‘Six months afterwards my friend (he was a cynical, more than middle-aged bachelor, with a reputation for eccentricity, and owned a rice-mill) wrote to me, and judging, from the warmth of my recommendation, that I would like to hear, enlarged a little upon Jim’s perfections. These were apparently of a quiet and effective sort. “Not having been able so far to find more in my heart than a resigned toleration for any individual of my kind, I have lived till now alone in a house that even in this steaming climate could be considered as too big for one man. I have had him to live with me for some time past. It seems I haven’t made a mistake.” It seemed to me on reading this letter that my friend had found in his heart more than tolerance for Jim — that there were the beginnings of active liking. Of course he stated his grounds in a characteristic way. For one thing, Jim kept his freshness in the climate. Had he been a girl — my friend wrote — one could have said he was blooming — blooming modestly — like a violet, not like some of these blatant tropical flowers. He had been in the house for six weeks, and had not as yet attempted to slap him on the back, or address him as “old boy,” or try to make him feel a superannuated fossil. He had nothing of the exasperating young man’s chatter. He was good-tempered, had not much to say for himself, was not clever by any means, thank goodness — wrote my friend. It appeared, however, that Jim was clever enough to be quietly appreciative of his wit, while, on the other hand, he amused him by his naiveness. “The dew is yet on him, and since I had the bright idea of giving him a room in the house and having him at meals I feel less withered myself. The other day he took it into his head to cross the room with no other purpose but to open a door for me; and I felt more in touch with mankind than I had been for years. Ridiculous, isn’t it? Of course I guess there is something — some awful little scrape — which you know all about — but if I am sure that it is terribly heinous, I fancy one could manage to forgive it. For my part, I declare I am unable to imagine him guilty of anything much worse than robbing an orchard. Is it much worse? Perhaps you ought to have told me; but it is such a long time since we both turned saints that you may have forgotten we too had sinned in our time? It may be that some day I shall have to ask you, and then I shall expect to be told. I don’t care to question him myself till I have some idea what it is. Moreover, it’s too soon as yet. Let him open the door a few times more for me. . . . ” Thus my friend. I was trebly pleased — at Jim’s shaping so well, at the tone of the letter, at my own cleverness. Evidently I had known what I was doing. I had read characters aright, and so on. And what if something unexpected and wonderful were to come of it? That evening, reposing in a deck-chair under the shade of my own poop awning (it was in Hong-Kong harbour), I laid on Jim’s behalf the first stone of a castle in Spain.
‘I made a trip to the northward, and when I returned I found another letter from my friend waiting for me. It was the first envelope I tore open. “There are no spoons missing, as far as I know,” ran the first line; “I haven’t been interested enough to inquire. He is gone, leaving on the breakfast-table a formal little note of apology, which is either silly or heartless. Probably both — and it’s all one to me. Allow me to say, lest you should have some more mysterious young men in reserve, that I have shut up shop, definitely and for ever. This is the last eccentricity I shall be guilty of. Do not imagine for a moment that I care a hang; but he is very much regretted at tennis-parties, and for my own sake I’ve told a plausible lie at the club. . . . ” I flung the letter aside and started looking through the batch on my table, till I came upon Jim’s handwriting. Would you believe it? One chance in a hundred! But it is always that hundredth chance! That little second engineer of the Patna had turned up in a more or less destitute state, and got a temporary job of looking after the machinery of the mill. “I couldn’t stand the familiarity of the little beast,” Jim wrote from a seaport seven hundred miles south of the place where he should have been in clover. “I am now for the time with Egstrom & Blake, ship-chandlers, as their — well — runner, to call the thing by its right name. For reference I gave them your name, which they know of course, and if you could write a word in my favour it would be a permanent employment.” I was utterly crushed under the ruins of my castle, but of course I wrote as desired. Before the end of the year my new charter took me that way, and I had an opportunity of seeing him.
‘He was still with Egstrom & Blake, and we met in what they called “our parlour” opening out of the store. He had that moment come in from boarding a ship, and confronted me head down, ready for a tussle. “What have you got to say for yourself?” I began as soon as we had shaken hands. “What I wrote you — nothing more,” he said stubbornly. “Did the fellow blab — or what?” I asked. He looked up at me with a troubled smile. “Oh no! He didn’t. He made it a kind of confidential business between us. He was most damnably mysterious whenever I came over to the mill; he would wink at me in a respectful manner — as much as to say ‘We know what we know.’ Infernally fawning and familiar —— and that sort of thing . . . ” He threw himself into a chair and stared down his legs. “One day we happened to be alone and the fellow had the cheek to say, ‘Well, Mr. James’ — I was called Mr. James there as if I had been the son — ‘here we are together once more. This is better than the old ship — ain’t it?’ . . . Wasn’t it appalling, eh? I looked at him, and he put on a knowing air. ‘Don’t you be uneasy, sir,’ he says. ‘I know a gentleman when I see one, and I know how a gentleman feels. I hope, though, you will be keeping me on this job. I had a hard time of it too, along of that rotten old Patna racket.’ Jove! It was awful. I don’t know what I should have said or done if I had not just then heard Mr. Denver calling me in the passage. It was tiffin-time, and we walked together across the yard and through the garden to the bungalow. He began to chaff me in his kindly way . . . I believe he liked me . . . ”
‘Jim was silent for a while.
‘“I know he liked me. That’s what made it so hard. Such a splendid man! . . . That morning he slipped his hand under my arm. . . . He, too, was familiar with me.” He burst into a short laugh, and dropped his chin on his breast. “Pah! When I remembered how that mean little beast had been talking to me,” he began suddenly in a vibrating voice, “I couldn’t bear to think of myself . . . I suppose you know . . . ” I nodded. . . . “More like a father,” he cried; his voice sank. “I would have had to tell him. I couldn’t let it go on — could I?” “Well?” I murmured, after waiting a while. “I preferred to go,” he said slowly; “this thing must be buried.”
‘We could hear in the shop Blake upbraiding Egstrom in an abusive, strained voice. They had been associated for many years, and every day from the moment the doors were opened to the last minute before closing, Blake, a little man with sleek, jetty hair and unhappy, beady eyes, could be heard rowing his partner incessantly with a sort of scathing and plaintive fury. The sound of that everlasting scolding was part of the place like the other fixtures; even strangers would very soon come to disregard it completely unless it be perhaps to mutter “Nuisance,” or to get up suddenly and shut the door of the “parlour.” Egstrom himself, a raw-boned, heavy Scandinavian, with a busy manner and immense blonde whiskers, went on directing his people, checking parcels, making out bills or writing letters at a stand-up desk in the shop, and comported himself in that clatter exactly as though he had been stone-deaf. Now and again he would emit a bothered perfunctory “Sssh,” which neither produced nor was expected to produce the slightest effect. “They are very decent to me here,” said Jim. “Blake’s a little cad, but Egstrom’s all right.” He stood up quickly, and walking with measured steps to a tripod telescope standing in the window and pointed at the roadstead, he applied his eye to it. “There’s that ship which has been becalmed outside all the morning has got a breeze now and is coming in,” he remarked patiently; “I must go and board.” We shook hands in silence, and he turned to go. “Jim!” I cried. He looked round with his hand on the lock. “You — you have thrown away something like a fortune.” He came back to me all the way from the door. “Such a splendid old chap,” he said. “How could I? How could I?” His lips twitched. “Here it does not matter.” “Oh! you — you —” I began, and had to cast about for a suitable word, but before I became aware that there was no name that would just do, he was gone. I heard outside Egstrom’s deep gentle voice saying cheerily, “That’s the Sarah W. Granger, Jimmy. You must manage to be first aboard”; and directly Blake struck in, screaming after the manner of an outraged cockatoo, “Tell the captain we’ve got some of his mail here. That’ll fetch him. D’ye hear, Mister What’s-your-name?” And there was Jim answering Egstrom with something boyish in his tone. “All right. I’ll make a race of it.” He seemed to take refuge in the boat-sailing part of that sorry business.
‘I did not see him again that trip, but on my next (I had a six months’ charter) I went up to the store. Ten yards away from the door Blake’s scolding met my ears, and when I came in he gave me a glance of utter wretchedness; Egstrom, all smiles, advanced, extending a large bony hand. “Glad to see you, captain. . . . Sssh. . . . Been thinking you were about due back here. What did you say, sir? . . . Sssh. . . . Oh! him! He has left us. Come into the parlour.” . . . After the slam of the door Blake’s strained voice became faint, as the voice of one scolding desperately in a wilderness. . . . “Put us to a great inconvenience, too. Used us badly — I must say . . . ” “Where’s he gone to? Do you know?” I asked. “No. It’s no use asking either,” said Egstrom, standing bewhiskered and obliging before me with his arms hanging down his sides clumsily, and a thin silver watch-chain looped very low on a rucked-up blue serge waistcoat. “A man like that don’t go anywhere in particular.” I was too concerned at the news to ask for the explanation of that pronouncement, and he went on. “He left — let’s see — the very day a steamer with returning pilgrims from the Red Sea put in here with two blades of her propeller gone. Three weeks ago now.” “Wasn’t there something said about the Patna case?” I asked, fearing the worst. He gave a start, and looked at me as if I had been a sorcerer. “Why, yes! How do you know? Some of them were talking about it here. There was a captain or two, the manager of Vanlo’s engineering shop at the harbour, two or three others, and myself. Jim was in here too, having a sandwich and a glass of beer; when we are busy — you see, captain — there’s no time for a proper tiffin. He was standing by this table eating sandwiches, and the rest of us were round the telescope watching that steamer come in; and by-and-by Vanlo’s manager began to talk about the chief of the Patna; he had done some repairs for him once, and from that he went on to tell us what an old ruin she was, and the money that had been made out of her. He came to mention her last voyage, and then we all struck in. Some said one thing and some another — not much — what you or any other man might say; and there was some laughing. Captain O’Brien of the Sarah W. Granger, a large, noisy old man with a stick — he was sitting listening to us in this arm-chair here — he let drive suddenly with his stick at the floor, and roars out, ‘Skunks!’ . . . Made us all jump. Vanlo’s manager winks at us and asks, ‘What’s the matter, Captain O’Brien?’ ‘Matter! matter!’ the old man began to shout; ‘what are you Injuns laughing at? It’s no laughing matter. It’s a disgrace to human natur’ — that’s what it is. I would despise being seen in the same room with one of those men. Yes, sir!’ He seemed to catch my eye like, and I had to speak out of civility. ‘Skunks!’ says I, ‘of course, Captain O’Brien, and I wouldn’t care to have them here myself, so you’re quite safe in this room, Captain O’Brien. Have a little something cool to drink.’ ‘Dam’ your drink, Egstrom,’ says he, with a twinkle in his eye; ‘when I want a drink I will shout for it. I am going to quit. It stinks here now.’ At this all the others burst out laughing, and out they go after the old man. And then, sir, that blasted Jim he puts down the sandwich he had in his hand and walks round the table to me; there was his glass of beer poured out quite full. ‘I am off,’ he says — just like this. ‘It isn’t half-past one yet,’ says I; ‘you might snatch a smoke first.’ I thought he meant it was time for him to go down to his work. When I understood what he was up to, my arms fell — so! Can’t get a man like that every day, you know, sir; a regular devil for sailing a boat; ready to go out miles to sea to meet ships in any sort of weather. More than once a captain would come in here full of it, and the first thing he would say would be, ‘That’s a reckless sort of a lunatic you’ve got for water-clerk, Egstrom. I was feeling my way in at daylight under short canvas when there comes flying out of the mist right under my forefoot a boat half under water, sprays going over the mast-head, two frightened niggers on the bottom boards, a yelling fiend at the tiller. Hey! hey! Ship ahoy! ahoy! Captain! Hey! hey! Egstrom & Blake’s man first to speak to you! Hey! hey! Egstrom & Blake! Hallo! hey! whoop! Kick the niggers — out reefs — a squall on at the time — shoots ahead whooping and yelling to me to make sail and he would give me a lead in — more like a demon than a man. Never saw a boat handled like that in all my life. Couldn’t have been drunk — was he? Such a quiet, soft-spoken chap too — blush like a girl when he came on board. . . . ’ I tell you, Captain Marlow, nobody had a chance against us with a strange ship when Jim was out. The other ship-chandlers just kept their old customers, and . . . ”
‘Egstrom appeared overcome with emotion.
‘“Why, sir — it seemed as though he wouldn’t mind going a hundred miles out to sea in an old shoe to nab a ship for the firm. If the business had been his own and all to make yet, he couldn’t have done more in that way. And now . . . all at once . . . like this! Thinks I to myself: ‘Oho! a rise in the screw — that’s the trouble — is it?’ ‘All right,’ says I, ‘no need of all that fuss with me, Jimmy. Just mention your figure. Anything in reason.’ He looks at me as if he wanted to swallow something that stuck in his throat. ‘I can’t stop with you.’ ‘What’s that blooming joke?’ I asks. He shakes his head, and I could see in his eye he was as good as gone already, sir. So I turned to him and slanged him till all was blue. ‘What is it you’re running away from?’ I asks. ‘Who has been getting at you? What scared you? You haven’t as much sense as a rat; they don’t clear out from a good ship. Where do you expect to get a better berth? — you this and you that.’ I made him look sick, I can tell you. ‘This business ain’t going to sink,’ says I. He gave a big jump. ‘Good-bye,’ he says, nodding at me like a lord; ‘you ain’t half a bad chap, Egstrom. I give you my word that if you knew my reasons you wouldn’t care to keep me.’ ‘That’s the biggest lie you ever told in your life,’ says I; ‘I know my own mind.’ He made me so mad that I had to laugh. ‘Can’t you really stop long enough to drink this glass of beer here, you funny beggar, you?’ I don’t know what came over him; he didn’t seem able to find the door; something comical, I can tell you, captain. I drank the beer myself. ‘Well, if you’re in such a hurry, here’s luck to you in your own drink,’ says I; ‘only, you mark my words, if you keep up this game you’ll very soon find that the earth ain’t big enough to hold you — that’s all.’ He gave me one black look, and out he rushed with a face fit to scare little children.”
‘Egstrom snorted bitterly, and combed one auburn whisker with knotty fingers. “Haven’t been able to get a man that was any good since. It’s nothing but worry, worry, worry in business. And where might you have come across him, captain, if it’s fair to ask?”
‘“He was the mate of the Patna that voyage,” I said, feeling that I owed some explanation. For a time Egstrom remained very still, with his fingers plunged in the hair at the side of his face, and then exploded. “And who the devil cares about that?” “I dare say no one,” I began . . . “And what the devil is he — anyhow — for to go on like this?” He stuffed suddenly his left whisker into his mouth and stood amazed. “Jee!” he exclaimed, “I told him the earth wouldn’t be big enough to hold his caper.”’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52