by Joseph Conrad 約瑟夫・康拉德
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.”
Translated by Chen Yihsuan 陳逸軒譯