The Arm-chair at the Inn/Chapter 3

III
WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO A
CERTAIN COLONY OF PENGUINS

LEMOIS, as was his custom, came in with the coffee. He serves it himself, and always with the same little ceremony, which, while apparently unimportant, marks that indefinable, mysterious line which he and his ancestry—innkeepers before him—have invariably maintained between those who wait and those who are waited upon. First, a small spider-legged mahogany table is wheeled up between the circle and the fire, on which Leà places a silver coffee-pot of Mignon’s best; then some tiny cups and saucers, and a sugar-dish of odd design—they said it belonged to Marie Antoinette—is laid beside them. Thereupon Lemois gravely seats himself and the rite begins, he talking all the time—one of us and yet aloof—much as would a neighbor across a fence who makes himself agreeable but who has not been given the run of your house.

To the group’s delight, however, he was as much a part of the coterie as if he had taken the fifth chair, left vacant for the always late Marc, who had not yet put in an appearance, and a place we would have insisted upon his occupying, despite his intended isolation, but for a certain look in the calm eyes and a certain dignity of manner which forbade any such encroachments on his reserve.

To-night he was especially welcome. Thanks to his watchful care we had dined well—Pierre having outdone himself in a pigeon pie—and that quiet, restful contentment which follows a good dinner, beside a warm fire and under the glow of slow-burning candles, had taken possession of us.

“A wonderful pie, Lemois—a sublime, never-to-be-forgotten pie!” exclaimed Louis, voicing our sentiments. “Every one of those pigeons went straight to heaven when they died.”

“Ah!—it pleased you then, Monsieur Louis? I will tell Pierre—he will be so happy.”

“Pleased!” persisted the enthusiastic painter. “Why, I can think of no better end—no higher ambition—for a well-brought-up pigeon than being served hot in one of Pierre’s pies. Tell him so for me—I am speaking as a pigeon, of course.”

“What do you think the pigeon himself would have said to Pierre before his neck was wrung?” asked Herbert, leaning back in his big chair. “Thank you—only one lump, Lemois.”

“By Jove!—why didn’t I ask the bird?—it might have been illuminating—and I speak a little pigeon-English, you know. Doubtless he would have told me he preferred being riddled with shot at a match and crawling away under a hedge to die, to being treated as a common criminal—the neck-twisting part, I mean. Why do you want to know, Herbert?”

“Oh, nothing; only I sometimes think—if you will forgive me for being serious—that there is another side to the whole question; though I must also send my thanks to Pierre for the pie.”

That one of their old good-natured passages at arms was coming became instantly apparent—tilts that every one enjoyed, for Herbert talked as he modelled—never any fumbling about for a word; never any uncertainty nor vagueness—always a direct and convincing sureness of either opinion or facts, and always the exact and precise truth. He would no sooner have exaggerated a statement than he would have added a hair’s-breadth of clay to a muscle. Louis, on the other hand, talked as he painted—with the same breeze and verve and the same wholesome cheer and sanity which have made both himself and his brush so beloved. When Herbert, therefore, took up the cudgels for the cooked pigeon, none of us were surprised to hear the hilarious painter break out with:

“Stop talking such infernal rot, Herbert, and move the matches this way. How could there be another side? What do you suppose beef and mutton were put into the world for except to feed the higher animal, man?”

“But is man higher?” returned Herbert quietly, in his low, incisive voice, passing Louis the box. “I know I’m the last fellow in the world, with my record as a hunter—and I’m sometimes ashamed of it—to advance any such theory, but as I grow older I see things in a different light, and the animal’s point of view is one of them.”

“Pity you didn’t come to that conclusion before you plastered your studio with the skins of the poor devils you murdered,” he chuckled, winking at Lemois.

“That was because I didn’t know any better—or, rather, because I didn’t think any better,” retorted Herbert. “When we are young, we delude ourselves with all sorts of fallacies, saying that things have always been as they are since the day of Nimrod; but isn’t it about time to let our sympathies have wider play, and to look at the brute’s side of the question? Take a captive polar bear, for instance. It must seem to him to be the height of injustice to be hunted down like a man-eating tiger, sold into slavery, and condemned to live in a steel cage and in a climate that murders by slow suffocation. The poor fellow never injured anybody; has always lived out of everybody’s way; preyed on nothing that robbed any man of a meal, and was as nearly harmless, unless attacked, as any beast of his size the world over. I know a case in point, and often go to see him. He didn’t tell me his story—his keeper did—though he might have done so had I understood bear-talk as well as Louis understands pigeon-English,” and a challenging smile played over the speaker’s face.

“You ought to have stepped inside and passed the time of day with him. They wouldn’t have fed him on anything but raw sculptor for a month.”

Herbert fanned his fingers toward Louis in good-humored protest, and kept on, his voice becoming unusually grave.

“They wanted, it seems, a polar bear at the Zoo, because all zoos have them, and this one must keep up with the procession. It would be inspiring and educating for the little children on Sunday afternoons—and so the thirty pieces of silver were raised. The chase began among the icebergs in a steam-launch. The father and mother in their soft white overcoats—the two baby bears in powder-puff furs—were having a frolic on a cake of floating ice when the strange craft surprised them. The mother bear tucked the babies behind her and pulled herself together to defend them with her life—and did—until she was bowled over by a rifle ball which went crashing through her skull. The father bear fought on as long as he could, dodging the lasso, encouraging the babies to hurry—sweeping them ahead of him into the water, swimming behind, urging them on, until the three reached the next cake. But the churning devil of a steam launch kept after them—two armed men in the bow, one behind with the lariat. Another plunge—only one baby now—a staggering lope along the edge of the floe, the little tot tumbling, scuffling to its feet; crying in terror at being left behind—doing the best it could to keep up. Then only the gaunt, panic-stricken, shambling father bear—slower and slower—the breath almost out of him. Another plunge—a shriek of the siren—a twist of the rudder—the lasso curls in the air, the launch backs water, the line tautens, there is a great swirl of foam broken by lumps of rocking ice, and the dull, heavy crawl back to the ship begins, the bear in tow, his head just above the water. Then the tackle is strapped about his girth, the ‘Lively now, my lads!’ rings out in the Arctic air, and he is hauled up the side and dumped half dead on deck, his tongue out, his eyes shot with blood.

“You can see him any day at the Zoo—the little children’s noses pressed against the iron bars of his cage. They call him ‘dear old Teddy bear,’ and throw him cakes and candies, which he sniffs at and turns over with his great paw. As for me, I confess that whenever I stand before his cage I always wonder what he thinks of the two-legged beasts who are responsible for it all—his conscience being clear and neither crime, injustice, nor treachery being charged against him. Yes, there are two sides to this question, although, as Louis has said, it might have been just as well to have thought about it before. Speak up, Lemois, am I right or wrong? You have something on your mind; I see it in your eyes.”

“It’s more likely on his stomach,” interrupted Louis; “the pigeon may have set too heavy.”

“You are more than right, Monsieur Herbert,” Lemois answered in measured tones, ignoring the painter’s aside. He was stirring his cup as he spoke, the light of the fire making a silhouette of his body from where I sat. “For your father bear, as you call him, I have every sympathy; but I do not have to go to the North Pole to express what we owe to animals. I bring the matter to my very door, and I tell you from my heart that if I had my way there would never be anything served in my house which suffered in the killing—not even a pigeon.”

Everybody looked up in astonishment, wondering where the joke came in, but our landlord was gravity itself. “In fact,” he went on, “I believe the day will come when nothing will be killed for food—not even your dear demoiselle de Cherbourg, Monsieur Louis. Adam and Eve got on very well without cutlets or broiled squab, and yet we must admit they raised a goodly race. I, myself, look forward to the time when nothing but vegetables and fruit, with cheese, milk, and eggs, will be eaten by men and women of refinement. When that time comes the butcher will go as entirely out of fashion as has the witch-burner and, in many parts of the world, the hangman.”

“But what are you going to do with Brierley, who can’t enjoy his morning coffee until he has bagged half a dozen ducks on his beloved marsh?” cried Louis, tossing the stump of his cigar into the fire.

“But Monsieur Brierley is half converted already, my dear Monsieur Louis; he told me the last time I was at his bungalow that he would never kill another deer. He was before his fireplace under the head of a doe at the time—one he had shot and had stuffed. Am I not right, Monsieur Brierley?” and Lemois inclined his head toward the hunter.

Brierley nodded in assent.

“Same old game,” muttered Louis. “Had his fun first.”

“I have been a cook all my life,” continued the undaunted Lemois, “and half the time train my own chefs in my kitchen, and yet I say to you that I could feed my whole clientele sumptuously without ever spilling a drop of blood. I live in that way myself as far as I can, and so would you if you had thought about it.”

“Skimmed milk and hard-boiled eggs for breakfast, I suppose!” roared Louis in derision, “with a lettuce sandwich and a cold turnip for luncheon.”

“No, you upsidedown man! Cheese souffles, omelets in a dozen different ways, stuffed peppers, tomatoes fried, stewed, and fricasseed, oysters, clams——

“And crabs and lobsters?” added Louis.

“Ah! but crabs and lobsters suffer like any other thing which has the power to move; what I am trying to do is to live so that nothing will suffer because of my appetite.”

“And go round looking like a skeleton in a doctor’s office! How could you get these up on boiled cabbage?” and he patted Herbert’s biceps.

“No, my dear Monsieur Louis,” persisted Lemois gravely, still refusing to be side-tracked by the young painter’s onslaughts. “If we loved the things we kill for food as Monsieur Brierley loves his dog Peter, there would never be another Chateaubriand cooked in the world. What would you say if I offered you one of that dear fellow’s ribs for breakfast? It would be quite easy—the butcher is only around the corner and Pierre would broil it to a turn. But that would not do for you gourmets. You must have liver or sweetbreads cut from an animal you never saw and of which, of course, you know nothing. If the poor animal had been a playmate of Mignon’s—and she once had a pet lamb—you could no sooner cut its throat than you could Peter’s.”

Before Louis could again explode, Brierley, who, at mention of Peter’s name had leaned over to stroke the dog’s ears, now broke in, a dry smile on his face.

“There’s another side of this question which you fellows don’t seem to see, and which interests me a lot. You talk about cruelty to animals, but I tell you that most of the cruelty to-day is served out to the man with the gun. The odds are really against him. The birds down my way have got so almighty cunning that they club together and laugh at us. I hear them many a time when Peter and I are dragging ourselves home empty-handed. They know too when I start out and when I give up and make for cover.”

“Go slow, Brierley; go slow!”

“Of course they know, Louis!” retorted Brierley in mock dejection. “Doesn’t a crow keep a watch out for the flock? Can you get near one of them with a gun unless you are lucky enough to shoot the sentry first? You can call it instinct if you choose—I call it reason—the same kind of mental process that compels you to look out for an automobile before you cross the street, with your eyes both ways at once. When you talk of their helplessness and want of common sense, and inability to look out for themselves, you had better lie under a hedge as I have done, the briars scraping your neck, or scrunched down in a duckblind, with your feet in ice water, and study these simple-minded creatures. Explain this if you can. Some years ago, in America, I spent the autumn on the Housatonic River. The ducks come in from Long Island Sound to feed on the shore stuff, and I could sometimes get five—once I got eleven—between dawn and sunrise. The constant banging away soon made them so shy that if I got five in a week I was lucky. On the first of the month and for the first time in the State a new law came into force making it cost a month’s wages for any pot-hunter to kill a duck or even have one in his possession. The law, as is customary, was duly advertised. Not only was it published in the papers but stuck up in bar-rooms and county post-offices, and at last became common gossip around the feeding-ground of the ducks. At first they didn’t believe it, for they still kept out of sight, flying high—and few at that. But when they found the law was obeyed and that all firing had ceased, not a gun being heard on the river, they tumbled to the game as quick as did the pot-hunters. When the shooting season opened the following year, hardly a duck showed up. Those that came were evidently stragglers who rested for a day on their long flight south; but the Long Island Sound ducks—the well-posted ducks—stayed away altogether until, with the first of the month, the law for their protection came into force again. Then, so the old farmer, a very truthful man with whom I used to put up, wrote me, they came back by thousands; the shore was black with them.”

“And you really believe it, Brierley?” Louis’ head was shaking in a commiserating way.

“Of course I believe it, and I can show the farmer’s letter to back it,” he answered, with a wink at me behind his hand; “and so would you if you had been humbugged by them as many times as I have. Ask Peter—he’ll tell you the same thing. And I’ll tell you something else. On the edge of that same village was a jumble of shanties inhabited by a lot of Italians who had come up from New York to work a quarry near by. On Sundays and holidays these fellows went gunning for the small birds, especially cedar birds and flickers, hiding in the big woods a mile away. After these birds had stood it for a while they put their dear little innocent heads together and thought it all out. Women and children did not shoot, therefore the safest place for nesting and skylarking was among these very women and children. After that the woods were empty; the birds just made fools of the pot-hunters and swarmed to the gardens and yards and village trees. No one had ever seen them before in such quantities, and—would you believe it?—they never went back to the woods again until the Italians had left for New York.”

Lemois, having also missed the humor in Brierley’s tone, rose from his place beside the coffee-table, leaned over the young writer, and, with a characteristic gesture, patted him on the arm, exclaiming:

“How admirably you have put it, my dear Monsieur Brierley; I have to thank you most sincerely. Ah! you Americans are always clear and to the point. May I add one more word? That which made these birds so cunning was the fact that you were out to kill them.” Here he straightened up, his back to the fire, and stood with the light of its blaze tingeing his gray beard. “It’s a foolish fancy, I know, but I would have liked to have lived, if only for one day, with the man Adam, just to see how he and Madame Eve and the Noah’s ark family got on before they began quarrelling and Cain made a hole in the head of the other monsieur. I have an idea that the lion and the lamb ate out of the same trough, with the birds on their backs for company—all the world at peace. My Coco rubs his beak against my cheek, not because I feed him, but because he trusts me; he would, I am sure, bite a piece out of Monsieur Louis’ because he does not trust him—and with reason,” and the old man smiled good-naturedly. “But why don’t they all trust us?”

Herbert, who had also for some reason entirely missed Brierley’s humor, fumbled for an instant with the end of a match he had picked from the cloth, and then, tossing it quickly from him as if he had at last framed the sentence he was about to utter, said in a thoughtful tone:

“I have often wondered what the world would be like if all fear of every kind was abolished—of punishment, of bodily hurt, and of pain? Everything that swims, flies, or walks is afraid of something else—women of men, men of each other. The first thing an infant does is to cry out—not from the pain, but from fright—just as a small dog or the cub of a bear hides under its mother’s coat before its eyes are open. It is the ogre, Fear, that begins with the milk and ends with the last breath in terror over the unknown, and it is our fault. Half the children in the world—perhaps three-fourths of them—have been brought up by fear and not by love.”

“How about the lambasting your father gave you, Herbert, when you hooked it from school? ‘Spare the rod and spoil the—’ You know the rest of it. Did you deserve it?”

“Probably I did,” laughed Herbert. “But, all the same, Louis, that foolish line has done more harm in the world than any line ever written. Many a brute of a father—not mine, for he did what he thought was right—has found excuse in those half-dozen words for his temper when he beat his boy.”

“Oh, come, let us get back to dry ground, gentlemen,” broke in Brierley. “We commenced on birds and we’ve brought up on moral suasion with the help of a birch-rod. Nobody has yet answered my argument: What about the birds and the way they play it on Peter and me?” and again Brierley winked at me.

“It’s because you tricked them first, Brierley,” returned Herbert in all seriousness and in all sincerity. “They got suspicious and outwitted you, and they will every time. A beast never forgets treachery. I know of a dozen instances to prove it.”

“Now I think of it, I know of one case, too,” remarked Louis gravely, in the voice of a savant uncovering a matter of great weight; “that is, if I may be allowed to tell it in the presence of the big Nimrod of the Congo—he of a hundred pairs of tusks, to say nothing of skins galore.”

Herbert nodded assent and with an air of surprise leaned forward to listen. That the jovial painter had ever met the savage beast in any part of the world was news to him.

“A most extraordinary and remarkable instance, gentlemen, showing both the acumen, the mental equipment, and the pure cussedness, if I may be permitted the expression, of the brute beast of the field. The incident, as told to me, made a profound impression on my early life, and was largely instrumental in my abandoning the pursuit and destruction of game of that class. I refer to the well-known case of the boy who gave the elephant a quid of tobacco for a cake, and was buried the following year by his relatives when the circus came again to his town—he unfortunately having occupied a front seat. Yes, you are right, the beast forgives anything but treachery. But go on, Professor Herbert; your treatment of this extremely novel view of animal life is most exhilarating. I shall, at the next meeting of the Academy of Sciences, introduce a——

Brierley’s hand set firmly on Louis’ mouth, who sputtered out he would be good, would have ended the discussion had not Lemois moved into an empty chair beside Herbert, and, resting his hand on the sculptor’s shoulder, exclaimed in so absorbed a tone as to command every one’s attention:

“Please do not stop, Monsieur Herbert, and please do not mind this wild man, who has two mouths in his face—one with which he eats and the other with which he interrupts. I am very much interested. You were speaking of the ogre, Fear. Please go on. One of the things I want to know is whether it existed in the Garden of Eden. Now if you gentlemen will all keep still”—here he fixed his eyes on Louis—“we may hear something worth listening to.”

Louis threw up both hands in submission, begging Lemois not to shoot, and Herbert, having made him swear by all that was holy not to open either of his mouths until his story was told to the end, emptied his glass of Burgundy and faced the expectant group.

“We don’t need to go back to the Garden of Eden to decide the question, Lemois. As to who is responsible for the existence of this ogre, Fear, I can answer best by telling you what happened only four years ago on a German expedition to the South Pole. It was told me by the commander himself, who had been specially selected by Emperor William as the best man to take charge. When I met him he was captain of one of the great North Atlantic liners—a calm, self-contained man of fifty, with a smile that always gave way to a laugh, and a sincerity, courage, and capacity that made you turn over in your berth for another nap no matter how hard it blew.

“We were in his cabin near the bridge at the time, the walls of which were covered with photographs of the Antarctic, most of which he had taken himself, showing huge icebergs, vast stretches of hummock ice, black, clear-etched shore lines, and wastes of snow that swept up to high mountains, their tops lost in the fog. He was the first human being, so he told me, to land on that coast. He had left the ship in the outside pack and with his first mate and one of the scientists had forced a way through the floating floes, their object being to make the ascent of a range of low rolling mountains seen in one of the photographs. This was pure white from base to summit except for a dark shadow one-third the slope, which he knew must be caused by an overhanging ledge with possibly a cave beneath. If any explorers had ever reached this part of the Antarctic, this cave, he knew, would be the place of all others in which to search for records and remains.

“He had hardly gone a dozen yards toward it when his first mate touched his arm and pointed straight ahead. Advancing over the crest of the snow came the strangest procession he had ever seen. Thirty or more penguins of enormous size, half as high as a man, were marching straight toward them in single file, the leader ahead. When within a few feet of them the penguins stopped, bunched themselves together, looked the invaders over, bending their heads in a curious way—walking round and round as if to get a better view—and then waddled back to a ridge a few rods off, where they evidently discussed their strange guests.

“The captain and the first mate, leaving the scientist, walked up among them, patted their heads, caressed their necks—the captain at last slipping his hand under one flipper of the largest penguin, the mate taking the other—the two conducting the bird slowly and with great solemnity and dignity back to the boat, its companions following as a matter of course. None of them exhibited the slightest fear; did not start or crane their heads in suspicion, but were just as friendly as so many tame birds waiting to be fed. The boat seemed to interest them as much as the men had done. One by one, or by twos and threes, they came waddling gravely down to where it lay, examined it all over and as gravely waddled back, looking up into the explorers’ faces as if for some explanation of the meaning and purpose of the strange craft. They had, too, a queer way of extending their necks, rubbing their cheeks softly against the men’s furs, as if it felt good to them. The only thing they seemed disappointed in were the ship’s rations—these they would not touch.

“Leaving the whole flock grouped about the boat, the party pushed on to the dark shadow up the white slope. It was, as he had supposed, an overhanging cliff, its abrupt edge and slant forming a shallow cave protected from the glaciers and endless snows. As he approached nearer he could make out the whirling flight of birds, and when he reached the edge he found it inhabited by thousands upon thousands of sea fowl—a gray and white species common to these latitudes. But there was no commotion nor excitement of any kind—no screams of alarm or running to cover. On the contrary, when the party came to a halt and looked up at the strange sight, two birds stopped in their flight to perch on the mate’s shoulder, and one hopped toward the captain with a movement as if politely asking his business. He even lifted the young birds from under their mother’s wings without protest of any kind—not even a peck of their beaks—one of the older birds really stepped into his hand and settled herself as unconcerned as if his warm palm was exactly the kind of nest she had been waiting for. He could, he told me, have carried the whole family away without protest of any kind so long as he kept them together.

“The following week he again visited the shore. This time he found not only the friendly penguins, who met him with even more than their former welcome, but a huge seal which had sprawled itself out on the rock and whose only acknowledgment of their presence was a lazy lift of the head followed by a sleepy stare. So perfectly undisturbed was he by their coming, that both the captain and the first mate sat down on his back, the mate remaining long enough to light his pipe. Even then the seal moved only far enough to stretch himself, as if saying, ‘Try that and you will find it more comfortable.’

“On this visit, however, something occurred which, he told me, he should never cease to regret as long as he lives. That morning as they pushed off from the ship, one of the dogs had made a clear spring from the deck and had landed in the boat. It was rather difficult to send him back without loss of time, and so he put him in charge of the mate, with orders not to take his eyes off him and, as a further precaution, to chain him to the seat when he went ashore. So fascinated were the penguins by the dog that for some minutes they kept walking round and round him, taking in his every movement. In some way, when the mate was not looking, the dog slipped his chain and disappeared. Whether he had gone back to the vessel or was doing some exploring on his own account nobody knew; anyhow, he must be found.

“It then transpired that one of the penguins had also taken a notion to go on a still hunt of its own, and alone. Whether the dog followed the penguin, or the penguin the dog, he said he never knew; but as soon as both were out of sight the dog pounced upon the bird and strangled it. They found it flat on its back, the black-webbed feet, palms up, as in dumb protest, the plump white body glistening in the snow. From its throat trickled a stream of blood: they had come just in time to save any further mutilation. To hide all traces of the outrage, the captain and his men not only carried the dead penguin and the live dog to the boat, but carefully scraped up every particle of the stained snow, which was also carried to the boat and finally to the ship. What he wanted, he told me, was to save his face with the birds. He knew that not one of them had seen the tragedy, and he was determined that none of them should find it out. So careful was he that no smell of blood would be wafted toward them, that he had the boat brought to windward before he embarked the load; in this way, too, he could avoid bidding both them and the seal good-by.

“The following spring he again landed on the shore. He had completed the survey, and the coast lay on their homeward track. There were doubters in the crew, who had heard the captain’s story of the penguins walking arm and arm with him, so he landed some of the ship’s company to convince them by ocular demonstration of its truth. But no penguins were in sight, nor did any other living thing put in an appearance. One of his men—there were six this time—caught a glimpse of a row of heads peering at them over a ridge of snow a long way off, but that was all. When he reached the cave the birds flew out in alarm, screaming and circling as if to protect their young.”

Herbert paused, moved his cup nearer the arm of his chair, and for a moment stirred it gently.

Lemois, whose grave eyes had never wandered from Herbert, broke the silence.

“I should have learned their language and have stayed on until they did understand,” he murmured softly. “It wouldn’t have taken very long.”

“The captain did try, Lemois,” returned Herbert, “first by signs and gentle approaches, and then by keeping perfectly still, to pacify them; but it was of no use. They had lost all confidence in human kind. The peace of the everlasting ages had come to an end. Fear had entered into their world!”