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End of the Tether

Chapter 12
Mr. Van Wyk, the white man of Batu Beru, an ex- naval officer who, for reasons best
known to himself, had thrown away the promise of a brilliant career to become the
pioneer of tobacco-planting on that remote part of the coast, had learned to like Captain
Whalley. The appearance of the new skipper had attracted his attention. Nothing more
unlike all the diverse types he had seen succeeding each other on the bridge of the
Sofala could be imagined.
At that time Batu Beru was not what it has become since: the center of a prosperous
tobacco-growing district, a tropically suburban-looking little settlement of bungalows in
one long street shaded with two rows of trees, embowered by the flowering and trim
luxuriance of the gardens, with a three-mile-long carriage-road for the afternoon drives
and a first-class Resident with a fat, cheery wife to lead the society of married
estatemanagers and unmarried young fellows in the service of the big companies.
All this prosperity was not yet; and Mr. Van Wyk prospered alone on the left bank on his
deep clearing carved out of the forest, which came down above and below to the
water's edge. His lonely bungalow faced across the river the houses of the Sultan: a
restless and melancholy old ruler who had done with love and war, for whom life no
longer held any savor (except of evil forebodings) and time never had any value. He
was afraid of death, and hoped he would die before the white men were ready to take
his country from him. He crossed the river frequently (with never less than ten boats
crammed full of people), in the wistful hope of extracting some information on the
subject from his own white man. There was a certain chair on the veranda he always
took: the dignitaries of the court squatted on the rugs and skins between the furniture:
the inferior people remained below on the grass plot between the house and the river in
rows three or four deep all along the front. Not seldom the visit began at daybreak. Mr.
Van Wyk tolerated these inroads. He would nod out of his bedroom window, tooth-brush
or razor in hand, or pass through the throng of courtiers in his bathing robe. He
appeared and disappeared hum- ming a tune, polished his nails with attention, rubbed
his shaved face with eau-de-Cologne, drank his early tea, went out to see his coolies at
work: returned, looked through some papers on his desk, read a page or two in a book
or sat before his cottage piano leaning back on the stool, his arms extended, fingers on
the keys, his body swaying slightly from side to side. When absolutely forced to speak
he gave evasive vaguely soothing answers out of pure compassion: the same feeling
perhaps made him so lavishly hospitable with the aerated drinks that more than once he
left himself without sodawater for a whole week. That old man had granted him as much
land as he cared to have cleared: it was neither more nor less than a fortune.
Whether it was fortune or seclusion from his kind that Mr. Van Wyk sought, he could not
have pitched upon a better place. Even the mail-boats of the subsidized company
calling on the veriest clusters of palm-thatched hovels along the coast steamed past the
mouth of Batu Beru river far away in the offing. The contract was old: perhaps in a few
 
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