The following story was originally published in the 1919 collection Nocturnal, précédé de quinze histoires. After you read this story, check out Edward Gauvin’s essay on the many doubles of Franz Hellens that places this story in the context of Hellens’ oeuvre, which included many doubles and doppelgängers.
— David Davis, Translator
After a long voyage, marked by a few incidents not worth reporting, I arrived here at last.
I am sitting at a table in one of the city’s main restaurants. The regular swing of a punkah1 cools the air, that impregnated with a moist heat, is suffocating. I just finished a conversation that shook me up; I am still trembling with astonishment. I dare not entrust this extraordinary incident to my memory; it is better to write it down right away.
I have known for some years a wealthy Dutch family, settled in Rotterdam. The Van Camps were once intrepid colonists in Oceania. Since then, they have founded a vast commercial empire of colonial commodities in their motherland, ceaselessly prospering under a bold and strong leadership, passed from father to son.
The reputation of this firm of old stock is one of the most well established in the great Dutch port.
As a child, I played with the Van Camps’ son, Hendricus, a lad of strong appearance like all those in his family, but one whose character was revealed, immediately in his youth, to be completely different from that of his ancestors.
The young Hendricus was a dreamer, shy, sweet as a little girl, and of a sensitivity truly unimaginable. I remember a few traits of his character that were quite unusual in this family of pragmatic business men. At the age when other Van Camps would begin to start commercial operations, it was not uncommon to find Hendricus in the street playing with children younger than him. Once even, he distributed among his friends all the money he had in his pockets. Another time, in the dead of winter, he returned to his parents, freezing, shivering with cold; he had given his coat to a drunkard who aroused his sympathy by pretending to be miserable.
On the advice of a friend of the family, the old Mr. Van Camp decided to send his son to the colonies.
He had been offered a rather lucrative position in charge of the Administration of Affairs of State in Batavia2. The father hoped that these constant and positive occupations would teach his son to become better adjusted. However, his farewell had a severity which I found shocking; he would not accompany the young man to the boat. So it was I who drove Hendricus to the port to embark.
Several months after his departure, I received a letter from Batavia. Hendricus requested that I ask his father to send him a specific amount of money; I learned that he had quit his job, but he advised me to hide this fact from his family.
Other than this, no detail of this letter seemed to betray any new dispositions of the young man’s character.
Saddened by what I had learned, I went to find the old Van Camp in order to perform the favor my friend had asked of me.
A few more months passed, and I received another letter, stamped from Sumatra.
This time, my surprise was overwhelming. The tone and even the handwriting were totally different; they indicated a complete transformation in the personality of Hendricus. This letter contained only energetic sentences, formed solely of the words inscribed by a steady hand; the young man asked me to find him some houses in Rotterdam which were willing to purchase a new culture of tobacco products from a venture he had setup on the island of Sumatra, a region difficult to colonize, with a deadly climate, and full of pitfalls, savage indigenous people, and a terrain fraught with intractable forests.
I hastened to deliver this amazing news to the old Van Camp. He trembled with joy upon reading the letter from Hendricus and he shook my hand, tears in his eyes.
“It’s definitely him this time,” he said; “I realize now his laziness has passed… He woke up, he’s my son, a true Van Camp, a worthy representative of his ancestry…”
We immediately busied ourselves with the affairs of the young man, and for about a year they appeared consistently to prosper. Orders arrived regularly. The old Van Camp was able to boast that his son was finally following in his family’s footsteps.
The letters that Hendricus wrote to us appeared to confirm this view; they always had the firm and energetic tone, which had given me so much surprise, of that first announcement. A detail however perplexed me. In talking of his home, of his plantations, of his life in Sumatra, my friend now employed terms that indicated quite clearly that he was not alone. Everywhere, “we” was replacing the former “me.” In vain I asked about the source of this, but I did not receive a clear response.
After a year, I received a letter, completely out of the blue. Hendricus told me that a revolt had broken out among the workers employed on his plantations, and that he had been forced to find other help because he had killed half of his men with his own hands after quashing the riot.
All this was told in the letter, in brutal terms, almost foul; one could not recognize in these lines the gentle, shy person with whom I had lived in Rotterdam nor the enterprising and positive planter of the previous months.
I could not understand anything about this new change.
The old Van Camp was painfully struck. In consideration of the kindness his entire family had shown me, and in memory of my former relations with his son, he begged me to leave immediately for the colony, to see for myself the mysterious transformation in the character and manner of my friend. He is too old to undertake the journey himself, and the rest of the business keeps him in Holland. It is in order to fulfill this charge that I have come here.
I have just seen Hendricus, and what he has told me exceeds the fantastic ramblings of the most confused and wild mind. I do not know how to interpret his story. Its meaning escapes me. But I will note down its essence, as it was presented in the words of my friend and uncovered through my further personal observations.
On the boat, on his way to the island of Java, Hendricus Van Camp made friends with some Hindu characters who were headed towards Ceylon. They talked of morals and ideas from their countries. The Hindus provided the young Dutchman some detailed explanations of the wisdom and the feats of Yogis, and they related to him some astonishing examples of the ways in which these ascetics illustrated their doctrines.
One can easily imagine that the official functions which brought the young man to Batavia did not motivate him with the necessary zeal. Hendricus Van Camp neglected daily office work to indulge without restraint in his favorite studies, and soon, despite the protections and support that led to his appointment, the officer in charge of colonial administration was given notice to let him go.
It was at this time that he wrote to me to request the sum of money.
Unconcerned by what had happened to him, my friend continued his research. After all sorts of trial and error, and many disappointments, too many to enumerate, he began to direct his will towards a specific purpose: he tried to materialize his own reflection, to bring forth the double that he saw in front of him.
I will not say by what mysterious process, but finally Hendricus was lucky enough to see his efforts succeed; very dimly at first, then with a clarity more and more accentuated, the desired image began to take shape and form in front of him. Then, one day, the perfect double of Hendricus Van Camp stood in the flesh and on two legs.
But there was something quite curious and unexpected: it was a woman.
During the first few weeks he lived with this miracle, he could not satisfy himself as to which, this woman or he himself, represented his true nature. However, he soon became acclimated to this duality, and he even began to consider her as one that would live by his side, as a companion he might have chosen freely.
Meanwhile, his character had changed as a result of this extraordinary event. He had become the energetic and determined man that second letter, dated from Sumatra, had so suddenly revealed.
In the company of his partner, and despite enormous difficulties, he had organized a tobacco plantation on the dangerous island, which demanded constant work and continued determination. For many months, the business began to give better results. The zeal and commitment of the young colonizer was such that all his ancestors’ prodigious labors were outdone in a single stroke.
After a year of living on their plantation in Sumatra, his double, or his wife, I do not know what to call her, gave birth to a child. (I am retelling what I heard here, at the same table I now write on; I think it’s his voice that dictates the words, his voice as echoed back by the walls and the disordered objects on the table where we had lunch together.)
At the moment of birth, according to his own words, Hendricus Van Camp felt stripped of the childish parts of his personality and character. He lost the constant sensitivity, which had always produced his generous impulses, and that had remained despite the development of the more masculine qualities which enabled him to better manage his business.
Once humane and moderate, almost overnight he became cruel, tough, and pitiless.
It was at this time he committed the murder, needless and terrible, of some of his employees, simply to take revenge for their revolt.
With this new staff, he appeared just as brutal and insensitive. But a strange event once again transformed his character.
This came bit by bit, gradually. Hendricus Van Camp noticed that his double, or his wife, call her what you will, began to lose weight: initially he did not notice, but soon he began to pay better attention to the strange decline. It seemed to him that his partner began to diminish, lose solidity; her complexion also paled day by day, and her strength seemed to evaporate while he himself felt his vigor somewhat reinforced. His companion faded and eventually she vanished altogether.
Left alone with his child, the planter almost unwittingly changed his attitude towards the workers who lived on his land. He lost that pitiless harshness which made him inflict the tough punishments on his men, forcing himself to do the grueling chores. Perhaps he became too lenient because his business began to decline.
A few days before my arrival in Batavia, he saw his child turn wan and seem to wane just as the other had; he observed the same phenomena, the progressive weakening of the flesh, the transparent pallor. A gradual evaporation of all parts of being followed, and finally a complete disappearance, a return to nothingness.
My awkward friend confided in me, with an angelic facial expression, that the disappearance of his wife and child did not cause him any pain. On the contrary, he claimed that as he saw them extinguished, he found himself relieved of a cruel weight; a feeling of inner rigidity, that he had felt for some time, left him almost immediately.
On confessing this, Hendricus Van Camp’s face relaxed into that gentle expression I knew well. I peered into his eyes and seemed to discover a new and curious feature: they gave me an impression that I can only describe by comparing the look in them with the look in the eyes of a mother…
In the way of his words and in his gestures, I found the young man sweet, timid, and generous in an old fashioned way. He told me that one thing worried him deeply. It was not the fate of his business; he knew that was lost and that he could no longer fix it. Instead he anxiously wondered what would happen to his staff after the ruin of his business. These men would find themselves without work. Should he not share the money from the liquidation with his employees who were deprived of bread because of him?…
Hearing him say those words, I looked at Hendricus Van Camp in amazement. It seemed that the unforgiving climate of the island had probably altered the mental faculties of my poor friend, and it became absolutely necessary to save him from madness. I told him that his father had sent me and asked him earnestly to return with me to Holland. Timid as a child, he said he would obey.
We leave tomorrow for Europe. The more I think of this story the less I comprehend it. We will see what the doctors in Rotterdam say.
1 A punkah is a large swinging ceiling fan that originated in Southeast Asia.
2 Batavia was the capital of the Dutch East Indies colony which became Indonesia following World War II. Today it is known as Jakarta.