" MR. BLOOKER, sir," said the head clerk severely, "no one whose chest measurement is under thirty-two inches has any right to beat time to 'Rule, Britannia!' even when it is played by a German band in the street."
A small man, whose desk stood nearest the office window, against which a City fog lay like yellow cotton-wool, blushed, apologised incoherently, and returned to fair general averages.
The other clerks tittered, since this was a recurring criticism. For though Alexander Blocker's chest measurement made active patriotism impossible, the heart within it was full of that sentiment. This was unmistakable when he boomed forth solid songs of the past, such as "The Death of Nelson" and "The Soldier's Tear" in his big, solid, bass voice; the more modern ditties about "beggars" and "gurls" and "kids" and "khaki" being, he assured his club, "unsuitable to his organ." And Alexander Blooker was very proud of his organ.
"Never, never, never will be slaves."
Quite unconsciously his dutiful pen punctuated each quaver and semi-quaver, though in his heart of hearts he knew that he himself had been a slave all his life. First to an old aunt who had lately died full of self-satisfaction because she had left him fifty pounds out of the money she had saved from the earnings he had brought home to her all his working life; and secondly to the head clerk, Mr. Mossop. Such a kind, good——
"Blooker, please!" chanted the office boy, showing round the glass screen.
It was the voice of Fate. Wondering vaguely whether this unusual call to the innermost holy of holies, "Our Firm," presaged dismissal—possibly for punctuating patriotism—he went meekly.
And he returned as he went, to sit down solidly once more to fair general averages. The other clerks waited for a remark, but none came; so the pens scraped and scraped until time was up.
Then, when the office was empty save for himself and Alexander, Mr. Mossop, the head clerk, went over to the latter's desk.
"We can finish that for you, Mr. Blooker," he said; "you have much to do."
"Thank you, sir," came the solemn reply, "I am much obliged to you, sir, but I would rather complete it myself, sir, before going to——" Then decorum gave way—"Mr. Mossop, sir," he continued wildly, "am I on my 'ead or on my 'eels? I can't believe it—and it is all your doing, sir. I feel sure 'Our Firm' wouldn't never have done it if you hadn't spoken for me, and—and—I don't know whether I am on my 'ead or my 'eels!"
As a rule, Alexander Blooker struggled successfully with the accent of Cockaigne, but in times of stress, and especially when using certain set phrases, he adhered to it as if he felt it added forcefulness of expression.
There was a suspicion of a tear in his pale blue eye, and Mr. Mossop felt inclined to brace him up by telling him the truth—namely, that "Our Firm" contemplated in the near future closing the Distant Depôt to the charge of which he had been appointed. Briefly, it did not pay: Germany had got at the markets in the way that Germany has, when competition is old-fashioned. But Alexander Blocker's face came up from the ledger over which it had bent itself for a moment with an expression on it that startled Mr. Mossop out of contemptuous compassion.
"I am going to run this job on my own, sir," he began eagerly, "I'm going to work it on Imperial lines——"
"Hm—we are not at the debating club, Mr. Blooker," interrupted the head clerk; but Alexander was beyond recall; his voice took on the blatant tone of the public speaker.
"Shrinkage in trade follows shortage in piece goods, and our piece goods is short. Germany's ain't. I don't say that 'Our Firm' is as bad as most, but there's a cool quarter yard out of the forty for rubbage border and all that. Besides, mind you, some of 'em goes so far as three-quarters!—a cool—three-quarters!!—and why not? If you t'ike a h'inch, why not t'ike a h'ell!"
This was apparently quite conclusive, for the head clerk hastily changed the subject to the necessary preparations. But two days could be allowed, as the Distant Depôt lay up a river that was only navigable for six months in the year; and four of these were already overpast. It was rather a rush, but the present occupant of the post had unexpectedly accepted the agency of a liquor shop; and the half-yearly market must not find "Our Firm" without a representative. So the first mail—it was a journey of six or seven weeks—must be the one. If any money was wanted——
"Thank you, sir," replied Alexander Blooker, "the fifty pounds of my own that my aunt left me will do for the present. By and by, perhaps——"
He looked mysterious, but he said no more to anyone; unless he whispered something to the glass case illustrating cotton manufactures in the Imperial Institute, which had always had an especial fascination for him. Despite his hurry, he was looking at the peculiarly broad borders of a pile of piece goods and muttering under his breath: "If you t'ike a h'inch, you may as well t'ike a h'ell," when a man of gold lace and buttons found him, after closing time, and hustled him by corridors of Imperial pickle-bottles into the Sahara of Exhibition Road.
Within two months he was—to use his own expression—"taking down the shutters" in a very different desert. For the "Distant Depôt" lay at the "Back o' Beyont." Whereabouts in the World-Circle, matters nothing. Briefly it was one of those advancing tentacles of civilisation boasting the Mission House, the Dry Goods Store or two, and the Whisky Shop, which, carry, between them, civilisation to the aboriginal. Beyond it lay desolation, except for a single telegraph wire which spanned the void towards the west, instead of following the tortuous curves of the river (now sinking into sandbanks), which after a long course south-eastward eventually found itself at the same goal—the seaboard. There was no town to speak of; only a cluster of leaf-huts, besides the Mission House and Chapel, the two Stores and the Liquor Shop. And these were so close clustered that to Alexander Blooker, when he rose to look out over his new world on the morning after his arrival, it seemed as if the bell which was being rung from the Chapel was a general invitation to pray, and buy, and drink.
But it was a pretty little place. A real oasis in the surrounding desert of sands, and almost bewilderingly green amidst thickets of banana trees.
A tall, fat man showed in the verandah of the opposition.
"Guten Morgen, mein Freund," he called, with superb indifference. "I gif you welcome."
That was doubtless Franz Braun, the German rival, and Alexander Blooker hated him at sight; but he kept his dignity.
"The same to you, sir," he replied stiffly. "I trust trade is good."
"It is goot for me," remarked Franz Braun with an air for which Alexander Blooker could have kicked him. That being impossible, owing to their relative sizes, the little man relieved his bellicose feelings by beginning on "'Twas in Trafalgar Bay." It still had for him the charm of novelty to be able to beat time when and where he chose.
"Mein Gott!" shouted Franz Braun excitedly, over the way. "Was für eine Stimme! Wunderbar!"
It was the voice that did it. But for it the armed neutrality of the past between the rival firms might have remained in the future; as it was, an hour afterwards Alexander Blooker was politely, but steadily, refusing to sing a second to the "Wacht am Rhein," although Franz Braun (who had an equally good high tenor, after the fashion of tall, burly men), wept on his shoulder and called him "Brüderlein."
"You must to the pastor-house this evening," sighed the big creature at last. "Fräulein Anna, who is to the Pastor Schmidt daughter, will make you sing. She is my Verlobte. I will to her be married, but she will make you sing."
Nevertheless, neither her yellow hair nor her blue eyes beguiled Alexander Blooker from his fixed determination; but they sang together for half the night, and the memory of Fräulein Anna's soaring soprano, as the notes of "Oh! for the wings of a dove," floated into the hot air, was with him as, despite the lateness of the hour, he set all in readiness for the morrow. Since on the next day's doings much depended; for it was the yearly market-day, on which all the native traders from far and near came to buy goods. Alexander Blooker, in fact, had hurried his doongah up the sinking river, so as to reach the Distant Depôt in time for it. His last task was the undoing of one of the small bales which throughout their journey had been the objects of his special care.
"If you t'ike a h'inch, you may as well t'ike a h'ell," he murmured, as he cut the packing-threads by the dim light—for he had refused to use the "Made in Germany" lamp of his predecessor. Then, with a sigh of satisfaction, he held up the top one of the hard-pressed pile of printed cotton handkerchiefs.
"That ought to fetch 'em," he said admiringly. Certainly it might have "fetched" anything and everything. To use heraldic terms, the field of the kerchief was gules argent, and azure, arranged in saltire—otherwise a Union Jack. An escutcheon of pretence bore the Queen's head regardant, while quarterly, en surtout, were—On the first, gules, three lions passant, or, for England. On the second, or, a lion rampant within a double tressure flory, counter flory, gules, for Scotland. On the third, azure, or a harp or, stringed argent, for Ireland. On the fourth? Well!—Why the fourth field should have been charged with specimens from a pack of cards, and a frothing pot of beer, Alexander Blooker did not know. It was a blot on the scutcheon, no doubt; but two days had not sufficed for the printing of a special design, and this was the best he had been able to find. Besides, in a measure, it was true. There was no blinking the fact that even British civilisation was apt to bring gambling and drinking with it.
The next day, the whole place was full up with native traders and natives generally. The first sight of them made Alexander Blooker wonder why they were so eager for piece goods, considering how little of them they wore! But then he had hardly realised that beyond that northerly desert lay a huge tract of densely populated, almost unknown land.
Trade was brisk over the way at Franz Braun's store. The cheap German muslins, guaranteed full length and packed in convenient, carriageable size, went off like smoke; and it was not until the best lots had gone that a trader thought it worth while to give a perfunctory glance at Alexander Blooker's consignments. Then his eye fell instantly on the heraldic handkerchiefs.
"Sell—how much?" he asked.
Alexander Blooker shook his head. "They are not for sale, sir," he replied loftily. "They are a gift. An Imperial gift from Her Gracious Majesty the Queen of England. Everyone as buys forty yards of English stuff has one of them given in—free, gratis, and for nothin'. Him as buys two, has three; and so on—much the same as parcel post rates."
It took two interpreters to bring home this admixture of patriotism and progressive bribery to the limited brains of purchasers, but when it did find its way into their understanding the effect was marvellous. Before the sun set Alexander Blooker had to conceal his last bale of handkerchiefs against the year which must elapse before he could get a new supply.
"So! mein Freund," said Franz Braun, with a good-natured laugh. "It is well; but it is not trade!"
"It will be trade," replied little Alexander stoutly. "I am going to work this job on Imperial lines."
It grew to be a joke in this Distant Depôt, as it had been in the City office, where the yellow fog lay on the windows like cotton wool; but here Mr. Blooker had liberty to beat time to anything he choose. And it was surprising how the natives took to him. He must have spent a good deal of his fifty pounds on the purchase of medicines, for his morning dispensary soon outrivalled Pastor Schmidt's, who, in truth, was growing a bit old for the work. He had lost his wife of late years, his daughter was betrothed to Franz Braun (who had a promise of a post elsewhere), and the hearts of all three held hope of change in the near future which hindered much enthusiasm in the present. Not that there had ever been much of it in their lives; even the old missionary had gone on his way coolly, if conscientiously.
Alexander Blooker, on the contrary, was always at fever heat. He managed to transfer some of his ardour even through the lengthy mail to "Our Firm," so that when the river route reopened, a double consignment of dry goods took advantage of the water. The last penny, too, of the fifty pounds had gone, through Mr. Mossop's agency, in handkerchiefs of brand new design, more heraldic, more patriotic than ever, and guiltless of cards. Perhaps Alexander Blooker felt that, so far as he was concerned, British civilisation was bringing no evil in its train.
And it was not. It was curious, indeed, to see how the Distant Depôt had improved in tone. Franz Braun, who, deprived by the difficulty of carriage of sufficient lager beer to satisfy him, had taken to overmuch whisky instead, now, greatly to the delight of his Verlobte, satisfied his thirst on home-made gingerpop, brewed by a recipe of Alexander's aunt, while the old pastor gave in with smiling acquiescence to the appropriation by Alexander Blooker of what might be called "parochial work." In fact, there was some talk of building another shanty as a parish hall; for the little man was distinctly churchy and liked things in order. A temperance league and a band of hope had, combined with an enlarged liver, made the liquor storekeeper take leave home; and Alexander having offered to run the business until another man could come out, was now conducting it with an odd mixture of conscience and commerce.
So the eve of the next yearly market came round, and Alexander, in a fervour of Imperialism, actually climbed up the telegraph-post which stood in one corner of his compound, and nailed a pocket-handkerchief to it flag-wise.
"So!" called Franz Braun from over the way, half-jocularly, half-vexedly. "The patrol will at you haf damages when he returns."
For that single wire which sped seawards from north to south was patrolled at intervals by a staff of engineers from the former.
"He has paid his last visit for the cool season," said Alexander knowingly, "so there it can stay, if it likes, for the next four months, at any rate."
"I wish that to me came the same certainty of liking," growled Franz Braun; "but, see you, the Herr Papa ails, and the Verlobte wishes him to the Homeland to take, and I would also go if I could."
A vague alarm showed on Alexander Blocker's face. "And leave me here alone? I'm glad you can't."
The idea, however, stuck in his brain. Supposing he were left alone, what would he do?
After he had arranged everything to his liking for the morrow, this idea of perfect solitude kept him from sleep, and he strolled out with a pipe to quiet his nerves in the desert.
What would he do if he were left alone? A certain elation mixed with his natural dread. He walked, and walked, scarcely thinking out the question, only feeling it in that big heart of his. He had instinctively followed the telegraph-line himself, so as to be sure of not losing his way, but now he started at the sight of a solitary figure before him, visible in the moonlight, advancing to him and keeping the same bee-line, swiftly, yet stumblingly, with a pause as for a few seconds' rest at each post. It was someone who was ill, or very, very tired.
A woman, a native woman! He could hear her voice now in her pauses. Always the same words mumbled mechanically over and over again.
"Save me, Queen-of-the-handkerchiefs! Save me——"
He knew enough of the language now to understand so much, and he waited, watching her curiously.
Across the last gap she stumbled towards him, gave one surprised look at him, and—with a vague effort at the same words, as if he had been a telegraph-post—sank down in a dead faint.
She was quite a slip of a girl, and after a time she came to herself; but she was so exhausted that it was past grey dawn when Alexander Blooker managed to get her back to the telegraph-post in the corner of his compound; and to this she clung pertinaciously, much to his annoyance, for he wanted to get her out of the way and find out who she was, and what she wanted, before the native traders began to turn up.
His remonstrances, however, were in vain. Her only reply was a murmured, incoherent repetition of her first appeal.
"Save me, Queen-of-the-handkerchiefs!"
And every time she said it Alexander Blooker experienced a patriotic thrill down his back. He felt that she must at all costs be saved—but from what?
The dawn grew from grey to gold.
"Gott im Himmel!" laughed Franz Braun, coming down very early because of something he had forgotten. "Mein Alexander mit a Mädchen! Ach! fie!"
"Stop your silly jaw and find out what she is wanting!" cried Alexander Blooker fiercely, "or help me to get her into the shanty before the traders come."
"Mein Brüderlein,'" replied Franz Braun solemnly, "when you have so long as me been in savage places, you will not-to-redress-women's-wrongs learn."
Alexander Blooker swelled visibly. "That sentiment is made in Germany, sir. She has appealed to that"—he pointed to the flag pocket-handkerchief on the telegraph-post which was weaving in the breeze of dawn—"and, by George! she shall have protection!"
There was nothing more to be said, not even when some of the traders, coming on the scene, recognised the girl as the daughter of a powerful chief in the northern land who would be certain to give trouble were she harboured by the Distant Depôt. It would be better to send her back in their charge. How she had found her way so far was a mystery; she must have followed the telegraph-posts day by day, have slept in their shadow night by night.
Some vague, confused sense of the poetry of this—night after night sleeping all unconsciously, as it were, under the flag of England, day after day following the course of light to freedom, rose in Alexander's throat and half-choked him.
"She shall stay," he said. "Let her father come to fetch her; if he is in the right, he shall have her."
"My dear sir," quavered old Pastor Schmidt, "he will not time for explanation give. I was in a to-be-compared position once. I will not be so again. I will take my daughterling away. I will go. There is no good in staying to be massacred when pension has become due."
It was all to no purpose. Alexander Blooker stood firm. The utmost he would do was to write a conciliatory letter for the traders to give on their return to the girl's father, saying that his daughter had been handed over to the charge of a suitable matron, and that he might have her again if adequate explanations were tendered to Her Gracious Britannic Majesty's representative at the Distant Depôt. And here the great temptation of his life came to Alexander Blooker. He would have loved to sign himself "Consul C.M.G." No one would be the wiser. But the sense of duty was strong within him and he refrained.
This being so, Pastor Schmidt incontinently determined not to brave the certainty, as he deemed it, of coming trouble. His Society in the West was prepared for his possible return. The details of how the work could be carried on by a native deacon during the six months before a new pastor could arrive were all settled. Nothing but a half-conscious feeling that to retire would be to sign his warrant of dismissal from what had been to him his life, had kept him hitherto from decision. Now, the river was falling fast; they must take their chance of escape while they could get it.
And Franz Braun? After two days of moody helping to pack his Verlobte's belongings, he came to say, not without a certain tremble in his voice—
"Brüderlein, I also go—so far, anyhow—my firm said so much a month ago—to-night thou wilt be alone."
There was not much time for Alexander Blooker to realise his position until, as the cool of the night came on, he stood by the last little landing-stage on the river, watching the Noah's Ark boat as it punted its way slowly through the network of sand-banks.
Behind him, as he stood, flared the red glories of the setting sun; in front of him the long stretches of sand, the winding gleams of the shrinking river were fast losing each other in the purple-blue shadows of coming night. From the lessening speck of the boat as it drifted downwards on the current came half-regretful, half-joyful farewells. The native congregation assembled in full force sent after it wailing outcries; but Alexander Blooker was silent, save for one brief "Good-bye, Fräulein Anna! Good-bye, Pastor Schmidt!-Good-bye, Franz Braun!"
The sliding shadow of the boat had disappeared into the oncoming night for his short-sighted eyes long before the still-savage congregation lost it, but he stood staring on where it had been long after they had gone home contentedly. Then he turned suddenly. The red had almost faded from the sky. Only low down on the horizon lay a band of what Ruskin held to be the highest light—pure vermilion—and against it lie could see the telegraph-post, with a black speck that must be the pocket-handkerchief of England flying at its peak.
He drew a long breath. For the first time in his life Alexander Blooker felt that he was not a slave.
Six months after, the first doongah of the season punted and sailed up the river again. The Distant Depôt was deserted; but there was no sign of disorder in it. The English flag still flew from the telegraph-post. The Pastor's house, which Alexander Blooker had been implored to occupy and keep in order, looked, save for the dust which always gathered from the desert, as if he must have been there but a few days before. The garden was ablaze with flowers. The clusters of native huts had disappeared, and in their place neat streets of low wattle and dab dwellings converged outwards from quite an imposing edifice with "Church Hall" marked on it conspicuously. The liquor-shop had disappeared. Franz Braun's dry-goods-store was closed, and the British one removed to a portion of the central building.
The little Mission Chapel also was utterly changed—the seats removed to make room for clean matting on which the native congregation could squat; everything Western of of Western symbolism had been swept away, and in their place, ingeniously adapted to their present purpose, were things held sacred by the natives. Here an English school had evidently had its quarters, for copy-books headed in a neat hand: "If you take an inch, you may as well take an ell," were found there. Also a few chapters of the New Testament written out in the same handwriting.
The tiny cemetery behind the chapel, surrounded on three sides by banana thickets, remained unaltered, save that, just under the east window, three of the heraldic pocket-handkerchiefs were pegged to the ground in an oblong.
What had happened?
The yearly market-day brought vague, inconsistent rumours from the mouths of many merchants.
Nothing was known for certain. The "Lord-of-Handkerchiefs" had remained, of course. It was said that the chief had come for his daughter. Nothing had happened. Only the Handkerchief-Lord had, as they might see, built palaces.
He was a Great Chief. The people simply would not live without him when he died. So, at least, they had said as they came through the villages beyond the desert on their way north. How long ago? Ah! not long; they were afraid, see you, of the new gentlemen. They preferred to begin afresh elsewhere. That would doubtless be his grave at the back of the chapel. He was a great loss to the country. No one gave handkerchiefs away as he did.
So the Distant Depôt had to go on its way without further details. Only the trades of Alexander Blooker's short rule remained, and the new inhabitants who soon gathered to fill the trim walls and dab houses, benefited by them.
One day, however, when almost a year had gone by, the new pastor found that the oblong of handkerchiefs in the cemetery, instead of being worn and faded by sun and rain, was, apparently, brand new.
Someone must have renewed it in the night. And on the top of it, written out in wobbly round-hand, was the last copy Alexander Blooker had set—
"If you take an inch, you may as well take an ell."
From which the Distant Depôt inferred that it was his death-day.
* Copyright, 1909, by Flora Annie Steel, in the United States of America.