« PreviousContinue »
Samburan. Heyst, leaning over the balustrade of the verandah, was looking on, as calm in appearance as though he had never departed from the doctrine that this world, for the wise, is nothing but an amusing spectacle. Wang came round the house, and standing below, raised up his yellow, thin face.
“All finish?” he asked.
Heyst nodded slightly from above, glancing towards the jetty. A crowd of blue-clad figures with yellow faces and calves was being hustled down into the boats of the chartered steamer lying well out, like a painted ship on a painted sea; painted in crude colours, without shadows, without feeling, with brutal precision.
“You had better hurry up if you don’t want to be left behind.”
But the Chinaman did not move.
“Me stop,” he declared. Heyst looked down at him for the first time.
“You want to stop here?”
“What were you? What was your work here?”
“Do you want to stay with me here as my boy?” inquired Heyst, surprised.
The Chinaman unexpectedly put on a deprecatory expression, and said, after a marked pause:
“You needn’t,” said Heyst, “unless you like. I propose to stay on here—it may be for a very long time. I have no power to make you go if you wish to remain, but I don't see why you should.”
“Catchee one piecee wife,” remarked Wang unemotionally, and marched off, turning his back on the wharf and the great world beyond, represented by the steamer waitng for her boats.
Heyst learned presently that Wang had persuaded one of the women of the Alfuro village, on the west shore of the island, beyond the central ridge, to come over to live with him in a remote part of the company's clearing. It was a curious case, inasmuch as the Alfuros, having been frightened by the sudden invasion of Chinamen, had blocked the path over the ridge by felling a few trees, and had kept strictly on their own side. The coolies, as a body, mistrusting the manifest mildness of these harmless fisher-folk, had kept to their lines, without attempting to cross the island. Wang was the brilliant exception. He must have been uncommonly fascinating, in a way that was not apparent to Heyst, or else uncommonly persuasive. The woman's services to Heyst were limited to the fact that she had anchored Wang to the spot by her charms, which remained unknown to the white man, because she never came near the houses. The couple lived at the edge of the forest, and she could sometimes be seen gazing towards the bungalow shading her eyes with her hand. Even from a distance she appeared to be a shy, wild creature, and Heyst, anxious not to try her primitive nerves unduly, scrupulously avoided that side of the clearing in his strolls. The day—or rather the first night—after his hermit life began, he was aware of vague sounds of revelry in that direction. Emboldened by the departure of the invading strangers, some Alfuros, the woman's friends and relations, had ventured over the ridge to attend something in the nature of a wedding feast. Wang had invited them. But this was the only occasion when any sound louder than the buzzing of insects had troubled the profound silence of the clearing. The natives were never invited again. Wang not only knew how to live according to conventional proprieties, but had strong personal views as to the manner of arranging his domestic existence. After a time Heyst perceived that Wang had annexed all the keys. Any key left lying about vanished after Wang had passed that way. Subsequently some of them—those that did not belong to the storerooms and the empty bungalows, and could not be regarded as the common property of this community of two—were returned to Heyst, tied in a bunch with a piece of string. He found them one morning lying by the side of his plate. He had not been inconvenienced by their absence, because he never locked up anything in the way of drawers and boxes. Heyst said nothing. Wang also said nothing. Perhaps he had always been a taciturn man; perhaps he was influenced by the genius of the locality, which was certainly that of silence. Till Heyst and Morrison had landed in Black Diamond Bay, and named it, that side of Samburan had hardly ever heard the sound of human speech. It was easy to be taciturn with Heyst, who had plunged himself into an abyss of meditation over books, and remained in it till the shadow of Wang falling across the page, and the sound of a rough, low voice uttering the Malay word “makan,” would force him to climb out to a meal. Wang in his native province in China might have been an aggressively, sensitively genial person; but in Samburan he had clothed himself in a mysterious stolidity, and did not seem to resent not being spoken to except in single words, at a rate which did not average half a dozen per day. And he gave no more than he got. It is to \oe presumed that if he suffered constraint, he made up for it with the Alfuro woman. He always went back to her at the first fall of dusk, vanishing from the bungalow suddenly at this hour, like a sort of topsy-turvy, day-hunting Chinese ghost with a white jacket and a pigtail. Presently, giving way to a Chinaman's ruling passion, he could be observed breaking the ground near his hut, between the mighty stumps of felled trees, with a miner's pickaxe. After a time, he discovered a rusty but serviceable spade in one of the empty storerooms, and it is to be supposed that he got on famously; but nothing of it could be seen, because he went to the trouble of pulling to pieces one of the company's sheds in order to get materials for making a high and very close fence round his patch, as if the growing of vegetables were a patented process, or an awful and holy mystery entrusted to the keeping of his TaCe.
Heyst, following from a distance the progress of Wang's gardening and of these precautions—there was nothing else to look at—was amused at the thought that he, in his own person, represented the market for its produce. The Chinaman had found several packets of seeds in the storerooms, and had surrendered to an irresistible impulse to put them into the ground. He would make his master pay for the vegetables which he was raising to satisfy his instinct. And, looking silently at the silent Wang going about his work in the hungalow in his unhasty, steady way, Heyst envied the Chinaman’s obedience to his instincts, the powerful simplicity of purpose which made his existence appear almost automatic in the mysterious precision of its facts.
DURING his master's absence at Sourabaya, Wang had busied himself with the ground immediately in front of the principal bungalow. Emerging from the fringe of grass growing across the shore end of the coal-jetty, Heyst beheld a broad, clear space, black and level, with only one or two clumps of charred twigs, where the flame had swept from the front of his house to the nearest trees of the forest. “You took the risk of firing the grass?” Heyst asked. Wang nodded. Hanging on the arm of the white man before whom he stood was the girl called Alma; but neither from the Chinaman's eyes nor from his expression could any one have guessed that he was in the slightest degree aware of the fact. “He has been tidying the place in this labour-saving way,” explained Heyst, without looking at the girl, whose hand rested on his forearm. “He’s the whole establishment, you see. I told you I hadn't even a dog to keep me company here.” Wang had marched off towards the wharf. “He’s like those waiters in that place,” she said. That place was Schomberg's hotel. “One Chinaman looks very much like another,” Heyst remarked. “We shall find it useful to have him here. This is the house.” They faced, at some distance, the six shallow steps leading up to the verandah. The girl had abandoned Heyst's arm. “This is the house,” he repeated.