PART ONE

 

I

 

(i)

 

 

-----—How long will you stay? asked the harbourmaster.

-----—I am here to deliver a letter, said the messenger.
---------------–Beyond that there is nothing that shall keep me.

-----The harbourmaster, who gave evidence of being an observant man, saw that the messenger, in his eagerness to leave the office and to continue his journey, had answered the question ‘Why are you here?’ as rolex replica though this question —never in fact to be asked— had been close to his mind from the moment that he had set foot on the quay. The harbourmaster, drawn by the young man’s enthusiasm and seeing that he was staring out through a narrow pane of the closed door, followed the direction of his sight as though in fake omega doing so he might himself see some new aspect to the town.

-----There was a rolex uk solid mercantile quality to the furniture in the harbourmaster’s office. This panelled and unpainted interior might not have been altered during the years of his occupation. The table, the chairs, the lamp, the clock and the barometer; these objects might have been the harbourmaster’s private belongings, chosen for their plain utility and kept throughout life, or they might have been the property of rolex uk the harbour authorities and loaned to the holder of the post for the duration of his tenure.
---------------–You think of this visit as being of little importance, and perhaps even as being unnecessary. There is, however, more than courtesy in my speaking to you. As I am sure you are aware, the length of your visit must determine my own course of action: am I to record the fact of your arrival or am I to leave it unrecorded? The longer you remain here the more formal an aspect your visit must take.
---------------The harbourmaster put a hand to the surface of the desk and touched, with his fingers, the edge of a wooden ruler, a foot of dark-wood so polished by use and so darkened that the numerals were hardly to be distinguished one from another.
---------- -----–Your arrival should, no doubt, be put in its place within the recording of the day, as will your departure, said the harbourmaster, as though he wished to put the matter into order in his own mind,
---------- -----–whether or not the message you carry now, and will have delivered then, is able to justify it.

-----He looked at the messenger with an open pleasantness: it was easy to see that he was pleased to have his unexpected company – perhaps, despite the difference in their ages, they had much in common – and it was easy, too, to imagine his unfeigned pleasure on the first moment of his seeing the young man standing at the threshold of his office, in the open doorway, his foot on the step, clearsighted purpose in his manner, his nature and his upbringing evident in his very stance. The harbourmaster, extending his palms uppermost, indicated a wooden chair which stood on the bare boards of the floor, in the shadow of the length of wall between the window and the door; this chair faced the desk; but the messenger, looking at the harbourmaster’s outstretched hand and seeing at a glance that to sit in this chair would be to deprive himself of the opportunity of looking out of the window or the glazed door, whether he might wish this or not, made no effort to move, and looked at the harbourmaster himself rather than at his hand; and, although the harbourmaster’s hand was still outstretched, the gesture lost its significance.
----------–You waited for the turn of the tide at the foot of the battery.

-----—At the foot of the battery, in the deep water; at the boatman’s suggestion I waited there.

-----—I saw you as you reached the wharf.
-----------–You stood for some time looking at your surroundings.
-----------–The town’s foreign to you.

-----—I have never been here before.

-----—You are not required to travel widely.

-----—I have never been required (as you would say) to travel widely. I doubt if, until now, I had been any great distance beyond the boundaries of my own town’s parish. Sometimes, on returning home, I would think that I had been on a considerable journey, but, as I look around me, no evidence seems to support this, all seems to grow familiar, and that sense of distance is, as I now see, more to do with the lapse of purpose after the conclusion, and less to do with the miles travelled: on looking back I see that I was never much out of sight of the tower of the parish church.
---------------–You saw that this town was foreign to me. I do not know how I gave this away, for the reverse is true; the church here, with its tower which so dominates the quay, has such a resemblance to the church near where I was born that my eye was immediately drawn to it, even before we had reached the wharf. When we were still some distance away I was taken aback by this semblance of familiarity, even to the tolling of the bell across the water, beyond the mist-bank: the boatman asked me what I saw in that direction – but when we were closer these familiar aspects lost their certainties. Still, the resemblance is there. In my eyes.
---------------–You speak my language very fluently, said the messenger, looking round the room again,
---------------–You speak it as my father might, to his choice of phrase.

-----—I see that you will take nothing for granted, said the harbourmaster.
---------------–But, as for your language, where did I learn it?
---------------–I have a command of many languages other than my own, certainly, but this isn’t to be praised; all I have learned I have learned here, and the tongue in which to say it, here, by the side of the wharf, for the daily matters of commerce. The ability to understand the languages of others and to make oneself understood within them is given, at the outset – and is not, as once I thought, acquired – and that is all that need be said. Ever since I was a boy with a boy’s mind, little grasp of anything beyond my sight, I have taken pleasure in hearing others speak and in interpreting their words. Such interpretation as I am now called on to do still has this interest for me, and where the surface sense has no concern for me I do not apprehend it. In all truth, it’s easy to say that the faculties of a mimic are called upon in any speech to the incoming stranger; my replies to your questions, the questions I put to you; perhaps these phrases have no real meaning that lies at the forefront of my mind, and which I can repeat to myself. One should not search too hard. The faults in one’s own understanding, unnoticed at first, grow with a steady aptitude until they cloud over the nature of the thing sought. I do not know you, and can make nothing but conjectures about you; your uniform, beyond being the generality of an accepted messenger’s uniform, is not known to me, but, despite this, your language, seldom heard, the last time, oh, what a day, comes to me direct. I do not remember having learned it. I have only your questions and answers to hand, and I can only ask myself ‘why does he ask this?’ and ‘why does he give that answer?’; I have only these things, and there’s the making of an opinion, and from such frank expressions as pass over your open face; and, no doubt, I judge you in advance, and make of you what you are not, and so speak to you.
---------------–As a young man, the same age as you are now, newly appointed to my present post, I would sit at this chair, this very bent-wood chair, with one man to the left of me and one to the right, both newly arrived at the wharf, the port itself a strange place to them both, both still sweating with the exertions of their journey, the movement of the sea still in the balance of their sight, neither of them able to understand the other, each man’s implacable demand for his cause to be heard resting on nothing more than the discrepant edge of meaning of a word.
---------------–In those early years I learned that this gift of fluent understanding is never widely trusted.
---------------–Those who brought their close-kept matters to me, for my translation, would look nearsightedly, as at their own enclosing hands.
---------------–These two men, while together in my presence, would avoid each other’s sight in a mute and inexpressive silence; in his appeal to me, each would keep, as though by unvoiced precept, the substance of his talk to generality—that absent party—and shaded by the stresses of opinion.
---------------–Later, singly, as though off chance, at a late hour, in the dark, or in the first light hour of the breaking dawn, raising his body from the stone steps, and standing up on hearing the key within the door, breath smoking in the cold, each would return, alone, shivering, to push the door closed behind him, to occupy the floor as though by right and ask questions of me as though I understood his tongue alone and thought as he did. As I listened, the hesitant voice becoming more assured, with use, and with familiarity to the place, as the demands and grievances were put into the speaker’s order, even to the familiarity with the echoes of his his own voice in a place once strange to him, the speaker himself growing less distinct in the falling night, or more distinct in the growing of the dawn, I would make the conjecture: what is heard and understood make only simulacra of another’s thought.
---------------–Sometimes, during these empty inner hours of listening, the thought would come to me, looking at the figure holding out his hands, the gesture of appeal: these two men might know each other best were they in a storm which imperilled their lives and which took away the word, unheard, at the moment of its utterance.
---------------–Sometimes I listen to the speaker’s voice, and to my own, and then again to his; I wonder which speaks the original and which the translation.
---------------–He stands, like an actor, the floor his stage, the lines his subject message; he stares; he speaks with all the voluble gestures of appeal. And, my thought is, this faculty of translation goes. Examined deeply, its very probability seems to go. I can judge age, and mood, and can guess with the shrewdness of experience the extent to which the years and places have built his disposition. What may I say beyond that?

-----The messenger, who had been listening with the appearance of following the rhythm of the harbourmaster’s voice, began, in that moment, to feel that the room might at some future time become familiar to him; this was a pleasant feeling in itself, for the room was light and airy and overlooked a broad measure of the both the town and the coast.

-----A hollow fire of burned coals filled the grate, a red glow amongst the grey ash still giving out a little heat, the flue still drawing with a steady noise in the quiet room, but this great fire, for all that it had been stoked almost to the lintel earlier in the day, was ready at the first touch of the poker to collapse to dust.

-----The harbourmaster pushed back his wooden chair and stood behind the desk with an outward stare. For all his appearance of age he was a powerful man.
-----—In my work I have listened to all spoken languages and dialects used at the side of the wharf. Sometimes I think I would grow weary of listening to a multiplicity of tongues. Sometimes, when I am at home with my family, when I recall my children’s copies of my style of reasoning as I sat with them and talked to them and listened to them, in the evening, I believe that there is no language which I could not master at one hearing.
---------------–I have never heard anything which has surprised me.
---------------–I am a practical man.
---------------–Practical things needs must come first; purpose and priority are to the forefront of my mind. I am by no means unusual in the way I see things. As for the languages of the wharf, one doesn’t know where they were acquired; they come to one for a purpose and are hardly to be distinguished from the matters once said in them.
---------------–I see that you are thinking ‘this man and I might be fellow-countrymen.’ So we might.
---------------–Your presence here, the way in which you give expression of those matters important to you, your single-minded purpose eclipsing any real examination of your surroundings, brought to my own mind my own early attempts at mastering a language which promised all potentiality: on seeing you standing at the open door, and looking towards me, the sea at your back, this recollection came strongly to me.
-----The harbourmaster slowly paced the bare floor, his steps guided by the broad cracks between the boards; his hands were clasped behind his back. He stood for a moment in a dark part of the room, near the clock; then he turned to the messenger again.
-----—This river port is much the same as any other, is it not?

-----A number of the windows of the houses across the river had already been shuttered, while others were bright with interior light; the tones of these yellow lights could be found in the broad tints of the sky which lay behind the houses. The sky was tranquil; perhaps it had been a day of sea-winds; now, outside, there seemed to be hardly a movement in the air, and the thin clouds, their distant layers hardly obscuring the void of the sky, might not have been moving at all, nor the sun falling by the minute into its decline. This sense of peace was reflected by the waters of the river. The tide was high; the waters, heavy with silt, brimmed the worn pavements of the quay. The river’s surface mirrored not only the sky but also the chains, the railings the derricks and the warehouses beyond, in close detail, and, beyond, the lit windows of the riverside houses: the colours of the reflected sunset were no less vivid than those of the sunset itself.

-----The messenger, remedying with his imagination the distortions of the window-glass, saw the change immanent in this tranquillity. The tide must ebb, the sun go, the night-wind spring up. The tide-cone, already raised, was cast in silhouette against the sky; pole, cone and cordage were blackly demarkated. This tide signal might have been a small scaffold, across the river, no more than sixty yards away, the squeak of the pulley to be heard from the door of the harbourmaster’s office, or, perhaps, the signal was not as close as this, but was built remotely in the salt tracts, and having jurisdiction over the entire reach of estuarial waters. When the cone had been winched to the top of the pole (as it rose, so it slowed, as though to reach an asymptote) a bell rang in the office. This bell, though not loud, was so close to the messenger’s head that he heard the vibration of its hammer before the bell itself began to ring.
-----—I must continue on my way, said the messenger, drawn from his observation of the river by the sound.
---------------–But, before I go, what is the purpose of that bell?

-----The harbourmaster began to write, in a daybook fetched down from a shelf of many, the time which had been told by the black oak-cased regulator clock at the moment the bell had started to ring: he said, as he wrote – as though the writing required no thought – that only the most approximate of tide-tables existed for this estuary, such was the complexity of the channel, and that the naval surveyors had been unable to determine an exact periodicity, each system being broken after some years by some small error, which, at its origin, had been thought negligible: all that one might do was to mark the time of each period of slack-water (a matter of duty), and to note wind strengths and directions, and to trust that one day a precise and unchangeable pattern would become established: but, while he was speaking, the messenger was hardly listening to him, for already the mirror was broken, the period of slack-water over, and the tide had begun to move; one might have timed it to the quarter-minute. The messenger began to wonder to himself how the distant person who operated the tide-signal had seen this change: had a sudden obscurity or breath of air passed across the face of the water? In two hours the tide would have retreated to the sea and the river would be a thread of sinuous mud at the feet of the silted quay stairs.

-----—If you would leave on this tide you have little time. You must deliver your message and go. You have, by the contingency of this particular day and tide – full moon tomorrow – no more than an hour: certainly no more: perhaps a little less. I would guess, fifty minutes. If you leave on the tide of your arrival I see little point in acknowledging your presence here or in recording any particular of your stay: this does not matter to you.
---------------The harbourmaster looked at the messenger in the manner of someone straightforwardly stating an obvious choice.
---------------–If, by the event not yet foreseen, you are kept here, and miss the tide, then your presence must as it were be known, and, being known, must be recorded.
---------------–But so far your visit has been informal.
---------------He held out his two hands, as though to emphasise these two courses of action.
---------------–If you are detained you would stay at my house.

-----—That is kind of you.

-----—No, not kind of me; on the one hand this port, unknown as it is to you, is the destination of your letters; on the other, it is my family’s home.

 

extract from Onesimus, by David Wheldon, first published 1990; this edition 1997

 

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