About the Book

About the Author

Also by W. Somerset Maugham

Title Page

The History of Vintage


The book-bag

French Joe

German Harry

The four Dutchmen

The back of beyond

P. & O.


The kite

A woman of fifty


The lotus eater


The wash-tub

A man with a conscience

An official position

Winter cruise



Princess September

A marriage of convenience


The letter

The outstation

The portrait of a gentleman

Raw material

Straight flush

The end of the flight

A casual affair


Neil MacAdam


Cover Missing

Collected Short Stories Volume 4

W. Somerset Maugham


Logo Missing

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IN THIS FINAL volume I have placed the rest of my stories the scene of which is set in Malaya. They were written long before the Second World War and I should tell the reader that the sort of life with which they deal no longer exists. When I first visited those countries the lives the white men and their wives led there differed but little from what they had been twenty-five years before. They got home leave once in five years. They had besides a few weeks leave every year. If they lived where the climate was exhausting they sought the fresh air of some hill-station not too far away; if, like some of the government servants, they lived where they might not see another white man for weeks on end, they went to Singapore so that they might consort for a time with their kind. The Times when it arrived at a station up-country, in Borneo for instance, was six weeks old, and they were lucky if they received the Singapore paper in a fortnight.

Aviation has changed all that. Even before the war people who could afford it were able to spend even their short leave at home. Papers, illustrated weeklies, magazines reached them fresh from the press. In the old days Sarawak, say, or Selangor were where they expected to spend their lives till it was time for them to retire on a pension; England was very far away and when at long intervals they went back was increasingly strange to them; their real home, their intimate friends, were in the land in which the better part of their lives was spent. But with the rapidity of communication it remained an alien land, a temporary rather than a permanent habitation, which circumstances obliged them for a spell to occupy; it was a longish halt in a life that had its roots in the Sussex downs or on the moors of Yorkshire. Their ties with the homeland, which before had insensibly loosened and sometimes broke asunder, remained fast. England, so to speak, was round the corner. They no longer felt cut off. It changed their whole outlook.

The countries of which I wrote were then at peace. It may be that some of those peoples, Malays, Dyaks, Chinese, were restive under the British rule, but there was no outward sign of it. The British gave them justice, provided them with hospitals and schools, and encouraged their industries. There was no more crime than anywhere else. An unarmed man could wander through the length of the Federated Malay States in perfect safety. The only real trouble was the low price of rubber.

There is one more point I want to make. Most of these stories are on the tragic side. But the reader must not suppose that the incidents I have narrated were of common occurrence. The vast majority of these people, government servants, planters, and traders, who spent their working lives in Malaya were ordinary people ordinarily satisfied with their station in life. They did the jobs they were paid to do more or less competently. They were as happy with their wives as are most married couples. They led humdrum lives and did very much the same things every day. Sometimes by way of a change they got a little shooting; but as a rule, after they had done their day’s work, they played tennis if there were people to play with, went to the club at sundown if there was a club in the vicinity, drank in moderation, and played bridge. They had their little tiffs, their little jealousies, their little flirtations, their little celebrations. They were good, decent, normal people.

I respect, and even admire, such people, but they are not the sort of people I can write stories about. I write stories about people who have some singularity of character which suggests to me that they may be capable of behaving in such a way as to give me an idea that I can make use of, or about people who by some accident or another, accident of temperament, accident of environment, have been involved in unusual contingencies. But, I repeat, they are the exception.

The book-bag

SOME PEOPLE READ for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that this is neither innocent nor praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am I. Conversation after a time bores me, games tire me, and my own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry. Then I fly to my book as the opium-smoker to his pipe. I would sooner read the catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores or Bradshaw’s Guide than nothing at all, and indeed I have spent many delightful hours over both these works. At one time I never went out without a second-hand bookseller’s list in my pocket. I know no reading more fruity. Of course to read in this way is as reprehensible as doping, and I never cease to wonder at the impertinence of great readers who, because they are such, look down on the illiterate. From the standpoint of what eternity is it better to have read a thousand books than to have ploughed a million furrows? Let us admit that reading with us is just a drug that we cannot do without – who of this band does not know the restlessness that attacks him when he has been severed from reading too long, the apprehension and irritability, and the sigh of relief which the sight of a printed page extracts from him? – and so let us be no more vainglorious than the poor slaves of the hypodermic needle or the pint-pot.

And like the dope-fiend who cannot move from place to place without taking with him a plentiful supply of his deadly balm I never venture far without a sufficiency of reading matter. Books are so necessary to me that when in a railway train I have become aware that fellow-travellers have come away without a single one I have been seized with a veritable dismay. But when I am starting on a long journey the problem is formidable. I have learnt my lesson. Once, imprisoned by illness for three months in a hill-town in Java, I came to the end of all the books I had brought with me, and knowing no Dutch was obliged to buy the schoolbooks from which intelligent Javanese, I suppose, acquired knowledge of French and German. So I read again after five-and-twenty years the frigid plays of Goethe, the fables of La Fontaine, and the tragedies of the tender and exact Racine. I have the greatest admiration for Racine, but I admit that to read his plays one after the other requires a certain effort in a person who is suffering from colitis. Since then I have made a point of travelling with the largest sack made for carrying soiled linen and filling it to the brim with books to suit every possible occasion and every mood. It weighs a ton and strong porters reel under its weight. Custom-house officials look at it askance, but recoil from it with consternation when I give them my word that it contains nothing but books. Its inconvenience is that the particular work I suddenly hanker to read is always at the bottom and it is impossible for me to get it without emptying the book-bag’s entire contents upon the floor. Except for this, however, I should perhaps never have heard the singular history of Olive Hardy.

I was wandering about Malaya, staying here and there, a week or two if there was a rest-house or a hotel, and a day or so if I was obliged to inflict myself on a planter or a District Officer whose hospitality I had no wish to abuse; and at the moment I happened to be at Penang. It is a pleasant little town, with a hotel that has always seemed to me very agreeable, but the stranger finds little to do there and time hung a trifle heavily on my hands. One morning I received a letter from a man I knew only by name. This was Mark Featherstone. He was Acting Resident, in the absence on leave of the Resident, at a place called Tenggarah. There was a sultan there and it appeared that a water festival of some sort was to take place which Featherstone thought would interest me. He said that he would be glad if I would come and stay with him for a few days. I wired to tell him that I should be delighted and next day took the train to Tenggarah. Featherstone met me at the station. He was a man of about thirty-five, I should think, tall and handsome, with fine eyes and a strong, stern face. He had a wiry black moustache and bushy eyebrows. He looked more like a soldier than a government official. He was very smart in white ducks, with a white topee, and he wore his clothes with elegance. He was a little shy, which seemed odd in a strapping fellow of resolute mien, but I surmised that this was only because he was unused to the society of that strange fish, a writer, and I hoped in a little to put him at his ease.

‘My boys’ll look after your barang,’ he said. ‘We’ll go down to the club. Give them your keys and they’ll unpack before we get back.’

I told him that I had a good deal of luggage and thought it better to leave everything at the station but what I particularly wanted. He would not hear of it.

‘It doesn’t matter a bit. It’ll be safer at my house. It’s always better to have one’s barang with one.’

‘All right.’

I gave my keys and the ticket for my trunk and my book-bag to a Chinese boy who stood at my host’s elbow. Outside the station a car was waiting for us and we stepped in.

‘Do you play bridge?’ asked Featherstone.

‘I do.’

‘I thought most writers didn’t.’

‘They don’t,’ I said. ‘It’s generally considered among authors a sign of deficient intelligence to play cards.’

The club was a bungalow, pleasing but unpretentious; it had a large reading-room, a billiard-room with one table, and a small card-room. When we arrived it was empty but for one or two persons reading the English weeklies, and we walked through to the tennis courts, where a couple of sets were being played. A number of people were sitting on the veranda, looking on, smoking, and sipping long drinks. I was introduced to one or two of them. But the light was failing and soon the players could hardly see the ball. Featherstone asked one of the men I had been introduced to if he would like a rubber. He said he would. Featherstone looked about for a fourth. He caught sight of a man sitting a little by himself, paused for a second, and went up to him. The two exchanged a few words and then came towards us. We strolled in to the card-room. We had a very nice game. I did not pay much attention to the two men who made up the four. They stood me drinks and I, a temporary member of the club, returned the compliment. The drinks were very small, quarter whiskies, and in the two hours we played each of us was able to show his open-handedness without an excessive consumption of alcohol. When the advancing hour suggested that the next rubber must be the last we changed from whisky to gin pahits. The rubber came to an end. Featherstone called for the book and the winnings and losings of each one of us were set down. One of the men got up.

‘Well, I must be going,’ he said.

‘Going back to the estate?’ asked Featherstone.

‘Yes,’ he nodded. He turned to me. ‘Shall you be here tomorrow?’

‘I hope so.’

He went out of the room.

‘I’ll collect my mem and get along home to dinner,’ said the other.

‘We might be going too,’ said Featherstone.

‘I’m ready whenever you are,’ I replied.

We got into the car and drove to his house. It was a longish drive. In the darkness I could see nothing much, but presently I realized that we were going up a rather steep hill. We reached the Residency.

It had been an evening like any other, pleasant, but not at all exciting, and I had spent I don’t know how many just like it. I did not expect it to leave any sort of impression on me.

Featherstone led me into his sitting-room. It looked comfortable, but it was a trifle ordinary. It had large basket arm-chairs covered with cretonne and on the walls were a great many framed photographs; the tables were littered with papers, magazines, and official reports, with pipes, yellow tins of straight-cut cigarettes, and pink tins of tobacco. In a row of shelves were untidily stacked a good many books, their bindings stained with damp and the ravages of white ants. Featherstone showed me my room and left me with the words:

‘Shall you be ready for a gin pahit in ten minutes?’

‘Easily,’ I said.

I had a bath and changed and went downstairs. Featherstone, ready before me, mixed our drink as he heard me clatter down the wooden staircase. We dined. We talked. The festival which I had been invited to see was the next day but one, but Featherstone told me he had arranged for me before that to be received by the Sultan.

‘He’s a jolly old boy,’ he said. ‘And the palace is a sight for sore eyes.’

After dinner we talked a little more, Featherstone put on the gramophone, and we looked at the latest illustrated papers that had arrived from England. Then we went to bed. Featherstone came to my room to see that I had everything I wanted.

‘I suppose you haven’t any books with you,’ he said. ‘I haven’t got a thing to read.’

‘Books?’ I cried.

I pointed to my book-bag. It stood upright, bulging oddly, so that it looked like a humpbacked gnome somewhat the worse for liquor.

‘Have you got books in there? I thought that was your dirty linen or a camp-bed or something. Is there anything you can lend me?’

‘Look for yourself.’

Featherstone’s boys had unlocked the bag, but quailing before the sight that then discovered itself had done no more. I knew from long experience how to unpack it. I threw it over on its side, seized its leather bottom and, walking backwards, dragged the sack away from its contents. A river of books poured on to the floor. A look of stupefaction came upon Featherstone’s face.

‘You don’t mean to say you travel with as many books as that? By George, what a snip!’

He bent down and turning them over rapidly looked at the titles. There were books of all kinds. Volumes of verse, novels, philosophical works, critical studies (they say books about books are profitless, but they certainly make very pleasant reading), biographies, history; there were books to read when you were ill and books to read when your brain, all alert, craved for something to grapple with; there were books that you had always wanted to read, but in the hurry of life at home had never found time to; there were books to read at sea when you were meandering through narrow waters on a tramp steamer, and there were books for bad weather when your whole cabin creaked and you had to wedge yourself in your bunk in order not to fall out; there were books chosen solely for their length, which you took with you when on some expedition you had to travel light, and there were the books you could read when you could read nothing else. Finally Featherstone picked out a life of Byron that had recently appeared.

‘Hullo, what’s this?’ he said. ‘I read a review of it some time ago.’

‘I believe it’s very good,’ I replied. ‘I haven’t read it yet.’

‘May I take it? It’ll do me for tonight at all events.’

‘Of course. Take anything you like.’

‘No, that’s enough. Well, good night. Breakfast at eight-thirty.’

When I came down next morning the head boy told me that Featherstone, who had been at work since six, would be in shortly. While I waited for him I glanced at his shelves.

‘I see you’ve got a grand library of books on bridge,’ I remarked as we sat down to breakfast.

‘Yes, I get every one that comes out. I’m very keen on it.’

‘That fellow we were playing with yesterday plays a good game.’

‘Which? Hardy?’

‘I don’t know. Not the one who said he was going to collect his wife. The other.’

‘Yes, that was Hardy. That was why I asked him to play. He doesn’t come to the club very often.’

‘I hope he will tonight.’

‘I wouldn’t bank on it. He has an estate about thirty miles away. It’s a longish ride to come just for a rubber of bridge.’

‘Is he married?’

‘No. Well, yes. But his wife is in England.’

‘It must be awfully lonely for those men who live by themselves on those estates,’ I said.

‘Oh, he’s not so badly off as some. I don’t think he much cares about seeing people. I think he’d be just as lonely in London.’

There was something in the way Featherstone spoke that struck me as a little strange. His voice had what I can only describe as a shuttered tone. He seemed suddenly to have moved away from me. It was as though one were passing along a street at night and paused for a second to look in at a lighted window that showed a comfortable room and suddenly an invisible hand pulled down a blind. His eyes, which habitually met those of the person he was talking to with frankness, now avoided mine, and I had a notion that it was not only my fancy that read in his face an expression of pain. It was drawn for a moment as it might be by a twinge of neuralgia. I could not think of anything to say and Featherstone did not speak. I was conscious that his thoughts, withdrawn from me and what we were about, were turned upon a subject unknown to me. Presently he gave a little sigh, very slight, but unmistakable, and seemed with a deliberate effort to pull himself together.

‘I’m going down to the office immediately after breakfast,’ he said. ‘What are you going to do with yourself?’

‘Oh, don’t bother about me. I shall slack around. I’ll stroll down and look at the town.’

‘There’s not much to see.’

‘All the better. I’m fed up with sights.’

I found that Featherstone’s veranda gave me sufficient entertainment for the morning. It had one of the most enchanting views I had seen in the FMS. The Residency was built on the top of a hill and the garden was large and well cared for. Great trees gave it almost the look of an English park. It had vast lawns and there Tamils, black and emaciated, were scything with deliberate and beautiful gestures. Beyond and below, the jungle grew thickly to the bank of a broad, winding, and swiftly flowing river, and on the other side of this, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the wooded hills of Tenggarah. The contrast between the trim lawns, so strangely English, and the savage growth of the jungle beyond pleasantly titillated the fancy. I sat and read and smoked. It is my business to be curious about people and I asked myself how the peace of this scene, charged nevertheless with a tremulous and dark significance, affected Featherstone who lived with it. He knew it under every aspect: at dawn when the mist rising from the river shrouded it with a ghostly pall; in the splendour of noon; and at last when the shadowy gloaming crept softly out of the jungle, like an army making its way with caution in unknown country, and presently enveloped the green lawns and the great flowering trees and the flaunting cassias in the silent night. I wondered whether, unbeknownst to him, the tender and yet strangely sinister aspect of the scene, acting on his nerves and his loneliness, imbued him with some mystical quality so that the life he led, the life of the capable administrator, the sportsman, and the good fellow, on occasion seemed to him not quite real. I smiled at my own fancies, for certainly the conversation we had had the night before had not indicated in him any stirrings of the soul. I had thought him quite nice. He had been at Oxford and was a member of a good London club. He seemed to attach a good deal of importance to social things. He was a gentleman and slightly conscious of the fact that he belonged to a better class than most of the Englishmen his life brought him in contact with. I gathered from the various silver pots that adorned his dining-room that he excelled in games. He played tennis and billiards. When he went on leave he hunted and, anxious to keep his weight down, he dieted carefully. He talked a good deal of what he would do when he retired. He hankered after the life of a country gentleman. A little house in Leicestershire, a couple of hunters, and neighbours to play bridge with. He would have his pension and he had a little money of his own. But meanwhile he worked hard and did his work, if not brilliantly, certainly with competence. I have no doubt that he was looked upon by his superiors as a reliable officer. He was cut upon a pattern that I knew too well to find very interesting. He was like a novel that is careful, honest, and efficient, yet a little ordinary, so that you seem to have read it all before, and you turn the pages listlessly, knowing that it will never afford you a surprise or move you to excitement.

But human beings are incalculable and he is a fool who tells himself that he knows what a man is capable of.

In the afternoon Featherstone took me to see the Sultan. We were received by one of his sons, a shy, smiling youth who acted as his ADC. He was dressed in a neat blue suit, but round his waist he wore a sarong, white flowers on a yellow ground, on his head a red fez, and on his feet knobby American shoes. The palace, built in the Moorish style, was like a very big doll’s house and it was painted bright yellow, which is the royal colour. We were led into a spacious room, furnished with the sort of furniture you would find in an English lodging-house at the seaside, but the chairs were covered with yellow silk. On the floor was a Brussels carpet and on the walls photographs in very grand gilt frames of the Sultan at various state functions. In a cabinet was a large collection of all kinds of fruit done entirely in crochet work. The Sultan came in with several attendants. He was a man of fifty, perhaps, short and stout, dressed in trousers and tunic of a large white-and-yellow check; round his middle he wore a very beautiful yellow sarong and on his head a white fez. He had large handsome friendly eyes. He gave us coffee to drink, sweet cakes to eat, and cheroots to smoke. Conversation was not difficult, for he was affable, and he told me that he had never been to a theatre or played cards, for he was very religious, and he had four wives and twenty-four children. The only bar to the happiness of his life seemed to be that common decency obliged him to divide his time equally between his four wives. He said that an hour with one was a month and with another five minutes. I remarked that Professor Einstein – or was it Bergson? – had made similar observations upon time and indeed on this question had given the world much to ponder over. Presently we took our leave and the Sultan presented me with some beautiful white Malaccas.

In the evening we went to the club. One of the men we had played with the day before got up from his chair as we entered.

‘Ready for a rubber?’ he said.

‘Where’s our fourth?’ I asked.

‘Oh, there are several fellows here who’ll be glad to play.’

‘What about that man we played with yesterday?’ I had forgotten his name.

‘Hardy? He’s not here.’

‘It’s not worth while waiting for him,’ said Featherstone.

‘He very seldom comes to the club. I was surprised to see him last night.’

I did not know why I had the impression that behind the very ordinary words of these two men there was an odd sense of embarrassment. Hardy had made no impression on me and I did not even remember what he looked like. He was just a fourth at the bridge table. I had a feeling that they had something against him. It was no business of mine and I was quite content to play with a man who at that moment joined us. We certainly had a more cheerful game than before. A good deal of chaff passed from one side of the table to the other. We played less serious bridge. We laughed. I wondered if it was only that they were less shy of the stranger who had happened in upon them or if the presence of Hardy had caused in the other two a certain constraint. At half past eight we broke up and Featherstone and I went back to dine at his house.

After dinner we lounged in arm-chairs and smoked cheroots. For some reason our conversation did not flow easily. I tried topic after topic, but could not get Featherstone to interest himself in any of them. I began to think that in the last twenty-four hours he had said all he had to say. I fell somewhat discouraged into silence. It prolonged itself, and again, I did not know why, I had a faint sensation that it was charged with a significance that escaped me. I felt slightly uncomfortable. I had that queer feeling that one sometimes has when sitting in an empty room that one is not by oneself. Presently I was conscious that Featherstone was steadily looking at me. I was sitting by a lamp, but he was in shadow so that the play of his features was hidden from me. But he had very large brilliant eyes and in the half darkness they seemed to shine dimly. They were like new boot-buttons that caught a reflected light. I wondered why he looked at me like that. I gave him a glance and catching his eyes insistently fixed upon me faintly smiled.

‘Interesting book that one you lent me last night,’ he said suddenly, and I could not help thinking his voice did not sound quite natural. The words issued from his lips as though they were pushed from behind.

‘Oh, the Life of Byron?’ I said breezily. ‘Have you read it already?’

‘A good deal of it. I read till three.’

‘I’ve heard it’s very well done. I’m not sure that Byron interests me so much as all that. There was so much in him that was so frightfully second-rate. It makes one rather uncomfortable.’

‘What do you think is the real truth of that story about him and his sister?’

‘Augusta Leigh? I don’t know very much about it. I’ve never read Astarte.’

‘Do you think they were really in love with one another?’

‘I suppose so. Isn’t it generally believed that she was the only woman he ever genuinely loved?’

‘Can you understand it?’

‘I can’t really. It doesn’t particularly shock me. It just seems to me very unnatural. Perhaps “unnatural” isn’t the right word. It’s incomprehensible to me. I can’t throw myself into the state of feeling in which such a thing seems possible. You know, that’s how a writer gets to know the people he writes about, by standing himself in their shoes and feeling with their hearts.’

I know I did not make myself very clear, but I was trying to describe a sensation, an action of the subconscious, which from experience was perfectly familiar to me, but which no words I knew could precisely indicate. I went on:

‘Of course she was only his half-sister, but just as habit kills love I should have thought habit would prevent its arising. When two persons have known one another all their lives and lived together in close contact I can’t imagine how or why that sudden spark should flash that results in love. The probabilities are that they would be joined by mutual affection and I don’t know anything that is more contrary to love than affection.’

I could just see in the dimness the outline of a smile flicker for a moment on my host’s heavy, and it seemed to me then, somewhat saturnine face.

‘You only believe in love at first sight?’

‘Well, I suppose I do, but with the proviso that people may have met twenty times before seeing one another. “Seeing” has an active side and a passive one. Most people we run across mean so little to us that we never bestir ourselves to look at them. We just suffer the impression they make on us.’

‘Oh, but one’s often heard of couples who’ve known one another for years and it’s never occurred to one they cared two straws for each other and suddenly they go and get married. How do you explain that?’

‘Well, if you’re going to bully me into being logical and consistent, I should suggest that their love is of a different kind. After all, passion isn’t the only reason for marriage. It may not even be the best one. Two people may marry because they’re lonely or because they’re good friends or for convenience sake. Though I said that affection was the greatest enemy of love, I would never deny that it’s a very good substitute. I’m not sure that a marriage founded on it isn’t the happiest.’

‘What did you think of Tim Hardy?’

I was a little surprised at the sudden question, which seemed to have nothing to do with the subject of our conversation.

‘I didn’t think of him very much. He seemed quite nice. Why?’

‘Did he seem to you just like everybody else?’

‘Yes. Is there anything peculiar about him? If you’d told me that, I’d have paid more attention to him.’

‘He’s very quiet, isn’t he? I suppose no one who knew nothing about him would give him a second thought.’

I tried to remember what he looked like. The only thing that had struck me when we were playing cards was that he had fine hands. It passed idly through my mind that they were not the sort of hands I should have expected a planter to have. But why a planter should have different hands from anybody else I did not trouble to ask myself. His were somewhat large, but very well formed with peculiarly long fingers, and the nails were of an admirable shape. They were virile and yet oddly sensitive hands. I noticed this and thought no more about it. But if you are a writer instinct and the habit of years enable you to store up impressions that you are not aware of. Sometimes of course they do not correspond with the facts and a woman for example may remain in your subconsciousness as a dark, massive, and ox-eyed creature when she is indeed rather small and of a nondescript colouring. But that is of no consequence. The impression may very well be more exact than the sober truth. And now, seeking to call up from the depths of me a picture of this man I had a feeling of some ambiguity. He was clean-shaven and his face, oval but not thin, seemed strangely pale under the tan of long exposure to the tropical sun. His features were vague. I did not know whether I remembered it or only imagined now that his rounded chin gave one the impression of a certain weakness. He had thick brown hair, just turning grey, and a long wisp fell down constantly over his forehead. He pushed it back with a gesture that had become habitual. His brown eyes were rather large and gentle, but perhaps a little sad; they had a melting softness which, I could imagine, might be very appealing.

After a pause Featherstone continued:

‘It’s rather strange that I should run across Tim Hardy here after all these years. But that’s the way of the FMS. People move about and you find yourself in the same place as a man you’d known years before in another part of the country. I first knew Tim when he had an estate near Sibuku. Have you ever been there?’

‘No. Where is it?’

‘Oh, it’s up north. Towards Siam. It wouldn’t be worth your while to go. It’s just like every other place in the FMS. But it was rather nice. It had a very jolly little club and there were some quite decent people. There was the schoolmaster and the head of the police, the doctor, the padre, and the government engineer. The usual lot, you know. A few planters. Three or four women. I was ADO. It was one of my first jobs. Tim Hardy had an estate about twenty-five miles away. He lived there with his sister. They had a bit of money of their own and he’d bought the place. Rubber was pretty good then and he wasn’t doing at all badly. We rather cottoned on to one another. Of course it’s a toss-up with planters. Some of them are very good fellows, but they’re not exactly . . .’ he sought for a word or a phrase that did not sound snobbish. ‘Well, they’re not the sort of people you’d be likely to meet at home. Tim and Olive were of one’s own class, if you understand what I mean.’

‘Olive was the sister?’

‘Yes. They’d had a rather unfortunate past. Their parents had separated when they were quite small, seven or eight, and the mother had taken Olive and the father had kept Tim. Tim went to Clifton, they were West Country people, and only came home for the holidays. His father was a retired naval man who lived at Fowey. But Olive went with her mother to Italy. She was educated in Florence; she spoke Italian perfectly and French too. For all those years Tim and Olive never saw one another once, but they used to write to one another regularly. They’d been very much attached when they were children. As far as I could understand, life when their people were living together had been rather stormy with all sorts of scenes and upsets, you know the sort of thing that happens when two people who are married don’t get on together, and that had thrown them on their own resources. They were left a good deal to themselves. Then Mrs Hardy died and Olive came home to England and went back to her father. She was eighteen then and Tim was seventeen. A year later the war broke out. Tim joined up and his father, who was over fifty, got some job at Portsmouth. I take it he had been a hard liver and a heavy drinker. He broke down before the end of the war and died after a lingering illness. They don’t seem to have had any relations. They were the last of a rather old family; they had a fine old house in Dorsetshire that had belonged to them for a good many generations, but they had never been able to afford to live in it and it was always let. I remember seeing photographs of it. It was very much a gentleman’s house, of grey stone and rather stately, with a coat of arms carved over the front door, and mullioned windows. Their great ambition was to make enough money to be able to live in it. They used to talk about it a lot. They never spoke as though either of them would marry, but always as though it were a settled thing that they would remain together. It was rather funny considering how young they were.’

‘How old were they then?’ I asked.

‘Well, I suppose he was twenty-five or twenty-six and she was a year older. They were awfully kind to me when I first went up to Sibuku. They took a fancy to me at once. You see, we had more in common than most of the people there. I think they were glad of my company. They weren’t particularly popular.’

‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘They were rather reserved and you couldn’t help seeing that they liked their own society better than other people’s. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it, but that always seems to put people’s backs up. They resent it somehow if they have a feeling that you can get along very well without them.’

‘It’s tiresome, isn’t it?’ I said.

‘It was rather a grievance to the other planters that Tim was his own master and had private means. They had to put up with an old Ford to get about in, but Tim had a real car. Tim and Olive were very nice when they came to the club and they played in the tennis tournaments and all that sort of thing, but you had an impression that they were always glad to get away again. They’d dine out with people and make themselves very pleasant, but it was pretty obvious that they’d just as soon have stayed at home. If you had any sense you couldn’t blame them. I don’t know if you’ve been much to planters’ houses. They’re a bit dreary. A lot of gimcrack furniture and silver ornaments and tiger skins. And the food’s uneatable. But the Hardys had made their bungalow rather nice. There was nothing very grand in it; it was just easy and homelike and comfortable. Their living-room was like a drawing-room in an English country house. You felt that their things meant something to them and that they had had them a long time. It was a very jolly house to stay at. The bungalow was in the middle of the estate, but it was on the brow of a little hill and you looked right over the rubber trees to the sea in the distance. Olive took a lot of trouble with her garden and it was really topping. I never saw such a show of cannas. I used to go there for weekends. It was only about half an hour’s drive to the sea and we’d take our lunch with us and bathe and sail. Tim kept a small boat there. Those days were grand. I never knew one could enjoy oneself so much. It’s a beautiful bit of coast and it was really extraordinarily romantic. Then in the evenings we’d play patience and chess or turn on the gramophone. The cooking was damned good too. It was a change from what one generally got. Olive had taught their cook to make all sorts of Italian dishes and we used to have great wallops of macaroni and risotto and gnocchi and things like that. I couldn’t help envying them their life, it was so jolly and peaceful, and when they talked of what they’d do when they went back to England for good I used to tell them they’d always regret what they’d left.

‘“We’ve been very happy here,” said Olive.

‘She had a way of looking at Tim, with a slow, sidelong glance from under her long eyelashes, that was rather engaging.

‘In their own house they were quite different from what they were when they went out. They were so easy and cordial. Everybody admitted that and I’m bound to say that people enjoyed going there. They often asked people over. They had the gift of making you feel at home. It was a very happy house, if you know what I mean. Of course no one could help seeing how attached they were to one another. And whatever people said about their being stand-offish and self-centred, they were bound to be rather touched by the affection they had for one another. People said they couldn’t have been more united if they were married, and when you saw how some couples got on you couldn’t help thinking they made most marriages look rather like a wash-out. They seemed to think the same things at the same time. They had little private jokes that made them laugh like children. They were so charming with one another, so gay and happy, that really to stay with them was, well, a spiritual refreshment. I don’t know what else you could call it. When you left them, after a couple of days at the bungalow, you felt you’d absorbed some of their peace and their sober gaiety. It was as though your soul had been sluiced with cool clear water. You felt strangely purified.’

It was singular to hear Featherstone talking in this exalted strain. He looked so spruce in his smart white coat, technically known as a bum-freezer, his moustache was so trim, his thick curly hair so carefully brushed, that his high-flown language made me a trifle uncomfortable. But I realized that he was trying to express in his clumsy way a very sincerely felt emotion.

‘What was Olive Hardy like?’ I asked.

‘I’ll show you. I’ve got quite a lot of snapshots.’

He got up from his chair and going to a shelf brought me a large album. It was the usual thing, indifferent photographs of people in groups and unflattering likenesses of single figures. They were in bathing dress or in shorts or tennis things, generally with their faces screwed up because the sun blinded them, or puckered by the distortion of laughter. I recognized Hardy, not much changed after ten years, with his wisp of hair hanging across his forehead. I remembered him better now that I saw the snapshots. In them he looked nice and fresh and young. He had an alertness of expression that was attractive and that I certainly had not noticed when I saw him. In his eyes was a sort of eagerness for life that danced and sparkled through the fading print. I glanced at the photographs of his sister. Her bathing dress showed that she had a good figure, well-developed, but slender; and her legs were long and slim.

‘They look rather alike,’ I said.

‘Yes, although she was a year older they might have been twins, they were so much alike. They both had the same oval face and that pale skin without any colour in the cheeks, and they both had those soft brown eyes, very liquid and appealing, so that you felt whatever they did you could never be angry with them. And they both had a sort of careless elegance that made them look charming whatever they wore and however untidy they were. He’s lost that now, I suppose, but he certainly had it when I first knew him. They always rather reminded me of the brother and sister in Twelfth Night. You know whom I mean.’

‘Viola and Sebastian.’

‘They never seemed to belong quite to the present. There was something Elizabethan about them. I don’t think it was only because I was very young then that I couldn’t help feeling they were strangely romantic somehow. I could see them living in Illyria.’

I gave one of the snapshots another glance.

‘The girl looks as though she had a good deal more character than her brother,’ I remarked.

‘She had. I don’t know if you’d have called Olive beautiful, but she was awfully attractive. There was something poetic in her, a sort of lyrical quality, as it were, that coloured her movements, her acts, and everything about her. It seemed to exalt her above common cares. There was something so candid in her expression, so courageous and independent in her bearing, that – oh, I don’t know, it made mere beauty just flat and dull.’

‘You speak as if you’d been in love with her,’ I interrupted.

‘Of course I was. I should have thought you’d guessed that at once. I was frightfully in love with her.’

‘Was it love at first sight?’ I smiled.

‘Yes, I think it was, but I didn’t know it for a month or so. When it suddenly struck me that what I felt for her – I don’t know how to explain it, it was a sort of shattering turmoil that affected every bit of me – that that was love, I knew I’d felt it all along. It was not only her looks, though they were awfully alluring, the smoothness of her pale skin and the way her hair fell over her forehead and the grave sweetness of her brown eyes, it was more than that; you had a sensation of well-being when you were with her, as though you could relax and be quite natural and needn’t pretend to be anything you weren’t. You felt she was incapable of meanness. It was impossible to think of her as envious of other people or catty. She seemed to have a natural generosity of soul. One could be silent with her for an hour at a time and yet feel that one had had a good time.’

‘A rare gift,’ I said.

‘She was a wonderful companion. If you made a suggestion to do something she was always glad to fall in with it. She was the least exacting girl I ever knew. You could throw her over at the last minute and however disappointed she was it made no difference. Next time you saw her she was just as cordial and serene as ever.’

‘Why didn’t you marry her?’

Featherstone’s cheroot had gone out. He threw the stub away and deliberately lit another. He did not answer for a while. It may seem strange to persons who live in a highly civilized state that he should confide these intimate things to a stranger; it did not seem strange to me. I was used to it. People who live so desperately alone, in the remote places of the earth, find it a relief to tell someone whom in all probability they will never meet again the story that has burdened perhaps for years their waking thoughts and their dreams at night. And I have an inkling that the fact of your being a writer attracts their confidence. They feel that what they tell you will excite your interest in an impersonal way that makes it easier for them to discharge their souls. Besides, as we all know from our own experience, it is never unpleasant to talk about oneself.

‘Why didn’t you marry her?’ I had asked him.

‘I wanted to badly enough,’ Featherstone answered at length. ‘But I hesitated to ask her. Although she was always so nice to me and so easy to get on with, and we were such good friends, I always felt that there was something a little mysterious in her. Although she was so simple, so frank and natural, you never quite got over the feeling of an inner kernel of aloofness, as if deep in her heart she guarded, not a secret, but a sort of privacy of the soul that not a living person would ever be allowed to know. I don’t know if I make myself clear.’

‘I think so.’

‘I put it down to her upbringing. They never talked of their mother, but somehow I got the impression that she was one of those neurotic, emotional women who wreck their own happiness and are a pest to everyone connected with them. I had a suspicion that she’d led rather a hectic life in Florence and it struck me that Olive owed her beautiful serenity to a disciplined effort of her own will, and that her aloofness was a sort of citadel she’d built to protect herself from the knowledge of all sorts of shameful things. But of course that aloofness was awfully captivating. It was strangely exciting to think that if she loved you, and you were married to her, you would at last pierce right into the hidden heart of that mystery; and you felt that if you could share that with her it would be as it were a consummation of all you’d ever desired in your life. Heaven wouldn’t be in it. You know, I felt about it just like Bluebeard’s wife about the forbidden chamber in the castle. Every room was open to me, but I should never rest till I had gone into that last one that was locked against me.’

My eye was caught by a chik-chak, a little brown house lizard with a large head, high up on the wall. It is a friendly little beast and it is good to see it in a house. It watched a fly. It was quite still. On a sudden it made a dart and then as the fly flew away fell back with a sort of jerk into a strange immobility.

‘And there was another thing that made me hesitate. I couldn’t bear the thought that if I proposed to her and she refused me she wouldn’t let me come to the bungalow in the same old way. I should have hated that, I enjoyed going there so awfully. It made me so happy to be with her. But you know, sometimes one can’t help oneself. I did ask her at last, but it was almost by accident. One evening, after dinner, when we were sitting on the veranda by ourselves, I took her hand. She withdrew it at once.

‘“Why did you do that?” I asked her.

‘“I don’t very much like being touched,” she said. She turned her head a little and smiled. “Are you hurt? You mustn’t mind, it’s just a funny feeling I have. I can’t help it.”

‘“I wonder if it’s ever occurred to you that I’m frightfully fond of you,” I said.

‘I expect I was terribly awkward about it, but I’d never proposed to anyone before.’ Featherstone gave a little sound that was not quite a chuckle and not quite a sigh. ‘For the matter of that, I’ve never proposed to anyone since. She didn’t say anything for a minute. Then she said:

‘“I’m very glad, but I don’t think I want you to be anything more than that.”

‘“Why not?” I asked.

‘“I could never leave Tim.”

‘“But supposing he marries?”

‘“He never will.”

‘I’d gone so far then that I thought I’d better go on. But my throat was so dry that I could hardly speak. I was shaking with nervousness.

‘“I’m frightfully in love with you, Olive. I want to marry you more than anything in the world.”

‘She put her hand very gently on my arm. It was like a flower falling to the ground.

‘“No, dear, I can’t,” she said.

‘I was silent. It was difficult for me to say what I wanted to. I’m naturally rather shy. She was a girl. I couldn’t very well tell her that it wasn’t quite the same thing living with a husband and living with a brother. She was normal and healthy; she must want to have babies; it wasn’t reasonable to starve her natural instincts. It was such waste of her youth. But it was she who spoke first.