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Chapter I

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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–

Chapter IChapter IIChapter IIIChapter IVChapter VChapter VI

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