Upon liquidation of the Tropical Belt Coal Company, Axel Heyst, its Swedish manager, does not leave the tropics. Isolated on his own little island of Samburan, he still attracts the attention of his fellow white men in that region. He is all alone except for the shadows of passing clouds and an active volcano.
Men in the offices where Heyst conducts his business cannot make him out. He does not appear to be interested in making money. In his playful, courteous way, he speaks of "the great stride forward for these parts." Heyst is not a traveler. Travelers move on to other parts of the world. Heyst does not move on. He stays. Yet he moves about in a circle with a radius of eight hundred miles drawn round a point in North Borneo. The circle touches both Manila and Saigon. He has been seen in both places. Within this area, he is known as "Enchanted Heyst."
He is called "Enchanted Heyst" because he once remarked that he was enchanted with these islands. He has other names, too. In his early days, he once stated that "There is nothing worth knowing but facts, hard facts." So he is also called "Hard Facts." His sayings stick to him, and people remember them.
He moons around the Java Sea in trading schooners and then disappears in the direction of New Guinea. After men have almost forgotten him, he returns in a native proa full of Goram vagabonds. He is burnt black by the sun and very lean. His hair has thinned, and he carries a portfolio of sketches under his arm. He shows the sketches but makes no comments about his sojourn in the New Guinea area.
Years pass; the last vestiges of youth leave his face, and all the hair is gone from the top of his head. His red-gold mustache has grown to noble proportions, and now another man gives him an epithet, "Utopist."
At the time events chronicled here take place, Heyst has reached his full physical development. Of broad and martial presence, he resembles portraits of Charles XII. Yet no one thinks of Heyst as a fighting man.
Conrad introduces his hero character in a situation of failure. The T.B.C. Company is defunct, and Heyst lives on Samburan alone. His companions are shadows and a volcano — both symbolic of his fate.
Note Heyst's reference to the "great stride forward." He will express an opinion about it later.
Heyst's character begins to emerge even in this first chapter. The names given him, "Enchanted Heyst," "Hard Facts," and "Utopist," all show that his sayings impress men and they remember. His martial appearance wins him notice, too, but his outstanding characteristic is a "finished courtesy of attitude, movement" and his delicately playful manner of speaking. Most people like him.
The reference to his contact with New Guinea natives and his remark that it "was amusing" are significant. The fact that he is artistic enough to make sketches of what he saw in New Guinea must be kept in mind.