-----How long will you stay? asked
-----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 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 mans 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 doing so he might himself
see some new aspect to the town.
-----There was a solid mercantile quality
to the furniture in the harbourmasters 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 harbourmasters
private belongings, chosen for their plain utility and kept throughout
life, or they might have been the property of the harbour authorities
and loaned to the holder of the post for the duration of his
---------------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
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,
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
harbourmasters 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 harbourmasters 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 boatmans suggestion I waited there.
-----I saw you as you reached the
-----------You stood for some time looking
at your surroundings.
-----------The towns foreign to you.
-----I have never been here before.
-----You are not required to travel
-----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 towns
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 isnt 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 boys
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, its 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 ones 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 messengers
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 theres 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 mans 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 others 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 generalitythat
absent partyand 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 speakers 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 anothers 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 speakers
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
-----The messenger, who had been listening
with the appearance of following the rhythm of the harbourmasters
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 childrens 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 doesnt 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 rivers 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 harbourmasters 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 messengers 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
---------------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
---------------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
---------------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 familys home.
extract from Onesimus,
by David Wheldon, first published 1990; this edition 1997