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BANJO NELL
The Little Melody-Maker Who Sailed Away to Her Fate in the Tropical Islands

By JAMES HOPPER

BEING only of the civil service, we had been assigned, by the fat Q. M. captain, to a darkish, dirtyish cabin between decks; and hence were irreverent of the beings of the roomy, enameled quarters above. So we dubbed her "Banjo Nell" almost as she placed her little buckled shoe upon the polished planks of the white army transport. The naming, it must be said, called for no violent effort of the imagination; she glided toward the cabin, along the dazzling deck, accompanied by no baggage we could discern except a box, shaped like a doll's coffin, which she held affectionately against her heart, and which gave out, when accidentally struck against a brass railing, a muffled and yet resonant note that shuddered a moment like a plaint.

She was young and slender and very light; her dress was a pastelle blue, her hat a pastelle pink, and both dress and hat somehow gave an impression of being extraordinarily beribboned, though when you analyzed the impression, you found it based on very little fact. In the same manner, her entire personality, through no cause you could immediately discern, exhaled a whirring, indefatigable and gentle turbulence. She moved with a sound of wings, little golden wisps of hair snapped mutinously beneath the wide halo of her millinery; she seemed all a-flutter. "A fluffy young miss," said one of us, observing her with uptilted nose. "A flirty little devil, I bet!" said Hart. But Strang, the severe man of our trio, said nothing at all. His forehead was puckered in disapprobation; but in his eyes, as they followed her, there was a puzzling light.

The interest thus awakened in us, she was to hold for the whole of the thirty days' seaway to the Philippines. We were (being civilians and below decks) a cynical trio (or tried to be), and observed critically, and with some malevolence, the doings of the upper deck. We watched officers too palpably from West Point and officers too palpably trying to be from West Point; nice army ladies, and army ladies very much painted; but it was Banjo Nell who from the first held our steadfast attention. From the first, it must be added, she justified her name and flattered our perspicacity. For, after a six days' wallowing in cold yellow curlers, no sooner had the ship, blossoming out in sail-tents, white uniforms, and diaphanous gowns, slid out upon the lacquered calm of the tropic sea, than it began to vibrate from end to end with the indefatigable tinkle of her banjo and the ripple of her mirth.

She sat up there in a long white chair set upon the white deck, her gown a touch of color in the circle of white uniforms; and, her feet drawn up in the attitude of a child eating something good, her head inclined like a bird's, with her slender fingers she pinched the strings into little fusillades of puerile sound. The big ship slid onward gravely, with a deaf and absorbed air, and incessantly the tinkling notes, released in handfuls, flew over the bulwarks to strew like flights of impalpable butterflies the impassive sea. Sometimes she sang as she strummed—light songs that fluttered like ribbons; and then again she led from bowsprit to taffrail, along decks, passages, down companion-ways, bands of youths that passed like idiotic hurricanes. But always she tinkled, sang, or fluttered; never was she silent, never was she still; and always there emanated from her a sort of turbulent and empty joy—which had the faculty of making us sad.

Of making Strang sad. He would watch her, his face scowling with disapprobation, his nerves visibly on edge. "Damn little fool!" he would growl finally, turning his back and lighting his pipe. But his pipe refused to stay lit and his back to stay turned; again he would be watching her, above there on the white deck, and always his observation ended with the same verdict: "Damn little fool!"

 

THE ship slid on; day after day, week after week it seemed, we passed along a lacquered sea bluer than the sky, bluer than any sky. The ship hissed gently; from its bow two thin emerald lines spread, curling transparently and tipped with foam; two diverging lines like a flight of swallows upon a sky, a flight of white swallows upon a sky bluer than the sky. Upon the immensity of the sea there was no other movement, not a ripple, not a shiver; and upon the immensity of the sky not a cloud, not a haze, not a fleck.

"Damn little fool!" growled Strang, watching. "Look at her; look at those men! Oh, h——, look at that toad of a Q. M.!"

It was true that the men of the upper deck were always about her, like bees about honey; and that in her conduct she was of an ingenuous familiarity that tormented us secretly. And true that the quarter-master captain (who had assigned us between decks) was bending over her, his shining face too close to hers. "I'd like to choke his fat neck!" growled Strang—and shut himself up in the cabin, where the temperature was at least one hundred and ten.

 

AND then at the beginning of the third week, with sea-hue unchanged, beneath a turquoise sky, we struck suddenly a large and mysterious cross-swell in which the ship rolled scandalously. And in the afternoon we were startled from the torpor of the siesta by a great crashing of glass, a scream, and laughter overhead. Turning our eyes up there, we saw our heroine, balancing with one hand upon the knob of her cabin door, which, open, was swinging to and fro. At her feet a rotund bottle, shattered at the neck, rolled in and out of the scupper with an air of moral abandon, and in her free hand she held up high a cup of golden wine. She raised the glass above her head, brought it back to her lips, tipped it, and then Hung it far between two long waves which closed like a trap over its fugitive glitter. A babel of male voices rose in applause.

"The tropics!" said Strang sententiously. He looked appalled. "The tropics. She's gone, the little fool!"

"Look here," Hart remonstrated; "a glass of champagne isn't the end of the world."

But Strang turned upon him viciously. "I tell you she's gone!" he repeated in a tone brooking no denial.

We laughed at him, but felt a hidden torment. And then, the following night, we were astounded to see him with her at the taffrail.

The sun was setting, and the ship which, as suddenly as it had entered it, had left the disturbed area and again slid upon a polished sea, was hissing gently, like some antediluvian reptile homeward bound, toward a cavern of molten gold flamingly open in the west. They stood at the taffrail, beneath a flag which at rare intervals snapped lightly; the light was upon them, and they were beautiful, he so large and square and strong, she so slender, so fluent, and so light. By the movement of their lips you could see they were speaking, speaking in brief sentences cut by long silences; and they stood a bit apart, gazing straight ahead, never gazing at each other. In the slight bend of his body there was solicitude; and she leaned back against the rail, still with a stillness contrasting strangely with her usual turbulence, her arms flowing loose along her relaxed form in an attitude that held weariness and peace.

And thus we were to so? them every evening after that. All day she tinkled, laughed, and fluttered, and then at sunset for a time stood with him at the taffrail, very still, he leaned slightly above her; she drooped against the rail, and they spoke, looking straight ahead, in short, sentences and long silences. Above them the flag snapped gently; the light was upon their faces. The moment held a peace, a large unruffled calm; it had a taste, almost, of prayer.

Then he would tumble hack to us and growl his disapprobation, his irritation—the irritation of the idealist who, seeking too much, finds nothing. Also, I suppose, he felt the need of justifying himself toward us; he had something of the mental attitude of the callow youth who "hates girls" and yet surreptitiously takes them home from school.

"I am trying to find out what she is," he would growl, "and I can't. There's nothing there—nothing. Only evasion—unconsciousness—vacuum."

"Seems interesting, anyway," one of us would say.

"Yes; try, try again," chimed Hart.

He would turn his back upon us, absolutely furious, but it would not be long before he would be speaking again, evidently more to satisfy himself than to satisfy us, in a sort of soliloquy that yet sought approbation—or contradiction.

"I couldn't even tell whether she is bad or she is good. She may be the one—and so much so that she doesn't know it—or else the other—and then to an absurd degree of innocence. She doesn't seem to see that those men—"

Here we usually deserted him, half laughing, half indignant, a bit outraged at his want of delicacy, resentful of this spirit of analysis which threatened surface blooms satisfactory to us. He had something of the make-up of a priest of the Inquisition—the cruelty of the idealist maddened by the realities.

 

MEANTIME the voyage was continuing as before—a polished sea, a pellucid sky, banjo strummings all day, the short moment of peace at the sunset hour, at the taffrail, beneath the whispering flag, and one evening he seemed to arrive at last to a conclusion.

"There's nothing there," he said, as if relieved. "Banjo tinkle, flutter of ribbon—nothing else. She's a bubble, just a bubble. A bubble—" he stopped, his eyes staring upward. "A bubble—of joy," he resumed; "a joy-bubble. Banjo Nell," he said slowly; "Banjo Nell, the joy-bubble!"

After which he seemed satisfied, and for several days said nothing more of her. But the joy-bubble now, perversely enough, began to give out solid facts. "She's going to be married," was the news he brought down from a new interview; "she's going to the P. I.'s to be married!"

"Good for Banjo Nell!" said Hart maliciously.

"To marry a missionary!" Strang went on.

"Surprising, but laudable," said Hart.

 

STRANG was silent a while, trying to smile, but evidently irritated.

"It beats h——," he began again slowly; "it beats h—— how girls marry! I've known several now—and it always appalls me—their unconsciousness, their supreme unconsciousness of what they are doing. They say: 'I'm going to be married'—just like that, just like 'I'm going to drink a glass of water,' except that they have a bit more realization of the importance of the drink of water. They have no imagination; they don't visualize; they don't see what they are doing; and they don't bother to see. Never do they seem to have the slightest idea of why they marry. It isn't love; it isn't for support; it isn't to get a new hat—they don't think even that far. It's for nothing at all; they can't give you a single plausible reason. They just marry, that's all; it's a habit, a racial habit. Their mother did it, their mother's mother, their grandmother's mother, back ad infinitum. And so, they do it. It's appalling."

"I hope," said Hart, "that you didn't ask her why she is marrying!"

Strang was uncomfortably silent a moment. Then, "I did!" he flashed out defiantly. "I wanted to find out. And her reason is—that she's engaged to him! 'I'm engaged to him,' she says—and that's all!"

"Not such a bad reason," ventured Hart.

"Humph!" growled Strang. "They're from the same part of the country—the Middle West. Went to school together. He asked her two years ago. She said yes, of course. Because it was easier than to say no, I suppose. Then he went off. She hasn't seen him for three years, and now she's going to him. He has 'sent for her'! She speaks of him in the vaguest fashion; I'll wager she couldn't describe the color of his eyes—whether they're blue or black. But she's engaged—that seems all-sufficient. 'But I'm engaged,' she says. Oh, h——!"

"Well, we'd better let her be," said Hart. "Don't monkey with 'racial habits,' I say."

But Strang continued. Every evening he climbed to the white deck and spent a half-hour with her, their conversation, as far as we could see, more and more earnest, though never did she alter her posture of slight weariness, of momentary surrender, so different from her usual whirring agitation. The rest of the time she fluttered and tinkled. She had learned to know Hart and me, and sometimes in the midst of her play stopped to throw down to us, from the top of the companion-way, an amiable nod. But little by little, as we approached her destination (she was to be let off at Aparri, on the north coast of Luzon), we fancied that we discovered in her a change—sudden moments of immobility in the midst of play, like those of a bird which has heard a footstep, or which has seen, crawling upon the sand, the shadow of an approaching hand; these followed always by a new burst of febrile turbulence.

"Seems to me the joy-bubble has to work at it," Hart remarked.

The ship was approaching the Luzon coast. The night before, Strang came down looking weary and discouraged.

"I tried to make her wait—about that marriage," he announced belligerently.

"You're a sentimentalist and a—and a fool!" said Hart.

"I'm not," said Strang. "It's a crime. She doesn't love him; she doesn't know him. I keep asking her why she marries—and the only reason is that she is engaged—that's the end of it—that she mustn't break her promise. That's her only reason. It's a crime."

To this we had nothing to say.

"She's stubborn, too," Strang went on. "With that terrible stubbornness of the gentle, of the one who does not know. She is going to do it, all-right!"

"But, good Lord, why shouldn't she?" broke in Hart, exasperated; "why shouldn't she? It's her affair, not yours, Strang; hers alone. And perhaps there is nothing else for her to do! What would you have her do, Strang—teach school? The joy-bubble teach school! What else have you to offer her, Strang, what else?"

But at this question Strang said not another word.

 

THE next morning we were awakened by the repeated and repeated blowing of the siren; springing from our bunks, we found the ship motionless, and, hurrying on deck, we saw land.

It was a little after the dawn, a slight breeze was passing in iridescent shivers over the motionless sea, and before us, no more than a mile away, was the land—a low coast, furry with a gray and musty vegetation. It stretched to the right and the left, in immense monotony to hazy disappearances, and seemed deserted; but after a while we saw, on a point, by a river's breaking bar, a clump of plumy coconuts, within which a tin roof glittered. The sun, slanting along the sea, struck the top of the jungle, of the palms, to a rosy halo; it beat upon the land, which smoked to the rays and seemed heavily asleep. The ship bellowed; heaving ever so slowly athwart the oily swell, it poured forth an incessant, sad, and clamorous note, and to the call the land, though no movement was visible, seemed to stir vaguely as if in a dream. Suddenly, clear and bright, a flag shot up a long mast above the tin roof; and after a moment of great calm and silence, during which we heard loudly the plash of ripples along the flanks, we saw a launch gliding down the invisible river behind the palms, as if gliding upon land. It doubled the point, clearly upon water now, danced extravagantly for a moment in the breakers of the bar, then came steaming toward us very fast. It struck against the lowered ladder, and, looking down into its hollow, we saw the bronze torsos of the native crew, and then, detaching himself from them and mounting the ladder, the Man, the Bridegroom.

 

HE CAME up rapidly, and was soon on deck, near us; and right away, I must say, I took a prodigious dislike to him. In the first place, he was dressed in black, from head to foot in black; and to dress in black in the tropics argues certainly a curious malevolence. Then he wore whiskers. They were not the long, flowing whiskers which can come of modesty, of a complete indifference to personal appearance. They were short whiskers, clipped off snappily at the hinges of the jaws, the rest of the cheek, the chin, and the lips being shaven clean—an aggressive arrangement that, demanding close care, a perverse solicitude. The fruit of a sort of upside-down vanity differing absolutely from the spirit of passive hirsuteness. Bespeaking a somber ill-will, a set determination to be singular, to affront the sun, the flowers, the birds, all the joys and beauties of the world. I hated those whiskers! Outside of that, I had to admit it, he was not so bad—tall and spare, with brown eyes, rather nice, though set a bit too close. And he loved her—you could see that! His hands trembled. He stepped toward her and kissed her chastely on the brow, rigid as a somnambulist, and then suddenly, in spite of himself, his two trembling hands went up. They went up, grasped her two elbows, and pressed them tight against her sides, tight! The movement, so irresistible within its tense repression, was almost terrible. Her face, turned upward toward his, blanched a bit. It was all over in a moment, though. The baggage already was being dropped into the launch. He placed his right hand against her back, and with one swift look at us, about him, he had whisked her off with a gentle but steady push of that big brown hand, toward the ladder. Poor little Nell! If she had had doubts, if for an instant she had held the slightest vestige of an idea of discussing her fate, of drawing back, of hesitating, she certainly was given no chance. One, two, three—and she was at the ladder. One, two, three—and she was at the bottom of it. One, two, three, she was in the stern-sheets of the launch. The banjo, deposited at her feet, gave one muffled, lamentable note—and one, two, three, the launch was streaming away from us, across the silken sea, toward the sodden land. A quarter of the way over she threw us one last gesture, a wave of her kerchief which held a bit of her old careless gaiety, which we answered with flapping hats, all of us, lined up there along the bulwarks, quartermaster, officers, between-deck dissidents, for the moment a fraternity, our heads in a row like those of dolls waiting to be knocked down by a ball. But the gesture was not repeated. He must have engaged her right away in serious conversation; he may have protested; anyway, there was nothing more. We watched the launch stream away, plunge perilously across the bar, veer, slide, as if on land, behind the trees, disappear; there was nothing more, not a sign, not, a flutter. We felt as if suddenly some big whirlpool had sucked the joy-bubble from our sight, from our lives.

 

WITHIN twenty-four hours the big white ship was at anchor in Manila Bay; and a few days later we were again at our respective routines, the three of us, and had reorganized our mess in an old house by a breach of the city walls, through which we caught the shifting waters of the bay. The memories of the voyage began to fade—as fade memories of all voyages. But still, once in a while, we heard of Banjo Nell. We knew that she had been married that same evening of her landing in Aparri, and that her missionary husband had taken her inland, to a little pueblo from which radiated his efforts to teach the natives the art of praising God with song, through their noses. And we couldn't help imagining her there, in that lonely, musty place, with the severe man—little tinkling Nellie and her banjo.

Months passed, the monsoons veered, the rains began. We had swung well into the routine of Manila official life and had forgotten her, when one day I was ordered on a tour of inspection through the Cagayan. And on that tour I passed through her town and saw her again.

I had been in the saddle for weeks, and it seemed years; it was four in the afternoon, and since the break of day I had been wallowing beneath the rains, partly riding, partly carrying my pony through an ooze interminable as the surface of the earth after the Deluge. In ten hours I had made ten miles; I wanted to push on to San Juan, five miles farther, so I stopped only for a few minutes.

 

SHE stood at the head of the bamboo stairs of the nipa hut which he, voluptuously ascetic, had chosen as the proper abode of a propagator of Christian ideals; and as I rose even with her, she took my hand in both of hers. We remained there, upon the slightly vacillating platform, during the whole interview, I refusing to come in, for fear of a drooping of spirit and an abandonment of my resolutions if I but allowed myself the relaxation of a chair. He was away for the day in some barrio where he had founded a new chapel and was fighting the local padre. "He"—that is the way she spoke of him; with a sort of detached inflection, as though mentioning a something very remote and incomprehensible. "I don't play much; he doesn't like it," she said when laughingly I mentioned the famous banjo. We talked a bit of inconsequential nothings, of little incidents of the transport life, but mostly she was begging me to stay, to stay and dine with her. She held my hand in both of hers and begged. It was hard to refuse her. Her eyes were very large; it was only later that I realized that they were so because the face beneath had shrunk, was pale and very thin. She held my hand and begged, but I held good. I had to see the provincial treasurer that night at San Juan; besides, through some cursed conventionalism, hereditary I suppose, I felt a certain embarrassment at being with her alone—with "him" away. And suddenly she dropped my hand and ceased asking; dropped my hand and let her hands fall in an expression of sudden surrender which had in it a sort of accustomance, as though she often thus begged and thus was denied, or though suddenly she remembered that it was her fate always to be denied. She dropped my hand and let me go with a smile. I had not gone a mile, though, before a sudden pang of regret reined me up, there in the middle of a shaking quagmire—and I almost turned back. But I didn't. I cursed myself for a fool and went on. I should have gone back.

 

THREE weeks later I was again in Manila and told my story. By which I seemed to earn Strang's disapprobation, for, following the telling, he did not speak to me for three days. And then, a month later, we heard that she was dead.

The news came to us at first as a rumor one way, then another, then again in another, always imprecise, but leaving no doubt of the hard fact that she was dead. It gave us no details, did not tell us how she had died—but we knew, the three of us, we knew. Of loneliness, of severity, starved of tinklings and sounds of mirth, of sheer desolation in that miserable pueblo of the Cagayan, beneath the heavy mournfulness of the rains. And the thought had a strong effect on me—as strong almost as it had on Strang. For unreasonably but irresistibly, in spite of my best efforts, I became possessed of an absurd but fixed idea: that if I had stayed that time or had gone back, had yielded to the cling of her hands or had returned to the memory of her pleading eyes, that then she would not have died.

The mess was gloomy, and Hart was angry. "I'm going to move," he announced: "you people get on my nerves. This place is like a sepulcher. And all this black fuss over a girl who tinkled a banjo and wore ribbons. Why, she's no doubt somewhere now, her little head bent on the strings, tinkling away most happily, and laughing at you two dark sentimentalists shedding tears down here!"

"You're right," said Strang, going to the piano (a piece of war loot) and striking the loosened wires in a crashing and false chord.

But it was Hart who looked worried when he came in the next evening. He stood at the door of the big living room, and through the jar solemnly signaled to me with one finger. I rose and met him in the hall.

"He's here, downstairs," he whispered. "He!"

Right away I knew who it was. The husband; the husband of the dead girl. "Good Lord!" I said.

"He's leaving for the States," Hart continued. "He got in this morning. I found him wandering on the Escolta; he's hard hit. We'd better take him in for the night. His ship leaves in the morning."

"Surely," I said. And then: "Wait, I'll ask Strang."

"Of course," said Strang, as though surprised that I should ask. "Of course, we'll keep him over night."

 

I TOLD Hart. Hart went downstairs. And after a while the door swung open, and He walked in.

He walked in two steps and stopped. At first glance we could see that he was hard hit. He stood there, uncertain, and then we noticed that he held something in his arms. Awkwardly, like a father bearing a new-born child, he held in his arms a box, a worn and scratched box, like a small coffin—-the banjo!

Right away we acted like fools. We stared; we could not detach our eyes from the box. He stood there, near the door, which was still open behind him, and, very much bowed, held the box awkwardly; and we, Strang and I, standing on the other side of the room, looked at the box without a gesture, without a word.

"Sit down, sit down," at length said Hart from behind.

But he had noted our looks, our hypnotized stares. "It's her banjo," he said, slipping limply to the chair placed behind him, and placing the box carefully across his knees. "Her banjo."

We continued staring at the little scratched box, staring as at a ghost; and waited with unconscious and gruesome curiosity for what he should say next.

"She wanted to play on it that night," he went on as if compelled. "She wanted to play on it that night. I wouldn't let her. It was a time for solemn things. She wanted to play on it that night—"

 

IT WAS horrid. We stood there, petrified, looking at the box, with now another vision in our eyes. The vision of "that" night, in the hut of the lonely pueblo of the Cagayan. We could see her, there against the white pillow, begging for the banjo, for a last bit of her old joy.

"She wanted to play, and I didn't let her," he began again—evidently his mind was unhinged. "Didn't let her," he repeated. "And do you think it was right"—he turned the sunken question of his eyes upon us—"do you think it was right—that I should not let her?"

Strang had moved forward one step; suddenly his voice rang out, very low and resonant, like a bell. "You imbecile," he said; "you somber imbecile!"

"It was a solemn moment," began again the wreck on the chair.

But Strang's voice pushed up abruptly from its low resonance to a cry, a terrible dry cry like a squawk. And before we could move he had leaped the intervening space and was at the other's throat.

The chair went backward with a crash that sent the blood tingling through our veins; we sprang toward Strang. He had the missionary down and, with his iron fingers, was strangling him, swiftly and mercilessly.

We got him away. He stood a moment in the center of the room, raised his elbow across his eyes as if to veil them of a hideous sight, then, pivoting, went off uncertainly into his bedroom. We raised the missionary, Hart and I, and Hart hustled him out. I looked into Strang's room before following. He was stretched face down upon his cot, and his whole big frame was rising and falling in convulsive sobs.

 

WE WALKED, Hart and I, the missionary up and down the Luneta Beach, by the phosphorescent waves, beneath the stars, till he was calmed, till we were calm. When we returned to the house everything was dark and still. The missionary slept in my room, and at dawn we took him to his ship and saw him depart—with the banjo.

When we reentered the messroom for breakfast, Strang was sitting in his place, waiting for us. He was clean-shaven, had on an immaculate white suit, and in his manner there was nothing to remind us of the scene of the night. There never has been since.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1956, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.