‘I slept little, hurried over my breakfast, and after a slight hesitation gave up my early morning visit to my ship. It was really very wrong of me, because, though my chief mate was an excellent man all round, he was the victim of such black imaginings that if he did not get a letter from his wife at the expected time he would go quite distracted with rage and jealousy, lose all grip on the work, quarrel with all hands, and either weep in his cabin or develop such a ferocity of temper as all but drove the crew to the verge of mutiny. The thing had always seemed inexplicable to me: they had been married thirteen years; I had a glimpse of her once, and, honestly, I couldn’t conceive a man abandoned enough to plunge into sin for the sake of such an unattractive person. I don’t know whether I have not done wrong by refraining from putting that view before poor Selvin: the man made a little hell on earth for himself, and I also suffered indirectly, but some sort of, no doubt, false delicacy prevented me. The marital relations of seamen would make an interesting subject, and I could tell you instances. . . . However, this is not the place, nor the time, and we are concerned with Jim — who was unmarried. If his imaginative conscience or his pride; if all the extravagant ghosts and austere shades that were the disastrous familiars of his youth would not let him run away from the block, I, who of course can’t be suspected of such familiars, was irresistibly impelled to go and see his head roll off. I wended my way towards the court. I didn’t hope to be very much impressed or edified, or interested or even frightened — though, as long as there is any life before one, a jolly good fright now and then is a salutary discipline. But neither did I expect to be so awfully depressed. The bitterness of his punishment was in its chill and mean atmosphere. The real significance of crime is in its being a breach of faith with the community of mankind, and from that point of view he was no mean traitor, but his execution was a hole-and-corner affair. There was no high scaffolding, no scarlet cloth (did they have scarlet cloth on Tower Hill? They should have had), no awe-stricken multitude to be horrified at his guilt and be moved to tears at his fate — no air of sombre retribution. There was, as I walked along, the clear sunshine, a brilliance too passionate to be consoling, the streets full of jumbled bits of colour like a damaged kaleidoscope: yellow, green, blue, dazzling white, the brown nudity of an undraped shoulder, a bullock-cart with a red canopy, a company of native infantry in a drab body with dark heads marching in dusty laced boots, a native policeman in a sombre uniform of scanty cut and belted in patent leather, who looked up at me with orientally pitiful eyes as though his migrating spirit were suffering exceedingly from that unforeseen — what d’ye call ‘em? — avatar — incarnation. Under the shade of a lonely tree in the courtyard, the villagers connected with the assault case sat in a picturesque group, looking like a chromo-lithograph of a camp in a book of Eastern travel. One missed the obligatory thread of smoke in the foreground and the pack-animals grazing. A blank yellow wall rose behind overtopping the tree, reflecting the glare. The court-room was sombre, seemed more vast. High up in the dim space the punkahs were swaying short to and fro, to and fro. Here and there a draped figure, dwarfed by the bare walls, remained without stirring amongst the rows of empty benches, as if absorbed in pious meditation. The plaintiff, who had been beaten, — an obese chocolate-coloured man with shaved head, one fat breast bare and a bright yellow caste-mark above the bridge of his nose, — sat in pompous immobility: only his eyes glittered, rolling in the gloom, and the nostrils dilated and collapsed violently as he breathed. Brierly dropped into his seat looking done up, as though he had spent the night in sprinting on a cinder-track. The pious sailing-ship skipper appeared excited and made uneasy movements, as if restraining with difficulty an impulse to stand up and exhort us earnestly to prayer and repentance. The head of the magistrate, delicately pale under the neatly arranged hair, resembled the head of a hopeless invalid after he had been washed and brushed and propped up in bed. He moved aside the vase of flowers — a bunch of purple with a few pink blossoms on long stalks — and seizing in both hands a long sheet of bluish paper, ran his eye over it, propped his forearms on the edge of the desk, and began to read aloud in an even, distinct, and careless voice.
‘By Jove! For all my foolishness about scaffolds and heads rolling off — I assure you it was infinitely worse than a beheading. A heavy sense of finality brooded over all this, unrelieved by the hope of rest and safety following the fall of the axe. These proceedings had all the cold vengefulness of a death-sentence, and the cruelty of a sentence of exile. This is how I looked at it that morning — and even now I seem to see an undeniable vestige of truth in that exaggerated view of a common occurrence. You may imagine how strongly I felt this at the time. Perhaps it is for that reason that I could not bring myself to admit the finality. The thing was always with me, I was always eager to take opinion on it, as though it had not been practically settled: individual opinion — international opinion — by Jove! That Frenchman’s, for instance. His own country’s pronouncement was uttered in the passionless and definite phraseology a machine would use, if machines could speak. The head of the magistrate was half hidden by the paper, his brow was like alabaster.
‘There were several questions before the court. The first as to whether the ship was in every respect fit and seaworthy for the voyage. The court found she was not. The next point, I remember, was, whether up to the time of the accident the ship had been navigated with proper and seamanlike care. They said Yes to that, goodness knows why, and then they declared that there was no evidence to show the exact cause of the accident. A floating derelict probably. I myself remember that a Norwegian barque bound out with a cargo of pitch-pine had been given up as missing about that time, and it was just the sort of craft that would capsize in a squall and float bottom up for months — a kind of maritime ghoul on the prowl to kill ships in the dark. Such wandering corpses are common enough in the North Atlantic, which is haunted by all the terrors of the sea, — fogs, icebergs, dead ships bent upon mischief, and long sinister gales that fasten upon one like a vampire till all the strength and the spirit and even hope are gone, and one feels like the empty shell of a man. But there — in those seas — the incident was rare enough to resemble a special arrangement of a malevolent providence, which, unless it had for its object the killing of a donkeyman and the bringing of worse than death upon Jim, appeared an utterly aimless piece of devilry. This view occurring to me took off my attention. For a time I was aware of the magistrate’s voice as a sound merely; but in a moment it shaped itself into distinct words . . . “in utter disregard of their plain duty,” it said. The next sentence escaped me somehow, and then . . . “abandoning in the moment of danger the lives and property confided to their charge”.. . went on the voice evenly, and stopped. A pair of eyes under the white forehead shot darkly a glance above the edge of the paper. I looked for Jim hurriedly, as though I had expected him to disappear. He was very still — but he was there. He sat pink and fair and extremely attentive. “Therefore, . . . ” began the voice emphatically. He stared with parted lips, hanging upon the words of the man behind the desk. These came out into the stillness wafted on the wind made by the punkahs, and I, watching for their effect upon him, caught only the fragments of official language. . . . “The Court . . . Gustav So-and-so . . . master . . . native of Germany . . . James So-and-so . . . mate . . . certificates cancelled.” A silence fell. The magistrate had dropped the paper, and, leaning sideways on the arm of his chair, began to talk with Brierly easily. People started to move out; others were pushing in, and I also made for the door. Outside I stood still, and when Jim passed me on his way to the gate, I caught at his arm and detained him. The look he gave discomposed me, as though I had been responsible for his state he looked at me as if I had been the embodied evil of life. “It’s all over,” I stammered. “Yes,” he said thickly. “And now let no man . . . ” He jerked his arm out of my grasp. I watched his back as he went away. It was a long street, and he remained in sight for some time. He walked rather slow, and straddling his legs a little, as if he had found it difficult to keep a straight line. Just before I lost him I fancied he staggered a bit.
‘“Man overboard,” said a deep voice behind me. Turning round, I saw a fellow I knew slightly, a West Australian; Chester was his name. He, too, had been looking after Jim. He was a man with an immense girth of chest, a rugged, clean-shaved face of mahogany colour, and two blunt tufts of iron-grey, thick, wiry hairs on his upper lip. He had been pearler, wrecker, trader, whaler too, I believe; in his own words — anything and everything a man may be at sea, but a pirate. The Pacific, north and south, was his proper hunting-ground; but he had wandered so far afield looking for a cheap steamer to buy. Lately he had discovered — so he said — a guano island somewhere, but its approaches were dangerous, and the anchorage, such as it was, could not be considered safe, to say the least of it. “As good as a gold-mine,” he would exclaim. “Right bang in the middle of the Walpole Reefs, and if it’s true enough that you can get no holding-ground anywhere in less than forty fathom, then what of that? There are the hurricanes, too. But it’s a first-rate thing. As good as a gold-mine — better! Yet there’s not a fool of them that will see it. I can’t get a skipper or a shipowner to go near the place. So I made up my mind to cart the blessed stuff myself.” . . . This was what he required a steamer for, and I knew he was just then negotiating enthusiastically with a Parsee firm for an old, brig-rigged, sea-anachronism of ninety horse-power. We had met and spoken together several times. He looked knowingly after Jim. “Takes it to heart?” he asked scornfully. “Very much,” I said. “Then he’s no good,” he opined. “What’s all the to-do about? A bit of ass’s skin. That never yet made a man. You must see things exactly as they are — if you don’t, you may just as well give in at once. You will never do anything in this world. Look at me. I made it a practice never to take anything to heart.” “Yes,” I said, “you see things as they are.” “I wish I could see my partner coming along, that’s what I wish to see,” he said. “Know my partner? Old Robinson. Yes; the Robinson. Don’t you know? The notorious Robinson. The man who smuggled more opium and bagged more seals in his time than any loose Johnny now alive. They say he used to board the sealing-schooners up Alaska way when the fog was so thick that the Lord God, He alone, could tell one man from another. Holy-Terror Robinson. That’s the man. He is with me in that guano thing. The best chance he ever came across in his life.” He put his lips to my ear. “Cannibal? — well, they used to give him the name years and years ago. You remember the story? A shipwreck on the west side of Stewart Island; that’s right; seven of them got ashore, and it seems they did not get on very well together. Some men are too cantankerous for anything — don’t know how to make the best of a bad job — don’t see things as they are — as they are, my boy! And then what’s the consequence? Obvious! Trouble, trouble; as likely as not a knock on the head; and serve ‘em right too. That sort is the most useful when it’s dead. The story goes that a boat of Her Majesty’s ship Wolverine found him kneeling on the kelp, naked as the day he was born, and chanting some psalm-tune or other; light snow was falling at the time. He waited till the boat was an oar’s length from the shore, and then up and away. They chased him for an hour up and down the boulders, till a marine flung a stone that took him behind the ear providentially and knocked him senseless. Alone? Of course. But that’s like that tale of sealing-schooners; the Lord God knows the right and the wrong of that story. The cutter did not investigate much. They wrapped him in a boat-cloak and took him off as quick as they could, with a dark night coming on, the weather threatening, and the ship firing recall guns every five minutes. Three weeks afterwards he was as well as ever. He didn’t allow any fuss that was made on shore to upset him; he just shut his lips tight, and let people screech. It was bad enough to have lost his ship, and all he was worth besides, without paying attention to the hard names they called him. That’s the man for me.” He lifted his arm for a signal to some one down the street. “He’s got a little money, so I had to let him into my thing. Had to! It would have been sinful to throw away such a find, and I was cleaned out myself. It cut me to the quick, but I could see the matter just as it was, and if I must share — thinks I— with any man, then give me Robinson. I left him at breakfast in the hotel to come to court, because I’ve an idea. . . . Ah! Good morning, Captain Robinson. . . . Friend of mine, Captain Robinson.”
‘An emaciated patriarch in a suit of white drill, a solah topi with a green-lined rim on a head trembling with age, joined us after crossing the street in a trotting shuffle, and stood propped with both hands on the handle of an umbrella. A white beard with amber streaks hung lumpily down to his waist. He blinked his creased eyelids at me in a bewildered way. “How do you do? how do you do?” he piped amiably, and tottered. “A little deaf,” said Chester aside. “Did you drag him over six thousand miles to get a cheap steamer?” I asked. “I would have taken him twice round the world as soon as look at him,” said Chester with immense energy. “The steamer will be the making of us, my lad. Is it my fault that every skipper and shipowner in the whole of blessed Australasia turns out a blamed fool? Once I talked for three hours to a man in Auckland. ‘Send a ship,’ I said, ‘send a ship. I’ll give you half of the first cargo for yourself, free gratis for nothing — just to make a good start.’ Says he, ‘I wouldn’t do it if there was no other place on earth to send a ship to.’ Perfect ass, of course. Rocks, currents, no anchorage, sheer cliff to lay to, no insurance company would take the risk, didn’t see how he could get loaded under three years. Ass! I nearly went on my knees to him. ‘But look at the thing as it is,’ says I. ‘Damn rocks and hurricanes. Look at it as it is. There’s guano there Queensland sugar-planters would fight for — fight for on the quay, I tell you.’ . . . What can you do with a fool? . . . ‘That’s one of your little jokes, Chester,’ he says. . . . Joke! I could have wept. Ask Captain Robinson here. . . . And there was another shipowning fellow — a fat chap in a white waistcoat in Wellington, who seemed to think I was up to some swindle or other. ‘I don’t know what sort of fool you’re looking for,’ he says, ‘but I am busy just now. Good morning.’ I longed to take him in my two hands and smash him through the window of his own office. But I didn’t. I was as mild as a curate. ‘Think of it,’ says I. ‘Do think it over. I’ll call to-morrow.’ He grunted something about being ‘out all day.’ On the stairs I felt ready to beat my head against the wall from vexation. Captain Robinson here can tell you. It was awful to think of all that lovely stuff lying waste under the sun — stuff that would send the sugar-cane shooting sky-high. The making of Queensland! The making of Queensland! And in Brisbane, where I went to have a last try, they gave me the name of a lunatic. Idiots! The only sensible man I came across was the cabman who drove me about. A broken-down swell he was, I fancy. Hey! Captain Robinson? You remember I told you about my cabby in Brisbane — don’t you? The chap had a wonderful eye for things. He saw it all in a jiffy. It was a real pleasure to talk with him. One evening after a devil of a day amongst shipowners I felt so bad that, says I, ‘I must get drunk. Come along; I must get drunk, or I’ll go mad.’ ‘I am your man,’ he says; ‘go ahead.’ I don’t know what I would have done without him. Hey! Captain Robinson.”
‘He poked the ribs of his partner. “He! he! he!” laughed the Ancient, looked aimlessly down the street, then peered at me doubtfully with sad, dim pupils. . . . “He! he! he!” . . . He leaned heavier on the umbrella, and dropped his gaze on the ground. I needn’t tell you I had tried to get away several times, but Chester had foiled every attempt by simply catching hold of my coat. “One minute. I’ve a notion.” “What’s your infernal notion?” I exploded at last. “If you think I am going in with you. ..” “No, no, my boy. Too late, if you wanted ever so much. We’ve got a steamer.” “You’ve got the ghost of a steamer,” I said. “Good enough for a start — there’s no superior nonsense about us. Is there, Captain Robinson?” “No! no! no!” croaked the old man without lifting his eyes, and the senile tremble of his head became almost fierce with determination. “I understand you know that young chap,” said Chester, with a nod at the street from which Jim had disappeared long ago. “He’s been having grub with you in the Malabar last night — so I was told.”
‘I said that was true, and after remarking that he too liked to live well and in style, only that, for the present, he had to be saving of every penny — “none too many for the business! Isn’t that so, Captain Robinson?” — he squared his shoulders and stroked his dumpy moustache, while the notorious Robinson, coughing at his side, clung more than ever to the handle of the umbrella, and seemed ready to subside passively into a heap of old bones. “You see, the old chap has all the money,” whispered Chester confidentially. “I’ve been cleaned out trying to engineer the dratted thing. But wait a bit, wait a bit. The good time is coming.” . . . He seemed suddenly astonished at the signs of impatience I gave. “Oh, crakee!” he cried; “I am telling you of the biggest thing that ever was, and you . . . ” “I have an appointment,” I pleaded mildly. “What of that?” he asked with genuine surprise; “let it wait.” “That’s exactly what I am doing now,” I remarked; “hadn’t you better tell me what it is you want?” “Buy twenty hotels like that,” he growled to himself; “and every joker boarding in them too — twenty times over.” He lifted his head smartly “I want that young chap.” “I don’t understand,” I said. “He’s no good, is he?” said Chester crisply. “I know nothing about it,” I protested. “Why, you told me yourself he was taking it to heart,” argued Chester. “Well, in my opinion a chap who . . . Anyhow, he can’t be much good; but then you see I am on the look-out for somebody, and I’ve just got a thing that will suit him. I’ll give him a job on my island.” He nodded significantly. “I’m going to dump forty coolies there — if I’ve to steal ‘em. Somebody must work the stuff. Oh! I mean to act square: wooden shed, corrugated-iron roof — I know a man in Hobart who will take my bill at six months for the materials. I do. Honour bright. Then there’s the water-supply. I’ll have to fly round and get somebody to trust me for half-a-dozen second-hand iron tanks. Catch rain-water, hey? Let him take charge. Make him supreme boss over the coolies. Good idea, isn’t it? What do you say?” “There are whole years when not a drop of rain falls on Walpole,” I said, too amazed to laugh. He bit his lip and seemed bothered. “Oh, well, I will fix up something for them — or land a supply. Hang it all! That’s not the question.”
‘I said nothing. I had a rapid vision of Jim perched on a shadowless rock, up to his knees in guano, with the screams of sea-birds in his ears, the incandescent ball of the sun above his head; the empty sky and the empty ocean all a-quiver, simmering together in the heat as far as the eye could reach. “I wouldn’t advise my worst enemy . . . ” I began. “What’s the matter with you?” cried Chester; “I mean to give him a good screw — that is, as soon as the thing is set going, of course. It’s as easy as falling off a log. Simply nothing to do; two six-shooters in his belt . . . Surely he wouldn’t be afraid of anything forty coolies could do — with two six-shooters and he the only armed man too! It’s much better than it looks. I want you to help me to talk him over.” “No!” I shouted. Old Robinson lifted his bleared eyes dismally for a moment, Chester looked at me with infinite contempt. “So you wouldn’t advise him?” he uttered slowly. “Certainly not,” I answered, as indignant as though he had requested me to help murder somebody; “moreover, I am sure he wouldn’t. He is badly cut up, but he isn’t mad as far as I know.” “He is no earthly good for anything,” Chester mused aloud. “He would just have done for me. If you only could see a thing as it is, you would see it’s the very thing for him. And besides . . . Why! it’s the most splendid, sure chance . . . ” He got angry suddenly. “I must have a man. There! . . . ” He stamped his foot and smiled unpleasantly. “Anyhow, I could guarantee the island wouldn’t sink under him — and I believe he is a bit particular on that point.” “Good morning,” I said curtly. He looked at me as though I had been an incomprehensible fool. . . . “Must be moving, Captain Robinson,” he yelled suddenly into the old man’s ear. “These Parsee Johnnies are waiting for us to clinch the bargain.” He took his partner under the arm with a firm grip, swung him round, and, unexpectedly, leered at me over his shoulder. “I was trying to do him a kindness,” he asserted, with an air and tone that made my blood boil. “Thank you for nothing — in his name,” I rejoined. “Oh! you are devilish smart,” he sneered; “but you are like the rest of them. Too much in the clouds. See what you will do with him.” “I don’t know that I want to do anything with him.” “Don’t you?” he spluttered; his grey moustache bristled with anger, and by his side the notorious Robinson, propped on the umbrella, stood with his back to me, as patient and still as a worn-out cab-horse. “I haven’t found a guano island,” I said. “It’s my belief you wouldn’t know one if you were led right up to it by the hand,” he riposted quickly; “and in this world you’ve got to see a thing first, before you can make use of it. Got to see it through and through at that, neither more nor less.” “And get others to see it too,” I insinuated, with a glance at the bowed back by his side. Chester snorted at me. “His eyes are right enough — don’t you worry. He ain’t a puppy.” “Oh dear, no!” I said. “Come along, Captain Robinson,” he shouted, with a sort of bullying deference under the rim of the old man’s hat; the Holy Terror gave a submissive little jump. The ghost of a steamer was waiting for them, Fortune on that fair isle! They made a curious pair of Argonauts. Chester strode on leisurely, well set up, portly, and of conquering mien; the other, long, wasted, drooping, and hooked to his arm, shuffled his withered shanks with desperate haste.’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52