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Title: Fear and Other Stories Author: Achmed Abdullah * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0604171h.html Edition: 1 Language: English Character set encoding: Latin-1(ISO-8859-1)--8 bit Date first posted: July 2006 Date most recently updated: July 2006 This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Pell Street Blues
Mystery of the Talking Idols
The Charmed Life
A Simple Act of Piety
THE fact that the man whom he feared had died ten years earlier did not in the least lessen Stuart McGregor's obsession of horror, of a certain grim expectancy, every time he recalled that final scene, just before Farragut Hutchison disappeared in the African jungle that stood, spectrally motionless as if forged out of some blackish-green metal, in the haggard moonlight.
As he reconstructed it, the whole scene seemed unreal, almost oppressively, ludicrously theatrical. The pall of sodden, stygian darkness all around; the night sounds of soft-winged, obscene things flapping lazily overhead or brushing against the furry trees that held the woolly heat of the tropical day like boiler pipes in a factory; the slimy, swishy things that glided and crawled and wiggled underfoot; the vibrant growl of a hunting lioness that began in a deep basso and peaked to a shrill, high-pitched, ridiculously inadequate treble; a spotted hyena's vicious, bluffing bark; the chirp and whistle of innumerable monkeys; a warthog breaking through the undergrowth with a clumsy, clownish crash--and somewhere, very far away, the staccato thumping of a signal drum, and more faintly yet the answer from the next in line.
He had seen many such drums, made from fire-hollowed palm trees and covered with tightly stretched skin--often the skin of a human enemy.
Yes. He remembered it all. He remembered the night jungle creeping in on their camp like a sentient, malign being--and then that ghastly, ironic moon squinting down, just as Farragut Hutchison walked away between the six giant, plumed, ochre-smeared Bakoto negroes, and bringing into crass relief the tattoo mark on the man's back where the shirt had been torn to tatters by camel thorns and wait-a-bit spikes and sabre--shaped palm leaves.
He recalled the occasion when Farragut Hutchison had had himself tattooed; after a crimson, drunken spree at Madam Céleste's place in Port Said, the other side of the Red Sea traders' bazaar, to please a half-caste Swahili dancing girl who looked like a golden madonna of evil, familiar with all the seven sins. Doubtless the girl had gone shares with the Levantine craftsman who had done the work--an eagle, in bold red and blue, surmounted by a lopsided crown, and surrounded by a wavy design. The eagle was in profile, and its single eye had a disconcerting trick of winking sardonically whenever Farragut Hutchison moved his back muscles or twitched his shoulder blades.
Always, in his memory, Stuart McGregor saw that tattoo mark.
Always did he see the wicked, leering squint in the eagle's eye--and then he would scream, wherever he happened to be, in a theatre, a Broadway restaurant, or across some good friend's mahogany and beef.
Thinking back, he remembered that, for all their bravado, for all their showing off to each other, both he and Farragut Hutchinson had been afraid since that day, up the hinterland, when, drunk with fermented palm wine, they had insulted the fetish of the Bakotos, while the men were away hunting and none left to guard the village except the women and children and a few feeble old men whose curses and high-pitched maledictions were picturesque, but hardly effectual enough to stop him and his partner from doing a vulgar, intoxicated dance in front of the idol, from grinding burning cigar ends into its squat, repulsive features, and from generally polluting the juju hut--not to mention the thorough and profitable looting of the place.
They had got away with the plunder, gold dust and a handful of splendid canary diamonds, before the Bakoto warriors had returned. But fear had followed them, stalked them, trailed them; a fear different from any they had ever experienced before. And be it mentioned that their path of life had been crimson and twisted and fantastic, that they had followed the little squinting swarthheaded, hunchbacked djinni of adventure wherever man's primitive lawlessness rules above the law, from Nome to Timbuktu, from Peru to the black felt tents of Outer Mongolia, from the Australian bush, to the absinth-sodden apache haunts of Paris. Be it mentioned, furthermore, that thus, often, they had stared death in the face and, not being fools, had found the staring distasteful and shivery.
But what they had felt on that journey, back to the security of the coast and the ragged Union Jack flapping disconsolately above the British governor's official corrugated iron mansion, had been something worse than mere physical fear; it had been a nameless, brooding, sinister apprehension which had crept through their souls, a harshly discordant note that had pealed through the hidden recesses of their beings.
Everything had seemed to mock them--the crawling, sour-miasmic jungle; the slippery roots and timber falls; the sun of the tropics, brown, decayed, like the sun on the Day of Judgment; the very flowers, spiky, odorous, waxen, unhealthy, lascivious.
At night, when they had rested in some clearing, they had even feared their own camp fire--flaring up, twinkling, flickering, then coiling into a ruby ball. It had seemed completely isolated in the purple night.
And they had longed for human companionship--white companionship.
White faces. White slang, White curses. White odors. White obscenities.
Why--they would have welcomed a decent, square, honest white murder; a knife flashing in some yellow-haired Norse sailor's brawny fist; a belaying pin in the hand of some bullying Liverpool tramp-ship skipper; some Nome gambler's six-gun splattering leaden death; some apache of the Rue de Venise garroting a passerby.
But here, in the African jungle--and how Stuart McGregor remembered it--the fear of death had seemed pregnant with unmentionable horror. There had been no sounds except the buzzing of the tsetse flies and a faint rubbing of drums, whispering through the desert and jungle like the voices of disembodied souls, astray on the outer rim of creation.
And, overhead, the stars. Always, at night, three stars, glittering, leering; and Stuart McGregor, who had gone through college and had once written his college measure of limping, anæmic verse, had pointed at them.
"The three stars of Africa!" he had said. "The star of violence! The star of lust! And the little stinking star of greed!"
And he had broken into staccato laughter which had struck Farragut Hutchinson as singularly out of place and had caused him to blurt forth with a wicked curse:
"Shut your trap, you--"
For already they had begun to quarrel, those two pals of a dozen tight, riotous adventures. Already, imperceptibly, gradually, like the shadow of a leaf through summer dusk, a mutual hatred had grown up between them.
But they had controlled themselves. The diamonds were good, could be sold at a big figure; and, even split in two, would mean a comfortable stake.
Then, quite suddenly, had come the end--the end for one of them.
And the twisting, gliding skill of Stuart McGregor's fingers had made sure that Farragut Hutchison should be that one.
Years after, when Africa as a whole had faded to a memory of coiling, unclean shadows, Stuart McGregor used to say, with that rather plaintive, monotonous drawl of his, that the end of this phantasmal African adventure had been different from what he had expected it to be.
In a way, he had found it disappointing.
Not that it had lacked in purely dramatic thrills and blood-curdling trimmings. That wasn't it. On the contrary, it had had a plethora of thrills.
But, rather, he must have been keyed up to too high a pitch; must have expected too much, feared too much during that journey from the Bakoto village back through the hinterland.
Thus when, one night, the Bakoto warriors had come from nowhere, out of the jungle, hundreds of them, silent, as if the wilderness had spewed them forth, it had seemed quite prosy.
Prosy, too, had been the expectation of death. It had even seemed a welcome relief from the straining fatigues of the jungle pull, the recurrent fits of fever, the flying and crawling pests, the gnawing moroseness which is so typically African.
"An explosion of life and hatred," Stuart McGregor used to say, "that's what I had expected, don't you see? Quick and merciless. And it wasn't. For the end came--slow and inevitable. Solid. Greek in a way. And so courtly! So polite! That was the worst of it!"
For the leader of the Bakotos, a tall, broad, frizzy, odorous warrior, with a face like a black Nero with a dash of Manchu emperor, had bowed before them with a great clanking of barbarous ornaments. There had been no marring taint of hatred in his voice as he told them that they must pay for their insults to the fetish, He had not even mentioned the theft of the gold dust and diamonds.
"My heart is heavy at the thought, white chiefs," he said. "But--you must pay!"
Stuart McGregor had stammered ineffectual, foolish apologies:
"We--we were drunk. We didn't know what--oh--what we--"
"What you were doing!" the Bakoto had finished the sentence for him, with a little melancholy sigh. "And there is forgiveness in my heart--"
"You--you mean to say--" Farragut Hutchison had jumped up, with extended hand, blurting out hectic thanks.
"Forgiveness in my heart, not the juju's," gently continued the negro. "For the juju never forgives. On the other hand, the juju is fair. He wants his just measure of blood. Not an ounce more. Therefore," the Bakoto had gone on, and his face had been as stony and as passionless as that of the Buddha who meditates in the shade of the cobra's hood, "the choice will be yours."
"Choice?" Farragut Hutchison had looked up, a gleam of hope in his eyes.
"Yes. Choice which one of you will die." The Bakoto had smiled, with the same suave courtliness which had, somehow, increased the utter horror of the scene. "Die--oh--a slow death, befitting the insult to the juju, befitting the juju's great holiness!"
Suddenly, Stuart McGregor had understood that there would be no arguing, no bargaining whatsoever; and, quickly, had come his hysterical question:
He had slurred and stopped, somehow ashamed, and the Bakoto had finished the interrupted question with gentle, gliding, inhuman laughter: "Your friend? White chief, that is for you two to decide: I only know that the juju has spoken to the priest, and that he is satisfied with the life of one of you two; the life--and the death. A slow death."
He had paused; then had continued gently, so very, very gently: "Yes. A slow death, depending entirely upon the vitality of the one of you two who will be sacrificed to the juju. There will be little knives. There will be the flying insects which follow the smell of blood and festering flesh. Too, there will be many, crimson-headed ants, many, ants--and a thin river of honey to show them the trail."
He had yawned. Then he had gone on: "Consider. The juju is just. He only wants the sacrifice of one of you, and you yourselves must decide which one shall go, and which one shall stay. And--remember the little, little knives. Be pleased to remember the many ants which follow the honey trail. I shall return shortly and hear your choice."
He had bowed and, with his silent warriors, had stepped back into the jungle that had closed behind them like a curtain.
Even in that moment of stark, enormous horror, horror too great to be grasped, horror that swept over and beyond the barriers of fear--even in that moment Stuart McGregor had realized that, by leaving the choice to them, the Bakoto had committed a refined cruelty worthy of a more civilized race, and had added a psychic torture fully as dreadful as the physical torture of the little knives.
Too, in that moment of ghastly, lecherous expectancy, he had known that it was Farragut Hutchison who would be sacrificed to the juju---Farragut Hutchison who sat there, staring into the camp fire, making queer little, funny noises in his throat.
Suddenly, Stuart McGregor had laughed--he remembered that laugh to his dying day--and had thrown a greasy pack of playing cards into the circle of meager, indifferent light.
"Let the cards decide, old boy," he had shouted. "One hand of poker--and no drawing to your hand. Showdown! That's square, isn't it?"
"Sure!" the other had replied, still staring straight ahead of him. "Go ahead and deal--"
His voice had drifted into a mumble while Stuart McGregor had picked up the deck, had shuffled, slowly, mechanically.
As he shuffled, it had seemed to him as if his brain was frantically telegraphing to his fingers, as if all those delicate little nerves that ran from the back of his skull down to his finger tips were throbbing a clicking little chorus:
"Do--it--Mac! Do--it--Mac! Do it--Mac!" with a maddening, cyncopated rhythm.
And he had kept on shuffling, had kept on watching the motions of his fingers--and bad seen that his thumb and second finger had shuffled the ace of hearts to the bottom of the deck.
Had he done it on purpose? He did not know then. He never found out--though, in his memory, he lived through the scene a thousand times.
But there were the little knives. There were the ants. There was the honey trail. There was his own, hard decision to live. And, years earlier, he had been a professional faro dealer at Silver City.
Another ace had joined the first at the bottom of the deck. The third. The fourth.
And then Farragut Hutchison's violent: "Deal, man, deal! You're driving me crazy. Get it over with."
The sweat had been pouring from Stuart McGregor's face. His blood had throbbed in his veins. Something like a sledge hammer had drummed at the base of his skull.
"Cut, won't you?" he had said, his voice coming as if from very far away.
The other had waved a trembling hand. "No, no! Deal 'em as they lie. You won't cheat me."
Stuart McGregor had cleared a little space on the ground with the point of his shoe.
He remembered the motion. He remembered how the dead leaves had stirred with a dry, rasping, tragic sound, how something slimy and phosphorous-green had squirmed through the tufted jungle grass, how a little furry scorpion had scurried away with a clicking tchk-tchk-tchk.
He had dealt.
Mechanically, even as he was watching, them, his fingers had given himself five cards from the bottom of the deck. Four aces--and the queen of diamonds. And, the next second, in answer to Farragut Hutchison's choked: "Show-down! I have two pair--kings--and jacks!" his own well simulated shriek of joy and triumph:
"I win! I've four aces! Every ace in the pack!"
And then Farragut Hutchison's weak, ridiculous exclamation--ridiculous considering the dreadful fate that waited him:
"Geewhittaker! You're some lucky guy, aren't you, Mac?"
At the same moment, the Bakoto chief had stepped out of the jungle, followed by half a dozen warriors.
Then the final scene--that ghastly, ironic moon squinting down, just as Farragut Hutchison had walked away between the giant, plumed, ochre-smeared Bakoto negroes, and bringing into stark relief the tattoo mark on his back where the shirt had been torn to tatters--and the leering, evil wink in the eagle's eye as Farragut Hutchison twitched his shoulder blades with absurd, nervous resignation.
Stuart McGregor remembered it every day of his life.
He spoke of it to many. But only to Father Aloysius O'Donnell, the priest who officiated, In the little Gothic church around the corner, on Ninth Avenue, did he tell the whole truth--did he confess that he had cheated.
"Of course I cheated!" he said. "Of course!" And, with a sort of mocking bravado: "What would you have done, padre?"
The priest, who was old and wise and gentle, thus not at all sure of himself, shook his head.
"I don't know," he replied. "I don't know."
"Well--I do know. You would have done what I did. Yon wouldn't have been able to help yourself." Then, in a low voice: "And you would have paid! As I pay--every day, every minute, every second of my life."
"Regret, repentance," murmured the priest, but the other cut him short.
"Repentance--nothing. I regret nothing! I repent nothing! I'd do the same to-morrow, It isn't that--oh--that--what d'ye call it--sting of conscience, that's driving me crazy. It's fear!"
"Fear of what?" asked Father O'Donnell.
"Fear of Farragut Hutchison--who is dead!"
Ten years ago!
And he knew that Farragut Hutchison had died. For not long afterward a British trader had come upon certain gruesome but unmistakable remains and had brought the tale to the coast. Yet was there fear in Stuart McGregor's soul, fear worse than the fear of the little knives. Fear of Farragut Hutchison who was dead?
No. He did not believe that the man was dead. He did not believe it, could not believe it.
"And even suppose he's dead," he used to say to the priest, "he'll get me. He'll get me as sure as you're born. I saw it in the eye of that eagle---the squinting eye of that infernal, tattooed eagle!"
Then he would turn a grayish yellow, his whole body would tremble with a terrible palsy and, in a sort of whine, which was both ridiculous and pathetic, given his size and bulk, given the crimson, twisted adventures through which he had passed, he would exclaim:
"He'll get me. He'll get me. He'll get me even from beyond the grave."
And then Father O'Donnell would cross himself rapidly, just a little guiltily.
It is said that there is a morbid curiosity which forces the murderer to view the place of his crime.
Some psychic reason of the same kind may have caused Stuart McGregor to decorate the walls and corners of his sitting room with the memories of that Africa which he feared and hated, and which, daily, he was trying to forget--with a shimmering, cruel mass of jungle curios, sjamboks and assegais, signal drums and daggers, knobkerries and rhino shields and what not.
Steadily, he added to his collection, buying in auction rooms, in little shops on the water front, from sailors and ship pursers and collectors who had duplicates for sale.
He became a well-known figure in the row of antique stores in back of Madison Square Garden, and was so liberal when it came to payment that Morris Newman, who specialized in African curios, would send the pick of all the new stuff he bought to his house.
It was on a day in August--one of those tropical New York days when the very birds gasp for air, when orange-flaming sun rays drop from the brazen sky like crackling spears and the melting asphalt picks them up again and tosses them high--that Stuart McGregor, returning from a short walk, found a large, round package in his sitting room.
"Mr. Newman sent it," his servant explained. "He said it's a rare curio, and he's sure you'll like it."
The servant bowed, left, and closed the door, while Stuart McGregor cut the twine, unwrapped the paper, looked.
And then, suddenly, be screamed with fear; and just as suddenly, the scream of fear turned into a scream of maniacal joy.
For the thing which Newman had sent him was an African signal drum, covered with tightly stretched skin--human skin--white skin! And square in the center there was a tattoo mark--an eagle in red and blue, surmounted by a lopsided crown, and surrounded by a wavy design.
Here was the final proof that Farragut Hutchison was dead, that, forever, he was rid of his fear. In a paroxysm of joy, he picked lip the drum and clutched it to his heart.
And then he gave a cry of pain. His lips quivered, frothed. His hands dropped the drum and fanned the air, and he looked at the thing that had fastened itself to his right wrist.
It seemed like a short length of rope, grayish in color, spotted with dull red. Even as Stuart McGregor dropped to the floor, dying, he knew what had happened.
A little, venomous snake, an African fer-delance, that had been curled up in the inside of the drum, been numbed by the cold, and had been revived by the splintering heat of New York.
Yes--even as he died he knew what had happened. Even as he died, he saw that malign, obscene squint in the eagle's eye. Even as he died, he knew that Farragut Hutchison had killed him---from beyond the grave!
THE darkness that is Africa is brilliantly depicted in this weird story of a white man alone in the jungle.
SPEAKING in after years about that period of his life, Lloyd Merriwether, being a New Englander and thus congenitally given to dissecting his motives and reactions and screwing them into test-tubes, used to add, by way of psychological comment, that it wasn't the big things that mattered in a crisis, but the small ones; and that, by the same token, it was not the big things one missed when one was away from that blending of hackneyed efficiency and pinchbeck mechanical process called Civilization, but the petty, negligible ones--those that have grown to become second nature, almost integrally part of one's self, like one's eyes, or ears, or nose.
Now--he would say--take, for example, a razor-strop or a box of talc powder. Take a bottle of eau de Cologne or witch hazel; or, if you prefer, a nail buffer, a pair of toilet scissors, or what not.
Silly, foolish, tinsel things, you say? Rubbish a man can do without just as well? Well--don't you believe it! Not for a single, solitary moment!
Oh, yes! You can do without all that truck when you are home, all snug and taut and comfortable---with shops around you on every street so that you know you can buy them, if the spirit moves you and you have the price. Sure.
But suppose you find yourself somewhere at the back of the beyond, where you can't buy the fool things for love or money--absolutely cannot get them. Why, at that very moment, those flummeries become vital--vital not from a pathological angle, because you always want what you can't get, but really, truly, physically vital.
It was that which meant the tragedy of the whole thing.
You bet. Tragic! Although--not--because it was so ludicrous, straight through. For, you know, I was quite out of my head when that fellow from the Angom Presbyterian Mission picked me up. What was his name? Oh, yes. Morrison. Doctor Sylvester Morrison, an Englishman, and a very decent chap.
I WAS a raving lunatic when he found me. Sat there screeching some musical-comedy song of a few years back--"Gee--but this is a lonesome town!" or something of the sort.
Say! It must have sounded funny, back yonder, in the heart of Africa, with the sun rays dropping straight down from a brazen sky to shatter themselves upon the hard-baked surface into sparkling, adamantine dust--to rise again in a dazzling vapor.
Oh, yes. Very funny, no doubt!
And then I went for Doctor Morrison with my knife. Lucky for him that I had used my last cartridge.
Well, to go back to the beginning, I felt a presentiment of coming disaster shortly after I was faced by the fact that those ochre-smeared, plum--colored Fang coons had run away during the night, as fast as their skinny legs would let them. I never did find out what made them stampede, nor cared to discover the reason why. You know what they are like--half children and half apes, and chuck--full of animistic superstitions and the inhibitions that go with them. I guess they must have heard a drum-signal boom-booming through the night---some brute of a flat-nosed, tattooed medicine-man brewing his smelly craft somewhere in the miasmic jungle to the north, and giving them the tip that I was "dam bad ju-ju." At any rate, there I found myself that morning, on the upper reaches of the Ogowe River, a day's journey below Boue, a week from the coast, and all alone.
I was rather annoyed. You know, Africa raises Cain with a white man's nerves and general amiability. And if I could have caught one of those runaway coons, I would have given him what was coming to him with my hippo-hide whip. But it was no use trailing them in the jungle. The wilderness had swallowed them, and so I contented myself with cursing them in English and Freetown pidgin.
Afraid of being alone?
Not I. You see, I wasn't a greenhorn, but an old Africander, dyed-in-the-wool, dyed-in-the-trek, and able to take care of myself. I knew that particular part of the French Congo better than I know my native Cape Cod, and I really did not need a guide; nor porter for that matter, since I was to go the rest of the way by canoe.
Nor was I afraid of any stray natives popping out of the bush. I've always been friends with them. I am not an adventurer--seeking for the rainbow, the pretty little rainbow that usually winds up in a garbage can--not an explorer, nor a soldier. I am a businessman, pure and simple, and I needed the natives to bring me rubber and ivory and gold--dust, while they needed me to get them their particular hearts', and stomachs', desires---American cloth, and beads, and pocketknives, and Worcester sauce, and Liverpool trade gin, and rifles that didn't shoot and similar truck. Of course, I did 'em brown whenever I had half a chance, and I guess they returned the compliment. So we had mutual respect for each other, and I wasn't scared of them--not the slightest bit.
As soon as I discovered that my Fangs had stampeded, I took stock of my belongings, and I saw that they had not taken much--in fact, nothing except the little waterproofed pack which contained my toilet articles, mirror and razor and shaving--brush and comb and all the rest. Struck me as funny at the time. I said to myself that those Fangs were fools--damned fools. They might have helped themselves to some of my other packs as easy as pie. Food, you know, tobacco, beads, all that. But they had not. Why? God only knows. I told you before that they're half children and half apes.
So I had a good laugh at their expense.
Well--I didn't laugh much a few days later.
THERE I was, then, in the crawling, stinking heart of Africa, all alone, and--for the moment, at least--cheerful enough. For I am a businessman, and I told myself that those fool negroes had saved me a tidy little penny by bolting, since I owed them a month's wages. Too, I was well supplied with everything a fellow needs in the wilderness, from quinine to matches, from tabloid beef to--oh, tabloid fish cakes. My health, but for occasional, woozy fever spats--they being part of Africa's eternal scenery and accepted as such--was first-rate, and my canoe a snug, comfy little affair that pulled as easy as a feather.
I decided that I would just drift along down the Ogowe River to the estuary, and no hurry--not a darned bit of hurry. The Ogowe is not a treacherous water; the channel is clearly marked most of the way, and the mangroves sit rather well back--like hair on the brow of a professional patriot, eh?
As to the pack with my toilet articles? Well, what did it matter? There weren't any women kicking around loose in that part of the Dark Continent to care or fuss if my hair was long or short, my complexion smooth or stubbly, my fingernails round or square. Blessed relief, in fact, to be independent of one's outer man, I thought.
So, I repeat, I was quite cheerful--for a few seconds, perhaps minutes.
BUT, almost immediately, I knew that my cheerfulness was faked--faked by myself, subconsciously, for my own, private, especial benefit; almost immediately, I sensed that vague, crushing presentiment of coming disaster I told you about--and my nerves began to jump sideways and backward, like a whisky-primed Highland Scot when he hears the whir of the war pipes.
Of course, being a sensible fellow, and not imaginative, I tried to crystallize my nervous presentiment. Couldn't, though. It was too subtle, too elusive--too damned African, to put it in the proverbial nutshell. All I was sure of was a sort of half-feeling--and I've had it before and since--that Africa was not a continent, but--oh, a being, a sinister, hateful, cruel, brooding monster, with a heart and soul and desires--rotten desires, mostly--and that this Africa hated me, because I was white, because I was an interloper, because I had no business there except--well, dollars and cents.
Yes. A mass of rocks and rivers and forests and jungles, this Africa, but with the physical, even the spiritual attributes of man--and I used to brood on that thought until often, in my dreams, I felt like taking Africa by the throat and throttling it as I would an enemy. Silly, too, since I needed Africa for the benefit of my bank-account and the encouragement of my creditors.
Never mind, though.
I just couldn't crystallize that damned, sneaking, ghastly presentiment, and so, knowing even at the time that it was a lie, I said to myself:
"Fever, old man! Go ahead, and do the regular thing!"
I did. I dosed myself with quinine and Warburg's and a wee nip of three-star just to top it off. Then I packed my canoe with a fairly steady hand, jumped in, balanced it and pushed off, gliding between the banks of the Ogowe River.
REMEMBER my telling you that I had intended drifting along slowly, that I was in no hurry? Well, the moment my paddle fanned the water, I reconsidered, subconsciously. I decided, again subconsciously, that I was in a devil of a hurry, that I must get away from the hinterland, from the Congo, from the whole of Africa.
I said to myself that, arrived at the coast, I would catch the first mail-boat bound for Liverpool and then on to America. No--I wouldn't even wait for the mail-boat. I would go straight aboard the first dirty tramp steamer that came wallowing up from the south, and beat it home.
Home! That's what I needed! And rest, rest---and a white man's big, crimson drink in a white man's proper surroundings--with white-aproned saloonkeepers and stolid policemen and, maybe, a night-court magistrate or two all complete. I wanted to be shut for a while from this stinking, brooding, leering Africa. I wanted America, the white man's land, the white man's blessed, saving vices and prejudices.
How I longed for it, longed for it as if it were a woman, as I paddled down the river!
Of home I thought, of foolish things--New York, and dear, garish Fifth Avenue all agleam with shop windows and the screaming brasses of passing automobiles, and the soda place around the corner on Forty-second, and the night boat to Boston--and a solid hour with the ads in back of the magazines. And then I looked about me and I saw Africa, putrid, acrid! And, gee! How I hated it--hated it!
I pulled myself together. Sure, more quinine, more Warburg's, and another nip of the stuff. Back to the paddle with all my strength--and the canoe flying along like a sentient being.
I paddled as if all the furies were after me. Just opened a tin at random, sneaked forty winks now and then, and off again, though my hands were raw and blistered, my back sore and strained till I nearly shrieked, my legs numb from the knees down, my eyes red-rimmed and smarting with watching the current.
Three days. Four. Five---
And the work! And the sweat! And the heat! Why, man, all the heat of all the universe seemed to have gathered into a tight, crimson ball poised directly above my eyes.
But I kept right on, with always the picture of home before my mind's eyes. Home, white faces, hundreds and hundreds of them, houses of stone, paved streets, a sun which did not maim and kill, then dinner, plain, clean, as dinner should be, the theater, and over it all the sweet home scent.
On the sixth day, I fell in a faint. Picked myself up again, rescued my paddle that was about to float away downstream, swallowed an opium pill, and called myself a fool. Perhaps it was the last helped the most. At all events, I was off again. But I felt weak. I felt conscious of a sickening sensation of nameless horror--and--do you know what I was afraid of?
I'll tell you. Myself. Yes, myself! I was afraid of--myself. Momentarily, I crystallized it. Myself--and you'll see the reason presently.
THAT day I did get into a mangrove swamp; a thick and oozy one, too, with the spiky orchids coming down in a waxen, odorous avalanche, and all sorts of thorny plants reaching down and out as if trying to rip the heart out of my body, as if trying to impede my progress, to keep me there. My hands and face were lacerated, my clothes torn, but I didn't care. By main force, I jerked the canoe free and was off again, whipping the water like a madman; and the fear, the horror, the vague presentiment always growing!
And my hatred of Africa, it nearly choked me! And the loneliness! The loneliness which lay across my heart, my soul, my body, like a sodden blanket, and the fear that I would never reach home.
I lost all track of time. A week to make the coast, I had figured; and here it was at the very least the tenth day, and still my paddle went, still the river slid before my eyes like a watered-silk ribbon, still Africa unrolled like an odorous, meaningless scroll, still at my back rode horror and fear.
I don't know how I missed the main channel, got lost in one of the numerous smaller rivers that empty into the Ogowe. At all events, late one afternoon, I found myself in a narrow, trickly stream, with my paddle touching ground every second stroke, and the banks to right and left like frowning, sardonic walls. It wasn't a river any more--but just a watery sort of jungle trail, hardly discernible, wiped by the poisonous breath of the tropics into a dim, smelly mire which frothed and bubbled and sucked and seemed to reach out for those who dared tread its foul solitude.
I pushed on, through an entangled, exuberant commingling of leaves and lasciviously scented, fantastic flowers that vaulted above me like an arch, cutting my way through the mangrove that opened before my canoe, with a dull, gurgling sob, then closed behind me, with a vicious, popping gulp, as if the jungle had stepped away to let me through, leisurely, contemptuously, invincibly, to bar my way should I attempt to return!
On--and then, I don't know what happened to me. I don't know if night came, or if the creepers closed above me, shutting off the light of the sun, or if, momentarily, I became blind. I only remember that although, like an automaton, my hand kept on wielding the paddle, everything turned black around me . . . and the next thing I remember is that I shivered all over as if in an ague, that cold sweat was running down my face, that I groped for the quinine--could not find it . . .
Too, I remember, a sudden glimpse of jungle natives--dwarfs, you know, the useless African tatters of a pre-Adamite breed. I saw two or three of them in the blackish-green gloom of the trees, flitting past, gliding, indistinct. They blended into the jungle, like brown splotches of moss on the brown, furry tree-trunks, and they gave no sign of life except a rolling flash of eyeballs--white, staring with that aspect of concentrated attention so typical of savages.
I recollect, vaguely, shouting at them, for help, I suppose, my voice seeming to come across illimitable distances.
Too, I recollect how they ran away, the jungle folding about them like a cloak. Then I felt a dull jar as I fell on my hands and knees in the bottom of the canoe and rolled over.
I CAME to, I don't know how many hours later. I was cold and wet and shivery, and then I noticed that rain was coming down like a cataract. And at once I knew that I was dying. Dying! Sure. Straight through my delirium, I realized it. Realized, too, that only one thing would help me to cheat death: a sound roof over my head, sound flooring under my feet, sound walls about--a house, in other words. A real, honest-to-God white man's house where I could take off my clothes and keep dry and warm, and give the quinine and the Warburg's a chance to work.
A house! In that part of Africa! Might as well have wished for the moon!
And then, suddenly, I saw it--yes, a house!
It was not a hallucination, an optical illusion, a mirage, my delirious mind playing follow-the--leader with my eyes--and my prayers. It was real. Solid stone and wood and corrugated iron and a chimney and windows and doors all complete, like a bit of suburbia dropped in the jungle. I saw it through the steaming, lashing rain, on a little knoll due north, perhaps a quarter of a mile away from the river.
I jumped out of the canoe, landed, with clutching hands, in the mangrove, pulled myself up, ran as fast as I could, stumbling, tripping, falling, plunging. I hardly felt the thorns that scratched my face and hands and tore my clothes into ribbons.
I struggled on, with the one thought in my mind: the house--warmth--life!
How had the house got there?
Weeks later, I found out. Doctor Morrison told me, sitting by my bedside in the hospital.
It seemed that some imaginative chap of a West Coast trader had come up to London on his yearly spree. He must have been as eloquent as an Arab, for he met some City bigwigs that were reeking with money, and persuaded them that the French Congo hinterland was God's own paradise, and just waiting to give them fifty percent on their investment, if they were willing to come through handsome. They were, and they did. They supplied a working capital big enough to make a Hebrew angel weep with envy. "Gaboon, Limited," they called the new company, with laconic pride, and for some reason--the usual, you know, social stuff, Mayfair and Belgravia flirting with Lombard and Threadneedle streets--they appointed some fool of a younger son as general manager, the sort of gink whose horizon is limited by Hyde Park Corner and Oxford Circus, and who knows all about the luxuries of life, which to him are synonymous with the necessities. Well, he went out to the coast, up the river, took a look at the scenery, and decided that the first thing to do would be to build a suitable residence for his festive self. He did so, and I guess the imaginative West Coast trader who was responsible for the whole thing must have helped him. Naturally--think of the commissions he must have pocketed from the Coast people: commissions for stone and wood and glass and bricks and cement and whatnot.
Yes, that was the sort of house our younger son built for himself. Darn the expense! He was stubborn if nothing else. The house was built; he moved in, and three weeks later some flying horror bit him in the thumb, and he promptly kicked the bucket. About the same time our imaginative West Coast trader disappeared with what was left of the working capital of "Gaboon, Limited," and nothing remained of that glorious African enterprise except the house, that incongruous, ludicrous, suburban house in the heart of the tropics--Westchester-in--the-Congo, eh?
I guess the natives must have considered it "bad ju-ju," for they left it severely alone.
And it was bad ju-ju. I know.
ALL right. I made for it, running, stumbling, soaked to the skin. I pushed open the door, and, at once, I became conscious of a terrible, overpowering fear. Rather, it seemed as if the vague, crushing foreboding which I had sensed all the way down the river had suddenly peaked to an apex; as if the realization of that presentiment--the physical realization, mind you!--was waiting for me somewhere within the house. Waiting to leap upon me, to kill me!
But what could I do?
Outside was the rain, and the miasmic jungle stench, and fever, and certain death--while inside?
I STUMBLED across the threshold, and, instinctively, I pulled my revolver from my waterproofed pocket.
I remember how I yelled at the empty, spooky rooms:
"I will defend myself to the last drop of my blood!"
Quite melodramatic, eh? Incredibly, garishly so, like a good old Second Avenue five-acter where the hero is tied to the stake and the villain does a war--dance around him with brandished weapons.
I couldn't help myself; I felt that ghastly, unknown, invisible enemy of mine the moment I was beyond the threshold. At first he was shrouded, ambiguous. But he was there. Hidden somewhere in the great, square entrance hall and peeping in upon my mind, my sanity.
Momentarily, I controlled myself with a tremendous, straining effort. I said to myself, quite soberly, that I had come here to get dry, to take off my clothes, and so I sat down on a rickety, heat--gangrened chair and began kicking off my waterlogged boots.
I got up again, in a hurry, yelling, trembling in every limb.
For he, my unknown, invisible enemy, had sat down by my side. I could feel him blow over my face, my neck, my hands, my chest, my legs, like a breath of icy wind. That's the only way to put it. So, as I said, I got up again in a hurry, and I ran away, shrieking at the top of my lungs, peering into every corner, revolver in my right hand, finger on trigger, ready to fight, fight to death, if my enemy would only come out into the open--if only he would fight!
"Coward! Oh, you dirty, sneaking coward!" I yelled at him. "Come out here and show your face, and fight like a man!"
And I laughed, derisively, to get his goat; and then I could hear his answering laughter, coming in staccato, high-pitched bursts:
Too, I heard him move about, somewhere right close to me, behind me, and I decided to use a stratagem. I decided to stand quite still, then to turn with utter suddenness and take him by surprise; to pounce upon him and kill him. Surely, I said to myself, if I turned quick enough, I would be able to see him.
So I stood there, motionless, tense, waiting, my mind rigid; my heart going like a trip-hammer; my right hand gripping my revolver; my left clenched until the knuckles stretched white.
And I did turn, suddenly, my revolver leaping out and up, a shout of triumph on my lips. But--he was not there. He had disappeared. I could hear his footsteps pattering away through one of the farther rooms, and, too, his maniacal, staccato laughter.
Oh, how I hated him, hated him! And I ran after him, through room after room, shouting:
"I'll get you, you dirty coward, I'll get you! Oh, I'll get you and kill you!"
AND then, in a room on the top floor, I came face to face with him! It was quite light there, with the sun rays dropping in like crackling spears, and as he came toward me, I could make out every line in his face.
Tall he was, and gaunt and hunger-bitten and dreadfully, dreadfully pale, with yellowish-green spots on his high cheekbones, and his peaked chin covered with a week's growth of black stubbles, and a ragged mustache. His face was a mass of scars and bleeding scratches and cuts; and in his right hand he held a revolver--leveled straight at my heart.
I fired first, and there was an enormous crash, and---
Sure! I had fired into a mirror, a big mirror. At myself. Had not recognized myself. What with lack of razor and shaving-brush and looking-glass--and delirium--and fever---
Yes, yes. It's the small things, the little foolish, negligible things one misses when one is away from civilization.
Pass the bottle, will you!
MICHAEL CRANE cut through the other's subdued buzz of bland, philosophic similes with a hairy hand, stabbing sideways through the opium-scented shadows, and words, bubbling out with the bitterness of their own utter futility:
"What are you going to do? That's what I would like to know, old man!"
"What are you going to do?" he repeated dully, after a pause.
Even as he said it, he knew that there would be, could be, no answer except the same one which the other, Tzu Po, Amban of Outer Mongolia, who sat facing him--his fabulously obese bulk squeezed into a stilted, tulip wood and marble mosaic chair, his heavy-lidded eyes bilious with too much poppy juice, and his ludicrously small, white silk--stockinged feet twitching nervously--had given him nearly every day these last six weeks or so; ever since Professor Hans Mengel had dropped serenely and sardonically out of the nowhere, atop a shaggy Bactrian camel, and, within a day of his arrival, had struck up an incongruous friendship with the abbots and monks of the Buddhist lamasery that squatted on the hogback, porphyry hill above the flat, drab city of Urga, the capital of Outer Mongolia, with all the distressing weight of ancient thaumaturgical hypocrisy and bigotry. Be it remembered that the spiritual and theological politics of all Buddhist central Asia, from Kamchatka to the burned steppes of the Buriat Cossacks, from the arctic Siberian tundras to the borders of sneering, jealous Tibet, were being shouted by thin-lipped, copper-faced, yellow--capped lama priests behind the bastioned battlements of the old convent and that these spiritual politics were frequently running counter to the dictates and desires of Peking's secular suzerainty, embodied--ironic thought!--by Mandarin Tzu Po.
The same old answer, day after day, accompanied by a shrugging of fat shoulders, a deep, apologetic intake of breath, and a melancholy gesture of pudgy hands so that the ruddy light of the charcoal ball in its openwork brass container danced fitfully on his long, gold-incased fingernails.
"Who am I to know?"--with the fatalistic, slightly supercilious modesty of all Asia.
"Who are you to know?" The American, fretting with impatience, picked up the mock-meek counter-question like a battle gage. "Why, man, you are the high-and-mighty governor of this stinking, disgusting neck o' the woods! You are the honorable amban--entitled to I don't know how many kowtows and how much graft!"
"Indeed, Mr. Crane. And you are the American consul, eh? And"--with low, gliding laughter--"you are also entrusted with the interests of your honorable allies--France, Great Britain, Italy--" "Don't I know it, though? But what can I do? I am as helpless as--"
"As I!" gently interrupted the Chinaman, kneading agilely the brown opium cube against the stem of his tasseled bamboo pipe.
Another pause, broken presently by the American's chafing. "You are supposed to have some power here, and you know just as well as I that this measly German professor--"
"I know nothing!" Tzu Po fidgeted unhappily in his chair. He half closed his bilious eyes like a man in pain. "I wish to know nothing! I insist on knowing nothing!"
"Ostrich!" Crane leaned forward in his chair and emphasized his words with a didactic finger. "You know perfectly well that Mengel is playing a lot of dirty, rotten, underhand politics, that he and the Buddhist monks--"
"Professor Mengel is the leading European authority on early Buddhism. It is natural that he should take an interest in this old lamasery--"
"I know all that, Tzu Po! The chief Lama of Urga is second only to the Dalai Lama of Tibet in holiness. He is a continuous reincarnation of some damned Buddhist saint or other, and Mengel, as you say, does know a lot more about Buddhism than the priests do themselves. But, man, this is war! Not even a single-minded German professor will cross all Russia and half of Asia, these days, simply to swap theological lies with some old yellow-capped priests! I tell you--and I needn't tell you, since you know it yourself--that that Hun is up to some deviltry!"
The Chinaman sighed. "Admitting that you are right," he replied, "there are religious reasons why I can't interfere with the monks and abbots who have befriended him."
"Religious reasons be hanged!" scoffed Michael Crane. "You are a Chinaman and, being a Chinaman, you are about as religious as the devil himself!"
"But these people here whom I--ah--rule"---Tzu Po smiled gently at the implied jest--"they are not Chinese. They are Mongols, Tibetans, Buriats, Turkis, and what not. They are devout Buddhists--"
"Subject races--all of them!"
"Exactly. We Chinese are like the English. We do not attempt to interfere with the home life, the home laws, the home religions of our subject peoples. And to all Buddhist central Asia the words of the yellow-capped abbot in the convent up there are--"
"Sure. Divine commands. Sort of--oh--direct from the Lord Gautama Buddha's deceased and sanctified bones. That's why I say it's up to you to do something," said Crane, "to assert yourself, to grease your big stick!"
"You know what I mean. You've spent years in America. Send to Peking for a company or two of roughneck soldiers. Show these stinking, sniveling, shave-tail priests who is the boss of the ranch. Call their bluff. Pop the Herr Professor into a nice, comfy jail--"
"For what reason?" inquired Tzu Po.
"Because he's up to some deviltry--as I told you--as you know yourself--if you weren't such a confounded Chinese Pharisee!"
"I can prove nothing against him!" Tzu Po filled his lungs with gray, acrid opium smoke. "Can you, my friend?"
"Prove? The devil! You don't have to prove. You can arrest him on suspicion--shoot him out of the country if you want to--"
"It would be against the law."
"Laws are rather in abeyance these days. You have some leeway in wartime."
"China is not at war--yet. China and Germany are still at peace. No, no!" Tzu Po made a gesture of finality. "I can't help you, my friend--except"---he winked elaborately at nothing in particular--"if you should--"
"What?" whispered Michael Crane. "If I should do--what?"
The other was not caught so easily. "If you should do--anything!" he countered. "Yes--if you should do anything at all, I should be deaf and dumb and blind!"
"But what can I do? Gosh! I wish I'd never seen this darned hole in the ground! I don't belong here!"
"Nor do I!" rejoined the other with a melancholy smile.
And then, as always at the end of their daily bickerings, the two men looked at each other, feeling singularly foolish, and impotent and friendly.
THE one an American, lean, angular, long of limb, pink and tan as to complexion, red-haired, gray-eyed, freckled. The other a Pekingese Chinaman, yellow, silky, urbane, smooth, fat, with bluish-black hair and sloe eyes. The one of the West, Western--the other of the East, Eastern!
Yet there was a certain similarity in the fateful pendulum of their careers; the promising beginnings--the drab, flat endings--here, in Urga, at the very back of the beyond.
Michael Crane had been a brilliant young lawyer and politician in his native city, Chicago, with the Supreme Court, the Presidency itself, shining like a Holy Grail in the autumnal distance of his full life. Ward politics came first, of course, slapping people on the back, kissing little grubby babies, gossiping with their women, and--yes!---occasionally a little, sociable nip in some saloon the other side of Dexter Hall.
Yearly his thirst had increased while, proportionately, his earlier promises of great, lasting achievement had decreased. Still, he had not lost all his hold on his favorite ward. The marshaling of that curious phenomenon called public opinion had become second nature to him. His fertile eloquence, chiefly when he was in his cups, had not suffered, nor his readiness to close a tolerant eye when one of his underlings resorted to more primitive, more abysmal methods in convincing Doubting Thomases that his party was the right party when the nation was voting for president several years earlier, he had been able to swing a block of votes into the ballot boxes of the party which came out victorious. And reward had been his.
"Mike Crane has to be taken care of," a certain bigwig in Washington had said. "His ward was rather ticklish, but he turned the trick."
"Sure," another bigwig had replied, "but--you know--well--"
"Yes, yes." The first speaker had left his seat and had walked to a large map of the world that was spread on the wall. He had studied it with a saturnine twinkle in his sharp brown eyes.
"Ever hear of Urga?" he had asked over his shoulder.
"No. What is it? A new soft drink--with a kick--you're going to recommend to Mike Crane? Perhaps a new liquor cure guaranteed to--"
"Cut out the joshing. It seems to be a town in--" Again he had studied the map. "Let me see. Yes, it is the capital of Outer Mongolia, steen million miles from nowhere. Jack," he had continued, lighting a cigar, "I have a hunch that the United States of America needs a consul out yonder. What do you say?"
"I say yes. And I nominate Mike Crane for the job."
"Seconded and carried. Perhaps he won't be able to get whisky in Urga. Anyway, he won't do much harm there!"
Thus Michael Crane had become United States consul in Urga seven years earlier.
Urga! Outer Mongolia! Central Asia! Quite unimportant! It was all so very far away from Broadway and Fifth Avenue and State Street and the White House, and the salary was not much of a burden on the generous American taxpayer!
Tzu Po's career had been similar. The scion of an excellent burgess family of Peking, he had passed high in the examinations of the literati, and had received the degree of chen-shih, or Eminent Doctor, at the Palace of August and Happy Education, to the west of the Ch'ien Men Gate in the Forbidden City. Afterward, he had passed a no less brilliant examination at Harvard, had been attached as secretary to several Chinese legations and embassies, had tried to stimulate his brain with opium--until, one day, perhaps giving way to an atavistic weakness, he had surrendered, body and soul and ambition, to the curling black smoke.
Still, to him, too, was due a certain measure of gratitude on the part of those in power since. At the time when young China arose in the yellow, stinking slums of Canton and brushed away, with the lusty, impatient fist of Democracy, the gray Bourbon cobwebs of Manchu autocracy, he had been one of the younger leaders, and one of the most fearless, the most constructive.
Like Crane, he had been sent to a sort of honorable exile--to Urga.
"He cannot do much harm there," one mandarin had said.
"Indeed!" another had replied.
Thus, both men had been sent to the same laggard, dronish end of the world.
Thus, both men had promptly been forgotten by their respective, paternal governments--except by the yawning clerks, in Washington or in Peking, who made out the monthly stipend checks.
Had come seven indolent, drowsy, passive years; years which sealed a strange, though not unhappy, friendship between Michael Crane and Tzu Po, the more so since the latter felt a greater cultural kinship and, in consequence, a greater sympathy for the American than for his uncouth racial cousins who peopled Urga and the surrounding country, while Crane--the only white man, since no other country deemed Outer Mongolia important enough to keep there a consular representative--was glad of the company of a man who had a more or less intelligent, but at all events personal, acquaintance with State Street, baseball, dry martinis, and the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. Nothing, during all this time, had ever happened to disturb the even tenor of the passing, swinging years. Occasionally, of course, there had been a row or a fight between the two opposing parties--red-cap lama priests and yellow cap--who claimed the spiritual suzerainty of northern Buddhism. But the American had been an amused and slightly cynical onlooker, while Tzu Po, though he was the governor, would shut himself up in his palace with a liberal supply of opium cubes and a volume of archaic poetry or two and only leave it when the priests had settled the argument among themselves--after which, he would report to the ministry of the outer provinces in Peking that everything was serene and happy.
Three years earlier, there had been a little more excitement. For the chief lama--a yellow cap, he---had died, and the priests had set about electing another earthly representative, another incarnation of Subhuti, the disciple of the Lord Gautama Buddha, whose soul and spirit are said to migrate into the body of each successive Urga abbot. For centuries, the Lara family, who had been Tibetans originally, had monopolized the saintly dignity, including its divers and rather more worldly emoluments until, to all intents and purposes, it had become almost hereditary. Always the yellow-cap priests, to whom the Lara clan belonged, had been the decisive factor in the mazes of northern Buddhism.
But, that year, due it was said to the intrigues of a Russian Buddhist from the shores of Lake Baikal, who had acted under orders of the czar's government with the intention of undermining the Pekingese prestige in that part of the world, the red--cap lamas had for once put forward and backed a candidate of their own. However, being vastly in the minority, they had been defeated and yellow--cap Tengso Punlup of the Lara clan had been elected chief abbot.
Michael Crane, comparing the sacerdotal election with voting contests as he had seen and handled them in his favorite Chicago ward, had looked on with cynical, slightly nostalgic amusement.
Again Tzu Po had locked himself up in the innermost chamber of his palace.
The election had passed. A number of red caps and yellow caps had had their tough skulls cracked with brass inkstands and massive teakwood prayer wheels. And then there was peace once more, the bottle for Crane, and the amber-colored poppy juice for Tzu Po--until, overnight it seemed, out of the diseased brain of modern Germany rose the crimson monstrosity of lust and cruelty that threatened to drown the world in an avalanche of hissing, darkening blood.
War--east, north, south, and west! War of white man and black and red and brown! War on land and on sea! War of might and of brain! War from the smiling fields of France to the miasmic jungles of west Africa!
And even here, in the sluggish, comatose heart of Asia, war was showing its fangs. A few weeks earlier, Professor Hans Mengel, suave, clean shaven, serene, had dropped out of the nowhere, riding a smelly Bactrian camel, speaking the local dialects like a native, well supplied with money, familiar with the intricate labyrinth of Buddhism. And, too, there were the thin-lipped yellow caps in the old lamasery whispering, whispering--and Tengso Punlup, the chief abbot, was on his deathbed--and it was gossiped in the bazaars and the market place that again the red caps would put a candidate of their own into the field and that more than the mere spiritual succession of northern Buddhism would be decided when the old abbot's soul had joined Buddha's greater soul in the fields of the blessed.
Crane knew it.
So did Tzu Po.
"We're helpless, we two," murmured the American, turning and looking from the window.
OUTSIDE, the solitary pollard willow that guarded the amban's palace like a grim sentinel of ill omen, bending under white hummocks, was draped with shimmering, glistening, gauze frost. Snow was everywhere, thudding softly in moist, flaky crystals, hurling fitfully across a sunset of somber, crushed pink that was trying to show its heart of color through the gray, drifting cloud banks, mantling the peacock blue of pagoda roof and the harsh, crass red of Buddhist wayside shrine, etching tiny points of silver on the voluminous, coarse fur coats of the Manchus, Tartars, Tibetans, and occasional Nepalese who were ambling in all directions, their stout legs encased in knee-high felt boots, enormous hats covering them to their quilted, padded shoulders, their faces glimpsing beneath with a ludicrous blue and green sheen, their noses wrinkled like rabbits' against the biting wind that came booming out of the north, their thin, drooping mustaches white-frosted into icicles.
Here and there, yellow-capped priests moved through the crowd, brutally serene in the superstitious awe with which they were regarded, clicking their prayer wheels, talking to each other in gentle, gliding undertones, and smiling, always smiling.
Michael Crane clenched his fists in impotent fury.
The others--the cattle drovers and camel men, the fur and salt traders, the peasants, hunters, trappers, and fishermen--they did not matter. They were just the incoherent, unthinking, inert mass who danced to the piping of the sneering, wrinkled abbot up there behind the bastioned walls of the lamasery.
But, Crane told himself bitterly, these yellow--capped priests were the intellectual aristocracy of this vast land that stretched its religious feelers all over central Asia. They were in the "know," every last one of them. They all belonged to the same mysterious, sinister lodge, understood the same unspoken passwords and furtive high signs--they and the German professor who was lording it in their councils--while he, Michael Crane, United States consul, once a brilliant lawyer and a skillful politician in the city of Chicago, and Tzu Po, who was supposed to be the governor--why---
He rose and stretched himself. "I guess I'll run along home," he said. "So long. See you tomorrow. Drop in for breakfast if the spirit moves you," he added hospitably.
The other did not reply. He had fallen asleep over the sizzling, bubbling opium lamp. A beatific smile wreathed his bland, yellow features, and his breath came evenly.
"You're the sensible lad all right, all right," said Crane. And he slipped into his heavy coat, rammed his fur cap down over his ears, and stepped out into the biting cold night.
He turned in the direction of his house, a short distance away. His "boy" would have made a fire by this time, prepared supper, and set out a bottle and glasses and some of the treasured home papers and magazines which he received with each mail, once every two months, and which he apportioned jealously so that they should last him until the next mail came along.
AS he walked stiffly aslant against the booming northern wind, he tried to marshal his thoughts, tried to dovetail for himself a picture of what had happened behind the grim, bastioned walls of the lamasery and of what was going to happen, viewing the whole situation instinctively through the spectacles of his former politician's experience.
There were certain outstanding facts: The main one being that Tengso Punlup, the chief abbot, was on his deathbed. Furthermore, that a successor to his saintly honors would have to be chosen, and that the yellow caps, as by ancient traditions, would advance the claims of a member of the Lara family, while it was whispered in the bazaars that again the red caps would contest the election with a candidate of their own.
There was the subsidiary fact that these latter were in the majority, either British subjects from Little Tibet, Kashmere, and the Shan states, or from southern Tibet and those independent Himalaya principalities, like Nepal and Bhopal, the inhabitants of which were under British protection and overlordship. And Michael Crane knew, from the perusal of certain papers which he received, notably from the North China Gazette of Shanghai, that in the present world war these people had been uncompromisingly loyal. It was, therefore, to be assumed, by logical juxtaposition, that the others, the yellow caps, who were in the majority, favored the cause of the Central Powers as much as they thought about such a remote matter at all.
And right here, the mysterious, suave, immaculate figure of Herr Professor Hans Mengel came into the focus.
He was a favorite with the yellow caps. He stood high in their councils. He would doubtless play a big role during the coming election, as soon as Tengso Punlup had died. Though a European, a white man, he was acknowledged to be the leading authority on northern Buddhism and, as such, looked up to by the lama priests.
But--mused Michael Crane--given the fact that the yellow caps were in the majority, that one of the Lara clan was practically certain to be chosen chief abbot, why had the Berlin government, which Mengel doubtless represented, gone to the trouble of sending him here, to Urga?
Just to make assurance doubly sure?
Or was it perhaps---
He shook his head. His thoughts became confused, muddled. He only knew that for some vague reason, which he could not quite decipher, it was important for the cause of America and her allies, whom he represented, that the yellow caps should be defeated at the coming election to Subhuti's saintly succession.
Back in his old Chicago ward, he would have known how to handle the situation. At least, he might have made an attempt. There he knew the ropes that controlled the political machine of the ward, and they were simple enough; eloquence of tongue and, occasionally, the passive gift of seeing nothing and hearing nothing when a too--enthusiastic underling relied on clenched fist or even blackjack to lend force to his patriotic arguments.
As to eloquence, he had lived here a number of years and had learned just about enough Mongol to ask for food and drink and carry on an ordinary conversation. But right there his knowledge stopped. He knew nothing of those finer nuances and twists of language which make for power, and less of the theological undercurrents of northern Buddhism, while, on the other hand, Professor Hans Mengel spoke the local dialects like a native and was an authority in the mazes of their fantastic religion.
As to the other argument, that of brawny fist and significantly poised blackjack?
Tzu Po, the governor, had said something of the kind.
"If you should do anything at all," he had said with an elaborate wink, "I should be deaf and dumb and blind!"
But--had he meant that?
Michael Crane shook his head.
Of course, there were certain other tricks which he had learned in his earlier Chicago career, though he denied ever having used them, preferring to claim that he had become familiar with them through having watched and investigated the political tactics of the other great national party. There was for instance a clever and rather humorous method of stuffing the ballot boxes.
Ballot boxes! Here--in Outer Mongolia!
He laughed aloud at the thought, and then again, hopelessly, helplessly, despondently, he told himself that there was nothing, nothing he could do.
His lips relaxed into a melancholy smile. There was a precious bottle of French brandy he had received from Hongkong a few weeks earlier---
HE could see the lighted windows of his low, warm stone house twinkling invitingly through the gathering night, and he pushed on, as fast as he could, through the crowds of priests, yellow caps and red caps, that were becoming denser with every step. They were all hurrying up the steep, slippery incline that led to the lamasery, and he knew what their hurry portended.
The chief abbot was on his deathbed, and it was the ancient rule of their faith that his successor should be chosen within half an hour of his death. For, since his spirit, which was the spirit of Subhuti, the Disciple of the Lord Gautama Buddha, migrated into the body of each successive chief abbot, it was not fitting that this same spirit should be homeless for a longer period than could be helped. Doubtless, the whisper had gone forth that Tengso Punlup might die almost any minute, and so they were hurrying, hurrying.
"Like vultures after carrion," the unpleasant simile came to Michael Crane as he pushed on.
Then, quite suddenly, the whirling limbs separated, the mass pushed on more hurriedly, more hectically than before, as, from the square tower that flanked the lamasery, a tremendous blending of sounds drifted down, a savage clash of cymbals and gongs, a hollow beating of drums, and the sobbing, intolerable, long-drawn wailing of human voices. "The abbot is dead! Tengso Punlup is dead! The spirit of Subhuti is clamoring for a home!" a gigantic yellow-capped priest chanted in a gurgling fervor of excitement.
Immediately, the cry was taken up:
"The abbot is dead--dead!"--in a mad refrain, an echoing monstrous chorus, high-pitched, quivering, swelling and decreasing in turns, dying away in thin, quavery, ludicrous tremolos, again bursting forth in thick, palpable fervency:
"Tengso Punlup is dead--dead! The spirit of Subhuti is clamoring for a home!"
And they pushed on, on, ever more of them pouring out of the little squat stone houses, from the streets and alleys, the low-roofed bazaars and the market place, regardless of the bitter cold, of the snow that thudded down moist-hissing into the flickering torches, of elbow and fist and foot, and occasionally, pricking dagger point. Only one thing mattered to them. They must reach the council hall of the lamasery as quickly as possible before the half-hour during which the spirit of Subhuti was permitted to roam in the outer ether was over, and muster there a sufficient number of priests to decide who should be the next chief abbot--yellow cap or red cap.
And the case of the latter was hopeless.
True, Crane noticed that so far they were in the majority. For they were mostly mountaineers from the Himalayas and the Shan states, fleet of foot, active and strong of arm, lean, agile, hard-bitten, while their enemies, who lived on the fat of this fertile northern land, rich in wheat and maize and cattle, were more sluggish and moved more slowly, more ponderously. But in another minute or two the yellow caps would outnumber the red caps five to one.
For a moment, the mad thought came to him to put himself squarely beneath this gate, to defend it against the yellow caps as a picked regiment, fighting a critical rearguard action, might defend a bridgehead.
Almost immediately, he gave up the idea. They would be up and at him like an avalanche. They would brush him aside like so much chaff. He would not be able to stay their progress for more than the fraction of a minute.
It was hopeless, and he turned to go back to his comfortable, warm house, the open fire, the magazines and newspapers, and the brandy bottle when, twenty yards or so down the street, the brass--studded portals of one of the temples were flung wide and out stepped Professor Hans Mengel at the head of a procession of hundreds of yellow caps, his lean, highbred features sharply outlined in the flickering light of the torches.
Hard and ultra-efficient he seemed; sure of himself, his destiny, his country; serenely sure of success and achievement and triumph.
Michael Crane stifled a sob. He saw himself as he had been once: a young lawyer and politician of brilliant promises; and as he was today, in the autumn of his life: a drone, a failure, a drunkard.
Entrusted with the interests of America and her allies in this remote, half-forgotten corner of the world, utterly alone, convinced in his own heart that the election of a yellow-cap abbot would mean another German victory, he found himself helpless--and the thought, the knowledge was as bitter as gall.
On they came, the professor at the head. They were less than a dozen yards away from the marble gate through which they had to pass by ancient, unbreakable rule. Another minute, and they would be well up toward the lamasery. Five more minutes, and they would crowd the council hall, outnumbering the red caps who, somehow--and Crane never knew how--stood for the interests of America and her allies.
And he was helpless, helpless, and a great, choking rage rose in his throat.
THEN, with utter suddenness, a thought came to him. He laughed loudly, triumphantly, so that the German professor, now five or six yards away, looked up, astonished, slightly sneering.
"Drunk again, Mister American Consul?" he asked, his voice stabbing clear above the shuffling of feet and the murmuring voices of the priests.
But Michael Crane did not reply.
Quickly, he looked over his shoulder. He saw that the red caps were still in the majority--the red caps--who, somehow, were the friends of America and of her allies. Then he stepped squarely beneath the marble gate through which all priests who wished to go to the lamasery had to pass. He drew his revolver and, even as Professor Mengel, who understood too late, jumped forward, he pulled the trigger and shot himself through the heart.
At the very last moment, he had remembered the ancient Buddhist law that the body of a suicide means pollution unspeakable, that a priest may neither touch it nor step over it, and that the spot where the deed has been done must be made clean with many and lengthy ceremonies before priest or worshiper may set foot on or across it.
And so he died there--for his country---
"Pro Patria--for his country!"
That's what Tzu Po said, recollecting his Harvard Latinities, three days later, when a red-cap priest, a friend of America and her allies, was ceremoniously installed as chief abbot of Outer Mongolia amid the booming of the gongs and the braying of the conches.
HATE wrote the first chapter of this tale some centuries ago, when it planted the seeds of mutual hate in two kindred Mongol races: in Chinese and in Manchu, and by the same token, in patient, earthbound peasant and in hawkish nomad, hard-galloping across the land, conquering it with the swish of the red sword, the scream and bray of the long-stemmed war-trumpets, the hollow nasal drone of the kettle-drums--and overhead, the carrion-fed vultures paralleling the marauders' progress on eager wings.
Fate wrote the second chapter sixty-odd years ago, when Foh Wong and Yang Shen-Li were boys in the cold northern town of Ninguta, where they threw stones at each other and swapped salty abuse; although it was Yang Shen-Li, the Manchu, the mandarin's son, who did most of the stonethrowing, whereas Foh Wong, whose parents were Chinese coolies tilling the barren clay, did most of the cursing--from a safe distance. For he valued his skin--which, together with his shrewd brain, was his sole possession.
Fate wrote the third chapter a little over fifty years ago, when parlous times had come to China--with Russia at the western and Japan at the eastern border, both waiting for an excuse to invade the tottering Empire and tear it to pieces--and when, one morning, Foh Wong stopped Yang Shen-Li on the street and said:
"A word with you!"
"What is it, mud-turtle?"
"Indeed," replied the other, "I am no more than a mud-turtle, while you are an aristocrat, an ironcapped prince. And yet"--slowly--"today I have the whip-hand."
"Eh?" exclaimed Yang Shen-Li.
He was startled. He wondered if Foh Wong knew, how he knew--heard him drop his voice to a purr:
"You were not alone last night. I watched from behind a tree. And should I proclaim what I saw, there would be your handsome head spiked on a tall pole in front of the Palace of August Justice."
The Manchu shrugged his shoulders. He tried to speak casually:
"I do not fear death."
"Of course not--since you are a brave fool. But being also an honorable fool, you would not wish to bring black disgrace on your father, to cause him to lose face. And--forgive the wretched pun--your father would lose a great deal of face, if you should lose your head. A murderer's head--"
"I did not murder."
"In self-defense. He insulted me, struck me, drew his revolver and fired--the insolent foreigner!"
"But--be pleased to remember--a most important foreigner. A high Russian official whose corpse you--ah--buried in back of Han Ma's camel stables." He stabbed out an accusing finger. "I saw you."
"Have you witnesses?"
"Not a one. I was alone."
"There will be witnesses, when the time comes. Three of my cousins. A dozen, if you prefer."
"Lying, only, in swearing they saw the deed. Not lying as to the deed itself. And though you are a mandarin's son, the Dowager Empress, with Russia's soldiers massed at the frontier, will give an order to her red-robed executioners, will have your handsome head removed, if I should--"
"IS there a price for your silence, coolie?" interrupted Yang Shen-Li.
"Is there not a price for everything?"
"No money. Not a single silver tael." Foh Wong paused. "The price of my silence is--a word."
"Yes. A mere word from you--to Na Liu. A word telling her I desire her greatly--wish her to be my wife."
"But"--the Manchu stammered with rage---"she--"
"Loves you? I know. And I know, too, that, loving you, she will not relish the thought of your bleeding head grinning down at her from a tall pole, and will therefore marry me, the mud-turtle. . . . Hayah!" with sudden violence. "Go to her! At once! For today I command, and you will obey!"
Yang Shen-Li stared at the other.
"Yes," he said heavily. "I shall obey." He took a step nearer. "But--listen to me, coolie!" His words clicked and broke like dropping icicles. "I hate you. Ah--by the Buddha!--I shall always hate you."
"You hate me no more than I hate you," was the answer. "But"--and Foh Wong's eyes gleamed triumphantly through meager almond lids--"you are helpless, O paper tiger with paper teeth. I am not. So--keep on hating me!"
NEVER, through the decades, though for years they did not see one another, did the hate of these two weaken.
It stretched, hard and stark and blighting, athwart the full span of both their lives. It followed the churned steamship lane to San Francisco and Seattle. It traveled thence across the continent to New York--there to abut and peak to a grim, rather fantastic climax in the maze and reek and riot of half a dozen tired old streets that, a few blocks away from the greasy drab of the river, cluster toward the Bowery, toward the pride of the Wall Street mart, as far even as busy, bartering, negligent Broadway.
Streets of Chinatown, squatting turgid and sardonic and tremendously alien! Not caring a tinker's dam for the White Man's world roaring its up-to-date, efficient steel-and-concrete symphony on all sides.
Rickety, this Chinatown; moldy and viscous, not over-clean, smelling distressingly of sewer gas and rotting vegetables and sizzling, rancid fat. Yet a fact to be reckoned with in Gotham's kaleidoscopic pattern. A cultural and civil entity not without dignity. A thing aloof, apart, slightly supercilious--and intensely human. And being human, a fit background for a tragic tale. . . .
Not that this tale is entirely tragic. For tragedy, no less than comedy, is after all only a matter of viewpoint, perhaps of race and religion--two accidents whose sum-total spells prejudice.
Therefore, if your sense of humor be faintly oblique, faintly Oriental, in other words, you may derive a certain amusement from the thought of Foh Wong, no longer a coolie but a prosperous New York merchant, cooped up in the sweltering garret of his Pell Street house, with the door locked and the windows tightly shuttered, and an agony of fear forever stewing in his brain. You may also laugh at the idea of Yang Shen-Li lording it gloriously over Foh Wong's Cantonese clerks, spending Foh Wong's money with a free and reckless hand--and in the evening, after a pleasant hour or two at the Azure Dragon Club over an archaic mandarin gambling game of "Patting Green Butterflies" or "Ladies on Horseback" or "Heighoh! Flies the Kite," mounting to the second floor of the Pell Street house, there to bow courteously before Na Liu, his wrinkled old wife, once the wife of Foh Wong! She would be sitting stiffly erect, in the proper Chinese manner, on a chair of ebony and lacquer encrusted with rose-quartz, her tiny feet barely touching the floor and her hands demurely folded; and Yang Shen-Li would say to her:
"Moonbeam, was there ever love as staunch as ours?"
She would give a quaint, giggling, girlish little laugh.
"Never, O Great One!" she would reply.
"Never!" he would echo. "The same love until death--may it not be for many years! The same love that came to you and me, so long ago, when the world was young back home in Ninguta--and we were young--"
"And you the iron-capped prince--and I the gardener's daughter!"
"But all the world to me--as you are today."
"For the sake of my love," she said with a queer triumph, "--I shall marry another!"
Always, as often as he spoke the words, he made a great gesture with his strong, hairy hand. A gesture that cleaved the trooping shadows in the room with a certain brutality, that brushed through the sudden, clogged stillness like a conjurer's wand, sweeping away the dust and grime of Pell Street, the dust and grime of the dead years, and calling up the cool, scented spring sweetness of the small Manchu-Chinese border town where both had lived and loved. . . .
He remembered as clearly as if it were yesterday how, on that morning after his talk with Foh Wong, he met Na Liu where they always met, in back of the Temple of the Monkey and the Stork, in the shelter of the enameled pagoda roof that mirrored the sun a thousand-fold, like intersecting rainbows, endless zigzag flashings of rose and purple and blue and green. There he told her what had happened, told her the full bitter tale; and he said to her as he had to Foh Wong:
"I do not fear death. But there is the honor of my father to be considered--the honor of my ancestors for countless generations."
"Pah!" she cried. "And what do I care for the honor of your father, the honor of all your noble ancestors? It is you I care for. You alone. And the thought of you dead--why, I cannot bear it. Because, you see"--her voice was thin and brittle--"I love you."
He was silent.
"I love you so," she continued. "There is nothing, nothing, nothing I would not do for the sake of my love. Ah"--in a tense whisper--"for the sake of my love, I would lie, I would steal, I would kill! For the sake of my love"--more loudly, with a queer triumph in her accents--"I shall marry another!"
He sighed. He spoke dully:
"The book has been read. The grape has been pressed. There is no more. This is the end of our love."
"The end? No, no! There can be no end to our love, as there was no beginning. Why--don't you see?--our love is a fact. A fact!"
He weighed the thought in his mind. Then he inclined his head.
"That is so," he replied. "A fact, like the living Buddha, eternal and unchangeable. A fact, whatever may happen to you and to me!"
HEY stood there. For long minutes they looked at each other. They did not touch hands. For was she not now betrothed to Foh Wong?
They turned and went their different ways. And a few days later Na Liu became the coolie's bride, while Yang Shen-Li traveled south, to be a captain in a Manchu banner corps and rise high in the favor of the Dowager Empress.
NA LIU was a faithful wife to Foh Wong, since it was her duty; obeying the ancient maxim that a married woman must first widen her tolerance, then control the impulses of her heart and body, then entirely correct herself.
He was a good husband to her. Nor did the notion of her loving Yang Shen-Li--he knew it, though they never spoke of it--disturb his massive Mongol equanimity. Indeed, he was conscious of a keener tang and zest to his passion when he reflected that the other was an aristocrat and he himself a despised mud-turtle; yet his the woman who might have had her luxurious ease in a mandarin's palace.
Still, there were moments when he was prey to a certain jealousy. Not jealousy of the flesh--how could that be, with Yang Shen-Li in Pekin and Na Liu so rigidly observing the conventions? Jealousy, rather, of the brain, the imagining; of the gnawing, recurrent idea that, married to his rival, Na Liu would have lived in splendor of silks and jade, while as his own wife, her life was sordid and mean and frugal.
He would reason, thereby doing her an injustice, that she compared her existence, such as it was, with what it might have been. And it was less through love of her, and more because of this jealousy--this avid longing for material achievement, for precious things to put at her feet, telling her, "Behold! I can give you whatever the Manchu could have given you!"--that ambition came to him, that he dreamed of rising from his lowly estate to power and riches.
It was about this time that a Ninguta man returned to his native town, his pockets clanking with gold and amazing tales on his lips of the fair fortune awaiting the men of China in a land beyond the Pacific. America was its fantastic and barbarous name. And it seemed that the work there was plentiful, and the wages generous and princely.
Foh Wong listened to him eagerly. He asked many astute, practical questions. Presently, he made up his mind.
He sold his meager belongings. He took Na Liu to Canton, and crowded there aboard a Yankee clipper with a gang of his countrymen. And even before the ship warped out, he received his first taste of the New World's crass realities at the hands of the Gloucester mate, who, short of help, picked decidedly involuntary and as decidedly unpaid stevedores from among his Chinese passengers---forcing them to labor all day, to shift cumbersome freight, to direct to the derricks the heavy slings of cargo, to toil for long hours with bleeding fingers and tired, aching bodies. Once Foh Wong, taking a breathing spell, said to Na Liu, who stood by the gunwale:
"Ah--hard, hard work! But it does not matter. For I shall succeed. No doubt of it." And in a whisper: "You want me to succeed?"
"You love me--a little bit?"
Her reply was hopeless in its honesty, hopeless in what it did not say:
"I shall be a faithful wife to you--always."
He began to plead with her, when the Gloucester mate's bellow interrupted him:
"Cut out that Chinkie talk, yer yaller-skinned heathen--and git back to them derricks!"
And though Foh Wong did not understand the words, he had no trouble in understanding the length of knotted rope that whistled through the air.
Such was the beginning of his odyssey--which was destined to end, ironically, in a sweltering Pell Street garret, with the door locked and the windows tightly shuttered, and an agony of fear forever stewing in his soul. The beginning of his odyssey---almost as bitter as this same end--with all about him, stretching east toward San Francisco, the world of the sea, enigmatic and alien.
Slimy, brutish toil. Seasickness and wretched food and brackish water. The Gloucester mate cuffing and cursing him and his countrymen with a certain austere Puritan determination. Days with the waves house-high under a puffed and desolate sky. Nights of blackness flecked with white, and running back to a yet deeper blackness. Once a gale that shivered a mast into matchwood and swept the bridges clean as with a knife.
He was conscious of fear. But paradoxically, he was not afraid of his fear. For there was his ambition. There was his passion for Na Liu. There was, stronger than his passion, his hate of Yang Shen-Li. These sustained him too through the decades of heavy labor that followed.
First in California--California of the smashing, roaring, epic era. Gold was king then. Silver-lead was viceroy. Everywhere railroads were being pushed. There was timber. There was wheat. There were cattle ranches and orchards. There was the White Man's bragging:
"Give us the dollar! To hell with the cents! Let the Yellow Men earn 'em!"
The Yellow Men did. Among them, Foh Wong--striving desperately, year after year, living close to the danger line of starvation, in California, Arizona, Colorado, Chicago, at last reaching New York. Frugally hoarding his money, climbing up the ladder of success, until his was a name for shrewdness and solid riches to conjure with in Chinatown, and stout merchants, sipping their tea or smoking their opium-pipes on an afternoon at the Azure Dragon Club, would comment admiringly:
"Gold comes to his hand unasked--like a dog or a courtesan."
ONCE in a while Foh Wong had news of Yang Shen-Li. His friends would read in Canton papers, or in the local Chinatown weekly, the Eminent Elevation, owned and edited by Yung Tang, how the Manchu also was steadily making his way--how, a favorite of the Dowager Empress, he had been appointed captain-general of the Pekin troops, commander-in-chief of the Northern army, and finally--this happened at the turn of the century, at about the same time when Foh Wong paid off the twenty-thousand-dollar mortgage on his Pell Street house--military governor of his native province.
With every rise in the other's fortunes, Foh Wong's ambition grew. His hate, expressed by his jealousy of material achievement, was not weakened by his own success, although in this thoughts of Na Liu no longer played a direct part.
He was still a good husband to her, in that he treated her with scrupulous politeness and presented her occasionally with expensive gifts. But his passion was dying. For several reasons. One--logically, inevitably--was that he had never been able to make her love him. Besides, she was getting to be an old woman. And--the gravest reason--she had borne him no children.
She, on the other hand, had not ceased to be his faithful wife: looking after his bodily comfort, making his home a thing of tidiness and beauty, cutting down household costs. Nor did she dislike him. Not at all. Indeed, it would be a hunting after lying, sentimental effect to say that she blamed him for having forced her into marriage. For she also was of Mongol race. She believed, to quote a Chinese proverb, that it was just and proper to take by the tail what one could not take by the head; and she would have acted as Foh Wong had acted--in fact, did act so several years later--had the positions been reversed.
Therefore she gave him her respect. She even gave him a measure of friendship. But no love; she could not. She had not forgotten the Manchu; could never forget him.
So Foh Wong's love died. It became indifference. And then one day his indifference changed to hate, as blighting as his hate for Yang Shen-Li. . . .
On that day, coming home for lunch, he found his wife in tears. He asked her what was the matter. She did not answer, only sobbed.
He saw a crumpled letter on the floor. He picked it up, forced her to read it aloud to him. It was from her brother.
The latter wrote--for that was the time, after the death of the Dowager Empress, when revolution all over China was no longer the pale, frightened dream of a few idealists, but a fact that seared the land like a sheet of smoldering flame, yellow, cruel, inexorable--he wrote how in Ninguta, too, several months earlier, the masses had turned against their rulers, the iron-capped Manchu princes. He wrote vividly--and Foh Wong smiled as he pictured the grim scene.
HE mob of enraged coolies--hayah! his own people--racing through the streets, splashing through the thick blue slime, yelling:
"Pao Ch'ing Mien Yong--death to the foreign oppressors!"
Running on and on, like a huge snake with innumerable bobbing heads, mouths cleft into toothy cruel grimaces, crying:
"Pao Ch'ing Mien Yong!"
Rushing on through Pewter Lane. Through the Bazaar of the Tartar Traders. Past the Temple of the Monkey and the Stork. On to the palace of the military governor. Wielding hatchets and daggers and clubs and scythes. Overpowering the Manchu banner-men who fought bravely.
"Pao Ch'ing Mien Yong!"
Heads then--heads rolling on the ground like over-ripe pumpkins. Heads of Manchus, of foreign oppressors; and among them--doubtless, wrote Na Liu's brother, though it had not been found in the crimson shambles--the head of Yang Shen-Li.
Yang Shen-Li's head, thought Foh Wong--his handsome, arrogant head!
He laughed. Then suddenly his laughter broke off--and staring at Na Liu, so wrinkled and faded and old, he said:
"I wish he had lost his head years ago, when I gave him the choice between losing it, and losing you. For had he chosen death, I would not have married you, O turtle-spawn!"
She did not reply. She kept on weeping. And then he beat her--partly because he hated her, and partly because her tears told him that she still loved the Manchu, loved his memory even after death. . . .
He left the room, the house.
He thought, with self-pity:
"Here I am, wealthy and powerful, and my loins still strong--and saddled with this ancient gnarled crone! Hai! Hai!"--as he saw three young Chinese girls crossing Pell Street arm in arm, with swaying hips and tiny mincing steps. "When there are so many soft, pretty buds waiting to be picked!"
He turned and looked. He knew one of them: Si--Si, the daughter of Yung Tang, editor of the Eminent Elevation.
Foh Wong did not care for the latter. The man, New York born and bred, was a conservative, an adherent of the former imperial regime, and had recently returned from China, whence he had sent articles, to his own and American papers, praising the Manchus and denouncing the revolutionaries as tools of the Bolshevists.
Still, considered Foh Wong, his daughter was lovely. What an exquisite wife she would make! And he smacked his lips like a man sipping warm rice wine of rich bouquet. . . .
So time passed.
WHENEVER he thought of Si-Si, which was often, he beat his wife. And one day, at the Azure Dragon Club, stretched out on a mat, between them a table with opium-lamps, pipes and needles and ivory and horn boxes neatly arranged, he complained of his fate to Yung Tang, who inclined his head and spoke sententiously:
"Women are useless unless they be the mothers of our children."
"That is so."
"My own wife drinks--too much. She talks---too much. She spends--too much. But she has given birth to a daughter and three sons. Ah"---while with agile fingers he kneaded the brown poppy cube which the flame gradually changed to amber and gold--"better a drunken, nagging, extravagant wife who is fertile, than a virtuous one who is as barren as a mule."
"Yes," agreed Foh Wong. "Better a fat, dirty pig than a cracked jade cup."
"Better," the editor wound up the pleasant round of Mongol metaphor, "a fleet donkey than a hamstrung horse."
For a while they smoked in silence. The fragrant, opalescent fumes rolled in sluggish clouds over the mats. Then Foh Wong asked:
"Your daughter Si-Si is, I understand, of marriageable age?"
"She is betrothed?"
"Not yet, O wise and older brother." Faint amusement lit up Yung Tang's purple-black eyes. "She is waiting for a proper man, a wealthy man."
"I am wealthy."
"I know." Yung Tang pushed the warm bamboo pipe aside and substituted for it one of carved tortoise-shell with a turquoise tip and three yellow tassels. "She is devoted to her parents. She has given solemn oath to the Buddha the Adored, that she will not marry unless her husband invests---ah--twenty thousand dollars in my enterprise."
Foh Wong stared at the other. He knew that---thanks to the weekly's freely expressed pro--Manchu attitude, contrary to that of Pell Street which, being coolie, was mostly revolutionary--its circulation and advertising had dropped; that therefore the editor was in awkward financial straits.
"Or, perhaps, fifteen thousand dollars?" he suggested.
Foh Wong kowtowed deeply before the Buddha who looks after the souls of those about to die--for he was sorry for the destiny in store for his faded old wife, Na Liu.
"Sixteen and a half thousand is a goodly sum, the more so as I--should I give it--would be going counter to my political principles. It would mean a loss of face to me."
"While, to me, it would mean a loss of face to accept money from a man who does not see eye to eye with me when it comes to China's future. Thus--eighteen thousand dollars. Personally I dislike bargaining."
HE editor smoked two pipes one after the other. He continued:
"It is wretched manners to praise your own, I know. But it has been remarked by certain people--truthful people, I believe--that Si-Si is a precious casket filled with the arts of coquetry, that when she washes her hands she scents the water, that her seventeen summers have only increased her charms seventeen times, and that"--calmly---"her hips are wide enough to bear many men children."
Foh Wong sighed.
"My own wife," he replied, "is a fallow field. There is none of my seed in the world to pray for me after death. Not that I blame her. Still--it is written in the Book of Meng Tzeu that she who cannot fulfill her charge must resign it."
"You mean divorce?"
"No?" echoed the editor, looking up sharply. "But a second wife is not permitted in this country."
Foh Wong turned on his mat. He glanced through the window, up at the sky where the sun was gaping in the west like a great red door.
"Divorce," was his answer, "is a custom of coarse-haired barbarians. Besides--a law of these same barbarians--alimony would have to be paid. Expensive--eh?"
"Not that I am stingy." Foh Wong spoke with sincerity. "For my wife, should her soul jump the dragon gate, would have a splendid funeral. She would be buried in a large and comfortable redlacquer coffin, on the side of a hill facing running water, and with an elegant view over the rice paddies."
"Her spirit," commented Yung Tang, "would doubtless enjoy itself."
BOTH men were silent. The editor was caressing his cheek with his right hand. The dying crimson sunlight danced and glittered on his highly polished fingernails. He thought of a man whom he had talked to, and who had given his confidence, a few months back, during his visit to China; thought of the queer mission with which this man had entrusted him; thought how, fantastically, sardonically, fate can work its will--fate that ambles out of the dark like a blind camel, with no warning, no jingling of bells.
He smiled at the other, who, having emptied his pipe at one long-drawn inhalation, looked up and asked a casually worded question:
"I believe you have a cousin who is a hatchetman?"
"Yes. But--" The editor hesitated.
"His prices are exorbitant?"
"They would not be--to me. Only, I have discovered that it is one's relatives whom one must trust least."
"I have a friend in Seattle. I shall communicate with him. I shall act slowly, discreetly. I shall think right and think left. There is no especial hurry."
"Except"--courteously--"my desire for Si-Si."
"Another summer will increase her charms eighteen times." Yung Tang pointed at the table. "Will you smoke?"
"No more. I have a duty to attend to. You will write to Seattle?"
But the editor did not write to Seattle. He wrote, instead, to Hongkong; and he began his letter with a quotation from Confucius which said:
"The man who is departing on a sad journey often leaves his heart under the door--to find it on his return."
He smiled as he dipped his brush into the inkpot; and it is worthwhile remembering that the Chinese ideographs sin (heart) and Menn (door), when placed one above the other and read together, make a third word, "Melancholy"--which latter, by a peculiar Mongol twist, is considered an equivalent of "eternal love." And he wrote on while Foh Wong, having left the Azure Dragon Club, entered the joss temple around the corner.
There, without the slightest hypocrisy, he kowtowed deeply before the Buddha of the Paradise of the West--the Buddha who looks after the souls of those about to die--and burned three sweet-smelling hun-shuh incense sticks in honor of his wife. For once he had loved her. And he was sorry for the destiny in store for her. So, from this day on, he stopped beating her. On the contrary, he was kind to her--brought her presents of flowers and fruit, treated her--with no irony intended--as if she were an invalid not long for this world. And almost every evening he visited the joss temple; always he made kowtow before the Buddha and burned incense sticks--until Yu Ch'ang, the priest, declared that few men on Pell Street could compare to him in piety and rectitude.
EAR the end of the year, Yung Tang reported to him that the matter was progressing satisfactorily. His friend in Seattle had secured the services of a hatchetman.
His name, said the editor, was Kang Kee. He had been a warlord fallen upon evil days. Therefore, thanks to his former profession, there was no doubt of his being a skilled and efficient killer; and given the fact that he was a stranger with no local tong affiliations, there was no doubt of his discretion.
"When will he be here?" asked Foh Wong eagerly.
Yung Tang shrugged his shoulders.
Kang Kee, he explained, was still in Hongkong; and surely, Foh Wong knew that times had changed since he himself had come to America. For there was now the law called the Asiatic Exclusion Act, to circumvent which the Chinese aspirant after Yankee coin had to travel many thorny roundabout roads and spend exorbitant "squeezes" right and left. Would Foh Wong, therefore, pay fifteen hundred dollars on account, to be deducted, later on, from Kang Kee's price of five thousand?
The merchant grumbled, protested, finally went to the safe and counted out the money.
"I would like a receipt," he said curtly. After all, he went on, he was a businessman. Here was a job for which he was paying. "Not that"--with grim humor--"I want you to particularize the--ah---nature of the job."
WUNG TANG smiled. His smile, had Foh Wong noticed it, was queerly triumphant.
"I understand," he said. "Just a few words acknowledging the money for--well, services to be rendered. . . . How's that? I shall make it out in duplicate."
"In duplicate?"--rather astonished.
"Yes. One for you, and one for me, as agent for Kang Kee." With quick brushstrokes he wrote paper and copy, handed both to the other. "Will you look it over?"
"No, no!" exclaimed Foh Wong. "It is not necessary."
The editor's smile deepened. He knew that the merchant, in spite of his wealth, had never learned to read, that he carried the intricate details of his business transactions in his shrewd old brain, that he could just barely scrawl his name, but that for fear of losing face, he had never owned up to it. Besides--and here too Yung Tang saw through him--Foh Wong figured that the editor had no reason to cheat him. For though Si-Si was young and beautiful and desirable, there were few men in Chinatown willing and able to pay the eighteen thousand dollars which her father demanded and in fact--Foh Wong knew, having made inquiries here and there--needed desperately; and he had made assurance doubly sure by buying up, at a generous discount, a number of Yung Tang's overdue notes.
He lit a cigarette, while the other signed the original and said:
"Will you countersign the copy?"
"What for? You received the money, not I."
"I know. But--it would make the deal more binding."
Foh Wong was puzzled. Make the deal more binding? He did not understand. Still, doubtless Yung Tang knew what he was talking about. He was a literatus, a learned gentleman; and the merchant, for all his success, was at heart the coolie who had never lost his respect for educated people. And--again the thought--the man needed him, could have no reason to cheat him.
"Very well." He dipped brush in inkpot, and clumsily painted his signature. "Here you are."
Even so, he felt relieved when, in the course of the afternoon, he dropped in on Ng Fat, the banker, and found out, by discreet questioning, that Yung Tang had bought a draft for fifteen hundred dollars made out to one Kang Kee, a former warlord residing in Hongkong.
INDEED the latter--whose American odyssey was destined to be quite as hard as that of Foh Wong, decades earlier--needed every cent of the fifteen hundred dollars. To enumerate all those whom he had to bribe would be to give an ethnographical survey of many of the Far East's more gaudy rogues.
But let us pick out a few.
There was, in Shanghai, a Kansuh ruffian on whose shaven poll had been a blood-price ever since the Boxer affair, and who met the former warlord and thirty other prospective emigrants in a first-chop chandoo place west of the To Kao Tien Temple. There was, furthermore, a squint-eyed Lithuanian skipper, wanted for murder in Riga and for piracy in Pernambuco, who took them to Vladivostok and into the tranquil presence of a Nanking compradore with gold-encased fingernails and a charming taste in early Ming porcelain. This gentleman passed the adventurers through yet two more middlemen to a Japanese captain who flaunted British naturalization papers and called himself O'Duffy Ichiban.
He was supposed to clear directly for Seattle. But he managed to cruise off the British Columbia coast--"contrary head winds, half a gale," he wrote in his log, and lied--until a narrow-flanked clipper shot out from the fogs of Queen Charlotte Sound and took away the living freight, drowning no more than seven. The remainder had an interview, next morning, with a government inspector who--hating himself for it--drowned his conscience in his greed.
Then a stormy night. A motorboat chugging recklessly across the Straits of San Juan de Fuca. A dumping overboard into the swirling, greasy sea half a mile from land. A screaming wave that swallowed all the merry band of Mongol rovers with the exception of the former warlord. . . . His swim ashore. And at last, his strong hand reaching out from the water and gripping the slippery piles at the foot of Yeslerway, in the city of Seattle. . . .
Seattle in spring.
Spring, too, in New York.
Spring brushing into Pell Street on gauzy pinions. Hovering birdlike over sordid, tarred rooftops. Dropping liquid silver over the toil of the streets, adding music to the strident calls of pavement and gutter.
Spring in the heart of Foh Wong--to whom, that morning, the editor had said that he had received a telegram from the hatchetman. The latter would be here on Saturday--would seek out the merchant immediately upon his arrival, at nine in the evening.
So, on Saturday afternoon, Foh Wong entered the joss temple. There he attended to his religious duties more thoroughly and unctuously than usual. Not only did he make kowtow to the Buddha of the Paradise of the West. He also kowtowed seven times to the Buddha of the Light Without Measure, and nine times to the purple-faced Goddess of Mercy. He heaped the bowls in front of the idols with dry rice. He burned twenty-seven incense sticks. He made the rounds of the temple, bowing right and left, beating gongs, ringing a small silver bell. He paid the priest a handsome sum to exorcise whatever evil spirits might be about.
FINALLY, his soul at rest, he went home. He presented his wife with gifts, thinking shrewdly that Si-Si would enjoy them after Na Liu's demise--an expensive radio set, a robe of purple satin embroidered with tiny butterflies, a pair of coral-and-jade earrings and a precious Suen-tih vase.
Na Liu smiled. She said:
"You have made me very happy these last few months."
"Yes," she agreed; "by forgetting your anger against me, your just and righteous anger. For, you see, I have been a bad wife. I have never loved you. I have grown old and ugly. And I have borne you no children."
"Three things which only fate can help," he replied quite gently.
"Fate is bitter."
"Fate, at times"--as he thought of Si-Si--"is sweet. Let us not blame fate." He interrupted himself as there was a loud knocking at the street door below. "A friend whom I expect," he explained, and hurried out.
He reached the shop, crossed it, threw open the door. A man stood there--tall, broad, a black handkerchief concealing all his features but the hard, staring eyes.
"Upstairs," whispered Foh Wong. "The first room to the left."
The stranger inclined his head without speaking. Noiselessly he mounted. He disappeared.
There was a pall of heavy, oppressive silence---suddenly broken by a sob that quickly gurgled out. And Foh Wong trembled a little, felt a cold shiver along his spine--saw, a minute or two later, the man return.
"Is it--finished, O hatchetman?"
"Yes. It is finished, O mud-turtle."
"Is it--finished, O hatchetman?" Foh Wong asked; and the stranger replied: "It is finished, O mudturtle." Then the merchant gave a shriek of fear.
THEN the merchant gave a shriek of surprise and fear. Why--that nasal, metallic voice so well remembered! The voice of Yang Shen-Li! And as the other tore off the black handkerchief---the face of Yang Shen-Li! Older, much older. But still the bold, aquiline nose, the high cheekbones that seemed to give beneath the pressure of the leathery, copper-red skin, the compressed, sardonic lips brushed by the drooping mandarin mustache, the combative chin. . . .
"But you," Foh Wong stammered ludicrously, "--you died--in Ninguta!"
"And I came to life again," was the drawling answer, "as Kang Kee, the warlord. Kang Kee, who last year forged a chain of strong and exquisite friendship with one Yung Tang, who was visiting China. Kang Kee--no longer a warlord, but a hatchetman come here for the sake of a small killing."
"A killing," cried Foh Wong, rapidly collecting his wits, "for which you will lose your head."
He had decided what he was going to do. Outside somewhere, on Pell Street or Mott, his friend Bill, detective of Second Branch, would be walking his beat. He would call him, would tell him that his wife had been murdered. He was about to run out--stopped as he heard the other's drawling words:
"Not so fast, mud-turtle! You spoke of my losing my head. And what of your own head?"
"You killed, not I."
"You hired me."
LEISURELY, from his loose sleeve, the Manchu drew a paper--the paper which a few months earlier, Foh Wong had signed on the editor's request--and which Yang Shen-Li now read aloud:
"Herewith, for the sum of five thousand dollars, I employ Kang Kee to kill my wife--"
Foh Wong grew pale. He stared at the Manchu, who stared back. There was in their eyes the old hate that had never weakened. Alone they were with this searing, choking hate. The outer world and its noises seemed very far away. There was just a memory of street cries lifting their lean, starved arms; just a memory of river wind chasing the night clouds that clawed at the moon with cool, slim fingers of silver and white.
Then the Manchu spoke:
"If I lose my head, you lose yours. Only--I am not afraid of losing mine, being a brave man, an iron-capped prince; whereas you, O coolie, are--"
"A coward," the other said dully.
"Precisely. But brave man and coward shall be united in death. Together our souls shall jump the dragon gate." Yang Shen-Li turned toward the door. "I shall now go to the police of the coarsehaired barbarians, and--"
Unconsciously, Foh Wong used the words which, decades ago, in Ninguta, the Manchu had used:
"Is there a price for your silence?"
"Everything," announced the Manchu, sitting down, slipping a little fan from his sleeve and opening it slowly. . . .
He had not arrived tonight, he related, but twenty-four hours earlier. He had spent the time with Yung Tang, talking over the whole matter with him, and making certain arrangements. For instance, bribing a Chinese doctor who would certify that Foh Wong had died--of heart failure.
"You," the merchant whispered, "you mean to--"
"Kill you? Not at all. Did I not tell you there is a price for my silence? And would your life be the price? No, no! Your life is sacred to me."
"Listen!" Yang Shen-Li went on to explain that, with the help of the physician's certificate, Na Liu would be buried as Foh Wong, while it would be given out that she had gone to China on a lengthy visit. "Clever--don't you think?" he smiled.
"But what will happen to me? How, if I'm supposed to be dead and buried, can I show my face?"
"You can't," said the Manchu grimly. "You will live in the garret of your house until death--may it not be for many years! You will see nobody---except me. You will speak to nobody--except to me. Nobody will know that you are among the living--nobody except me and Yung Tang. This shall be a bond between you and me. The moment you break it, I shall go to the police and--"
"But my business--my money--"
"I shall look after it. For before--shall I say?--your death, you shall have made a will--you are going to sign it presently--making me trustee of your estate for your absent wife. You will leave her your whole fortune--all, that is, save eighteen thousand dollars--make it thirty-eight thousand--which you will leave to Yung Tang. . . . Hayah!"--as the other began to plead and argue. "Be quiet, coolie! For today I command--and you will obey!"
AND thus it is Foh Wong is cooped up in the sweltering garret of his Pell Street house, with the door locked and the windows tightly shuttered, and an agony of fear forever stewing in his brain. It is thus that Yang Shen-Li is lording it gloriously over Foh Wong's clerks, spending Foh Wong's money recklessly; and in the evening, after a pleasant hour or two at the Azure Dragon Club, mounting to the second floor, bowing courteously to his wrinkled old wife and asking her:
"Moonbeam, was there ever love as staunch as ours?"
Always she gives a quaint, giggling, girlish little laugh. And at times, hearing the echo of it, Foh Wong wonders--then forgets his wonder in his fear.
"Thrice did I hear the gods call me by name," said the Arab. "A lie!" shrieked the medicine man. "Kill him! Kill--"
AFRICA was about them: a black, fetid hand giving riotously of gold and treasure, maiming and squeezing even while it gave.
They loathed and feared it. Yet they loved it with that love which is stronger than the love of woman, more grimly compelling than the love of gold. They loved it as the opium-smoker loves the sticky poppy-juice which soothes him--and kills him.
For it was Africa.
And also in this was it Africa that it had thrown these two men together: strange bedfellows; Gerald Donachie, whose dour Scots blood had been but imperfectly tempered by the fact that he had been born and bred in Chicago, and Mahmoud Ali Daud, the grave, dark Arab from Damascus.
Arab he was in everything. For he was greedy, and yet generous; well-mannered, and yet overbearing; sincere, and yet sneering; sympathetic, and yet coldly cruel; austere, and yet passionate; simple, and yet complex.
"Donachie & Daud"--the firm was well known from the Cape to the Congo, and up through the brooding hinterland, the length of the great, sluggish river, even as far as the black tents of the Touaregs. It had made history in African commerce. It was respected in Paris and London, feared in Brussels, envied in Berlin.
They traded in ivory and ostrich feathers, in rubber and gold, in beads, calico, gum-copral, orchilla roots, quinine, and--if the truth be told--in grinning West Coast idols made in Birmingham, cases of cheap Liverpool gin, and rifles guaranteed to explode at the third discharge.
All the way up the river their factories and wharves, their stations and warehouses proclaimed their insolent wealth. They ran their own line of paddle-steamers as far as the Falls; twice a year they chartered fast, expensive turbine boats to carry precious cargoes to Bremen and Liverpool. They had their fingers in every pie, to the South as far as Matabele-land, to the North as far as the newest French-Moroccan concessions.
They could have sold out at practically their own figure to the big Continental Chartered company which they had fought for ten years, and which they had beaten in the end to a not inglorious standstill. They could have returned with bloated bank accounts: Donachie to a brick-and-stone realization of the Chicago palace about which his imagination wove nostalgic dreams when the river was high and the fever higher; and Mahmoud Ali Daud to his pleasant Damascan villa and the flaunting garden with the ten varieties of date trees, of which he talked so much.
"All the date trees of Arabistan are in that garden," he used to say to his partner, and make a smacking noise with his tongue. "Al-Shelebi dates, yellow and small-stoned and aromatic; Ajwah dates, especially blessed by the Prophet--on whom be Peace; also the date Al-Birni, of which it is said: 'It causeth sickness to depart from it, and there is no sickness in it'."
And they spoke of selling out, of going home.
They spoke of it in the hot season when the great, silent sun was brooding down like a hateful, implacable force and when all the wealth of Africa was but an accurst inheritance, to be gained at a cost of pain and anguish more than man could bear; and during the "wet," when from morning till night a steaming, drenching, thudding rain flooded the land as far as the foothills, when the fields were rotting into mud, when the water of the lake thickened into evil brown slime, and when the great river smelled like the carcass of some impossible, obscene animal.
They spoke of it with longing in their voices. They quarreled, they cursed each other--year after year. And they remained--year after year.
For it was Africa. The sweet poison of it had entered their souls, and they could not do without it.
Donachie sighed. He looked at his partner.
"Look here, Mahmoud," he said querulously. "Granger is the third who's disappeared up there in the last four months. The third, damn it all! And we can't afford to give up the station. Why, man, it's the best station in the whole confounded upland! The company would jump at it. They've been trying to get a foothold there for the longest time. We get as much ivory from there as from half the other river stations put together--fossil ivory, I grant you, but what difference does that make, once it reaches the market? Ivory is ivory."
The Arab had been counting the carved wooden beads of his huge rosary. Now he looked up.
"We can send Watkins. Watkins is a good man. He did well at the coast station. He speaks the language. Or we can send Palmier--a shrewd Belgian. He knows the Congo."
Donachie hit the gangrened, heat-cracked table with his hairy fist.
"It would be murder, Mahmoud, rank murder! They'll disappear--they'll disappear like the others."
The Arab inclined his head.
"Fate is bound about our necks. Perhaps the bush will eat them up."
Donachie interrupted savagely.
"The bush? The bush? You mean the--"
The other raised a thin brown hand.
"Hush, my friend. There is no proof. Also is it bad luck to give a name to the thing which is not." And he snapped his fingers rapidly to ward off misfortune.
Donachie's voice came loud and angry.
"There's the proof that the three agents have disappeared, one after the other."
The Arab smiled.
"What is that to you and to me, my friend? We pay? We pay well. If fools make a bargain for their souls with the devil, then fools may make a bargain with us for their bodies. They know the evil name which the station bears. Yet it appears that they are willing to go. Many of them." He pointed at a heap of letters on the table. "Did you read what they write? They want to go. Let them go. There are even company men among the applicants. We can pick and choose. We can send whom we please."
Donachie glared at his partner.
"We'd be murderers none the less."
"How do you know the others have been murdered?"
"Good Lord! How do I know? Why, man, people don't walk into the bush and disappear without sound or word or trace just to amuse themselves, do they?"
The other smiled.
"Allah kureem!" he said piously. Then he counted his beads again and was silent.
DONACHIE rose. He moved his chair. But the sun found its way through the holes and cracks of the attle-and-daub house, and there was not a spot in the big, square room which was not barred and splashed by narrow strips of sunlight.
It was just like a dazzling sheet of light piercing the tin roof with a yellowness that pained the eye, puckered the face, and wearied and maddened the brain.
There was beauty in the landscape beyond the fly-specked windows. For under the tropical sun the sloping roofs of the warehouses, the steeple of the mission church, and the beehive huts of the natives burned like the plumage of a gigantic peacock in every mysterious blend of purple and green and blue. The sky was like an enameled cup, spotless but for a few clouds which were gnarled, fantastic, like arabesques written in vivid cerise ink on some page of forgotten Byzantine gold.
And in the distance, beyond the glitter and glimmer of the river, the forest stood forth in a somber black line.
But Gerald Donachie did not see the beauty of it. He only felt the squeezing, merciless hand which was Africa. He only smelled the fetid odor which was Africa.
And then, of course, his thoughts returned to the bush station at Grand L'Popo Basin, three hundred miles up the river.
It was by far the most important upland station of "Double-Dee," as the firm was familiarly called up and down the coast. Some fifty miles below the falls, snug at the head of a little river bay where the water was deep and the anchorage safe; fairly healthy all the year round, it had become the main center of the upland trade.
To the north of it were thick, black-green forests, and the truest ivory country in Africa. An incessant stream of the precious white stuff reached the post and was sent to the coast, and thence to Liverpool and Bremen. The natives, unconverted, unspoiled, were friendly. There had never been the slightest trouble with them.
Hendrick DuPlessis, a big hairy Natal Boer, had been the agent up there for a number of years, and had put the station on a splendidly paying basis. Once a year, as regular as clockwork, he had come down the river to the coast town, where for three weeks he rioted and debauched on a pompous, magnificent scale.
And on his last spree, a little over four months ago, an overdose of dop and brandy had killed him.
Then, one after the other, three agents had been sent up the river. They were Foote, Benzinger and Granger; all Afrikanders born and bred, familiar with the country and the languages, and all trusted employees of Double-Dee, who had made good at other important stations before they had been sent to Grand L'Popo Basin.
And within the last four months, one after the other, the three had disappeared. It was as if Africa had swallowed them. They left no message. No trace of their bodies had been found.
They had simply vanished into nothingness.
They had not taken to the bush out of their own free will. There had been no reason for it: their books and accounts were in perfect order. Nor had they gone out hunting; for they were middle-aged men, surfeited with the killing of animals. They had no personal enemies, and they had had no trouble with the natives, who were friendly and prosperous.
They had disappeared.
Runners and native trackers had been sent out in every direction. Finally, after the third agent, Granger, had vanished, a first-class bush detective had been sent from the coast. But the detective, a clever Portuguese mulatto, had discovered nothing.
Then Gerald Donachie himself had gone up the river. He had investigated. He had offered bribes and rewards. He had searched the forest for miles around. He had gone into the kraals of the natives, and had threatened and accused and bullied.
But it was evident that the blacks had nothing to do with the disappearance of the three agents. He had not found a single trace.
This very morning, fever-worn, cross, he had returned with the tale of his failure. And failure was a hard thing to bear.
Again he hit the table with his fist.
"What are we going to do, Daud? Tell me that."
"There is one thing we can always do. We can sell out to the Chartered company."
Donachie laughed, a cracked, mirthless laugh.
"Sell out now? Under fire, as it were? With that mystery unsolved? . . . Not if I know it. I'm not going to let that cursed beast of a land get the best of me."
The other walked to the corner and poured himself out a glass of water.
"In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful," he said piously, ceremoniously, before he tossed down the drink. Then he turned to his partner.
"You are like all the other Christians," he said. "Forever fighting battles with your own obstinacy. What is the good of it? What profit is there in it? And if not profit, then what glory? Why battle against Fate? Fate has decided that the man of great head becomes a Bey, honored and rich; while he of great feet becomes a shepherd. We have great herds, you and I. We are rich. Let's sell out to the company. Let us return; I to my country, and you to yours."
But Donachie did not reply. He sat there, brooding, unhappy, staring into space.
OR the last hour, from the broad veranda which surrounded the house, had come the incessant, uncouth babble of native voices, high-pitched, half-articulate; the house boys talking to each other, and every once in a while breaking into shrill, meaningless laughter.
Donachie had hardly heard them. He had listened to that same noise for the last twenty years. It was part of his life to him, part of the day, part of Africa. He had accepted it as he had accepted the fever, the heat, the flying and crawling horrors, and the wooden drums which thumped at night, sending messages from village to village.
But suddenly he looked up, sharp-eyed, alert.
A native voice had pronounced the name of the station up the river--"Grand L'Popo Basin." And again, in a sort of awed whisper, "Grand L'Popo Basin!"
He addressed his partner.
"Yes," the Arab chimed in, completing both thought and sentence for him, "they also speak of the three men who have disappeared. The tale is all over this land. The drums have carried the message of it to all the villages. And yet," he laughed, and pointed at the heap of letters on the table, "and yet there are many men anxious to go."
Suddenly the babbling outside ceased. There was a sharply-defined pause. Then a single voice spoke, in the native dialect as the others, but with a different accent; intense, throbbing with a peculiar, significant meaning, but so low that the two men inside the house could not make out the words.
Again there was silence. The flies buzzed in a great peace.
Then the same voice spoke once more, low, intense.
"Can you hear, Mahmoud?" Donachie asked. "What's that cursed black babbling about?"
The Arab rose. He motioned to his friend to be quiet. He walked to the door on noiseless, slippered feet, and listened.
Again the voice on the outside boomed forth, dramatic, low; and this time one word stood out above the others: "Umlino," and again, "Umlino."
The Arab listened intently for a few minutes. Then he came up close to his partner.
"They are speaking of a new umlino, a new great medicine man--" then, as an afterthought, "cursed be all unbelievers!"
"That new boy--that flat-faced descendant of unmentionable pigs--Makupo, he calls himself."
"Oh, yes, the fellow from the bush who sports the brick-red blanket and the blue beads."
"What's he got to do with a medicine man? And what the blazes has the umlino got to do with the disappearance of my three agents?"
Donachie burst suddenly into a great, throaty rage. "I'll teach that coon to put bees into my house boys' bonnets! Call him in, Mahmoud." He picked up the short, vicious rhinoceros-hide whip which lay on the table. "I'll teach that miserable black to babble about--"
Daud pressed him back into his chair. He addressed his partner with an air of calm assurance, superb self-satisfaction hooded under his sharply curved eyelids.
"I shall go north and solve the mystery. Be quiet, friend of my heart. Remember the saying that money is on the lips of the liar, and passion on the lips of the lost. Be quiet!"
Donachie looked up.
"But Mahmoud," he said wearily, "I've just come back from up there."
The Arab sat down near him.
"Yes," he replied. "But before you left there was not talk amongst our blacks of medicine men in the north, of great umlinos performing many miracles. I heard them talk," he pointed at the veranda, "out there--cursed be all unbelievers!"
Donachie laughed. "I honor and respect your orthodox Mohammedan prejudices, old man. But you know well enough that there's alwayssome brand-new medicine man, some brand-new ju-ju popping up amongst these savages."
"I know," the other agreed. "But I also know Africa. I know that these house boys of ours are of the Waranga tribe, eh? Tell me, my friend, what have they, being of the Waranga, to do with an umlino from the up-river tribes? Do totems mix with totems in this heathenish land? Also, what have our Warangas to do with a flat-faced pig from the north who wears a red blanket and blue beads? Can you answer these questions? And can you tell me finally what bond there can exist between blacks of one tribe and blacks of another who have been enemies for centuries?"
"There's only one bond, Mahmoud. A common enemy."
"There is no enemy. The land is peaceful and prosperous . . . But there is still another bond between tribe and tribe. That is a miracle, and he who performs the miracle is always an umlino, a great medicine man. I have heard tell that an umlino is often an ambitious man, dreaming dreams of conquest and blood and empire, like Khama, who called out the southern tribes; like Lobengula, of whom the Boers talk; like Chakka, who sacked the farms of the Colonial English before I was born."
Donachie was nervous, intent.
"A conspiracy, you think? A revolt?"
"No. Only the brewing of the miracle, and the telling of it--so far," he added with peculiar emphasis.
He continued after a short pause: "I shall go to Grand L'Popo Basin. I shall look into the disappearance of the three agents. I shall watch the brewing of the miracle. And, with the help of Allah, I shall succeed." He smiled.
Donachie knew the smile of old. In the past it had heralded many things: profit, adventure--often death. But always it had meant success. Thus it seemed suddenly to Donachie as if a cool rush of air had come to him after a long, leaden, unlifting day.
"When are you off?" he asked.
Donachie gasped with surprise.
"Impossible! The steamer can't leave here before Saturday morning at the very earliest."
"I shall take the overland trail."
"But why--for heaven's sake, Why?"
The Arab smiled.
"Because there is talk on our veranda between the Warangas and a flat-faced pig from the north. Because drum is speaking to drum. Because there is brewing a miracle--up the river. Do not ask questions, my friend. Time presses. I shall take Makupo with me."
Donachie looked at him incredulously.
"Makupo? The fellow from the north, of all men? But, good God, you don't trust him!"
"That's why." The Arab rose. "I have no time to explain. I must prepare for the journey. One thing you must do for me."
"Name it, Mahmoud."
"Let the house boys have talk with nobody of my going north. Let them not speak of my taking Makupo along. Let them send no message of any sort."
There was an impatient note in Donachie's answering voice.
"How the deuce can I do that? How can I keep these chattering magpies from talking?"
"The best way would be to kill them. But you are a Christian, an American." Mahmoud Daud laughed. "You shun sane, efficient methods. Therefore you must go to Latrobe, the commissioner of police. You must have these blacks arrested--tonight, within the hour, before I go. Tell the commissioner as much as you please, as much as you think right. But make sure that they are silent until I return. For I want no sending of messages while I am gone. I want no thumping of wooden drums from village to village."
The Arab made a great gesture. It was more than a gesture. It seemed an incident which cut through the still air like a dramatic shadow.
"Because I know Africa--and because I want to stop the brewing of the miracle."
He left the room with a stately, swinging step, singing softly to himself.
Donachie looked after him. He watched him move through the group of squatting Warangas on the veranda, and pick his way daintily through the refuse which littered the yard.
For a long time he could hear the words and the high-pitched melody of his song; it was a riotous Damascus bazaar couplet which he was in the habit of singing in moments of excitement and stress:
"I married two wives by excess of my folly.
What now will happen to thee, oh husband of two?
I have said: I will be among them a lamb,
Enjoying blessings between two ewes.
But now . . ."
The voice died in the distance. Donachie rose, left the house, and walked over to the house of the commissioner of police.
And so, within the hour, the Waranga boys of Double-Dee's living-bungalow found themselves in prison, strictly contrary to the law, to habeas corpus, trial by jury, and half-a-dozen similar assorted fetishes of the temperate zone; while Mahmoud Ali Daud, preceded by the chattering and frightened Makupo, was off on a threehundred--mile tramp into the interior.
IT WOULD have surprised even Donachie, who knew Africa, who knew the Arabs, and who especially knew his partner, to see how, half-adozen rods into the jungle, the latter's thin veneer of Western civilization and Western sentimentalism took a sudden atavistic backward-jump of several centuries.
For, all at once, without provocation or apparent reason of any sort, the Arab brought his short, thick sjambok down on the head of the negro with the full strength of his lean, muscular arms.
Makupo dropped and howled, while Mahmoud Daud addressed him in a passionless, even voice:
"Dog, and son of many dogs! Woolly one! Calamity! Shame! Evil and odorous thing without name, or morals, or pedigree! Art thou listening?"
The negro did not answer. A pitiful gurgle came from his throat. The whites of his eyes rolled upward, and he kissed the Arab's leather slippers.
But the other paid no attention to the silent entreaty for mercy. Again, with full strength, scientifically, he brought the sjambok down on the writhing black body at his feet.
Then he spoke once more, in the same passionless voice.
"Art thou listening, O disreputable descendant of unbelieving and thrice-born pigs?"
This time the answer came prompt, articulate.
"Aywah! Aywah!" ejaculated the Arab. Then he sat down comfortably on a fallen tree, gathering the folds of his brown traveling burnoose, and resting his feet on the body of the black. "Aywah! It is good. Thou hast come from the north, from up the river, flat-nosed and objectionable, and wearing a red blanket; and thou hast spoken poison-words of evil to the boys of my kraal."
"Thou didst leave thy home in the north, a cock, and thou didst expect to return a peacock, strutting and colorful. Wah! Listen again, he-goat bereft of sense and modesty! Thou wilt return north indeed. But thou wilt not return as a peacock. Thou wilt return as a dog, nosing the ground for me, thy master. Thou wilt sniff well, and thou wilt show me the place of the umlino who sent thee to the coast to speak words of treason, the place where the medicine man makes mysteries. Is that understood?"
The Arab kicked the prostrate African three times, in the same place, with calm, deliberate aim.
"If thou shouldst turn traitor, if thou shouldst try to send messages as we pass through the villages on our way up to Grand L'Popo Basin, I shall kill thee. I shall kill thee very slowly. I shall make long cuts into thy unclean skin, and shall afterwards pour boiling oil into the wounds. Also other things; considerably more painful. I shall think them out as the days go by . . . then, later on, while there is still breath left in thy lungs and blood in thy heart, I shall bury thee . . . in a shallow grave . . . where the hyenas and the many little ants will find thee.
"Is it understood?"
Makupo looked up from the ground. He knew that the Arab was giving him true talk.
"Yes, master," he replied.
Mahmoud Daud arose. Once more he kicked the other.
"It is good. It is a compact between thee and me. Get up. Pick up thy pack, and lead the way."
Without another word the African did as he was bid.
Thus the two went on their long overland tramp. Daud's sharp eyes and an occasional thwack of his sjambok saw to it that Makupo stuck to the onesided compact. There was no sneaking aside, no whispering and talking to other natives when they passed through an occasional village demanding food and drink, and, once in a while, a guide. And at night the Arab was careful to gag him securely and to tie him hand and foot, so that there could be no sending of bush messages.
It was a long, heartbreaking tramp; through a crazy network of jungle paths spreading over the land; through long grass and short grass; through grass burned to the roots, and through grass green and juicy, waiting for the stamping, long-horned cattle of the river tribes.
They left the river far to the south, walking in a sweeping, half-circular direction so as to avoid the miasmic, fever-breeding steam of the lowlands. They tramped through thickets where elephantthorns and "wait-a-bits" lacerated their skins, and through somber black forests, where evil, bat-like things flopped lazily overhead, and where slimy, spineless things crawled and squirmed underfoot. They tramped up and down chilly ravines, up and down stony hillsides ablaze with white heat.
They reached the higher table land. Everywhere about them stretched a level country which looked curiously like the sea; for the thick, blade-shaped grass, bleached to silvery whiteness and as high as a man's waist, swayed perpetually like choppy, pale waves. The heat was intense; and the Arab swung along silently, his head swathed in the heavy folds of his brown burnoose, while Makupo walked ahead, arms flopping loosely after the manner of his kind, and crooning to himself in a plaintive, half-articulate way which was like the piping of a lizard.
They struck the Equator on the twentieth day. The sky was cloudless, blazing with a terrible, vindictive heat, and steeped in primitive colors, red, blue and orange, like a futurist painting. So they rested during daytime and walked in the late afternoons and at nights, when it was a little cooler, when the merciless flare had died in the skies, when the far-off hills had turned a faint, pink color, and when the grimness of the bush which stood out in the distance was blurred as in a veil of purple chiffon.
Finally, late one evening, they reached the river again.
"Grand L'Popo Basin!" he said, and pointed straight ahead.
Daud grunted a short, affirmative reply.
They walked down a steep hillside into the steaming valley. From behind the black curtain of trees which lined the banks of the river a great sheaf of yellow lights shot upwards; the campfires of the outer kraals. Then there was a glimpse of rush walls, of peaked grass roofs.
It was late at night when they came within sight of the station itself. But they could still make out the contours of the agency house, the bulk of the warehouses, the sweep of the jetty, the squat huts of the natives.
The Arab stopped.
"Listen, dog," he said. "Thou wilt now tell me the place of the umlino, the great medicine man who brews the many mysteries, and who sends flatnosed pigs with red blankets to the Coast to whisper poisonous words to my Warangas. Where is this umlino? I want speech with him. Is he north, east, south, or west? Answer, son of a burned father!"
Makupo shivered with fear, but he did not reply. The Arab raised the sjambok significantly.
"Answer," he repeated, low-voiced.
The native fell down before him.
"Thus far have I brought thee, master. Have pity! I cannot tell more. The umlino can hear across distances. He can make the clay-gods talk. He--"
He doubled up as if in physical pain, embracing his knees with his hands, swaying from side to side like a chained elephant. He stared at the Arab in a horribly appealing, intolerable manner. Mahmoud Daud smiled.
"Remember our compact, Calamity! Remember the wounds, the boiling oil! Also the hyenas . . . and the little brown ants which find their way through a shallow grave to a man who is still alive. Do not forget the ants."
Suddenly Makupo rose. He tried to speak---could not. He pointed a shaking hand at a low, flat hut which was plainly visible next to the livingbungalow of the agency.
"There . . . there . . ." his words came thick, strangled. "There lives the umlino . . . there are the red clay-gods who talk, talk!"
Mahmoud Daud whistled through his teeth.
"Eh . . . in the station . . . in the station itself?" Then in a lower key, as if speaking to himself. "Merciful Allah! In the station itself . . . and next to the agency house. Wah!"
Suddenly he smiled, a thin, cruel smile.
"Thou hast well kept the compact, Makupo," he said. "Cometh now thy reward."
There was the flash of a dagger; a quick downward thrust; and Makupo rolled over, without a sound, lifeless. Mahmoud Daud wiped the dagger on a handful of grass and sheathed it again.
Then he walked up to the station.
He was deep in thought. The spark of suspicion which had flared up in his shrewd, grinding brain weeks ago, when he had heard Makupo and the Warangas whispering on the veranda about the umlino and the disappearance of the three agents, had been kindled into flame by the dead man's words.
But what was that tale about red clay-gods who talk? It puzzled him. Some cursed, heathen superstition, he said to himself. He would find out presently.
He smiled. So far he had done well. For he was confident that no bush messages had been sent up the river, warning the blacks of his coming; and thus the medicine man, whatever his name, whatever his savage ambitions, whatever his connection with the disappearance of the three agents, would be unprepared.
Also he had eliminated the chance of treachery on the part of Makupo by killing him as soon as he had served his ends; for, in Mahmoud Daud's own words, "A dead man does not talk of love, and a dead horse does not eat grass."
So he was pleased with himself; and, deeply religious, he droned a low-voiced prayer to Allah, the King of Men, as he swung noiselessly through the rush-fence of the station.
HE fence clearly showed that the place was abandoned to the tender mercies of the blacks and that the directing mind of the White Man was missing; for it was ill-kept, and with the speed of the tropics the few months since the death of the last agent had sufficed to change it into a great mass of vegetation; an entangled, exuberant mingling of leaves, creepers, and odorous flowers; a rolling wave of silent life.
The Arab paused for a moment and looked around. There were no sentinels at the fence gate, no watchmen near the jetty and the warehouses. It was more evident than ever that no bush messages had been sent, that his coming was unexpected, and that the black employees of Double-Dee, in the absence of a master, were devoting themselves to a lengthy and truly African siesta. One of the warehouses was gaping wide open.
The Arab frowned. A great rage rose in his throat. For, true son of Shem, he was a greedy man; a hard businessman who hated waste worse than he hated Shaitan himself.
He crossed the yard silently, noiselessly, and stopped in front of the agency bungalow.
A little shudder ran through him. Beyond the fence he could see the forest standing out spectrally in the dazzling moonlight, and through the stir of the leaves and the refuse, blown about by some vagabond wind of the night, was the mystery, the mad, amazing stillness of the Dark Continent, touching his heart with clay-cold fingers.
Next to the bungalow the medicine-house loomed up, large, flat, low.
The Arab measured the distance between the two houses with his eye. Just a few yards . . . enough to carry a dead body across and inside. But what then? The bush-detective had investigated the place. He was a first-class man--he would have found some sort of trace if murder had been committed in that hut. And, after all, there were always medicine men in the north, he thought; there were always medicine-houses in the tradingstations.
Yet there was some sort of connection between this umlino and the murder--the disappearance--of the three agents. Of that he was positive. For there was that dead pig with the red blanket who had come down the river to whisper evil words to the peaceful Warangas. There was the memory of things he knew--of former risings, of massacres, revolts, of fire and flame sweeping through the land . . . and always preceded by the brewing of miracles, the heathenish craft of some ochresmeared umlino.
He stared at the medicine-hut. A faint light shone through its tightly-woven rush walls.
"O Allah, Lord of Daytime, protect me against the darkness of the night when it overtaketh me!" he whispered. Then, as was his wont, he snapped his fingers rapidly to ward against unspoken evil, and touched reverently the little blue necklace, protection against unclean spirits, which was strung around his neck.
But still the atmosphere oppressed him horribly--a commingling of hatred and contempt for these unbelieving savages, but also of despair and red terror. He had been a fool to come up here alone, he said to himself.
Then he got a hold on his nerves.
He walked up to the medicine-hut with firm steps, and pushed open the door unceremoniously.
With a swing of the door, a heavy rush of air poured from the interior of the building and hit him square in the chest, with almost physical force. Momentarily he felt sick, dazed. For the column of air which came from the building was thick, smoky, fetid--a mixture of oiled, perspiring bodies and burning torches.
He steadied himself and looked.
The interior of the medicine-hut, seen dimly through a reddish fuliginous haze which swirled up to the low ceiling with opalescent tongues, was a sea of naked bodies, black, shiny, supple. Hundreds of natives knelt there, close together, with curved backs, foreheads and outstretched hands touching the ground.
They had neither seen nor heard his entry.
They were swaying rhythmically from side to side with all the hysterical frenzy of the African in moments of supreme religious exaltation; mumbling an amazing, staccato hymn of guttural, clicking words which resembled no human language; with now and then a sharply-defined pause, followed by a deep, heaving murmur, like the response of some satanic litany.
At the farther end of the hut were five man-size idols, roughly shaped to resemble human figures, and covered with red clay: the usual ju-jus of the river tribes.
All this Mahmoud Daud perceived in the flash of a moment; and in the flash of the same moment something touched him. It touched none of his five senses; neither hearing, nor smell, nor vision, nor taste, nor touch itself; it touched a sixth sense, as it were, with a faint flavor of unspeakable death, an aroma of torture and agony.
But he had his wits about him. And when, the very next moment, from behind one of the ju-jus, the umlino appeared with a sharp jingle and flash of barbarous ornaments, the Arab was his old, suave self.
"Greetings, medicine man of the river tribes!" he said in a loud, sonorous voice.
IS words seemed to galvanize the worshipers. They jumped up, turned, saw the intruder. There were savage, throaty shouts; an ominous rattling of spears and brandishing of broad-bladed daggers. Momentarily they surged forward, a solid black phalanx, with unthinking, elemental force.
Then they stopped. They hesitated. They turned and looked at the umlino, as if asking silently for advice.
And skillfully Mahmoud Daud used the short interval. He took a step forward, a smile on his grave, dark face.
"Greetings, my people!" he said, extending both his hands in a ceremonious salaam.
Then, with slow, stately step, he walked up to them. They gave way instinctively.
Here and there he recognized a man in the crowd, and addressed him by name:
"Ho, Lakaga! Ho, L'wana! Ho, son of Asafi!"
The men gave greetings in return.
A few seconds later he found himself face to face with the medicine man, half-a-dozen feet from the clay-covered ju-jus.
"Greetings, umlino!" he said once more.
The umlino looked at him. A savage glint was in his rolling eyes. But at once it gave way to an expression of deep cunning.
"Greetings, master!" he replied courteously, and bowed.
Mahmoud Daud looked at him. Fanatic, contemptuous of pagan faith, he had never paid much attention to the medicine men who lived near the kraals and sponged on the people of Double--Dee. But even so, he was positive that this was a new medicine man.
At once, with the sharp, quick perception of a photographic shutter, his mind received and registered the fact that this man did not belong to any of the tribes who had their kraals near the station of Grand L'Popo Basin. He came doubtless from farther inland. He looked different from the others.
His hair had been carefully trained in the shape of a helmet, and was ornamented with antelope horns, which stood out on both sides. He wore many-coiled brass-wire anklets which reached from his feet to his knees, and broad brass bracelets on both his forearms. His body was smeared with ochre, while his face was plastered with white and striped with crimson.
Innumerable necklaces of beads were strung around his massive throat, and from his girdle hung a large collection of witch-charms, which flittered and rattled with every gesture and movement. There was something ominous, something savagely superb in the poise of his huge, muscular body.
Mahmoud Daud said to himself that this medicine man was not the ordinary variety of sponger, feeding on the superstitions and fears of the blacks. This was a rich man, as wealth goes in Africa, wearing about his person the value of several elephant tusks.
In his right hand he carried an ebony staff, tipped with gold, from which swung a round something which looked at first like a dried gourd, and which Daud recognized with a little shiver as a human head, scientifically preserved and shriveled.
No, no; . . . this was not an ordinary medicine man who could be bullied or bribed. This was a man after the pattern of Chakka and Lobengula; a man of cunning and craft, to be met with cunning and craft.
WHEN Mahmoud Daud spoke, it was with hearty sincerity.
"I have heard tell of thy great craft, umlino," he said, squatting down on his haunches with negligent grace and inviting the other to do likewise. "The fame of--"
Suddenly he stopped; it seemed to him that somewhere, quite near, a muffled voice was whispering his name--half-articulate, thick, strangled. At once he dismissed the idea as chimerical. The impression, his sudden silence had only lasted the merest fraction of a second, and so he continued practically in the same breath.
"The fame of thy wisdom has reached the coast. Behold: I have come to see."
The medicine man replied with the same hearty sincerity, parrying easily.
"Thy words are as the sweet winds of night moving gently through the dreadful hours. Thanks! Yet have I heard tell that thou art a Moslem, a follower of the One-God faith, despising the craft of our lodges, and proselytizing among the kraals."
The Arab smiled. For a moment he felt nonplused. He did not know how to reply. The other's thrust had gone home. For, true Arab, he was renowned no less for his business acumen as for his missionary zeal--which, if the truth be told, he helped along with fluent abuse and generous applications of the sjambok.
So he was silent for a few seconds, and looked into the room.
The negroes were massing around close. They were torn between their fear of Mahmoud Ali Daud and the superstitious awe they felt for the medicine man. Somehow, in the back-cells of their savage, atrophied brains, they realized that a decision would be demanded of them presently. Subconsciously they feared it.
So they spoke among themselves, with a confused utterance which came in bursts of uneven strength, with unexpected pauses and throaty yells; a short interval of palpable silence, then again shrill voices leaping into tumultuous shouts.
The Arab knew that he was on the brink of a catastrophe. One wrong word, one wrong gesture, and the avalanche of black bodies would be about him, killing, crushing. So he sat absolutely still, watching beneath lowered eyelids without betraying that he was doing so by the slightest nervous twitching.
Then, very suddenly, he seemed to hear again his name being whispered somewhere close by--by the same thick, strangled voice.
At the same moment he felt that some definite intelligence was focused upon him, an intelligence which held both an entreaty and a demand. It did not come from the brain of the medicine man, nor from any one of the blacks in the crowd. It was some superior intelligence which was trying to communicate with him. It made him nervous, uneasy. He endeavored to force the belief on himself that it was a chimera of his imagination.
But still the impression remained.
The medicine man was talking to him. But he hardly heard the words. Obeying the prompting of the bodiless intelligence, he shifted the least little bit on his supple haunches, so that he was directly face-to-face with the clay covered ju-jus.
Immediately the sensation gained in strength and positiveness. He became aware of one who watched him, one who wanted to talk to him.
He looked narrowly at the ju-jus from underneath his lowered eyelids. They stood in a row. The farthest two were quite crude. Then he noticed, with a little shudder of revulsion, that the other three were startlingly lifelike. Their bodies and arms and legs, beneath the thick covering of red clay, were sculptured and fashioned with extreme skill. Never before had he seen such ju-jus, and he knew Africa from Coast to Coast.
Suddenly the fantastic words of the dead Makupo came back to his memory . . . "clay-gods who talk, talk." . . . Merciful Allah! was there then really such a thing as witchcraft in this stinking, accurst land?
He was about to dismiss the thought with a snapping of the fingers, a mumbled prayer to his favorite Moslem saint, when again he heard his name whispered . . . faint, muffled, eerie, uncanny. This time there was no doubt of it, and it brought him up rigid, tense, with fists clenched, with eyes glaring. But he controlled himself almost immediately, before the medicine man, who was narrowly watching him, could have noticed it.
He smiled at the umlino. He spoke with a calm, even voice, while at the same time his brain was rapidly working in a different direction.
"Thou hast given true talk, umlino," he said. "My faith is indeed the One-God faith, a tree, whose root is firm, whose branches are spreading, whose shade is perpetual. A Syyed am I, and a Moslem, a follower of the True Prophet, taking refuge with Allah from Shaitan the Stoned, the Father of Lies. Subhan' Allah! A learned man did I think myself when I studied Hadis and Tafsir in the university of Al-Azhar, observing closely the written precepts of the great teachers of the Abu Hanifah sect. Wah! The father and mother of learning and wisdom did I consider myself. Proudly did I enlarge my turban. Ay wa'llahi!"
The medicine man smiled thinly, arrogantly.
"Then, why come here, to the lodge of darkness?"
Again Mahmoud Daud's reply was suave and soft, while his brain was working feverishly. He stared intently at the clay-covered ju-ju which was directly in front of him.
"Because my mind has mirrored a faint glimmering of a new truth . . . a faint glimmering of the real truth," he repeated with peculiar emphasis, still staring beyond the squatting medicine man at the ju-ju, and imperceptibly nodding his head.
Even as he spoke he knew that he had solved the problem which had brought him here. Gradually his voice gathered volume and incisiveness.
"Because my groping feet have led me to the edge of mysteries, because, no longer blinded by the veil of my intolerance, I have come to thy feet, O umlino, humbly, as a searcher, a disciple."
He rose. Now or never, he said to himself. Once more he stared raptly at the foremost ju-ju; then he turned and addressed the negroes.
"Listen to me, men of the river tribes! For years have I been your master, averting calamity with the hand of kindness and generosity; giving fair prices for rubber and ivory; giving with open hands when your crops were parched; giving yet again when your broad-horned cattle died of the black fever. Who can deny this?"
"Yes," a clicking, high-pitched voice; gave answer. "It is true talk, indeed."
"True--true--" The black, swaying mass of humanity took up the words, like a Greek chorus.
The Arab continued:
"I have spoken to you of my faith, the faith of Islam, when I believed that it was the true path to salvation. Then," he lowered his voice with dramatic intent, "then rumor came to me from the distance of the new mysteries. At first I doubted. I ridiculed. I did not believe. But the rumor grew. It echoed in the ears of my soul--stark, portentous, immutable. It spoke to me at night, sighing on the wings of the wind which came from the upland. It drew me, drew me! Thus I came here--to see--ay, to hear!"
He paused for a breathless moment. Then he shot out the next words.
"I, also, am a searcher in the lodges. I came here to do worship before the gods--the red gods who talk, talk!"
The crowd moaned and shivered. Again the medicine man jumped forward. He lifted his ebony stick with a threatening gesture. But the Arab continued without a tremor.
"Thrice tonight, as I was sitting here exchanging courteous greetings with the umlino, did I hear the gods talk--faintly, faintly--and they called me by name!"
"A lie! A lie!" shrieked the medicine man. "A blasphemous lie! Kill him! Kill--kill--"
There was an uneasy movement in the crowd. They surged forward in a solid body, with an ominous rattling of spears. But the Arab lifted his hands above his head and spoke rapidly.
"Not a lie, but the truth! Ask the gods--ask them!"
Sudden, brown silence fell over the temple. Then, very faint, half-articulate, strangled, a voice came from the first ju-ju.
"Mahmoud Ali Daud!" and again with a peculiar low sob. "Mahmoud--"
The crowd surged back, toward the door. Men were knocked down in the wild flight. They pushed each other. They trampled on each other. There were yells of entreaty and despair, and once a sharper yell as an assegai struck home.
But again the Arab spoke to them.
"Fear not, my people. The gods will not harm you. For I, also, am a searcher. The truth has been revealed to me. Listen, listen!"
Once more the crowd stopped and turned. Mahmoud Daud continued in a lower key.
"Do you remember the disappearance of my three servants, my three white servants, one after the other, within four months?"
"Yes--yes--" came the shivering chorus.
"Good! Leave the hut, and return in an hour. For the gods, being kind gods, have decided to send them back to life, to work once more for me, to rule once more in my name over the river tribes. Now go, go!"
There was a stampede toward the door, and a few seconds later the medicine man and the Arab stood facing each other. Daud smiled.
"Thou knowest, and I know, oh dog! Thou didst kidnap the three white men. Thou didst gag them and cover their bodies with clay, and once in a while give them a little food. And, when they moaned with the great pain, thou didst tell these blacks that the gods talked, talked--eh?"
The medicine man smiled in his turn.
"True, my master. And how didst thou discover the truth?"
"Because I have seen ju-jus a plenty--but never before have I seen a ju-ju with human eyes!"
There was a short silence. The Arab continued:
"Thou wilt help me to release these men from their clay prisons. Also wilt thou tell the people of Grand L'Popo Basin that in the future it is I, Mahmoud Ali Daud, who is the beloved of the gods, the maker of many miracles." Then, half to himself: "It should be worth the value of much rubber, of many ivory tusks."
The medicine man smiled craftily.
"To listen is to obey, master! But my life--is it safe?"
"It is for thee to choose, dog and son of dogs! Either--this--" and he slipped his broad Arab dagger from the voluminous folds of his burnoose, "or thou wilt continue to make medicine. But thou wilt make it in the uplands, in the kraals of the hinterland." He smiled. "And thou wilt make it as a hired servant, a paid servant, of my firm of Donachie & Daud, of Double-Dee! . . . Hast thou chosen?"
"Yes, master," the medicine man replied. "I shall work for thee and thy partner."
The Arab slipped the dagger back into the folds of his burnoose.
"Mashallah!" he said. "Thou wilt make a shrewd servant."
And he walked up to the clay-covered ju-jus.
From a letter dated September the eleventh, nineteen hundred and seventeen, by Captain Achmed Abdullah to the Editor of the All-Story Weekly
...and as to that, you are, of course, perfectly right. Magazine readers want to be entertained--that's what they plunk down their little dimes for--and take them all around, they prefer a story which is full of action, of things daring, with some love and a fair dose of adventure thrown in, and yet, as you put it, they do not want their credulity strained to the breaking point. They like to say to themselves--well, not exactly "This did happen" but rather, "This might have happened": and as an afterthought, chiefly if they're young (by which I mean the sunny side of seventy-three) they often add the two tiny words "To me."
An adventurous and slightly fantastic love story--yet substantially a true story--that's the dope: and the only thing which remains is to catch your hare, to quote Mrs. Glass's famous Cookery Book. I heard such a story not so very long ago, when on my way home to Afghanistan. I stopped for a few weeks at Calcutta.
The name of the man who told me the story--his own story--was--(name deleted by the editor). You may known some of his people in Boston. And when you come to the end of the tale, remember one thing, the hero--though I hate the appellation--is happy; and that, perhaps, is the final aim and object of man's life--to achieve happiness without making others unhappy.
I hope your readers will like the tale. At least it is a true tale; as true as all India; as true as the fact that before there was a Europe, India worshiped the Trimurti, the triple deity composed of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu, the Sustainer, Shiva the Destroyer, and--to believe certain Hindus--will continue to worship this triple image long after Europe has ceased to exist; as true, finally as the facts that never there lived, nor will live, American or European who can get below the skin of India without doing what the Boston man did in his little house in Calcutta, not far from the Chitpore Road.
Best Regards, Achmed Abdullah.
(Note by the editors--Captain Abdullah's manuscript contained the real names of the people and localities whom this story concerns. We changed them--for obvious reasons.)
On the day when death will knock at thy door, what wilt thou offer him?
Oh, I will set before my guest the full vessel of my life--I will never let him go with empty hands.
Kiss happiness with lips That seek beyond the lips.---from the Love Song of Yar Ali
I met him in that careless, haphazard and thoroughly human way in which one meets people in Calcutta, in all parts of India for that matter. He and I laughed simultaneously at the same street scene. I don't remember if it was the sight of a portly, grey-bearded native dressed incongruously in a brown-and-grey striped camel's-hair dressing-gown, an extravagantly embroidered skull-cap, gorgeous open-work silk socks showing the bulging calves, and cloth-topped patent leather shoes of an ultra-Viennese cut, or if it was perhaps the sight of Donald McIntyre, the Eurasian tobacco merchant in the Sealdah, abusing his Babu partner in a splendid linguistic mixture of his father's broad, twangy Glasgow Scots and of his mother's soft, gliding Behari.
At all events something struck me as funny. I laughed. So did the other man. And there you are.
Nice-looking chap he was--of good length of limbs and width of shoulders, clean-shaven, strong-jawed, and with close-cropped curly brown hair, and eyes the keenest, jolliest shade of blue imaginable. And--he was an American. You could tell by his clothes, chiefly by his neat shoes. They were of a vintage of perhaps two or three years before, but still they bore the national mark; they smacked, somehow, of ice water and clanking overhead trains and hustle and hat-check boys--and his nationality, too, was a point in his favor, since I had spent the preceding three years in New York and America had become home to me, in a way.
So we talked. I forgot who spoke first. It really doesn't matter--in India. Nor did we exchange cards nor names, that not being the custom of negligent India, but we conversed with that easy, we-might-as-well-be-friends familiarity with which strangers talk to each other aboard a transatlantic liner or in a Pullman car--west of Chicago. Presently we decided that we were obstructing the thoroughfare--at least a tiny, white bullock was trying his best to push us out of the way with his soft, ridiculous muzzle--we decided, furthermore, that we had several things to talk over. Quite important things they seemed at the time, and tremendously varied: the home policy of the ancient Peruvians, the truth of the Elohistic theory in the study of the Pentateuch, and the difference between Lahore and Lucknow chutney. In other words, we felt that strange human phenomenon: a sudden warm wave of friendship, of interest, of sympathy for each other.
So we adjourned to a native café which was a mass of violet and gold--slightly fly-specked--of smells honey-sweet and gall-bitter, of carved and painted things supremely beautiful and supremely hideous--since the East goes to the extreme in both cases.
We sipped our coffee and smiled at each other and talked. We discovered that we had likings in common--better still, prejudices and mad theories in common, and presently, since with the bunching, splintering noon heat the shops and the bazaar were clearing of buyers and sellers and since the café was filling with all sorts of strong scented low-castes, kunjris and sansis and what-not, chewing betel and expectorating vastly after the manner of their kind, he proposed that we should continue our conversation in his house.
I accepted, and leaving the tavern I turned automatically to the left fully expecting him to lead toward Park Street or perhaps, since he was so obviously an American, toward one of the big cosmopolitan hotels on the other side of the Howrah Bridge. But instead he led me to the right, straight toward Chitpore Road, straight into the heart of the ancestral tenements of the Ghoses and Raos and Kumars--the respectable native quarter, in other words.
That was my first surprise. My second came when we reached his home--a two storied house of typical extravagant bulbous Hindu architecture, surrounded by a flaunting garden, orange and vermilion with peach and pomegranate and peepul trees and with a thousand nodding flowers. For, as soon as he had ushered me into the great reception hall which stretched across the whole ground floor from front to back veranda, he excused himself. He did not wait to see me comfortably seated nor to offer me drink and tobacco, after the pleasant Anglo-Indian, and, for that matter, American habit. But he dropped hat and stick on the first handy chair, left the room with a hurried "be back in a jiffy, old man," and, a moment later I heard somewhere in the upper story of the house his deep mellow voice, quickly followed by a tinkling, silvery burst of laughter--the unmistakable, low-pitched laughter of the native woman which starts on a minor key and is accompanied by strange melodious appoggiatures an infinitesimal sixteenth below the harmonic tones to which the Western ear is attuned.
So I felt surprised, also disappointed and a little disgusted. The usual sordid shop-worm romance--I said to myself--the usual, useless pinchbeck tale of passion of some fool of a young, rich American and a scheming native woman, doubtless aided and abetted by a swarm of scheming, greasy, needy relations--the old story; the sort of thing that used to be notorious in Japan and in the Philippines.
Impatient, rather soured with my new-found friend, I looked about the room--and my surprise grew, but in another direction.
For the room was not furnished in the quick, tawdry, thrown-together manner of a man who lives and loves and nests with the impulses of a bird of passage. That I could have understood. It would have been in keeping with the tinkly laugher which had drifted down the stairs. Too, I could have understood if the appointments had been straight European or American, a sort of cheap, sentimental link with the home self--respect which he had discarded--temporarily---when he started light housekeeping with his native-born Pgryne.
The room, complete from the ceiling to the floor and from window to door, was furnished in the native style; not in the nasty, showy, ornate native style of the bazaars which cater to tourists--and it is in Indian's favor that the "Oriental wares" sold there are mostly made in Birmingham, Berlin and Newark, N. J.--but in that solid, heavy, rather somber native style of the well-to-do high-caste Hindu to whom every piece--each chair and table and screen--is somehow fraught with eternal, racial tradition. It was a real home, in other words and a native home; and there was nothing--if I except a rack of bier pipes and a humidor filled with a certain much-advertised brand of Kentucky burley tobacco--which spoke of America.
A low divan ran around the four sides of the room. There were three carved saj-wood chairs, a Kashmir walnut table of which the surface was deeply undercut with realistic chenar leaves, and a large water-pipe made of splendid Lucknow enamel. A huge, reddish-brown camel's-hair rug covered the floor, and on tabourets distributed here and there were niello boxes filled with the roseleaf-and-honey confections beloved by Hindu women, pitchers and basins of that exquisite damascening called bidri, and a soft-colored silken scarf--coiled and crumpled, as if a woman had dropped it hurriedly.
The walls were covered with blue glazed tiles; and one the one facing the outer door an inscription in inlaid work caught my attention. They were just a few words, in Sanskrit, and, somehow, they affected me strangely. They were the famous words from the Upanishad:
"Recall, O mind, thy deeds--recall, recall!"
The answer was clear. I said to myself, with a little bitter pang for remember that I liked the man--that here was one who had gone fantee, who had gone native; a man who had dropped overboard all the traditions, the customs, and decencies, the virtues, the blessed, saving prejudices of his race and faith to mire himself hopelessly in the slough of a foreign race and faith. For it is true that a man who goes fantee never acquires the good, but only the bad of the alien breed with which he mingles and blends---true, moreover, that such a man can never rise again, that the doors of the house of his birth shall be forever closed to him. He has blackened the crucible of his life and he will never find a single golden bead at the bottom of it; only hatred and despair and disgust, a longing for the irreparably lost, a bitter taste in the mouth of his soul.
I started towards the door. Out into the free, open sunlight, I said to myself. For I knew what would happen. The man would come down-stairs, carrying a square bottle and glasses. Presently he would become drunk--maudlin--he would pour his mean, dirty confidences into my ear and weep on my neck and---
I reconsidered, quite suddenly. Why, this young American had not the earmarks of a man who had gone fantee. There was not that look in his eyes--that horrible, unbearable look, a composite of misery and lust, bred of bad thoughts, bad dreams, and worse hashish---
The man--I had seen him in the merciless rays of the Indian sun--was keen-eyed, clean morally and physically. His laughter was fresh. His complexion was healthy--and yes, continued my thoughts, he seemed happy, supremely, sublimely, enviably happy!
"Sorry I kept you waiting," came his voice from the farther door as he came into the room, dressed in the flowing, comfortable house robe of a wealthy native gentleman.
He must have read my gyrating, unspoken thought. Perhaps I stared a little too inquisitively at his face, for the tell-tale sign of the sordid tragedy which I suspect. For he smiled, a fine, thin smile, and he pointed to the Sanskrit inscription, reading the words out loud and with a certain gently exalted inflection as if his tongue, in forming the sonorous words, was tasting a special sort of psychic ambrosia.
"Recall, O Mind, thy deeds--recall, re--"
"Well," I blurted out, brutally, tactlessly, before I realized what I was doing, "What is the answer--to this and that and this?" pointing, in turn, at the Indian furniture, the inscription, his dressing robe, and, though the stone-framed window, at the native houses which crowded the garden on all sides.
He smiled. He was not the least bit angry, but frankly amused, like a typical, decently-bred American who can even relish a joker at his own expense. "You're an inquisitive beggar," he commenced, "but I'll tell you rather than have some gossiping cackling hen of a deputy assistant commissioner's mother-in-law tell you the wrong tale and make me lose your friendship. You see," he continued, with an air as if he was telling me a tremendous secret, "I am Stephen Denton."
"Well," I asked, "what of that? The name meant nothing to me."
"What? Have they already forgotten my name? Gosh, that's bully! In another year they will have forgotten the tale itself! You see," he continued, dropping into one of the divans and waving me down beside him, "I'm the guy whom the kid subalterns over at the British barracks call 'the man with the charmed life.'"
I gave a cry--of surprise, amazement, incredulity. For I had heard tales--vague, fantastic, incredible. "You--" I stammered, "you--are--"
"Yes," he laughed, "I am that same man. Care to hear the story?"
"You bet!" I replied fervently, and that very moment, came once more the sound of laughter from up-stairs--soft, tinkling, silvery---
I broke the night's primeval bars
I dared the old abysmal curse
And flashed through ranks of frightened stars
Suddenly on the universe!
STEPHEN DENTON interrupted his tale now and then with shrewd and picturesque sidelights on native life, customs, and characters which proved now deep he had got below the skin of India. But I shall omit them here--doubtless at a future date, he himself will embody them in the great book on India which he is writing--and, in the following, I shall only give the pith of his incredible tale. I only regret that there is no way of reproducing his voice with the printed word---his happy, frank voice, unmistakably American in its intonations, yet once in a while with a quaint inflection which showed that he had begun to think at times in Hindustani.
You see, he commenced, it was all originally Roos-Keppel's doing--fault, if you prefer to call it that. Roos-Keppel--"Tubby" Roos-Keppel---you must have met him over at the jockey club, or in the evening, in the Eden Gardens, driving about in his old-fashioned C-spring barouche---big, paunchy, brick-faced Britisher, who won the Calcutta Sweepstakes--in 1900. Why everybody in India knows the tale, how a sudden, mad prosperity went to his head; how he gave up his job in the Bengal Civil Service, and painted Calcutta crimson for three years; how he lost his hold on everything, including himself; everything that is, except his hospitality, his fantastic ideas, his infectious, daredevil madness.
I met him the day after I got here. How did I get here? Why? When?
Well, two years to-morrow, to answer your last question first, and as to why and how, there's a native proverb which says that fate and self--exertion are half and half in power.
I came here on a sight-seeing trip after I'd got through Yale. I had money of my own, my parents were dead, there was nobody to say no---and I had an idea it would do me good to get a nodding acquaintance with the world and its denizens before I settled down in the Back Bay section--yes--you guessed it--originally I'm just that sort of a Bostonian.
Everything back home--with the dear old, white-haired lawyer, who was my guardian, and his little plump spinster sister who kept house for him, and the black walnut furniture and the antimacassars and the bound volumes, of Emerson and Longfellow and Thoreau--it seemed all so confounded safe and sure. Even timid. Respectably, irreproachably timid, if you get the idea.
Stephen Denton smiled reminiscently.
Preordained, too, it seemed. Preordained from the mild cocktail before dinner to the hoary place on the bench I was expected to grace some day. I had every reason to be happy, don't you think? And I was happy. Quite!
And then I smelled a whiff of wanderlust. And so it happened that that red faced Britisher of a Roos-Keppel kicked me, figuratively speaking, in the stomach--and I'm grateful to him--always shall be grateful.
I met him at the jockey club. He took to me and invited me to dinner at the Hotel Semiramis, where he had a gorgeous suite of rooms. It was some little dinner--just the two of us--and you know the sort of host he is. We tried every barreled, fermented, and bottle refreshment from Syrian raki to yellow-ribbon Grand Marnier; and it was at the end of the party--I was busy with a large cup of coffee and a small glass of brandy, and he with a small cup of coffee and a large glass of brandy--that he cut loose and told me tales about India--tales in which he had been either principal or witness--and, in half an hour, he had taught me more about the hidden nooks and corners of this land than there is in all the travel books, Murray's government and missionary reports put together. What's more his tales were true.
So I asked him, like a tactless young cub: "Heavens, man, with your knowledge of India---why did you throw your chance away? Why didn't you stick to it? You would have made a great, big, bouncing, twenty-four carat success!"
"And I would have wound up with a G. C. S. I., a bloody knighthood, a pension of ten thousand rupees a year, and a two-inch space in the obituary column of the Calcutta Times--English papers please copy--when I've kicked the bally bucket!" He guffawed, and he hiccuped a little. For he had been hitting the brandy bottle, and all the other assorted bottles, like a corn-stalk sailor on a shore spree after two dry months on a lime-juicer without making port. "Success?" he continued, "why, my lad, I am a success. A number one--waterproof--and, damn my eyes, whisky-proof for that matter?"
"You are--what?" I asked, amazed for the man was serious, perfectly serious, mind you; and he kept right on with his philippic monologue, extravagant in diction and gesture, but the core of it--why it was serene, grotesquely serene! "I am a success, I repeat: don't you believe me?" He lowered a purple-veined eyelid in a fat, Falstaffian leer.
"Take a good look at these rooms of mine---best rooms in the Semiramis, in Calcutta, in India, hang it all--in the whole plurry empire!" He pointed at the gorgeous furniture and the silk hangings, "Viceroys by the score have occupied them--and the Prince of Wales--and four assorted Russian grand dukes--and three bloated Yankee plutocrats. And our little supper--look at the bottles and dishes--how much do you think it'll cost? I tell you--five hundred rupees---without the tip! And," he laughed, "I haven't even got enough of the ready to tip the black-lacquered Eurasian majordomo who uncorked our sherry and, doubtless, swiped the first glass."
I made an instinctive gesture toward my pocket-book, but he stopped me with another laugh. "Don't make a silly ass of yourself," he said. "I don't want to borrow any money. All I want to prove to you is that I live and I do as I please--forgetful of the yesterday, careless of the morrow--serene in my belief in my own particular fate. To-night I am broke--hopelessly, desperately broke, you'd call it. For I haven't got a rupee in the world. My bank-account is concave, I owe wages to my servants, I owe for my stable service and horse feed. Everything I have--even my old C-spring barouche, even my old, patched, green bedroom slippers are mortgaged. But what of it? I'll sleep to-night as quiet and untouched as a little babe, something is sure to happen tomorrow---always does happen. I always kick through--somehow--"
"But--how?" I was beginning to get worried for him--I liked him.
"How? Because I am a success--a success with reverse English. The world? Why, I put it all over this fool of a world. For I believe in myself. That's why I win out. Everybody who believes in himself wins out--in what he wants to win out. You, Denton," he went on after a short pause, "are a nice lad, clean and well-bred and no end proper. But you are too damned smug--no offense meant--you are like a respectable spinster owl with respectable astigmatism. Cut away from it. See life. Make life. Take life by the tail and swing it about your head and force it to disgorge. Take a chance--say to yourself that nothing can happen to you!"
"Pretty little theory," I interrupted.
"Theory--the devil!" he cried. "It's the truth! Don't take me as an example if you don't want to. Take people who have done real things. Take you own adored George Washington--take the Duke of Wellington, take Moltke, Ghengiz Khan, U. S. Grant, Attila, Tamerlane, Joffre, or Theodore Roosevelt! They lived through to the end until they had achieved what they wanted to achieve. They made their own fate. The bullet was not run, the sword was not forged which could kill these---for they had willed to live, willed to succeed! They--" a little superstitious hush came into his voice, "they bore the charmed life--"
He poured himself another stiff drink, gulped it down, and pointed through the open window, out at the streets of Calcutta, which lay at our feet, bathed in moonlight.
I looked, and the sight of it, the scent of it, the strange, inexpressible feel of it crept through me--yes, that's it--it crept through me. You know this town--this Calcutta--this melting pot of all India--and remember, that brick-faced reprobate of a Roos-Keppel had been telling me tales of it--grim, fantastic, true tales--and here they were at my feet, the witnesses and actors, the heroes and villains in his tales--hurrying along the street in a never-ending procession--a vast panorama of Asia's uncounted races. There were men from Bengal, black, ungainly, slightly Hebraic shuffling along on their eternal, sissified patent leather pumps. There were men some bearded Rajputs--weaponless, that being the law of Calcutta, but carrying about them somehow the scent of naked steel--and next to them their blood enemies--fur-capped, wide shouldered, sneering Afghans, with screaming voices, brushing through the crowds like the bullies they are--doubtless dreaming of loot and rapine and murder. There were furtive Madrases--"monkey men" we call them here--and a few red-faced duffle-clad hillmen from the North--thin, stunted desertmen from Bikaneer, with their lean jaws bandaged after the manner of the land, and Sikhs and Chinamen and Eurasians and what-not.
And, directly below our window, there was a Brahman priest, a slow, fanatic fire in his eyes---the light from out room caught in them--a caste mark of diagonal stripes of white and black on his forehead, chanting in Sanskrit the praises of the hero and demi-god Gandharbasena---
". . . and thus did the great hero persuade the king of Dhara to give to him in marriage his daughter. Ho! Let all men listen to the Jataka for he was the son of Indra...."
Roos-Keppel's thick, alcoholic voice sounded at my elbow. "India," he hiccuped, "and the horror, the beauty, the wonder, the cruelty, the mad color and scent which is India!" He clutched my arm. "My game's played down to the last rubber, Denton, and my score is nearly settled---but you--why. you've got a stack of chips--you are strong and young--your eyes are clear---and--Gad, I wish I had your chance! I'd take this town by the throat--I'd jump into its damned mazes, regardless of consequences. Heavens, man, can't you feel it beckon and wink and smile--and leer? Listen--" momentarily he was silent, and, from the street came a confused mass of sounds--voices in many languages, rising, then decreasing, the shouts of the street-vendors, the tinkle-tinkle of a woman's glass bracelet--the sounds leaped up like gay fragments of some mocking tunes, again like the tragic chorus of some world--old, world--sad rune. "India!" he continued, "can you resist the call of it?"
It was a psychological moment. Yes--it was that often misquoted, decidedly overworked psychological moment--the brandy and champagne fumes were working in my brain---and something tugged at my soul--if I had wings to fly from the window, to launch myself across the purple haze of the town, to alight on the flat roofs and look into the houses, the lives, the gaieties, the mysteries, the sorrows of this colorful, turbaned throng. And then everything I was--racially, traditionally, you understand--the Back Bay of Boston; the old lawyer, my preordained place on the bench, the antimacassars, Phi Beta Kappa, and all the rest of it, made a last rally in my defense.
"But," I said and I guess my voice was thin, apologetic--just as if Roos-Keppel was the driving master of my destinies, "this is said to be a dangerous place--away from the beaten paths---so what is the use of--"
"The use? The use?" he cut in, with a bellow of laughter, and then, suddenly, his voice was low and quiet "Why, just because it's dangerous, that; why you should try your chance--and your life." He pointed again through the window, east, where, on the horizon, a deep-gray smudge lay across the bent of glimmer and glitter. "See that patch of darkness?" he asked, with something of a challenge in his accents which were getting more and more unsteady, "that's the Colootallah Section--cha--charming little bunch of real estate--worst in the world, not even excepting Aden, Naples and all the wickedness and crimes of Port Said. Only two men are safe there, and they aren't quite safe," he laughed, and to my quickly interjected question, he replied, "Why, a fakir--holy man, you know--and a member of the filthy castes who thrive there--you know even criminal have their own castes in India, and they all seem to congregate there--thugs and thieves and murderers and what-not.
"Wait"--he stopped my questions with a gesture--"perhaps, mind you, I say 'perhaps,' an exceptional detective of the Metropolitan Police in Lal Bazaar may be safe there for three minutes, but--" He was silent and leered at me.
"But what?" I asked impatiently.
"I'd tackle it just the same if I were you, young and strong. No white man has done it before. By Jupiter, I'd tackle it if I had a char---char charmed life--" and quite suddenly he fell into snoring, alcoholic slumber.
I stepped out on the balcony. India was at my feet, cruel, beckoning, mysterious, scented, minatory, fascinating, inexplicable. Right then it got below my skin.
I gave a low laugh. No, I don't know why I laughed.
Stephen Denton was silent for a moment. He was thinking deeply. Then he shook his head.
Honestly, 1 don't know why I laughed. I don't know why I did any of the things I did that night, until I came to the wall at the other end of Ibrahim Khan's Gully. No, no. I had imbibed quite a little--couldn't help it--with Roos--Keppel, but I was not drunk. Not a bit of it.
Well, imagine me there on the balcony of the Semiramis, laughing at India, if you wish; perhaps at the Back Bay, perhaps at myself. I left the balcony, patted the drunken man on the shoulder, and stepped out of the hotel and into the smoky, purple night. The storm which had threatened earlier by the evening was melting into a quiet night of glowing violet, with a pale, sneering, negligent sort of a moon. A low, cool wind was blowing up from the River Hooghli.
I gave a mocking farewell bow in the direction of Park Street, the white man's Calcutta, Government House, green tea and respectability, and turned east, sharp east, toward the patch of darkness, toward the Colootallah. I walked very steadily, as if I had a definite aim and object, turned on the corner of Park Street, and there a policeman, an English policeman, stopped me.
"Beg pardon, sir," he said with that careful. Anglo-Saxon politeness, "you're goin' the wrong way, I fancy, sir. The hotel is over yonder, sir," pointing in the opposite direction; and I laughed. I pressed a rupee into his ready hand. "Hotel, nothing." I said. "I am going toward the Street of Charmed Life!"
"Right-o." commented the policeman. "Some of these 'ere native streets do 'ave funny names, don't they? But--beggin' your pardon, sir--better 'ave a care. Those streets ain't safe for a white man, least--ways at night."
"Quite safe--for me!" I assured him, and I walked on, on and on, not caring where I went---away from the thoroughfares, through grimy little gardens in the back of opium dens where the brick paths were hollow and slimy with the tread of many naked, unsteady feet; then through a greasy, packed wilderness of three-storied houses, perfectly respectable Babu houses, from which a faint, acrid smell seemed to emanate; on, twisting and turning, through the Burra Bazaar and the Jora Bagan--you know the sections, don't you, and their New York counterpart, the Bowery and Hell's Kitchen--and then up into the crooked mazes of the Machua Bazaar--evil, filthy, packed.
On and on, farther and farther away, and at every corner, in every doorway, there were new faces, new types, new voices, new odors, until I came to the Colootallah.
How did I know I was there? Oh, I asked a native, decent sort he was, though he was a bit unsteady with opium, and, just like the English policeman, he advised me to go back to Park Street.
Perhaps he was right. For a moment I was quite sure that he was right, but I walked on, through streets that grew steadily more narrow. You know how narrow they can be, with a glimpse of smoky sky above the roofs revealing scarcely three yards of breadth, and all sorts of squirmy, squishy things underneath your feet, and shawls, and bit of underwear, and turban clothes hanging from the windows and balconies and flopping unexpectedly into your face, and beggars, and roughs, and lepers slinking and pushing against you, jabbering, quarreling, begging; and the roadway ankle-deep in thick slime, and a fetid stink hanging over it all like a cloud; and the darkness, the bitter darkness---black blotched, compact, except for a haggard moon-ray shooting down occasionally from above and glancing off into the cañon of the street from bulbous roof and crazy, tortured balcony.
By ginger, I was sick for a moment. I said to myself that there was a steamer sailing the next day--home and America via Liverpool--and I was about to turn when---
Wait a second.
Get first where I was, though you'll never find the place. You'll hear the reason why later on. You see, I had meanwhile turned up a narrow street; it was quite lonely there; not a soul, not a footstep, hardly a sound. They called the place then--mind you, I said then--Ibrahim Khan's Gully. It was typical of its sort. Whitewashed walls without windows or doors, mysterious, useless-looking to right and to left; and straight in front of me, at the end of the gully, was another wall. It sat there at the end of that cul-de-sac like a seal of destiny, portentous threatening. The moon was pretty well behaved and bright just then, and so I looked at that wall. It impressed me.
It was perhaps ten feet high, and it seemed to be the support of some roof-top for it was crowned with rather an elaborate balustrade of carved, fretted stone. At a certain distance behind it rose another higher wall, then another, still higher, and so on; as if the whole block was terraced from the center toward the gully. To the left and right the wall stretched, gradually rising into the dark without a break, it seemed, and surmounted here and there by the fantastic outline of some spire or balcony or crazy, twisted roof, the whole thing a confounded muddle of Hindu architecture, with apparently neither end nor beginning--mad, brusk, useless--like a harebrained giant's picture-puzzle.
There I stood and stared. I said to myself, "Back, you fool? Straight home with you to Boston, to the bound volumes of Emerson, to the mild cocktail--and I wonder who'll win the mile at the Intercollegiate--" And then--and I remember it as if it was to-day, it was just in the middle of that thought about the mile race--I heard a voice directly above me.
It was a woman's voice, singing in that quaint, minor wail of Eastern music. Perhaps you know the words. I have learned them by heart---
You are to me the gleam of sun
That breaks the gloom of wintry rain;
You are to me the flower of time---
O Peacock, cry again!
"Bravo, bravo!" I shouted. For you see I was only a fool of an outsider, looking into this night--wrapped, night-sounding India as I would look at a fantastic play, and then suddenly the song broke off, came another voice, harsh, hissing, spitting, the sound of a hand slapping bare flesh, and then a piercing shriek. A high-pitched, woman's shriek that shivered the night air, that somehow shivered my heart.
I must help that woman, but--"Home you fool, you silly, meddling idiot." said my saner ego "This is no quarrel of yours." "Take a chance," replied another cell in my brain. "Take a chance with chance! See what all this talk about a charmed life is!"
No, no, I decided the next moment it was mad. Impossible. A native house, a native woman--they were sacred. Not even the police would dare enter without a search warrant; and this was the Colootallah, the worst section of Calcutta; and I knew next to nothing about India, about the languages, the customs, the prejudices of the land, except what Roos-Keppel had told me.
"Hai-hai-hai!" came once more the piercing, woman's wail: and right then I consigned Back Bay and safety first to the devil. I made for that wall with a laugh, perhaps a prayer.
A charmed life! By the many hecks, I'd find out presently I said to myself, as I jumped on a narrow ledge a few feet from the ground, from which I could clutch the top of the stone balustrade.
I swung myself into the unknown, balanced for the fraction of a second on the balustrade, then let myself drop. I struck something soft and bulky that squirmed swiftly away. Came a grunt and a curse--at least, it sounded suspiciously like a curse--then somebody struck a light which blinded me momentarily.
And at that very moment the bell from the Presbyterian Church in Old Court House Street struck the midnight hour.
Oft have I heard that no accident or chance ever mars the march of events here below, and that all moves in accordance with a plan. To take shelter under a common bough or a drink of the same river is alike ordained from ages prior to our birth.
--From the letter of a Japanese Daimio to his wife before committing hara-kari
RAPIDLY my eyes got used to the light. It came from a flickering, insincere oil-lamp held in the hands of an elderly Hindu, evidently the possessor of the soft and bulky body which I had struck when I had let myself drop.
He looked at me, and I looked at him, silently. I am quite sure we didn't like each other. We didn't have to say a single word to convince each other of the fact. He was an old man, but old without the slightest trace of dignity, he wore no turban, and that gave his shiny, shaven head a horribly naked look. On his forehead was a crimson caste mark--nasty-looking thing it was. His eyes were hopelessly bleared, his teeth were blackened with betel juice, his rough, gray beard was quite a stranger to comb or oil. He was a fat, ridiculous old man, with a ridiculous, squeaky little cough.
I burst out laughing, and I laughed louder when I saw the expression which crept into his red-rimmed eyes. Not that the expression was really funny. Rather this opposite. For it was one of beastly hatred, of savage joy, of sinister triumph. But, don't you see, I wasn't the Stephen Denton of half a year, why, of half an hour before. Right then I had forgotten all about America and Boston and regulation respectability. There seemed to be no home tradition to analyze and criticize and I belonged right there--to that flat rooftop, to the purple, choking night down below in Ibrahim Khan's Gully, to India, to Calcutta. One blow of my fist, I said to myself, and that fat, ridiculous old savage would take an involuntary, headlong tumble from the balustrade to the blue, sticky mire of the gully. So I laughed.
But hold on. Don't get the story wrong. I didn't stand there, on that roof-top in the Colootallah, exactly thinking out all these impressions, detail for detail. They passed over me in a solid wave and in the fraction of a second, and, even as they swept through me, the lamp in the hands of the old man trembled a little and shot its haggard, dirty-white rays a little to the left, toward a short, squat, carved stone pillar quite close to the balustrade.
And there, breathing hard, clutching the pillar with two tiny, narrow hands, I saw a native woman--a young girl rather--doubtless she whom I had heard sing, then scream in pain. Red, cruel finger-marks were still visible on her delicate, pale-golden cheek.
Stephen Denton lit a cigar and blew out a series of rings, attempting to hang them on the chandelier, one by one.
You know (he said this with a certain, ringing, challenging seriousness) I fell in love right then and there. Sounds silly, of course. But it's the truth. I looked at that Hindu girl, and I loved her. Such a--a--why, such a strange, inexpressible sensation came over me. It seemed suddenly that we were alone--she and I--on the roof-top in Calcutta--alone in all the world---
But never mind that I guess you know what love is.
She was hardly more than sixteen years old, and she dressed in the conventional dress of a Hindu dancer, in a sari--you know, the scarf which the Hindu woman drapes about her with a deft art not dreamed of by Fifth Avenue--of pale rose colored silk, shot with orange and violet and bordered with tiny seed-pearls. An edge of the sari hung over one round shoulder and the robe itself came just below the knee. Her face was small and round and exquisitely chiseled. Her hair was parted in the middle. It was of a glossy bluish--black, mingled with flowers and jewels and the braids came down to her ankles. A perfume, sweet, pungent, mysterious, so faint as to be little more than a suggestion, hovered about her.
Well--I stared at her. Then I remembered my manners and lifted my hand to raise my hat. It wasn't there. I must have dropped it when I negotiated the wall and the girl, seeing my action, understanding it, forgot her pain and laughed. Such a jolly silvery, exquisite little laugh.
Ever think of the psychology of laughter? To me it has always seemed the final proof of sympathy, of humanity, even. And so that laugh, from the crimson lips of this Hindu girl, finally did the trick. I forgot all about the fat old party with the caste mark and the bleary eyes, I walked up to the girl and offend her my hand, American fashion.
"Glad to meet you," I said in English. It was a foolish thing to say, absolutely ridiculous, but just then I couldn't think of anything else. You see, at midnight, on the roof-top of some unknown native house in the heart of the Colootallah, together with people of an unknown race and faith, of alien tradition, alien emotions, even---what would you have said?
I struck to my native-born form of salutation, and held out my hand. She gave me hers--it felt just like some warm, downy little baby bird--and replied in English, with a certain faint nuance of mockery, "Glad to meet you, sir," and I grinned and was about to open up a polite conversation.
You see, momentarily I had really forgotten all about that bleary-eyed old scoundrel. But he recalled himself to me almost immediately--with an exceedingly rude and, considering his age, muscular push which shoved me to one side and the girl to the other.
There he stood between us, like an exageratingly hideous Hindu idol of revenge and hatred and lust and half a dozen other assorted beastly qualities, the lamp trembling in his clawlike hand. He pointed at me, addressing the girl in a mad, jerky, helter-skelter flood of Hindustani--I didn't understand it--which caused the girl to pale and to shake her head vigorously. It was evidence that he was accusing her of something or other, and that she was denying the accusation indignantly. And then he commenced abusing her in English, doubtless for my benefit.
I was stuffing his mouth at once with my fist, but the girl signaled to me, frantically, imploringly, "No, no"--I saw her lips shaping the words and so, temporarily I kept me peace while the old Hindu proceeded to prove that he could translate Hindu abuse into very fair English.
"Ho!" he shouted at her. "Ho! thou daughter of unthinkable begatting! Thou spawn of much filth. Thou especially illegitimate and shameless hyena! Thou this and that and once more this! By Shiva and Shiva--I shall wench thy wicked hide with the touchstone of pain and affliction! I shall--"
"Look here" I interrupted "you are getting entirely too fresh. Stow your line of talk, or--" and I made a significant gesture with my fist---would have hit him, too, if the girl had not signaled to me again--this time, and I don't know what she wanted by it, pointing at her forehead and then back at the building which terraced toward the center of the block.
The Hindu man was too angry to notice the by-play. "O Calamity!" he went on. "O crimson shame! May Doorgha, the great goddess, cut out thy heart and feed it to a mangy pig! What shameless doing are these--O thou bazaar woman--to send word to thy lover--to have him come here, to this house, and at night? Didst thou think that I would be asleep? Thy lover--" he spat out, "and he a man of the accused foreign race, an infidel, an eater of unclean food, a cannibal of the holy cow, a swinish derider of the many gods! He--thy lover! Ah! by the Mother of the Elephant's Trunk--thy portion shall be the pain which passeth understanding!" Suddenly he turned and addressed himself to me, "and as for thee--for thee--" He was so choked with fury that the words were gurgled and died in his throat. He positively did not know whom to insult or bully first, the girl or me. Like Balaam's Ass, he stood there, undecided, and finally he made up his mind to attend first to the girl.
"Thou--" came an unmentionable epithet, unmentionable even among Hindus, and you know how extravagant their abuse is inclined to be, then he turned on her. His right hand still held the trembling lamp. He struck out with his left. She tried to evade him--slipped--I was too late to come to her rescue--only a glancing blow, but she fell, bumping her head smartly against the stone pillar.
She gave a pitiful little moan--and was unconscious.
Then I got mad.
I rushed up to him, lunged, and missed. You see, the old beggar danced away from me with a certain sharp, twisting agility which I wouldn't have believed possibly in that aged, obese body of his. Also, I had to be careful--on that confounded roof-top. No use tumbling over the balustrade and breaking my neck. That wouldn't have helped the girl any. The only chance I had was to get him against the wall on the side opposite the gully--a torn-down wall occasionally connecting the rooftop with the next layer on that maze of buildings.
Finally I managed to drive him toward the wall. I had him cornered. He stood there--the lamp still flickering in his right, its ray sharply silhouetting him against the spectral white stucco. I was quite fascinated for a moment, looking at him. The idea flushed into my brain that I was looking into the visage of something monstrous, impossible. The beastly bald skull, the caste mark, the fat, wide-humped shoulders, suggested that which was scarcely human and, struck by a sudden burst of horror, I stared into that dark, inscrutable countenance.
Then he opened his mouth--he said something, in a low voice of what was going to happen to me. It had something to do with one of his beastly, many-armed gods--I didn't understand the allusion at the time. At all events, he pointed at the caste mark on his forehead and---
You see, I am a slow, careful sort of fighter. I hate to waste a blow. Furthermore, up to then we had all been comparatively quiet. I didn't care to make too much noise. And I had him cornered. So, instead of rushing up like a noisy avalanche, I poised myself on my toes, squared my shoulders, drew back my right arm--and then I nearly lost the whole game. For, quite suddenly, he brought his left hand to his mouth. He was about to shout--for help, I suppose. And then I hit him, right between the eyes, By ginger, it was a wallop.
You see, I was quite mad; and even in that fleeting moment, when I had really no time to register sensations, I could feel his skin break beneath my knuckles, the soft, pulped flesh--the blood squirting up--and, darn it, I liked the feeling!
Stephen Denton gave a strange smile.
Rather bestial, don't you think? But then I told you I was a different man--there, on that roof-top, with purple India whispering about me--than I had been half an hour before.
Well, the old Hindu fell, unconscious, by the side of the girl. The lamp dropped from his hand. I tried to catch it, could not, and over the balustrade it went in a fantastic curve of yellow sparks, and down into the blue slime of Ibrahim Khan's Gully where it gave a little protesting sshissh and guttered out.
So there I was, on that confounded roof-top, in utter silence, utter darkness--the moon had hidden behind a cloud-bank--and within a few feet of me was the unconscious form of the girl---the Hindu girl--with whom I had fallen in love---and I knew neither her name, nor her faith--nor anything at all about her. An adventure, don't you think? An adventure--to me. Fantastic, twisted, incredible! And, a few hours before, I had imagined that the greatest adventure that could ever happen to me would be to catch a fifty pound salmon, and to get away with the tale of it!
But, just then, I didn't even consider the whole mad sequence of events in the light of adventure. It seemed all perfectly sane, perfectly possible--preordained, in a way--and I thought and acted with the utmost self-assurance and deliberation.
Was I afraid, you ask? I was not. Honestly! Sounds silly, bragging, doesn't it? But it's the truth. Of course I realized that my position was ugly. You see, there was that blotchy, purple darkness all about me, and a terrific, breathless silence--and what was I to do? Back across the wall? Into Ibrahim Khan's Gully--and a run for the Hotel Semiramis? Sure, I could have jumped down. I had learned the trick in gym work, back at college--to land on my toes, slightly bending my back and my legs.
But I didn't take that chance. I could not. For there was the girl, and I loved her. She was dear to me--very dear--dearer than my life, my salvation--dearer--what's the old saying?--yes, dearer than the dwelling of kings! Carefully, slowly I crept across to her side, for I didn't want to step on the old Hindu. I didn't want to recall him from his trance before I was ready for him, before I had decided exactly what to do.
I stooped down and touched the girl's soft little face. The touch went through me like an electric thrill. What was I to do? She was breathing, but quite unconscious. I had no way, no time to revive her.
Should I take her with me across the balustrade? Impossible. I couldn't drag her into the gully like a bag of flour, nor was it feasible for me to go down first--wouldn't be able to reach and lift her from below.
I was sure of only one thing. I wouldn't leave without her--without her I wouldn't leave that roof-top, the Colootallah, nor Calcutta, nor India.
I loved her. I wanted her. I would die for her. The source of that rash courage will ever be to me an inexplicable mystery. For, don't you see, I had always lived a perfectly sheltered life back in Boston, with the antimacassars and the walnut furniture and the volumes of Emerson and Thoreau. But I had resolved to take that girl with me. No more, nor less!
So I squatted there, by the side of the girl, considering. It is strange how trivial things impinge on the consciousness in such moments with a shock of something important, immense. There was just a slight noise--a soft tckk-tckktckk--but, somehow, I knew what it was. It was the noise of a scorpion scuttling across the roof---to the left of me--towards the old Hindu.
I knew just exactly what would happen---tried my best, with a sharp hiss, to prevent it--but it did happen. The little scorpion, if, indeed, it was one--perhaps it was only a mouse--scurried across the old Hindu's face--startled him into consciousness.
He sat up. He gave a shout for help--just one shout. I was one top of him the very next second--but I could not clutch that shout out of the air--it echoed and reverberated among the terraced walls, sharp, metallic. It tore through the gloom like the point of a knife.
I had him down on his back again in the twinkling of an eye, had him gagged securely with my handkerchief and the heavy leather gloves I carried in my pocket. Working feverishly, I tore the silk scarf from the girl's shoulder, tore off my coat, my necktie--and had him tied before he knew what was happening to him.
Then I sat up and listened. With a little gray thrill of horror I realized that the cry for help had been heard, that the crisis was upon me. Far in the bowels of that crazy mass of terrace buildings I heard confused voices--footsteps.
Tap-tap-tap--naked feet stepping gingerly on cold stone slabs.
A dozen questions leaped to my brain. What could I do? How? The old man--myself--the girl---
Yes! The girl whom I loved. At that moment I longed for two things, two things of Western civilization: a revolver and a box of matches. But I had neither the one nor the other about me. All I had was a knife, a pretty good knife, too, very much like an old-fashion Bowie. I had bought it the day I left America, in a spirit of jest, rather than with the expectation of using it.
The footsteps came nearer and nearer from the direction of the wall which connected the rooftop with the next building. I looked about me, for a place to hide the girl, to hide myself.
And the old man! Over the wall with him, I decided brutally, and I dragged at his feet--he was heavy, very heavy--and then I desisted. For the footsteps came nearer, ever nearer; also excited voices in an unintelligible language.
For a moment the voices were drowned in a round, metallic burst of sound. Banng! came the bell from the Presbyterian Church in Old Court House Street, tolling the quarter after midnight. Then, when the tolling had trembled away, came once again the sounds--nearer, nearer--voices, footsteps, and also a faint crackling of steel, the swish of a scabbard scraping across stone flags.
And the darkness was about me like a heavy, woolen garment.
Stephen Denton smiled, quizzically, incongruously.
Don't you see? He continued when he saw the expression of surprise on my face, the thing was really quite funny. The adventure itself seemed to me--oh, sort of inevitable, like a Greek drama: and as to the darkness--why, old man, that moon there behind the cloud-bank reminded me of some dear old chaperone at a ball at Magnolia. Prime her with a ball of knitting wool, a glass of near-soft punch, and pop her into a nice warm conservatory, and she'll remain there until the band plays "Good Night, Ladies" and not bother the young idea. Get it? So is was with that moon. Kept away, left everything blotchy, dark side of by itself. Me and the girl, and the old man and the whole damned rooftop.
Yes, I thought of all that at the time. But I acted, even as I thought, as if I had two sets of nerve-controls, working separately from each other. I moved about in the darkness, feverishly, searching for some hiding-place big enough to hold one or all of us--the footsteps and the voices were coming nearer all the time--and finally I discovered that the balustrade, built out towards the roof-top, formed a sort of box for a length of about six feet. Did I put the girl inside? You bet your life I did not! I told you I wasn't going to leave her ever again. I stuck the old man inside, handled him as I would a bundle of useless, dirty rags; and the next moment, with the strength and haste of desperation, I picked up the unconscious girl, and, holding her in my arms, I squeezed myself behind the carved stone pillar against which she had been leaning when I had burst upon the scene. The place was just large enough to hold us--me and her--pressed tight against me.
Of course, the whole thing took less time than it takes me to tell it.
So, there I was, holding that little Hindu girl in my arms--and--why, man, I loved her--unless the repetition of that detail bores you--my arms touched the soft curves of her young shoulders.
It was quite dark, as I told you. But there, resting on my left arm, was her little face, like an opening flower. Only a slip of a girl, her youthful incompleteness just a lovely sketch for something larger, finer, more splendid--just a mass of happy, seductive hints, with the high-lights yet missing.
That's it! You guessed it first time! I kissed her--either my last kiss on this earth I said to myself; or if there was any truth in that charmed life hope, my first kiss--given, taken rather, in real love.
And, as I pressed her closer against me in the ecstasy of the moment--you see, I had forgotten all about the approaching footsteps, I am such a careless fellow--I felt as if something was giving way behind me. Quickly I squirmed, a few inches to the right--there wasn't so very much room, and at the same moment a door opened up in the wall in back of the pillar, leading up from somewhere in that crazy maze of a building.
The swing of the door missed me by a fraction of an inch--I sucked in my breath--and two men came out on the roof-top carrying naked blades.
No! I didn't see the blades, but both, one after the other, scraped against me, cutting through trousers and underwear like razors.
They wounded me slightly, but I made neither motion nor outcry. For there, in my arms was the girl who was dearest to me in all the world; and so, just for luck, I bent down and kissed her again.
Vainly the heart on Providence calls, such aid to seek were hardly wise For man must own the pitiless law the sways the globe and sevenfold skies--From the Kasidah of Haji Abdu El-Yezdi
WHAT saved me then was the Oriental negligence, the Oriental carelessness as to details, which--and that's my own discovery---the only thing that is keeping India and the rest of Asia in the rear of Western progress.
An American watchman, hearing a cry for help, might possibly have forgotten his gun. But never his lamp! With these two Hindus it was just the opposite; armed to the teeth they were, judging from the swish and crackle of steel which syncopated their movements about the roof-top, but they carried neither lamp, nor candle, nor even a match. They moved about there in the dark, searching, groping, tapping and were, of course, very much astonished when they didn't find anybody. I was sure that the old ruffian in the cupboard beneath the balustrade nearly caused his eyes to pop out of his head with effort to shout out to them, to tell them where he was. But my gloves were a good gag--with a fine, healthy, tannic acid taste to them, I guess.
Yes, they were astonished and amazed. At least, I gathered as much from the guttural exclamations. They called on a variety of Hindi deities to be witness to their predicament, but the native gods weren't helping much that night. Just then, a little black-and-yellow box of Swedish matches--prosaic, matter-of-fact Occidental matches--would have beaten Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi, and Parvati herself into a cocked hat.
But those two steel-rattling fools did not know it. They just groped about, and searched, and cursed a little, and finally they seemed to decide that, though they themselves had come to the roof-top via the only aperture that led out from the building itself, there was only one other way--from Ibrahim Khan's Gully, across the balustrade--the way I had taken. So one of them swung over the wall, I heard him land on his feet, with a little soft plop, like some great cat, and with a metallic, grating noise as the tip of his scabbard bumped against the ground; and a moment later I heard him down below, walking up and down, up and down, as if he was patrolling the Gully.
By this time I was getting decidedly uncomfortable. The front of me was all right, with that little soft, warm bundle of humanity held tight in my arms. But the back of me! Pressed against the confounded stone wall, with about an inch of sharp bronze door-hinge boring into a choice spot of my anatomy! It was that which I minded. Funny, don't you think? There I was, balancing precariously on the edge of the unknown, and it wasn't my ultimate fate which I feared. I didn't even think of it. The only thing that mattered was that one little pang of pain in the small of my back.
A smile flickered on Stephen Denton's lips. It was not exactly a smile of amusement, nor altogether a smile of triumph. Anyway, here's how he continued:
I was pretty good at college, sort of solid and reliable; I played tackle straight through my lessons--didn't slip and slide and run about the side-lines.
Don't you get me? Well, put it this was, then:
I went in for the sound and heavy and recognized in learning, and didn't care much for apologies. Regular chief in the tribe of the Philistines I was! Psychology? That was a word always on the lips of some of my classmates, as an excuse, an explanation for almost anything. I didn't care for it at all.
I always thought that a psychologist is like a man who is looking for his spectacles and finally finds them on his own nose, after looking on everybody's else's nose--the sort of a man who loses his spectacles--what? By putting them in the wrong place? Why, no! By putting them in the right place! That's how he loses them! Well, I didn't. I wasn't a psychologist, nor any other sort of intellectual, self-analytical jackass. Perhaps I was too stupid--and it turned out to be lucky for me that night, on the flat roof-top in the heart of Colootallah, with every wickedness and crime and cruelty and superstition in India floating and breathing and bunching somewhere about me in the purple, choking darkness, with my love in my arms! For--as I should and would have done had I been a junior Münsterberg--I did not stop to dissect and label the psychology of fear and apprehension, as exemplified in myself.
Perhaps I didn't have the time. All I meant to do--I had made up my mind to do--was to get rid of the pain in my back, and to get the little girl somewhere where there wouldn't be a witless hairbreadth of destiny between her life and mine.
Of course, my first inclination was to assault the Hindu who had remained behind--I could hear him breathe, near me, in the gloom--in fact, to kill him. Yes, to kill him! Remember, I told you I was beginning to feel myself part of the Colootallah scenery, including the--ah!---primeval emotions of that charming neighborhood. But, if I was a caveman in emotions, I was also a caveman in instinctive, safety-first cunning. I said to myself that I could not kill without making a noise--and there was my Hindu's sidekick prowling about in the Gully. What then? I could not stay all night behind the pillar, even supposing the pain in my back should cease. For, in another few hours, it would be morning, and before that old lady Moon might get it into her head almost any time to pop out from behind her banks of clouds and treat us to a silver bath.
No hope in front of me, thus! But in back of me there was a door, the only solid nail on which to hang my plan. If it had been door enough to let the two Hindu out on the roof-top, It was bound to be door enough to let me away from the roof-top.
I acted on that idea as soon as I thought of it. The door was still ajar. Quite noiselessly, the girl in my arms, I squirmed around the edge of it, and I felt steps under my feet.
Right then I drew a good, long breath the first in about three eternities, it seemed to me---and I eased the strain on my muscles by letting the warm little burden in my arms slip down until the tips of her toes touched the ground.
What--did I lock the door behind me? You bet your life I did--not!
There was a latch, and I could have barred those snooping beggars out, but what possible good would that have done? Sooner or later they were bound to give up their search and to report to whomever had sent them; and their suspicions would only have increased if they had found that somebody had locked them out. No, I left the door open, and, once more pressing the little Hindu girl tight against my chest, I groped my way down the stairs, slowly, carefully, perhaps a couple of dozen steps, worn, slippery and hollow by the trend of naked feet, down, straight down.
There was not even the faintest ray of light. But I held to my course, the burden in my arms getting heavier every second, carefully setting foot before foot, and finally landing dead against the wall. I gave my forehead a terrific bump and jarred my whole body. It was providential that the girl didn't regain consciousness, for just then I should have had a devil of a time explaining to her.
Presently, by groping tentatively here and there, I discovered that I had debouched on a narrow landing which stretched right and left. What now? I had to turn somewhere, and I chose the left, for not particular reason. But I have often since wondered what would have happened, how the whole thing would have ended, had I gone the other way, although a few minutes later I decided that my eventual choice of directions had been singularly unfortunate.
Still, in the end, it didn't turn out that way.
You see (Stephen Denton made a vast, circular gesture) here I am, and--Never mind, old man. Let me resume my muttons.
He laughed at the word.
Muttons with a vengeance! If not muttons, then at least goats; same family of ruminant animals, aren't they? For, as I walked down, the landing a perfectly brutal, goatish smell seemed to drift from the unknown goal toward which I was making. I wondered if on top of all the other sanitary iniquities the Hindu was the habit of keeping pens in the middle of their living-houses. But I wasn't going to let a smell, any smell, swerve me from my course. Goats or no goats, I walked on, on for several minutes along the outside which twisted and turned, rose and dipped like some crazy stone snake, and all the time I felt the pat-pat-pat of the little girl's heart-beats, softly beating, against my own heart, as if trying to blend, to mix with it.
Once I stopped. For, from a great distance it seemed, the bell of the Presbterian church on Old Court House Street was tolling the half-hour; and I, don't you see--I was going away from the bell, from the church and all it implied--civilization, Christianity, safety--away from Boston and mild cocktails and Phi Beta Kappa! "Come back!" tolled the bronze-tongued bell, and the sounds of it seemed to pour through the glassy, grooved floor as though from cellars and tunnels where they lay stored beneath the house, beneath the Colootallah, beneath all India. They sang and trembled about me: "Come back, Come back!" But I---
Well, I told the fool bell to go chase itself. I kept on--yes, in the general direction of that brutal odor.
Presently, though the smell increased in intensity, in a certain unspeakable corroding acidity, it seemed to become less goatish; but, too, it seemed to hold some vague horror.
Doesn't seem reasonable, does it, to be afraid of a smell? But I was, in a way; and heretofore I hadn't been afraid at all! Of course, I controlled my nascent fear immediately. Had to, you see, with all the world's treasures to my arms. But I was in a peculiar state of mind. I put my feet down carefully, but mechanically, and my mind seemed suddenly detached from my bodily sensations, as if it was trying to grope ahead of my body into the dark, to warn, to reassure. Somehow I felt that I had stepped into a hollow; not a hollow of the earth, but one of time.
Still I kept on, and all at once it seemed to me that the smell was directly in front of me, coming from below my feet. I groped in the dark. I had come to the end of the corridor; but there was a door set slant-ways into the wall. There was a handle. I gripped it The door opened easily. I stepped inside, and the door shut behind me with a little dull, soft thud of finality.
A moment later I thought I had been too rash. Holding the girl in my left arm, I tried to open the door with my right; but it was impossible. I could not even budge it.
Stephen Denton smoked for a while in silence, a silence suddenly broken by the strumming of a native guitar which drifted down the stairs. He smiled.
Can you imagine, he continued, to step from utter silence and darkness into a room with a bright light? Why, no! What is there to apprehend, to startle you, even in a bright light? You know it comes from somewhere, through some mechanical or natural agency, don't you?
What startled me into stark, breathless immobility was a faint noise--a faint, rasping noise, the like of which I had never heard before.
Not that, with my back against a cold, moist wall, the girl in my left arm with her feet touching the ground. I had time to run in my memory over all the noises I had ever heard. But I knew that was it--I knew that the noise which I heard had a sinister, grim connection with the fetid scent which had drifted down the corridor in front of me, and, too, that it held in itself a terrible menace. It wasn't a hissing, nor a barking, nor a scraping. It seemed more like a tremendous vibration that filled the space about me, that seemed to close in on me; and while I was not afraid--how could I have been with her in my arms? I felt, sort of dimly, a rushing wonder as to the aspect, the source, the nature, yes as though it may seem silly to you--the all-fired use and necessity of that unknown noise! I want you to feel that noise as I felt it--yes, felt it more than heard it--perhaps a combination of the two sensations. I seemed to both feel and hear somebody, something listening in the dark! Presently the impression grew into positive knowledge, and then--I guess there's some scientific connecting-link between seeing and hearing and smelling--at that very same moment the fetid smell rose against me like a solid wall, and I saw two small, oblong, green lights--and they appeared to be flat.
You know, I wouldn't have minded so much if those two green lights had seemed rounded, globular. What startled me was the fact that they were quite flat. Mad, don't you think? But true, old man!
And the door was shut behind me; and I and the girl who was all the world and all the world's salvation to me were imprisoned with that strange, humming vibration, the terrible, fetid odor, the flat oblong, green lights!
What was I to do? Get my arms free for action, for savage battle, for whatever might happen--that was the first!
I turned a little to the left to let the girl slip gently to the floor.
And then my heart stood still, quite still. The blood in my veins felt exactly like freezing water!
For as I turned I saw two more that, green lights. But they were less distinct than the others. Sort of vague, wiped-over--that's how they looked; and they were in the wall, like jewels in a deep-setting. I raised my right hand to crush them, to pluck them out; and then I laughed.
I am sure I laughed--at myself.
You see, the moment my hand was in one line with them they disappeared; and then I knew the second pair of green lights was only a reflection of the first pair, the slimy, dank wall acting as a mirror; and so I propped the girl against the wall, drew my knife, and turned back to face once more the unknown danger.
The vibrations were increasing in intensity; the green lights swerved and swayed here and there like gigantic fireflies; and I was a little afraid, perhaps because my love was not in my arms any more; and so I commenced whistling to regain my self-confidence. I whistled quite well, very softly. I used to practice it years ago in prep school to annoy my teachers.
Imagine me standing there like a fool in that inky-black room in the heart of the Colootallah, shielding a Hindu girl, a girl whose name I didn't know and whom I had finally decided to take with me to the very end of life--facing I didn't know what unknown horror and iniquity, and whistling--whistling one of those slow, dreamy, peaches-and-cream Hawaiian melodies, the "Waikiki Moonlight," if I remember rightly, with a little drooping sob to every third note.
I am glad that it was dark and that there was no mirror down there in which to behold myself. I am sure I must have cut a laughable figure--I can imagine it with my hair, since I was a little scared, standing out like ruffled feathers, my eyes wide open and staring into those flat, green, ghastly things in front of me, my jaw a trifle dropped, and my lips pointed, whistling that sentimental poppycock about the dear old silvery moonlight on dear old Waikiki beach. Gosh!
But presently the impression grew on me--to become a stony certainty almost immediately---that those swaying green things in front of me were becoming more quiet, more stationary, the longer and softer I whistled. Too, the vibration, while it did not cease, became indifferent, less terrible and minatory; seemed to lose some of its menacing, crouching, intensity.
A few more staves about moonlight and Liliuokalani and Waikiki, and the vibrations had blended completely into a soft, contented--well a mixture between a purr and a hiss.
What did I do? Why I kept right on whistling. You just bet I did! I must have gone through my entire lengthy repertory of sentimental mush--German tunes, American, Hawaiian, Irish and Greaser! And, which is the incredible part of it, the true, inevitable part, that one little accomplishment saved my life that night.
I was beginning at about No. 33 on my musical program--by this time the green things, had become quite stationary and something like a milky veiled film had settled over them when there was a soft rushing noise, but not at all a terrifying noise, the green lights were blotted out altogether, and something hove up out of the dark: it brushed up against me, it poured over my feet and ankles with the soft, pliable weight of a huge steel cable--something mighty and very cold! I stood there like a statue if a statue can tremble a little--and the coiled, steely, thing drew itself up, up the length of my legs, around my waist with a great turn over my shoulders; then, without any apparent effort, still farther up, over my head a foot or so encircling my neck--the next moment one end of it touched my cheek with a soft, gentle, caressing gesture.
A cobra! yes--a cobra!
That huge reptile had heard me whistle perhaps it was some sob catch in my way of whistling which did the trick, which reminded the snake of the plaintive notes which the snake--charmer produces from his flat reed pipe.
Anyway, there it was, encircling my body, gently touching my cheeks. Fancy though---wasn't it?--to consider the there, in that rabbits' warren of a building with every one's hand against me, a cobra--most hated and feared of animals--was the only living thing which seemed to have a sort of affection for me!
What did I do? Oh, I patted its head, and I have a vague, shameful recollection that I addressed the great, slimy brute as "good old pussy"--but, whatever it was, it pleased her: and if ever a snake purred, that snake purred!
Presently it must have thought that there had been enough caressing for the time being, for, with one final, deep vibrating hiss-purr, it slid down my body and with a slightly wiggle of farewell which nearly knocked me off my feet, it scooted off.
I didn't waste much time in putting two and two together. For a cobra in India in a building---meant priests and a temple.
You see, I had done quite a little sight-seeing in Calcutta; I had also studied my guide-book, and had talked to several seasoned old Anglo-Indians, Roos-Keppel included; and I remembered what I had seen and read and heard--about the sacred king-cobra which the Hindus keep in stone caves at the feet of some of their idols, how the Brahmans go down and feed them, and how tame the reptiles become.
Don't you see? I was just in such a snake den, and I said to myself that the way of getting out of it was the way by which the priest brought down the food--they can't throw it down, you know, since cobras drink a good deal of milk--a way which must lead, not back to the landing whence I had come, but straight into the temple. So I groped and tapped about the walls and the low ceiling, and finally I found a curved metal handle. A jerk and a twist--and half the ceiling slid to one side, into a well-oiled groove, sending down a flood of haggard, indifferent light. I picked up the little Hindu girl, who was still unconscious, lifted her gently through the hole in the ceiling, and followed after.
The room in which I found myself was lit by the dull-red, scanty glow which came from an open-work silver brazier swinging on chains from the vaulted ceiling--a dull-red glow sadly mingling with a few pale moon-rays breaking through a tiny window high up on the left wall.
For a few seconds I was bewildered---couldn't quite locate myself. Directly in front of the opening--I saw that plain enough--was a huge, bestial Hindu idol--an image of Shiva in his incarnation as Natarajah, "Lord of the Dance" I remembered that from the other temples I had seen.
You can imagine what the idol looked like---its right leg in the air in a fantastic curve, the left pressed upon the figure of a dwarf; in the whirling hair a cobra, a skull, a mermaid figure of the river Ganges, and the crescent moon; in the right ear a man's earring, in the left a woman's; and with four arms--one holding a drum, and another fire, while the third was raised, and the fourth pointed to the lifted foot--and the whole act on a huge lotus pedestal.
From an incense-burner in the farther corner a mass of scented smoke, swirled up, darkening the air with a solid, bloated shadow--and everything seemed shapeless, veiled, wreathed in floating vapors.
Presently my eyes got used to the dim half--light. I discovered that the temple was fair-sized, and that it contained no furniture nor ornament---no article of any sort except the statue of Shiva and the incense-burner. The window was too high up to reach, and there was only one door--a low door, directly across from the idol, a door leading--where?
"Say," Stephen Denton interrupted his tale, "are you getting tired of my adventures? Would you rather play a game of cards--dummy bridge? Say the word."
I told him that I abhorred cards. I told him that just then I was only interested in one thing. "How the deuce did you get away from there?" I wound up. "What was behind that door? How did you--"
"Survive?" he completed my halting question with a low laugh. "Why, old man--you forget that I bore a charmed life that night--a charmed life---just like Napoleon, like Tamerlane, like--" "What was behind that door?" I interrupted him a little heatedly.
"Wait till we get to it." Stephen Denton laughed. "Something else happened in the temple--before I opened that door and found out!"
E gaio il minuetto, ma tavolta piange
The minuet's lift is merry, but sometimes a song breaks through---Fogazzaro
THERE was one thing more in the temple--a fine, soft, silk rug--and I rolled it into a tight pillow and slipped it under the head of the little Hindu girl. I had stretched her out on the floor.
You know--Stephen Denton continued, with a curious, hazy note of embarrassment in his pleasant voice--I am afraid that, at that moment, with the girl at my feet and the grinning idol above me--with the scented; whirling wreaths of incense-smoke floating about me--I had a certain revulsion of feeling.
I was not afraid. Nor was I exactly riled at that mad throw of the dice of fate which had chucked me there--into the dim, mysterious heart of the Colootallah, five centuries removed from the Hotel Semiramis, the Presbyterian Church, the English bobbies, and all the rest of trousered, hatted civilization. I didn't mind that. Of course not! For, don't you see, I loved that warm, little, girlish thing of gold and black and crimson at my feet. My love was one of those mighty, heaving, cosmic revolutions which will attempt and accomplish the impossible--it was one of those stony, merciless facts which no arguing and no self-searching can kick out of existence.
But I guess there is such a thing as loving in spite of one's self--of love being a thing, a condition, a fact apart from the rest of one's life.
Don't you get me? Why, old man, remember what I told you of how the girl was dressed--in the costume of a tuwaif, a Hindu dancer--and here, grinning and jeering above my head, was the idol of Shiva in his incarnation at Natarajah, "Lord of the Dance"--and the connection seemed obvious! And, after all, my people did come over in the Mayflower--and there was that reproachful church-bell from Old Court House Street--just then it was tolling the quarter to one.
Nothing shocking in the art and motion of dancing. But you have seen Hindu dances---religious Hindu dances--haven't you? You know the significance of the image of Natarajah, how in the night of Brahma nature is said to be inert and cannot breathe nor move nor dance till Shiva wills it; how Shiva rises from his stillness of meditation, crushes the dwarf of night and inertia, and, dancing on his prostrate body, sends through all matter the pulsing waves of awakening sound, preceding from the drum; how, in the richness of time, still dancing, he destroys all names and all forms by fire: and how then all emotions and a new rest come upon the earth.
A mad Hindu notion of bringing together the orderly swing of the spheres, the perpetual movement of atoms, the sensation of the human body, and evolution itself--all represented in the dancing figure of Shiva Natarajah--and in the whirling bodies of the nautch, the Hindu dancing--girls who are consecrated to the service of the gods!
You know the nature and meaning and gestures of those dances, don't you? And there was the girl at my feet in her dancing costume, and the grinning idol above us--there was the memory of some of things which Roos-Keppel had told me about the crimes and vices and the unclean castes which center in the Colootallah; and how--as in the rest of the world--it is always woman who is used as the mainspring of intrigue and venal traffic--and I clenched my fists until the knuckles stretched white.
I looked at the girl--the light was dim, trembling, uncertain, but I could see the pale gold of her little face, the dusky, voluminous clouds of hair, the thick net of the eyelashes.
I touched her face, her shoulders--only for a fleeting second--for, don't you see, to me she was holy, and somehow she was to me part of that temple--of the sacredness of that temple--yes---sacredness--and I mean it. A mad, bombastic, fantastic, cruel faith--that Hindu faith! I know it! But faith, religion, just the same somehow trying to make the world better. I guess there isn't a single religion which really tries to do harm.
Yes, sacred and inviolable she was to me---and I thought how she and the love of her had come to me, in the purple Indian night--precious, swift, unexpected, like a break of glimmering sunlight after a leaden gray day--and there leapt into my heart with the terrific and incalculable aim of lightning, the blinding longing for complete possession--and deliberately disentangled myself from the jumble of bitter emotions which had come to me through the thought she was a nautch, consecrated to Shiva Natarajah.
The whole revolution of feeling had only lasted a few seconds. I said to myself that love---real love--has no time to consider and weigh the patterned dictates of abstract morality. Mine own life to make or to mar--and I considered that I would rather mar my life through love than make it through clammy indifference!
Temple girl or no temple girl, it was up to me to get her out of that building, out of the Colootallah, out of whatever shame and misery and disgrace life had meant to her before I had seen her for the first time, back there on the rooftop at the end of Ibrahim Khan's Gully.
This time I had no choice of directions, for there was only one door out of the temple. Should I pick her up and step into the unknown? No--I decided the next moment--instead of carrying her, and thus burdening and slowing my progress, it would be better for me to scout ahead, to hunt about until I had discovered an avenue of escape. When I had found that, I would come back to her and carry her to safety.
But there was the chance that the two Hindu watchmen on the roof-top might give up their fruitless search and come into this room. Too, there was the possibility of some Brahman priest entering the temple to attend to some of his sacerdotal duties. I would have to hide the girl. But where? Remember, the room was empty of furniture and ornaments. I went the round of the walls, hunting for a closet, but found none. There was only the incense burner, and the huge idol of Shiva Nataajiht, the latter standing fairly close to the wall.
I walked around it more or less aimlessly, and then I made a discovery quite an interesting discovery--discovery, too, with which, had I had time to use it for that purpose just then, I could have blown the thaumaturic reputation of that particular Hindu temple sky high.
I found that the lotus pedestal of the statue had an opening in the back; a sort of curved sliding door, three feet high and about seven broad, which was partly open. I stooped to investigate, and then I drew back in a hurry.
For sounds came from within. I suppose my nerves tingled a little, but you mustn't forget that--though at the time the thought never entered my head; I was too busy--all the events of that mad night had been so unusual that I had really lost the common standards of judging and of fearing. So I let my nerves tingle all they wanted to, and I stooped down once more to discover the source and nature of those sounds.
The very next moment I knew, and I guess I was foolish enough to laugh. You see, the sounds which came from the inside of the pedestal were really quite peaceful and prosaic; they might have happened in quiet old Boston, for that matter.
Somebody in there was snoring--in a fat, contented, elderly way!
So I pushed the sliding-door to one side just as far as it would go. I looked, and sure enough, there, comfortably curled up on a litter of rugs and pillows and shawls. I saw the dim form of a portly Brahman priest sleeping with his mouth wide open, his curly white beard moving rhythmically up and down with the intake of his breath. Not a bad-looking old gentleman--quite peaceful and dignified. But that didn't help him any just then; for here was the ideal hiding-place for my Daughter of Heaven.
I drew my knife, poised it neatly over his heart, and jerked him awake. "Keep quiet--perfectly quiet!" I whispered to him, very much like a black-mustached villain in an old-fashioned melodrama. At the same moment he stirred, opened his eyes, heard my warning, he saw the Bowie--saw the point of it, if you will forgive my wretched pun--and, obeying my instructions, he rose and came out of the pedestal, a very incarnation of outraged, elderly pomposity Gosh, but that Brahman looked mad!
So far so good--here was a cozy little nest for my love--but what was I to do with Old Pomposity?
"What shall I do with you?" I finally asked him direct, and he replied with a stream of low--pitched and extremely foul abuse. That did not help any--neither him nor me nor the girl--and so, after considering a few seconds, I narrowed my question down to a choice of two things. I asked him, quite civilly and good-naturedly--I bore him no personal grudge, you see--what he preferred: to be killed outright, or to go down to the snake. Pretty tough on his nibs; but what could I do? I needed the hollow pedestal, and I couldn't afford to leave a live witness behind.
But he couldn't see it my way, naturally. He threatened and cajoled and argued. He cursed me, my ancestors, my posterity, and my cow in the name of a dozen assorted Hindu deities--in the name of Vishnu and Shiva, Indra, Varuna, Agni, Surya, Chandra, Yama, Kamadeva, Ganesha, and what not! He had a surprising knowledge of Puranic theology; but finally he decided in favor of the snake! I could understand his choice; since he doubtless was the priest in charge of the temple, and thus sure to be on more or less friendly terms with the wiggly old reptile at the feet of Natarajah.
"All right--just as you wish," I replied; and just for luck--also to make him a little more easy to handle--I fetched him a good hard blow on the side of the head which stretched him unconscious, gagged and tied him securely with some of the shawls from his couch, shoved him down into the cobra's den, and pushed the stone slab shut.
Then I investigated the interior of the lotus pedestal. It was big enough to afford sitting and sleeping space to an average-sized human being, and--here is the discovery of which I told you, the discovery which would have raised no end of a row in orthodox Hindu theological circles--I saw that the statue was hollow, and that it could be reached by the occupant of the pedestal.
What for? Why? How? Why, old man, the day of miracles may have passed in the West---with biology and motor-cars and aeroplanes, and all that--hut not so in the eternal East! For there, handy to the occupant of the pedestal, was an assortment of ropes and levers and handles and pulleys which were connected with the different parts of Shiva Natarajah's sacred anatomy. Push a lever here, pull a rope there--I tried it, you see---and the idol would lift a leg or wave one of his four arms or wag his beastly old head. There was even one bit of machinery--it was rather rusty and hard to move, as though it hadn't been used for a long time--which allowed the whole statue, pedestal included, to move forward across the room--a very ingenious bit of machinery, a combination system of wheels and gliding planes--and the very thing for a smashing, twenty-four-carat miracle!
But the only miracle which mattered to me just then was the fact that, through a twist and jerk of Fate, I had come to Ibra him Khan's Gully-and to the little Hindu girl. I picked her up and put her inside the pedestal, leaving the sliding-door slightly aslant to give her breathing space.
By ginger--Stephen Denton gave an embarrassed little smile--she looked pretty in there on that soft mass of pillows and shawls, and the dim light about her like a veil. You know those lines by Rabindranath Tagore, don't you?
When ruddy lips blossom into smiles, black eyes
pass stolen glances,
Then it is the season, my poet, to make a bonfire
of your verses.
And weave only heart with heart and hand with
I bent down and kissed the little soft mouth--unconscious she was, and her thoughts dream-veiled, but there was something like an answering quiver on her lips as I touched them with mine--I crossed the width of the temple, opened the door, and stepped out on a corridor, bright-lit with swinging yellow lamps. It was really more than a corridor--more like a long hall, very high, with a vaulted ceiling--and, compared to the slime of Ibrahim Khan's Gully, compared to the oppressive gray reek and misery of the Colootallah compared even to the dignified bareness the temple, it seemed incongruous startling in its utter magnificence--as if it had been flung there, In the heart of that drab, twisted maze of buildings, to echo to the footsteps of--of what and whom?
You see, old man, right then I wondered. I was a little disturbed--with the dim terror of something awfully remote from and awfully inimical to my personality, my race, my life as it had been heretofore. For Roos-Keppel had told me--oh, a whole lot. He had told me how, in the days when he was still In the Bengal Civil Service, he had tracked one of the Indian seditionist secret societies--"Hail, Motherland!" it called itself straight down into the caste labyrinth of assassins and thieves and thugs and criminals of all sorts; how, in fact, the Babu gentry of the Hail, Motherland! had made a hard and fast alliance with the criminal castes, had fraternized with them in life, and in worship, and in death, both fighting the same enemy: the established government, the British raj. And this--all this--why, don't you see? The temple of Shiva, god of high castes, here, in the heart of the low-caste Colootallah--the rattle and crackle of naked steel on the roof-top; and remember that the law against carrying and possessing weapons is as strictly enforced in Calcutta as the Sullivan Law in New York; and, then, as a final proof, it seemed to me, the dazzling, extravagant splendor of this corridor, this long, tall hall!
Up to a height of seven feet the walls were covered with stucco, white on white, ivory and snowy enamel skillfully blended with shiny-white lac, and overlaid with a silver-threaded spider's web of arabesques, at exquisite as the finest Mechlin lace, and, of Sanskrit quotations in the deva-nagari script.
I reconstructed all this later on, in my memory, after--Stephen Denton pointed about the room--India had become part of my life, my whole life. The upper part of the walls above the white stucco, was a procession, a panorama of conventionalized Hindu fresco paintings--an epitome, a résumé of all Hindustan's myths and faiths and legends and superstition's, from the Chhadanta Jataka, the birth-story of the Six--tusked Elephant, most beautiful of all Buddhistic legends, to the ancient tale of Kaliya Damana, which tells how Krishna overcame the hydra Kaliya; from color-blazing designs picturing Rama, Sita, and Lakshman meditating in their forest exile, to a representation of Bhagirstha imploring Shiva to permit the Ganges to fall to the earth from his matted locks.
The tale of a nation's life, a nation's civilization and faith--yes, and crimes and virtues and sufferings, here in front of me, and the thought came over me--a true thought, discovered afterward--that never white man had seen the like before, and I felt like an intruder, I had a faint feeling of misgiving. But what could I do? It was Hobson's choice! I had to walk on!
So I moved along rapidly, down that everlasting corridor with all India's gods jeering at me from the wall paintings, and looking left and right for a door, a window, or some other avenue of escape, at least of progress--when, very suddenly, I was startled into complete immobility--into a stark immobility of utter horror.
Directly in front of me, the corridor came to an end--or rather it broadened out, swept out into a circular hall--quite an impressive affair, the walls covered with slabs of the delicate, extravagant Indian stone carving that looks like sculptured embroidery, with splendid furniture of carved, black shishan wood, a profusion of enameled silver ornaments, and the floor covered with huge, squares of that white embroidery which the people hereabouts call chikam.
Of course, I didn't see all that at first--took it in more gradually, for I told you that I was---oh--crushed under a sudden weight of gray, breath-clogging horror, and, in such moments of overwhelming emotion, the eyes search too eagerly, too furiously, to see properly at all; too, the light was flickering--shooting in curly, wavering streams from a swinging lamp and sending out shadows which ran about the walls and the ceiling like running water.
Stephen Denton leaned forward in his chair.
Tell me, have you ever felt the fascination of utter horror? Have you ever had a dream in which everything around you--the inanimate objects even--assume I shifting, wavering forms and loom about I you--bending and twisting and stretching toward you like cruel, misshapen arms?
Have you ever feared Fear itself?
The thing which stirred me so profoundly? Yes, yes--I am coming to that--and I guess you'll be disappointed.
For it was only a face.
Only a face--and yet--why, if I should try to tell you what I felt, what I really felt, I would involve myself in a maze of contradictions. There are some nervous reactions for which there are no words in our language: and, anyway. I survived it--that as well as what came after. I am sitting here now, across from you, talking to you--and up-stairs--
Never mind. You're getting impatient. Let me get back to my tale---
Our horses aren't from Tartary, the land of
They come from river meadows, out beyond
the Southern Main
No lynx we bring for foxes,
No cheetahs for the deer;
With brown and while bedappled
Our English hounds are here.
The jackal he may kennel in the fields of
The pack is in and after him to drive him out
ONLY a face, he continued, that of an old man, wrinkled, brown, immobile on a scrawny neck which was like the slimy stalk of some poisonous jungle flower, the body, arms, and legs wrapped in layers of thin muslin, sitting upright on a great chair of gray, carved marble.
I wish I could picture that face to you as I saw it--it would take the hand of a Rodin to clout and shape the meaning of it. The taint of death, the flavor of dread tortures which surrounded it, the face of a sensual, perverted, plague-spotted Roman emperor blended with the unhuman, meditating, crushing calm of a Chinese sage.
Why, man, I can see it even now--at times---heavy-jowled, thin-lipped, terribly broad across the temples--and with an expression in his whitish-gray-eyes like the sins of a slaughtered soul.
Compared to that face--to the solitary fact of that face's existence, if you get me--all the little fears and trembling apprehensions which had come over me since I had swung across the wall at the end of Ibrahim Khan's Gully seemed ridiculous--as unimportant as the twittering of sparrows in a street gutter--and my adventures seemed dull and commonplace.
I had an idea that I spoke--some foolish, meaningless words of greeting. I am not sure if I did or not. For, during some moments, I sought in vain to steady my mind and my senses to the point of understanding, of intelligence, of observation. All I could see and feel was the existence of these features in front of the grotesque, monstrous, unhuman--and I wanted to shriek--I wanted to beat them into raw, bleeding pulp!
Perhaps the whole sensation, the whole flash of emotions, lasted only a moment. Perhaps it was contained in the fraction of the second it took me to pass from the corridor, properly speaking, into the hall. At all events, suddenly I was myself again. I remembered the girl--and the wondrous magic, the sweet, wild strength of the love I bore her.
Whatever the meaning of these sinister, immobile features--whatever the dread prophecy in these staring, unblinking, cruel eyes--I'd have to go through with my task--the task of fighting my way out of this house--and to carry the girl with me, unharmed. So I walked--up to that muslin-swathed body--to that horror of a face---
Stephen Denton ashed his cigar. He was silent for perhaps a couple of minutes, and I did not press him to hurry up with his tale. It was so evident that he was trying to collect his thoughts--so evident too, that the remembrance of that moment was not a very pleasant one to him. But presently he looked up, with a return of his old full, jolly, magnetic smile; and he continued.
Yes--I jerked my wits into a fair semblance of nerve control and took a step forward--one step, two, three--slowly and deliberately--until I was within a foot of that face--and then--why, man, I laughed! It wasn't a very cheerful laugh---rather a harsh, ghastly, scraping sort of machination--but it saved, if not my life, then at least my sanity. For, quite suddenly. When I was within a foot of it, I realized that that face--that thing of dread and horror--was harmless. I realized, that it was not alive at all!
A statue? No, old man, guess again--you see, it was the face of a mummy--that's why the body was wrapped in layers of muslin--and the eyes were of glass, cunningly painted. I said to myself that it was doubtful the mummified remains of some especially holy Brahman priest--and I felt quite a rush of affection for his deceased holiness--for at least he couldn't hurt me; he couldn't hurt the little girl who was all the world to me. I have an idea that I was about to pat the old mummy familiarly on the brown, wrinkled brow when---
Wait? It's so confoundedly hard to put it into words--you've got to feel it, as I felt it, that night. You see, I heard a whisper--yes--I knew that wrinkled horror was dead, a mummy--and yet---why, I looked about the room--there was nobody there--and the mad thought came to me that the mummy had whispered!
Don't you get me? I knew it was impossible--and--there it was; a whisper shadowy, fleeting, secretive! Of course it was ridiculous--and yet I was sure, in spite of my positive knowledge and in spite of the dictates of my sanity, that the whisper had come from the mummy. I don't know why I should have thought so--ask a professor of psychology for the correct explanation--but the fact remains that I jumped back about three feet with a quickly suppressed cry of fear.
The whole impression lasted less time than it takes me to tell it. The very next second I had collected myself--had to, you see, since I didn't want to lose my sanity--and with breath sucked in, head in one side my whole body tense and bunched, I tried to follow up the low sibilant tone waves--to locate the direction whence the whispering really came.
What? Did they plant a phonograph inside of that mummy? (Stephen Denton laughed at my question.) No! No! Can you imagine such a Western abomination as a phonograph near a Hindu temple--in the mummified body of a Hindu saint?
Of course not! The explanation was a hanged sight easier. The tone waves--the whispers---came, not from the mummy's mouth--but from the mummy's feet!
So I stretched myself full-length on the floor, at the feet of his holiness, pressed my ears against the cold stone flags, and listened intently.
And I heard--two words, at first! They sort of remained with me, and made me feel uncomfortable and creepy all over again. For those whispered words were: "The Sahib!"
They stood out, those two words, in sharp, crass relief. "The Sahib!" Nothing more--and, subconsciously, I guessed--no! I knew, that it was I--Stephen Denton, Esquire, out of Boston---who was meant by that melodious and honorable appellation. For sahibs, at one o'clock in the morning, are a pretty rare article in the midst of the Colootallah!
The whispering continued, and I heard quite well. There was really no mystery to it--for, don't you see, most of those old buildings in the Colootallah were built many years ago, and since Calcutta was a swamp in these days and since wood and stone were rare, they built their houses with hollow tiles imported from Persia via Delhi--and these tiles act very much like telephones--sending tone waves in straight lines and at a considerable distance.
I was grateful for that--and for one more Indian peculiarity--namely the number and diversity of the many Indian languages and dialects which forces Hindus from different parts of the country to speak in English. There were two men whispering--doubtless either thugs or seditionist, at all events men who hated the very name at England and yet they had to speak in English to each other, to make them intelligible. Funny, wasn't it?
I could hear just as plainly as through a telephone--with a perfect connection. The man who spoke first felt evidently peevish about the Sahib--about me. You should have heard the things he called me; not me alone, but also my father, my grandfather, most of my cousins and uncles and my whole family-tree straight down to Adam and Eve, and beyond, even. It seemed that he was appealing to the other man for help.
"Where is she? Where is she?" came the sibilant whisper; and then, with a splendid flow of Oriental imagery, "he--the Sahib--the this-andthat"---more epithets--"has stolen her--the apple of my eyes, the well of my love, the stone of my contentment! Ah!"--and distinctly, through the hollow tiles, I could hear something like a forced, hypocritical sob--"she is a. pearl among pearls---with lips like the crimson asoka flower, with teeth as virgin-white as the perfumed madhavi, with a voice like the mating-song of the kokila bird, with a waist as the waist of a she-lion, and with the walk of a king-goose! By Shiva and Shiva--and again by Shiva!"--here he got busy once more about my ancestry and character--"may that white-skinned, cow-eating, and unthinkably begotten foreigner boil slowly and very, very painfully in the everlasting fire which is vomited from the Jwalamukhi! May Garura pick out his eyes--first the left--and then the right! May Bhawani herself suck his filthy heart dry!"
A pause--then the other man's voice: "But whom has the Sahib stolen, brother?" followed by the first man's answer, "the Lady Padmavati!"
"Padmavati?" repeated the second man, in accents of utter, amazed, horrified incredulity, "Padmavati?"
Then silence--thick, heavy, palpable!
Say, continued Stephen Denton, can you imagine what a crash of silence can be like? Sounds paradoxical, don't you think? But that's exactly what followed the mentioning of the little girl's name.
Silence--for one minute--two--three---rhythmically my heartbeats seemed to syncopate each dragging second while I lay there, my ear pressed against the stone flags, at the feet of that beastly old mummy.
I thought finally that the two speakers had perhaps gone away from wherever they were talking. I was about to rise, to continue in my search for an opening, a door or a window which would help my love and me to escape--when once more, insistent, sibilant, whispering, the tone waves glided through the hollow tiles.
It seemed to be the second man who was speaking.
"We must get him--the foreigner--the Christian--the cannibal of the Holy Cow! Quick--by the heavenly light of Chandra!" and he said it in such a deep, flat, strange voice that I felt something like the letting loose of fate--crashing, terrific--I felt an acrid flavor and taint of death and torture--a crimson undercurrent of gigantic, intolerable horrors!
Came the first man's answering whisper: "Yes, for he is dangerous, as dangerous as Prithwi Pala, the servant of Indra the god, of whom the legends speak; and as for Padmavati--" again he was silent--came another flow of words, in Hindustani this time and thus unintelligible to me. But they seemed to be words of command, and they were followed by other voices, other words; then a sharp, ominous hissing and rattling of steel and the faint sound of quick-running feet.
They're off, I said to myself, off and away and after me! I rose and looked to right and left. I guess I felt as a fox must feel when it hears the view-halloo of the chase and the baying of the hounds, with nothing in front but a bare hillside and far in the distance, a spinney which it can never reach.
For where was I to go? Where was I to hide myself?
Only one thing was certain. I could not let myself be caught in this hall nor in the abutting corridor, both bright with light. Back into the temple then--perhaps into the cobra den--a wild thought flashed through my head that I might have time to change clothes with the priest--a thought quickly given up, for what would I do with the priest himself?--other thoughts followed--but clear above them all rose the stony idea that, whatever happened, I must not lead the chase to the idol, the lotus pedestal where I had hidden the girl who was dearer to me than the dwelling of kings.
So I ran, with my thoughts gyrating madly, like swirling fog in the brain of a blind world, faster and faster! There was a noise in my temples like running water, like the wind in the wings of birds; it filled my head with huge, tenoring sound waves, and, as I came within sight of the temple door, the bell from the Presbyterian church boomed out--ba-nnnng--a quarter after one---like a gray seal of doom and despair!
Another rushing steps-already my hand was on the door-knob of the temple--already I was trying to subordinate my physical to my mental action, which seemed both muddled and frantic---for, you see, I know that presently I would have to be capable of one supreme effort of wit to save the girl and myself; battle and struggle it would be, and I did not refute the grim challenge of it; I did not blind myself to the balance of odds which would be against me.
Fight, and win or lose! Frenzied heroism? Not a bit of it, old man: Simply the law of equal action and reaction--if I remember anything of my scientific course at college--applied to the dim, cruel heart of the Colootallah.
I had half turned the door-knob--and then---Stephen Denton leaned forward in his chair and, for the first time since he had commenced the recital of his mad adventures, he gesticulated--his right hand shot out tensely, dramatically.
And then from the walls, as if they had been parts of the walls, two men jumped at me, one from each side.
No, I saw no door, through, of course, there must have been one--two, rather. I only heard the metallic jarring and grating of rusty hinges, and, that same second, they were there, as if a sinister, supernatural power had visualized them from nothing and popped them out at me!
There they were--two men--with a crackle of naked steel--but wait! Get this right!
You see--and it sounds incredible, I know it!--but even in that fraction of a moment's flash my eyes registered what those two men looked like. Strange, isn't It? But I saw--I actually saw every detail of their persons, their costumes, their facial characteristics: their dark skin, their hooked noses, their broad, thin lips, their flashing purple--black, narrow-lidded eyes, their beards, curled and twisted and parted in the dandified Rajput manner, their voluminous, white turbans, with clusters of emeralds, falling over their low, broad foreheads, and, high in the right hand of either, a curved scimitar!
Why, man, I even saw the curling, glittering lights on the points of their blades as they seemed to meet above my head like a double-barreled, curved guillotine!
All that, every last bit of it, I saw in that fleeting fraction of a moment, and, speak about quickness of perception, about rushing rapidity of wit, why---
Stephen Denton was silent. His right hand was still in the air, as if it were trying to pluck the tense, incredible facts of his narrative from the atmosphere.
Quite suddenly, from up-stairs, came once more the twanging of a native guitar; that a soft, silvery woman's voice, singing in Behari:
". . . chare din ke gaile murga Mor ko ke aile . . .
Stephen Denton laughed. "You know the old song, don't you?" he said. "The cock goes from home for four days only, and returns a peacock!" Same with me that night--in the Colootallah--I left the Hotel Semiramis a plain, prosaic Back Bay Bostonian, and I returned--oh, you'll see---you bet I returned, in spite of those flashing scimitars! Am I not here--in front of your eyes---in the flesh?
And he continued with another laugh. Yes, the jarring of the doors, the fact of my being able to register what those two bewhiskered ruffians looked like, the ominous crackle of steel as the blades flickered about my head, my own quick-wittedness--all that passed and happened and surged on in a moment. I was too excited, probably to feel ordinary fear. Something flashed through me akin to fear, but, oh, different; there's no word for it in our language; but with it flashed, also, a certain breathless, sullen audacity that's it exactly; a sullen audacity--and I---
Suddenly Stephen Denton burst into a roar of laughter.
Do you know what I did, old man? Can you guess it? No, no! I didn't draw my Bowie-knife and give battle! Of course not! First of all, there wasn't the time--for remember, the whole thing, from the jarring of the unseen door to the end of the little intermezzo, didn't take more than two seconds; and, furthermore, what chance is there for a quiet Bostonian with a Bowie--a Bowie he isn't used to handle, on top of it--against two big, hairy roughs with six yards of curved, razor-sharp steel between them? I'd have had as much chance against them with my Bowie as a regiment of volunteers armed with Civil War pop-guns against a battery armed with French forty-five millimeter guns!
What did I do? But I am coming to that, Don't get impatient---
You see--I ducked!
Yes, sir, I ducked! I threw myself flat on the floor before those two ruffians had a chance to realize what was happening--before they had time to put the brake on their brawny right arms.
Down came the two scimitars, and--yes, this time you guessed it--they hit each other, instead of hitting little me! They split each other's turbaned skulls--zzzsh! through the voluminous layers of muslin--with rather a sickening, sharp--crunching noise--and there were two dead Hindus!
Say, man, speak about Tamerlane and George Washington and Napoleon--speak, about the Charmed Life--what?
I told you--haven't I?--that from the moment of my swinging across the wall at the end of Ibrahim Khan's Gully--from the moment, rather, when I felt that my life was one with that of the little Hindu girl--my whole self seemed to have separated itself suddenly and completely from all that it had been in the past; it seemed to have lifted itself with a savage, tearing jerk from the pale, flat dumps of my past life and education and tradition--Boston, in other words--to the flashing, crazy limbos of this new, purple, mysterious India! I realized it, even at that moment, with the two dead men at my feet, one with his features, oh, set in an astonished sort of smile, as if wondering at the dark blood which was running lazily from the split skull to the floor; the other dead man's face like a grinning Tibetan devil mask, with the lips drawn back a little over the gleaming, white teeth in an eerie grin, like the fangs of a wolf who sees the victim, jumps, then finds himself in a trap, smells death in the trap in the moment of killing!
Yes, all that I realized; not emotionally, for I seemed able perfectly to decompose the whole situation into a few and negligible elements, as I would decompose a force in a question of abstract dynamics, and I was neither shocked nor even disgusted; and, mind you, this was the first time in my life I had seen death!
But, you see, I seemed to belong to India, to the terrible, corroding simplicity of India, and I felt like chanting a chant of victory. I felt a brutal, sublimely unselfconscious joy at the sight of those two sprawling, stark-contoured figures.
Rather beastly, don't you think? But true!
The next moment--for in that respect, too, the crouching, grim-clever instincts of all India had got into my blood--I looked about me, silently, carefully.
I said to myself that there might be more Hindus out after my scalp--for remember, first, I had heard two voices whispering, then a few sharp words of command. The Hindustani, and finally several more voices. I had run toward the temple, away from the lights, and I had evidently miscalculated. For if those two dead beggars had located me in the vicinity of the temple it was three to one to assume that the others would reason the same way.
Away from the temple, then! Back in the direction of the circular hall, in spite of the bright lights, as fast as my legs would carry me! So I ran, and as I ran there came to me the madding, paralyzing sensation that quite near me, inside the walls other footsteps were keeping parallel with my own, and I was afraid.
But only for a moment. The very next second the terror in my heart gave way to a feeling of indignation. I was cross, and I forgot all about that great, purple India which had picked me up and was shaping me into a molecule of its own strange, throbbing soul. You see, all my life I had been surrounded by the comfortable, machine--made, wire-drawn safeguards of Western life---police, laws, corporation counsels, prosecuting attorneys, municipal writs, regulation standards, regulation opinions. Fetishes I used to call them in my world-storming undergrad days; but I had relied on them. With all the rest of the Western world--socialists, anarchists, and I. W. W.'s included--I had always been in the position of a man who can demand and receive protection from the duly constituted authorities; and here I was suddenly up against life in the raw--in the bloodstained, quivering raw! I was up against a condition of society to which no law applied, no regulation, no standard known to me.
By ginger, I was mad with utter, impotent fury. Right then I would have liked to have an interview with some of those visionary jackasses who prate against constituted law; and then (Stephen Denton laughed) quite suddenly I quit kicking. Quite suddenly I became convinced once more that I had a charmed life, after all!
For by that time I had arrived again in the great circular hall where his holiness, the mummified Brahman Swami, was sitting in sinister state; and there, not too high up, I saw a window!
I made for it immediately, as a frightened cat makes for an open cellar; a running jump with every ounce of strength I possessed, I balanced myself precariously on the sill! I didn't look down. Might have spoiled my nerve. I just closed my eyes and jumped, and I landed on a nice, thick, soft heap of ashes and cinders.
The moon had come from behind the bank of clouds and was drenching everything with tiny flecks of gold. I looked about me. I found myself in a long, narrow courtyard, with the window through which I had come to the left of me, a high wall with a door to the right, another wall, about fifteen feet high, in front, and in back a fantastic, twisted building which towered up in a wilderness of spires and turrets.
I had my choice of three ways, since I had no intention of returning to the hall whence I had jumped, naturally. Too, I discarded the building immediately; it looked, oh, too populous. Remained the two walls. First I examined the one with the door. There was a crack in it and I looked through; it seemed to open out into the street---some street.
Did I try the door? Did I make for the street? You bet I did not! Why?
But, man, there was the girl, back there somewhere in that maze of buildings; the girl who was all the world to me. No! I took the one remaining choice--the fifteen-foot wall in back of me.
At first I failed to discover anything by which I could mount; but at last, walking down the length of it, I came upon a shed with a heavy padlock on its wooden door, with its roof inclined at an angle against the wall. It was my only chance, and there was but one way to do it. I stepped back a few paces and took a running leap for the edge of the roof, jumping for the padlock. I tried three times. The third time I got my foot upon the padlock, and caught the edge of the wall with my hands. Exerting all my strength, I drew myself up, and where do you think I found myself?
I was back on the roof-top at the end of Ibrahim Khan's Gully! Quite alone, for when I groped beneath the balustrade where I had popped the old Hindu, bound and gagged, over an hour and a half before, I found the space empty.
Evil is impossible because it is always rising up into Good.---Saint Augustine
So likewise is Evil the revelation of Good.---Cardinal Newman
I LOOKED about me. It was a peaceful, summer night, with the low hum of a sleeping world, and a froth of yellow stars flung over the crest of the heavens. Over to my right, where the lights of Howrah Station were flickering through the river-mist like dirty candle-dips, lay the great cosmopolitan hotels--the Semiramis, the Great Eastern, the Tai Mahal; there crouched the faint outlines of the Presbyterian church, of the Bengal Club, of Government House--peace and civilization and all the rest of the white man's world. I imagined I could hear them snore across the distance--the commissioners and deputy commissioners, the colonels and adjutants, the big Anglo-Indian merchants, and the American travelers--snoring, peacefully snoring! And I--I was here in the Colootallah, and, yes, I went straight back to my girl.
Did I think much? But what should I have thought about, old man? The only responsibility I had was the girl--since I loved her. My own life? My own fate? Oh, I guess everybody is the weaver of his own life; and if he wants to entangle the woof and warp of it, it's up to him, and to him alone, isn't it? And that isn't Indian philosophy, either. It's plain Yankee, out of Boston; if it wasn't there wouldn't have been any Mayflower in the first place. Would there?
So back to the girl I went the same old way; through the door in back of the pillar, down the staircase and the narrow landing, straight up to the cobra's den. Again I opened the door without much effort; but again, though I tried to keep it open, it slammed shut, and I found it impossible to open it from the inside. There was a bit of hidden machinery there which I could not find, nor had I time to look.
Carefully groping my way, I found the curved handle in the low ceiling. I jerked it, and the ceiling slid to one side, sending down a flood of light from the temple. The Brahman priest was still where I had dumped him, and--would you believe me?--he was peacefully asleep, sawing wood through his nostrils. Speak about Oriental philosophy and submission to fate! Why, that portly, thrice-born Brahman had an overdose of it. Compared to his plethora of calm, my own quiet Yankee soul seemed to be shrill, noisy, exaggerated.
The cobra? Yes, she, too, was asleep, curled up in the corner like a huge, coiled thing of watered silk.
I swung myself up into the temple, shutting the door behind me, and rushed over to the statue of Shiva Natarajah. The little girl--"the Lady Padmavati" as the Hindus had called her--was still lost to the world; the blow against her temple must have been a terrific one, but her breath came evenly. Some of the rugs on which she lay had slipped to one side, and I was just about to bend down to fix her up more comfortably, when---
But wait! Let me get this right.
Stephen Denton gave a fleeting, apologetic smile.
You see, it's rather difficult to describe a moment which blends the physical with the psychical.
Well, I had already bent down. Yes, I remember now! My hand was on her soft, narrow shoulder, and, oh, my love seemed to surge upwards with a rush of sweet splendor. That little space in the pedestal seemed charged to the brim with some overpowering loveliness of wild and simple things, like the beauty of stars, and wind, and flowers, with something which all my life, subconsciously, my heart seemed to have craved in vain, beside which my life of yesterday seemed a gray, wretched dream. You know how these thoughts rush through one--suddenly, overwhelmingly--and at the same time music seemed to chime in my ears, rhythmic, glorious music, the music of my heart, of my soul, I thought, and I wasn't ashamed of the winged, poetical flight.
And then, all at once, I realized that the music was not the music of my heart. I realized that it had a much more matter-of-fact origin; that in steadily swelling tone waves it came drifting in from the outside. I straightened up. I listened intently. Then I knew: the music came beating and sobbing down the long, magnificent corridor on toward the temple.
Presently I could make out the different instruments--the clash of the cymbals, the rubbing of tom-toms, the hollow thumping of a drum, the plaintive twanging of native sitars; voices, too, chiming in with a deep, melodious swing, and footsteps, echoing down the length of the corridor--nearer, ever nearer!
Sort of breathless, that night, wasn't it? Never knew what was going to happen next. In again, out again, just like immortal Irishman, and in again it was into the pedestal of Shiva, by the side of the girl, or rather crouching over her. Believe me, it was a very uncomfortable position.
My heart was plumping heavily, like the heart of a babe in the dark. I didn't know what was going to happen. But I had a shrewd suspicion that Fate was about to fulminate a whole lot of rusty thunder in my direction.
Twang-zumm-bang, droned the music; and then I guessed what was coming--some sort of worshiping procession. You see, I had been in a Hindu temple or two and was more or less familiar with their noisy theological exercises. Nor was I mistaken. For a moment later the door was flung open and I saw--How did I see? Oh, in the part of the pedestal which was straight across from the door were two peep-holes, very much like those in a stage drop, and I had quite a good view.
Came a procession of Hindus, singing, playing on instruments; some carrying swinging lamps, others wreaths of flowers and bowls filled with milk and fruit and sweetmeats. The first half--dozen or so were nice enough looking chaps---bearded, dignified, clean--doubtless gentlemen in their own country. But the rest of them! Of all the wholesale, bunched, culminating, shameless wickedness! Why, man, in Sing Sing they would have electrocuted them on sight! And I thought of what Roos-Keppel had told me about the close, sinister, underground connection between the Hindu secret political societies and the criminal castes--thieves, assassins, and thugs; high-castes and low-castes--praying to the same, blood--gorged god.
It was the dawning ceremony of the Shiva worship, the ceremony which celebrates the victory of day over night.
At the end of the procession stalked a tall, magnificent specimen of Oriental humanity, swinging a flat incense-burner on silver chains. Around and around he swung it, and there rose long, slow streams of perfumed, many-colored smoke--wavering and glimmering like molten gold, blazing with all the deep, transparent yellows of amber and topaz, flaming through a stark, crimson incandescence into a great, metallic blue, then trembling into jasper and opal flames---like a gigantic rainbow forged in the heat of a wondrous furnace. Up swirled the streams of smoke, tearing themselves into floating tatters of half-transparent veil, pouring through the temple and clinging to the corners, the ceiling, with ever new shapes and colors, as endless and as strange and as mad as my life had been--since I had swung over the wall at the end of Ibrahim Khan's Gully, a little over an hour ago.
Straight up to the idol moved the procession, and Heavens, man, I felt qualmy. You see--there I was--I, a doubting Thomas of a Yankee, inside of their favorite deity, and together with Lady Padmavati! A bit indiscreet, wasn't it? But they didn't know it, thank God! They came right up, bowing with outstretched hands, and depositing flowers and fruit and sweetmeats in front of the pedestal--rather an agony, that last one, since I was getting hungry--and chanting their low--pitched litanies. You know India. You can imagine what those chants were like.
First a wail of minor cadences, more fleeting than the shadow of an echo, strangely reminiscent of some ventriloquist's stunt; then a gathering, bloating volume of voices, gradually shaping the words until the full melody, the full meaning beat up like an ocean of eternity, and the whole punctuated by the hollow staccato of the drums:
. . . nor this the weapons pierce; nor this does fire burn; nor ihis does water wet; nor the wind dry up! This is called unpierceable, unburnable, unwetable, and undriable, O harasser of thy foes eternal; all-pervading, constant thou; changeless, yet ever changing; unmanifest, unrecognizable thou, and unvarying.
Didn't mean anything to me in those days---all this long-winded chanting about Veda-born action and the exhaustless spirit and the certainty of cause and effect. I was getting frankly bored, and I was glad when the congregation varied the monotony of their chant by a few, choice, bloodcurdling prayers--loud and throaty and decidedly materialistic.
By this time they were getting excited, frenzied. You know how an overdose of religion grips these Hindus, how it affects them, much like strong wine; goes to their heads, to their feet, too. Yes, they danced, and, believe me, there isn't a single musical comedy star on Broadway who wouldn't have given her little-all to learn some of the steps I saw that night. Tango? Maxixe? Foxtrot? Why, they weren't in it with that Hindu religious dance!
Interesting, doubtless, but I was getting tired of it; tired, too, of my crouching position, with every bone and nerve and muscle strained to the utmost so as not to crush the little girl and--Well, remember those levers and handles I told you about? There was one handy to my right arm, and just for luck I gave it a good, hard pull.
Immediately there was silence. I wondered which one of Shiva's limbs I had caused to move, and the next moment I knew; for there came a ringing, triumphant shout from one of the worshipers:
"Shiva! Shiva Natarajah! See, brothers, he moves his right arm, as in blessing!"
"In blessing--in blessing!" the crowd took up the refrain, and they thanked Shiva for the sign he had given them, sealing and emphasizing their thanks with another long-winded hymn:
. . . from food come creatures; food comes from rain, rain comes from sacrifice, sacrifice is born of action, and action of thy great miracle, O harasser of thy foes.
A good enough light was trembling through the peep-holes and a couple of age-worn cracks into the interior of the pedestal, and I looked carefully to discover with which parts of Shiva's sacred anatomy the different levers and handles were connected. You see, I wanted to scare the congregation out of the temple through a real, simon-pure, overwhelming miracle. Presently I located most of the connections and, pushing a lever here and pulling a handle there, I caused the idol to lift his legs and wag his ugly old head in turns, and then to jerk his four arms in one generous, embracing altogether gesture. It was a success. There was no doubt of it. For the Hindus yelled and shrieked and moaned. But they didn't run away. I guess the Brahman had worked that same miracle before, and so they weren't scared of it any more--familiarity breeds contempt, you know, even in orthodox Hindu theological circles.
"Try, try, try again!" I told myself, and a moment later I thought of the intricate apparatus, the combination of wheels and gliding planes, which made the whole statue, including the pedestal, move forward across the floor. There was one master-handle within easy reach, but I was afraid of using it. For, remember, I told you that that particular machinery hadn't been used for a long time, that it was rusty and hard to move.
The fool thing needed a generous dose of Three--in-One oil; and I said to myself that some of those Hindus might smell a rat if they heard the squeaking and grating of the rusty old wheels.
Finally I thought of a way. You see, at college I held the absolute hors-de-concours record in yelling. I was the pride, in that respect at least, of my fraternity. I used to be proud of the accomplishment myself at the time being, but I would never have guessed that it would ever be of any practical value in life.
But here was a chance to try and find out. And so, at the moment of jerking down the master-handle, I let out a wild yell. I guess it must have sounded rather startling--sort of ghastly---coming, as it did, from that hollow statue; and the more I jerked at the handle, the louder I yelled. Presently the idol moved, I could feel it trembling beneath me. I continued yelling, and the effect was spontaneous. It was immense. It brought down the house!
The whole congregation gave one long, lone, soul-appalling outcry, and then they ran, pushing, kicking, pulling, biting each other in their mad haste to get to the door. Doubtless they imagined that they had offended Shiva, that their last hour had struck. At the door the whole lot of them bunched into one tremendous fighting knot--they fell over each other--and for a moment I was silent, to catch breath, and just then, at that very same moment, the bronze-tongued bell from the Presbyterian Church in Old Court House Street struck the half-hour--half after one--and, believe me, it was dramatic, that sudden tolling!
Just imagine the smoke, the many-colored light, the lesser miracle of Shiva's moving feet and arms, then the great miracle, my mad yelling, and suddenly that deep-toned bell!
Why, man, that fighting, struggling knot on the threshold dissolved itself into its human components inside of half a second, and a moment later the temple was empty. They didn't stop to shut the door nor to pick flowers on the way. I saw them rushing down the corridor--high-castes and low-castes, thrice-borns and thugs--running as fast as they could, with their legs and arms jerking and shooting out fantastically to right and to left, so that they looked like so many gigantic Indian scorpions scurrying for cover and yelling their lungs out as they ran. Gosh, it was comical! And the funniest part of all was the sight of the very last of the lot. He had had his swathing robe torn off him in the frantic struggle, and there he ran, as naked as on the day he was born, except for the huge turban on his head, his white robe on the threshold, like a splotch of light!
You know, he interrupted his tale, I felt really proud of myself. Here was I--plain Yankee out of Boston, still redolent of pies and Thoreau and the Back Bay--and I had worked a thumping, all-to-the-good miracle which these Hindus would doubtless tell to their children's children. In the course of time it would go down into legend and tradition, as the thing which the Hindu theologians call Jataka, and I felt a sort of kinship, of comradeship, with that many-armed, grinning old idol of Shiva Natarajah. Snobbish of me, wasn't it, to be so proud of my own particular little miracle. But then--oh--it was a miracle, and snobbishness is after all only a simplified form of the desire to be mystic, to drown one's own puny personality in a greater self--as I had drowned myself in that of Shiva, had given him my voice in fact--my good old college yells.
I thought of that even as, with the last shrieking straggler scooting out of sight down the corridor, I came out of the pedestal, closed the temple door, and then--well, I was torn between two emotions. You see, I didn't want the Hindus to come back, and I could arrange for that, at least, temporarily, by setting the machinery into motion again and backing the heavy statue up against the door. On the other hand, I would bar my own exit by the same process.
Finally, I decided to risk it. First I picked up the robe which the last of the fleeing Hindus had dropped and put it on my own back; then I got back into the pedestal and pushed the master--handle until Shiva was plumb up against the door, straddling on both sides of it like a great metallic spider and making it impossible to open it.
That road was barred to the Hindus, and to me! There remained thus only one way of escape: back over the roof-top. Back somehow, though I didn't know how, for there was the long drop into the blue slime of Ibrahim Khan's Gully, and how could I do it with the unconscious girl in my arms?
I said to myself that I would have to try it, and I was about to pick up the little girl when another thought assailed me. For, remember, that both times I had passed through the cobra den---the only communication between the temple and the stairs leading to the roof-top--I had found it impossible to open the connecting door from the inside. It was easy enough to get into the cobra den from the stairs, but to get out--why, there seemed to be some intricate, hidden bit of machinery which I did not know.
I would have to ask. Whom? Why, his nibs, of course; the old Brahman priest down in the cobra den. Whom else could I have asked?
So I pushed open the stone slab, shook my priest awake, took the gag from his mouth, and talked to him like a Dutch uncle.
But it wasn't a go. Not a bit of it. That thrice--born mountain of portliness only laughed at me. Yes, by the many hecks, he laughed at me, and then, when I asked him to elucidate, he spoke, very gently, with a sort of regretful sob in his voice--the old hypocrite: "Ah, sahib," he sighed, "it is, alas! impossible to open the door from the inside--as impossible as wings upon a cat, as flowers of air, as rabbits' horns, as ropes made of tortoise hair! Only from the outside can the door be opened!"
I threatened him with voice and with hand and, you know, I have a large, man-size, persuasive sort of hand. But it didn't do a bit of good. "Impossible, sahib!" he repeated, "impossible by the five sacred Pandavas!" and there was that in his voice which convinced me that Old Pomposity, perhaps for the first time in his life, was speaking the truth.
"Look here," I said after a pause, "there's another way out of the temple, isn't there?" "Assuredly," he replied. "You can pass through the temple, sahib, out of the door, along the corridor--"
"Cut it out! Can it, you old humbug!" I interrupted him. "I know that way--I took it half an hour ago, and I had a devil of a time getting back here. Now, look here. I have an idea that there's yet a third way out of here, and that you know it. Come through at once, or--well, I'll give you a good sound spanking!" And I made a significant gesture.
But that didn't faze him in the least. He stared at me out of his round, onyx eyes, folded his hands over his stomach and said resignedly, "Beat me then, sahib, for--ah--a beating from a master and a step into the mud are not things one should consider." Cute little metaphor, wasn't it? And perhaps not exactly as flattering as it sounded first shot out of the box. "Sahib," he went right on with his eternal Oriental proverbs, "if the man be ugly, what can the mirror do? Can you plaster over the rays of the sun? No? Then why beat me? It would not help you out of the temple, would it?"
I lost my temper then. "Look here," I said, "if you don't get me out of here--me and the girl---I'll kill you: and by ginger I mean it!"
But he continued staring at me without as much as a blink.
"Sahib," he said calmly, "you are a white man, a Christian, afraid of death, of--ah--final destiny. But I, sahib," he purred, "I am a Brahman, a thrice-born indifferent to life and to death--for death is only a passing breath, only a forgotten wind sweeping over the grassy hills of eternity; indifferent to Satva, and Rajas, and Tamas--to pleasure, and pain, and darkness. You believe that man's life is a bundle of qualities which die with death; and I--I know that man's life is a thing without bondage or limit, perpetually active! I, sahib," he shot out with sudden ringing sincerity, "I am not afraid of death!"
Right then an idea came to me--a mingling of what I had read and of what Roos-Keppel had told me about caste and loss of caste. Roughly, I forced the Brahman to swing himself out of the den and into the temple. I followed.
"Look!" I said, pointing at the idol of Shiva Natarajah, straddling the door; and the Brahman turned as pale as a sheet. "You are not afraid of death," I went on, "and that's the truth. But you are afraid of losing caste; you are afraid of losing your priestly influence, aren't you?" He did not reply, just stood there, staring dumbly, despairingly at the statue, and I continued: "You see, I discovered how you work your little miracles, and I worked them myself--every last one of them. I even made your fool idol talk; and the people saw and heard and ran away. Now, either you get me out of this mess, out of this confounded rabbit-warren, or I give myself up to your countrymen, and I tell 'em how you've fooled them in the past. I'll tell 'em how the miracles are accomplished, and then you, I guess, would--"
"Yes, yes," he mumbled, "I would lose caste! For many lives to come would I be born in the form of insects, of--"
"Well," I interrupted harshly, "what's the answer? Come through! Are you going to lead me out of this building or not?"
"Sahib," he said, "you win. But I can not lead you out of the temple!"
"Stop your hedging," I cried. "How the deuce do I win if you can't lead me out of the temple?"
"Forgive your servant, sahib," stammered the priest, "and have patience until I have explained. For I have given a vow never too leave this building, never even to come within sight of the outer walls of it, a sacred vow to Ganesha, the Elephant-Tusked Lord of Incepts! And should I break this vow I would lose caste as assuredly as if you--ah--would give to the people the tale of the miracles."
"Well, what then?" I demanded impatiently.
"Just this, sahib. I can lead you from here to another room and thence, by yourself easily, assuredly, will you be able to find escape in a short time. Listen! Listen to me, sahib," he continued hurriedly, excitedly, "listen to my solemn oath," and he gave the one solemn vow which--I remembered what Roos-Keppel had told me--no Brahman will ever break: "I swear by Shiva the Great Yogi, by Parvati, and the Sacred Bull Nandi--by Ganesha and Karttikeya! I swear by all the Devas who dwell in Svarga! I swear by the heavenly Apsaras, the Gandharvas, and Kinnaras! I swear by Vishnu's Garuda, by Parvati's Tiger, by Ganesha's Rat, and by Indra's Elephant! I swear that I shall lead the sahib into a room whence he shall find a quick and certain way out of danger, a way to eternal peace and release from worry; nor shall he be molested by man or beast! Ay! peace and rest and safety shall be his! I swear it to thee, O Brahm, Supreme Spirit, O Son of Pritha!"
Then he turned to me, speaking with his ordinary voice: "You believe me, sahib?"
"Sure!" I did believe him. He spoke the truth, and there was no doubt of it. "All right," I said, walking over to the pedestal and picking up the little girl. Her head dropped on my shoulder like a precious waxen flower. "Lead on MacDuff!"
"Good, sahib, good!" breathed the priest, turning directly to the wall to the left of the door, and then he continued. speaking over his shoulder, "you are not afraid of trees?"
"You bet I am not," I laughed. "Trees are what I want--trees, and sunlight, and the open--"
"Good, good, good!" the priest replied. "Trees shall be your fate--trees and peace and safety forever!" And for a few minutes he groped over the wall panels, seemed to find what he was looking for, gave a violent little jerk, and part of the wall flung open with a great rush of cool air.
"Come, sahib," he said, and I followed him, the girl in my arms, through the opening and down a winding staircase into pitchy darkness. But I wasn't afraid--not the least bit. I knew that the Brahman would not break his solemn vow.
The vox angelica replied: "The shadows flee
Our house-beams were of cedar. Come in
with boughs of May!"
The diapason deepened it: "Before the
We tell you He is risen again!
Our God hath burst His prison again!
Christ is risen, is risen again: and Love is
Lord of all!"
DOWN the cool, dark staircase we went--and--Say--Denton turned on me a smile of sheer joy--do you believe there's such a thing as compressing all that is fine and sweet and precious and wild and simple in life into a few golden, pulsing seconds? What? Do I believe it myself?
Why, man, I knew it, as I walked down the stairs with the little Hindu girl in my arms, her soft, warm body pressed against mine, her heart beating through her flimsy draperies, and with the thought that soon she and I would find peace and safety. Just then I didn't even think of the portly old thrice-born who was walking ahead of me, giving warning every once in a while about a broken or slippery step. I felt an utter sense of complete, lasting remoteness from the gray, grinding worries and unhappinesses of all the world--as if the girl and I had, somewhat audaciously, but entirely successfully, come without passport, without asking leave, into a separate little kingdom of wonder and magic and love. "We have arrived, sahib," the Brahman's voice jarred into my happy reverie, and at the same time the pitchy darkness was cut off as sharp and clean as with a knife, and a bright, silvery light rose in front of me suddenly, as when a series of motion-pictures snaps short a street scene and shifts without warning into the scenery of lake and forest.
In a moment my eyes got used to the blinding dazzle. It was the dazzle of moon-rays coming through a window and mirroring themselves on the shiny white lac walls of a small room into which the stairs abutted. I stepped up to the window and looked out; it gave on a garden which stood out spectrally in the silken moonlight. I could see the dim stir of the leaves and particles of fine dust blown about by some vagabond wind of the night; and the mystery, the mad, amazing stillness of India surged out of the dark and spoke to me.
But the mystery, the throbbing stillness held, too, a message of peace to me and the girl, for there was the garden, the trees, the open, freedom--the fulfillment of my Charmed Life. I completed my groping thoughts with a smile as I turned to the priest with a heart-felt "Thank you," and was about to throw open the window. But he restrained me. "No, no, sahib," he said hurriedly, "no! There is no way out of the garden; it is surrounded by a huge wall and well patrolled. Wait, sahib! I shall keep my solemn oath. I shall give you your heart's desire--safety and peace---no harm from man or beast--and," he smiled, "trees, better, richer, more glorious than those trees yonder," pointing at the waving palm fronds in the garden.
He turned and walked to the opposite side of the room. "As, here we are," he breathed softly, and very suddenly, with such utter quickness that: I did not even see his hand as it worked it, he had set some dull-grating machinery into motion, and four feet of stone wall slid to one side with a little thud. "Step inside, sahib," he went on, "and remember the oath of the Brahman--safety and peace. Step inside, sahib, you who love trees!"
You know, Stephen Denton continued after a short pause, for a fleeting moment a certain shapeless, clammy fear seemed to settle down upon me, focusing about my heart. Looking at the Brahman's smiling face, I had very much the sensation a bird may feel when it runs straight into the jaws of the snake that has fascinated it. I seemed to be falling in with a devilish plan of the Brahman's own making--to--oh, my thoughts seemed to be flying about somewhere outside of my brain, beyond control scattering wildly. But I jerked them back into my nerve-control with a stark, savage effort. I told myself that the Brahman would not break his oath. I stepped through the opening, the girl in my arms, while the priest stood to one side, bowing, smiling, like a deferential butler receiving an honored guest.
"I have kept my oath, sahib," he repeated. "Let the Divine Mother of the Elephant's Trunk be witness to the fact that I have kept my oath! You will find trees--you who do not fear trees, you who like trees--sit beneath them for a while and meditate on Life, on Death, on the Seven Great Virtues, and the Seven Black Sins! Think of it all, and remember, too," suddenly he gave a shrill, high-pitched laugh, "that sense is not a courtesan, that it should come to men unasked! Ho, wise sahib among sahibs!" And, with another ringing laugh, he had stepped quickly back--he was about to shoot the door home--when once more fear and suspicion raced through me.
"Wait a moment!" I said, "wait--" I took a step toward him, but the girl was in my arms---very quickly I shifted the soft, warm burden to my left arm, releasing my right--I made a grab at the Brahman. But I had not been quick enough. I only caught the end of his flowing robe--it tore in my hand. He was out and away, and the door shut with a jarring bang of finality. The only thing he left behind him was the yard or two of white robe which got caught in the slamming door, hanging down like a limp, disgusted flag. Again fear rushed through me--"fear as dry and keen as a new-ground sword," as the Hindus say--and my heart was a great, confused turmoil of mingled
dread and despair--and of love for the girl in my arms. I pressed her to me more closely than ever.
Was this a trap, a--But no, no! whispered my saner self. The Brahman had sworn the one oath the breaking of which would make him lose caste; and immediately I became reassured. There was a way out of this room, and it wouldn't, couldn't be hard to find; for the priest had promised safety and peace and escape from worry for me and the girl. He had promised that neither man nor beast would harm me.
I needed just a few minutes' rest, for even the sweetest burden becomes heavy in one's arms, and then I would find my way out. So, very gently, I let Padmavati slide to the floor--beneath the trees.
Trees? Yes! For the Brahman had spoken the truth, There were two trees in the center of the room, striving straight up to the tall ceiling. Indian gold-mohur trees they seemed, in full-bursting, dark-green leafage, and crowned with masses of flame-colored, fantastically twisted flowers. The branches touched the walls on all four sides, they seemed to fill the whole upper half of the room, and, like willow-branches, they drooped down, coming within about seven feet of the floor. I smiled at the typical Hindu conceit which had caused trees to be planted in a room, and I touched the trunk of one of them--and then I drew my hand back with an exclamation of surprise.
You see, I had touched something cold, ice--cold!
Startling, wasn't it? And my surprise grew into amazement when I looked closer. For the trees were not living trees at all!
They were made of metal, every last detail of them, every leaf and flower--metal, cunningly wrought and embossed and enameled! I remember the Brahman's question; he had asked me first, if I feared trees; then, if I liked them?
What had he meant by it? Well, it made no difference to me either way, I concluded my thought. Doubtless, these two metal trees had some occult religious significance. Perhaps this room was only another temple, the trees represented some incarnation of one or other of the many Hindu deities, after all, the Brahmans had assimilated into their faith a good deal of the nature worship of the black Indian aborigines. I knew that much from what I had read.
So, I sat there, beside the girl and rested myself. I didn't follow the Brahman's advice---Stephen Denton laughed--I didn't meditate on the Seven Great Virtues and the Seven Black Sins, I thought of simpler, sweeter, bigger things--of love--just that! Love.
I rose, a few minutes later, thoroughly refreshed in mind and body. And, I began once more looking for a door through which to escape. But there was neither window nor door. That didn't worry me, for I said to myself that I would presently chance upon some cellar-flap or some cunningly hidden spring which would release part of the wall, since, judging from past experiences, this seemed to be the usual mode of exit in this mad maze of buildings. I would get out somehow. There was the Brahman's solemn oath--peace and safety, and relief from worry!
First of all, I looked for a cellar-flap, and it didn't take me long to give up that particular search. For the floor, jet black as the Gates of Erberus, proved to be fashioned of a single, unjointed sheet of some sort of heavy metal, so highly polished that the tiniest hinge or button would have stood out like a crack in a mirror.
The walls, then!
They seemed covered with a wonderful, intricate, color-shouting embroidery, the very thing to conceal a tapestry door.
Beautiful stuff it was, and I raised my hand to touch it--you know the desire people have to handle precious textures--and then--why, man, the walls, too, were of metal, like the trees, like the floor! What I had taken for embroidery was in reality exquisitely inlaid enamel. It was perfectly wonderful work. I had never seen the like of it, and even at the time I thought that the whole thing--the walls, the trees, the floor, and what came after--could not be of Hindu workmanship; that it must have been made by the wizard hands of some Chinese craftsman. A Hindu wouldn't have had the patience, nor the neatness, for such delicate work. And you know the Persian saying: "God gave cunning to these three:--the brain of the Frank, the tongue of the Arab, the hand of the Chinaman!"
Well, metal or no metal, Hindu or Chinese, it was up to me to find some sort of an opening, and I began to make the round of the walls. Foot by foot, as high as I could reach, I commenced to examine them, groping, feeling, tapping carefully, minutely--and then, suddenly, I stopped. I jumped back a clear two feet, with an exclamation of surprise. Something had touched me on the shoulder!
I looked. There was nobody--just the girl and I--yes--and the trees! The next moment I knew what had startled me so. I told you about the branches of the trees, how they drooped, like willows; well, one of the branches had drooped a little lower, it had touched me. That was all!
Again I returned to my work. But I felt dizzy. I was on the verge of fainting. I jerked myself up with a will. I said to myself that I would have to hurry, for day breaks early and people rise early in the tropics; and I would have to make my getaway before the night faded from purple into rose and dull orange--and there was my love for the little girl, my love which was like a fine spring rain, unceasing, penetrating.
I did try to continue my search; but I couldn't!
I called myself a weakling and a fool; for terror--red, rank terror beyond death--seized me.
The trees--the branch of the one tree which had drooped a little and touched my shoulder! But how could it droop, since it was not a living branch--since it was made of lifeless metal?
I looked at the trees, at the ceiling. I looked--and I was appalled! Perhaps my eyes were deceiving me--an optical illusion--just my imagination, I told myself, growing, bloating, expanding like a balloon of evil anticipations, my mad imagination whispering to my saner Self, my real thinking Self; until, steadily growing in volume and effect, jumping from cord to cord in that intricate spider-web which is the nervous system, it had persuaded the thinking, recording cells in my brain, that--Stephen Denton half-rose in his chair--that the ceiling was slowly coming down--slowly, slowly--and with it the trees--the metal trees--with the sharp crushing metal branches!
Yes! They seemed to descend--very, very slowly, but as steadily and pitilessly as God's logic--steadily, steadily.
But no! Impossible!
I said to myself that it could not be so; that what I seemed to see must be the result of autosuggestion, of some wretched sort of self-hypnotism, focusing on my mentality, trying to strangle and paralyze my physical activity at the very moment when I had to use both body and brain to find the door in the wall, to escape!
I would have to convince myself that it was only an illusion, and there was one way of doing it. I told you about the intricate pattern with which the metal walls were enameled. I picked out one, a little black-and-red crane standing erect on a lotus-leaf, a beautiful bit of enamel, high up on the wall, quite near the ceiling, and I watched it. I watched it carefully, without taking my eyes away for a single moment--I watched--watched--and I saw! I apologized to myself for having called myself a fool and a coward, and for having accused myself of autosuggestion and an overdose of crazy imagination. I decided that my real Self was still on deck, after all, working, observing, sober, and more or less subliminal. For, within a short time--perhaps three minutes--the edge of the ceiling had touched the head of the little black-and-red crane. Another three minutes, the crane had disappeared, and the ceiling was halfway across the lotus-leaf.
I saw--and immediately I understood! I understood everything--the walls and floor and ceiling of solid metal, the trees, the Brahman's question if I feared tree, and the Brahman's oath!
The Brahman had given a solemn oath, nor would he break it. He had lured me into this room, me and the girl, and he had set some machinery into motion which would kill us, slowly, mercilessly--crushing us, doubtless as sacrifices, human sacrifices, to his bestial, blood-stained gods. Yes, he had kept his oath, for to him death spelled peace and safety and final release from earthly worries; nor were we being harmed by man or beast, but by metal, by crushing weight, by---
And he had asked me to sit awhile beneath the trees--to rest myself, to meditate!
What should I do, could I do? The bell from the Presbyterian church, tolling the quarter to two, gave answer. Yes, I knelt down, and I prayed--a foolish prayer of my childhood days, back in Boston. It was the only one I could remember:
Dear God, I am a growing child;
Each day of living brings
A hundred puzzling thoughts to me
About a hundred things.
Sometimes it's very hard for me To tell what I should do, And so I say this little prayer, And leave it all to you.
Childish, wasn't it? But it didn't seem so to me at the time--and, yes, it seemed to--oh!---steady my nerves; it seemed to me like the cool, safe breath of God. It gave me resignation, it left no room for fear. Come what may--there was nothing in my heart except love--love for the little Lady Padmavati--and all the tortures in the world, the slowest, cruelest death, would not blot out from my consciousness the fact that I loved her--her only!
There was nothing I could do. I could save neither her life, nor my own. A pistol clapped to my head, a curved saber waved above me--those I could have battled and struggled against. They were real, tangible. But this--why, I was helpless, and I knew it.
Again I watched the ceiling, the trees. They were still coming down, steadily, slowly, the branches drooped lower and lower; one of them, a specially stout branch, was already within a foot of the top of the low door; another touched my head, the sharp metal cut my scalp--I ducked.
There was just one thing I could do for Padmavati. I could protect her with my own body. She, too, would be crushed to death, but at least the sharp metal branches would not tear her flimsy robe to ribbons, dishonoring her in the hour of death, nor would they cut her soft, golden skin.
I crouched above her, and I prayed, again I prayed! Twice I looked up to see if the ceiling, the trees, were still coming down, fully convinced, before I looked, that they were coming down. They were now descending a little faster--the branch near the door was nearly touching the top.
I bent down lower to kiss the girl, a kiss of love and farewell--I felt her soft, warm, intoxicating breath--and---
I did not kiss her after all! For, suddenly, I heard a noise, loud, sharp, jarring. I looked up, startled--again I was afraid. Was this the end? Were the metal trees about to crush us? Or, perhaps, had the door opened to admit the Brahman?
And then--quite suddenly---
Stephen Denton was silent for a moment. He turned to me with a quizzical smile. He pointed at the fine, white ashes of his cigar, curling around the dull-red glow. He blew the ashes away.
"Half a rupee's worth of tobacco," he said, "burned into a smelly stump of no value at all in twenty minutes--that's a cigar, isn't it? And yet---imagine a puff of wind, an open barrel of gunpowder, a conflagration, a wooden building across the street, a town gone up in flames and smoke! Small cause and thumping result, don't you think?"
"Yes, yes," I interrupted impatiently, "but what's that got to do with those metal trees above you--with the horrible death you were facing---you and the girl you loved?"
What has that got to do with the trees--you ask--with my death? Why, everything, old man!
Remember the loud, sharp-jarring noise I told you about a second ago? Remember the Brahman and the Brahman's white robe, how I clutched at it, how it tore and got caught in the slamming of the door at the height of the knob?
Well, I have an idea that bit of flimsy muslin is responsible for the fact that I am sitting here today, across from you, old man. I am not sure how it happened, though later on, when calm reflection came, I said to myself that the Chinese craftsman with the patient, delicate hands, who was doubtless the builder of that torture-chamber, had been a trifle too patient, a trifle too delicate. It was pretty clear to me that the Brahman had set the machinery in motion--most likely it timed itself--so and so many minutes, until the room had contracted to such a degree that the trees crushed whatever living thing was in their vicinity.
You see, the ceiling and the trees had stopped in their slow, pitiless, juggernaut descent, for the simplest reason in the world!
The flimsy bit of torn muslin had prevented the door from closing completely, by the fraction of an inch, no more! But it was enough to cause the top of the door to protrude the least little bit from the upper part of the door-jamb--and there you are! The stout metal branch of the tree, instead of sliding serenely past door-jamb and along the door, had pumped smartly against the protruding top of the door!
Providence, eh? Chance--perhaps that blind Madonna of children and lovers? Or the Charmed Life?
Whatever the psychical reason, the physical was clear. The whole thing had happened and passed in a moment. The jarring noise--the realization that the muslin had saved our lives---then silence.
Again I looked at the ceiling, at the trees. They could not work past the minute obstacle. And I thanked God--and then I bent once more over the girl, to continue my interrupted kiss, and at the same moment she gave a little sob and opened her eyes.
I guess she must have recognized me immediately. She must have remembered the scene on the roof-top. For she wasn't a bit frightened. She just looked at me and smiled, and then, in a few rapid words, I told her what had happened--from the moment the old ruffian on the roof-top had struck her the glancing blow to the moment when I had come to this room, her unconscious form in my arms.
I did not tell her about the trees, about this devil's devising of a room. For I loved her, don't you see, I did not want to worry her, and, momentarily at least, we were safe. Also--and I know you'll think me mad--when I saw her open her eyes--when I saw that soft, sweet expression in her face as she looked at me and recognized me, the idea, the thought--no!--the all-fired, eternal conviction came to me that God was in His Heavens after all--that I bore the Charmed Life---that, somehow, we would get out of this room, this house, this maze of buildings--out of the Colootallah!
So I told her everything up to the moment when I had crossed the threshold when I had stretched her beneath the trees, and I wound up with a few simple words.
Stephen Denton blushed a little.
What were those words? Can't you guess them? They were the same words which are spoken in every known and unknown language, a million times each day, in every country, in every city and village.
I said: "I love you! Will you be my wife?"
And she replied in English, in soft, beautiful English: "Would you marry a dancing-girl, a nautch, sahib?"
"You bet your life!" I replied, with ringing conviction in my voice. "I'd marry you if you were--"
"The Lady Padmavati?" she interrupted me, mockingly, and then I remembered how I had heard that same name whispered through the hollow tiles at the feet of the mummy. I remembered the sensation, the utter amazement, which the mentioning of that name had caused.
Still, "the Lady Padmavati" meant nothing to me, and so I asked her straight out who she was, and she told me.
I guess you know, Stephen Denton continued; you must have read about it in the newspapers, how one of the Hindu revolutionary secret societies had been trying to bully the Raja of Nagapore into joining their ranks, or, at least, contributing a handsome bunch of money: how the Raja--very pro-British he--had refused, and how his only child, a daughter, had been kidnapped. Well, to make a long story short, Padmavati was the daughter of the Raja of Nagapore. Those ruffians had stolen her and were training her for the temple worship of Shiva Natarajah.
"And," she wound up her tale, "I have made a vow that whoever rescues me him I shall--"
The rest of her sentence was drowned in a loud, metallic noise. At the same moment was a rush of cool air. I looked up. The door had been flung wide open, and there round-eyed, utterly amazed, stood--my old friend, the Brahman!
I doubt if it took me more than a hundredth part of a second to collect my thoughts, to realize my position. "Quick," I whispered to the girl. She rose, catching my arm. We jumped across the threshold! He stood there, mute, and I laughed.
"Miscalculated a little, didn't you, you fat Brahman ruffian?" I asked in a low voice. "Told me to sit beneath the trees and meditate on Life and Death--and meanwhile you'd turn a crank and supply the latter, eh? All right--" Suddenly I grabbed him and pushed him into the steel room---he was quite limp--didn't even fight---"now it's your turn to meditate, and mine to move the crank, and I guarantee you there isn't going to be any torn slip of muslin this time--inside of twenty minutes you'll be as flat as a flounder!" And I scooted out of the room and shut the door. Of course, I had no intention of really crushing him to death--crafty, treacherous old beggar though he was--and though he had come back, doubtless, to have a good look at our flattened-out remains--the gory-minded Brahman gray-beard! But, after all, though India had crept into my blood, I was still an American, a Westerner. I could have killed him with knife or bullet, killed him outright, you see, without too much compunction. But to slowly squeeze him to death--oh, I couldn't do it.
And, too, don't you see, old man, the whole thing was a bluff, anyway. How did I know where to go--how to find the crank or whatever it was which set the machinery into motion? I simply figured on the chance that the Brahman would be too badly scared to see through my bluff. And, to make it appear more real, I took out my Bowie--knife and scraped the door on the outside, to make him think the machinery was jarring and snapping into motion.
Faintly, from within, I could hear his agonized moaning and sobbing.
I felt Padmavati's soft little hand on my arm. "But, dearest"--she whispered, and I understood, though she didn't finish her sentence.
"It's all right, darling," I returned. "I am not going to hurt Old Pomposity more than I have to. Don't you worry about him!" and I continued scraping at the steel door until the moaning and sobbing had ceased. Then, very gently, I opened the door. I looked in.
The Brahman had fallen in a dead faint. His light-brown face had turned ashen-gray.
I shook him awake. He came out of his trance with a start. He clutched my legs, he kissed the hem of my robe, my hands, and whatever parts of my anatomy he could reach. "Sahib, Heaven--Born, Protector of the Pitiful!" he groaned. "In the name of the many true gods--do not--do not--"
"All right!" I said, "I won't, you obese fraud--but--"
"Oh, Shining Pearl of Equity and Mercy!" he interrupted me with another outpouring of Oriental imagery. "Oh, Great King! Accept the vow of my gratitude! Hari bol! Krishna bol! Vishnu bol! Let the mighty gods be witnesses to my gratitude! May earth and life be to you as a wide and many-flowered road! May the clay of the holy river Vaiturani be rubbed on your body after your death--"
"That's exactly it!" I cut in. "After my death! And I don't intend to die--and, if you are as grateful as I am inclined to believe from your protestations, show me a way out of here--quick!"
He rose. Three times he bowed. Then he spoke, solemnly, "I will, Heaven-Born! Follow me!" and he turned to go.
"Can I believe you this time?" I asked.
"Courage is tried in war, sahib," replied the Brahman; "integrity in the payment of debt and interest; friendship in distress; the faithfulness of a wife in the day of poverty; and a Brahman's loyalty in the hour of death. Sahib, follow me!"
And I did--arm in arm with the girl--for, somehow, I felt that the old priest was speaking the truth.
So he led us through halls and rooms, up and down stairs worn hollow and slippery with the tread of naked feet, along corridors, on and on, with here and there a stop, a whispered word from the Brahman to keep perfectly quiet, a silken rustling of garments in some nearby room where people were still awake, with once in a while a hushed, distant voice, and twice the steely impact of a scabbard-tip bumping the stone flags as some unseen, prowling watchman of the night passed somewhere on his rounds; on and on we passed, and we never met a single human being. I hardly noticed the direction. For I was talking to Padmavati.
She gave a low, throaty laugh. Just then we were passing through a long, dark hall.
"Remember, sahib," she asked, "what I was saying just before the priest opened the door? I did not finish the sentence. Let me finish it now. I said that I have made a vow that whoever rescues me, him I shall--"
"You shall--marry!" I interrupted her, catching her in my arms and seeking her lips with mine.
I believe, Stephen Denton continued after a short pause, that science holds it impossible to measure eternity. It is the same thing with the great, deep joy--the huge, pulsing, bewildering elation which comes to man once--once in his life--when he loves, and when he feels that his love is returned. It is--oh, well, perhaps you know it yourself, perhaps you can fill in the details from your personal experience--the hot, exquisite knocking of the blood, the whispering rhythm of the dear, soft body you hold pressed against your own, the gigantic sounds of harmony which fill your soul--your sudden new, golden life as it seems to disentangle itself from the bunched, dark whole of humanity into a great, radiant simplicity.
Love--the first minutes of true love--and you can't measure them! At least I couldn't--that night. I pressed Padmavati close against me; mechanically, I set foot before foot, following the priest; and then, a second later, we ascended a staircase which seemed vaguely familiar to me.
The Brahman pushed open a door, we crossed a threshold--and there we were---
Once more on the roof-top, with the moon slowly fading in the distant sky before the faint rose-blush of dawn!
The Brahman walked straight up to the carved stone balustrade and pointed down at Ibrahim Khan's Gully.
"I have kept my word, sahib," he said, "There is the street--a jump--the turning of a street corner or two--and you will find Park Street! You will find your own world, your own people!" He bowed, then he turned to the girl. "And you, Padmavati--great was the injustice done to you. You were carried away from the palace of your father! You were forced here, into this building, to learn how to dance before Shiva Natarajah! Yes, great was the injustice of it; and yet, can you wipe out blood with darkening blood? Will a wrong right a wrong?"
"A wrong?" she asked. "What wrong?"
"The sahib, Padmavati!" he replied. "You are following the sahib, a foreigner, a Christian, and you are--" he halted.
"Yes," she said after a short pause, "I am the Princess Padmavati. I am the daughter of the Maharajah of Nagapore. I am a Rathor of Kanauj, claiming kinship with the flame, and my mother is a Tomara of Delhi, claiming kinship with the sun! I am a descendant of the gods!" She drew up her, little figure in a passion of pride. "My people have lived here--they have ruled this great land of Hindustan for over three thousand years! Never have we mixed our blood with the blood of foreigners! And yet--"
"And yet--what?" anxiously asked the priest, and she continued with a low, silvery laugh: "And yet there is love, wise priest!" And she turned to me. "Jump, beloved," she whispered, "jump--and I shall follow!"
I jumped without waiting for another word---down into Ibrahim Khan's Gully, landing safely on my feet. The next second her little lithe figure was balanced on the edge of the balustrade. I stretched my arms wide--she jumped--I caught her--just as the bell from the Presbyterian church in Old Court House Street tolled--binng-bunng--two o'clock!
Yes, mused Stephen Denton, a descendant of the gods, she, the daughter of a race who ruled this land before history dawned on the rest of the world--and I, from Boston, with memories of the antimacassars, mild cocktails, Phi Beta Kappa, and---
HIS affair that night was prosy. He was intending the murder of an old Spanish woman around the corner, on the Bowery, whom he had known for years, with whom he had always exchanged courteous greetings, and whom he neither liked nor disliked.
He did kill her; and she knew that he was going to the minute he came into her stuffy, smelly shop, looming tall and bland, and yellow, and unearthly Chinese from behind the shapeless bundles of second-hand goods that cluttered the doorway. He wished her good evening in tones that were silvery, but seemed tainted by something unnatural. She was uncertain what it was, and this very uncertainty increased her horror. She felt her hair rise as if drawn by a shivery wind.
At the very last she caught a glimmer of the truth in his narrow-lidded, purple-black eyes. But it was too late.
The lean, curved knife was in his hand and across her scraggy throat--there was a choked gurgle, a crimson line broadening to a crimson smear, a thudding fall--and that was the end of the affair as far as she was concerned.
A minute later Nag Hong Fah walked over to the other end of Pell Street and entered a liquor-store which belonged to the Chin Sor Company, and was known as the "Place of Sweet Desire and Heavenly Entertainment." It was the gathering-place for the Chinese-born members of the Nag family, and there he occupied a seat of honor because of his wealth and charity and stout rectitude.
He talked for about half an hour with the other members of his clan, sipping fragrant, sun-dried Formosa tea mixed with jessamine-flowers, until he had made for himself a bullet-proof alibi.
The alibi held.
For he is still at liberty. He is often heard to speak with regret--nor is it hypocritical regret--about the murder of Señora Garcia, the old Spanish woman who kept the shop around the corner. He is a good customer of her nephew, Carlos, who succeeded to her business. Nor does he trade there to atone, in a manner, for the red deed of his hands, but because the goods are cheap.
He regrets nothing. To regret, you must find sin in your heart, while the murder of Señora Garcia meant no sin to him. It was to him a simple action, respectable, even worthy.
For he was a Chinaman, and, although it all happened between the chocolate-brown of the Hudson and the murky, cloudy gray of the North River, the tale is of the Orient. There is about it an atmosphere of age-green bronze; of first-chop chandoo and spicy aloewood; of gilt, carved statues brought out of India when Confucius was young; of faded embroideries, musty with the scent of the dead centuries. An atmosphere which is very sweet, very gentle--and very unhuman.
The Elevated roars above. The bluecoat shuffles his flat feet on the greasy asphalt below. But still the tale is of China--and the dramatic climax, in a Chinaman's story, from a Chinaman's slightly twisted angle, differs from that of an American.
To Nag Hong Fah this climax came not with the murder of Señora Garcia, but with Fanny Mei Hi's laugh as she saw him with the shimmering bauble in his hands and heard his appraisal thereof.
She was his wife, married to him honorably and truly with a narrow gold band and a clergyman and a bouquet of wired roses bought cheaply from an itinerant Greek vendor, and handfuls of rice thrown by facetious and drunken members of both the yellow race and the white.
Of course, at the time of his marriage, a good many people around Pell Street whispered and gossiped. They spoke of the curling black smoke and slavery and other gorgeously, romantically wicked things. Miss Edith Rutter, the social settlement investigator, spoke of--and to--the police.
Whereas Nag Hong Fah, who had both dignity and a sense of humor, invited them all to his house: gossipers, whisperers, Miss Edith Rutter, and Detective Bill Devoy of the Second Branch, and bade them look to their hearts' content; and whereas they found no opium, no sliding panels, and hidden cupboards, no dread Mongol mysteries, but a neat little steam-heated flat, furnished by Grand Rapids via Fourteenth Street, German porcelain, a case of blond Milwaukee beer, a five-pound humidor of shredded Kentucky burlap tobacco, a victrola, and a fine, big Bible with brass clamp and edges and M. Doré's illustrations.
"Call again," he said as they were trooping down the narrow stairs. "Call again any time you please. Glad to have you--aren't we, kid?" chucking his wife under the chin.
"You bet yer life, you fat old yellow sweetness!" agreed Fanny; and then--as a special barbed shaft leveled at Miss Rutter's retreating back: "Say! Any time yer wanta lamp my wedding certificate--it's hangin' between the fottygraphs of the President and the Big Boss--all framed up swell!"
He had met her first one evening in a Bowery saloon, where she was introduced to him by Mr. Brian Neill, the owner of the saloon, a gentleman from out the County Armagh, who had spattered and muddied his proverbial Irish chastity in the slime of the Bowery gutters, and who called himself her uncle.
This latter statement had to be taken with a grain of salt. For Fanny Mei Hi was not Irish. Her hair was golden, her eyes blue. But otherwise she was Chinese. Easily nine-tenths of her. Of course she denied it. But that is neither here nor there.
She was not a lady. Couldn't be--don't you see--with that mixed blood in her veins, Mr. Brian Neill acting as her uncle, and the standing pools of East Side vice about her.
But Nag Hong Fah, who was a poet and a philosopher, besides being the proprietor of the Great Shanghai Chop Suey Palace, said that she looked like a golden-haired goddess of evil, familiar with all the seven sins. And he added--this to the soothsayer of his clan, Nag Hop Fat--that he did not mind her having seven, nor seventeen nor seven times seventeen bundles of sin, as long as she kept them in the sacred bosom of the Nag family.
"Yes," said the soothsayer, throwing up a handful of painted ivory sticks and watching how they fell to see if the omens were favorable. "Purity is a jewel to the silly young. And you are old, honorable cousin---"
"Indeed," chimed in Nag Hong Fah, "I am old and fat and sluggish and extremely wise. What price is there in purity higher than there is contained in the happiness and contentment of a respectable citizen when he sees men-children playing gently about his knees?"
He smiled when his younger brother, Nag Sen Yat, the opium merchant, spoke to him of a certain Yung Quai.
"Yung Quai is beautiful," said the opium merchant "and young--and of an honorable clan--and---"
"And childless! And in San Francisco! And divorced from me!"
"But there is her older brother, Yung Long, the head of the Yung clan. He is powerful and rich--the richest man in Pell Street! He would consider this new marriage of yours a disgrace to his face. Chiefly since the woman is a foreigner!"
"She is not. Only her hair and her eyes are foreign."
"Where hair and eyes lead, the call of the blood follows," rejoined Nag Sen Yat, and he reiterated his warning about Yung Long.
But the other shook his head.
"Do not give wings to trouble. It flies swiftly without them," he quoted. "Too, the soothsayer read in the painted sticks that Fanny Mei Hi will bear me sons. One--perhaps two. Afterward, if indeed it be so that the drop of barbarian blood has clouded the clear mirror of her Chinese soul, I can always take back into my household the beautiful and honorable Yung Quai, whom I divorced and sent to California because she is childless. She will then adopt the sons which the other woman will bear me--and everything will be extremely satisfactory."
And so he put on his best American suit, called on Fanny, and proposed to her with a great deal of dignity and elaborate phrases.
"Sure I'll marry you," said Fanny. "Sure! I'd rather be the wife of the fattest, yellowest Chink in New York than live the sorta life I'm livin'--see, Chinkie-Toodles?"
"Chinkie-Toodles" smiled. He looked her over approvingly. He said to himself that doubtless the painted sticks had spoken the truth, that she would bear him men-children. His own mother had been a river-girl, purchased during a drought for a handful of parched grain; and had died in the odor of sanctity, with nineteen Buddhist priests following her gaily lacquered coffin, wagging their shaven polls ceremoniously, and mumbling flattering and appropriate verses from "Chin-Kong-Ching."
Fanny, on the other hand, though wickedly and lyingly insisting on her pure white blood, knew that a Chinaman is broad-minded and free-handed, that he makes a good husband, and beats his wife rather less often than a white man of the corresponding scale of society.
Of course, gutter-bred, she was aggressively insistent upon her rights.
"Chinkie-Toodles," she said the day before the wedding, and the gleam in her eyes gave point to the words, "I'm square--see? An' I'm goin' to travel square. Maybe I haven't always been a poifec' lady, but I ain't goin' to bilk yer, get me? But---" She looked up, and suddenly, had Nag Hong Fah known it, the arrogance, the clamorings, and the tragedy of her mixed blood were in the words that followed: "I gotta have a dose of freedom. I'm an American--I'm white--say!"--seeing the smile which he hid rapidly behind his fat hand--"yer needn't laugh. I am white, an' not a painted Chinese doll. No sittin' up an' mopin' for the retoin of my fat, yellow lord an' master in a stuffy, stinky, punky five-by-four cage for me! In other woids, I resoive for my little golden-haired self the freedom of asphalt an' electric lights, see? An' I'll play square--as long as you'll play square," she added under her breath.
"Sure," he said. "You are free. Why not? I am an American. Have a drink?" And they sealed the bargain in a tumbler of Chinese rice whisky, cut with Bourbon, and flavored with aniseed and powdered ginger.
The evening following the wedding, husband and wife, instead of a honeymoon trip, went on an alcoholic spree amid the newly varnished splendors of their Pell Street flat. Side by side, in spite of the biting December cold, they leaned from the open window and brayed an intoxicated pæean at the Elevated structure which pointed at the stars like a gigantic icicle stood on end, frozen, austere--desolate, for all its clank and rattle, amid the fragrant warm reek of China which drifted from shutters and cellar-gratings.
Nag Hong Fah, seeing Yung Long crossing the street thought with drunken sentimentality of Yung Long's sister whom he had divorced because she had borne him no children, and extended a boisterous invitation to come up.
"Come! Have a drink!" he hiccuped.
Yung Long stopped, looked, and refused courteously, but not before he had leveled a slow, appraising glance at the golden-haired Mei Hi, who was shouting by the side of her obese lord. Yung Long was not a bad-looking man, standing there in the flickering light of the street-lamp the black shadows cutting the pale-yellow, silky sheen of his narrow, powerful face as clean as with a knife.
"Swell looker, that Chink!" commented Fanny Mei Hi as Yung Long walked away; and her husband, the liquor warming his heart into generosity, agreed:
"Sure! Swell looker! Lots of money! Let's have another drink!"
Arrived at the sixth tumbler, Nag Hong Fah, the poet in his soul released by alcohol, took his blushing bride upon his knee and improvised a neat Cantonese love-ditty; but when Fanny awakened the next morning with the sobering suspicion that she had tied herself for life to a drunkard, she found out that her suspicion was unfounded.
The whisky spree had only been an appropriate celebration in honor of the man-child on whom Nag Hong Fah had set his heart; and it was because of this unborn son and the unborn son's future that her husband rose from his tumbled couch, bland, fat, without headache or heartache, left the flat, and bargained for an hour with Yung Long, who was a wholesale grocer, with warehouses in Canton, Manila, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver, British Columbia.
Not a word was said about either Yung Quai or Fanny. The talk dealt entirely with canned bamboo sprouts and preserved leeches, and pickled star-fruit, and brittle almond cakes. It was only after the price had been decided upon and duly sealed with the right phrases and palm touching palm--afterwards, though nothing in writing had passed, neither party could recede from the bargain without losing face--that Yung Long remarked.
"By the way, the terms are cash--spot cash," and he smiled.
For he knew that the restaurant proprietor was an audacious merchant who relied on long credits and future profits, and to whom in the past he had always granted ninety days' leeway without question or special agreement.
Nag Hong Fah smiled in his turn; a slow, thin, enigmatic smile.
"I brought the cash with me," he replied, pulling a wad of greenbacks from his pocket, and both gentlemen looked at each other with a great deal of mutual respect.
"Forty-seven dollars and thirty-three cents saved on the first business of my married life," Nag Hong Fah said to his assembled clan that night at the Place of Sweet Desire and Heavenly Entertainment. "Ah, I shall have a fine, large business to leave to the man-child which my wife shall bear me!"
And the man-child came--golden-haired, blue-eyed, yellow-skinned, and named Brian in honor of Fanny's apocryphal uncle who owned the Bowery saloon. For the christening Nag Hong Fah sent out special invitations--pink cards lettered with virulent magenta, and bordered with green forget-me-nots and purple roses, with an advertisement of the Great Shanghai Chop Suey Palace on the reverse side. He also bestowed upon his wife a precious bracelet of cloudy white jade, earrings of green jade cunningly inlaid with blue feathers, a chest of carved Tibetan soapstone, a bottle of French perfume, a pound of Mandarin blossom tea for which he paid seventeen dollars wholesale, a set of red Chinese sables, and a new Caruso record for the victrola.
Fanny liked the last two best; chiefly the furs, which she wore through the whirling heat of an August day, as soon as she was strong enough to leave her couch, on an expedition to her native pavements. For she held fast to her proclaimed right that hers was the freedom of asphalt and electric light--not to mention the back parlor of her uncle's saloon, with its dingy, musty walls covered with advertisements of eminent Kentucky distilleries and the indelible traces of many generations of flies, with its gangrened tables, its battered cuspidors, its commingling atmosphere of poverty and sloth, of dust and stale beer, of cheese sandwiches, wet weeds, and cold cigars.
"Getta hell outa here!" she admonished a red-powdered bricklayer who came staggering across the threshold of the back parlor and was trying to encircle her waist with amatory intent. "I'm a respectable married woman--see?" And then to Miss Ryan, the side-kick of her former riotous spinster days, who was sitting at a corner table dipping her pretty little upturned nose into a foaming schooner: "Take my tip, Mamie, an' marry a Chink! That's the life, believe me!"
Mamie shrugged her shoulders.
"All right for you, Fan, I guess," she replied. "But not for me. Y' see--ye're mostly Chink yerself---"
"I ain't! I ain't! I'm white--wottya mean callin' me a Chink?" And then, seeing signs of contrition on her friend's face: "Never mind. Chinkie-Toodles is good enough for me. He treats me white, all right, all right!"
Nor was this an overstatement of the actual facts.
Nag Hong Fah was good to her. He was happy in the realization of his fatherhood, advertised every night by lusty cries which reverberated through the narrow, rickety Pell. Street house to find an echo across the street in the liquor-store of the Chin Sor Company, where the members of his clan predicted a shining future for father and son.
The former was prospering. The responsibilities of fatherhood had brought an added zest and tang to his keen, bartering Mongol brain. Where before he had squeezed the dollar, he was now squeezing the cent. He had many a hard tussle with the rich Yung Long over the price of tea and rice and other staples, and never did either one of them mention the name of Yung Quai, nor that of the woman who had supplanted Yung Quai in the restaurant-keeper's affections.
Fanny was honest. She traveled the straight and narrow, as she put it to herself. "Nor ain't it any strain on my feet," she confided to Miss Ryan. For she was happy and contented. Life, after all, had been good to her, had brought her prosperity and satisfaction at the hands of a fat Chinaman, at the end of her fantastic, twisted, unclean youth, and there were moments when, in spite of herself, she felt herself drawn into the surge of that Mongol race which had given her nine-tenths of her blood--a fact which formerly she had been in the habit of denying vigorously.
She laughed her happiness through the spiced, warm mazes of Chinatown, her first-born cuddled to her breast, ready to be friends with everybody.
It was thus that Yung Long would see her walking down Pell Street as he sat in the carved window-seat of his store, smoking his crimson-tassled pipe, a wandering ray of sun dancing through the window, breaking into prismatic colors, and wreathing his pale, serene face with opal vapors.
He never failed to wave his hand in courtly greeting.
She never failed to return the civility.
Some swell looker, that Chink. But--Gawd!--she was square, all right, all right!
A year later, after Nag Hong Fah, in expectation of the happy event, had acquired an option on a restaurant farther up-town, so that the second son might not be slighted in favor of Brian, who was to inherit the Great Shanghai Chop Suey Palace, Fanny sent another little cross-breed into the reek and riot of the Pell Street world. But when Nag Hong Fah came home that night, the nurse told him that the second-born was a girl--something to be entered on the debit, not the credit, side of the family ledger.
It was then that a change came into the marital relations of Mr. and Mrs. Nag Hong Fah.
Not that the former disliked the baby daughter, called Fanny, after the mother. Far from it. He loved her with a sort of slow, passive love, and he could be seen on an afternoon rocking the wee bundle in his stout arms and whispering to her crooning Cantonese fairy-lilts: all about the god of small children whose face is a candied plum, so that the babes like to hug and kiss him and, of course, lick his face with their little pink tongues.
But this time there was no christening, no gorgeous magenta-lettered invitations sent to the chosen, no happy prophecies about the future.
This time there were no precious presents of green jade and white jade heaped on the couch of the young mother.
She noticed it. But she did not complain. She said to herself that her husband's new enterprise was swallowing all his cash; and one night she asked him how the new restaurant was progressing.
"What new restaurant?" he asked blandly.
"The one up-town, Toodles--for the baby---"
Nag Hong Fah laughed carelessly.
"Oh--I gave up that option. Didn't lose much."
Fanny sat up straight, clutching little Fanny to her.
"You--you gave it up?" she asked. "Wottya mean--gave it up?"
Then suddenly inspired by some whisper of suspicion, her voice leaping up extraordinarily strong: "You mean you gave it up--because--because little Fanny is--a goil?"
He agreed with a smiling nod.
"To be sure! A girl is fit only to bear children and clean the household pots."
He said it without any brutality, without any conscious male superiority; simply as a statement of fact. A melancholy fact, doubtless. But a fact, unchangeable.
"But--but---" Fanny's gutter flow of words floundered in the eddy of her amazement, her hurt pride and vanity. "I'm a woman myself--an' I---"
"Assuredly you are a woman and you have done your duty. You have borne me a son. Perhaps, if the omens be favorable you will bear me yet another. But this--this girl---" He dismissed little Fanny with a wave of his pudgy, dimpled hand as a regrettable accident, and continued, soothingly: "She will be taken care of. Already I have written to friends of our clan in San Francisco to arrange for a suitable disposal when the baby has reached the right age." He said it in his mellow, precise English. He had learned it at a night-school, where he had been the pride and honor of his class.
Fanny had risen. She left her couch. With a swish-swish of knitted bed-slippers she loomed up on the ring of faint light shed by the swinging petroleum lamp in the center of the room. She approached her husband, the baby held close to her heart with her left hand, her right hand aimed at Nag Hong Fah's solid chest like a pistol. Her deep-set, violet-blue eyes seemed to pierce through him.
But the Chinese blood in her veins--shrewd, patient--scotched the violence of her American passion, her American sense of loudly clamoring for right and justice and fairness. She controlled herself. The accusing hand relaxed and fell gently on the man's shoulder. She was fighting for her daughter, fighting for the drop of white blood in her veins, and it would not do to lose her temper.
"Looka here, Chinkie-Toodles," she said. "You call yerself a Christian, don't yer? A Christian an' an American. Well, have a heart. An' some sense! This ain't China, Toodles. Lil Fanny ain't goin' to be weighed an' sold to some rich brother Chink at so many seeds per pound. Not much! She's gonna be eddycated. She's gonna have her chance, see? She 's gonna be independent of the male beast an' the sorta life wot the male beast likes to hand to a skoit. Believe me, Toodles, I know what I'm talkin' about!"
But he shook his stubborn head. "All has been settled," he replied. "Most satisfactorily settled!"
He turned to go. But she rushed up to him. She clutched his sleeve
"Yer--yer don't mean it? Yer can't mean it!" she stammered.
"I do, fool!" He made a slight, weary gesture as if brushing away the incomprehensible. "You are a woman--you do not understand---"
"Don't I, though!"
She spoke through her teeth. Her words clicked and broke like dropping icicles. Swiftly her passion turned into stone, and as swiftly back again, leaping out in a great, spattering stream of abuse.
"Yer damned, yellow, stinkin' Chink! Yer--yer--Wottya mean--makin' me bear children--yer own children--an' then---" Little Fanny was beginning to howl lustily and she covered her face with kisses. "Say kiddie, it 's a helluva dad you 've drawn! A helluva dad! Look at him--standin' there! Greasy an' yellow an'--Say--he 's willin' to sell yer into slavery to some other beast of a Chink! Say---"
"You are a--ah--a Chink yourself, fool!"
"I ain't! I'm white--an; square--an,' decent--an'---"
He lit a cigarette and smiled placidly, and suddenly she knew that it would be impossible to argue, to plead with him. Might as well plead with some sardonic, deaf immensity, without nerves, without heart. And then, womanlike, the greater wrong disappeared in the lesser.
"Ye 're right. I'm part Chink myself--an' damned sorry for myself because of it! An' that 's why I know why yer gave me no presents when lil Fanny was born. Because she's a girl! As if that was my fault, yer fat, sneerin' slob, yer! Yah! That 's why yer gave me no presents--I know! I know what it means when a Chink don't give no presents to his wife when she gives boith to a child! Make me lose face--that 's wottya call it, ain't it? An' I thought fer a while yer was savin' up the ducats to give lil Fanny a start in life!
"Well, yer got another guess comin'! Yer gonna do wot I tell yer, see? Yer gonna open up that there new restaurant up-town, an' yer gonna give me presents! A bracelet, that's what I want! None o' yer measly Chink jade, either; but the real thing, get me? Gold an' diamonds, see?" and she was still talking as he, unmoved, silent, smiling, left the room and went down the creaking stairs to find solace in the spiced cups of the Palace of Sweet Desire and Heavenly Entertainment.
She rushed up to the window and threw it wide. She leaned far out, her hair framing her face like a glorious, disordered aureole, her loose robe slipping from her gleaming shoulders, her violet eyes blazing fire and hatred.
She shouted at his fat, receding back:
"A bracelet, that's what I want! That's what I'm gonna get, see? Gold an' diamonds! Gold an' diamonds, yer yellow pig, yer!"
It was at that moment that Yung Long passed her house. He heard, looked up, and greeted her courteously, as was his wont. But this time he did not go straight on his way. He looked at her for several seconds, taking in the soft lines of her neck and shoulders, the small, pale oval of her face with the crimson of her broad, generous mouth, the white flash of her small, even teeth, and the blue, sombre orbit of her eyes. With the light of the lamp shining in back, a breeze rushing in front past the open window, the wide sleeves of her dressing-gown fluttered like immense, rosy butterfly-wings.
Instinctively she returned his gaze. Instinctively, straight through her rage and heartache, the old thought came to her mind:
Swell looker--that Chink!
And then, without realizing what she was doing, her lips had formed the thought into words:
She said it in a headlong and vehement whisper that drifted down, through the whirling reek of Pell Street--sharp, sibilant, like a message.
Yung Long smiled, raised his neat bowler hat, and went on his way.
Night after night Fanny returned to the attack, cajoling, caressing, threatening, cursing.
"Listen here, Chinkie-Toodles--"
But she might as well have tried to argue with the sphinx for all the impression she made on her eternally smiling lord. He would drop his amorphous body into a comfortable rocker, moving it up and down with the tips of his felt-slippered feet, a cigarette hanging loosely from the right corner of his coarse, sagging lips, a cup of lukewarm rice whisky convenient to his elbow, and watch her as he might the gyrations of an exotic beetle whose wings had been burned off. She amused him. But after a while continuous repetition palled the amusement into monotony, and, correctly Chinese, he decided to make a formal complaint to Brian O'Neill, the Bowery saloon-keeper, who called himself her uncle.
Life, to that prodigal of Erin, was a rather sunny arrangement of small conveniences and small, pleasant vices. He laughed in his throat and called his "nephew" a damned, sentimental fool.
"Beat her up!" was his calm, matter-of-fact advice. "Give her a good old hiding, an' she'll feed outa yer hand, me lad!"
"I have--ah--your official permission, as head of her family?"
"Sure. Wait. I'll lend ye me blackthorn. She knows the taste of it."
Nag Hong Fah took both advice and blackthorn. That night he gave Fanny a severe beating and repeated the performance every night for a week until she subsided.
Once more she became the model wife, and happiness returned to the stout bosom of her husband. Even Miss Rutter, the social settlement investigator, commented upon it. "Real love is a shelter of inexpugnable peace," she said when she saw the Nag Hong Fah family walking down Pell Street, little Brian toddling on ahead, the baby cuddled in her mother's arms.
Generously Nag Hong Fah overlooked his wife's petty womanish vanities; and when she came home one afternoon, flushed, excited, exhibiting a shimmering bracelet that was encircling her wrist, "just imitation gold an' diamonds, Chinkie-Toodles!" she explained. "Bought it outa my savings--thought yer wouldn't mind, see? Thought it wouldn't hurt yer none if them Chinks hereabouts think it was the real dope an' yer gave it to me"--he smiled and took her upon his knee as of old.
"Yes, yes," he said, his pudgy hand fondling the intense golden gleam of her tresses. "It is all right. Perhaps--if you bear me another son--I shall give you a real bracelet, real gold, real diamonds. Meanwhile you may wear this bauble."
As before she hugged jealously her proclaimed freedom of asphalt and electric lights. Nor did he raise the slightest objections. He had agreed to it at the time of their marriage and, being a righteous man, he kept to his part of the bargain with serene punctiliousness.
Brian Neill, whom he chanced to meet one afternoon in Señora Garcia's second-hand emporium, told him it was all right.
"That beatin' ye gave her didn't do her any harm, me beloved nephew," he said. "She's square. God help the lad who tries to pass a bit o' blarney to her." He chuckled in remembrance of a Finnish sailor who had beaten a sudden and undignified retreat from the back parlor into the saloon, with a ragged scratch crimsoning his face and bitter words about the female of the species crowding his lips. "Faith, she 's square! Sits there with her little glass o' gin an' her auld chum, Mamie Ryan--an' them two chews the rag by the hour--talkin' about frocks an' frills, I doubt not---"
Of course, once in a while she would return home a little the worse for liquor. But Nag Hong Fah, being a Chinaman, would mantle such small shortcomings with the wide charity of his personal laxity.
"Better a drunken wife who cooks well and washes the children and keeps her tongue between her teeth than a sober wife who reeks with virtue and breaks the household pots," he said to Nag Hop Fat, the soothsayer. "Better an honorable pig than a cracked rose bottle."
"Indeed! Better a fleet mule than a hamstrung horse," the other wound up the pleasant round of Oriental metaphors, and he reënforced his opinion with a chosen and appropriate quotation from the "Fo-Sho-Hing-Tsan-King."
When late one night that winter, a high wind booming from the north and washing the snow-dusted Pell Street houses with its cutting blast, Fanny came home with a jag, a chill, and a hacking cough, and went down with pneumonia seven hours later, Nag Hong Fah was genuinely sorry. He turned the management of his restaurant over to his brother, Nag Sen Yat, and sat by his wife s bed, whispering words of encouragement, bathing her feverish forehead, changing her sheets, administering medicine, doing everything with fingers as soft and deft as a woman's.
Even after the doctor had told him three nights later that the case was hopeless and that Fanny would die--even after, as a man of constructive and practical brain, he had excused himself for a few minutes and had sat down in the back room to write a line to Yung Quai, his divorced wife in San Francisco, bidding her hold herself in readiness and including a hundred dollars for transportation--he continued to treat Fanny Mei Hi with the utmost gentleness and patience.
Tossing on her hot pillows, she could hear him in the long watches of the night breathing faintly, clearing his throat cautiously so as not to disturb her; and on Monday morning--he had lifted her up and was holding her close to help her resist the frightful, hacking cough that was shaking her wasted frame--he told her that he had reconsidered about little Fanny.
"You are going to die," he said placidly, in a way, apologetically, "and it is fitting that your daughter should make proper obeisance to your departed spirit. A child's devotion is best stimulated by gratitude. And little Fanny shall be grateful to you. For she will go to a good American school and, to pay for it, I shall sell your possessions after you are dead. The white jade bracelet, the earrings of green jade, the red sables--they will bring over four thousand dollars. Even this little bauble"--he slipped the glittering bracelet from her thin wrist--"this, too, will bring a few dollars. Ten, perhaps twelve; I know a dealer of such trifles in Mott Street who---"
Her voice cut in, raucous, challenging. She had wriggled out of his arms. An opaque glaze had come over her violet-blue eyes. Her whole body trembled. But she pulled herself on her elbows with a terrible, straining effort, refusing the support of his ready hands.
"Say! How much did yer say this here bracelet's worth?"
He smiled gently. He did not want to hurt her woman's vanity. So he increased his first appraisal.
"Twenty dollars," he suggested. "Perhaps twenty-one. Do not worry. It shall be sold to the best advantage--for your little daughter---"
And then, quite suddenly, Fanny burst into laughter--gurgling laughter that shook her body, choked her throat, and leaped out in a stream of blood from her tortured lungs.
"Twenty dollars!" she cried. "Twenty-one! Say, you poor cheese, that bracelet alone 'll pay for lil Fanny's eddycation. It 's worth three thousand! It 's real, real--gold an' diamonds! Gold an' diamonds! Yung Long gave it to me, yer poor fool!" And she fell back and died, a smile upon her face, which made her look like a sleeping child, wistful and perverse.
A day after his wife's funeral Nag Hong Fah, having sent a ceremonious letter, called on Yung Long in the latter's store. In the motley, twisted annals of Pell Street the meeting, in the course of time, has assumed the character of something epic, something Homeric, something almost religious. It is mentioned with pride by both the Nag and the Yung clans; the tale of it has drifted to the Pacific Coast; and even in far China wise men speak of it with a hush of reverence as they drift down the river on their painted house-boats in peach-blossom time.
Yung Long received his caller at the open door of his shop.
"Deign to enter first," he said, bowing.
Nag Hong Fah bowed still lower.
"How could I dare to?" he retorted, quoting a line from the "Book of Ceremonies and Exterior Demonstrations," which proved that the manner is the heart's inner feeling.
"Please deign to enter first," Yung Long emphasized and again the other gave the correct reply: "How should I dare?"
Then, after a final request, still protesting, he entered as he was bidden. The grocer followed, walked to the east side of the store and indicated the west side to his visitor as Chinese courtesy demands.
"Deign to choose your mat," he went on and, after several coy refusals, Nag Hong Fah obeyed again, sat down, and smiled gently at his host.
"A pipe?" suggested the latter
"Thanks! A simple pipe of bamboo, please, with a plain bamboo mouthpiece and no ornaments!"
"No, no!" protested Yung Long. "You will smoke a precious pipe of jade with a carved amber mouthpiece and crimson tassels!"
He clapped his hands, whereupon one of his young cousins entered with a tray of nacre, supporting an opium-lamp, pipes and needles and bowls, and horn and ivory boxes neatly arranged. A minute later the brown opium cube was sizzling over the open flame, the jade pipe was filled and passed to Nag Hong Fah, who inhaled the gray, acrid smoke with all the strength of his lungs, then returned the pipe to the boy, who refilled it and passed it to Yung Long.
For a while the two men smoked in silence--men of Pell Street, men of lowly trade, yet men at whose back three thousand years of unbroken racial history, racial pride, racial achievements, and racial calm, were sitting in a solemn, graven row--thus dignified men.
Yung Long was caressing his cheek with his right hand. The dying, crimson sunlight danced and glittered on his well-polished finger-nails.
Finally he broke the silence.
"Your wife is dead," he said with a little mournful cadence at the end of the sentence.
"Yes." Nag Hong Fah inclined his head sadly; and after a short pause: "My friend, it is indeed reasonable to think that young men are fools, their brains hot and crimson with the blinding mists of passion, while wisdom and calm are the splendid attributes of older men---"
"Such as--you and I?"
Yung Long raised himself on his elbows. His oblique eyes flashed a scrutinizing look and the other winked a slow wink and remarked casually that a wise and old man must first peer into the nature of things, then widen his knowledge, then harden his will, then control the impulses of his heart, then entirely correct himself--then establish good order in his family.
"Truly spoken," agreed Yung Long. "Truly spoken, O wise and older brother! A family! A family needs the strength of a man and the soft obedience of a woman."
"Mine is dead," sighed Nag Hong Fah. "My household is upset. My children cry."
Yung Long slipped a little fan from his wide silken sleeves and opened it slowly.
"I have a sister," he said gently, "Yung Quai, a childless woman who once was your wife, O wise and older brother."
"A most honorable woman!" Nag Hong Fah shut his eyes and went on: "I wrote to her five days ago, sending her money for her railway fare to New York."
"Ah!" softly breathed the grocer; and there followed another silence.
Yung Long's young cousin was kneading, against the pipe, the dark opium cubes which the flame gradually changed into gold and amber.
"Please smoke," advised the grocer
Nag Hong Fah had shut his eyes completely, and his fat face, yellow as old parchment, seemed to have grown indifferent, dull, almost sleepy.
Presently he spoke:
"Your honorable sister, Yung Quai, will make a most excellent mother for the children of my late wife."
There was another silence, again broken by Nag Hong Fah. His voice held a great calmness, a gentle singsong, a bronze quality which was like the soft rubbing of an ancient temple gong; green with the patina of the swinging centuries.
"My friend," he said, "there is the matter of a shimmering bracelet given by you to my late wife---"
Yung Long looked up quickly; then down again as he saw the peaceful expression on the other's bland features and heard him continue:
"For a while I misunderstood. My heart was blinded. My soul was seared with rage. I--I am ashamed to own up to it--I harbored harsh feelings against you. Then I considered that you were the older brother of Yung Quai and a most honorable man. I considered that in giving the bracelet to my wife you doubtless meant to show your appreciation for me, your friend, her husband. Am I not right?"
Yung Long had filled his lungs with another bowlful of opium smoke. He was leaning back, both shoulders on the mat so as the better to dilate his chest and to keep his lungs filled all the longer with the fumes of the kindly philosophic drug.
"Yes," he replied after a minute or two. "Your indulgent lips have pronounced words full of harmony and reason. Only--there is yet another trifling matter."
"Name it. It shall be honorably solved."
Yung Long sat up and fanned himself slowly.
"At the time when I arranged a meeting with the mother of your children," he said, "so as to speak to her of my respectful friendship for you and to bestow upon her a shimmering bracelet in proof of it, I was afraid of the wagging, leaky tongues of Pell Street. I was afraid of scandal and gossip. I therefore met your wife in the back room of Señora Garcia's store, on the Bowery. Since then I have come to the conclusion that perhaps I acted foolishly. For the foreign woman may have misinterpreted my motives. She may talk, thus causing you as well as me to lose face, and besmirching the departed spirit of your wife. What sayeth the 'Li-Ki'? 'What is whispered in the private apartments must not be shouted outside.' Do you not think that this foreign woman should--ah---"
Nag Hong Fah smiled affectionately upon the other.
"You have spoken true words, O wise and older brother," he said rising. "It is necessary for your and my honor, as well as for the honor of my wife's departed spirit, that the foreign woman should not wag her tongue. I shall see to it to-night." He waved a fat, deprecating hand. "Yes--yes. I shall see to it. It is a simple act of family piety--but otherwise without much importance."
And he bowed, left the store, and returned to his house to get his lean knife.
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