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Mr. Clay is an aging, wealthy merchant living on the island of Macao during the 19th century. Some time ago, Clay had driven his partner Ducrot into bankruptcy and finally suicide; he now resides alone in Ducrot's mansion. His only companion is his bookkeeper, Levinsky, a Polish emigrant whose chores include reading the account books to Mr. Clay when he cannot sleep. One night, Levinsky tries to break the routine by reading from the text of Isaiah. Clay, however, is bored by anything that is not fact, and he interrupts his clerk to relate the "true" story of a young sailor who was paid by an aging and wealthy merchant to sleep with his beautiful wife in order to provide him with an heir. The clerk tells the old man that the tale is merely a legend that is familiar to sailors in every port. Irritated, Clay resolves to turn the fiction into truth, and he orders Levinsky to find a beautiful young woman to portray his wife. Levinsky approaches Virginie Ducrot, the daughter of Clay's former partner, who eventually agrees to take part in the charade for a sum of money. Clay then finds Paul, a young Danish sailor who has been shipwrecked on an island for a year, and brings him home to play the other role. After the sailor has dined sumptuously, he is shown to a bedroom where Virginie is waiting. All through the night Clay keeps a vigil outside the door of the bedroom where the couple are making love. In the morning when the sailor leaves, he is told that he can now tell his story around the world, and the legend will become truth. The sailor states that he has no intention of telling the story and that no one would believe him anyway. As Virginie watches the sailor depart, Mr. Clay closes his eyes and dies.