Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1559
Axel Heyst, a Swedish baron, leaves home at his philosopher father’s death and travels among the islands of Indonesia for several years. On one of the islands he encounters Morrison, who is also doing business in the area. Morrison is in desperate straits, having been fined and deprived of his boat. When Heyst gives him the money to pay the fine, Morrison views him as an answer to prayer. He and Heyst go into business together and trade among the different native settlements. Morrison intends to start a coal company in Indonesia and returns to England to arrange the business matters. He dies there, but the company commences and Heyst is made the manager. Eventually the business goes bankrupt, but Heyst refuses to leave the region.
Schomberg, a German hotel owner, despises Heyst; the other Europeans in the area are simply mystified by him. Davidson, the captain of one of the many trading boats, is impressed with Heyst and regularly goes by the island of Samburan, where Heyst has made his home. He brings Heyst to Sourabaya (where Schomberg has his hotel) to conduct some business matters. Everyone is surprised that Heyst intends to remain on Samburan when there is no more coal being mined there.
When Davidson returns to pick up Heyst, he goes to Schomberg’s hotel to meet him. No one is present but Mrs. Schomberg, who seems like a wooden statue to Davidson. She informs him that Heyst has left with one of the English girls from Zangiacomo’s all-female orchestra. Davidson is shocked that Heyst, who seems to be a gentleman, should do such a thing, but he reasons that perhaps it is more of a rescue than an elopement. Still, the fact that a gentleman is on a deserted island with a young girl has serious implications. Schomberg and Zangiacomo had fallen into a furious argument but eventually they joined forces to search for Heyst and the girl.
Sometime later, Davidson passes by Samburan and Heyst flags him down. Davidson learns that Heyst is adequately supplied and wants Davidson to return Mrs. Schomberg’s shawl to her in case Mr. Schomberg should notice that it is missing. Davidson returns the shawl and is impressed with how coolly Mrs. Schomberg handles the situation. He believes that Mr. Schomberg is running an illegal gambling operation and is puzzled as to why he would risk it.
When Heyst goes to Schomberg’s hotel with Davidson, he comes to the conclusion that life was meaningless. He feels guilty about Morrison’s death. He goes to the concert hall to listen to the all-female orchestra although he views their playing as a “murdering of the silence.” As their set finishes, the ladies leave the stage to mingle with the audience. Heyst notices one girl who is reluctant and is forced to leave the stage by the orchestra leader’s wife. Heyst feels the same pity for her that he felt for Morrison, so he invites her to sit with him. He learns that she is English and has a wonderful voice. She is grateful for his kindness. Over the next few days, Heyst learns that her name is Alma or Magdalena and that she grew up in poverty. Schomberg has been coming on to her, as have other men in the past. Heyst tells her that he is not rich enough to buy out her employment, but he can “steal” her as soon as he makes some arrangements. Schomberg is upset when he discovers that Heyst has left with the girl.
Three other guests arrive at the hotel: Mr. Jones and Ricardo, as well as their servant, Pedro. Jones introduces himself as a tourist but admits he has been called harsher names. Schomberg would like to get rid of them, but they eventually threaten him into letting them run a gambling operation from his hotel. When Ricardo tells Schomberg of their shady past, Schomberg more desperately wants them to leave, but Ricardo tells him Mr. Jones will not leave unless he has a good reason. Schomberg comes up with a plan whereby he can get rid of the trio and get his revenge on Heyst at the same time. He suggests to Ricardo that Ricardo, Mr. Jones, and Pedro go to rob Heyst on Samburan, where Heyst has a huge cache of money. Schomberg and Ricardo come up with the details for the proposed expedition.
Heyst remembers his father’s death. The night before his father died, he told him to cultivate that form of contempt called pity. Heyst took this to heart and set off to his adventures in the Far East. When he settled on Samburan, he took as a servant a Chinaman called Wang, who stayed mostly because he had married an island girl. Alma, whom Heyst calls Lena, is bothered by the loneliness of the open ocean. Heyst tells her that the volcano on the island occasionally erupts. In his cabin, Heyst has a portrait of his father as a reminder of what Heyst had learned from his philosophy of pity. Heyst tells Lena how he saved Morrison for fun rather than altruism. Lena is not sure what to make of the man into whose hands she has put her life. She is startled when he mentions Morrison’s name, and she admits that she has heard Schomberg’s rumors about Heyst. Heyst can tell she does not completely disbelieve the rumors. Lena asks him to love her, but Heyst avoids emotional attachment and is reluctant to admit this.
Wang interrupts with the news that there is a boat with three White men far out to sea. The men are Mr. Jones, Ricardo, and Pedro. After reviving them with fresh water, Heyst leads them to rooms in one of the empty buildings that were part of the coal-mining complex, explaining that he cannot share his accommodations with them. In the middle of the night, Heyst awakens and finds that someone, probably Wang, has stolen his revolver. Ricardo is observing Heyst’s movements in the darkened cottage and returns to Jones to report, though he says nothing about Lena’s presence.
The next day, Ricardo keeps watch over Heyst’s bungalow, hoping for a sight of Lena. When he only sees Wang, he sneaks in, bemused by the vast collections of books as well as the portrait of Heyst’s father. He opens a closed door and finds Lena. He attempts to assault her, but surprisingly she defends herself. He speaks of Schomberg’s accusations against Heyst, bringing back to Lena’s mind her doubts as to Heyst’s character. Wang hears the noises from Lena’s room and decides to cut all connections with Heyst, who cannot defend himself without the revolver Wang stole. When Heyst approaches the room, Ricardo sneaks out, leaving his slipper behind, which Lena throws out the window. Heyst confronts Wang about the revolver but Wang adamantly states that he did not steal it.
Heyst enters Lena’s room. He wonders why she seems so rattled. He assures her of his integrity. They looks out the window and see Mr. Jones and Ricardo moving about. Heyst and Lena head for Wang’s house but find it empty. They follow the trail to the natives’ side of the island, where Wang has gone to join his wife, but it is blocked by a barricade of timber. While Heyst examines this, Lena sees Wang peaking through the limbs, holding the revolver and grimacing. Heyst is unable to convince Wang to give them safety, so he returns to Lena. They return to the bungalow as a thunderstorm approaches over the ocean. Anxiously, they wait for Jones and Ricardo to approach, regretting that they do not have substantial weapons. Ricardo enters and says he and Jones need to leave. While Heyst’s attention is drawn elsewhere, Ricardo grasps Lena’s wrist and tells her that Heyst is not the man for her.
Ricardo tells Pedro to go out to the boat. Heyst tells Lena to put on a black dress and dark veil and go into the forest toward Wang’s home. Eventually, he tells her, Davidson will come to pick them up. After she leaves, Heyst and Ricardo go to the other bungalow. Heyst meets Mr. Jones, who holds the revolver on him while Ricardo leaves. Jones brings up the rumors that Heyst manipulated Morrison. When Jones and Heyst return to Heyst’s bungalow, Jones realizes that Ricardo has maneuvered him so he can be alone with Lena (who has now returned to the bungalow) to determine where Heyst’s loot is and then take off with Lena. Jones fires over Ricardo’s shoulder.
Heyst picks up Lena and realizes that she has been shot in the breast. Davidson enters to witness her death; he knows she has at last gained the victory in Heyst’s display of his love for her. Heyst pronounces woe to the one who has not learned to love while young. The next morning there is a report of a fire on the island. Davidson returns to discover that Heyst has set fire to the bungalow with himself and Lena’s body in it. Ricardo, Jones, and Pedro have all been shot. Davidson makes his report to the Excellency on Sourabaya.