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To Oblige Vandorken! by Alexander Montgomery


PHYSIOGNOMICALLY, Vandorken was unfortunate. Nature had provided him with the type of head and face which is commonly, and, in the main, correctly, associated with the more promiscuous sort of amativeness. But, of the many exceptions, Vandorken was one. His thick, red nape meant nothing more than a large, good-humoured stupidity; the affection in his loose, moist eye was but an affection for the kirschwasser which, in long-continued doses, had relaxed his jowl and thickened out his lower lip from beneath the grizzled-ginger moustache. But his brother--planters--knowing that in his freedom from the kindred weakness he stood alone amongst them--had, with humorous accord, conferred upon him the title and the reputation of Don Juan. In which way it came about that one night, at the tail of a symposium chez Vandorken, the ebriously facetious Bronker, getting unsteadily to horse, hiccuped forth with incautious loudness:

"Good night, you gay old dog! Good night, my bold Don Juan!--and beware the fate of your namesake!"

Vandorken shook his fist after the departing Bronker. "Idiot!" he muttered. "If my wife hasn't heard you, I'm in luck."

He wasn't. "And who," quoth Vrow Vandorken, suddenly, "was he--Don Juan, I mean? And why did that tipsy ass call you by his name? And what was his fate?"

Which trinity of questions so confounded the unready Vandorken that, with match in one hand and his final cigar in the other, he merely stood and stared at her with his mouth open.

The lady, lean, acidulous, and older than her mate, closed hers with a snap. "Never mind!" she said, "it's of no consequence!" With which she went to bed, and Vandorken, smoking meditatively amongst the fire-flies, cursed exceedingly the injudicious Bronker, and knew that there was trouble ahead.

In the Netherlands, in Africa, in Guiana, in the Indies--wherever you find the Hollander, you find the most hospitable of men. A casual introduction to Vandorken, in Batavia, and a trifling incidental conversation, made me as welcome to him as the sea-breeze in the morning. None the less so, possibly, that the relations between his vrow and himself were, even to the unaccustomed eye, so palpably "strained" that the stranger within their gates made early resolve to get outside them again as soon as decency would let him. And hugely was that stranger--myself--astonished at the question sprung upon him by his hostess, almost before the solemn, white-robed mandoer had whisked the cover off the soup.

"Did you ever hear, Mynheer Englander, of anybody called Don Juan?"

Mynheer Englander, not without boggling, replied that he certainly had heard of such a person; and, thereafter, being further interrogated, euphemistically explained that the gentleman in question had been credited with unconventionally easy notions of morality.

But I wasn't to escape that way!

"As regards," said the uncompromising female--"as regards the other sex, I presume?"

"Hang it all!" I thought, "if the old girl's so plain, I don't see why I should shirk it! Yes," I said, "the legend makes him out one of the most unconscionable rakes and rascals that ever walked the earth."

And then--by the lady's spite-laden glance at her husband, as by the husband's purple cheeks and swollen eyeballs--I saw that I had "done it"--though how, I hadn't the remotest idea, till in the creeper-clad verandah I sat and smoked with Vandorken at midnight.

"It wasn't your fault," my host said, ruefully; "how could you know? But the fact is that ever since she got hold of that infernal nickname she's been three times as jealous as before. And that," added Vandorken, with doleful reminiscence, "is saying a good deal!"

"But, till to-night, she didn't understand the allusion?"

"She suspected, my friend. And, now that she's sure, I won't even be able to look at a woman on the plantation!"

"Perhaps--between men, you know!--perhaps you have been looking at some of them a little too freely already? Some of these Javanese girls are very pretty."

My host's bamboo chair creaked under the energy of his disclaimer.

"Tuyfel, man!--not I! I wouldn't care if there wasn't a woman on the face of the earth. The fellows--devil take 'em!--only gave me the name on the what-d'ye-call-it--oh! the lucus a non principle. All the heart I've got's in my tobacco--growing, stripping, curing, and turning out the best brand on this side of Jojorka. As for the wenches who work at it--some of 'em pretty enough, as you say--I don't believe I know one from the other."

"All which," I told myself, as I drew my mosquito-net for the night, "sounds uncommonly like protesting too much."

It was a pleasant place, the drying-house; with its grateful shadows darkened into indigo by sharp intersecting shafts of blinding tropic sunlight; its subtly pungent atmosphere, laden with nicotian aroma, and the chatter of busy, bright-clad girls--some slinging the green tobacco to poles across the shed, some piling the yellowed bundles upon bamboo frames, some pressing and packing the matured brown leaf into mats and boxes. Good-looking girls, many of them, in the somewhat squab-featured Malayan style, and one, at least, an unquestionable beauty, even according to European canons.

"She?" Vandorken answered to my question. "Oh, that's Halmaheira!" And Halmaheira, looking up with a smile, showed us a wide white mouthful of ivory, unstained of the accursed betel.

"Ha, friend Vandorken!" I said, "here's one you know from the others, at all events!"

The honest fellow blushed, as far as his normal brick-red would let him. "Well, she--she's a kind of forewoman, you see. That's prime stuff for my own use she's doing up in plantain-leaf. Just go over and have a look at it."

I went over; but, for once that I looked at the weed, I looked a dozen times at the fair manipulatrix thereof; and she, with laughter in her long black eyes, made good her title to that intermediate status between coquetry and impudence for which the mysterious term "minx" appears to have been invented.

"You're a pretty girl, Halmaheira, with a pretty name," I said to myself, "but you're a minx, for all that! And perhaps, after all, Mrs. Vandorken--"

A sudden widening of Halmaheira's velvet eyes made me look round. Just within the shed stood Mrs. Vandorken herself, with a white cotton umbrella accentuating the leathery sourness of her face. Vandorken's surprise had stiffened him into a ludicrous suggestion of a soldier at "'tention;" five hundred busy fingers had forgotten their function, and a hundred sloeblack eyes spoke blank astonishment; but only of myself did Mrs. Vandorken take the slightest notice--walking straight up to where I stood sheepishly flapping my cheek with a leaf from Halmaheira's table.

"I congratulate you on your taste, mynheer!"--indicating the girl with a lean yellow forefinger. "It is good!--but unfortunately you are not alone in it. I am sure you would not willingly commit a breach of hospitality, so it is but fair to warn you that you are at this moment poaching on your host's preserves!" She waved a hand towards her husband and stalked solemnly away.

Vandorken looked stupidly after her; I looked at Halmaheira; Halmaheira laughed aloud, and round the other girls went the gentle ripple of a smile. Down to the little ten-year-old fly-flapper, there wasn't one of them who hadn't grasped the situation.

"You'll have to get rid of the fair Halmaheira," I advised. "No peace till you do!"

Vandorken gazed out over the reed-beds for a minute before he answered, disconsolately:

"Exactly; but I'm not sure that she'd go!"

I looked hard at him. Was there anything sub rosâ, after all?

"No, no!" he answered to my inquiring eye. "Not that! It's this way: This Halmaheira's a mischievous little animal. She'd stop at nothing to spite my wife, or myself either, after I'd sent her about her business. She'd keep hanging round and turning up at awkward times--making things ten times worse for me, in fact!"

Vandorken mopped his face and groaned; then, with a sudden brightening-up--

"Hemel!--I have it! You're going back to Batavia, aren't you?"

"Yes; what's that to do with it?"

"Everything, my friend; you'll take her with you!"

I laughed at him. "Declined, with thanks," I said.

Vandorken chucked away his cigar among the crocodiles, and nearly tumbled me into the tank after it, so eagerly did he clutch me by the arm.

"You don't understand. Here's what I mean: Halmaheira will go with you readily enough; the notion of a white husband would fetch any girl in Java."

"Daresay; but--"

"Wait! Of course you're not going to marry her--needn't even speak to her on the journey. You'll be on horseback, and I'll send her in a tandoe; and I'll give you a cheque on De Rinter's for 500 guilders, which you can hand over to her."

"Very tidy solatium, too. Well, Vandorken, it's a middling steep business; but you're a good sort, so, if you think the money'll do instead of the man"--

"She'll jump at it, sir! No disparagement to you, but she'll simply jump at the cash."

With Vandorken's parting words in my ears, I was easy enough in mind till I dismounted at the door of Portegra's, and was struck dumb by the appearance of my charge as she emerged from her tandoe. I had only hitherto seen her in working trim, for it had been dark when we left, and at the rest-houses I had carefully avoided her; but now here she was in a gold--embroidered kabaya of blue Bugis silk, with a silver skewer through her ebony top-knot, broad gold stripes in her muslin sarong, and big silver butterflies on her little red slippers. It was simply gorgeous, and her eyes were truly very fine and dangerously reproachful. Yet I tried to harden my heart, got her into the hostelry, and made straight for De Rinter's, whence, with the 500 guilders (about £40) at which my damsel was to "jump," I sauntered contentedly back, glad to be done with an unpleasant job.

But Halmaheira didn't "jump"--didn't show the remotest inclination even to skip. In the best Javanese at my command I explained, and explained again; and still, without a word, she kept gazing mournfully from the money to the man and from the man to the money. And still I talked, and felt every moment more and more mixed and mean and idiotic, until I went mentally to pieces as the lady, with a soft smile spreading like the dawn across her puzzled features, pushed back the coin-representing rags, and calmly observed that it was proper for the husband to have charge of the money.

"The husband!" In something not unlike despair I looked around. It was the native section of the hotel, and from the other end of the room a portly old Javanese gentleman was considering us, not unsuspiciously, through gold-rimmed glasses; while, nearer at hand, two women of the upper class--more richly, if less garishly, attired than my incubus--were regarding her askance with all the fine superciliousness proper to that circumstance. For which reason Halmaheira--having, woman-like, observed them without looking--determined, I suppose, to take the wind out of their sails by showing them what the person they despised might, could, and would do with one of the august white race. Up she jumped, at all events, and, before I altogether realized that I had been energetically folded to her blue-silk bosom, I was being kissed upon either cheek with a rapidity and resonance that drove the astounded Javanese ladies to the other end of the room, where one of them, tumbling over the petrified old gentleman, set up a screech that brought, first, half a dozen waiters on the scene--then old Portegra himself, with a couple of grinning Dutch planters from the European side of the house.

"Verdoemnis!" said one--"the Englander's doing well. I shouldn't mind being in his place!"

I knew him! It was old Jan Rittaker--whose guest I had been--whose wife and daughters had made much of me! My cup was full, and I fled.

"Oh, no need-a you go!" Portegra said, when, in the mellow dusk, I had stolen back to his place for my traps. "Fine girl, dat, eh?" with a wink of his rascally Portuguese eye. "Peety lose run of her. But she gone! She call you plentee fool--plentee veelain--but she go avay at last!"

Fool and villain! Well, to this hour I don't know exactly which of these parts I played--to oblige Vandorken!


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