The Lost Country

The author of three novels , JOHN HEARNE grew up and was educated in Jamaica, and in his writings he describes with dramatic force the people and customs of the Caribbean countries. He is now living in London and working on a new novel. His last book , THE EYE OF THE STORM, was published by Atlantic-Little, Brown.


AFTERWARD, when he was strong enough to walk, he used to go in the cool glow of first dusk to the river. Seated on a bollard, the boards of the narrow wharf still warm from the day’s sun, he would let the huge sweep of brown water flow without hindrance through a mind which seemed to operate, when it did at all, in anguished, undirected spasms. One night he told himself that thought was trying to struggle free from confusion like a broken snake drowning in the swamp, and with the formation of that image, he was suddenly well again. He could remember beyond the surging, white waters of the estuary and the dull scrub on the flat bank opposite, as far as Maraca, Overlook, the Narrows, and the bleached rocks of Paramuni Rapids where the real forest began. He sat there for a long time and restored the lost country slowly to his tattered mind, going up through the vaults and green-black shadows of the forest to the harsh, lemon light and dry-grass smell of the high savannas, where a line of men on the horizon seemed to walk not over the edge of the world but simply on and on into the secret reaches of the enormous sky.

When his wife called tentatively, from the shadow of the warehouse at his back, he answered and heard his own voice for the first time in six months. During this time something not himself, something deeper even than the chaos, had spoken the forgotten simplicities of intercourse; but the words once in space between him and another had struck no echo.

“Yes?” he called; then strongly, “Yes, Daphne. I’m here. I was just coming.”

He swung around on the bollard and watched her white dress become definite as she drew near in the light of evening. As she came up beside him, he took her hand and kissed the fingers with tranquil and deliberate intimacy.

“I was worried,” she said uncertainly. “It was getting so late. Aren’t you hungry?”

He looked up at the handsome, solid-featured face in which a timid intuition of happiness had begun to stir cautiously. Then he smiled, and the desolate, careful discipline of the past half year collapsed and she flung herself onto his lap, put her arm around his neck, and cried easily against his shoulder.

“It’s all right,” he told her. “I’m all right now. It’s all over.”

“Oh, Harry,” she said, “I thought it would never be over. I thought you’d never come back. Harry. Harry, darling.”

“Poor girl,” he said. “My poor old girl. Don’t cry, honey. It’s all over now. I was just sitting here, and I began to remember the interior. You know, everything about it. Even the smell.” He raised her chin and smiled again. “It’s only fair, really. It nearly destroyed me, I guess, so it’s only fair for it to give something back.”

When he put his hand on the front of her dress and stroked it and the brown swell of her breast, she began to smile sensuously, with indulgent approval, and pressed against him, until she realized that he was fondling her as a baby would explore a piece of velvet, with the absorbed innocence of pure learning.

But the next day, when he went to see the doctor to whom he owed his life and reason, he learned that it was not really over.

“You can’t work in the bush again, Harry,”his doctor told him. “If you try to go back, you’ll be dead in two years.”

“You’re not serious,” Harry Hamilton answered. “You don’t mean that I have to spend the rest of my days on this stinking coast. That’s a death sentence, Marie,”

“Life sentence,” Marie Rau said, and looked at him with wry, helpless compassion. “Listen, Harry. Listen good. What happened to you down on the Catacuma was simply the last of a lot of things. You’re overexposed, Harry, don’t you understand? Sometime in the last twenty years you walked too far and too fast one day. Maybe it was on a lot of days. Or maybe you got too much sun. Or too much fever. Or one bush ulcer too many. Take your pick. I think it was all of them together, and sunstroke on the Catacuma just meant that you had reached the end of something.”

“I don’t believe you.” Harry Hamilton told her bleakly. “You’ve cooked this up with Daphne. It’s an excuse to keep me from going inside again. She has wanted that for a long time.”

“If it makes you feel any better,” Marie Rau said, “you can believe that.”She smiled at him and tossed her head in gentle mockery, and he grinned back without much amusement but with complete understanding.

“All right,” he said. “Forgive and forget. I didn’t mean what I said. I was just getting used to it.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” she said, and rested her elbows on the desk, her long beautiful hands clasped under her chin, and looked steadily at the big, wasted man before her.

SHE was an East Indian and had been the first woman of her race in the colony to defy the past by taking a profession. After she had come back, there had been a lonely, sterile time for her during which she had grown the remote, ironic dignity and sadness that had nothing to do with what she really was. Harry Hamilton had been her first patient, twenty years before, after she had been sitting for three months in an empty office beyond the always empty waiting room. He had come to her to have his hand dressed where a badly held fishing line upriver had torn through to the bone. Hers was the first name plate he had seen that morning as he walked up from the wharf, and he had come in because he was dizzy and nauseated with the pain of his swollen, infected flesh, but mainly because he had never been able to feel or think in the terms that an Last Indian and a woman would be either less or more of a doctor than any other.

He was seventeen then to her twenty-five, in the first months of his articles as a surveyor, and beneath the fresh, Scottish coloring she had seen the profound, antique stamp of his Carib mother as, with stoical detachment, he watched her probe the reeking fissure across the palm of his hand. And sensing in the radiant, vulnerable candor of the boy’s face something kindred, visionary and inarticulate, she had spoken out of the silent pride in which she had begun to harbor the nearly exhausted remnants of her own expectation and committed strength. Often, since then, she had wondered what would have happened to her in this colony of mediocre ambitions and insipid nostalgias if Harry Hamilton had not come into her life that morning.

Now she said. “What are you thinking, Harry?”

“I was trying to salvage something from the prospect,”he answered, and shook his head slowly. “But there’s nothing. We’ve destroyed the meaning of this country on the coast, Marie. You know that? First the Dutch. Then the English and the Africans. Masters and slaves both. They were united on that. Your people, too, although they came late. Only my mother’s people know that you can’t take the earth out of time, squeeze it into endless departments of use like-like the rooms in a house, but they don’t have the words to tell us. I was beginning to understand, and maybe if I could have had another twenty years I would have found the words to convince you coast people. But not now. Not now.”

When he was working again he still went to the river in the late afternoons before dark, to the same wharf and the same bollard, screened from the murmur of the town by the high, tarred wall of the warehouse. The ships came up the river, lifting as the long Atlantic took them over the bar, discharged their cargoes into the pungent caverns of wood near where he sat, and went back downstream, heavy with a return of copra, sugar, bauxite, hides, and timber. Harry Hamilton watched them come and go with interest, without regret; he liked to see the stark light of the arc lamps transfiguring the decks, and the big cranes groping in the holds, and the efficient tumult of shining men. But with the coming of the wide, blunt-bowed river steamer around the bend from upstream, he would be suddenly alert. And when the jangling bell told him that it was about to begin the sluggish, crab crawl across to its berth, he would rise and walk slowly down to the landing stage. Often, there were men aboard whom he had known, and on those nights his wife learned not to expect him home until she saw him, very often at the breakfast table the next morning, his eyes alive and glittering, his face sallow with stale liquor, and his voice rough with too much talking.

Occasionally, too, he was able to join the Department plane when it took the field officers and supplies up to the district stations. But in those places that he had known, looking out for a few hours over the country in which he had felt happy and meaningful, he understood the extent of his dispossession. He understood this and came back whenever he could, in the way that a man who has irrecoverably lost a woman will wait an hour on a street corner for her to pass with another, she now more remote, forever untouchable, than if he had never known her, her smile at the other and her hand on his quite unreal actions, revealing the lost love with an appalling, magnified clarity, like an atom of coral sunk in pure, excluding glass. It was on one of these flights to the interior, at Shemarang on the Courenbice River, that he met Bargie.

THEY had flown up, early in the morning, as far as the cattle station at Haut Desir on the Venezuelan border, and early in the afternoon had come down the river to Shemarang. When you came in to land at Shemarang, a small Indian boy stood in the bow of a beached woodskin and threw stones into the water. The plane banked steeply above a high sandstone bluff on the far bank, and you saw a tilted, green-furred bed of forest and a faraway brown shining coil of river against a diagonal horizon; then, as abruptly as the next frame in a lantern-slide show, you were below the level of the treetops, with trees blurring into a wall of green-streaked brown and the river unraveling furiously like ribbon tugged from a spool. Then you saw the ripples spreading from the still surface of the landing basin as the little boy threw stones into the water, and the floats of the Norton struck just beyond the place where the furthest ripple was captured by the hard rush of the main stream. A leaping sheet of rust-tinged black water blotted the bank from view, and then, wavering and smeared at first, becoming clearer as the water ran from the glass, there appeared the moored corials and woodskins, the white sandy slope of the clearing, the tree stumps scattered on it like stubborn old teeth, and at the top of the slope, the three huts standing high on their great plugs of iron heart. The forest began close behind the huts, and even from the river you could see the tunnels going into the green and the deep shadows.

Now Harry Hamilton sat with Buster McKitterick, the pilot, in the largest of the huts, which was the general store, drinking beer and watching two Indians unload the supplies for the survey camp thirty miles up Shemarang Creek. The plane was lashed close to the shore, and a black man stood on one of the floats and directed the Indians as one of them handed the sacks of coffee, flour, sugar, and tinned goods from the open cabin door to the other standing on the bank. It was cool and dark and restful in the general store, and the beer washed the engine fumes from the back of the throat.

“Have another?" Buster McKitterick asked.

“Yes,” Harry Hamilton said. “Thanks.”

The East Indian who owned the store came from behind the zinc-topped bar with two wet bottles and poured for them.

“Have a drink. Stephen,” Buster McKitterick said.

“Well, thank you, Captain McKitterick,” the East Indian said. “I will have a beer, sir.”

He took money from McKitterick and went back behind the bar and took another bottle from the big water-filled bucket and pried the cap off. He raised the bottle to McKitterick and Hamilton and drank. Then he leaned his elbows on the zinc and gazed through the open door at the men around the plane. He was young and very goodlooking; handsome in the ripe, sculptured fashion of many East Indians. His hair looked as if it had been polished, and it was beginning to go gray at the sides and in the widow’s peak.

“Niggers,” the East Indian, Stephen, said reflectively, almost idly. “They don’t wort’ nuttin. That nigger down there, Lloyd, him is the only one I know will do anyt’ing wid him life. An’ dat’s because him is a small-island man, from Barbados.”

“What sort of talk is that, Stephen?” Harry Hamilton said in the same lazy and reflective voice. “How a damn coolie like you can talk about niggers? If it wasn’t for the pork knockers and timbermen buying your stores, how you would make a living?”

“And is hell I catch to get money out of dem sometimes,” Stephen told him. “But is true what I say, Mister Hamilton. You must know is true. Niggers worse dan Indians, an’ Gawd knows de bucks is bad enough. Lawd, de times I stay here an’ see de pork knockers going down to Zuyder, each of dem wid a cartridge case holding five, six, seven hundred pounds worth of diamond. But you t’ink dey would put some of dat into anyt’ing? Not dem. Is fine clothes an’ women an’ spree until de money done, an’ den back up de river to look for more diamond. What a people.”

“Stephen,” Buster McKitterick said, “I do believe you’re a racialist.”

“What dat, Captain?” Stephen asked.

“He means that you believe in the master race, Stephen,” Harry Hamilton told him. “Do you?”

“I don’t know about master race,” Stephen said seriously, “but I know say how Gawd give every people a sickness. De white man get greed, de Portugee get swell foot, we East Indian, weak chest, but de black man, him get de worst of all. Laziness.”

“Now you see why we’re a colony,” Harry Hamilton said to McKitterick, who was an American. “The bloody British don’t even have the trouble of divide and rule. We take care of the division for them.” He looked at Stephen and shook his head with as much rueful amusement as despair.

“Go on, Stephen,” McKitterick said. “There must be something good in our black brothers. Tell us something good.”

“Yes,” Stephen told them. “Dem is good for one t’ing. Spend money. Nobody can spend money like dem. An’ nobody can beg like dem. Like de one I have living on me back dere now.” He jerked his head over his shoulder at the shut door, between the storeroom and the bar.

“Who is that?” Harry Hamilton said. “Anybody who can get something for nothing out of you, Stephen, must be worth knowing.”

“Is an old pork knocker,” Stephen said. “Damn old madman called Bargie. Him was prospecting up beyond the falls and get sick. Him crawl in here one day like an old wild dog looking for a bush to die under. Well, I couldn’t turn him away, no, an’ I know him a few year, so I give him a corner until him get better. Damn it! I don’t t’ink him is ever goin’ to get better. All him do is lie dere an’ drink my condensed milk.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Harry Hamilton asked.

“I dunno,” Stephen answered. “It sound like t.b. Boy, him have a cough, you see. But like I did tell you, Mister Hamilton, Captain, him is de real nigger. You know how many time in his life Bargie strike it rich? Seven!” He held up his small, neat brown hands and showed them seven fingers. His vitally good-looking face held contempt and astonishment. “Seven times Bargie find good stones. One time, dem tell me, de assay office in Zuyder give him five thousand dollar. An’ him don’t have ten cents leave. If him had been one of my people, now, him would have a big store and a thousand acre of rice.”

“And he’s really bad sick?” Harry Hamilton asked.

“Lawd, yes, Mister Hamilton. Sick near to death.”

Harry Hamilton got up from the long Berbice chair and went to the bar.

“Let me see him,” he said, and raised the flap in the counter.

“Sure.” There was faint surprise in Stephen’s voice, and then he looked at Harry Hamilton with a sudden calculating sparkle in his fine eyes. “Sure t’ing, Mister Hamilton. You ought to see him.” He opened the door leading into the storeroom .

IN THE storeroom it was cool and light, strongly scented with the odors of cheese, brown soap, coffee, and salt fish. At the back there was an open window, and the man lay under it in a lowslung hammock. He was dressed in torn khaki shorts and a roughly darned bush jacket; the red “good luck” sash around his waist was stained and faded. On the floor beside him was a pair of rubber-soled, canvas boots with the canvas of both torn where the swell of the big toe joints had stretched it. The plaited wareshi leaning in the corner by his head was empty except for a rolledup string hammock, a bush knife, and a filthy old felt hat. There was a big enamel mug at his side, with most of the enamel flaked off, showing the dark metal; a wasp had drowned in the dregs of thinly mixed condensed milk at the bottom of the mug. He rested his head on a folded blanket so old that the nap had worn to a greasy smoothness, and he gazed up at Harry Hamilton with hard, appraising and incorrigible eyes.

“Bargie,” Stephen said, and the affection in his tone was curious and touching after the sentiments he had voiced outside. “I bring someone to see you. Mister Hamilton from Survey.”

“I hear of you, Mister Hamilton,” Bargie said, “but we never meet up, eh? How you do, sir?”

“Stephen tells me your chest gone bad on you,” Harry Hamilton said. “You sick long?”

“Some little. De rains catch me bad dis trip an’ I tek a fever.” The weak, panting voice was dry, nearly bored, as if seeking to convey in that laconic assessment the measure of a suave disdain — not bravado nor insensible fatalism, but simply a serene detachment from and contempt for the expected and accessory impotence of what was mere flesh born to distress and treason.

“You got more than the fever, man,” Harry Hamilton told him, and as he said this, Bargie began to cough, and after a little, Buster McKitterick came to the door and gravely watched the writhing, drawn-together body in the hammock. Harry Hamilton took his eyes from Bargie and looked at McKitterick, pulling the corners of his mouth in a downward grimace and shaking his head.

“Man,”Stephen said as the last crashing rasp expired, leaving a silence that still seemed to throb with a pulse of terrible sound. “Man, Bargie, you don’t have cough; you have devil inside you.”

“Bargie,” Harry Hamilton said, “you better come with us when we fly back to Zuyder this afternoon. We’ll be leaving as soon as the survey boat comes down for the supplies.”

“Hospital?” The assured and contemplative gaze was suddenly bleak with caution. Harry Hamilton nodded.

“How long?”

“How the hell would I know?” Harry Hamilton said. “I’m not a doctor.”

“All right,” Bargie told him. “I better come wid you. I need a little feeding before I go into de bush again.”

“Yes,” Harry Hamilton said, “you get some good feeding inside you. I think that’s a good idea. You want a beer?”

“By Christ, Mister Hamilton, a beer would go good now. T’ank you. Stephen, you don’t hear de boss say bring a beer for me?” The long, heavy-jawed death’s head was suddenly bright with inspiring and outrageous gaiety as he winked at Harry Hamilton. “All I have been getting from dis damn coolie is a few crackers an’ a little milk so thin you could see de bottom of de mug.”

Stephen sniffed, grinned, and reached for the mug beside Bargie. “Black people,” he said fondly. “You know, Bargie, if Gawd tek you black people to heaven in a Cadillac, you gwine complain say it not a Rolls-Royce.”

Bargie watched the East Indian go from the room with the dirty mug and smiled again at Harry Hamilton, his sunken face burnished with that same shocking and incorruptible gaiety.

“Dat’s a good bwoy, you know, Mister Hamilton,” he said. “I like tease him a little, but him is a real good bwoy.”

LATER in the afternoon, when the survey boat had come and gone, the two Indians carried Bargie down from the store. He didn’t weigh much, and holding the two ends of his hammock, they took him easily down the slope. At the plane, Harry Hamilton and McKitterick helped the Indians to ease the hammock into the cabin and onto the floor behind the two pilot seats. Stephen followed with the old wareshi and the torn canvas boots. He looked sad and lost and kept rearranging the wareshi and the boots and asking Bargie if he wanted another blanket under his head or another one as cover,

“It can get cold up there, you know, Bargie,” he said. “It all right, man; you can have anoder blanket. Captain will bring it back to me nex time him come.”

When the engines turned over, he squeezed quickly between McKitterick and Hamilton and jumped from the cabin to the float and onto the bank. McKitterick taxied the plane out of the basin and swung into the current. He opened the throttle, and they went down river very fast and lifted above the forest before they had reached the bluff. The plane banked steeply to follow the river course down to Zuyder Town, and Harry Hamilton could see the clearing and the forest closing around it and Stephen on the bank standing a little way from the others and lifting his hand. Then they were flying north by east down the river and the country was tidy, formal, and miniature, like a garden, with a thin blue mist beginning to form among the treetops and close to the banks and with loops of shining water beyond, as far as they could see.

They reached Zuyder Town just before dark, and McKitterick brought them in low over the line of lights along the water front and onto the basin. Bargie was sleeping, and he didn’t wake even when McKitterick taxied the plane in from the middle of the basin and ran the floats up the wooden slipway that led down from the jetty.

Harry Hamilton opened the cabin door and jumped down onto the wet, smooth boards of the slip as the mechanics came running to make the plane fast for the night. He went quickly up the slip along the jetty to the telephone in the landing office and called the number of his home.

“We’ve just got in,” he said to his wife. “Can you come for me now?”

“Yes, darling,” she said. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Is Marie with you?”


“Good. I thought she might be. Ask her to come too. I want her to have a look at a man we brought down.”

Two of the mechanics were carrying Bargie up the jetty from the plane. He was awake now, and as they laid him on the bench along the wall of the office, he raised his hand in greeting to Harry Hamilton.

“Man,” he said. “Dat’s de best sleep I catch in a long time. I must buy me an aeroplane.”

“How’re you feeling?” Harry Hamilton asked him.

“Great, Mister Hamilton. A little more rest like I just have an’ I’ll be back on de old form.”

“Good.” Harry Hamilton said. “I’ve asked a doctor to come down and have a look at you. She’ll see about getting you into the hospital.”

“Doctor is a woman?”

“Yes. She’s very good. She’s my doctor.”

“Oh. Well, if you say so. Mister Hamilton, I’ll tek it dat she good.”

Harry Hamilton’s wife and Marie Rau arrived in Marie’s car a few minutes later, and Harry Hamilton, his wife, and McKitterick sat in a corner of the office while Bargie was being examined. Then Marie Rau joined them.

“What’s the verdict?” McKitterick asked her.

“What do you think?” Marie Rau said. “Galloping consumption is only the most obvious. There’s a lot else, including a rheumatic heart. I ‘ll get the hospital to send down for him now.”

She picked up the telephone, and Harry Hamilton went back to Bargie.

“She says you’re pretty sick,” Harry Hamilton said.

“I did guess so, Mister Hamilton.”

“You have anybody you want me to tell about you?”

“No. I is alone now.”

“If you go back to the interior,” Harry Hamilton said, “it’s going to kill you.”

“What place don’t kill you?” Bargie asked him.

“No, listen,” Harry Hamilton said. “I can get you a job in Zuyder when you come out. Come and see me down at Survey, and I’ll find you something there.”

“I will keep you in mind, Mister Hamilton.”

“ That’s about all you will do,” Harry Hamilton said. “Keep me in mind. Well, remember that I warned you, eh? Remember that I gave you good advice.”

“I ‘ll remember, Mister Hamilton,” Bargie said. “I know dat you have to do it. As duty.”

From the yard beyond the office, they heard the soft clanging of the ambulance bell.

“I’ll come and look for you,” Harry Hamilton told him.

“Yes, Mister Hamilton, you do dat. I sorry we never meet up before.”

When the attendants came into the office with the stretcher, Bargie began to cough; by the time they had taken him to the door, he was contorted with his furious search for breath. Harry Hamilton was very sorry to see him reduced like that before the women, and to see the passive and aloof self-sufficiency of that battered face now broken by a mindless struggle. He knew that the genial arrogance of that face had been earned without illusions or self-pity, but with a prodigal, debonair commitment of all endurance and all resources; and listening to the sad, racked sounds as the attendants dispassionately closed the doors of the ambulance, he felt warm with anger and shame.

That night, after dinner, he sat with his wife and Marie Rau on the veranda above the garden, in which, since he could no longer go to the interior, he had begun to spend a great deal of time. His house was on the edge of town, by the sea wall, and they could hear the sighing of the tide as it rolled across the mud flats and the soft crash of waves against the stone; the voices from the road by the wall were filtered into murmurs by the hedge of Barbados pride which he had planted along the fence and which had grown high during the last year.

“But, Harry,” Marie Rau said, “he can’t go back to prospecting. I don’t think he’ll ever leave the hospital, myself, but even if he does, he could never survive another month in the bush. Doesn’t he know how sick he is? Didn’t you tell him?”

“I told him, all right,” Harry Hamilton said. “At least, we exchanged formal advice and polite acknowledgment. Neither of us was taking it very seriously.”

“You ought to be ashamed. You ought to know better. Do try to do something. I think you actually want that poor old ruin to go back and kill himself, Harry.”

“I don’t want him to. I simply know that if he can walk, he will.”

“But why, Harry? For what? For a few diamonds he knows he’ll never find now, and will never live to sell if he does find them?”

“Oh, no, Marie,” Harry Hamilton said quickly, “It’s not like that at all. The diamonds are important, but they’re only a part of it. Only a sort of means, really. A justification.”

But how to tell it? he thought then, as he looked at the doubtful faces of the two people he loved most in the world. Is there any way of communicating it to those who have never experienced it? Who never, from the shabby confines of this coast, will understand that it is there to be experienced. Will never understand that we are lost without something like the interior. They see only the gains. Bargie’s diamonds, the gold dust and manganese, the cattle from the savanna. The least part of it. A reminder merely. Necessary tokens, because we forget easily, of what has been endured, contemplated, promised: the reassurance that immemorable nostalgias of the spirit will be made real finally. The ancestral heritage greater and more precious than any one race or one history or one hope. Too intense and too real to be encountered directly. Only to be seen from the corner of the eye in the way that the Indians are born knowing, that Bargie learned, that I was learning. How to tell it, my God? And how to tell that it will be perceptible in our later isolation as the elusive, half-remembered fragment of some enormous, receding, and unpossessable dream?