Laughing Anne

While we were hanging about near the water’s edge, as sailors idling ashore like to do (it was in the open space before the Harbour Office of a great Eastern Port),* a man came toward us from the ‘front’ of business houses, aiming obliquely at the landing steps. He attracted my attention because in the movement of figures in white drill suits on the pavement from which he stepped, his costume, the usual tunic and trousers, being made of light grey flannel, made him noticeable.

I had time to observe him. He was stout, but he was not grotesque. His face was round and smooth, his complexion very fair. On his nearer approach I saw a little mustache made all the fairer by a good many white hairs. And he had, for a stout man, quite a good chin. In passing us he exchanged nods with the friend I was with and smiled.

My friend was Hollis, the fellow who had so many adventures and had known so many queer people in that part of the (more or less) gorgeous East in the good old days. He said:

‘That’s a good man. I don’t mean good in the sense of smart of skilful in his trade. I mean a really good man.’

I turned round at once to look at the phenomenon. The ‘really good man’ had a very broad back. I saw him signal a sampan* to come alongside, get into it and go off in the direction of a cluster of local steamers anchored close inshore.

I said: ‘He’s a seaman, isn’t he?’

‘Yes. Commands that biggish dark-green painted steamer, Sissie*—Glasgow. He has never commanded anything else but the Sissie—Glasgow,* only it wasn’t always the same Sissie. The first he had was about half the length of this one, and we used to tell poor Davidson that she was a size too small for him. Even at that time Davidson had bulk. We warned him he would get callouses on his shoulders and elbows because of the tight fit of his command. And Davidson could well afford the smiles he gave us for our chaff. He made lots of money in her. She belonged to a portly Chinaman who resembled a Mandarin* in a picture book, with goggles and thin, drooping mustaches, and as dignified as only a Celestial* knows how to be.

‘The best of Chinamen as employers is that they have such gentlemanly instincts. Once they become convinced that you are a straight man, they give you their unbounded confidence. You simply can’t do wrong, then. And they are pretty quick judges of character, too. Davidson’s Chinaman was the first to find out his worth, on some theoretical principle. One day in his counting-house, before several white men he was heard to declare: “Captain Davidson is a good man.” And that settled it. After that you couldn’t tell if it was Davidson who belonged to the Chinaman or the Chinaman who belonged to Davidson. It was he who shortly before he died ordered in Glasgow the new Sissie for Davidson to command.

‘She was really meant to comfort poor Davidson. Can you fancy anything more naïvely touching than this old Mandarin spending several thousand pounds to console his white man. Well, there she is. The old Madarin’s sons have inherited her and Davidson with her; and he commands her; and what with his salary and trading privileges he makes a lot of money; and everything is as before; and Davidson even smiles—you have seen it? Well, the smile’s the only thing which isn’t as before.’

‘Tell me, Hollis,’ I asked, ‘what do you mean by good—in this connection?’

‘Well—there are men who are born good just as others are born witty. What I mean is his nature. No simpler, more scrupulously delicate soul had ever lived in such a—a—comfortable envelope. How we used to laugh at Davidson’s fine scruples! In short, he’s thoroughly humane, and I don’t imagine there can be much of any other sort of goodness that counts on this earth. And as he’s that, with a shade of particular refinement, I may well call him a “really good man.”’

  By PanEris using Melati.

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