“The Brown Man’s Servant” belongs to that same category of tales as J. S. Le Fanu’s “The Familiar,” M. R. James’ “Casting the Runes,” and “Count Magnus,” and – to degrees – H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” It is a story of pursuit and hopelessness – of poor decisions and impossible escape. Jacobs’ horror stories often deal with the concept of fate and the snares of mortality. “The Monkey’s Paw,” “Jerry Bundler,” and “The Toll-House” all follow the idea that once having committed to an ill-advised course of action, a man is most often forced to endure the consequences without hope for mercy or extrication.
The story which follows has similar themes, and yet the protagonist is given nearly half-a-dozen opportunities to make amends for his decision, but stubbornly refuses to rectify his decision. It may be a supernatural tale, or it may be a psychological horror story with a simple explanation, but one way or another the outcome is unexpected and chilling – an excellent vehicle to introduce the reader to the main themes of Jacobs’ horror oeuvre: desperation, confusion, chaos, and mortality.
A greedy pawnbroker named Solomon is used to taking advantage of desperate sailors: with his shop positioned in a bustling seaport, mariners burdened by gambling debts frequently use him as a last resort -- and almost never return to reclaim their pawned goods. One day a particularly bedraggled old salt swaggers into his pawnshop with a markedly sly attitude. He tells Solomon that he has a priceless treasure that he wants to trade for cash – a massive diamond that he claims to be worth five hundred pounds. Solomon is fascinated by the prospect, but skeptical.
When the sailor exposes the gem to the light, Solomon is stunned by its beauty. The sailor suggests that he risked his life to get it, and this hint of cloak-and-dagger disturbs the pawnbroker. He accepts the deal in spite of this suggestion of criminality and goes to bed satisfied with his trade. His sleep, however, is disturbed by a rapping at his door as the sailor begs to be let in, warning that both of their lives are at stake.
He explains that he is on the run from an old man, a Burmese, from whom he stole the stone. Desperate to escape his pursuers – in particular the Burmese’s “servant” – he is shipping out of port that night, and has only stopped by to warn the pawnbroker that he is sitting on dynamite.
The next morning a sinister man comes into the shop and slyly hints that Solomon has an item that belongs to him. When Solomon refuses to acknowledge this, the stranger slams a belt on the table – which the broker recognizes as the sailor’s – and explains that he has just been given a fair warning.
Later on, a bent, swarthy old man in a turban comes to the offices where his presence frightens the cat. Solomon immediately realizes that this is the “brown man” who had so terrified the sailor, and is shocked when the gnarled old man openly admits to killing the sailor (whose death has been reported in the papers).
He demands the return of the diamond, and reminds the broker that his life is more valuable to him than five hundred pounds. When his threats fail to move Solomon, the old man snarls “I will kill you – I will send death to you—death in a horrible shape. I will send a devil, a little artful, teasing devil to worry you and kill you.”
Solomon throws him out of his shop, and tauntingly asks “What about your servant, the devil?” The old man sneers: “He serves when I am absent.” Returning inside he is disturbed to find the cat staggering drunkenly as if poisoned before falling over dead.
Solomon takes the threat seriously but is unshaken: he will not surrender the diamond. He has learned that the diamond is worth thirty thousand pounds and plans to sell his shop and move away. That night he steels himself to resist any attacks. Armed to the tooth, he stalks around his shop, looking for intruders.
At one point he sees the brown man’s face and fires twice through the window, but later wonders if it was imagined. His imagination becomes polluted with fears and anxieties as he wonders who the brown man’s servant is and what fate awaits him. He searches under the bed, behind curtains, and in dark corners, finding himself terrified by a rat and frightened by subtle noises.
Numb with fear, he barricades himself in his room and waits with a revolver. At one point he sees something coiled up in the corner, and is so startled that he drops his lamp, plunging him into darkness. From the shadows he hears a low hiss and realizes that the servant is a serpent -- one which killed the cat with its venomous bite. Terrified, he waits motionlessly until dawn light begins to filter through the window.
Not seeing the reptile, he attempts to stand, but the snake suddenly darts forward -- coiling up his arm and biting him in the throat. He tears the snake away and beats it to a pulp in a fit of terror. Reeling from the experience, he begins to ponder his next step: treat the wound, drink spirits to stem the poison, call the doctor... As he removes the barricade, his pistol falls to the floor. Picking it up he feels a moment of clarity, mutters "Thirty thousand pounds..." to himself, and coolly fires the gun through the roof of his mouth.
It must be admitted that the climax of this tale is weak. That the agent in question is a snake which could easily be avoided and destroyed is something of a disappointment after the tremendous build-up of tension and dread afforded by the cat’s death and the brown man’s sinister warnings. And yet the final sentence causes the story to resonate with mystery, awe, and terror. Having survived the night, on his way to have the snake bite addressed, and with seemingly no motive, our protagonist nonchalantly decides to blow his brains out with the same lack of gravity and care as a man picking out his socks for the afternoon.
The reason may be divined by the reader although Jacobs gives us no textual clues other than his final statement of “thirty-thousand pounds!” It may be that he has had a taste of the life he expects to live from now on – terrified each night and miserable every day – and he wishes to end it because the idea of death has seeped into his brain (apparently as an afterthought suggested by the pistol’s appearance), and has been found comforting in some way.
Surely this is the most obvious answer, although others are certainly valid. In any case, the horror of the tale is that he chooses suicide after succeeding at survival. We expect him to ironically die just before daybreak, but we never anticipate this turn of events. Jacobs suggests that his fate is so certain, so unavoidable, that even at the height of victory – literally having destroyed and conquered the tale’s eponymous assassin – his destiny is so thoroughly determined that there is no point in resisting, not even after this lucky victory. Jacobs’ horror universe is unforgiving, relentless, and patient.
Like Le Fanu, Bierce, and Lovecraft, his characters are hapless playthings in a wider world of slow, agonizing tortures which are willing to focus their attentions on destroying their prey, incapable of being avoided, being outsmarted, or being fatigued. They may be bested once, but they will prevail in time, for – as Dracula puts it to the Harkers – time is on their side.