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“I did not see the real significance of that wreck at once. I fancy I see it now, but I am not sure—not at all. Certainly the affair was too stupid—when I think of it—to be altogether natural. Still... But at the moment it presented itself simply as a confounded nuisance. The steamer was sunk. They had started two days before in a sudden hurry up the river with the manager on board, in charge of some volunteer skipper, and before they had been out three hours they tore the bottom out of her on stones, and she sank near the south bank. I asked myself what I was to do there, now my boat was lost. As a matter of fact, I had plenty to do in fishing my command out of the river. I had to set about it the very next day. That, and the repairs when I brought the pieces to the station, took some months. “At that point, I didn’t understand the significance of what had happened. I think I understand it now, but I’m not sure. It was all too stupid to be natural or an accident. But at the time it was just irritating. Two days earlier they had tried sailing up the river in a hurry and torn the bottom of the boat on some rocks they hit. At first, I didn’t know what to do, since my boat was sunk. Then I realized I had to fish it out of the water. I started on that the next day. Bringing the pieces up and putting it all back together took a few months.
“My first interview with the manager was curious. He did not ask me to sit down after my twenty-mile walk that morning. He was commonplace in complexion, in features, in manners, and in voice. He was of middle size and of ordinary build. His eyes, of the usual blue, were perhaps remarkably cold, and he certainly could make his glance fall on one as trenchant and heavy as an axe. But even at these times the rest of his person seemed to disclaim the intention. Otherwise there was only an indefinable, faint expression of his lips, something stealthy—a smile—not a smile—I remember it, but I can’t explain. It was unconscious, this smile was, though just after he had said something it got intensified for an instant. It came at the end of his speeches like a seal applied on the words to make the meaning of the commonest phrase appear absolutely inscrutable. He was a common trader, from his youth up employed in these parts—nothing more. He was obeyed, yet he inspired neither love nor fear, nor even respect. He inspired uneasiness. That was it! Uneasiness. Not a definite mistrust—just uneasiness—nothing more. You have no idea how effective such a... a... faculty can be. He had no genius for organizing, for initiative, or for order even. That was evident in such things as the deplorable state of the station. He had no learning, and no intelligence. His position had come to him—why? Perhaps because he was never ill... He had served three terms of three years out there... Because triumphant health in the general rout of constitutions is a kind of power in itself. When he went home on leave he rioted on a large scale—pompously. Jack ashore—with a difference—in externals only. This one could gather from his casual talk. He originated nothing, he could keep the routine going—that’s all. But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him. Such a suspicion made one pause—for out there there were no external checks. Once when various tropical diseases had laid low almost every ‘agent’ in the station, he was heard to say, ‘Men who come out here should have no entrails.’ He sealed the utterance with that smile of his, as though it had been a door opening into a darkness he had in his keeping. You fancied you had seen things—but the seal was on. When annoyed at meal-times by the constant quarrels of the white men about precedence, he ordered an immense round table to be made, for which a special house had to be built. This was the station’s mess-room. Where he sat was the first place—the rest were nowhere. One felt this to be his unalterable conviction. He was neither civil nor uncivil. He was quiet. He allowed his ‘boy’—an overfed young negro from the coast—to treat the white men, under his very eyes, with provoking insolence. “My first conversation with the manager was strange. He didn’t ask me to sit down, even though I’d walked twenty miles that day alone. He was average looking in his complexion, feature, manner, voice, and size. Maybe his blue eyes were a bit cold, and they could fall on you with the weight of an axe. But everything else about him was mild-mannered. He had a weird sort of half-smile, like he knew a secret. It’s hard to describe. He didn’t do it consciously, but it was most obvious at the end of anything he said. It made even ordinary statements seem mysterious. He’d been a trader here his whole life. The men obeyed him, but they didn’t respect or fear him. He made everyone feel uneasy. Not outright distrust, just uneasiness. You have no idea how effective such a power can be. He wasn’t very organized, which you could see by looking around the station. He wasn’t smart or educated. How did he get that job? Maybe because he never got sick. He’d served three terms of three years each out there. Staying healthy in the midst of so much sickness was a special power. When he went on leave, he partied wildly, like a sailor on shore. But he was similar to a sailor only on the outside. You could tell this simply by listening to him talk. He didn’t bring anything new into the world, but he kept things going. He was a great man because it was impossible to tell what motivated him. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps he had nothing in his heart at all. That thought was scary, because there was no one out there to stop him from doing whatever he wanted. Once when almost all of the other white agents at the station were sick with some tropical disease, he said, ‘Men should only come out here if they don’t have anything inside.’ He smiled that weird half-smile of his, which was like a door cracking open in a dark room. You thought you’d seen something in him, but it closed too quickly. The white men kept arguing over who got to sit where during mealtimes, so he had a big round table built. Wherever he sat was the head of the table. None of the other seats mattered. There was no arguing with him about this. He wasn’t friendly or unfriendly. He was quiet. He had a young, plump black servant from the coast, whom he allowed, even in his presence, to provoke the white men.