The Arm-chair at the Inn/Chapter 5
IN WHICH THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A
CANNIBAL AND A FREE-BOOTER IS CLEARLY SET FORTH
TO-NIGHT the circle around the table welcomed the belated Le Blanc, bringing with him his friend, The Architect, who had designed some of the best villas on the coast, and whose fad when he was not bending over his drawing-board was writing plays. Marc, to every one’s regret, did not come. After returning with madame to her villa the night of her visit, he had, according to Le Blanc, been lost to the world.
Dinner over and the cigarettes lighted, the men pushed back their chairs; Louis spreading himself on the sofa or great lounge; Brierley in a chair by the fire, with Peter cuddled up in his arms, and the others where they would be the most comfortable; Lemois, as usual, at the coffee-table.
The talk, as was to be expected, still revolved around the extraordinary woman who had so charmed us the night before; Le Blanc expressing his profound regret at not having been present, adding that he would rather listen to her talk than to that of any other woman in Europe, and I had just finished giving him a résumé of her story about the tattooed girl and her sufferings, when Brierley, who is peculiarly sympathetic, let the dog slip to the floor, and rising to his feet broke out in a tirade against all savage tribes from Dyaks to cannibals, closing his outburst with the hope that the next fifty years would see them all exterminated. Soon the table had taken sides, The Architect, who had lived in Nevada and the far West, defending the noble red man so cruelly debauched by the earlier settlers; Le Blanc siding with Brierley, while Lemois and I watched the discussion, Louis, from his sofa, putting in his oar whenever he thought he could jostle the boat, grewsome discussions not being to his liking.
Herbert, who, dinner over, had been leaning back in his chair, the glow of the firelight touching both his own and the two carved heads above him, and who, up to this time, had taken no part in the talk—Herbert, not the heads, suddenly straightened up, threw away his cigarette, and rested his hands on the table.
“I have not been among the savage tribes in lower Borneo,” he said, addressing The Architect; “neither do I know the red Indian as the Americans or their grandfathers may have known him. But I do know the cannibal”—here he looked straight at Le Blanc—“and he is not as black as he is painted. In fact, the white man is often ten times blacker in the same surroundings.”
“Not when they roasted your Belgian friend?” cried Louis, with some anger.
“Not even then. There were two sides to that question.”
“The brown and the underdone, I suppose,” remarked Louis sotto voce.
“No, the human.”
“But you don’t excuse the devils, do you?” broke in Le Blanc. “Their cruelties are incredible. A friend of mine once met a man in Zanzibar who told him he had seen a group of slaves, mostly young girls, who, after being fattened up, were tied together and marched from one of the villages to the other that the buyers might select and mark upon their bodies the particular cuts they wanted.”
“I haven’t a doubt of it. It’s all true,” replied Herbert. “I once saw the same thing myself when I was helpless to prevent it, as I was in hiding at the time and dared not expose myself. Yet I recognized even then that the savage was only following out the traditions of centuries, with no one to teach him any better. We ourselves have savage tastes that are never criticised; to do so would be considered mawkish and sentimental. We feel, for instance, no regret when we wring the neck of a pigeon—that is, we didn’t,” Herbert added with a dry smile, “until Lemois advanced his theories of ‘mercy’ the other night. We still feed our chickens in coops, stuff our geese to enlarge their livers, fatten our hogs until they can barely stagger, and, after parading them around the market-places, kill and eat them just as the African does his human product. Even Lemois, with equal nonchalance, hacks up his lobsters while they are alive or plunges them into boiling water—he wouldn’t dare serve them to us in any other way. The only difference is that we persuade ourselves that our pigs and poultry are ignorant of what is going to happen to them, while the captured African begins to suffer the moment he is pounced upon by his captors.”
“And you mean to tell me you don’t blame these wretches!” burst out Le Blanc. “I’d burn ’em alive!”
“Yes, I am quite sure you would—that is the usual civilized, twentieth-century way, a continuation of the eye-for-an-eye dogma, but it isn’t always efficacious, and it is seldom just. The savage has his good side; he can really teach some of us morals and manners, though you may not believe it. Please don’t explode again—not now; wait until I get through. And I go even farther, for my experience teaches me that the savage never does anything which he himself thinks to be wrong. I say this because I have been among them for a good many years, speak their dialects, and have had, perhaps, a better opportunity of studying them than most travellers. And these evidences of a better nature can be found, let me tell you, not only among the tribes in what is known as ‘White Man’s Africa,’ opened up by the explorers, but in the more distant parts—out of the beaten track—often where no white man has ever stepped—none at least before me. Even among the cannibal tribes I have often been staggered at discovering traits which were as mysterious as they were amazing—deep human notes of the heart which put the white man to shame. These traits are all the more extraordinary because they are found in a race who for centuries have been steeped in superstition with its attendant cruelty, and who are considered incapable even of love because they sell their women.
“You, Le Blanc, naturally break out and want to burn them alive. Lemois, more humane, as he always is, would exercise more patience if he could see anything to build upon. You are both wrong. Indeed, between the educated white man freed from all restraint and turned loose in a savage wilderness, and the uneducated savage I would have more hope of the cannibal than the freebooter, and I say this because the older I grow the more I am convinced that with a great majority of men, public opinion, and public opinion only, keeps them straight, and that when they are far from these restraints they often stoop to a lower level than the savage, unless some form of religion controls their actions. To make this clear I will tell you two stories.
“My first is about a young fellow, a graduate of one of the first universities of Europe. I am not going to preach, nor throw any blame. Some of us in our twenties might have done what that white man did. I am only trying to prove my statement that the cannibal in his cruelties is only following out the instincts and traditions of his race, which have existed for centuries, while the white man goes back on every one of his. I wish to prove to you if I can that there is more in the heart of a savage than most of us realize—more to build upon, as Lemois puts it.
“Some years ago I met, on the Upper Congo, a young fellow named Goringe, of about twenty-four or five, who had a contract with the company for providing carriers to be sent to the coast for the supplies to be brought back and delivered to the several camps, mine among the others. He, like many an adventurer drawn to that Eldorado of adventure, was a man of more than ordinary culture, a brilliant talker, and of very great executive ability. It was his business to visit the different villages, buy, barter, or steal able-bodied men for so much a month, and rush them in gangs to the coast under charge of an escort. On their return the company paid them and him so much a head. There were others besides Goringe, of course, engaged in the same business, but none of them attained his results, as I had learned from time to time from those who had come across his caravans in their marches through the jungle.
“One morning a runner came into my camp with a message from Goringe, telling me that he intended passing within a mile or so of where I was; that he was pressed for time or would do himself the honor of calling upon me, and that he would deem it a great favor if I would meet him at a certain crossing where he meant to rest during the heat of the day. I, of course, sent him word that I should be on hand. I hadn’t seen him for some years—few other white men, for that matter—and I wanted to learn for myself the secret of his marvellous success. When in London he had worn correct evening clothes, a decoration in his button-hole, and was a frequenter of the best and most exclusive clubs—rather a poor training, one would suppose, for the successful life he had of late been leading in the jungle—and it was successful so far as the profits of the home company were concerned. While their other agents would hire ten men—or twenty—in a long march of months, gathering up former carriers out of work, some of whom had served Stanley in his time, Goringe would get a hundred or more of fresh recruits, all able-bodied savages capable of carrying a load of sixty-five pounds no matter what the heat or how rough the going.
“I arrived at the crossing first and waited—waited an hour, perhaps two—before his vanguard put in an appearance. Then, to use one of Louis’ expressions, I ‘sat up and began to take notice.’ I had seen a good many barbaric turnouts in my time—one in India when I was the guest of a maharaja, who received me at the foot of a steep hill flanked on either side by a double row of elephants in gorgeous trappings, with armed men in still more gorgeous costumes filling the howdahs; another in Ceylon, and another in southern Spain at Easter time—but Goringe’s march was the most unique and the most startling spectacle I had ever laid my eyes on, so much so that I hid myself in a mass of underbrush and let the last man pass me before I made myself known.
“The vanguard was composed of some twenty naked men, black as tar, of course, and armed with spears and rawhide shields. These were the fighters, clearing the way for my lord, the white man. These were followed by a dozen others carrying light articles: the great man’s india-rubber bath-tub, his guns, ammunition, medicine-chest, tobacco, matches, and toilette articles—with such portions of his wardrobe as he might choose to enjoy. Separated from the contaminating touch of those in front by a space of some twenty feet and by an equal distance from those behind, came Goringe, walking alone, like a potentate of old. As he passed within a few yards of where I lay concealed I had ample opportunity to study every detail of his personality and make-up. I was not quite sure that it was he; then I got his smile and the peculiar debonair lift of his head. Except that he was fifty pounds heavier, he was the man with whom I had dined so often in London.
“On his head was a pith helmet that had once been white, round which was wound a yard or more of bright-red calico. A dozen strings of gaudy beads bound his throat and half covered his bare chest. After that there was nothing but his naked skin—back and front, as far down as his waist, from which hung a frock of blue denim falling to his knees—then more bare skin, and then his feet wrapped in goat-skins. In his hand he carried a staff which he swung from side to side as he walked with lordly stride.
“His harem followed: thirty girls in single file, dressed in the prevailing fashion of the day—a petticoat of plantain leaves and a string of beads. Each of them carried a gaudy paper umbrella like those sold at home for sixpence. Some of the girls were slim and tall, some fat; but all were young and all bore themselves with an air of calm distinction, as if conscious of their alliance with a superior race. Bringing up the rear was a long line of carriers loaded down with tents, provisions, and other camp equipage.
“When it had all passed I stepped quickly through the forest, got abreast of my lord the white man, and shouted:
“He turned suddenly, lifted the edge of his helmet, threw his staff to one of his men, and came quickly toward me.
“‘By the Eternal, but I’m glad to see you! I was afraid you were going back on me! It was awfully decent in you to come. You didn’t mind my sending for you, did you? I’ve got to make the next village by sundown, and then I’m going up into the Hill Country, and may not be this way again for months—perhaps never. How well you look! What do you think of my turnout?’
“I told him in reply, that it was rather remarkable—about as uncivilized as anything I had ever seen—and was on the point of asking some uncomfortable questions when, noting my disapproval, he switched off by explaining that it was the only way he could make a penny, and again turned the conversation by exclaiming abruptly:
“‘Saw my wives, didn’t you?-every one of them the daughter of a chief. You see, I buy the girl, and so get even with her father, am made High Pan-Jam with the red button and feather, or next of kin to the chief by blood-letting—anything they want. I’m scarred all up now mixing my precious ancestral fluid with that of these blacklegs, and am first cousin to half the cutthroats on the river. Next I start on the carriers, pick ’em out myself, and send ’em down to the agent. The home company is getting ugly, so I hear, and wonder why they owe me so much for the carriers I’ve sent them—pretty near six hundred pounds sterling, now. They think there is something crooked about it, but I’m keeping it up. I’m going down when the row is over and present my bill, and they’ve got to pay it or I’ll know the reason why. Now we’ll have tiffin.’
“I watched his women crowd about him. One spread a blanket for his royal highness to sit on; two or more busied themselves getting the food together; one, parasol in hand, planted herself behind him to shield his precious head from the few sunbeams that filtered through the overhanging leaves, fanning him vigorously all the while.
“With the serving of the meal and the uncorking of a bottle in which he kept what he called his ‘private stock,’ he gave me further details of his methods with the natives. When a chief was at war with another tribe, for instance, he would move into the first village he came to, spread his own tent and those of his wives, post his retainers, and then despatch one of his men to the other combatant, commanding a powwow the next morning. Everybody would come—everybody would talk, including himself, for he spoke Kinkongo and Bangala perfectly. Then when he had patched up their difficulties, he would distribute presents, get everybody drunk on palm wine, and would move on next day with a contribution of carriers from both tribes, adding with a wink, ‘And the trick works every time.’”
Herbert paused for a moment and his lips curled.
“Now there’s a specimen white man for you! To have expressed my disgust of his methods in the way I would have liked to do—and I can be pretty ugly at times—would, under the circumstances, have been impossible, although there was no question in my mind of his cruelty nor of his sublime selfishness. The world was his oyster and he opened it at his leisure. He knew as well as I did what would become of the women when he was through with them—that they would either be sold into slavery or eaten—and he knew, too, how many of those poor devils of carriers would go to their death, for the mortality among them is fearful—and yet none of it ever made the slightest impression on him. Now I could excuse that sort of thing in Tippoo Tib, whom I knew very well. He was a slave-trader and the most cruel ruffian that was ever let loose on the natives; but this man was an Anglo-Saxon, a graduate of a university, speaking French and German fluently, with a good mother, and sisters, and friends; a man whom you could no doubt find to-night perfectly dressed and heartily welcomed in a London club, or in the foyer of some theatre in Paris, for his father has since died and he has come into his property. And yet the environment and the absence of public opinion had reduced him to something worse than a savage, and so I say again, one can excuse a cannibal whose traditions and customs have known no change for centuries, but you cannot excuse a freebooter who goes back on every drop of decent blood in his veins.”
Before any one could reply The Architect was on his feet waving his napkin. “By Jove!” he cried, “what a personality! Wouldn’t he be a hit in comic opera! And think what could be done with the scenery; and that procession of parasols, with snakes hanging down from the branches, and monkeys skipping around among the leaves! Robinson Crusoe wouldn’t be in it—why, it would take the town by storm! Girls in black stockinette and bangles, savages, spears, palms, elephant tusks, Goringe in a helmet and goat-skin shoes! I’ll tell Michel Carré about it the first time I see him.”
“And every one of Goringe’s girls a beautiful seductive houri,” chimed in Louis with a wink at Le Blanc. “You seem to have slurred over all the details of this part of the panorama, Herbert.”
“Oh, ravishingly beautiful, Louis! Half of them were greased from head to foot with palm-oil, and smeared with powdered camwood that changed them to a deep mahogany; all had their wool twisted into knobs and pigtails, and most of them wore pieces of wood, big as the handle of a table knife, skewered through their upper lips. Oh!—a most adorable lot of houris.”
“All the better,” vociferated The Architect. “Be stunning under the spotlights. Tell me more about him. I may write the libretto myself and get Livadi to do the music. It’s a wonderful find! Did you ever see Goringe again?”
“No, but I kept track of him. The Belgian home company went back on their contract, and refused to pay him just as he feared they would; they claimed he didn’t and couldn’t have supplied that number of carriers—the sort of defence a corporation always makes when they want to get out of a bad bargain. This decided him. He made a bee-line for the coast, sailed by the first steamer, brought suit, tried it himself, won his case, got his money and a new contract; took the first train for Monte Carlo, lost every penny he had in a night; went back to Brussels, got a second contract, sailed the same week for the Congo, and when I left Bangala for home had another caravan touring the country—bigger than the first—fitted out with the best that money could buy——”
“Including his wives, of course,” suggested Louis.
“Yes, but not the lot he had left behind,” added Herbert slowly, a frown settling on his brow. “They had long since been wiped out of existence.”
The Architect pounded the table until the glasses rattled. “Superb! Magnificent! That finishes the libretto! Carré shan’t have it; I’ll write it myself! But tell me please, if——”
Lemois opened his fingers deprecatingly, his gaze fixed good-naturedly on the speaker.
“You will pardon me, my dear friend, but Monsieur Herbert is only half through. He is not writing a play; he is introducing us to a higher standard of morals and perhaps of manners. Besides, if you listen you may get a fourth act and a climax which will be better than what you have. He has promised to convince Monsieur Le Blanc, who has not yet said a word, that the savage should not be burnt alive, and to convince me that there is something in that terrible blackamoor worthy of my admiration, even if he does dine on his fellow men. We have yet to hear Monsieur Herbert’s second story.”
“All right, Lemois, but I doubt if it will help our distinguished guest here to complete his scenario; but here goes:
“When I was chief of Bangala Station, circumstances made it necessary for me to make an expedition into the Aruwimi District, inhabited by a tribe now known as the Waluheli—cannibals and typical savages so far as morals and habits were concerned. These people, as I afterward learned, are possessed of great physical strength and are constantly on the war-path, trading among each other between times in slaves, ivory, and native iron ore. They live in huts made of grass stalks and plaited palm-leaves. Manioc is about the only food. This, of course, the women till. In fact, that which protects her from being sold as food is often her value as a worker, for one of their beliefs is that women have no souls and no future state.
“I took with me five carriers and some fifteen fighting men and struck due east. It was the customary outfit, each man carrying sixty-five pounds of baggage, including tent, guns, ammunition, etc. The Aruwimi District, we had heard, was rich in plantains, as well as game, and we needed both, and the fighting men served for protection in case we were attacked, and as food carriers if we were not.
“The first day’s march brought us to a small river, a branch of the larger tributaries of the Upper Congo, which we crossed. Then followed a three days’ march which led us to a hilly country where the villages were few and far between, and although the natives we met on the trail were most friendly—indeed some of their men had helped make up my gangs, two of them joining my escort—no food was to be had, and so I was obliged to push on until I struck a stretch that looked as if the plantains and manioc could be raised. Still further on I discovered traces of antelope and zebra and some elephants’ tracks. Although the villages we passed were deserted, the character of the country proved that at some time in the past both plantains and a sort of yam had been raised in abundance, which led me to believe we could get what we wanted.
“In this new country, too, we met a new kind of native, different from those to whom I had been accustomed, who, on discovering us, crouched behind trees and bunches of tangled vines, brandishing their spears and shields, but making no direct assault. Coming suddenly upon eight or ten warriors in fording a small brook, I walked boldly in among them, shouting that we were friendly and not enemies. They listened without moving and in a moment more my men had cut off their retreat and had surrounded them. Then I discovered that they spoke one of the dialects I knew—the Mabunga—and after that we had no trouble. Indeed, they directed us to their village, where that night my bed was spread in their largest hut. Next day I started bartering and soon had all the provisions we could carry, the currency, as usual, being glass beads and a few feet of brass and copper wire, with some yards of calico for the women and the chief. I should then have turned in another direction, but early the next morning, as I was getting ready to leave, one of my men brought news of an elephant who the night before had been seen destroying their crops. The temptation was too strong—no, don’t laugh, Louis, I have reformed of late—and I dropped everything and started for the game. Meat for our camp, and especially for the friendly village, would be a godsend, and, taking five men, I was soon on his track. They are strong-legged and quick movers, these elephants, and a few hours’ start makes it difficult for a white man to catch up with them. All that day I followed him, never getting near him, although the spoor, stripped saplings, and vines showed that he was but a few miles ahead. At nightfall I gave him up, sent my men back, and, to avoid fording a deep stream, made a short détour to the right. The sun had set and darkness had begun to fall. And it comes all at once and almost without warning in these parts.
“My men being out of reach, I pushed ahead until I struck a narrow path twisting in and out of the heavier trees and less tangled underbrush. Here I came upon an open place with signs of cultivation and caught sight of another unexpected village, the first I had run across in that day’s march. This one, on nearer approach, proved to be a collection of small huts straggling along the edge of what at last became a road or street. Squatting in front of these rude dwellings sat the inhabitants staring at me in wonder—the first white man they had ever seen.
“It was a curious sight and an uncanny one—these silent black savages watching my advance. One man had thrown his arm around his wife, as if to protect her; she crouching close to him—both naked as the day they were born. I used the pair in a group I exhibited two or three years ago which bore the title, ‘They Have Eyes and See Not’—you may perhaps remember it. I wanted to express the instinctive recognition of the savage for what he feels dimly is to conquer him, and I tried as well to give something of the pathos of the surrender.
“There was no movement as I approached—no greeting—no placing of yams, coarse corn, and pieces of dried game and dried meat on the ground at their feet, especially the flesh of animals, in preparing which they are experts, a whole carcass being sometimes so dried. They only stared wonderstruck—absorbed in my appearance. Now and then, as I passed rapidly along so as to again reach my men before absolute darkness set in, I would stop and make the sign of peace. This they returned, showing me that their customs, and I hoped their language, was not unlike what I understood.
“When I was abreast of the middle of the village a sudden desire for a pipe—that solace of the lone man—took possession of me and I began fumbling about my clothes for my matchbox. Then I remembered that I had given it to one of my carriers to start our morning blaze. I now began to scan the dwellings I passed for some signs of a fire. My eye finally caught between the supports of the last hut on the line the glow of a heap of embers, and huddled beside it the dim outline of two figures—that of a man and a woman.
“For a moment I hesitated. I was alone, out of the hearing of my followers, and darkness was rapidly falling. As long as I kept on a straight course I was doubtless safe; if I halted or, worse yet, if I entered his hut without invitation, the result might be different. Then the picture began to take hold of me: the rude primeval home; the warmth and cheer of the fire; the cuddling of man and wife close to the embers, the same the world over whether cannibal or Christian. Involuntarily my thoughts went back to my own fireside, thousands of miles away: those I loved were sitting beside the glowing coals that gave it life, a curl of smoke drifting toward the near hills.
“I turned sharply, walked straight into the hut, and, making the sign of peace, asked in Mabunga for a light for my pipe.
“The man started—I had completely surprised him—sprang to his feet, and, looking at me in amazement, returned my greeting in the same tongue, touching his forehead in peaceful submission as he spoke. The woman made neither salutation nor gesture. I leaned over to pick up a coal, and, to steady myself, laid my hand on the woman’s shoulder.
“It was cold and hard as wood!
“I bent closer and scanned her face.
“She was a dried mummy!
“The man’s gaze never wavered.
“Then, he said slowly: ‘She was my woman—I loved her, and I could not bury her!’”
Herbert’s dénouement had come as an astounding surprise. He looked round at the circle of faces, his eyes resting on Le Blanc’s and Lemois’ as if expecting some reply.
The older man roused himself first.
“Your story, Monsieur Herbert,” he said with a certain quaver in his voice, “has opened up such a wide field that I no longer think of the moral, although I see clearly what you intended to prove. When your climax came”—and his eyes kindled—“I felt as if I were standing on some newly discovered cliff of modern thought, below which rolled a thick cloud of superstition rent suddenly by a flash of human sympathy and love. Below and beyond stretched immeasurable distances fading into the mists of the ages. You will excuse the way I put it—I do not mean to be fanciful nor pedantic—but it does not seem that I can express my meaning in any other way. Mon Dieu, what a lot of cheap dancing jacks we are! We dig and sell our product; we plead to save a criminal; we toil with our hands and scheme with our heads, and when it is all done it is to get a higher place in the little world we ourselves make. Once in a while there comes a flash of lightning like this from on high and the cloud is rent in twain and we look through and are ashamed. Thank you again, Monsieur Herbert. You have widened my skull—cracked it open an inch at least, and my heart not a little. Your savage should be canonized!”
And he left the room.