The Arm-chair at the Inn/Chapter 8

VIII
CONTAINING SEVERAL EXPERIENCES AND
ADVENTURES SHOWING THE WIDE CONTRASTS IN LIFE

NOW it began I do not remember, for nothing had led up to it except, perhaps, Le Blanc’s arrival for dinner half an hour late, due, so he explained, to a break in the running gear of his machine, most of which time he had spent flat on his back in the cold mud, monkey-wrench in hand, instead of in one of our warm, comfortable chairs.

No sooner was he seated at my side and his story told than we fell naturally to discussing similar moments in life when such sudden contrasts often caused us to look upon ourselves as two distinct persons having nothing in common each with the other. Lemois, whose story of the stolen Madonna the previous night had made us eager for more, described, in defence of the newly launched theory, a visit to a Swiss chalet, and the sense of comfort he felt in the warmth and coseyness of it all, as he settled himself in bed, when just as he was dozing off a fire broke out and in less than five minutes he, with the whole family, was shivering in a snow-bank while the house burned to the ground.

“And a most uncomfortable and demoralizing change it was, messieurs—one minute in warm white sheets and the next in a blanket of cold snow. What has always remained in my mind was the rapidity with which I passed from one personality to another.”

Brierley, taking up the thread, described his own sensations when, during a visit to a friend’s luxurious camp in the Adirondacks, he lost his way in the forest and for three days and nights kept himself alive on moose-buds and huckleberries.

“Poor grub when you have been living on porter-house steak and lobsters from Fulton Market and peaches from South Africa. Time, however, didn’t appeal to me as it did to Lemois, but hunger did, and I have never looked a huckleberry in the face since without the same queer feeling around my waistband.”

Appealed to by Herbert for some experiences of my own, I told how this same realization of intense and sudden contrasts always took possession of me, when, after having lived for a week on hardtack, boiled pork, and plum duff, begrimed with dust and cement, I would leave the inside of a coffer-dam and in a few hours find myself in the customary swallow-tail and white tie at a dinner of twelve, sitting among ladies in costly gowns and jewels.

“What, however, stuck out clearest in my mind,” I continued, “was neither time nor what I had had to eat, but the enormous contrasts in the color scheme of my two experiences: at noon a gray sky and leaden sea, relieved by men in overalls, rusty derricks, and clouds of white steam rising from the concrete mixers; at night filmy gowns and bare shoulders rose pink in the softened light against a strong relief of the reds and greens of deep-toned tapestries and portraits in rich frames. I remember only the color.”

At this Herbert lighted a fresh cigar and, with the flaming match still in hand, said quietly:

“While you men have been talking I have been going over some of my own experiences”—here he blew out the match—“and I have a great mind to tell you of one that I had years ago which made an indelible impression on me.”

“Leave out your ‘great mind,’ Herbert,” cried Louis—“we’ll believe anything but that—and give us the story—that is, Le Blanc, if you will be so very good as to move your very handsome but slightly opaque head, so that I can watch the distinguished mud-dauber’s face while he talks. Fire away, Herbert!”

“I was a lad of twenty at the time,” resumed Herbert, pausing for a moment until the unembarrassed Le Blanc had pushed back his chair, “and for reasons which then seemed good to me ran away from home, and for two years served as common sailor aboard an English merchantman, bunking in the forecastle, eating hardtack, and doing work aloft like any of the others. I had the world before me, was strong and sturdily built, and, being a happy-hearted young fellow, was on good terms with every one of the crew except a dark, murderous-looking young Portuguese of about my own age, active as a cat, and continually quarrelling with every one. When you get a low-down Portuguese with negro blood in his veins you have reached the bottom of cunning and cruelty. I’ve come across several of them since—some in dress suits—and know.

“For some reason this fellow hated me as only sailors who are forced to live together on long voyages know how to hate. My bunk was immediately over his, and when I slid out in the morning my feet had to dangle in front of his venomous face. When I crawled up at night the same thing happened. We worked side by side, got the same pay, and ate the same grub, yet I never was with him without feeling his animosity toward me.

“It was only by the merest accident that I found out why he hated me. He blurted it out in the forecastle one night after I had gone on deck, and the men told me when I dropped down the companion-way again. He hated me because I brushed my teeth! Oh!—you needn’t laugh! Men have murdered each other for less. I once knew a man who picked a quarrel at the club with a diplomat because he dared to twist his mustache at the same angle as his own; and another—an Austrian colonel—who challenged a brother officer to a mortal duel for serving a certain Johannesburg when it was a well-known fact that he claimed to own every bottle of that year’s vintage.

“I continued brushing my teeth, of course, and at the same time kept an eye on the Portuguese whose slurs and general ugliness at every turn became so marked that I was convinced he was only waiting for a chance to put a knife into me. The captain, who studied his crew, was of the same opinion and instructed the first mate to look after us both and prevent any quarrel reaching a crisis.

“One night, off Cape Horn, a gale came up, and half a dozen of us were ordered aloft to furl a topsail. That’s no easy job for a greenhorn; sometimes it’s a pretty tough job for an old hand. The yard is generally wet and slippery, the reefers stiff as marlin-spikes, and the sail hard as a board, particularly when the wind drives it against your face. But orders were orders and up I went. Then again, I had been a fairly good gymnast when I was at school, and could throw wheels on the horizontal bars with the best of them.

“The orders had come just as we were finishing supper. As usual the Portuguese had opened on me again; this time it was my table manners, my way of treating my plate after finishing meals being to leave some of the fragments still sticking to the bottom and edge, while he wiped his clean with a crust of bread as a compliment to the cook.

“The mate had heard the last of his outbreak, and in detailing the men sent me up the port ratlines and the Portuguese up the starboard. The sail was thrashing and flopping in the wind, the vessel rolling her rails under as the squall struck her. I was so occupied with tying the reefers over the canvas and holding on at the same time to the slippery yard, that I had not noticed the Portuguese, who, with every flop of the sail, was crawling nearer to where I clung.

“He was almost on top of me when I caught sight of him sliding along the foot-stay, his eyes boring into mine with a look that made me stop short and pull myself together. One hand was around the yard, the other clutched his sheath knife. Another lunge of the ship and he would let drive and over I’d go.

“For an instant I quavered before the fellow’s hungry glare, his tiger eyes fixed on mine, the knife in his hand, the sail smothering me as it flapped in my face, while below were the black sea and half-lighted deck. Were he to strike, no trace would be left of me. I was a greenhorn, and it would be supposed I had missed my hold and fallen clear of the ship.

“Bracing myself, I twisted a reefer around my wrist for better hold, determined, if he moved an inch nearer, to kick him square in the face. But at that instant a sea broke over the starboard bow, wrenching the ship fore and aft and jerking the yards as if they had been so many tent-poles. Then came a horrible shriek, and looking down I saw the Portuguese clutching wildly at the ratlines, clear the ship’s side, and strike the water head-foremost. ‘Man overboard!’ I yelled at the top of my lungs, slid to the deck, and ran into the arms of the first mate, who had been watching us and who had seen the whole thing.

“Some of the crew made a spring for the davits, I among them. But the mate shook his head.

“‘Ain’t no use lowerin’,’ he said. ‘Besides, he ain’t worth savin’.’

“That night I had to crawl over the dead man’s empty berth; his pillow and quilt were just as he had left them, all tumbled and mussed, and his tin tobacco-box where he had laid it. Try as I would as I lay awake in my warm bunk and thought of him out in the sea, and my own close shave for life, I could not get rid of a certain uncanny feeling—something akin to the sensation as that of which Lemois was speaking. Only an instant’s time had saved me from the same awful plunge—his last in life. I never got over the feeling until we reached port, for his berth was left untouched and his tin tobacco-box still lay beside his pillow. Even now when a sailor or fisherman pulls out an old tin box—they are all pretty much alike—or cuts a plug with a sheath knife, it gives me a shudder.”

“Served the brute right!” cried Louis. “Very good story, Herbert—a little exaggerated in parts, particularly where you were so absent-minded as to select the face of the gentleman for your murderous kick, but it’s all right: very good story. I could freeze you all solid by an experience I had with an Apache who followed me on my way to Montmartre last week, but I won’t.”

“Give it to us, Louis!” cried everybody in unison.

“No!”

“Well, why not?” I demanded.

“Because he turned down the next street. I said I could, and I would if he’d kept on after me. Your turn, Brierley. We haven’t heard from you since you kept school for crows and wild ducks and taught them how to dodge bird shot. Unhook your ear-flaps, gentlemen; the distinguished naturalist is about to relate another one of his soul-stirring adventures—pure fiction, of course, but none the less entertaining.”

Before I could reply, Lemois, who had followed the course of the discussion with the keenest interest, interrupted with a deprecating shrug of his shoulders, his fingers widened out.

“But not another bird story, if you please, Monsieur Brierley. We want something deeper and stronger. We have touched upon a great subject to-night, and have only scraped the surface.”

Herbert leaned forward until he caught Lemois’ eye.

“Say the rest, Lemois. You have something to tell us.”

“I! No—I have nothing to tell you. My life has been too stupid. I am always either bowing to my guests or making sauces for them over Pierre’s fire. I could only tell you about things of which I have heard. You, Monsieur Herbert, can tell us of things with which you have lived. I want to listen now to something we will remember, like your story of the cannibal’s wife. Almost every night since you have been here I go to bed with a great song ringing in my ears. You, Monsieur Herbert, must yourself have seen such tragedies in men’s lives, when in the space of a lightning’s flash their souls were stripped clean and they left naked.”

Herbert played with his fork for a moment, threw it back upon the cloth, and then said in a decided tone:

“No—it is not my turn; I’ve talked enough to-night. Open up, Le Blanc, and give us something out of the old Latin Quartier—there were tragedies enough there.”

“Only what absinthe and starvation brought—and a ring now and then on the wrong girl’s finger—or none at all, as the case might have been. But you’ve got a story, Herbert, if you will tell it, which will send Lemois to bed with a whole orchestra sounding in his ears.”

Herbert looked up.

“Which one?”

“The fever camp at Bangala.”

Herbert’s face became instantly grave and an expression of intense thought settled upon it. We waited, our eyes fixed upon him.

“No—I’d rather not, Le Blanc,” he said slowly. “That belongs to the dead past, and it is best to leave it so.”

“Tell it, Herbert,” I coaxed.

“Both you and Le Blanc have heard it.”

“But Lemois and the others haven’t.”

“Got any cannibals or barbecues in it, Herbert?” inquired Louis.

“No, just plain white man all the way through, Louis. Two of them are still alive—I and another fellow. And you really want it again, Le Blanc? Well, all right. But before I begin I must ask you to pardon my referring so often to my African experiences”—and he glanced in apology around the table—“but I was there at a most impressionable age, and they still stand out in my mind—this one in particular. You may have read of the horrors that took place at Bangala in what at the time was known as the fever camp, where some of the bravest fellows who ever entered the jungles met their deaths. Both natives and white men had succumbed, one after another, in a way that wiped out all hope.

“The remedies we had, had been used without effect, and quinine had lost its power to pull down the temperature, and each fellow knew that if he were not among those carried out feet foremost to-day, and buried so deep that the hyenas could not dig him up, it was only a question if on the morrow his own turn did not come. A strange kind of fear had taken possession of us, sick or well, and a cold, deadening despair had crept into our hearts, so great was the mortality, and so quickly when once a man was stricken did the end come. We were hundreds of miles from civilization of any kind, unable to move our quarters unless we deserted our sick, and even then there was no healthier place within reach. And so, not knowing who would go next, we awaited the end.

“The only other white man in the country besides ourselves was a young English missionary who had taken up his quarters in a native village some two miles away, in the low, marshy lands, and who from the very day of his arrival had set to work to teach and care for the swarms of native children who literally infested the settlement. Many of these had been abandoned by their parents and would have perished but for his untiring watchfulness. When the fever broke out he, with the assistance of those of the natives whom he could bribe to help, had constructed a rude hospital into which the little people were placed. These he nursed with his own hands, and as children under ten years of age were less liable to the disease than those who were older, and, when stricken, easier to coax back to life, his mortality list was very much less than our own.

“With our first deaths we would send for him to come up the hill and perform the last rites over the poor fellows, but, as our lists grew, we abandoned even this. Why I escaped at the time I do not know, unless it was by sheer force of will. I have always believed that the mind has such positive influence over the body that if you can keep it working you can arrest the progress of any disease—certainly long enough for the other forces of the body to come to its aid. So when I was at last bowled over and so ill that I could not stand on my feet, or even turn on my bed, I would have some one raise me to a sitting posture and then I would deliberately shave myself. The mental effort to get the beard off without cutting the skin; the determination to leave no spot untouched; the making of the lather, balancing of the razor, and propping up of the small bit of looking-glass so as to reflect my face properly, was what I have always thought really saved my life.

“What I started to tell you, however, happened before I was finally stricken and will make you think of the tales often heard of shipwrecked men who, having given up all hope at the pumps, turn in despair and break open the captain’s lockers, drinking themselves into a state of bestiality. It is the coward’s way of meeting death, or perhaps it means the great final protest of the physical against the spiritual—a mad defiance of the inevitable—and confirms what some of our physiologists have always maintained—that only a thin stratum of self-control divides us from something lower than the beast.

“We had buried one of our bravest and best comrades, one whose name is still held in reverence by all who knew him, and after we had laid him in the ground an orgy began, which I am ashamed to say—for I was no better than the rest—was as cowardly as it was bestial. My portable india-rubber bath-tub, being the largest vessel in the camp, was the punch-bowl, and into it was dumped every liquor we had in the place: Portuguese wine, Scotch whiskey, Bass’s ale, brown stout, cognac—nothing escaped. You can imagine what followed. Those of our natives who helped themselves, after a wild outburst of savagery, soon relapsed into a state of unconsciousness. The exhilaration of the white man lasted longer, and was followed by a fighting frenzy which filled the night with horror. Men tore their clothes from their backs and, half-naked, danced in a circle, the flickering light of the camp-fire distorting their bodies into demons. It was hell let loose!

“I have got rather a strong head, but one cup of that mixture sent my brain reeling. My fear was that my will would give way and I be tempted to drink a second dipperful and so knocked completely out. With this idea firmly in my mind, I watched my chance and escaped outside the raging circle, where I found a pool into which I plunged my head. This sobered me a little and I kept on in the darkness until I reached the edge of the hill overlooking the missionary’s settlement, the shouts of the frenzied men growing fainter and fainter.

“As I sat there my brain began to clear. I noticed the dull light of the moon shrouded in a deadly fog that rose from the valley below. In its mysterious dimness the wraiths of mist and fog became processions of ghosts stealing slowly up the hill—spirits of the dead on their way to judgment. The swollen moon swimming in the drowsy vapor was an evil eye from which there was no escape—searching the souls of men—mine among them—I, who had been spared death and in return had defied all the laws of decency. The cries of the forest rang in my ears, loud and insistent. The howl of a pariah dog, the hoot of an owl, became so many questions—all directed toward me—all demanding an answer for my sins. Even the hum of myriads of insects seemed concerned with me, disputing in low tones and deciding on my punishment.

“Gradually these sounds grew less insistent, and soft as a breath of air—hardly perceptible at first—there rose from the valley below, like a curl of smoke mounting into the stillness, a strain of low, sweet music, and as suddenly ceased. I bent my head, wondering whether I was dreaming. I had heard that same music, when I was a boy at home, wafted toward me from the open window of the village church. How came it here? Why sing it? Why torture me with it—who would never see home again?

“I struggled to my feet, steadied myself against a cotton-tree, and fixed my eyes on the valley below; my ears strained to catch the first recurrent note. Again it rose on the night air, this time strong and clear, as if a company of angels were singing.

“I knew now!

“It was the hymn my friend the missionary had taught the children.

“I plunged down the hill, stumbling, falling, only to drag myself to my feet again, groping my way through the dense night fog and the tangle of undergrowth, until I reached the small stockade at the foot of the incline which circled the missionary station. Crossing this ground, I followed the path and entered a small gate. Beyond it lay a flat piece of land cleared of all underbrush, and at its extreme end the rude bamboo hut of a hospital filled with sick and dying children.

“Once more on the deadly night air rose the hymn, a note of exaltation now, calling me on—to what I knew not, nor did I care, so it would ease the grinding fear under which I had lived for weeks.

“Suddenly I came to a halt. In the faint moonlight, within a dozen yards of me, knelt the figure of a man. He was praying—his hands upraised, his face lifted—the words falling from his lips distinctly audible. I moved nearer. Before him was a new-made grave—one he had dug himself—to cover the body of a child who had died at sunset.

“It was a moment I have never forgotten, and never want to forget.

“On the hill above me were the men I had left—a frenzied body of bestial cowards who had dishonored themselves, their race, and their God; here beside me, huddled together, a group of forest children—spawn of cannibal and savage—racked with fever, half-starved, many of them delirious, their souls rising to heaven on the wings of a song.

“And then the kneeling man himself!—his courage facing death every hour of the day—alone—no one to help—only his Maker as witness. I tell you, gentlemen, that when I stood beside him and looked into his eyes, caught the tones of his voice, and watched the movement of his fingers patting the last handfuls of earth over the poor little nameless body, and realized that his only recompense lay in that old line I used to hear so often when I was a boy—‘If ye have done it unto the least of these, ye have done it unto me’—I could have gone down on my knees beside him and thanked my Creator that He had sent me to him.”