The Project Gutenberg ebook of Java Head, by Joseph Hergesheimer

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Although the late afternoon was at an hour when Derby Street should have been filled by a half-idle throng in the slackening of the day's waterside employments Roger Brevard found it noticeably empty. In this he suddenly recognized that the street was like the countingroom of the Mongolian Marine Insurance Company, the heart of Salem's greatness—they were weaker, stilled in a decline that yet was not evident in the impressive body of the town.

When he had first taken charge of this branch both Salem and it had been of sufficient moment to attract him from New York; the company was insuring Boston and New York vessels; the captains had thronged its broad window commanding St. Peters and Essex Streets. Now only an occasional shipmaster, holding the old traditions and habits or else retired, sat in the comfortable armchairs with leather cushions drawn up at the coal hearth or expansive in white through the summer.

His mind shifted to a consideration of these facts in relation to himself—whether the same thing overtaking the place and marine insurance had not settled upon him too—as he made his way from Central Wharf, where he had vainly gone for prospective business. His inquiry was reaching a depressing certainty when, passing and gazing down Hardy Street, he saw the Ammidon barouche standing in front of the Dunsacks'.

Roger Brevard stopped: the Ammidon men, he knew, seldom drove about Salem. He had heard of Nettie Vollar's accident and came to the conclusion that Rhoda was within. If this were so, her visit, limited to a charitable impulse, would be short; and thinking of the pleasure of driving with her he turned into the side way. As he approached, the coachman met him with an evident impatience.

"No, sir," he replied to Brevard's inquiry. "But we were to get Mrs. Ammidon at the bookstore. Mrs. Captain Gerrit called here for her, but she went inside unexpected. All of an hour ago. I don't like to ask for the lady, but what may be said later I can't think."

He had scarcely finished speaking when a woman whom Brevard recognized as Kate Vollar appeared at the door. "Oh, Mr. Brevard!" she exclaimed with an unnaturally pallid and apprehensive face. "I'm glad to find you. Please come upstairs with me. Why I don't know but I'm all in a tremble. Mrs. Ammidon went to see Nettie, then Edward came in, and when he heard who was there he acted as if he were struck dumb and went up like a person afflicted. I waited the longest while and then followed them and knocked. Why the door was shut I'd never tell you. But they didn't answer, any of them," she declared with clasped straining hands. "Three in the room and not a sound. Please—" her voice was suddenly suffocated by dread.

"Certainly. Quarles," he addressed the coachman, "I'll get you to come along. If there is a lock to break it will need a heavier shoulder than mine."

Mounting the narrow somber stair, followed by the man and Kate Vollar, he wondered vainly what might have happened. Obscurely some of the woman's fear was communicated to him. Brevard knocked abruptly on the door indicated but there was no answering voice or movement. He tried the latch: as Nettie's mother had found, it was fastened.

"Quarles," Roger Brevard said curtly.

The coachman stepped forward, braced himself for the shove he directed against the wooden barrier, and the door swept splintering inward. Roger advanced first and a grim confusion touched him with cold horror. Taou Yuen was half seated and half lying across a table beside the bed; he couldn't see her face, but her body was utterly lax. Nettie Vollar, too, was in a dreadful waxen similitude of death, with lead colored lips and fixed sightless eyes. A slight extraordinary sound rose behind him, and whirling, Brevard discovered that it was Edward Dunsack giggling. He was silent immediately under the other's scrutiny, and an expression of stubborn and malicious caution pinched his wasted sardonic countenance.

Brevard turned to the greater necessity of the women, and moved Taou Yuen so that he could see her features. It was evident that she was not, as he had first thought, dead; her breathing was slow and deep and harsh, her pulse deliberate and full; she was warm, too, but her face was suffused by an unnatural blueness and the pupils of her inert eyes were barely discernible. He shook her with an unceremonious vigor, but there was no answering energy; she fell across his arm in a sheer weight of satin-covered body. He moved back in a momentary uncontrollable repulsion when Kate Vollar threw herself past him onto the bed. "Nettie!" she cried, "Nettie! Nettie!" Brevard was chilled by the possibility of an unutterable tragedy, when with a faint suffusion of color the girl gave a gasping sigh. Her voice stirred in a terror shaken whisper:

"Uncle Edward, don't! Why—don't. Oh!" She pressed her face with a long shudder into the pillow. "Whatever was it—?" her mother began wildly. Brevard caught her shoulder. "Not now," he directed; "you'll come downstairs with me. We must have help at once and your daughter quiet."

However he was in a quandary—he couldn't trust the woman here, he would have to go immediately for assistance, and yet it was impossible to leave Nettie Vollar and Gerrit's wife alone. "You will have to wait in the room," he decided, turning to Quarles.

Edward Dunsack was wavering against a wall; Brevard went swiftly up to him. "We'll need you," he said shortly. Dunsack maintained his silence and air of stubborn cunning; but, when the other man clasped his incredibly thin arm, he went willingly followed by Kate Vollar below. There he sat obediently, his judicious detachment broken by a repetition of the thin shocking snigger.

"You must be responsible for your brother," Roger Brevard told the quivering woman. "I'll be back immediately. Now that you know Nettie's safe you must control yourself. No one should go up—keep everybody out—till you hear from me or the doctor or Captain Ammidon."

What an inexplicable accident or crime, he thought, hurriedly approaching the countinghouse of Ammidon, Ammidon and Saltonstone, the first and nearest of the places to which he must go. He could remember no mark of what had overcome Taou Yuen. How was Dunsack, who was now clearly demented, implicated? What racking thing had Nettie Vollar seen?

In the subsequent exclamatory rush, even on the following morning when Roger Brevard learned that—poisoned by opium undoubtedly taken by herself—Gerrit Ammidon's wife had died without regaining consciousness, the greater part of the tragedy became little clearer. No statement could be had from Edward Dunsack other than a meaningless array of precautionary phrases; and returning in a sliding gait toward Hardy Street he was put under a temporary restraint.

Nettie Vollar, Brevard heard, had relapsed from her injury into a second critical collapse. Yet, he told himself, entering the room that was his home in Mrs. Cane's large square house on Chestnut Street, that the Manchu still absorbed his speculations.

It was a pleasant room and a pleasant house with a dignified portico; and his tall windows, back on the right of the second floor, opened on the length of the Napiers' garden. Brevard sat looking out over a dim leafiness of evening and tried to discipline his thoughts into order and coherence. Any dignity of death had been soiled by the ugly mystery of the aspects surrounding the end of Taou Yuen.

He had liked her extremely well, agreeing with Rhoda Ammidon that, probably, they had never been permitted to know a more aristocratic breeding or greater degrees of purely worldly and mental and personal charm than those of Gerrit's wife.

His mind grew more philosophical and a perception, yet without base in facts, convinced him that Taou Yuen had been killed by America. It was a fantastic thought, and he attempted to dismiss it, waiting for more secure knowledge, but it persisted. She had been killed by unfamiliar circumstances, tradition, emotions. In some manner, but how he was unable to disentangle from the pressures of mere curiosity and conjecture, Nettie Vollar—or rather Gerrit's old passing affair with Nettie—had entered into the unhappy occurrence. After an hour's vain search he gave up all effort to pierce the darkness until he had actual knowledge—if he ever had, he was forced to add silently. It was possible that the secret might be entirely guarded from the public, even from the closer part he had played and his familiarity with the Ammidon family.

He was an inmate of their inner garden with its lilac trees and hedged roses in season, the pungent beds of flowers and box, the moonshade of the poplars. Roger Brevard turned from the consideration of Taou Yuen to the even more insistent claim of his increasing affection for Sidsall. He stopped again both to lament and delight in her youth—another year and he would have unhesitatingly announced his feeling as love to them all. It was that, he admitted to himself almost shyly. The obvious thing was for him to wait through the year or more until the Ammidons would hear of a proposal and then urge his desire…. He could see her quite often meanwhile.

Yes, that was the sensible course, even in the face of his own multiplying years. They were twenty-five more than Sidsall's; yet, he added in self-extenuation, he was not definitely snared in middle age; he was still elastic in body and youthful, but for graying hair, in appearance. His birth was eligible from every social consideration; and, though he was not rich, he had enough independently to assure the safety of his wife's future. This did not come entirely, or now even in the larger part, from the Mongolian Marine Insurance Company, but took the form of a comparatively small but secure private income.

He paused to wonder if it had not been that latter fact which had prevented his being successful—successful, that was, in William Ammidon's meaning of the word. He had not made money nor a position of importance among men of affairs. Such safety, he decided, was a dangerous possession judged by the standards he was now considering. A few thousand a year for life struck at the root of activity. It induced a critical detached attitude toward life, overemphasized the importance of the cut of a trouser and the validity of pedigree. It was a mistake to dance noticeably well.

Drifting, together with almost everyone else, he had reached his present position, past forty, by imperceptible degrees, obscurely influenced by the play of what he intrinsically was on circumstances or accident or fate.

Although he had never done so before, he compared himself with Gerrit Ammidon. The other's refusal to accept a partnership in the family firm or command a California clipper was known. Gerrit and himself were alike in that they apprehended the values of life more clearly than did the ordinary mind or heart. But, in retaliation, the world they differed from curtly brushed them aside. Roger Brevard could not see that they had made the least mark on the callous normal cruelty or the aesthetic and spiritual blindness of the existence they shared. But it was always possible that something bigger than their grasp of justice or beauty was afoot.

He turned from the darkened prospect of the window and his thoughts to the room. Without a light he removed his formal street clothes, hanging the coat and waistcoat, folding the trousers in a drawer, with exact care; changing his light boots for fiber slippers he set the former in the row of footgear drawn up like a military review against the wall. Though it was quite obscure now, and no one would see him, he paused to brush his slightly disarranged hair, before—tying the cord of his chamber robe—he resumed his seat.

The year, he reverted to Sidsall, would pass; but, try as he might, he had no feeling of security in the future, however near. It was the present, this Sidsall, that filled him with a tyrannical and bitter longing. She was unbelievably beautiful now. Against the faintness of his hope, his patience, he saw the whole slow process of the disintegration of marine insurance, and with it his own fatuous insensibility to the decline: that decline with its exact counterpart in himself. Salem and he were getting dusty together.

He straightened up vigorously in his chair—this would never do. He must wind up his affairs here and return to New York. The tranquil backwater had overpowered him for a time; but, again awake, he would strike out strongly… with Sidsall. Endless doubt and hope fluctuated within him. Voices rose from the Napier garden, and from a tree sounded the whirring of the first locust he had noticed that summer.

On a noon following he saw the passage of the three or four carriages that constituted the funeral cortège of Taou Yuen's entirely private interment. She would be buried of course by Christian service: here were none of the elaborate Confucian rites and ceremonial; yet—from what Taou Yuen had occasionally indicated—Confucius, Lao-tze, the Buddha, were all more alike than different; they all vainly preached humility, purity, the subjugation of the flesh. He stopped later in the Charter Street cemetery and found her grave, the headstone marked:


and the dates.

He saw, naturally, but little of the Ammidons—a glimpse of Rhoda in the carriage and William on Charter Street; the Nautilus, ready for sea, continued in her berth at Phillips' Wharf. Fragments of news came to him quoted and re-quoted, grotesquely exaggerated and even malicious reports of the tragedy at the Dunsacks'. Standing at his high desk in the countingroom of the Mongolian Marine Insurance Company, Taou Yuen's glittering passage through Salem already seemed to him a fable, a dream. Even Sidsall, robustly near by, had an aspect of unreality in the tender fabric of his visions. Captain Rendell, his spade beard at the verge of filmed old eyes, who was seated at the window, rose with difficulty. For a moment he swayed on insecure legs, then, barely gathering the necessary power, moved out into the street.

Later, when Roger Brevard was turning the key on the insurance company for the day, Lacy Saltonstone stopped to speak in her charming slow manner: "Mother of course is in a whirl, with Captain Ammidon about to marry that Nettie Vollar, since she is recovering after all, and our moving to Boston…. You see I'm there so often it will make really very little difference to me. Sidsall is the lucky one, though you'd never know it from seeing her…. I thought you'd have heard—why, to Lausanne, a tremendously impressive school for a year. They have promised her London afterward. I would call that a promise, but actually, Sidsall—."

"Doesn't she want to go?" he asked mechanically, all the emotions that had chimed through his being suddenly clashing in a discordant misery. He bowed absently, and hastening to his room softly closed the door and sat without supper, late into the evening, lost in a bitterness that continually poisoned the resolutions formed out of his overwhelming need. He was aghast at the inner violence that destroyed the long tranquility of his existence, the clenched hands and spoken words lost in the shadows over the Napiers' garden. He wanted Sidsall with a breathless tyranny infinitely sharper than any pang of youth: she was life itself.

She didn't want to go, Lacy had made that clear; and he told himself that her reluctance could only, must, proceed from one cause—that she cared for him. As he dwelt on this, the one alleviating possibility, he became certain of its truth. He would find her at once and in spite of Rhoda and William Ammidon explain that his whole hope lay in marrying her. With an utter contempt at all the small orderly habits which, he now saw, were the expression of a confirmed dry preciseness, he left his clothes in a disorderly heap. Such a feeling as Sidsall's and his, he repeated from the oppressive expanse of his black walnut bed, was above ordinary precautions and observance. Then, unable to dismiss the thought of how crumpled his trousers would be in the morning, oppressed by the picture of the tumbled garments, he finally rose and, in the dark, relaid them in the familiar smooth array.

In the morning his disturbance resolved into what seemed a very decided and reasonable attitude: He would see Rhoda that day and explain his feeling and establish what rights and agreement he could. He was willing to admit that Sidsall was, perhaps, too young for an immediate decision so wide in results. The ache, the hunger for happiness sharpened by vague premonitions of mischance, began again to pound in his heart.

At the Ammidons' it was clear immediately that Rhoda's manner toward him had changed: it had become more social, even voluble, and restrained. She conversed brightly about trivial happenings, while he sat listening, gravely silent. But it was evident that she soon became aware of his difference, and her voice grew sharper, almost antagonistic. They were in the formal parlor, a significant detail in itself, and Roger Brevard saw William pass the door. Well, he would soon have to go, he must speak about Sidsall now. It promised to be unexpectedly difficult; but the words were forming when she came into the room.

There were faint shadows under her eyes, the unmistakable marks of tears. An overwhelming passion for her choked at his throat. She came directly up to him, ignoring her mother. "Did you hear that they want me to go away?" she asked. He nodded, "It's that I came to see your mother about."

"They know I don't want to," she continued; "I've explained it to them very carefully."

"My dear Sidsall," Rhoda Ammidon cut in; "we can't have this. What Roger has to say must be for me and your father." The girl smiled at her and turned again to Roger Brevard. "Do you want me to go?"

"No!" he cried, all his planning lost in uncontrollable rebellion.

"Then I don't think I shall."

William entered and stood at his wife's shoulder. "You won't insist," Sidsall faced them quietly. "Ridiculous," her father replied. Brevard realized that he must support the girl's bravery of spirit. How adorable she was! But, before the overwhelming superior position of the elder Ammidons, their weight of propriety and authority, his determination wavered.

"To be quite frank," the other man proceeded, "since it has been forced on us, Sidsall imagines herself in love with you, Brevard. I don't need to remind you how unsuitable and preposterous that is. She's too young to know the meaning of love. Besides, my dear fellow, you're a quarter century her elder. We want Sidsall to go to London like her mother, have her cotillions, before she settles into marriage."

"They can't understand, Roger," Sidsall touched his hand. "We're sorry to disappoint them—"

"You ought to be made to leave the room," William fumed.

"That isn't necessary," Rhoda told him. "I am sure Roger understands perfectly how impossible it is. You mustn't be hurt," she turned to him, "if I admit that we have very different plans… at least a man nearer Sidsall's age."

The girl lifted a confident face to him. "You want to marry me, don't you?" she asked. More than any other conceivable joy. But he said this silently. His courage slowly ebbed before the parental displeasure viewing him coldly. "Then—" Sidsall paused expectantly, a touch of impatience even invaded her manner. "Please tell them, Roger."

"Why I have to put up with this is beyond me," William Ammidon expostulated with his wife. "It's shameless."

Roger Brevard winced. He tried to say something about hope and the future, but it was so weak, a palpable retreat, leaving Sidsall alone and unsupported, that the words perished unfinished. The girl studied him, suddenly startled, and her confidence ebbed. He turned away, crushed by convention, filled with shame and a sense of self-betrayal.

A stillness followed of unendurable length, in which he found his attention resting on the diversified shapes of the East India money in a corner cabinet. It was Sidsall who finally spoke, slowly and clearly:

"Forgive me."

He recognized that she was addressing her mother and father. From a whisper of skirts he realized that she was leaving the room. Without the will necessary for a last glimpse he stood with his head bowed by an appalling sensation of weariness and years.

In a flash of self-comprehension, Roger Brevard knew that he would never, as he had hoped, leave Salem. He was an abstemious man, one of a family of long lives, and he would linger here, increasingly unimportant, for a great while, an old man in new epochs, isolated among strange people and prejudices. Whatever the cause—the small safety or an inward flaw—he had never been part of the corporate sweating humanity where, in the war of spirit and flesh, the vital rewards and accomplishments were found.

Soon after he passed Gerrit and Nettie Vollar driving in the direction of the harbor; she was lying back wanly in the Ammidon barouche, but her companion's face was set directly ahead, his expression of general disdain strongly marked. A vigorous hand, Roger noted, was clasped about Nettie's supine palm. She saw him standing on the sidewalk and bowed slightly, but the shipmaster plainly overlooked him together with the rest of Salem.

The end of summer was imminent in a whirl of yellow leaves and chill gray wind. There was a ringing of bugles through the morning, the strains of military quicksteps, rhythmic tramping feet and the irregular fulmination of salutes. That it was already the day of the annual Fall Review seemed incredible to Roger Brevard. He was indifferent to the activities of the Common; but when he heard that the Nautilus was sailing in the middle of the afternoon he left his inconsequential affairs for Phillips' Wharf.

A small number were waiting on the solid rock-filled reach, the wharfinger's office at its head and a stone warehouse blocking the end, where the Nautilus lay with her high-steeved bowsprit pointing outward. The harbor was slaty, cold, and there was a continuous slapping of small waves on the shore. Darkening clouds hung low in the west, out of which the wind cut in flaws across the open. The town, so lately folded in lush greenery, showed a dun lift of roofs and stripping branches tossing against an ashy sky.

Close beside Roger stood Barzil Dunsack, his beard blowing, with Kate Vollar in a bright red shawl, her skirts whipping uneasily against her father's legs. Beyond were the Ammidons—William, and Rhoda in a deep furred wrap, and their daughters. Rhoda waved for him to join them, but he declined with a gesture of acknowledgment.

The deck of the Nautilus was above his vision but he could see most of the stir of departure. The peremptory voice of the mate rose from the bow, minor directions were issued by the second mate aft, a seaman was aloft on the main-royal yard and another stood at the stage rising sharply from the wharf. Gerrit and his wife had not yet arrived, and the pilot, making a leisurely appearance, stopped to exchange remarks with the Ammidons. He climbed on board the ship and Roger could see his head and shoulders moving toward the poop and mounting the ladder.

The wind grew higher, shriller, every moment; it was thrashing among the stays and braces; the man aloft, a small movement against the clouds, swayed in its force. There was a faint clatter of hoofs from Derby Street, Brevard had a fleeting glimpse of an arriving carriage, and Gerrit, supporting Nettie Ammidon, advanced over the wharf. The shipmaster walked slowly, the woman clinging, almost dragging, at his erect strength. They went close by Roger: Nettie's pale face, her large shining dark eyes, were filled with placid surrender. Her companion spoke in a low grave tone, and she looked up at him in a tired and happy acquiescence.

The two families joined, and there was a confused determined gayety of farewell and good wishes. Out of it finally emerged the captain of the Nautilus and the slight figure upon his arm. He wore a beaver hat, and, as they mounted the stage, he was forced to hold it on with his free hand. When the quarter-deck was reached they disappeared into the cabin.

"Mr. Broadrick," the pilot called, "you can get in those bow fasts. Send a hawser to the end of the wharf; I'm going to warp out." There was a harsh answering clatter as the mooring chain that held the bow of the Nautilus was secured, and a group of sailors went smartly forward with a hemp cable to the end of the wharf's seaward thrust. The Nautilus lay on the eastern side, with the wind beating over the starboard quarter, and there was little difficulty in getting under way. Strain was kept on the stern and breast fasts while the mate directed:

"Ship your capstan bars."

The capstan turned and the Nautilus moved forward to the beat of song.

"Low lands, low lands, hurrah, my John,
I thought I heard the old man say.
Low lands, low lands, hurrah, my John,
We'll get some rum …
… Hurrah, my John.
Then shake her—"

"Vast heaving," Mr. Broadrick shouted.

The intimate spectators on Phillips' Wharf moved out with the ship. Gerrit Ammidon was now visible on the quarter-deck with the pilot. He walked to the port railing aft and stood gazing somberly back at Salem. The stovepipe hat was not yet discarded, and the hand firmly holding its brim resembled a final gesture of contempt. The pilot approached him, there was a brief exchange of words, and the former sharply ordered:

"Stand by to run up your jib and fore-topmast staysail, Mr. Broadrick. Put two good men at the sheets and see that those sails don't slat to pieces.

"On the wharf there—take that stern fast out to the last ringbolt. Mr. Second Mate… get your fenders aboard." The wind increased in a violence tipped with stinging rain. "Give her the jib and stay-sail." She heeled slightly and gathered steerage way. Roger Brevard involuntarily waved a parting salutation. An extraordinary emotion swept over him: a ship bound to the East always stirred his imagination and sense of beauty, but the departure of the Nautilus had a special significance. It was the beginning, yes, and the end, of almost the whole sweep of human suffering and despair, of longing and hope and passion, and a reward.

"Let go the stern fast. Steady your helm there."

"Steady, sir."

A mere gust of song was distinguishable against the blast of storm. Under the lee of the stone warehouse, on the solidity of the wharf, the land, Roger Brevard watched the Nautilus while one by one the topsails were sheeted home and the yards mastheaded. "A gale by night," somebody said. The ship, driving with surprising speed toward the open sea, was now apparently no more than a fragile shell on the immensity of the stark horizon.

The light faded: the days were growing shorter. Alone Brevard followed the others moving away. Kate Vollar's red shawl suddenly streamed out and was secured by a wasted hand. Just that way, he thought, the color and vividness of his existence had been withdrawn.

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