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...
(The entire section is 1559 words.)