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Too Much Tolerance

A round, amiable face, reddened rather than browned by the tropical sun; round, rather puzzled grey eyes; close-cut sandy hair; a large, smiling mouth; a small sandy moustache; clean white duck suit and sun helmet—a typical English commercial agent stopping between ships at a stifling little port on the Red Sea.
We were the only Europeans in the hotel. The boat for which we were both waiting was two days late. We spent all our time together.
We went round the native bazaar and played interminable games of poker dice at the café tables. In these circumstances a casual acquaintance easily assumes a confidential tone.
At first naturally enough we talked of general subjects—local conditions and race problems.
“Can’t understand what all the trouble’s about. They’re all jolly chaps when you get to know them.” British officials, traders, Arabs, natives, Indian settlers—they were all to my new friend jolly good chaps.
Such an odd thing they couldn’t get on better. Of course, different races had different ideas—some didn’t wash, some had queer ideas about honesty, some got out of  hand at times when they’d had too much to drink.
“Still,” he said, “that’s nobody’s business but their own. If only they’d all let each other alone to go their own ways there wouldn’t be any problems. As for religions, well, there was a lot of good in them all—Hindu, Mahommedan, Pagan: the missionaries did a lot of good, too—Wesleyan, Catholic, Church of England, all jolly good fellows.”
People in remote parts of the world tend to have unshakable views on every topic. After a few months spent among them it was a relief to come across so tolerant and broad a mind.
On the first evening I left my companion with a feeling of warm respect. Here at last, in a continent peopled almost exclusively by fanatics of one kind or another, I thought I had found a nice man.
Next day we got on to more intimate subjects and I began to learn something of his life. He was now nearer fifty than forty years of age, though I should have thought him younger.
He had been an only son, brought up in an English provincial town in a household where rigid principles of Victorian decorum dominated its members.
He had been born late in his parents’ life, and all his memories dated from after his father’s retirement from a responsible Government post in India.
It was alien to his nature to admit the existence of discomfort or disagreement, but it was clear from his every reference to it that his home had not been a congenial one.
Exact rules of morals and etiquette, ruthless criticism of neighbours, an insurmountable class barrier raised against all who were considered socially inferior, hostile disapproval of superiors—these were clearly the code of my friend’s parents, and he had grown up with a deep-rooted resolution to model his own life on opposite principles.
I had been surprised on the evening of our first meeting to discover the nature of his work. He was engaged in selling sewing machines on commission to Indian storekeepers up and down the East African coast.
It was clearly not the job for which his age and education should have fitted him. Later I learned the explanation.
He had gone into business on leaving his public school, had done quite well, and eventually, just before the war, had set up on his own with the capital left him at his father’s death.
“I had bad luck there,” he said. “I never feel quite to blame over what happened. You see, I’d taken a chap into partnership with me. He’d been a clerk with me in the office, and I’d always liked him, though he didn’t get on very well with the other fellows.
“He got sacked just about the time I came in for some money. I never quite made out what the trouble was about, and anyway it was none of my business. The arrangement seemed rather lucky at first, because my partner wasn’t fit for military service, so all the time I was in the army he was able to look after things at home.
“The business seemed to be going very well, too. We moved to new offices and took on a larger staff, and all through the war we were drawing very decent dividends. But apparently it was only temporary prosperity.
“When I got back after the Armistice I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to my affairs, I’m afraid. I was glad to be home and wanted to make the most of peace. I left my partner to manage everything, and I suppose I more or less let things slide for two years.
“Anyway, I didn’t know how bad things were until he suddenly told me that we should have to go into liquidation.
“Since then I’ve been lucky in getting jobs, but it isn’t quite the same as being one’s own master.”
He gazed out across the quay, turning his glass idly in his hand. Then, as an afterthought, he made an illuminating addition to his story.
“One thing I’m very glad of,” he said, “my partner didn’t come down with me. Almost immediately after we closed down he opened on his own in the same way of business on quite a large scale. He’s a rich man now.”
Later in the day he surprised me by casually mentioning his son.
“Son?”
“Yes. I’ve a boy of twenty-seven at home. Awfully nice fellow. I wish I could get back more often to see him. But he’s got his own friends now and I dare say he’s happy by himself. He’s interested in the theatre.
“It’s not a thing I know much about myself. All his friends are theatrical, you know, jolly interesting.
“I’m glad the boy has struck out for himself. I always made a point of never trying to force his interest in anything that didn’t attract him.
“The only pity is that there’s very little money in it. He’s always hoping to get a job either on the stage or the cinema, but it’s difficult if you don’t know the right people, he says, and that’s expensive.
“I send him as much as I can, but he has to be well dressed, you know, and go about a good deal and entertain, and all that takes money. Still, I expect it’ll lead to something in the end. He’s a jolly good fellow.”
But it was not until some days later, on board ship, when we were already berthed at the port where he was due to disembark next day, that he mentioned his wife.
We had had many drinks to wish each other good luck on our respective journeys. The prospect of immediate separation made mutual confidence easier than it would be between constant companions.
“My wife left me,” he said simply. “It was a great surprise. I can’t to this day think why. I always encouraged her to do just what she wanted.
“You see, I’d seen a lot of the Victorian idea of marriage, where a wife was supposed to have no interests outside her housekeeping, and the father of the family dined at home every evening. I don’t approve of that.
“I always liked my wife to have her own friends and have them in the house when she wanted and to go out when she wanted and I did the same. I thought we were ideally happy.
“She liked dancing and I didn’t, so when a chap turned up who she seemed to like going about with, I was delighted. I’d met him once or twice and heard that he ran after women a good bit, but that wasn’t my business.
“My father used to keep a strict division among his friends, between those he saw at home and those he met in the club. He wouldn’t bring anyone to his house whose moral character he didn’t wholly approve of. I think that’s all old-fashioned rot.
“Anyway, to cut a long story short, after she’d been going out with this fellow for some time she suddenly fell in love and went off with him. I’d always liked him, too. Jolly good sort of fellow. I suppose she had a perfect right to do what she preferred. All the same, I was surprised. And I’ve been lonely since.”
At this moment two fellow passengers whose acquaintance I had been scrupulously avoiding came past our table. He called them to our table, so I wished him “Good-night” and went below.
I did not see him to speak to next day, but I caught a brief glimpse of him on the pier, supervising the loading of his crate of sample sewing machines.
As I watched, he finished his business and strode off towards the town—a jaunty, tragic little figure, cheated out of his patrimony by his partner, battened on by an obviously worthless son, deserted by his wife, an irrepressible, bewildered figure striding off under his bobbing topee, cheerfully butting his way into a whole continent of rapacious and ruthless jolly good fellows.



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