and for the girl were as indissolubly united in his heart as you may fuse two precious metals together in one crucible. And the flame was pretty hot, I can assure you. It induced in him a fierce inward restlessness both of activity and desire. Too fine in face, with a lateral wave in his chestnut hair, spare, long-limbed, with an eager glint in his steely eyes and quick, brusque movements, he made me think sometimes of a flashing sword-blade perpetually leaping out of the scabbard. It was only when he was near the girl, when he had her there to look at, that this peculiarly tense attitude was replaced by a grave devout watchfulness of her slightest movements and utterances. Her cool, resolute, capable, good-humoured self-possession seemed to steady his heart. Was it the magic of her face, of her voice, of her glances which calmed him so? Yet these were the very things one must believe which had set his imagination ablaze — if love begins in imagination. But I am no man to discuss such mysteries, and it strikes me that we have neglected poor old Nelson inflating his cheeks in a state of worry on the back verandah.
I pointed out to him that, after all, Jasper was not a very frequent visitor. He and his brig worked hard all over the Archipelago. But all old Nelson said, and he said it uneasily, was:
“I hope Heemskirk won’t turn up here while the brig’s about.”
Getting up a scare about Heemskirk now! Heemskirk! . . . Really, one hadn’t the patience —
For, pray, who was Heemskirk? You shall see at once how unreasonable this dread of Heemskirk. . . . Certainly, his nature was malevolent enough. That was obvious, directly you heard him laugh. Nothing gives away more a man’s secret disposition than the unguarded ring of his laugh. But, bless my soul! if we were to start at every evil guffaw like a hare at every sound, we shouldn’t be fit for anything but the solitude of a desert, or the seclusion of a hermitage. And even there we should have to put up with the unavoidable company of the devil.
However, the devil is a considerable personage, who has known better days and has moved high up in the hierarchy of Celestial Host; but in the hierarchy of mere earthly Dutchmen, Heemskirk, whose early days could not have been very splendid, was merely a naval officer forty years of age, of no particular connections or ability to boast of. He was commanding the Neptun, a little gunboat employed on dreary patrol duty up and down the Archipelago, to look after the traders. Not a very exalted position truly. I tell you, just a common middle-aged lieutenant of some twenty-five years’ service and sure to be retired before long — that’s all.
He never bothered his head very much as to what was going on in the Seven Isles group till he learned from some talk in Mintok or Palembang, I suppose, that there was a pretty girl living there. Curiosity, I presume, caused him to go poking around that way, and then, after he had once seen Freya, he made a practice of calling at the group whenever he found himself within half a day’s steaming from it.
I don’t mean to say that Heemskirk was a typical Dutch naval officer. I have seen enough of them not to fall into that absurd mistake. He had a big, clean-shaven face; great flat, brown cheeks, with a thin, hooked nose and a small, pursy mouth squeezed in between. There were a few silver threads in his black hair, and his unpleasant eyes were nearly black, too. He had a surly way of casting side glances without moving his head, which was set low on a short, round neck. A thick, round trunk in a dark undress jacket with gold shoulder-straps, was sustained by a straddly pair of thick, round legs, in white drill trousers. His round skull under a white cap looked as if it were immensely thick too, but there were brains enough in it to discover and take advantage maliciously of poor old Nelson’s nervousness before everything that was invested with the merest shred of authority.
Heemskirk would land on the point and perambulate silently every part of the plantation as if the whole place belonged to him, before her went to the house. On the verandah he would take the best chair, and would stay for tiffin or dinner, just simply stay on, without taking the trouble to invite himself by so much as a word.
He ought to have been kicked, if only for his manner to Miss Freya. Had he been a naked savage, armed with spears and poisoned arrows, old Nelson (or Nielsen) would have gone for him with his bare fists. But these gold shoulder-straps — Dutch shoulder-straps at that — were enough to terrify the old fellow; so he let the beggar treat him with heavy contempt, devour his daughter with his eyes, and drink the best part of his little stock of wine.
I saw something of this, and on one occasion I tried to pass a remark on the subject. It was pitiable to see the trouble in old Nelson’s round eyes. At first he cried out that the lieutenant was a good friend of his; a very good fellow. I went on staring at him pretty hard, so that at last he faltered, and had to own that, of course, Heemskirk was not a very genial person outwardly, but all the same at bottom . . . .
“I haven’t yet met a genial Dutchman out here,” I interrupted. “Geniality, after all, is not of much consequence, but don’t you see — ”
Nelson looked suddenly so frightened at what I was going to say that I hadn’t the heart to go on. Of course, I was going to tell him that the fellow was after his girl. That just describes it exactly. What Heemskirk might have expected or what he thought he could do, I don’t know. For all I can tell, he might have imagined himself irresistible, or have taken Freya for what she was not, on account of her lively, assured, unconstrained manner. But there it is. He was after that girl. Nelson could see it well enough. Only he preferred to ignore it. He did not want to be told of it.
“All I want is to live in peace and quietness with the Dutch authorities,” he mumbled shamefacedly.
He was incurable. I was sorry for him, and I really think Miss Freya was sorry for her father, too. She restrained herself for his sake, and as everything she did she did it simply, unaffectedly, and even good humouredly. No small effort that, because in Heemskirk’s attentions there was an insolent touch of scorn, hard to put up with. Dutchmen of that sort are over-bearing to their inferiors, and that officer of the king looked upon old Nelson and Freya as quite beneath him in every way.
I can’t say I felt sorry for Freya. She was not the sort of girl to take anything tragically. One could feel for her and sympathise with her difficulty, but she seemed equal to any situation. It was rather admiration she extorted by her competent serenity. It was only when Jasper and Heemskirk were together at the bungalow, as it happened now and then, that she felt the strain, and even then it was not for everybody to see. My eyes alone could detect a faint shadow on the radiance of her personality. Once I could not help saying to her appreciatively:
“Upon my word you are wonderful.”
She let it pass with a faint smile.
“The great thing is to prevent Jasper becoming unreasonable,” she said; and I could see real concern lurking in the quiet depths of her frank eyes gazing straight at me. “You will help to keep him quiet, won’t you?”
“Of course, we must keep him quiet,” I declared, understanding very well the nature of her anxiety. “He’s such a lunatic, too, when he’s roused.”
“He is!” she assented, in a soft tone; for it was our joke to speak of Jasper abusively. “But I have tamed him a bit. He’s quite a good boy now.”
“He would squash Heemskirk like a blackbeetle all the same,” I remarked.
“Rather!” she murmured. “And that wouldn’t do,” she added quickly. “Imagine the state poor papa would get into. Besides, I mean to be mistress of the dear brig and sail about these seas, not go off wandering ten thousand miles away from here.”
“The sooner you are on board to look after the man and the brig the better,” I said seriously. “They need you to steady them both a bit. I don’t think Jasper will ever get sobered down till he has carried you off from this island. You don’t see him when he is away from you, as I do. He’s in a state of perpetual elation which almost frightens me.”
At this she smiled again, and then looked serious. For it could not be unpleasant to her to be told of her power, and she had some sense of her responsibility. She slipped away from me suddenly, because Heemskirk, with old Nelson in attendance at his elbow, was coming up the steps of the verandah. Directly his head came above the level of the floor his ill-natured black eyes shot glances here and there.
“Where’s your girl, Nelson?” he asked, in a tone as if every soul in the world belonged to him. And then to me: “The goddess has flown, eh?”
Nelson’s Cove — as we used to call it — was crowded with shipping that day. There was first my steamer, then the Neptun gunboat further out, and the Bonito, brig, anchored as usual so close inshore that it looked as if, with a little skill and judgment, one could shy a hat from the verandah on to her scrupulously holystoned quarter-deck. Her brasses flashed like gold, her white body-paint had a sheen like a satin robe. The rake of her varnished spars and the big yards, squared to a hair, gave her a sort of martial elegance. She was a beauty. No wonder that in possession of a craft like that and the promise of a girl like Freya, Jasper lived in a state of perpetual elation fit, perhaps, for the seventh heaven, but not exactly safe in a world like ours.
I remarked politely to Heemskirk that, with three guests in the house, Miss Freya had no doubt domestic matters to attend to. I knew, of course, that she had gone to meet Jasper at a certain cleared spot on the banks of the only stream on Nelson’s little island. The commander of the Neptun gave me a dubious black look, and began to make himself at home, flinging his thick, cylindrical carcass into a rocking-chair, and unbuttoning his coat. Old Nelson sat down opposite him in a most unassuming manner, staring anxiously with his round eyes and fanning himself with his hat. I tried to make conversation to while the time away; not an easy task with a morose, enamoured Dutchman constantly looking from one door to another and answering one’s advances either with a jeer or a grunt.
However, the evening passed off all right. Luckily, there is a degree of bliss too intense for elation. Jasper was quiet and concentrated silently in watching Freya. As we went on board our respective ships I offered to give his brig a tow out next morning. I did it on purpose to get him away at the earliest possible moment. So in the first cold light of the dawn we passed by the gunboat lying black and still without a sound in her at the mouth of the glassy cove. But with tropical swiftness the sun had climbed twice its diameter above the horizon before we had rounded the reef and got abreast of the point. On the biggest boulder there stood Freya, all in white and, in her helmet, like a feminine and martial statue with a rosy face, as I could see very well with my glasses. She fluttered an expressive handkerchief, and Jasper, running up the main rigging of the white and warlike brig, waved his hat in response. Shortly afterwards we parted, I to the northward and Jasper heading east with a light wind on the quarter, for Banjermassin and two other ports, I believe it was, that trip.
This peaceful occasion was the last on which I saw all these people assembled together; the charmingly fresh and resolute Freya, the innocently round-eyed old Nelson, Jasper, keen, long limbed, lean faced, admirably self-contained, in his manner, because inconceivably happy under the eyes of his Freya; all three tall, fair, and blue-eyed in varied shades, and amongst them the swarthy, arrogant, black-haired Dutchman, shorter nearly by a head, and so much thicker than any of them that he seemed to be a creature capable of inflating itself, a grotesque specimen of mankind from some other planet.
The contrast struck me all at once as we stood in the lighted verandah, after rising from the dinner-table. I was fascinated by it for the rest of the evening, and I remember the impression of something funny and ill-omened at the same time in it to this day.
A few weeks later, coming early one morning into Singapore, from a journey to the southward, I saw the brig lying at anchor in all her usual symmetry and splendour of aspect as though she had been taken out of a glass case and put delicately into the water that very moment.
She was well out in the roadstead, but I steamed in and took up my habitual berth close in front of the town. Before we had finished breakfast a quarter-master came to tell me that Captain Allen’s boat was coming our way.
His smart gig dashed alongside, and in two bounds he was up our accommodation-ladder and shaking me by the hand with his nervous grip, his eyes snapping inquisitively, for he supposed I had called at the Seven Isles group on my way. I reached into my pocket for a nicely folded little note, which he grabbed out of my hand without ceremony and carried off on the bridge to read by himself. After a decent interval I followed him up there, and found him pacing to and fro; for the nature of his emotions made him restless even in his most thoughtful moments.
He shook his head at me triumphantly.
“Well, my dear boy,” he said, “I shall be counting the days now.”
I understood what he meant. I knew that those young people had settled already on a runaway match without official preliminaries. This was really a logical decision. Old Nelson (or Nielsen) would never have agreed to give up Freya peaceably to this compromising Jasper. Heavens! What would the Dutch authorities say to such a match! It sounds too ridiculous for words. But there’s nothing in the world more selfishly hard than a timorous man in a fright about his “little estate,” as old Nelson used to call it in apologetic accents. A heart permeated by a particular sort of funk is proof against sense, feeling, and ridicule. It’s a flint.
Jasper would have made his request all the same and then taken his own way; but it was Freya who decided that nothing should be said, on the ground that, “Papa would only worry himself to distraction.” He was capable of making himself ill, and then she wouldn’t have the heart to leave him. Here you have the sanity of feminine outlook and the frankness of feminine reasoning. And for the rest, Miss Freya could read “poor dear papa” in the way a woman reads a man — like an open book. His daughter once gone, old Nelson would not worry himself. He would raise a great outcry, and make no end of lamentable fuss, but that’s not the same thing. The real agonies of indecision, the anguish of conflicting feelings would be spared to him. And as he was too unassuming to rage, he would, after a period of lamentation, devote himself to his “little estate,” and to keeping on good terms with the authorities.
Time would do the rest. And Freya thought she could afford to wait, while ruling over her own home in the beautiful brig and over the man who loved her. This was the life for her who had learned to walk on a ship’s deck. She was a ship-child, a sea-girl if ever there was one. And of course she loved Jasper and trusted him; but there was a shade of anxiety in her pride. It is very fine and romantic to possess for your very own a finely tempered and trusty sword-blade, but whether it is the best weapon to counter with the common cudgel-play of Fate — that’s another question.
She knew that she had the more substance of the two — you needn’t try any cheap jokes, I am not talking of their weights. She was just a little anxious while he was away, and she had me who, being a tried confidant, took the liberty to whisper frequently “The sooner the better.” But there was a peculiar vein of obstinacy in Miss Freya, and her reason for delay was characteristic. “Not before my twenty-first birthday; so that there shall be no mistake in people’s minds as to me being old enough to know what I am doing.”
Jasper’s feelings were in such subjection that he had never even remonstrated against the decree. She was just splendid, whatever she did or said, and there was an end of it for him. I believe that he was subtle enough to be even flattered at bottom — at times. And then to console him he had the brig which seemed pervaded by the spirit of Freya, since whatever he did on board was always done under the supreme sanction of his love.
“Yes. I’ll soon begin to count the days,” he repeated. “Eleven months more. I’ll have to crowd three trips into that.”
“Mind you don’t come to grief trying to do too much,” I admonished him. But he dismissed my caution with a laugh and an elated gesture. Pooh! Nothing, nothing could happen to the brig, he cried, as if the flame of his heart could light up the dark nights of uncharted seas, and the image of Freya serve for an unerring beacon amongst hidden shoals; as if the winds had to wait on his future, the stars fight for it in their courses; as if the magic of his passion had the power to float a ship on a drop of dew or sail her through the eye of a needle — simply because it was her magnificent lot to be the servant of a love so full of grace as to make all the ways of the earth safe, resplendent, and easy.
“I suppose,” I said, after he had finished laughing at my innocent enough remark, “I suppose you will be off to-day.”
That was what he meant to do. He had not gone at daylight only because he expected me to come in.
“And only fancy what has happened yesterday,” he went on. “My mate left me suddenly. Had to. And as there’s nobody to be found at a short notice I am going to take Schultz with me. The notorious Schultz! Why don’t you jump out of your skin? I tell you I went and unearthed Schultz late last evening, after no end of trouble. ‘I am your man, captain,’ he says, in that wonderful voice of his, ‘but I am sorry to confess I have practically no clothes to my back. I have had to sell all my wardrobe to get a little food from day to day.’ What a voice that man has got. Talk about moving stones! But people seem to get used to it. I had never seen him before, and, upon my word, I felt suddenly tears rising to my eyes. Luckily it was dusk. He was sitting very quiet under a tree in a native compound as thin as a lath, and when I peered down at him all he had on was an old cotton singlet and a pair of ragged pyjamas. I bought him six white suits and two pairs of canvas shoes. Can’t clear the ship without a mate. Must have somebody. I am going on shore presently to sign him on, and I shall take him with me as I go back on board to get under way. Now, I am a lunatic — am I not? Mad, of course. Come on! Lay it on thick. Let yourself go. I like to see you get excited.”
He so evidently expected me to scold that I took especial pleasure in exaggerating the calmness of my attitude.
“The worst that can be brought up against Schultz,” I began, folding my arms and speaking dispassionately, “is an awkward habit of stealing the stores of every ship he has ever been in. He will do it. That’s really all that’s wrong. I don’t credit absolutely that story Captain Robinson tells of Schultz conspiring in Chantabun with some ruffians in a Chinese junk to steal the anchor off the starboard bow of the Bohemian Girl schooner. Robinson’s story is too ingenious altogether. That other tale of the engineers of the Nan-Shan finding Schultz at midnight in the engine-room busy hammering at the brass bearings to carry them off for sale on shore seems to me more authentic. Apart from this little weakness, let me tell you that Schultz is a smarter sailor than many who never took a drop of drink in their lives, and perhaps no worse morally than some men you and I know who have never stolen the value of a penny. He may not be a desirable person to have on board one’s ship, but since you have no choice he may be made to do, I believe. The important thing is to understand his psychology. Don’t give him any money till you have done with him. Not a cent, if he begs ever so. For as sure as Fate the moment you give him any money he will begin to steal. Just remember that.”
I enjoyed Jasper’s incredulous surprise.
“The devil he will!” he cried. “What on earth for? Aren’t you trying to pull my leg, old boy?”
“No. I’m not. You must understand Schultz’s psychology. He’s neither a loafer nor a cadger. He’s not likely to wander about looking for somebody to stand him drinks. But suppose he goes on shore with five dollars, or fifty for that matter, in his pocket? After the third or fourth glass he becomes fuddled and charitable. He either drops his money all over the place, or else distributes the lot around; gives it to any one who will take it. Then it occurs to him that the night is young yet, and that he may require a good many more drinks for himself and his friends before morning. So he starts off cheerfully for his ship. His legs never get affected nor his head either in the usual way. He gets aboard and simply grabs the first thing that seems to him suitable — the cabin lamp, a coil of rope, a bag of biscuits, a drum of oil — and converts it into money without thinking twice about it. This is the process and no other. You have only to look out that he doesn’t get a start. That’s all.”
“Confound his psychology,” muttered Jasper. “But a man with a voice like his is fit to talk to the angels. Is he incurable do you think?”
I said that I thought so. Nobody had prosecuted him yet, but no one would employ him any longer. His end would be, I feared, to starve in some hole or other.
“Ah, well,” reflected Jasper. “The Bonito isn’t trading to any ports of civilisation. That’ll make it easier for him to keep straight.”
That was true. The brig’s business was on uncivilised coasts, with obscure rajahs dwelling in nearly unknown bays; with native settlements up mysterious rivers opening their sombre, forest-lined estuaries among a welter of pale green reefs and dazzling sand-banks, in lonely straits of calm blue water all aglitter with sunshine. Alone, far from the beaten tracks, she glided, all white, round dark, frowning headlands, stole out, silent like a ghost, from behind points of land stretching out all black in the moonlight; or lay hove-to, like a sleeping sea-bird, under the shadow of some nameless mountain waiting for a signal. She would be glimpsed suddenly on misty, squally days dashing disdainfully aside the short aggressive waves of the Java Sea; or be seen far, far away, a tiny dazzling white speck flying across the brooding purple masses of thunderclouds piled up on the horizon. Sometimes, on the rare mail tracks, where civilisation brushes against wild mystery, when the naive passengers crowding along the rail exclaimed, pointing at her with interest: “Oh, here’s a yacht!” the Dutch captain, with a hostile glance, would grunt contemptuously: “Yacht! No! That’s only English Jasper. A pedlar — ”
“A good seaman you say,” ejaculated Jasper, still in the matter of the hopeless Schultz with the wonderfully touching voice.
“First rate. Ask any one. Quite worth having — only impossible,” I declared.
“He shall have his chance to reform in the brig,” said Jasper, with a laugh. “There will be no temptations either to drink or steal where I am going to this time.”
I didn’t press him for anything more definite on that point. In fact, intimate as we were, I had a pretty clear notion of the general run of his business.
But as we are going ashore in his gig he asked suddenly: “By the way, do you know where Heemskirk is?”
I eyed him covertly, and was reassured. He had asked the question, not as a lover, but as a trader. I told him that I had heard in Palembang that the Neptun was on duty down about Flores and Sumbawa. Quite out of his way. He expressed his satisfaction.
“You know,” he went on, “that fellow, when he gets on the Borneo coast, amuses himself by knocking down my beacons. I have had to put up a few to help me in and out of the rivers. Early this year a Celebes trader becalmed in a prau was watching him at it. He steamed the gunboat full tilt at two of them, one after another, smashing them to pieces, and then lowered a boat on purpose to pull out a third, which I had a lot of trouble six months ago to stick up in the middle of a mudflat for a tide mark. Did you ever hear of anything more provoking — eh?”
“I wouldn’t quarrel with the beggar,” I observed casually, yet disliking that piece of news strongly. “It isn’t worth while.”
“I quarrel?” cried Jasper. “I don’t want to quarrel. I don’t want to hurt a single hair of his ugly head. My dear fellow, when I think of Freya’s twenty-first birthday, all the world’s my friend, Heemskirk included. It’s a nasty, spiteful amusement, all the same.”
We parted rather hurriedly on the quay, each of us having his own pressing business to attend to. I would have been very much cut up had I known that this hurried grasp of the hand with “So long, old boy. Good luck to you!” was the last of our partings.
On his return to the Straits I was away, and he was gone again before I got back. He was trying to achieve three trips before Freya’s twenty-first birthday. At Nelson’s Cove I missed him again by only a couple of days. Freya and I talked of “that lunatic” and “perfect idiot” with great delight and infinite appreciation. She was very radiant, with a more pronounced gaiety, notwithstanding that she had just parted from Jasper. But this was to be their last separation.
“Do get aboard as soon as you can, Miss Freya,” I entreated.
She looked me straight in the face, her colour a little heightened and with a sort of solemn ardour — if there was a little catch in her voice.
“The very next day.”
Ah, yes! The very next day after her twenty-first birthday. I was pleased at this hint of deep feeling. It was as if she had grown impatient at last of the self-imposed delay. I supposed that Jasper’s recent visit had told heavily.
“That’s right,” I said approvingly. “I shall be much easier in my mind when I know you have taken charge of that lunatic. Don’t you lose a minute. He, of course, will be on time — unless heavens fall.”
“Yes. Unless — “ she repeated in a thoughtful whisper, raising her eyes to the evening sky without a speck of cloud anywhere. Silent for a time, we let our eyes wander over the waters below, looking mysteriously still in the twilight, as if trustfully composed for a long, long dream in the warm, tropical night. And the peace all round us seemed without limits and without end.
And then we began again to talk Jasper over in our usual strain. We agreed that he was too reckless in many ways. Luckily, the brig was equal to the situation. Nothing apparently was too much for her. A perfect darling of a ship, said Miss Freya. She and her father had spent an afternoon on board. Jasper had given them some tea. Papa was grumpy. . . . I had a vision of old Nelson under the brig’s snowy awnings, nursing his unassuming vexation, and fanning himself with his hat. A comedy father. . . . As a new instance of Jasper’s lunacy, I was told that he was distressed at his inability to have solid silver handles fitted to all the cabin doors. “As if I would have let him!” commented Miss Freya, with amused indignation. Incidentally, I learned also that Schultz, the nautical kleptomaniac with the pathetic voice, was still hanging on to his job, with Miss Freya’s approval. Jasper had confided to the lady of his heart his purpose of straightening out the fellow’s psychology. Yes, indeed. All the world was his friend because it breathed the same air with Freya.
Somehow or other, I brought Heemskirk’s name into conversation, and, to my great surprise, startled Miss Freya. Her eyes expressed something like distress, while she bit her lip as if to contain an explosion of laughter. Oh! Yes. Heemskirk was at the bungalow at the same time with Jasper, but he arrived the day after. He left the same day as the brig, but a few hours later.
“What a nuisance he must have been to you two,” I said feelingly.
Her eyes flashed at me a sort of frightened merriment, and suddenly she exploded into a clear burst of laughter. “Ha, ha, ha!”
I echoed it heartily, but not with the game charming tone: “Ha, ha, ha! . . . Isn’t he grotesque? Ha, ha, ha!” And the ludicrousness of old Nelson’s inanely fierce round eyes in association with his conciliatory manner to the lieutenant presenting itself to my mind brought on another fit.
“He looks,” I spluttered, “he looks — Ha, ha, ha! — amongst you three . . . like an unhappy black-beetle. Ha, ha, ha!”
She gave out another ringing peal, ran off into her own room, and slammed the door behind her, leaving me profoundly astounded. I stopped laughing at once.
“What’s the joke?” asked old Nelson’s voice, half way down the steps.
He came up, sat down, and blew out his cheeks, looking inexpressibly fatuous. But I didn’t want to laugh any more. And what on earth, I asked myself, have we been laughing at in this uncontrollable fashion. I felt suddenly depressed.
Oh, yes. Freya had started it. The girl’s overwrought, I thought. And really one couldn’t wonder at it.
I had no answer to old Nelson’s question, but he was too aggrieved at Jasper’s visit to think of anything else. He as good as asked me whether I wouldn’t undertake to hint to Jasper that he was not wanted at the Seven Isles group. I declared that it was not necessary. From certain circumstances which had come to my knowledge lately, I had reason to think that he would not be much troubled by Jasper Allen in the future.
He emitted an earnest “Thank God!” which nearly set me laughing again, but he did not brighten up proportionately. It seemed Heemskirk had taken special pains to make himself disagreeable. The lieutenant had frightened old Nelson very much by expressing a sinister wonder at the Government permitting a white man to settle down in that part at all. “It is against our declared policy,” he had remarked. He had also charged him with being in reality no better than an Englishman. He had even tried to pick a quarrel with him for not learning to speak Dutch.
“I told him I was too old to learn now,” sighed out old Nelson (or Nielsen) dismally. “He said I ought to have learned Dutch long before. I had been making my living in Dutch dependencies. It was disgraceful of me not to speak Dutch, he said. He was as savage with me as if I had been a Chinaman.”
It was plain he had been viciously badgered. He did not mention how many bottles of his best claret he had offered up on the altar of conciliation. It must have been a generous libation. But old Nelson (or Nielsen) was really hospitable. He didn’t mind that; and I only regretted that this virtue should be lavished on the lieutenant-commander of the Neptun. I longed to tell him that in all probability he would be relieved from Heemskirk’s visitations also. I did not do so only from the fear (absurd, I admit) of arousing some sort of suspicion in his mind. As if with this guileless comedy father such a thing were possible!
Strangely enough, the last words on the subject of Heemskirk were spoken by Freya, and in that very sense. The lieutenant was turning up persistently in old Nelson’s conversation at dinner. At last I muttered a half audible “Damn the lieutenant.” I could see that the girl was getting exasperated, too.
“And he wasn’t well at all — was he, Freya?” old Nelson went on moaning. “Perhaps it was that which made him so snappish, hey, Freya? He looked very bad when he left us so suddenly. His liver must be in a bad state, too.”
“Oh, he will end by getting over it,” said Freya impatiently. “And do leave off worrying about him, papa. Very likely you won’t see much of him for a long time to come.”
The look she gave me in exchange for my discreet smile had no hidden mirth in it. Her eyes seemed hollowed, her face gone wan in a couple of hours. We had been laughing too much. Overwrought! Overwrought by the approach of the decisive moment. After all, sincere, courageous, and self-reliant as she was, she must have felt both the passion and the compunction of her resolve. The very strength of love which had carried her up to that point must have put her under a great moral strain, in which there might have been a little simple remorse, too. For she was honest — and there, across the table, sat poor old Nelson (or Nielsen) staring at her, round-eyed and so pathetically comic in his fierce aspect as to touch the most lightsome heart.
He retired early to his room to soothe himself for a night’s rest by perusing his account-books. We two remained on the verandah for another hour or so, but we exchanged only languid phrases on things without importance, as though we had been emotionally jaded by our long day’s talk on the only momentous subject. And yet there was something she might have told a friend. But she didn’t. We parted silently. She distrusted my masculine lack of common sense, perhaps. . . . O! Freya!
Going down the precipitous path to the landing-stage, I was confronted in the shadows of boulders and bushes by a draped feminine figure whose appearance startled me at first. It glided into my way suddenly from behind a piece of rock. But in a moment it occurred to me that it could be no one else but Freya’s maid, a half-caste Malacca Portuguese. One caught fleeting glimpses of her olive face and dazzling white teeth about the house. I had observed her at times from a distance, as she sat within call under the shade of some fruit trees, brushing and plaiting her long raven locks. It seemed to be the principal occupation of her leisure hours. We had often exchanged nods and smiles — and a few words, too. She was a pretty creature. And once I had watched her approvingly make funny and expressive grimaces behind Heemskirk’s back. I understood (from Jasper) that she was in the secret, like a comedy camerista. She was to accompany Freya on her irregular way to matrimony and “ever after” happiness. Why should she be roaming by night near the cove — unless on some love affair of her own — I asked myself. But there was nobody suitable within the Seven Isles group, as far as I knew. It flashed upon me that it was myself she had been lying in wait for.
She hesitated, muffled from head to foot, shadowy and bashful. I advanced another pace, and how I felt is nobody’s business.
“What is it?” I asked, very low.
“Nobody knows I am here,” she whispered.
“And nobody can see us,” I whispered back.
The murmur of words “I’ve been so frightened” reached me. Just then forty feet above our head, from the yet lighted verandah, unexpected and startling, Freya’s voice rang out in a clear, imperious call:
With a stifled exclamation, the hesitating girl vanished out of the path. A bush near by rustled; then silence. I waited wondering. The lights on the verandah went out. I waited a while longer then continued down the path to my boat, wondering more than ever.
I remember the occurrences of that visit especially, because this was the last time I saw the Nelson bungalow. On arriving at the Straits I found cable messages which made it necessary for me to throw up my employment at a moment’s notice and go home at once. I had a desperate scramble to catch the mailboat which was due to leave next day, but I found time to write two short notes, one to Freya, the other to Jasper. Later on I wrote at length, this time to Allen alone. I got no answer. I hunted up then his brother, or, rather, half-brother, a solicitor in the city, a sallow, calm, little man who looked at me over his spectacles thoughtfully.
Jasper was the only child of his father’s second marriage, a transaction which had failed to commend itself to the first, grown-up family.
“You haven’t heard for ages,” I repeated, with secret annoyance. “May I ask what ‘for ages’ means in this connection?”
“It means that I don’t care whether I ever hear from him or not,” retorted the little man of law, turning nasty suddenly.
I could not blame Jasper for not wasting his time in correspondence with such an outrageous relative. But why didn’t he write to me — a decent sort of friend, after all; enough of a friend to find for his silence the excuse of forgetfulness natural to a state of transcendental bliss? I waited indulgently, but nothing ever came. And the East seemed to drop out of my life without an echo, like a stone falling into a well of prodigious depth.
I suppose praiseworthy motives are a sufficient justification almost for anything. What could be more commendable in the abstract than a girl’s determination that “poor papa” should not be worried, and her anxiety that the man of her choice should be kept by any means from every occasion of doing something rash, something which might endanger the whole scheme of their happiness?
Nothing could be more tender and more prudent. We must also remember the girl’s self-reliant temperament, and the general unwillingness of women — I mean women of sense — to make a fuss over matters of that sort.
As has been said already, Heemskirk turned up some time after Jasper’s arrival at Nelson’s Cove. The sight of the brig lying right under the bungalow was very offensive to him. He did not fly ashore before his anchor touched the ground as Jasper used to do. On the contrary, he hung about his quarter-deck mumbling to himself; and when he ordered his boat to be manned it was in an angry voice. Freya’s existence, which lifted Jasper out of himself into a blissful elation, was for Heemskirk a cause of secret torment, of hours of exasperated brooding.
While passing the brig he hailed her harshly and asked if the master was on board. Schultz, smart and neat in a spotless white suit, leaned over the taffrail, finding the question somewhat amusing. He looked humorously down into Heemskirk’s boat, and answered, in the most amiable modulations of his beautiful voice: “Captain Allen is up at the house, sir.” But his expression changed suddenly at the savage growl: “What the devil are you grinning at?” which acknowledged that information.
He watched Heemskirk land and, instead of going to the house, stride away by another path into the grounds.
The desire-tormented Dutchman found old Nelson (or Nielsen) at his drying-sheds, very busy superintending the manipulation of his tobacco crop, which, though small, was of excellent quality, and enjoying himself thoroughly. But Heemskirk soon put a stop to this simple happiness. He sat down by the old chap, and by the sort of talk which he knew was best calculated for the purpose, reduced him before long to a state of concealed and perspiring nervousness. It was a horrid talk of “authorities,” and old Nelson tried to defend himself. If he dealt with English traders it was because he had to dispose of his produce somehow. He was as conciliatory as he knew how to be, and this very thing seemed to excite Heemskirk, who had worked himself up into a heavily breathing state of passion.
“And the worst of them all is that Allen,” he growled. “Your particular friend — eh? You have let in a lot of these Englishmen into this part. You ought never to have been allowed to settle here. Never. What’s he doing here now?”
Old Nelson (or Nielsen), becoming very agitated, declared that Jasper Allen was no particular friend of his. No friend at all — at all. He had bought three tons of rice from him to feed his workpeople on. What sort of evidence of friendship was that? Heemskirk burst out at last with the thought that had been gnawing at his vitals:
“Yes. Sell three tons of rice and flirt three days with that girl of yours. I am speaking to you as a friend, Nielsen. This won’t do. You are only on sufferance here.”
Old Nelson was taken aback at first, but recovered pretty quickly. Won’t do! Certainly! Of course, it wouldn’t do! The last man in the world. But his girl didn’t care for the fellow, and was too sensible to fall in love with any one. He was very earnest in impressing on Heemskirk his own feeling of absolute security. And the lieutenant, casting doubting glances sideways, was yet willing to believe him.
“Much you know about it,” he grunted nevertheless.
“But I do know,” insisted old Nelson, with the greater desperation because he wanted to resist the doubts arising in his own mind. “My own daughter! In my own house, and I not to know! Come! It would be a good joke, lieutenant.”
“They seem to be carrying on considerably,” remarked Heemskirk moodily. “I suppose they are together now,” he added, feeling a pang which changed what he meant for a mocking smile into a strange grimace.
The harassed Nelson shook his hand at him. He was at bottom shocked at this insistence, and was even beginning to feel annoyed at the absurdity of it.
“Pooh! Pooh! I’ll tell you what, lieutenant: you go to the house and have a drop of gin-and-bitters before dinner. Ask for Freya. I must see the last of this tobacco put away for the night, but I’ll be along presently.”
Heemskirk was not insensible to this suggestion. It answered to his secret longing, which was not a longing for drink, however. Old Nelson shouted solicitously after his broad back a recommendation to make himself comfortable, and that there was a box of cheroots on the verandah.
It was the west verandah that old Nelson meant, the one which was the living-room of the house, and had split-rattan screens of the very finest quality. The east verandah, sacred to his own privacy, puffing out of cheeks, and other signs of perplexed thinking, was fitted with stout blinds of sailcloth. The north verandah was not a verandah at all, really. It was more like a long balcony. It did not communicate with the other two, and could only be approached by a passage inside the house. Thus it had a privacy which made it a convenient place for a maiden’s meditations without words, and also for the discourses, apparently without sense, which, passing between a young man and a maid, become pregnant with a diversity of transcendental meanings.
This north verandah was embowered with climbing plants. Freya, whose room opened out on it, had furnished it as a sort of boudoir for herself, with a few cane chairs and a sofa of the same kind. On this sofa she and Jasper sat as close together as is possible in this imperfect world where neither can a body be in two places at once nor yet two bodies can be in one place at the same time. They had been sitting together all the afternoon, and I won’t say that their talk had been without sense. Loving him with a little judicious anxiety lest in his elation he should break his heart over some mishap, Freya naturally would talk to him soberly. He, nervous and brusque when away from her, appeared always as if overcome by her visibility, by the great wonder of being palpably loved. An old man’s child, having lost his mother early, thrown out to sea out of the way while very young, he had not much experience of tenderness of any kind.
In this private, foliage-embowered verandah, and at this late hour of the afternoon, he bent down a little, and, possessing himself of Freya’s hands, was kissing them one after another, while she smiled and looked down at his head with the eyes of approving compassion. At that same moment Heemskirk was approaching the house from the north.
Antonia was on the watch on that side. But she did not keep a very good watch. The sun was setting; she knew that her young mistress and the captain of the Bonito were about to separate. She was walking to and fro in the dusky grove with a flower in her hair, and singing softly to herself, when suddenly, within a foot of her, the lieutenant appeared from behind a tree. She bounded aside like a startled fawn, but Heemskirk, with a lucid comprehension of what she was there for, pounced upon her, and, catching her arm, clapped his other thick hand over her mouth.
“If you try to make a noise I’ll twist your neck!”
This ferocious figure of speech terrified the girl sufficiently. Heemskirk had seen plainly enough on the verandah Freya’s golden head with another head very close to it. He dragged the unresisting maid with him by a circuitous way into the compound, where he dismissed her with a vicious push in the direction of the cluster of bamboo huts for the servants.
She was very much like the faithful camerista of Italian comedy, but in her terror she bolted away without a sound from that thick, short, black-eyed man with a cruel grip of fingers like a vice. Quaking all over at a distance, extremely scared and half inclined to laugh, she saw him enter the house at the back.
The interior of the bungalow was divided by two passages crossing each other in the middle. At that point Heemskirk, by turning his head slightly to the left as he passed, secured the evidence of “carrying on” so irreconcilable with old Nelson’s assurances that it made him stagger, with a rush of blood to his head. Two white figures, distinct against the light, stood in an unmistakable attitude. Freya’s arms were round Jasper’s neck. Their faces were characteristically superimposed on each other, and Heemskirk went on, his throat choked with a sudden rising of curses, till on the west verandah he stumbled blindly against a chair and then dropped into another as though his legs had been swept from under him. He had indulged too long in the habit of appropriating Freya to himself in his thoughts. “Is that how you entertain your visitors — you. . “ he thought, so outraged that he could not find a sufficiently degrading epithet.
Freya struggled a little and threw her head back.
“Somebody has come in,” she whispered. Jasper, holding her clasped closely to his breast, and looking down into her face, suggested casually:
Freya tried to disengage herself, but she had not the heart absolutely to push him away with her hands.
“I believe it’s Heemskirk,” she breathed out at him.
He, plunging into her eyes in a quiet rapture, was provoked to a vague smile by the sound of the name.
“The ass is always knocking down my beacons outside the river,” he murmured. He attached no other meaning to Heemskirk’s existence; but Freya was asking herself whether the lieutenant had seen them.
“Let me go, kid,” she ordered in a peremptory whisper. Jasper obeyed, and, stepping back at once, continued his contemplation of her face under another angle. “I must go and see,” she said to herself anxiously.
She instructed him hurriedly to wait a moment after she was gone and then to slip on to the back verandah and get a quiet smoke before he showed himself.
“Don’t stay late this evening,” was her last recommendation before she left him.
Then Freya came out on the west verandah with her light, rapid step. While going through the doorway she managed to shake down the folds of the looped-up curtains at the end of the passage so as to cover Jasper’s retreat from the bower. Directly she appeared Heemskirk jumped up as if to fly at her. She paused and he made her an exaggerated low bow.
It irritated Freya.
“Oh! It’s you, Mr. Heemskirk. How do you do?” She spoke in her usual tone. Her face was not plainly visible to him in the dusk of the deep verandah. He dared not trust himself to speak, his rage at what he had seen was so great. And when she added with serenity: “Papa will be coming in before long,” he called her horrid names silently, to himself, before he spoke with contorted lips.
“I have seen your father already. We had a talk in the sheds. He told me some very interesting things. Oh, very — ”
Freya sat down. She thought: “He has seen us, for certain.” She was not ashamed. What she was afraid of was some foolish or awkward complication. But she could not conceive how much her person had been appropriated by Heemskirk (in his thoughts). She tried to be conversational.
“You are coming now from Palembang, I suppose?”
“Eh? What? Oh, yes! I come from Palembang. Ha, ha, ha! You know what your father said? He said he was afraid you were having a very dull time of it here.”
“And I suppose you are going to cruise in the Moluccas,” continued Freya, who wanted to impart some useful information to Jasper if possible. At the same time she was always glad to know that those two men were a few hundred miles apart when not under her eye.
Heemskirk growled angrily.
“Yes. Moluccas,” glaring in the direction of her shadowy figure. “Your father thinks it’s very quiet for you here. I tell you what, Miss Freya. There isn’t such a quiet spot on earth that a woman can’t find an opportunity of making a fool of somebody.”
Freya thought: “I mustn’t let him provoke me.” Presently the Tamil boy, who was Nelson’s head servant, came in with the lights. She addressed him at once with voluble directions where to put the lamps, told him to bring the tray with the gin and bitters, and to send Antonia into the house.
“I will have to leave you to yourself, Mr. Heemskirk, for a while,” she said.
And she went to her room to put on another frock. She made a quick change of it because she wished to be on the verandah before her father and the lieutenant met again. She relied on herself to regulate that evening’s intercourse between these two. But Antonia, still scared and hysterical, exhibited a bruise on her arm which roused Freya’s indignation.
“He jumped on me out of the bush like a tiger,” said the girl, laughing nervously with frightened eyes.
“The brute!” thought Freya. “He meant to spy on us, then.” She was enraged, but the recollection of the thick Dutchman in white trousers wide at the hips and narrow at the ankles, with his shoulder-straps and black bullet head, glaring at her in the light of the lamps, was so repulsively comical that she could not help a smiling grimace. Then she became anxious. The absurdities of three men were forcing this anxiety upon her: Jasper’s impetuosity, her father’s fears, Heemskirk’s infatuation. She was very tender to the first two, and she made up her mind to display all her feminine diplomacy. All this, she said to herself, will be over and done with before very long now.
Heemskirk on the verandah, lolling in a chair, his legs extended and his white cap reposing on his stomach, was lashing himself into a fury of an atrocious character altogether incomprehensible to a girl like Freya. His chin was resting on his chest, his eyes gazed stonily at his shoes. Freya examined him from behind the curtain. He didn’t stir. He was ridiculous. But this absolute stillness was impressive. She stole back along the passage to the east verandah, where Jasper was sitting quietly in the dark, doing what he was told, like a good boy.
“Psst,” she hissed. He was by her side in a moment.
“Yes. What is it?” he murmured.
“It’s that beetle,” she whispered uneasily. Under the impression of Heemskirk’s sinister immobility she had half a mind to let Jasper know that they had been seen. But she was by no means certain that Heemskirk would tell her father — and at any rate not that evening. She concluded rapidly that the safest thing would be to get Jasper out of the way as soon as possible.
“What has he been doing?” asked Jasper in a calm undertone.
“Oh, nothing! Nothing. He sits there looking cross. But you know how he’s always worrying papa.”
“Your father’s quite unreasonable,” pronounced Jasper judicially.
“I don’t know,” she said in a doubtful tone. Something of old Nelson’s dread of the authorities had rubbed off on the girl since she had to live with it day after day. “I don’t know. Papa’s afraid of being reduced to beggary, as he says, in his old days. Look here, kid, you had better clear out to-morrow, first thing.”
Jasper had hoped for another afternoon with Freya, an afternoon of quiet felicity with the girl by his side and his eyes on his brig, anticipating a blissful future. His silence was eloquent with disappointment, and Freya understood it very well. She, too, was disappointed. But it was her business to be sensible.
“We shan’t have a moment to ourselves with that beetle creeping round the house,” she argued in a low, hurried voice. “So what’s the good of your staying? And he won’t go while the brig’s here. You know he won’t.”
“He ought to be reported for loitering,” murmured Jasper with a vexed little laugh.
“Mind you get under way at daylight,” recommended Freya under her breath.
He detained her after the manner of lovers. She expostulated without struggling because it was hard for her to repulse him. He whispered into her ear while he put his arms round her.
“Next time we two meet, next time I hold you like this, it shall be on board. You and I, in the brig — all the world, all the life — ” And then he flashed out: “I wonder I can wait! I feel as if I must carry you off now, at once. I could run with you in my hands — down the path — without stumbling — without touching the earth — “
She was still. She listened to the passion in his voice. She was saying to herself that if she were to whisper the faintest yes, if she were but to sigh lightly her consent, he would do it. He was capable of doing it — without touching the earth. She closed her eyes and smiled in the dark, abandoning herself in a delightful giddiness, for an instant, to his encircling arm. But before he could be tempted to tighten his grasp she was out of it, a foot away from him and in full possession of herself.
That was the steady Freya. She was touched by the deep sigh which floated up to her from the white figure of Jasper, who did not stir.
“You are a mad kid,” she said tremulously. Then with a change of tone: “No one could carry me off. Not even you. I am not the sort of girl that gets carried off.” His white form seemed to shrink a little before the force of that assertion and she relented. “Isn’t it enough for you to know that you have — that you have carried me away?” she added in a tender tone.
He murmured an endearing word, and she continued:
“I’ve promised you — I’ve said I would come — and I shall come of my own free will. You shall wait for me on board. I shall get up the side — by myself, and walk up to you on the deck and say: ‘Here I am, kid.’ And then — and then I shall be carried off. But it will be no man who will carry me off — it will be the brig, your brig — our brig. . . . I love the beauty!”
She heard an inarticulate sound, something like a moan wrung out by pain or delight, and glided away. There was that other man on the other verandah, that dark, surly Dutchman who could make trouble between Jasper and her father, bring about a quarrel, ugly words, and perhaps a physical collision. What a horrible situation! But, even putting aside that awful extremity, she shrank from having to live for some three months with a wretched, tormented, angry, distracted, absurd man. And when the day came, the day and the hour, what should she do if her father tried to detain her by main force — as was, after all, possible? Could she actually struggle with him hand to hand? But it was of lamentations and entreaties that she was really afraid. Could she withstand them? What an odious, cruel, ridiculous position would that be!
“But it won’t be. He’ll say nothing,” she thought as she came out quickly on the west verandah, and, seeing that Heemskirk did not move, sat down on a chair near the doorway and kept her eyes on him. The outraged lieutenant had not changed his attitude; only his cap had fallen off his stomach and was lying on the floor. His thick black eyebrows were knitted by a frown, while he looked at her out of the corners of his eyes. And their sideways glance in conjunction with the hooked nose, the whole bulky, ungainly, sprawling person, struck Freya as so comically moody that, inwardly discomposed as she was, she could not help smiling. She did her best to give that smile a conciliatory character. She did not want to provoke Heemskirk needlessly.
And the lieutenant, perceiving that smile, was mollified. It never entered his head that his outward appearance, a naval officer, in uniform, could appear ridiculous to that girl of no position — the daughter of old Nielsen. The recollection of her arms round Jasper’s neck still irritated and excited him. “The hussy!” he thought. “Smiling — eh? That’s how you are amusing yourself. Fooling your father finely, aren’t you? You have a taste for that sort of fun — have you? Well, we shall see — “ He did not alter his position, but on his pursed-up lips there also appeared a smile of surly and ill-omened amusement, while his eyes returned to the contemplation of his boots.
Freya felt hot with indignation. She sat radiantly fair in the lamplight, her strong, well-shaped hands lying one on top of the other in her lap . . . “Odious creature,” she thought. Her face coloured with sudden anger. “You have scared my maid out of her senses,” she said aloud. “What possessed you?”
He was thinking so deeply of her that the sound of her voice, pronouncing these unexpected words, startled him extremely. He jerked up his head and looked so bewildered that Freya insisted impatiently:
“I mean Antonia. You have bruised her arm. What did you do it for?”
“Do you want to quarrel with me?” he asked thickly, with a sort of amazement. He blinked like an owl. He was funny. Freya, like all women, had a keen sense of the ridiculous in outward appearance.
“Well, no; I don’t think I do.” She could not help herself. She laughed outright, a clear, nervous laugh in which Heemskirk joined suddenly with a harsh “Ha, ha, ha!”
Voices and footsteps were heard in the passage, and Jasper, with old Nelson, came out. Old Nelson looked at his daughter approvingly, for he liked the lieutenant to be kept in good humour. And he also joined sympathetically in the laugh. “Now, lieutenant, we shall have some dinner,” he said, rubbing his hands cheerily. Jasper had gone straight to the balustrade. The sky was full of stars, and in the blue velvety night the cove below had a denser blackness, in which the riding-lights of the brig and of the gunboat glimmered redly, like suspended sparks. “Next time this riding-light glimmers down there, I’ll be waiting for her on the quarter-deck to come and say ‘Here I am,’” Jasper thought; and his heart seemed to grow bigger in his chest, dilated by an oppressive happiness that nearly wrung out a cry from him. There was no wind. Not a leaf below him stirred, and even the sea was but a still uncomplaining shadow. Far away on the unclouded sky the pale lightning, the heat-lightning of the tropics, played tremulously amongst the low stars in short, faint, mysteriously consecutive flashes, like incomprehensible signals from some distant planet.
The dinner passed off quietly. Freya sat facing her father, calm but pale. Heemskirk affected to talk only to old Nelson. Jasper’s behaviour was exemplary. He kept his eyes under control, basking in the sense of Freya’s nearness, as people bask in the sun without looking up to heaven. And very soon after dinner was over, mindful of his instructions, he declared that it was time for him to go on board his ship.
Heemskirk did not look up. Ensconced in the rocking-chair, and puffing at a cheroot, he had the air of meditating surlily over some odious outbreak. So at least it seemed to Freya. Old Nelson said at once: “I’ll stroll down with you.” He had begun a professional conversation about the dangers of the New Guinea coast, and wanted to relate to Jasper some experience of his own “over there.” Jasper was such a good listener! Freya made as if to accompany them, but her father frowned, shook his head, and nodded significantly towards the immovable Heemskirk blotting out smoke with half-closed eyes and protruded lips. The lieutenant must not be left alone. Take offence, perhaps.
Freya obeyed these signs. “Perhaps it is better for me to stay,” she thought. Women are not generally prone to review their own conduct, still less to condemn it. The embarrassing masculine absurdities are in the main responsible for its ethics. But, looking at Heemskirk, Freya felt regret and even remorse. His thick bulk in repose suggested the idea of repletion, but as a matter of fact he had eaten very little. He had drunk a great deal, however. The fleshy lobes of his unpleasant big ears with deeply folded rims were crimson. They quite flamed in the neighbourhood of the flat, sallow cheeks. For a considerable time he did not raise his heavy brown eyelids. To be at the mercy of such a creature was humiliating; and Freya, who always ended by being frank with herself, thought regretfully: “If only I had been open with papa from the first! But then what an impossible life he would have led me!” Yes. Men were absurd in many ways; lovably like Jasper, impracticably like her father, odiously like that grotesquely supine creature in the chair. Was it possible to talk him over? Perhaps it was not necessary? “Oh! I can’t talk to him,” she thought. And when Heemskirk, still without looking at her, began resolutely to crush his half-smoked cheroot on the coffee-tray, she took alarm, glided towards the piano, opened it in tremendous haste, and struck the keys before she sat down.
In an instant the verandah, the whole carpetless wooden bungalow raised on piles, became filled with an uproarious, confused resonance. But through it all she heard, she felt on the floor the heavy, prowling footsteps of the lieutenant moving to and fro at her back. He was not exactly drunk, but he was sufficiently primed to make the suggestions of his excited imagination seem perfectly feasible and even clever; beautifully, unscrupulously clever. Freya, aware that he had stopped just behind her, went on playing without turning her head. She played with spirit, brilliantly, a fierce piece of music, but when his voice reached her she went cold all over. It was the voice, not the words. The insolent familiarity of tone dismayed her to such an extent that she could not understand at first what he was saying. His utterance was thick, too.
“I suspected. . . . Of course I suspected something of your little goings on. I am not a child. But from suspecting to seeing — seeing, you understand — there’s an enormous difference. That sort of thing. . . . Come! One isn’t made of stone. And when a man has been worried by a girl as I have been worried by you, Miss Freya — sleeping and waking, then, of course. . . . But I am a man of the world. It must be dull for you here . . . I say, won’t you leave off this confounded playing. . .?”
This last was the only sentence really which she made out. She shook her head negatively, and in desperation put on the loud pedal, but she could not make the sound of the piano cover his raised voice.
“Only, I am surprised that you should. . . . An English trading skipper, a common fellow. Low, cheeky lot, infesting these islands. I would make short work of such trash! While you have here a good friend, a gentleman ready to worship at your feet — your pretty feet — an officer, a man of family. Strange, isn’t it? But what of that! You are fit for a prince.”
Freya did not turn her head. Her face went stiff with horror and indignation. This adventure was altogether beyond her conception of what was possible. It was not in her character to jump up and run away. It seemed to her, too, that if she did move there was no saying what might happen. Presently her father would be back, and then the other would have to leave off. It was best to ignore — to ignore. She went on playing loudly and correctly, as though she were alone, as if Heemskirk did not exist. That proceeding irritated him.
“Come! You may deceive your father,” he bawled angrily, “but I am not to be made a fool of! Stop this infernal noise . . . Freya . . . Hey! You Scandinavian Goddess of Love! Stop! Do you hear? That’s what you are — of love. But the heathen gods are only devils in disguise, and that’s what you are, too — a deep little devil. Stop it, I say, or I will lift you off that stool!”
Standing behind her, he devoured her with his eyes, from the golden crown of her rigidly motionless head to the heels of her shoes, the line of her shapely shoulders, the curves of her fine figure swaying a little before the keyboard. She had on a light dress; the sleeves stopped short at the elbows in an edging of lace. A satin ribbon encircled her waist. In an access of irresistible, reckless hopefulness he clapped both his hands on that waist — and then the irritating music stopped at last. But, quick as she was in springing away from the contact (the round music-stool going over with a crash), Heemskirk’s lips, aiming at her neck, landed a hungry, smacking kiss just under her ear. A deep silence reigned for a time. And then he laughed rather feebly.
He was disconcerted somewhat by her white, still face, the big light violet eyes resting on him stonily. She had not uttered a sound. She faced him, steadying herself on the corner of the piano with one extended hand. The other went on rubbing with mechanical persistency the place his lips had touched.
“What’s the trouble?” he said, offended. “Startled you? Look here: don’t let us have any of that nonsense. You don’t mean to say a kiss frightens you so much as all that. . . . I know better. . . . I don’t mean to be left out in the cold.”
He had been gazing into her face with such strained intentness that he could no longer see it distinctly. Everything round him was rather misty. He forgot the overturned stool, caught his foot against it, and lurched forward slightly, saying in an ingratiating tone:
“I’m not bad fun, really. You try a few kisses to begin with — ”
He said no more, because his head received a terrific concussion, accompanied by an explosive sound. Freya had swung her round, strong arm with such force that the impact of her open palm on his flat cheek turned him half round. Uttering a faint, hoarse yell, the lieutenant clapped both his hands to the left side of his face, which had taken on suddenly a dusky brick-red tinge. Freya, very erect, her violet eyes darkened, her palm still tingling from the blow, a sort of restrained determined smile showing a tiny gleam of her white teeth, heard her father’s rapid, heavy tread on the path below the verandah. Her expression lost its pugnacity and became sincerely concerned. She was sorry for her father. She stooped quickly to pick up the music-stool, as if anxious to obliterate the traces. . . . But that was no good. She had resumed her attitude, one hand resting lightly on the piano, before old Nelson got up to the top of the stairs.
Poor father! How furious he will be — how upset! And afterwards, what tremors, what unhappiness! Why had she not been open with him from the first? His round, innocent stare of amazement cut her to the quick. But he was not looking at her. His stare was directed to Heemskirk, who, with his back to him and with his hands still up to his face, was hissing curses through his teeth, and (she saw him in profile) glaring at her balefully with one black, evil eye.
“What’s the matter?” asked old Nelson, very much bewildered.
She did not answer him. She thought of Jasper on the deck of the brig, gazing up at the lighted bungalow, and she felt frightened. It was a mercy that one of them at least was on board out of the way. She only wished he were a hundred miles off. And yet she was not certain that she did. Had Jasper been mysteriously moved that moment to reappear on the verandah she would have thrown her consistency, her firmness, her self-possession, to the winds, and flown into his arms.
“What is it? What is it?” insisted the unsuspecting Nelson, getting quite excited. “Only this minute you were playing a tune, and — ”
Freya, unable to speak in her apprehension of what was coming (she was also fascinated by that black, evil, glaring eye), only nodded slightly at the lieutenant, as much as to say: “Just look at him!”
“Why, yes!” exclaimed old Nelson. “I see. What on earth — ”
Meantime he had cautiously approached Heemskirk, who, bursting into incoherent imprecations, was stamping with both feet where he stood. The indignity of the blow, the rage of baffled purpose, the ridicule of the exposure, and the impossibility of revenge maddened him to a point when he simply felt he must howl with fury.
“Oh, oh, oh!” he howled, stamping across the verandah as though he meant to drive his foot through the floor at every step.
“Why, is his face hurt?” asked the astounded old Nelson. The truth dawned suddenly upon his innocent mind. “Dear me!” he cried, enlightened. “Get some brandy, quick, Freya. . . . You are subject to it, lieutenant? Fiendish, eh? I know, I know! Used to go crazy all of a sudden myself in the time. . . . And the little bottle of laudanum from the medicine-chest, too, Freya. Look sharp. . . . Don’t you see he’s got a toothache?”
And, indeed, what other explanation could have presented itself to the guileless old Nelson, beholding this cheek nursed with both hands, these wild glances, these stampings, this distracted swaying of the body? It would have demanded a preternatural acuteness to hit upon the true cause. Freya had not moved. She watched Heemskirk’s savagely inquiring, black stare directed stealthily upon herself. “Aha, you would like to be let off!” she said to herself. She looked at him unflinchingly, thinking it out. The temptation of making an end of it all without further trouble was irresistible. She gave an almost imperceptible nod of assent, and glided away.
“Hurry up that brandy!” old Nelson shouted, as she disappeared in the passage.
Heemskirk relieved his deeper feelings by a sudden string of curses in Dutch and English which he sent after her. He raved to his heart’s content, flinging to and fro the verandah and kicking chairs out of his way; while Nelson (or Nielsen), whose sympathy was profoundly stirred by these evidences of agonising pain, hovered round his dear (and dreaded) lieutenant, fussing like an old hen.
“Dear me, dear me! Is it so bad? I know well what it is. I used to frighten my poor wife sometimes. Do you get it often like this, lieutenant?”
Heemskirk shouldered him viciously out of his way, with a short, insane laugh. But his staggering host took it in good part; a man beside himself with excruciating toothache is not responsible.
“Go into my room, lieutenant,” he suggested urgently. “Throw yourself on my bed. We will get something to ease you in a minute.”
He seized the poor sufferer by the arm and forced him gently onwards to the very bed, on which Heemskirk, in a renewed access of rage, flung himself down with such force that he rebounded from the mattress to the height of quite a foot.
“Dear me!” exclaimed the scared Nelson, and incontinently ran off to hurry up the brandy and the laudanum, very angry that so little alacrity was shown in relieving the tortures of his precious guest. In the end he got these things himself.
Half an hour later he stood in the inner passage of the house, surprised by faint, spasmodic sounds of a mysterious nature, between laughter and sobs. He frowned; then went straight towards his daughter’s room and knocked at the door.
Freya, her glorious fair hair framing her white face and rippling down a dark-blue dressing-gown, opened it partly.
The light in the room was dim. Antonia, crouching in a corner, rocked herself backwards and forwards, uttering feeble moans. Old Nelson had not much experience in various kinds of feminine laughter, but he was certain there had been laughter there.
“Very unfeeling, very unfeeling!” he said, with weighty displeasure. “What is there so amusing in a man being in pain? I should have thought a woman — a young girl — ”
“He was so funny,” murmured Freya, whose eyes glistened strangely in the semi-obscurity of the passage. “And then, you know, I don’t like him,” she added, in an unsteady voice.
“Funny!” repeated old Nelson, amazed at this evidence of callousness in one so young. “You don’t like him! Do you mean to say that, because you don’t like him, you — Why, it’s simply cruel! Don’t you know it’s about the worst sort of pain there is? Dogs have been known to go mad with it.”
“He certainly seemed to have gone mad,” Freya said with an effort, as if she were struggling with some hidden feeling.
But her father was launched.
“And you know how he is. He notices everything. He is a fellow to take offence for the least little thing — regular Dutchman — and I want to keep friendly with him. It’s like this, my girl: if that rajah of ours were to do something silly — and you know he is a sulky, rebellious beggar — and the authorities took into their heads that my influence over him wasn’t good, you would find yourself without a roof over your head — ”
She cried: “What nonsense, father!” in a not very assured tone, and discovered that he was angry, angry enough to achieve irony; yes, old Nelson (or Nielsen), irony! Just a gleam of it.
“Oh, of course, if you have means of your own — a mansion, a plantation that I know nothing of — “ But he was not capable of sustained irony. “I tell you they would bundle me out of here,” he whispered forcibly; “without compensation, of course. I know these Dutch. And the lieutenant’s just the fellow to start the trouble going. He has the ear of influential officials. I wouldn’t offend him for anything — for anything — on no consideration whatever. . . . What did you say?”
It was only an inarticulate exclamation. If she ever had a half-formed intention of telling him everything she had given it up now. It was impossible, both out of regard for his dignity and for the peace of his poor mind.
“I don’t care for him myself very much,” old Nelson’s subdued undertone confessed in a sigh. “He’s easier now,” he went on, after a silence. “I’ve given him up my bed for the night. I shall sleep on my verandah, in the hammock. No; I can’t say I like him either, but from that to laugh at a man because he’s driven crazy with pain is a long way. You’ve surprised me, Freya. That side of his face is quite flushed.”
Her shoulders shook convulsively under his hands, which he laid on her paternally. His straggly, wiry moustache brushed her forehead in a good-night kiss. She closed the door, and went away from it to the middle of the room before she allowed herself a tired-out sort of laugh, without buoyancy.
“Flushed! A little flushed!” she repeated to herself. “I hope so, indeed! A little — ”
Her eyelashes were wet. Antonia, in her corner, moaned and giggled, and it was impossible to tell where the moans ended and the giggles began.
The mistress and the maid had been somewhat hysterical, for Freya, on fleeing into her room, had found Antonia there, and had told her everything.
“I have avenged you, my girl,” she exclaimed.
And then they had laughingly cried and cryingly laughed with admonitions — “Ssh, not so loud! Be quiet!” on one part, and interludes of “I am so frightened. . . . He’s an evil man,” on the other.
Antonia was very much afraid of Heemskirk. She was afraid of him because of his personal appearance: because of his eyes and his eyebrows, and his mouth and his nose and his limbs. Nothing could be more rational. And she thought him an evil man, because, to her eyes, he looked evil. No ground for an opinion could be sounder. In the dimness of the room, with only a nightlight burning at the head of Freya’s bed, the camerista crept out of her corner to crouch at the feet of her mistress, supplicating in whispers:
“There’s the brig. Captain Allen. Let us run away at once — oh, let us run away! I am so frightened. Let us! Let us!”
“I! Run away!” thought Freya to herself, without looking down at the scared girl. “Never.”
Both the resolute mistress under the mosquito-net and the frightened maid lying curled up on a mat at the foot of the bed did not sleep very well that night. The person that did not sleep at all was Lieutenant Heemskirk. He lay on his back staring vindictively in the darkness. Inflaming images and humiliating reflections succeeded each other in his mind, keeping up, augmenting his anger. A pretty tale this to get about! But it must not be allowed to get about. The outrage had to be swallowed in silence. A pretty affair! Fooled, led on, and struck by the girl — and probably fooled by the father, too. But no. Nielsen was but another victim of that shameless hussy, that brazen minx, that sly, laughing, kissing, lying. . .
“No; he did not deceive me on purpose,” thought the tormented lieutenant. “But I should like to pay him off, all the same, for being such an imbecile — ”
Well, some day, perhaps. One thing he was firmly resolved on: he had made up his mind to steal early out of the house. He did not think he could face the girl without going out of his mind with fury.
“Fire and perdition! Ten thousand devils! I shall choke here before the morning!” he muttered to himself, lying rigid on his back on old Nelson’s bed, his breast heaving for air.
He arose at daylight and started cautiously to open the door. Faint sounds in the passage alarmed him, and remaining concealed he saw Freya coming out. This unexpected sight deprived him of all power to move away from the crack of the door. It was the narrowest crack possible, but commanding the view of the end of the verandah. Freya made for that end hastily to watch the brig passing the point. She wore her dark dressing-gown; her feet were bare, because, having fallen asleep towards the morning, she ran out headlong in her fear of being too late. Heemskirk had never seen her looking like this, with her hair drawn back smoothly to the shape of her head, and hanging in one heavy, fair tress down her back, and with that air of extreme youth, intensity, and eagerness. And at first he was amazed, and then he gnashed his teeth. He could not face her at all. He muttered a curse, and kept still behind the door.
With a low, deep-breathed “Ah!” when she first saw the brig already under way, she reached for Nelson’s long glass reposing on brackets high up the wall. The wide sleeve of the dressing-gown slipped back, uncovering her white arm as far as the shoulder. Heemskirk gripping the door-handle, as if to crush it, felt like a man just risen to his feet from a drinking bout.
And Freya knew that he was watching her. She knew. She had seen the door move as she came out of the passage. She was aware of his eyes being on her, with scornful bitterness, with triumphant contempt.
“You are there,” she thought, levelling the long glass. “Oh, well, look on, then!”
The green islets appeared like black shadows, the ashen sea was smooth as glass, the clear robe of the colourless dawn, in which even the brig appeared shadowy, had a hem of light in the east. Directly Freya had made out Jasper on deck, with his own long glass directed to the bungalow, she laid hers down and raised both her beautiful white arms above her head. In that attitude of supreme cry she stood still, glowing with the consciousness of Jasper’s adoration going out to her figure held in the field of his glass away there, and warmed, too, by the feeling of evil passion, the burning, covetous eyes of the other, fastened on her back. In the fervour of her love, in the caprice of her mind, and with that mysterious knowledge of masculine nature women seem to be born to, she thought:
“You are looking on — you will — you must! Then you shall see something.”
She brought both her hands to her lips, then flung them out, sending a kiss over the sea, as if she wanted to throw her heart along with it on the deck of the brig. Her face was rosy, her eyes shone. Her repeated, passionate gesture seemed to fling kisses by the hundred again and again and again, while the slowly ascending sun brought the glory of colour to the world, turning the islets green, the sea blue, the brig below her white — dazzlingly white in the spread of her wings — with the red ensign streaming like a tiny flame from the peak.
And each time she murmured with a rising inflexion:
“Take this — and this — and this — “ till suddenly her arms fell. She had seen the ensign dipped in response, and next moment the point below hid the hull of the brig from her view. Then she turned away from the balustrade, and, passing slowly before the door of her father’s room with her eyelids lowered, and an enigmatic expression on her face, she disappeared behind the curtain.
But instead of going along the passage, she remained concealed and very still on the other side to watch what would happen. For some time the broad, furnished verandah remained empty. Then the door of old Nelson’s room came open suddenly, and Heemskirk staggered out. His hair was rumpled, his eyes bloodshot, his unshaven face looked very dark. He gazed wildly about, saw his cap on a table, snatched it up, and made for the stairs quietly, but with a strange, tottering gait, like the last effort of waning strength.
Shortly after his head had sunk below the level of the floor, Freya came out from behind the curtain, with compressed, scheming lips, and no softness at all in her luminous eyes. He could not be allowed to sneak off scot free. Never — never! She was excited, she tingled all over, she had tasted blood! He must be made to understand that she had been aware of having been watched; he must know that he had been seen slinking off shamefully. But to run to the front rail and shout after him would have been childish, crude — undignified. And to shout — what? What word? What phrase? No; it was impossible. Then how? . . . She frowned, discovered it, dashed at the piano, which had stood open all night, and made the rosewood monster growl savagery in an irritated bass. She struck chords as if firing shots after that straddling, broad figure in ample white trousers and a dark uniform jacket with gold shoulder-straps, and then she pursued him with the same thing she had played the evening before — a modern, fierce piece of love music which had been tried more than once against the thunderstorms of the group. She accentuated its rhythm with triumphant malice, so absorbed in her purpose that she did not notice the presence of her father, who, wearing an old threadbare ulster of a check pattern over his sleeping suit, had run out from the back verandah to inquire the reason of this untimely performance. He stared at her.
“What on earth? . . . Freya!” His voice was nearly drowned by the piano. “What’s become of the lieutenant?” he shouted.
She looked up at him as if her soul were lost in her music, with unseeing eyes.
“Wha-a-t? . . . Where?”
She shook her head slightly, and went on playing louder than before. Old Nelson’s innocently anxious gaze starting from the open door of his room, explored the whole place high and low, as if the lieutenant were something small which might have been crawling on the floor or clinging to a wall. But a shrill whistle coming somewhere from below pierced the ample volume of sound rolling out of the piano in great, vibrating waves. The lieutenant was down at the cove, whistling for the boat to come and take him off to his ship. And he seemed to be in a terrific hurry, too, for he whistled again almost directly, waited for a moment, and then sent out a long, interminable, shrill call as distressful to hear as though he had shrieked without drawing breath. Freya ceased playing suddenly.
“Going on board,” said old Nelson, perturbed by the event. “What could have made him clear out so early? Queer chap. Devilishly touchy, too! I shouldn’t wonder if it was your conduct last night that hurt his feelings? I noticed you, Freya. You as well as laughed in his face, while he was suffering agonies from neuralgia. It isn’t the way to get yourself liked. He’s offended with you.”
Freya’s hands now reposed passive on the keys; she bowed her fair head, feeling a sudden discontent, a nervous lassitude, as though she had passed through some exhausting crisis. Old Nelson (or Nielsen), looking aggrieved, was revolving matters of policy in his bald head.
“I think it would be right for me to go on board just to inquire, some time this morning,” he declared fussily. “Why don’t they bring me my morning tea? Do you hear, Freya? You have astonished me, I must say. I didn’t think a young girl could be so unfeeling. And the lieutenant thinks himself a friend of ours, too! What? No? Well, he calls himself a friend, and that’s something to a person in my position. Certainly! Oh, yes, I must go on board.”
“Must you?” murmured Freya listlessly; then added, in her thought: “Poor man!”
In respect of the next seven weeks, all that is necessary to say is, first, that old Nelson (or Nielsen) failed in paying his politic call. The Neptun gunboat of H.M. the King of the Netherlands, commanded by an outraged and infuriated lieutenant, left the cove at an unexpectedly early hour. When Freya’s father came down to the shore, after seeing his precious crop of tobacco spread out properly in the sun, she was already steaming round the point. Old Nelson regretted the circumstance for many days.
“Now, I don’t know in what disposition the man went away,” he lamented to his hard daughter. He was amazed at her hardness. He was almost frightened by her indifference.
Next, it must be recorded that the same day the gunboat Neptun, steering east, passed the brig Bonito becalmed in sight of Carimata, with her head to the eastward, too. Her captain, Jasper Allen, giving himself up consciously to a tender, possessive reverie of his Freya, did not get out of his long chair on the poop to look at the Neptun which passed so close that the smoke belching out suddenly from her short black funnel rolled between the masts of the Bonito, obscuring for a moment the sunlit whiteness of her sails, consecrated to the service of love. Jasper did not even turn his head for a glance. But Heemskirk, on the bridge, had gazed long and earnestly at the brig from the distance, gripping hard the brass rail in front of him, till, the two ships closing, he lost all confidence in himself, and retreating to the chartroom, pulled the door to with a crash. There, his brows knitted, his mouth drawn on one side in sardonic meditation, he sat through many still hours — a sort of Prometheus in the bonds of unholy desire, having his very vitals torn by the beak and claws of humiliated passion.
That species of fowl is not to be shooed off as easily as a chicken. Fooled, cheated, deceived, led on, outraged, mocked at — beak and claws! A sinister bird! The lieutenant had no mind to become the talk of the Archipelago, as the naval officer who had had his face slapped by a girl. Was it possible that she really loved that rascally trader? He tried not to think, but, worse than thoughts, definite impressions beset him in his retreat. He saw her — a vision plain, close to, detailed, plastic, coloured, lighted up — he saw her hanging round the neck of that fellow. And he shut his eyes, only to discover that this was no remedy. Then a piano began to play near by, very plainly; and he put his fingers to his ears with no better effect. It was not to be borne — not in solitude. He bolted out of the chartroom, and talked of indifferent things somewhat wildly with the officer of the watch on the bridge, to the mocking accompaniment of a ghostly piano.
The last thing to be recorded is that Lieutenant Heemskirk instead of pursuing his course towards Ternate, where he was expected, went out of his way to call at Makassar, where no one was looking for his arrival. Once there, he gave certain explanations and laid a certain proposal before the governor, or some other authority, and obtained permission to do what he thought fit in these matters. Thereupon the Neptun, giving up Ternate altogether, steamed north in view of the mountainous coast of Celebes, and then crossing the broad straits took up her station on the low coast of virgin forests, inviolate and mute, in waters phosphorescent at night; deep blue in daytime with gleaming green patches over the submerged reefs. For days the Neptun could be seen moving smoothly up and down the sombre face of the shore, or hanging about with a watchful air near the silvery breaks of broad estuaries, under the great luminous sky never softened, never veiled, and flooding the earth with the everlasting sunshine of the tropics — that sunshine which, in its unbroken splendour, oppresses the soul with an inexpressible melancholy more intimate, more penetrating, more profound than the grey sadness of the northern mists.
The trading brig Bonito appeared gliding round a sombre forest-clad point of land on the silvery estuary of a great river. The breath of air that gave her motion would not have fluttered the flame of a torch. She stole out into the open from behind a veil of unstirring leaves, mysteriously silent, ghostly white, and solemnly stealthy in her imperceptible progress; and Jasper, his elbow in the main rigging, and his head leaning against his hand, thought of Freya. Everything in the world reminded him of her. The beauty of the loved woman exists in the beauties of Nature. The swelling outlines of the hills, the curves of a coast, the free sinuosities of a river are less suave than the harmonious lines of her body, and when she moves, gliding lightly, the grace of her progress suggests the power of occult forces which rule the fascinating aspects of the visible world.
Dependent on things as all men are, Jasper loved his vessel — the house of his dreams. He lent to her something of Freya’s soul. Her deck was the foothold of their love. The possession of his brig appeased his passion in a soothing certitude of happiness already conquered.
The full moon was some way up, perfect and serene, floating in air as calm and limpid as the glance of Freya’s eyes. There was not a sound in the brig.
“Here she shall stand, by my side, on evenings like this,” he thought, with rapture.
And it was at that moment, in this peace, in this serenity, under the full, benign gaze of the moon propitious to lovers, on a sea without a wrinkle, under a sky without a cloud, as if all Nature had assumed its most clement mood in a spirit of mockery, that the gunboat Neptun, detaching herself from the dark coast under which she had been lying invisible, steamed out to intercept the trading brig Bonito standing out to sea.
Directly the gunboat had been made out emerging from her ambush, Schultz, of the fascinating voice, had given signs of strange agitation. All that day, ever since leaving the Malay town up the river, he had shown a haggard face, going about his duties like a man with something weighing on his mind. Jasper had noticed it, but the mate, turning away, as though he had not liked being looked at, had muttered shamefacedly of a headache and a touch of fever. He must have had it very badly when, dodging behind his captain he wondered aloud: “What can that fellow want with us?” . . . A naked man standing in a freezing blast and trying not to shiver could not have spoken with a more harshly uncertain intonation. But it might have been fever — a cold fit.
“He wants to make himself disagreeable, simply,” said Jasper, with perfect good humour. “He has tried it on me before. However, we shall soon see.”
And, indeed, before long the two vessels lay abreast within easy hail. The brig, with her fine lines and her white sails, looked vaporous and sylph-like in the moonlight. The gunboat, short, squat, with her stumpy dark spars naked like dead trees, raised against the luminous sky of that resplendent night, threw a heavy shadow on the lane of water between the two ships.
Freya haunted them both like an ubiquitous spirit, and as if she were the only woman in the world. Jasper remembered her earnest recommendation to be guarded and cautious in all his acts and words while he was away from her. In this quite unforeseen encounter he felt on his ear the very breath of these hurried admonitions customary to the last moment of their partings, heard the half-jesting final whisper of the “Mind, kid, I’d never forgive you!” with a quick pressure on his arm, which he answered by a quiet, confident smile. Heemskirk was haunted in another fashion. There were no whispers in it; it was more like visions. He saw that girl hanging round the neck of a low vagabond — that vagabond, the vagabond who had just answered his hail. He saw her stealing bare-footed across a verandah with great, clear, wide-open, eager eyes to look at a brig — that brig. If she had shrieked, scolded, called names! . . . But she had simply triumphed over him. That was all. Led on (he firmly believed it), fooled, deceived, outraged, struck, mocked at. . . . Beak and claws! The two men, so differently haunted by Freya of the Seven Isles, were not equally matched.
In the intense stillness, as of sleep, which had fallen upon the two vessels, in a world that itself seemed but a delicate dream, a boat pulled by Javanese sailors crossing the dark lane of water came alongside the brig. The white warrant officer in her, perhaps the gunner, climbed aboard. He was a short man, with a rotund stomach and a wheezy voice. His immovable fat face looked lifeless in the moonlight, and he walked with his thick arms hanging away from his body as though he had been stuffed. His cunning little eyes glittered like bits of mica. He conveyed to Jasper, in broken English, a request to come on board the Neptun.
Jasper had not expected anything so unusual. But after a short reflection he decided to show neither annoyance, nor even surprise. The river from which he had come had been politically disturbed for a couple of years, and he was aware that his visits there were looked upon with some suspicion. But he did not mind much the displeasure of the authorities, so terrifying to old Nelson. He prepared to leave the brig, and Schultz followed him to the rail as if to say something, but in the end stood by in silence. Jasper getting over the side, noticed his ghastly face. The eyes of the man who had found salvation in the brig from the effects of his peculiar psychology looked at him with a dumb, beseeching expression.
“What’s the matter?” Jasper asked.
“I wonder how this will end?” said he of the beautiful voice, which had even fascinated the steady Freya herself. But where was its charming timbre now? These words had sounded like a raven’s croak.
“You are ill,” said Jasper positively.
“I wish I were dead!” was the startling statement uttered by Schultz talking to himself in the extremity of some mysterious trouble. Jasper gave him a keen glance, but this was not the time to investigate the morbid outbreak of a feverish man. He did not look as though he were actually delirious, and that for the moment must suffice. Schultz made a dart forward.
“That fellow means harm!” he said desperately. “He means harm to you, Captain Allen. I feel it, and I— ”
He choked with inexplicable emotion.
“All right, Schultz. I won’t give him an opening.” Jasper cut him short and swung himself into the boat.
On board the Neptun Heemskirk, standing straddle-legs in the flood of moonlight, his inky shadow falling right across the quarter-deck, made no sign at his approach, but secretly he felt something like the heave of the sea in his chest at the sight of that man. Jasper waited before him in silence.
Brought face to face in direct personal contact, they fell at once into the manner of their casual meetings in old Nelson’s bungalow. They ignored each other’s existence — Heemskirk moodily; Jasper, with a perfectly colourless quietness.
“What’s going on in that river you’ve just come out of?” asked the lieutenant straight away.
“I know nothing of the troubles, if you mean that,” Jasper answered. “I’ve landed there half a cargo of rice, for which I got nothing in exchange, and went away. There’s no trade there now, but they would have been starving in another week — if I hadn’t turned up.”
“Meddling! English meddling! And suppose the rascals don’t deserve anything better than to starve, eh?”
“There are women and children there, you know,” observed Jasper, in his even tone.
“Oh, yes! When an Englishman talks of women and children, you may be sure there’s something fishy about the business. Your doings will have to be investigated.”
They spoke in turn, as though they had been disembodied spirits — mere voices in empty air; for they looked at each other as if there had been nothing there, or, at most, with as much recognition as one gives to an inanimate object, and no more. But now a silence fell. Heemskirk had thought, all at once: “She will tell him all about it. She will tell him while she hangs round his neck laughing.” And the sudden desire to annihilate Jasper on the spot almost deprived him of his senses by its vehemence. He lost the power of speech, of vision. For a moment he absolutely couldn’t see Jasper. But he heard him inquiring, as of the world at large:
“Am I, then, to conclude that the brig is detained?”
Heemskirk made a recovery in a flush of malignant satisfaction.
“She is. I am going to take her to Makassar in tow.”
“The courts will have to decide on the legality of this,” said Jasper, aware that the matter was becoming serious, but with assumed indifference.
“Oh, yes, the courts! Certainly. And as to you, I shall keep you on board here.”
Jasper’s dismay at being parted from his ship was betrayed by a stony immobility. It lasted but an instant. Then he turned away and hailed the brig. Mr. Schultz answered:
“Get ready to receive a tow-rope from the gunboat! We are going to be taken to Makassar.”
“Good God! What’s that for, sir?” came an anxious cry faintly.
“Kindness, I suppose,” Jasper, ironical, shouted with great deliberation. “We might have been — becalmed in here — for days. And hospitality. I am invited to stay — on board here.”
The answer to this information was a loud ejaculation of distress. Jasper thought anxiously: “Why, the fellow’s nerve’s gone to pieces;” and with an awkward uneasiness of a new sort, looked intently at the brig. The thought that he was parted from her — for the first time since they came together — shook the apparently careless fortitude of his character to its very foundations, which were deep. All that time neither Heemskirk nor even his inky shadow had stirred in the least.
“I am going to send a boat’s crew and an officer on board your vessel,” he announced to no one in particular. Jasper, tearing himself away from the absorbed contemplation of the brig, turned round, and, without passion, almost without expression in his voice, entered his protest against the whole of the proceedings. What he was thinking of was the delay. He counted the days. Makassar was actually on his way; and to be towed there really saved time. On the other hand, there would be some vexing formalities to go through. But the thing was too absurd. “The beetle’s gone mad,” he thought. “I’ll be released at once. And if not, Mesman must enter into a bond for me.” Mesman was a Dutch merchant with whom Jasper had had many dealings, a considerable person in Makassar.
“You protest? H’m!” Heemskirk muttered, and for a little longer remained motionless, his legs planted well apart, and his head lowered as though he were studying his own comical, deeply-split shadow. Then he made a sign to the rotund gunner, who had kept at hand, motionless, like a vilely-stuffed specimen of a fat man, with a lifeless face and glittering little eyes. The fellow approached, and stood at attention.
“You will board the brig with a boat’s crew!”
“You will have one of your men to steer her all the time,” went on Heemskirk, giving his orders in English, apparently for Jasper’s edification. “You hear?”
“You will remain on deck and in charge all the time.”
Jasper felt as if, together with the command of the brig, his very heart were being taken out of his breast. Heemskirk asked, with a change of tone:
“What weapons have you on board?”
At one time all the ships trading in the China Seas had a licence to carry a certain quantity of firearms for purposes of defence. Jasper answered:
“Eighteen rifles with their bayonets, which were on board when I bought her, four years ago. They have been declared.”
“Where are they kept?”
“Fore-cabin. Mate has the key.”
“You will take possession of them,” said Heemskirk to the gunner.
“What is this for? What do you mean to imply?” cried out Jasper; then bit his lip. “It’s monstrous!” he muttered.
Heemskirk raised for a moment a heavy, as if suffering, glance.
“You may go,” he said to his gunner. The fat man saluted, and departed.
During the next thirty hours the steady towing was interrupted once. At a signal from the brig, made by waving a flag on the forecastle, the gunboat was stopped. The badly-stuffed specimen of a warrant-officer, getting into his boat, arrived on board the Neptun and hurried straight into his commander’s cabin, his excitement at something he had to communicate being betrayed by the blinking of his small eyes. These two were closeted together for some time, while Jasper at the taffrail tried to make out if anything out of the common had occurred on board the brig.
But nothing seemed to be amiss on board. However, he kept a look-out for the gunner; and, though he had avoided speaking to anybody since he had finished with Heemskirk, he stopped that man when he came out on deck again to ask how his mate was.
“He was feeling not very well when I left,” he explained.
The fat warrant-officer, holding himself as though the effort of carrying his big stomach in front of him demanded a rigid carriage, understood with difficulty. Not a single one of his features showed the slightest animation, but his little eyes blinked rapidly at last.
“Oh, ya! The mate. Ya, ya! He is very well. But, mein Gott, he is one very funny man!”
Jasper could get no explanation of that remark, because the Dutchman got into the boat hurriedly, and went back on board the brig. But he consoled himself with the thought that very soon all this unpleasant and rather absurd experience would be over. The roadstead of Makassar was in sight already. Heemskirk passed by him going on the bridge. For the first time the lieutenant looked at Jasper with marked intention; and the strange roll of his eyes was so funny — it had been long agreed by Jasper and Freya that the lieutenant was funny — so ecstatically gratified, as though he were rolling a tasty morsel on his tongue, that Jasper could not help a broad smile. And then he turned to his brig again.
To see her, his cherished possession, animated by something of his Freya’s soul, the only foothold of two lives on the wide earth, the security of his passion, the companion of adventure, the power to snatch the calm, adorable Freya to his breast, and carry her off to the end of the world; to see this beautiful thing embodying worthily his pride and his love, to see her captive at the end of a tow-rope was not indeed a pleasant experience. It had something nightmarish in it, as, for instance, the dream of a wild sea-bird loaded with chains.
Yet what else could he want to look at? Her beauty would sometimes come to his heart with the force of a spell, so that he would forget where he was. And, besides, that sense of superiority which the certitude of being loved gives to a young man, that illusion of being set above the Fates by a tender look in a woman’s eyes, helped him, the first shock over, to go through these experiences with an amused self-confidence. For what evil could touch the elect of Freya?
It was now afternoon, the sun being behind the two vessels as they headed for the harbour. “The beetle’s little joke shall soon be over,” thought Jasper, without any great animosity. As a seaman well acquainted with that part of the world, a casual glance was enough to tell him what was being done. “Hallo,” he thought, “he is going through Spermonde Passage. We shall be rounding Tamissa reef presently.” And again he returned to the contemplation of his brig, that main-stay of his material and emotional existence which would be soon in his hands again. On a sea, calm like a millpond, a heavy smooth ripple undulated and streamed away from her bows, for the powerful Neptun was towing at great speed, as if for a wager. The Dutch gunner appeared on the forecastle of the Bonito, and with him a couple of men. They stood looking at the coast, and Jasper lost himself in a loverlike trance.
The deep-toned blast of the gunboat’s steam-whistle made him shudder by its unexpectedness. Slowly he looked about. Swift as lightning he leaped from where he stood, bounding forward along the deck.
“You will be on Tamissa reef!” he yelled.
High up on the bridge Heemskirk looked back over his shoulder heavily; two seamen were spinning the wheel round, and the Neptun was already swinging rapidly away from the edge of the pale water over the danger. Ha! just in time. Jasper turned about instantly to watch his brig; and, even before he realised that — in obedience, it appears, to Heemskirk’s orders given beforehand to the gunner — the tow-rope had been let go at the blast of the whistle, before he had time to cry out or to move a limb, he saw her cast adrift and shooting across the gunboat’s stern with the impetus of her speed. He followed her fine, gliding form with eyes growing big with incredulity, wild with horror. The cries on board of her came to him only as a dreadful and confused murmur through the loud thumping of blood in his ears, while she held on. She ran upright in a terrible display of her gift of speed, with an incomparable air of life and grace. She ran on till the smooth level of water in front of her bows seemed to sink down suddenly as if sucked away; and, with a strange, violent tremor of her mast-heads she stopped, inclined her lofty spars a little, and lay still. She lay still on the reef, while the Neptun, fetching a wide circle, continued at full speed up Spermonde Passage, heading for the town. She lay still, perfectly still, with something ill-omened and unnatural in her attitude. In an instant the subtle melancholy of things touched by decay had fallen on her in the sunshine; she was but a speck in the brilliant emptiness of space, already lonely, already desolate.
“Hold him!” yelled a voice from the bridge.
Jasper had started to run to his brig with a headlong impulse, as a man dashes forward to pull away with his hands a living, breathing, loved creature from the brink of destruction. “Hold him! Stick to him!” vociferated the lieutenant at the top of the bridge-ladder, while Jasper struggled madly without a word, only his head emerging from the heaving crowd of the Neptun’s seamen, who had flung themselves upon him obediently. “Hold — I would not have that fellow drown himself for anything now!”
Jasper ceased struggling.
One by one they let go of him; they fell back gradually farther and farther, in attentive silence, leaving him standing unsupported in a widened, clear space, as if to give him plenty of room to fall after the struggle. He did not even sway perceptibly. Half an hour later, when the Neptun anchored in front of the town, he had not stirred yet, had moved neither head nor limb as much as a hair’s breadth. Directly the rumble of the gunboat’s cable had ceased, Heemskirk came down heavily from the bridge.
“Call a sampan” he said, in a gloomy tone, as he passed the sentry at the gangway, and then moved on slowly towards the spot where Jasper, the object of many awed glances, stood looking at the deck, as if lost in a brown study. Heemskirk came up close, and stared at him thoughtfully, with his fingers over his lips. Here he was, the favoured vagabond, the only man to whom that infernal girl was likely to tell the story. But he would not find it funny. The story how Lieutenant Heemskirk — No, he would not laugh at it. He looked as though he would never laugh at anything in his life.
Suddenly Jasper looked up. His eyes, without any other expression but bewilderment, met those of Heemskirk, observant and sombre.
“Gone on the reef!” he said, in a low, astounded tone. “On-the-reef!” he repeated still lower, and as if attending inwardly to the birth of some awful and amazing sensation.
“On the very top of high-water, spring tides,” Heemskirk struck in, with a vindictive, exulting violence which flashed and expired. He paused, as if weary, fixing upon Jasper his arrogant eyes, over which secret disenchantment, the unavoidable shadow of all passion, seemed to pass like a saddening cloud. “On the very top,” he repeated, rousing himself in fierce reaction to snatch his laced cap off his head with a horizontal, derisive flourish towards the gangway. “And now you may go ashore to the courts, you damned Englishman!” he said.
The affair of the brig Bonito was bound to cause a sensation in Makassar, the prettiest, and perhaps the cleanest-looking of all the towns in the Islands; which however knows few occasions for excitement. The “front,” with its special population, was soon aware that something had happened. A steamer towing a sailing vessel had been observed far out to sea for some time, and when the steamer came in alone, leaving the other outside, attention was aroused. Why was that? Her masts only could be seen — with furled sails — remaining in the same place to the southward. And soon the rumour ran all along the crowded seashore street that there was a ship on Tamissa reef. That crowd interpreted the appearance correctly. Its cause was beyond their penetration, for who could associate a girl nine hundred miles away with the stranding of a ship on Tamissa reef, or look for the remote filiation of that event in the psychology of at least three people, even if one of them, Lieutenant Heemskirk, was at that very moment passing amongst them on his way to make his verbal report?
No; the minds on the “front” were not competent for that sort of investigation, but many hands there — brown hands, yellow hands, white hands — were raised to shade the eyes gazing out to sea. The rumour spread quickly. Chinese shopkeepers came to their doors, more than one white merchant, even, rose from his desk to go to the window. After all, a ship on Tamissa was not an everyday occurrence. And presently the rumour took a more definite shape. An English trader — detained on suspicion at sea by the Neptun — Heemskirk was towing him in to test a case, and by some strange accident —
Later on the name came out. “The Bonito — what! Impossible! Yes — yes, the Bonito. Look! You can see from here; only two masts. It’s a brig. Didn’t think that man would ever let himself be caught. Heemskirk’s pretty smart, too. They say she’s fitted out in her cabin like a gentleman’s yacht. That Allen is a sort of gentleman too. An extravagant beggar.”
A young man entered smartly Messrs. Mesman Brothers’ office on the “front,” bubbling with some further information.
“Oh, yes; that’s the Bonito for certain! But you don’t know the story I’ve heard just now. The fellow must have been feeding that river with firearms for the last year or two. Well, it seems he has grown so reckless from long impunity that he has actually dared to sell the very ship’s rifles this time. It’s a fact. The rifles are not on board. What impudence! Only, he didn’t know that there was one of our warships on the coast. But those Englishmen are so impudent that perhaps he thought that nothing would be done to him for it. Our courts do let off these fellows too often, on some miserable excuse or other. But, at any rate, there’s an end of the famous Bonito. I have just heard in the harbour-office that she must have gone on at the very top of high-water; and she is in ballast, too. No human power, they think, can move her from where she is. I only hope it is so. It would be fine to have the notorious Bonito stuck up there as a warning to others.”
Mr. J. Mesman, a colonial-born Dutchman, a kind, paternal old fellow, with a clean-shaven, quiet, handsome fade, and a head of fine iron-grey hair curling a little on his collar, did not say a word in defence of Jasper and the Bonito. He rose from his arm-chair suddenly. His face was visibly troubled. It had so happened that once, from a business talk of ways and means, island trade, money matters, and so on, Jasper had been led to open himself to him on the subject of Freya; and the excellent man, who had known old Nelson years before and even remembered something of Freya, was much astonished and amused by the unfolding of the tale.
“Well, well, well! Nelson! Yes; of course. A very honest sort of man. And a little child with very fair hair. Oh, yes! I have a distinct recollection. And so she has grown into such a fine girl, so very determined, so very — “ And he laughed almost boisterously. “Mind, when you have happily eloped with your future wife, Captain Allen, you must come along this way, and we shall welcome her here. A little fair-headed child! I remember. I remember.”
It was that knowledge which had brought trouble to his face at the first news of the wreck. He took up his hat.
“Where are you going, Mr. Mesman?”
“I am going to look for Allen. I think he must be ashore. Does anybody know?”
No one of those present knew. And Mr. Mesman went out on the “front” to make inquiries.
The other part of the town, the part near the church and the fort, got its information in another way. The first thing disclosed to it was Jasper himself, walking rapidly, as though he were pursued. And, as a matter of fact, a Chinaman, obviously a sampan man, was following him at the same headlong pace. Suddenly, while passing Orange House, Jasper swerved and went in, or, rather, rushed in, startling Gomez, the hotel clerk, very much. But a Chinaman beginning to make an unseemly noise at the door claimed the immediate attention of Gomez. His grievance was that the white man whom he had brought on shore from the gunboat had not paid him his boat-fare. He had pursued him so far, asking for it all the way. But the white man had taken no notice whatever of his just claim. Gomez satisfied the coolie with a few coppers, and then went to look for Jasper, whom he knew very well. He found him standing stiffly by a little round table. At the other end of the verandah a few men sitting there had stopped talking, and were looking at him in silence. Two billiard-players, with cues in their hands, had come to the door of the billiard-room and stared, too.
On Gomez coming up to him, Jasper raised one hand to point at his own throat. Gomez noted the somewhat soiled state of his white clothes, then took one look at his face, and fled away to order the drink for which Jasper seemed to be asking.
Where he wanted to go — or what purpose — where he, perhaps, only imagined himself to be going, when a sudden impulse or the sight of a familiar place had made him turn into Orange House — it is impossible to say. He was steadying himself lightly with the tips of his fingers on the little table. There were on that verandah two men whom he knew well personally, but his gaze roaming incessantly as though he were looking for a way of escape, passed and repassed over them without a sign of recognition. They, on their side, looking at him, doubted the evidence of their own eyes. It was not that his face was distorted. On the contrary, it was still, it was set. But its expression, somehow, was unrecognisable. Can that be him? they wondered with awe.
In his head there was a wild chaos of clear thoughts. Perfectly clear. It was this clearness which was so terrible in conjunction with the utter inability to lay hold of any single one of them all. He was saying to himself, or to them: “Steady, steady.” A China boy appeared before him with a glass on a tray. He poured the drink down his throat, and rushed out. His disappearance removed the spell of wonder from the beholders. One of the men jumped up and moved quickly to that side of the verandah from which almost the whole of the roadstead could be seen. At the very moment when Jasper, issuing from the door of the Orange House, was passing under him in the street below, he cried to the others excitedly:
“That was Allen right enough! But where is his brig?”
Jasper heard these words with extraordinary loudness. The heavens rang with them, as if calling him to account; for those were the very words Freya would have to use. It was an annihilating question; it struck his consciousness like a thunderbolt and brought a sudden night upon the chaos of his thoughts even as he walked. He did not check his pace. He went on in the darkness for another three strides, and then fell.
The good Mesman had to push on as far as the hospital before he found him. The doctor there talked of a slight heatstroke. Nothing very much. Out in three days. . . . It must be admitted that the doctor was right. In three days, Jasper Allen came out of the hospital and became visible to the town — very visible indeed — and remained so for quite a long time; long enough to become almost one of the sights of the place; long enough to become disregarded at last; long enough for the tale of his haunting visibility to be remembered in the islands to this day.
The talk on the “front” and Jasper’s appearance in the Orange House stand at the beginning of the famous Bonito case, and give a view of its two aspects — the practical and the psychological. The case for the courts and the case for compassion; that last terribly evident and yet obscure.
It has, you must understand, remained obscure even for that friend of mine who wrote me the letter mentioned in the very first lines of this narrative. He was one of those in Mr. Mesman’s office, and accompanied that gentleman in his search for Jasper. His letter described to me the two aspects and some of the episodes of the case. Heemskirk’s attitude was that of deep thankfulness for not having lost his own ship, and that was all. Haze over the land was his explanation of having got so close to Tamissa reef. He saved his ship, and for the rest he did not care. As to the fat gunner, he deposed simply that he thought at the time that he was acting for the best by letting go the tow-rope, but admitted that he was greatly confused by the suddenness of the emergency.
As a matter of fact, he had acted on very precise instructions from Heemskirk, to whom through several years’ service together in the East he had become a sort of devoted henchman. What was most amazing in the detention of the Bonito was his story how, proceeding to take possession of the firearms as ordered, he discovered that there were no firearms on board. All he found in the fore-cabin was an empty rack for the proper number of eighteen rifles, but of the rifles themselves never a single one anywhere in the ship. The mate of the brig, who looked rather ill and behaved excitedly, as though he were perhaps a lunatic, wanted him to believe that Captain Allen knew nothing of this; that it was he, the mate, who had recently sold these rifles in the dead of night to a certain person up the river. In proof of this story he produced a bag of silver dollars and pressed it on his, the gunner’s, acceptance. Then, suddenly flinging it down on the deck, he beat his own head with both his fists and started heaping shocking curses upon his own soul for an ungrateful wretch not fit to live.
All this the gunner reported at once to his commanding officer.
What Heemskirk intended by taking upon himself to detain the Bonito it is difficult to say, except that he meant to bring some trouble into the life of the man favoured by Freya. He had been looking at Jasper with a desire to strike that man of kisses and embraces to the earth. The question was: How could he do it without giving himself away? But the report of the gunner created a serious case enough. Yet Allen had friends — and who could tell whether he wouldn’t somehow succeed in wriggling out of it? The idea of simply towing the brig so much compromised on to the reef came to him while he was listening to the fat gunner in his cabin. There was but little risk of being disapproved now. And it should be made to appear an accident.
Going out on deck he had gloated upon his unconscious victim with such a sinister roll of his eyes, such a queerly pursed mouth, that Jasper could not help smiling. And the lieutenant had gone on the bridge, saying to himself:
“You wait! I shall spoil the taste of those sweet kisses for you. When you hear of Lieutenant Heemskirk in the future that name won’t bring a smile on your lips, I swear. You are delivered into my hands.”
And this possibility had come about without any planning, one could almost say naturally, as if events had mysteriously shaped themselves to fit the purposes of a dark passion. The most astute scheming could not have served Heemskirk better. It was given to him to taste a transcendental, an incredible perfection of vengeance; to strike a deadly blow into that hated person’s heart, and to watch him afterwards walking about with the dagger in his breast.
For that is what the state of Jasper amounted to. He moved, acted, weary-eyed, keen-faced, lank and restless, with brusque movements and fierce gestures; he talked incessantly in a frenzied and fatigued voice, but within himself he knew that nothing would ever give him back the brig, just as nothing can heal a pierced heart. His soul, kept quiet in the stress of love by the unflinching Freya’s influence, was like a still but overwound string. The shock had started it vibrating, and the string had snapped. He had waited for two years in a perfectly intoxicated confidence for a day that now would never come to a man disarmed for life by the loss of the brig, and, it seemed to him, made unfit for love to which he had no foothold to offer.
Day after day he would traverse the length of the town, follow the coast, and, reaching the point of land opposite that part of the reef on which his brig lay stranded, look steadily across the water at her beloved form, once the home of an exulting hope, and now, in her inclined, desolated immobility, towering above the lonely sea-horizon, a symbol of despair.
The crew had left her in due course in her own boats which directly they reached the town were sequestrated by the harbour authorities. The vessel, too, was sequestrated pending proceedings; but these same authorities did not take the trouble to set a guard on board. For, indeed, what could move her from there? Nothing, unless a miracle; nothing, unless Jasper’s eyes, fastened on her tensely for hours together, as though he hoped by the mere power of vision to draw her to his breast.
All this story, read in my friend’s very chatty letter, dismayed me not a little. But it was really appalling to read his relation of how Schultz, the mate, went about everywhere affirming with desperate pertinacity that it was he alone who had sold the rifles. “I stole them,” he protested. Of course, no one would believe him. My friend himself did not believe him, though he, of course, admired this self-sacrifice. But a good many people thought it was going too far to make oneself out a thief for the sake of a friend. Only, it was such an obvious lie, too, that it did not matter, perhaps.
I, who, in view of Schultz’s psychology, knew how true that must be, admit that I was appalled. So this was how a perfidious destiny took advantage of a generous impulse! And I felt as though I were an accomplice in this perfidy, since I did to a certain extent encourage Jasper. Yet I had warned him as well.
“The man seemed to have gone crazy on this point,” wrote my friend. “He went to Mesman with his story. He says that some rascally white man living amongst the natives up that river made him drunk with some gin one evening, and then jeered at him for never having any money. Then he, protesting to us that he was an honest man and must be believed, described himself as being a thief whenever he took a drop too much, and told us that he went on board and passed the rifles one by one without the slightest compunction to a canoe which came alongside that night, receiving ten dollars apiece for them.
“Next day he was ill with shame and grief, but had not the courage to confess his lapse to his benefactor. When the gunboat stopped the brig he felt ready to die with the apprehension of the consequences, and would have died happily, if he could have been able to bring the rifles back by the sacrifice of his life. He said nothing to Jasper, hoping that the brig would be released presently. When it turned out otherwise and his captain was detained on board the gunboat, he was ready to commit suicide from despair; only he thought it his duty to live in order to let the truth be known. ‘I am an honest man! I am an honest man!’ he repeated, in a voice that brought tears to our eyes. ‘You must believe me when I tell you that I am a thief — a vile, low, cunning, sneaking thief as soon as I’ve had a glass or two. Take me somewhere where I may tell the truth on oath.’
“When we had at last convinced him that his story could be of no use to Jasper — for what Dutch court, having once got hold of an English trader, would accept such an explanation; and, indeed, how, when, where could one hope to find proofs of such a tale? — he made as if to tear his hair in handfuls, but, calming down, said: ‘Good-bye, then, gentlemen,’ and went out of the room so crushed that he seemed hardly able to put one foot before the other. That very night he committed suicide by cutting his throat in the house of a half-caste with whom he had been lodging since he came ashore from the wreck.”
That throat, I thought with a shudder, which could produce the tender, persuasive, manly, but fascinating voice which had aroused Jasper’s ready compassion and had secured Freya’s sympathy! Who could ever have supposed such an end in store for the impossible, gentle Schultz, with his idiosyncrasy of naive pilfering, so absurdly straightforward that, even in the people who had suffered from it, it aroused nothing more than a sort of amused exasperation? He was really impossible. His lot evidently should have been a half-starved, mysterious, but by no means tragic existence as a mild-eyed, inoffensive beachcomber on the fringe of native life. There are occasions when the irony of fate, which some people profess to discover in the working out of our lives, wears the aspect of crude and savage jesting.
I shook my head over the manes of Schultz, and went on with my friend’s letter. It told me how the brig on the reef, looted by the natives from the coast villages, acquired gradually the lamentable aspect, the grey ghastliness of a wreck; while Jasper, fading daily into a mere shadow of a man, strode brusquely all along the “front” with horribly lively eyes and a faint, fixed smile on his lips, to spend the day on a lonely spit of sand looking eagerly at her, as though he had expected some shape on board to rise up and make some sort of sign to him over the decaying bulwarks. The Mesmans were taking care of him as far as it was possible. The Bonito case had been referred to Batavia, where no doubt it would fade away in a fog of official papers. . . . It was heartrending to read all this. That active and zealous officer, Lieutenant Heemskirk, his air of sullen, darkly-pained self-importance not lightened by the approval of his action conveyed to him unofficially, had gone on to take up his station in the Moluccas . . . .
Then, at the end of the bulky, kindly-meant epistle, dealing with the island news of half a year at least, my friend wrote: “A couple of months ago old Nelson turned up here, arriving by the mail-boat from Java. Came to see Mesman, it seems. A rather mysterious visit, and extraordinarily short, after coming all that way. He stayed just four days at the Orange House, with apparently nothing in particular to do, and then caught the south-going steamer for the Straits. I remember people saying at one time that Allen was rather sweet on old Nelson’s daughter, the girl that was brought up by Mrs. Harley and then went to live with him at the Seven Isles group. Surely you remember old Nelson — ”
Remember old Nelson! Rather!
The letter went on to inform me further that old Nelson, at least, remembered me, since some time after his flying visit to Makassar he had written to the Mesmans asking for my address in London.
That old Nelson (or Nielsen), the note of whose personality was a profound, echoless irresponsiveness to everything around him, should wish to write, or find anything to write about to anybody, was in itself a cause for no small wonder. And to me, of all people! I waited with uneasy impatience for whatever disclosure could come from that naturally benighted intelligence, but my impatience had time to wear out before my eyes beheld old Nelson’s trembling, painfully-formed handwriting, senile and childish at the same time, on an envelope bearing a penny stamp and the postal mark of the Notting Hill office. I delayed opening it in order to pay the tribute of astonishment due to the event by flinging my hands above my head. So he had come home to England, to be definitely Nelson; or else was on his way home to Denmark, where he would revert for ever to his original Nielsen! But old Nelson (or Nielsen) out of the tropics seemed unthinkable. And yet he was there, asking me to call.
His address was at a boarding-house in one of those Bayswater squares, once of leisure, which nowadays are reduced to earning their living. Somebody had recommended him there. I started to call on him on one of those January days in London, one of those wintry days composed of the four devilish elements, cold, wet, mud, and grime, combined with a particular stickiness of atmosphere that clings like an unclean garment to one’s very soul. Yet on approaching his abode I saw, like a flicker far behind the soiled veil of the four elements, the wearisome and splendid glitter of a blue sea with the Seven Islets like minute specks swimming in my eye, the high red roof of the bungalow crowning the very smallest of them all. This visual reminiscence was profoundly disturbing. I knocked at the door with a faltering hand.
Old Nelson (or Nielsen) got up from the table at which he was sitting with a shabby pocket-book full of papers before him. He took off his spectacles before shaking hands. For a moment neither of us said a word; then, noticing me looking round somewhat expectantly, he murmured some words, of which I caught only “daughter” and “Hong Kong,” cast his eyes down, and sighed.
His moustache, sticking all ways out, as of yore, was quite white now. His old cheeks were softly rounded, with some colour in them; strangely enough, that something childlike always noticeable in the general contour of his physiognomy had become much more marked. Like his handwriting, he looked childish and senile. He showed his age most in his unintelligently furrowed, anxious forehead and in his round, innocent eyes, which appeared to me weak and blinking and watery; or was it that they were full of tears? . . .
To discover old Nelson fully informed upon any matter whatever was a new experience. And after the first awkwardness had worn off he talked freely, with, now and then, a question to start him going whenever he lapsed into silence, which he would do suddenly, clasping his hands on his waistcoat in an attitude which would recall to me the east verandah, where he used to sit talking quietly and puffing out his cheeks in what seemed now old, very old days. He talked in a reasonable somewhat anxious tone.
“No, no. We did not know anything for weeks. Out of the way like that, we couldn’t, of course. No mail service to the Seven Isles. But one day I ran over to Banka in my big sailing-boat to see whether there were any letters, and saw a Dutch paper. But it looked only like a bit of marine news: English brig Bonito gone ashore outside Makassar roads. That was all. I took the paper home with me and showed it to her. ‘I will never forgive him!’ she cries with her old spirit. ‘My dear,’ I said, ‘you are a sensible girl. The best man may lose a ship. But what about your health?’ I was beginning to be frightened at her looks. She would not let me talk even of going to Singapore before. But, really, such a sensible girl couldn’t keep on objecting for ever. ‘Do what you like, papa,’ she says. Rather a job, that. Had to catch a steamer at sea, but I got her over all right. There, doctors, of course. Fever. Anaemia. Put her to bed. Two or three women very kind to her. Naturally in our papers the whole story came out before long. She reads it to the end, lying on the couch; then hands the newspaper back to me, whispers ‘Heemskirk,’ and goes off into a faint.”
He blinked at me for quite a long time, his eyes running full of tears again.
“Next day,” he began, without any emotion in his voice, “she felt stronger, and we had a long talk. She told me everything.”
Here old Nelson, with his eyes cast down, gave me the whole story of the Heemskirk episode in Freya’s words; then went on in his rather jerky utterance, and looking up innocently:
“‘My dear,’ I said, ‘you have behaved in the main like a sensible girl.’ ‘I have been horrid,’ she cries, ‘and he is breaking his heart over there.’ Well, she was too sensible not to see she wasn’t in a state to travel. But I went. She told me to go. She was being looked after very well. Anaemia. Getting better, they said.”
“You did see him?” I murmured.
“Oh, yes; I did see him,” he started again, talking in that reasonable voice as though he were arguing a point. “I did see him. I came upon him. Eyes sunk an inch into his head; nothing but skin on the bones of his face, a skeleton in dirty white clothes. That’s what he looked like. How Freya . . . But she never did — not really. He was sitting there, the only live thing for miles along that coast, on a drift-log washed up on the shore. They had clipped his hair in the hospital, and it had not grown again. He stared, holding his chin in his hand, and with nothing on the sea between him and the sky but that wreck. When I came up to him he just moved his head a bit. ‘Is that you, old man?’ says he — like that.
“If you had seen him you would have understood at once how impossible it was for Freya to have ever loved that man. Well, well. I don’t say. She might have — something. She was lonely, you know. But really to go away with him! Never! Madness. She was too sensible . . . I began to reproach him gently. And by and by he turns on me. ‘Write to you! What about? Come to her! What with? If I had been a man I would have carried her off, but she made a child, a happy child, of me. Tell her that the day the only thing I had belonging to me in the world perished on this reef I discovered that I had no power over her . . . Has she come here with you?’ he shouts, blazing at me suddenly with his hollow eyes. I shook my head. Come with me, indeed! Anaemia! ‘Aha! You see? Go away, then, old man, and leave me alone here with that ghost,’ he says, jerking his head at the wreck of his brig.
“Mad! It was getting dusk. I did not care to stop any longer all by myself with that man in that lonely place. I was not going to tell him of Freya’s illness. Anaemia! What was the good? Mad! And what sort of husband would he have made, anyhow, for a sensible girl like Freya? Why, even my little property I could not have left them. The Dutch authorities would never have allowed an Englishman to settle there. It was not sold then. My man Mahmat, you know, was looking after it for me. Later on I let it go for a tenth of its value to a Dutch half-caste. But never mind. It was nothing to me then. Yes; I went away from him. I caught the return mail-boat. I told everything to Freya. ‘He’s mad,’ I said; ‘and, my dear, the only thing he loved was his brig.’
“‘Perhaps,’ she says to herself, looking straight away — her eyes were nearly as hollow as his — ‘perhaps it is true. Yes! I would never allow him any power over me.’”
Old Nelson paused. I sat fascinated, and feeling a little cold in that room with a blazing fire.
“So you see,” he continued, “she never really cared for him. Much too sensible. I took her away to Hong Kong. Change of climate, they said. Oh, these doctors! My God! Winter time! There came ten days of cold mists and wind and rain. Pneumonia. But look here! We talked a lot together. Days and evenings. Who else had she? . . . She talked a lot to me, my own girl. Sometimes she would laugh a little. Look at me and laugh a little — ”
I shuddered. He looked up vaguely, with a childish, puzzled moodiness.
“She would say: ‘I did not really mean to be a bad daughter to you, papa.’ And I would say: ‘Of course, my dear. You could not have meant it.’ She would lie quiet and then say: ‘I wonder?’ And sometimes, ‘I’ve been really a coward,’ she would tell me. You know, sick people they say things. And so she would say too: ‘I’ve been conceited, headstrong, capricious. I sought my own gratification. I was selfish or afraid.’ . . . But sick people, you know, they say anything. And once, after lying silent almost all day, she said: ‘Yes; perhaps, when the day came I would not have gone. Perhaps! I don’t know,’ she cried. ‘Draw the curtain, papa. Shut the sea out. It reproaches me with my folly.’” He gasped and paused.
“So you see,” he went on in a murmur. “Very ill, very ill indeed. Pneumonia. Very sudden.” He pointed his finger at the carpet, while the thought of the poor girl, vanquished in her struggle with three men’s absurdities, and coming at last to doubt her own self, held me in a very anguish of pity.
“You see yourself,” he began again in a downcast manner. “She could not have really . . . She mentioned you several times. Good friend. Sensible man. So I wanted to tell you myself — let you know the truth. A fellow like that! How could it be? She was lonely. And perhaps for a while . . . Mere nothing. There could never have been a question of love for my Freya — such a sensible girl — ”
“Man!” I cried, rising upon him wrathfully, “don’t you see that she died of it?”
He got up too. “No! no!” he stammered, as if angry. “The doctors! Pneumonia. Low state. The inflammation of the . . . They told me. Pneu — ”
He did not finish the word. It ended in a sob. He flung his arms out in a gesture of despair, giving up his ghastly pretence with a low, heartrending cry:
“And I thought that she was so sensible!”
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