Major Scobie is chief of police in a British West African district. Over the past fifteen years, he has built up a reputation for honesty, but he learns that, in spite of his labors, he is to be passed over for the district commissionership in favor of a younger man. Those fifteen long years now seem to him to have been too long and filled with too much work. Worse than his own disappointment is the disappointment of his wife. Mrs. Scobie needs the encouragement that a rise in official position would have given her to compensate for the loss of her only child some years before and for her unpopularity among the official families of the district.
A love for literature, especially poetry, sets Mrs. Scobie apart from the other officials and their wives. Once the difference was discerned, the other Britishers came to distrust and dislike her. They even pity her husband. Indeed, the Scobies are not much happier than people imagine them to be. Mrs. Scobie hates her life, and her husband dislikes having to make her face it realistically; both of them drink. When she finds that her husband is not going to become district commissioner, Mrs. Scobie insists that he send her to the Cape Colony for a holiday, even though German submarines are torpedoing many vessels at the time.
Scobie cannot afford the expense of a trip to the Cape Colony. Indeed, he already gave up part of his life insurance to pay for a previous such excursion. After trying unsuccessfully to borrow money from the banks, he seeks out Yusef, a Syrian merchant, who agrees to lend him the money at 4 percent interest. Scobie knows that any dealings he has with Yusef will place him under a cloud, because the British officials are aware that many of the Syrian’s activities are illegal. He even ships industrial diamonds to the Nazis. Pressed by his wife’s apparent need to escape the boredom of the rainy season in the coast colony, however, Scobie finally takes the chance that he can keep clear of Yusef’s entanglements, even though he knows that the Syrian hates him for the reputation of integrity he has built up during the past fifteen years.
To add to Scobie’s difficulties, he learns that Wilson, a man supposedly sent out on a clerkship with a trading company, is actually an undercover agent working for the government on the problem of diamond smuggling. This fact poses a series of problems for the police chief. Scobie has been given no official notice of Wilson’s true activities; Wilson has fallen in love with Scobie’s wife; and Mrs. Scobie once bloodied Wilson’s nose and permitted her husband to see her admirer crying. Any one of these facts would have made Scobie uneasy; all three in combination make him painfully aware that Wilson must hate him, as in fact he does.
Shortly after his wife’s departure, a series of events begins to break down Major Scobie’s trust in his own honesty and the reputation he has built up for himself. When a Portuguese liner is searched upon its arrival in port, Scobie finds a suspicious letter in the captain’s cabin. Instead of turning in the letter, he burns it—after the captain assures him that the letter was only a personal message to his daughter in Germany. A few weeks later, Yusef begins to be very friendly toward Scobie. Gossip reports that Scobie has met and talked with the Syrian on several occasions, in addition to having borrowed money from the suspected smuggler.
One day, word comes that the...
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French have rescued the crew and passengers of a torpedoed British vessel. Scobie is with the party who meets the rescued people at the border between the French and British colonies. Among the victims is a young bride of only a few months whose husband has been killed in the war. While she recuperates from her exposure in a lifeboat and then waits for a ship to return her to England, she and Scobie fall in love. For a time, they are extremely careful in their conduct until one day Mrs. Rolt, the rescued woman, belittles Scobie because of his caution. To prove his daring as well as his love, Scobie sends her a letter, but it is intercepted by Yusef’s agents. In payment for return of the letter, Scobie is forced to help Yusef smuggle some gems out of the colony. Wilson, Scobie’s enemy, suspects Scobie’s role in the smuggling, but he can prove nothing.
Mrs. Rolt pleads with Scobie to prove his love for her by divorcing his wife and marrying her. Scobie, a Roman Catholic, tries to convince her that his faith and his conscience will not permit him to do so. To complicate matters, Mrs. Scobie cables that she is already on a ship on her way back home from Cape Town. Scobie does not know which way to turn. On her return, Mrs. Scobie nags him to take Communion with her. Unable to receive absolution because he refuses to promise to give up adultery, Scobie takes the sacrament of Communion anyway, rather than admit to his wife what has happened. He realizes that, according to his faith, his action will damn his soul.
The worry over his sins, his uneasiness about his job, the problem of Yusef (including a murder that Yusef has had committed for him), and the nagging of both his wife and Mrs. Rolt all contribute to a turmoil in Scobie’s mind. He does not know which way to turn: The church, a haven for many, is forbidden to him because of his sins and his temperament.
In searching for a way out of his predicament, Scobie remembers what he was told by a doctor shortly after an official investigation of a suicide. The doctor told Scobie that the best way to commit suicide is to feign angina and then take an overdose of evipan, a drug prescribed for angina. Scobie carefully makes plans to take his life in that way, because he wants his wife to have his insurance money for her support after she returns to England. After studying the symptoms of angina, Scobie goes to a doctor, who diagnoses Scobie’s trouble from the symptoms he relates. Scobie knows that his pretended heart condition will soon be common knowledge in the colony. Ironically, Scobie is told that he had been reconsidered for the commissionership of the colony after all, but that he cannot be given the post because of his illness. The news makes little difference to Scobie, for he has already made up his mind to commit suicide.
To make his death appear convincing, Scobie fills his diary with entries tracing the progress of his heart condition. One evening, he takes his overdose of evipan, his only solution to difficulties that have become more than he can bear. He dies, and only one or two people even suspect the truth. One of these is Mrs. Scobie, who had complained to the priest after he refused to give Scobie absolution. The priest, knowing of Scobie’s virtues as well as his sins, cries out to her that no one can call Scobie wicked or damned, for no one knows the scope of God’s mercy.