‘After these words, and without a change of attitude, he, so to speak, submitted himself passively to a state of silence. I kept him company; and suddenly, but not abruptly, as if the appointed time had arrived for his moderate and husky voice to come out of his immobility, he pronounced, “Mon Dieu! how the time passes!” Nothing could have been more commonplace than this remark; but its utterance coincided for me with a moment of vision. It’s extraordinary how we go through life with eyes half shut, with dull ears, with dormant thoughts. Perhaps it’s just as well; and it may be that it is this very dullness that makes life to the incalculable majority so supportable and so welcome. Nevertheless, there can be but few of us who had never known one of these rare moments of awakening when we see, hear, understand ever so much — everything — in a flash — before we fall back again into our agreeable somnolence. I raised my eyes when he spoke, and I saw him as though I had never seen him before. I saw his chin sunk on his breast, the clumsy folds of his coat, his clasped hands, his motionless pose, so curiously suggestive of his having been simply left there. Time had passed indeed: it had overtaken him and gone ahead. It had left him hopelessly behind with a few poor gifts: the iron-grey hair, the heavy fatigue of the tanned face, two scars, a pair of tarnished shoulder-straps; one of those steady, reliable men who are the raw material of great reputations, one of those uncounted lives that are buried without drums and trumpets under the foundations of monumental successes. “I am now third lieutenant of the Victorieuse” (she was the flagship of the French Pacific squadron at the time), he said, detaching his shoulders from the wall a couple of inches to introduce himself. I bowed slightly on my side of the table, and told him I commanded a merchant vessel at present anchored in Rushcutters’ Bay. He had “remarked” her, — a pretty little craft. He was very civil about it in his impassive way. I even fancy he went the length of tilting his head in compliment as he repeated, breathing visibly the while, “Ah, yes. A little craft painted black — very pretty — very pretty (tres coquet).” After a time he twisted his body slowly to face the glass door on our right. “A dull town (triste ville),” he observed, staring into the street. It was a brilliant day; a southerly buster was raging, and we could see the passers-by, men and women, buffeted by the wind on the sidewalks, the sunlit fronts of the houses across the road blurred by the tall whirls of dust. “I descended on shore,” he said, “to stretch my legs a little, but . . . ” He didn’t finish, and sank into the depths of his repose. “Pray — tell me,” he began, coming up ponderously, “what was there at the bottom of this affair — precisely (au juste)? It is curious. That dead man, for instance — and so on.”
‘“There were living men too,” I said; “much more curious.”
‘“No doubt, no doubt,” he agreed half audibly, then, as if after mature consideration, murmured, “Evidently.” I made no difficulty in communicating to him what had interested me most in this affair. It seemed as though he had a right to know: hadn’t he spent thirty hours on board the Patna — had he not taken the succession, so to speak, had he not done “his possible”? He listened to me, looking more priest-like than ever, and with what — probably on account of his downcast eyes — had the appearance of devout concentration. Once or twice he elevated his eyebrows (but without raising his eyelids), as one would say “The devil!” Once he calmly exclaimed, “Ah, bah!” under his breath, and when I had finished he pursed his lips in a deliberate way and emitted a sort of sorrowful whistle.
‘In any one else it might have been an evidence of boredom, a sign of indifference; but he, in his occult way, managed to make his immobility appear profoundly responsive, and as full of valuable thoughts as an egg is of meat. What he said at last was nothing more than a “Very interesting,” pronounced politely, and not much above a whisper. Before I got over my disappointment he added, but as if speaking to himself, “That’s it. That is it.” His chin seemed to sink lower on his breast, his body to weigh heavier on his seat. I was about to ask him what he meant, when a sort of preparatory tremor passed over his whole person, as a faint ripple may be seen upon stagnant water even before the wind is felt. “And so that poor young man ran away along with the others,” he said, with grave tranquillity.
‘I don’t know what made me smile: it is the only genuine smile of mine I can remember in connection with Jim’s affair. But somehow this simple statement of the matter sounded funny in French. . . . “S’est enfui avec les autres,” had said the lieutenant. And suddenly I began to admire the discrimination of the man. He had made out the point at once: he did get hold of the only thing I cared about. I felt as though I were taking professional opinion on the case. His imperturbable and mature calmness was that of an expert in possession of the facts, and to whom one’s perplexities are mere child’s-play. “Ah! The young, the young,” he said indulgently. “And after all, one does not die of it.” “Die of what?” I asked swiftly. “Of being afraid.” He elucidated his meaning and sipped his drink.
‘I perceived that the three last fingers of his wounded hand were stiff and could not move independently of each other, so that he took up his tumbler with an ungainly clutch. “One is always afraid. One may talk, but . . . ” He put down the glass awkwardly. . . . “The fear, the fear — look you — it is always there.” . . . He touched his breast near a brass button, on the very spot where Jim had given a thump to his own when protesting that there was nothing the matter with his heart. I suppose I made some sign of dissent, because he insisted, “Yes! yes! One talks, one talks; this is all very fine; but at the end of the reckoning one is no cleverer than the next man — and no more brave. Brave! This is always to be seen. I have rolled my hump (roule ma bosse),” he said, using the slang expression with imperturbable seriousness, “in all parts of the world; I have known brave men — famous ones! Allez!” . . . He drank carelessly. . . . “Brave — you conceive — in the Service — one has got to be — the trade demands it (le metier veut ca). Is it not so?” he appealed to me reasonably. “Eh bien! Each of them — I say each of them, if he were an honest man — bien entendu — would confess that there is a point — there is a point — for the best of us — there is somewhere a point when you let go everything (vous lachez tout). And you have got to live with that truth — do you see? Given a certain combination of circumstances, fear is sure to come. Abominable funk (un trac epouvantable). And even for those who do not believe this truth there is fear all the same — the fear of themselves. Absolutely so. Trust me. Yes. Yes. . . . At my age one knows what one is talking about — que diable!” . . . He had delivered himself of all this as immovably as though he had been the mouthpiece of abstract wisdom, but at this point he heightened the effect of detachment by beginning to twirl his thumbs slowly. “It’s evident — parbleu!” he continued; “for, make up your mind as much as you like, even a simple headache or a fit of indigestion (un derangement d’estomac) is enough to . . . Take me, for instance — I have made my proofs. Eh bien! I, who am speaking to you, once . . . ”
‘He drained his glass and returned to his twirling. “No, no; one does not die of it,” he pronounced finally, and when I found he did not mean to proceed with the personal anecdote, I was extremely disappointed; the more so as it was not the sort of story, you know, one could very well press him for. I sat silent, and he too, as if nothing could please him better. Even his thumbs were still now. Suddenly his lips began to move. “That is so,” he resumed placidly. “Man is born a coward (L’homme est ne poltron). It is a difficulty — parbleu! It would be too easy otherwise. But habit — habit — necessity — do you see? — the eye of others — voila. One puts up with it. And then the example of others who are no better than yourself, and yet make good countenance. . . . ”
‘His voice ceased.
‘“That young man — you will observe — had none of these inducements — at least at the moment,” I remarked.
‘He raised his eyebrows forgivingly: “I don’t say; I don’t say. The young man in question might have had the best dispositions — the best dispositions,” he repeated, wheezing a little.
‘“I am glad to see you taking a lenient view,” I said. ‘His own feeling in the matter was — ah! — hopeful, and . . . ”
‘The shuffle of his feet under the table interrupted me. He drew up his heavy eyelids. Drew up, I say — no other expression can describe the steady deliberation of the act — and at last was disclosed completely to me. I was confronted by two narrow grey circlets, like two tiny steel rings around the profound blackness of the pupils. The sharp glance, coming from that massive body, gave a notion of extreme efficiency, like a razor-edge on a battle-axe. “Pardon,” he said punctiliously. His right hand went up, and he swayed forward. “Allow me . . . I contended that one may get on knowing very well that one’s courage does not come of itself (ne vient pas tout seul). There’s nothing much in that to get upset about. One truth the more ought not to make life impossible. . . . But the honour — the honour, monsieur! . . . The honour . . . that is real — that is! And what life may be worth when” . . . he got on his feet with a ponderous impetuosity, as a startled ox might scramble up from the grass . . . “when the honour is gone — ah ca! par exemple — I can offer no opinion. I can offer no opinion — because — monsieur — I know nothing of it.”
‘I had risen too, and, trying to throw infinite politeness into our attitudes, we faced each other mutely, like two china dogs on a mantelpiece. Hang the fellow! he had pricked the bubble. The blight of futility that lies in wait for men’s speeches had fallen upon our conversation, and made it a thing of empty sounds. “Very well,” I said, with a disconcerted smile; “but couldn’t it reduce itself to not being found out?” He made as if to retort readily, but when he spoke he had changed his mind. “This, monsieur, is too fine for me — much above me — I don’t think about it.” He bowed heavily over his cap, which he held before him by the peak, between the thumb and the forefinger of his wounded hand. I bowed too. We bowed together: we scraped our feet at each other with much ceremony, while a dirty specimen of a waiter looked on critically, as though he had paid for the performance. “Serviteur,” said the Frenchman. Another scrape. “Monsieur” . . . “Monsieur.” . . . The glass door swung behind his burly back. I saw the southerly buster get hold of him and drive him down wind with his hand to his head, his shoulders braced, and the tails of his coat blown hard against his legs.
‘I sat down again alone and discouraged — discouraged about Jim’s case. If you wonder that after more than three years it had preserved its actuality, you must know that I had seen him only very lately. I had come straight from Samarang, where I had loaded a cargo for Sydney: an utterly uninteresting bit of business, — what Charley here would call one of my rational transactions, — and in Samarang I had seen something of Jim. He was then working for De Jongh, on my recommendation. Water-clerk. “My representative afloat,” as De Jongh called him. You can’t imagine a mode of life more barren of consolation, less capable of being invested with a spark of glamour — unless it be the business of an insurance canvasser. Little Bob Stanton — Charley here knew him well — had gone through that experience. The same who got drowned afterwards trying to save a lady’s-maid in the Sephora disaster. A case of collision on a hazy morning off the Spanish coast — you may remember. All the passengers had been packed tidily into the boats and shoved clear of the ship, when Bob sheered alongside again and scrambled back on deck to fetch that girl. How she had been left behind I can’t make out; anyhow, she had gone completely crazy — wouldn’t leave the ship — held to the rail like grim death. The wrestling-match could be seen plainly from the boats; but poor Bob was the shortest chief mate in the merchant service, and the woman stood five feet ten in her shoes and was as strong as a horse, I’ve been told. So it went on, pull devil, pull baker, the wretched girl screaming all the time, and Bob letting out a yell now and then to warn his boat to keep well clear of the ship. One of the hands told me, hiding a smile at the recollection, “It was for all the world, sir, like a naughty youngster fighting with his mother.” The same old chap said that “At the last we could see that Mr. Stanton had given up hauling at the gal, and just stood by looking at her, watchful like. We thought afterwards he must’ve been reckoning that, maybe, the rush of water would tear her away from the rail by-and-by and give him a show to save her. We daren’t come alongside for our life; and after a bit the old ship went down all on a sudden with a lurch to starboard — plop. The suck in was something awful. We never saw anything alive or dead come up.” Poor Bob’s spell of shore-life had been one of the complications of a love affair, I believe. He fondly hoped he had done with the sea for ever, and made sure he had got hold of all the bliss on earth, but it came to canvassing in the end. Some cousin of his in Liverpool put up to it. He used to tell us his experiences in that line. He made us laugh till we cried, and, not altogether displeased at the effect, undersized and bearded to the waist like a gnome, he would tiptoe amongst us and say, “It’s all very well for you beggars to laugh, but my immortal soul was shrivelled down to the size of a parched pea after a week of that work.” I don’t know how Jim’s soul accommodated itself to the new conditions of his life — I was kept too busy in getting him something to do that would keep body and soul together — but I am pretty certain his adventurous fancy was suffering all the pangs of starvation. It had certainly nothing to feed upon in this new calling. It was distressing to see him at it, though he tackled it with a stubborn serenity for which I must give him full credit. I kept my eye on his shabby plodding with a sort of notion that it was a punishment for the heroics of his fancy — an expiation for his craving after more glamour than he could carry. He had loved too well to imagine himself a glorious racehorse, and now he was condemned to toil without honour like a costermonger’s donkey. He did it very well. He shut himself in, put his head down, said never a word. Very well; very well indeed — except for certain fantastic and violent outbreaks, on the deplorable occasions when the irrepressible Patna case cropped up. Unfortunately that scandal of the Eastern seas would not die out. And this is the reason why I could never feel I had done with Jim for good.
‘I sat thinking of him after the French lieutenant had left, not, however, in connection with De Jongh’s cool and gloomy back-shop, where we had hurriedly shaken hands not very long ago, but as I had seen him years before in the last flickers of the candle, alone with me in the long galley of the Malabar House, with the chill and the darkness of the night at his back. The respectable sword of his country’s law was suspended over his head. To-morrow — or was it to-day? (midnight had slipped by long before we parted) — the marble-faced police magistrate, after distributing fines and terms of imprisonment in the assault-and-battery case, would take up the awful weapon and smite his bowed neck. Our communion in the night was uncommonly like a last vigil with a condemned man. He was guilty too. He was guilty — as I had told myself repeatedly, guilty and done for; nevertheless, I wished to spare him the mere detail of a formal execution. I don’t pretend to explain the reasons of my desire — I don’t think I could; but if you haven’t got a sort of notion by this time, then I must have been very obscure in my narrative, or you too sleepy to seize upon the sense of my words. I don’t defend my morality. There was no morality in the impulse which induced me to lay before him Brierly’s plan of evasion — I may call it — in all its primitive simplicity. There were the rupees — absolutely ready in my pocket and very much at his service. Oh! a loan; a loan of course — and if an introduction to a man (in Rangoon) who could put some work in his way . . . Why! with the greatest pleasure. I had pen, ink, and paper in my room on the first floor And even while I was speaking I was impatient to begin the letter — day, month, yeu, 2.30 A.M. . . . for the sake of our old friendship I ask you to put some work in the way of Mr. James So-and-so, in whom, &c., &c. . . . I was even ready to write in that strain about him. If he had not enlisted my sympathies he had done better for himself — he had gone to the very fount and origin of that sentiment he had reached the secret sensibility of my egoism. I am concealing nothing from you, because were I to do so my action would appear more unintelligible than any man’s action has the right to be, and — in the second place — to-morrow you will forget my sincerity along with the other lessons of the past. In this transaction, to speak grossly and precisely, I was the irreproachable man; but the subtle intentions of my immorality were defeated by the moral simplicity of the criminal. No doubt he was selfish too, but his selfishness had a higher origin, a more lofty aim. I discovered that, say what I would, he was eager to go through the ceremony of execution, and I didn’t say much, for I felt that in argument his youth would tell against me heavily: he believed where I had already ceased to doubt. There was something fine in the wildness of his unexpressed, hardly formulated hope. “Clear out! Couldn’t think of it,” he said, with a shake of the head. “I make you an offer for which I neither demand nor expect any sort of gratitude,” I said; “you shall repay the money when convenient, and . . . ” “Awfully good of you,” he muttered without looking up. I watched him narrowly: the future must have appeared horribly uncertain to him; but he did not falter, as though indeed there had been nothing wrong with his heart. I felt angry — not for the first time that night. “The whole wretched business,” I said, “is bitter enough, I should think, for a man of your kind . . . ” “It is, it is,” he whispered twice, with his eyes fixed on the floor. It was heartrending. He towered above the light, and I could see the down on his cheek, the colour mantling warm under the smooth skin of his face. Believe me or not, I say it was outrageously heartrending. It provoked me to brutality. “Yes,” I said; “and allow me to confess that I am totally unable to imagine what advantage you can expect from this licking of the dregs.” “Advantage!” he murmured out of his stillness. “I am dashed if I do,” I said, enraged. “I’ve been trying to tell you all there is in it,” he went on slowly, as if meditating something unanswerable. “But after all, it is my trouble.” I opened my mouth to retort, and discovered suddenly that I’d lost all confidence in myself; and it was as if he too had given me up, for he mumbled like a man thinking half aloud. “Went away . . . went into hospitals. . . . Not one of them would face it. . . . They! . . . ” He moved his hand slightly to imply disdain. “But I’ve got to get over this thing, and I mustn’t shirk any of it or . . . I won’t shirk any of it.” He was silent. He gazed as though he had been haunted. His unconscious face reflected the passing expressions of scorn, of despair, of resolution — reflected them in turn, as a magic mirror would reflect the gliding passage of unearthly shapes. He lived surrounded by deceitful ghosts, by austere shades. “Oh! nonsense, my dear fellow,” I began. He had a movement of impatience. “You don’t seem to understand,” he said incisively; then looking at me without a wink, “I may have jumped, but I don’t run away.” “I meant no offence,” I said; and added stupidly, “Better men than you have found it expedient to run, at times.” He coloured all over, while in my confusion I half-choked myself with my own tongue. “Perhaps so,” he said at last, “I am not good enough; I can’t afford it. I am bound to fight this thing down — I am fighting it now.” I got out of my chair and felt stiff all over. The silence was embarrassing, and to put an end to it I imagined nothing better but to remark, “I had no idea it was so late,” in an airy tone. . . . “I dare say you have had enough of this,” he said brusquely: “and to tell you the truth” — he began to look round for his hat — “so have I.”
‘Well! he had refused this unique offer. He had struck aside my helping hand; he was ready to go now, and beyond the balustrade the night seemed to wait for him very still, as though he had been marked down for its prey. I heard his voice. “Ah! here it is.” He had found his hat. For a few seconds we hung in the wind. “What will you do after — after . . . ” I asked very low. “Go to the dogs as likely as not,” he answered in a gruff mutter. I had recovered my wits in a measure, and judged best to take it lightly. “Pray remember,” I said, “that I should like very much to see you again before you go.” “I don’t know what’s to prevent you. The damned thing won’t make me invisible,” he said with intense bitterness, — “no such luck.” And then at the moment of taking leave he treated me to a ghastly muddle of dubious stammers and movements, to an awful display of hesitations. God forgive him — me! He had taken it into his fanciful head that I was likely to make some difficulty as to shaking hands. It was too awful for words. I believe I shouted suddenly at him as you would bellow to a man you saw about to walk over a cliff; I remember our voices being raised, the appearance of a miserable grin on his face, a crushing clutch on my hand, a nervous laugh. The candle spluttered out, and the thing was over at last, with a groan that floated up to me in the dark. He got himself away somehow. The night swallowed his form. He was a horrible bungler. Horrible. I heard the quick crunch-crunch of the gravel under his boots. He was running. Absolutely running, with nowhere to go to. And he was not yet four-and-twenty.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06