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XV
THE CALL

DELAROCHE told me the thing himself immediately after it had happened; and no one has been able to get a word of it from him since. At the time he was much overwrought; in fact, to an Anglo-Saxon, was somewhat of a sight (he has French blood in him, and it's apt to crop out when he least expects it); but if ever I saw Truth manifested, it was in that choking, panting, sobbing utterance of the man.

Delaroche was one of the thousand pedagogues which the American government sent to flood these benighted isles with the lime light of civilisation. His post was Cabancalan. You don't know Cabancalan, do you? Southern part of Negros, twenty miles from the mouth of the Hog. I rode through there once—God, a lonely, desolate place! A thousand tumble-down nipa shacks, a crumbling church, musty mountains to the east, not a white man within thirty miles, and the natives themselves away below the average—on the edge of savagery.

Well, Delaroche stood it for six months, then went daffy and sent for the girl he loved in the States. And she came, the ten thousand miles, and he met her in Ilo-Ilo and they were married, and he took her across on a prao to her new home—God!

And then one night, some two months after, she began to die. "She began to die." That's the way he told it to me.

As he came back from a ride to one of his barrio schools he found her weeping, with her face in her pillow. She gently refused to tell him the reason (poor little girl, he probably would not have understood!); but later she was saying small incoherent things, and then he knew she was in a fever. Then she began to groan gently with each exhaling breath, and a great fear started to gnaw at his heart.

It was one of these nights when the heat weighs upon you like the tomb. The blinds were all raised, and strange, incongruous insects flopped in and buzzed about the lamp, while outside the beasts of humidity vibrated in endless shrill cry; and rhythming this clamour, to the man watching there, came that low, gentle groaning. And he feared.

You don't understand. He told me, and I also, probably, did not understand. She was a gentle, soft creature, made all for love and sacrifice, and with something childish in her that drew the hearts of men in great tenderness. He was a somewhat gloomy fellow, with great asperities in his character and a flaming will. He craved for sacrifice, and she gave it all to him, and yet with her little baby ways created in him the illusion that he was the protector.

And now, as he sat beneath the oppression of the heated night, by her side, with that continuous, soft plaint in his ears, he began to see, he began to see,—ah, many little things that he should have seen, that he had not seen, that,—yes,—that he had refused to see.

When he would return from his long rides to far barrios after leaving her all day face to face with the poignant loneliness of her life, he was wont to pick up a book and plunge into it for the evening. Several times he had seen tears come to her eyes as he did this, and then, with laughing, false, lying surprise, would ask her what was the matter, at which she smiled and shook her head gently.

There were many other things like that, but, he told me, this was the picture which tortured him in endless repetition that night. He saw himself returning from his barrio-ride; he picked up a book and read, and then tears started in her eyes. At intervals he raised the mosquito-bar and looked at her and spoke to her, a great tenderness in his throat; but she did not answer, merely lay with her head on her left arm, and softly with each breath came the little plaint, patient and submissive, and it tore his heart. Then he sat down again at his vigil, with a great muffled fear a-pound in his breast, and then again he saw the picture:—He came back from his barrio-ride, picked up a book and read, and tears started in her eyes.

That's how he passed the night. At dawn, a great longing to do something took hold of him, and, leaving her, he went out into the pueblo. There was not a physician within fifty miles; it was the rainy season and each mile was ten. He knew it, yet he searched madly for what he knew he could not find. Finally he returned, and as he looked upon her she gripped his arm. "Don't, don't," she said, and he burst into tears. She had felt his absence.

Then people, the poor lowly folk of the village, began to troop in with many "pobrecitas" and pitying exclamations and rude, naïve gifts. Among them were two little girls who stood awed at the door. He remembered them. When his wife had first come and they strolled in the evening together, the little girls would follow them at a distance; then, encouraged by her gracious presence, they had come nearer and nearer night after night, till finally she had found what they longed for. They wanted to touch her hand. And after that the husband and the wife had had to steal out on their evening walks; for, if seen by the little girls, the lady had to give one hand to each, leaving the man to follow behind alone.

They were poor, dirty little things, but when they stood there, one with a soiled, over-ripe banana, the other with a tobacco leaf, that they had probably stolen at the market, he stooped down and kissed them on the forehead.

Then he padlocked the door to be alone and took his station by the side of the little cot; and the morning passed as the night had, and he felt himself slowly becoming mad. In the afternoon a thought made his heart thump.

At Sibalay, twenty miles below the mouth of the Hog, there was then a post of native constabulary, and once every two months a launch from Ilo-Ilo came to stock it with provisions. He had made a note of the dates the boat was to come. He looked among his papers and found it. It was due that very day. Since morning, while he sat stupid there, the boat had been discharging cargo; that very evening it would leave for Ilo-Ilo, and in Ilo-Ilo there were Americans, doctors, hospitals, hope!

And there was still a chance. The boat, in its course back to Ilo-Ilo, must cross the mouth of the Hog. There might be time to intercept it.

He ran out of the house and down to the river; and the best he could find after an hour's search were two old bancas, mouldy and full of water and each with an outrigger broken; but he lashed them together, with the remaining outriggers on the outside. Then he stormed at the Casa Popular till they gave him the town prisoners, a villainous six. He then had his wife carried on her cot to the boat, and they started down the river.

From the beginning everything went wrong. He had counted upon the swollen river-current; he found that the sea tide was on the flood and backing it up. The impressed prisoners were sullen, and after he saw that promises of reward had no effect, he made them work with his revolver at their backs. The river wound interminably, and then another obstacle confronted them. The wind rose, and every time the turn of the river made it head on, they had to slow up, for the short, choppy waves dashed into the boats, threatening to swamp them. The men grew more defiant, and once he was obliged to fire over their heads to keep them at their paddles. Thus they went down the river, between the high palm-lined banks, the boats leaking, the tide purring against them, the men straining, with Fear upon them, and he standing at the stern, tense as a maniac, feeling Hope slowly and inexorably slipping from him. And all the time, from the cot at the bottom of the boat, came the soft, continuous, patient plaint.

When they reached the mouth of the river, the surf was booming on the bar and they could not cross. It was dark, and in the distance a red and a green light were passing slowly.

They paddled back five miles up the river to the pueblo of Hog and camped in the deserted convent. Toward midnight, White, the constabulary officer, came along. He was on his way to Sibalay, but the mud had killed his horse and he had had to stop.

The two men had a conference. Then White impressed two carabaos from the presidente and started off in a drizzling rain. There was an army wagon, with two American horses, at Sibalay, and he was going after them. With the wagon, Delaroche could perhaps make Pulupondan, sixty miles to the north, and catch the little steamer that plied between that town and Ilo-Ilo.

All night Delaroche sat by the bed of his wife, in the big, empty, ruined convent. The rain drummed fiercely upon the tin roof, giant rats scurried to and fro in the darkness, and the night long there came from the cot the desolate plaint. Once, toward dawn, she started up suddenly and he caught her. "Laddie, laddie!" she cried, with a great joy in her voice as she felt his presence. Then she fell back into the stupor.

At noon the wagon came, driven by an old army packer, a long lanky Westerner. The cot was placed upon it and fastened, and they started. It was in the midst of the rainy season; the roads were bottomless, and progress was fearfully slow. Twice, before reaching Jimamaylan, the wagon dropped into a hole and could not be budged. The men went out into the fields and captured carabaos, and after countless efforts unmired it. At Jimamaylan, fifteen miles from the start, the horses were so plainly given out that they had to stop. They passed the night in the hut of the Presidente. The driver cooked their food and Delaroche filled the canteens with boiled water for the morrow, for they were on the edge of the cholera district. His wife was in the same condition.

They started early the next morning, but calamities began to overtake them. They were mired for an hour soon after the start. Then the tree carried away and they had to improvise a new one. Near Binalbagan the off horse dropped, foundered. They stole carabaos from the fields and went on. Darkness overtook them at Jinagaran, and they had gone only ten miles.

All night long Delaroche listened to the gentle wail, and by morning it had grown very weak. And then, as the sun rose a few miles from Jinagaran, she died.

"She died." That's the way he said it.

And the wagon went on with the dead woman, and Delaroche kneeling with his head on her pillow, close to hers. And after a while he began calling her, first softly, with gentle insistence, "Girlie! Girlie!" Then louder and louder as she did not answer, in a long, agonised cry, "Girlie! Girlie!"

They were going through the cholera district now, and they passed deserted barrios with great, white crosses painted across the doors and windows of the emptied huts; and now and then thin, cadaverous, weird beings looked at them pass from caved-in eyes, looked at the labouring, sobbing carabaos; at the driver on the seat of the lurching wagon, urging with cry and gesture; at the cot, with its rigid form faintly outlined beneath the blankets, and the man kneeling by it; and, above the shouts of the driver, the panting of the animals, the creaking of the wagon, they heard that great ceaseless agonised cry:

"Girlie! Girlie!"

All day, and the next, and the next, they went on thus, a spectral sight. I asked the driver about it later.

"Yes," he said. "I kept a-going because I knew that he just couldn't bury her there. And all that day and all night, and all the next day and the next night, and the next and the next he just called her and called her and called her. I don't want to go through another thing like that, you can be sure. And she was dead, sir; she was dead, I tell you."

"But of course, she wasn't, you know she wasn't," I said: "You know she must have been alive. What makes you think she was dead?"

"She was dead, sir," he repeated stubbornly.

And Delaroche, when he told me, that one time his lips were unsealed in a burst of hysteria, said the same thing.

"She was dead, Romer," he said; "she was dead, I tell you. But I called her, called her. And I tell you I called her back. You see, it was impossible; I couldn't let her go like that. I called her back to me, called her back, I tell you!"


THE END