The Mountain of Fears/Oil and Water
OIL AND WATER
WE were skirting the Island of Margherita, which belongs to Venezuela and produces pearls of small size but excellent quality. I was smoking an after-dinner cigar with Dr. Leyden, the collector, who earns his living by supplying museums and professors with specimens from the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds.
"Did you ever notice, Doctor," he asked, suddenly, "how African blood is curdled by being mixed with Anglo-Saxon?"
"I had always thought," said I, "that African "blood mixes badly with any other."
"No. With Latin blood it will combine like whisky and soda, but the Anglo-Saxon plasma exerts upon it an action like that of alcohol upon albumen——" He paused and absently followed the course of a school of flying-fish that flickered suddenly from the swash along side and skittered away across the dancing waves.
"What suggested this topic to your mind!" I asked, curiously, for we had been discussing the relative naval strength of Germany and the United States.
"That island." He nodded toward Margherita as it rose, rough in outline, but with the misty softness of distance, from the quiet, pink and purple sea. The sun was resting on the rim of the sky-line, and its late rays bathed the lavender slopes of the mountains, that rose in tumbling confusion, their summits blazing with high-lights and their feet already clothed in slanting shadows.
Almost as we watched, the sun slipped under the sea; a multi-colored breeze rippled the face of the water; opalescent flashes sparkled here and there from the sails of the little Portuguese men-of-war, and then the daylight began to wane, as it seemed, in rhythmic beats.
"Odd," continued Leyden, clinging with Teutonic persistency to his theory, conscious but unaffected by his exquisite surroundings. "The popular idea is that an individual having a drop of African blood is more negro than white, even though the white predominates, as in the case of a quadroon or octoroon. This is wrong, Doctor. The white is by far the more potent strain, but, because it is more apt to color the mind than the skin, it is not recognized as such."
"Primitive organizations are usually more virile," I began.
"It is not of the physical but of the mental that I speak?" he interrupted, a bit testily. "It is an undeserved compliment to the negro and an unjust insult to the white to claim that a man having an equal amount of both strains is more black than white, but if the white strain is Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian, then he is both white and black, and all of each, for they will mix no more than oil and water."
He was silent again, and I waited, for I knew that he would presently back his theory by an illustration.
"You know Margherita?" I asked, presently, to help him get under way.
"Better than is necessary," he replied, and was silent again. The swift tropic twilight had almost faded; the slopes of the mountains were somber with mysterious shadows; a huge cumulus cloud, still crimson about its edges, was stranded on the highest peaks, and above it a dainty crescent moon was swiftly growing brighter.
"Let us go aft," muttered Leyden. "These cattle make too much noise!"
He was quite right, for that part of the deck was infested by our fellow-passengers; the Venezuelans were chattering like a band of apes; naked babies lived and moved and had their unclean little beings where they listed; near us a British engineer was arguing in Spanish with a German coffee planter, and behind him an Austrian Jew who had been buying pearls in Margherita was showing his wares to the wife of a Dutch officer returning to Curaçao from a visit to relatives in Surinam, and the two were chattering away in voluble French. Our captain, a fine specimen of a Hollander, was playing chess with an Italian, and the latter was winning, having no ship on the coast and his brain unfilled with plans regarding the securing of a cargo for Havre or Amsterdam. Through the crowd came a stolid Dutch quartermaster, picking his way along the deck to read the taffrail-log, which he did, and returned oblivious to all but the number in his head, as I could see from the moving of his lips as he muttered it over to himself.
Leyden led the way aft to the grating beside the hand steering-gear—the place where we usually held our sessions of swapping experiences. I drew out a fresh cigar and the German lit his big porcelain pipe, an apparatus especially adapted to the needs of the raconteur, as one could take a puff or two and then bank the fire until the next stopping-place.
"It was several years ago," he began. "I had been sent up the Orinoco by an American university, a new one in the Middle West, to which some sausage-maker had given a fortune to build and stock a museum of natural history. The president of the university sent for me; I can never sufficiently admire the capability of this young man for his position. He took me into the museum and showed me at least a kilometer of empty shelves.
"'This place must be chock-a-block by commencement time,' said he. 'I have four men at work in North America, two in South America, four in Europe——' and so on, all over the face of the earth. 'I wish you to take charge of South America, north of the Amazon. There is a man in the Amazon Valley chasing up the fish and reptiles, and one in Peru, out for mammals. You are to get after the birds and insects; of course, if you should happen to run across anything rare that's not in your line just gather it in, anyway.' He glanced at some typewritten memoranda. 'That ought to give us an A1 stock of South American goods, and before we get through if we don't have Putney University bluffed off the boards I'll go to h——'"
Leyden paused, and I heard his china stove splutter as he laughed softly.
"It was a good outfit, that of mine—the best I have ever had. There were four large boats, with a crew of five men in each. As quantity was required as well as quality, I stocked up as if for a trading expedition. You know, Doctor, natives are themselves born collectors; moreover, an observant savage knows a rare thing when he sees it. I have had a large experience with aborigines and know the capriciousness of their tastes. The objects which one would expect to attract them they often positively refuse to look at, while for something else they are ready to do murder. If a man is fortunate enough to strike a popular fancy he can buy a whole tribe. And that is what I proposed to do.
"There was a friend of mine in New York, a German, who had traded on the Orinoco, and from him I formed some ideas in regard to trade-stuffs, for, you see, it was my plan to subsidize some tribe and have them doing my collecting while I stopped in camp to pack and preserve specimens. Before leaving New York I went to one of the big wholesale 'notion' stores on Broadway and explained my needs to the superintendent. The first thing which he showed me—as a joke, I believe—was a consignment of fawn-colored opera hats which had been made for some minstrel company which went into the hands of the receiver before the goods were delivered. They were light and folded compactly, and you know how savages delight in elaborate head-gear. I bought three dozen for twenty dollars. Then I bought two dozen harmonicas and two dozen bright jew's-harps. Of course, I got the usual stock goods—fish-hooks, calico prints, aniline dyes—and finally the proprietor, who had a keen sense of humor, presented me with a case of four dozen old-fashioned iron spectacle frames which contained no glasses. As I wear spectacles myself, I decided that possibly I might set a fashion up in Orinoco, and accordingly took them along."
Leyden paused to turn the forced draught on his tobacco crucible, and in the silence I caught odd snatches of conversation in at least five different tongues: "Tres pien marche—tres pien marche," came the guttural voice of the pearl-buyer. "Cuanto por la picinia," from the Venezuelans, followed by a snigger of that peculiar note that goes with an improper anecdote; a sort of falsetto giggle everyone knows the kind. Then the captain got checkmated, and swore a good, hearty Dutch oath that sounded strangely clean and honest and wholesome as compared to the staccato fragments on all sides.
"I had my outfit towed up as far as Ciudad Bolivar," Leyden continued. "There I found a German named Meyers, who had a big trading station. He told me in confidence that he was planning to call in his loans, as far as he was able, and leave the country, as the rapacity of the new government made it impossible to carry on a profitable trade. He was a man of about fifty, unmarried, and had lived at least half of his life on the river.
"It happened that my lieutenant, a young German-American named Lefferts, had contracted the fever on the way up the river. He was the son of an old friend of mine in New York, and I had promised to take care of him. You have had some experience in tropical malaria, Doctor. Or perhaps it is not malaria; at any rate, one dies in rather an indecent hurry, and quinine is about as efficient as so much flour. I sent the lad back on the steamer and asked Meyers if he knew of any one with whom to replace him—a white man, of course, as it is always well to have at least two white men when there are things to steal.
"When I asked the question it seemed to me that Meyers' pale yellow face took on a more lifelike color.
"'There is a young man in my employ whom you might persuade to go,' said he. 'At present he is keeping the store. I will send for him—but I beg of you not to say a word concerning what I have mentioned in regard to my returning to Germany.'
" 'Certainly not,' said I. Meyers gave an order to a servant, and a few minutes later I saw a broad-shouldered young fellow walking toward the house. Even before he came with in hail his striking resemblance to Meyers told me what he was.
"Few men could have told that he was not a German born, and still fewer that African blood flowed through his veins, but my calling is one which demands close powers of observation. His hair was of a light brown, straight, but utterly without lustre; his blue eyes had a muddy tinge, and his skin, although fair, had that peculiar purple tint of raw meat which one sees in blonds with African corpuscles.
"Meyers explained my needs, and the young man, whose name was Frederick, listened attentively, as I did also, for as the older man talked I became conscious of an odd accent of fear in his voice. Each time that his natural son turned his eyes in his direction Meyers would seem to recoil and his voice would grow faint and irresolute. It did not take me long to see that the trader was in mortal terror of his offspring.
"Frederick listened, as it seemed to me, a bit sulkily, and once or twice gave Meyers a sidelong glance of suspicion, as if he was trying to discover some ulterior motive—which indeed was not lacking, as I very well knew that Meyers would not be there when I returned, and I more than half suspected that Meyers would have left before had it not been for Frederick.
"'What will you pay?' he asked, suddenly, turning to me. I told him.
" 'It is not much,' he observed, in a surly voice.
" 'I am not urging you to come,' I replied, quietly. 'There is the proposition; take it or leave it.'
"'I will let you know in the morning,' said he, and left us with no salutation.
"When he had gone Meyers turned to me with a weak and somewhat frightened smile.
"'I think that he will go,' said he. 'He is fond of money. Of course' he smiled in a way that made me want to kick him 'you understand—the—eh—my position——'
" 'No'—I answered a bit brutally, I fear—'I don't. If you care enough about him to educate him as you appear to have done, why do you want to desert him?'
"He shrank as if I had struck him, and for a moment seemed on the verge of collapse, then recovered and clapped his hands feebly. A yellow girl, in an unclean pinafore which rather emphasized the nakedness beneath, flopped out of the house, holding her frock partly together with one hand, and asked what he wanted.
"'Schiedam and bitters—and bring a water-monkey,' he answered. Rather to my surprise, the wench did as she was bid, favoring me with a rather bold stare.
"It was intensely hot—just before the afternoon shower. We were sitting on the raised veranda of Meyers' house, and down below us the river oozed along, viscid and brown and sticky-looking, like molasses flowing out of a stove-in vat. The clouds were banking up black and forbidding on the other side of the stream, and occasionally a rumble of thunder reached us.
"'You do not know—do not understand,' said Meyers, finally. He raised one skinny, mottled hand to his red, untidy beard, which was getting gray around his muzzle, like an old collie, which, in fact, he somewhat resembled. 'Of course, you see the relationship.' His fingers massaged his lips, a frequent gesture with people of vacillating character. 'I was fond of him as a boy and flattered myself that his negro blood was in no way evident, though his mother was a mulatto—but it was only in process of incubation; it has since shown itself—not physically, but in more sinister manifestations: in the workings of his mind.' He reached for his gin-and-bitters, slopping half of it down the front of his tunic. 'My conscience demands that I should warn you,' he went on, after gulping down his gin and wiping his gray muzzle on his sleeve. 'He is intelligent, and when not crossed his disposition is cheerful and kind—when not crossed, you observe, because it is when his resentment is aroused that the black blood comes all to the surface. At such times he is a fiend incarnate—but there is no reason why in your case any such condition should arise.' He glanced about him nervously, then hunched his chair closer to mine. 'I will tell you some thing that you would never guess,' said he, pushing his face toward mine until his gin-soaked bristles almost touched my cheek. 'At times'—his voice dropped to a whisper—'at times I am actually in fear of him!'
"'Do you think that he will accept my offer?' I asked, leaning backward, for the man was getting momentarily more repugnant to me.
"B'r'r'gh!" Leyden arose suddenly and, walking to the taffrail, spat into the water. "I can see the fellow yet, Doctor," he said, turning to me apologetically. "He—and his unhealthy, exotic surroundings, that were partly luxurious, partly rotten, like one of those beautiful carnivorous orchids with their wonderful tints and charnel-house odor—mauve and carmine outside and inside full of decaying insects. Meyers was rich, and he had a fine house and a beautiful garden, and European delicacies, and books, and objets de vertu, but his setting was poisonous! Man groves and fever and humid heat—and when ever you went in and out of his place you would catch a glimpse of slatternly, half-naked native women poking and prying and getting out of the way. Then he would receive you in a limp, unbuttoned sort of a way—you know the type.
"He was of exceptionally good family and a man of highest education, but I fancied that he had pretty well degenerated——"
Eight bells were struck forward, and Leyden paused to strike a match and hold it to the dial of the log. The Dutch captain came aft at the same moment and held the lighted end of his cigar against the dial. He paused to chat with us for a moment, then went forward to see if the youthful mate on the bridge was still awake, for the strain of work is terrific on the coast, and I doubt if the mates had averaged four hours' sleep in the twenty-four for a week.
"Frederick finally decided to accept my offer," Leyden went on, "and the next day we left Bolivar and proceeded up the river. I explained my project to Frederick, who told me that he knew of a tribe located near the head of one of the tributaries of the Orinoco, whom he had once visited on a trading expedition, and, as I judged that the district should be rich in the material of which I was in search, I decided to visit it.
"It was tedious working up that everlasting stream; hot, too, for there was seldom a breeze, and sometimes it seemed to me that the dome of humidity rising from that sluggish river acted as a lens, or burning glass, to focus upon us the rays of that withering sun. My crews turned out well; a few had the fever, but what surprised me was that Frederick seemed to suffer from the heat more than any of us. Yet he was a useful man—a good driver, although it seemed to me at times that he was unnecessarily abusive.
"Once we entered the tributary, the ——, it was much better, for there we could keep in the shade of the great forest which rose right from the banks. I had already secured quite a number of specimens, and was altogether much satisfied by the way in which things were going.
"One peculiarity of Frederick which I had several times noticed was his personal vanity, a trait which at times made him ridiculous. I had observed the covetousness with which he regarded some of my personal effects, and had given him several trifles, among them a pair of bright yellow leather puttee-leggins, at which his delight was like that of a child. That was the African. The contraptions were too hot for me, too hot for anybody, but Frederick wore them constantly.
"I had not said much about my trading junk, thinking that he might regard me as a business rival, but one evening when we were encamped on the edge of the river I had the case of hats opened, as I had noticed the ants coming out of the crevices and wanted to see if the goods were damaged. I drew one of them out, punched it open, and was examining it, when I happened to glance at Frederick, who was standing near. His eyes were fairly bulging and his loose mouth agape.
"'Why have you those hats, Doctor?' he gasped, in astonishment.
" 'Trading stuff,' I answered. 'Do you think that the natives will like them?'
"' The natives! But they are far too good! They are beautiful hats, such as gentlemen wear in the United States, are they not?'
"I glanced at him curiously, and saw that he was looking at that hat as a starving man might look at a loaf of bread. Really, in spite of Meyers having given him what would be equal to a good high-school education, the man was simple as a savage, and he had never been away from the Orinoco.
"'You appear to admire them,' I answered, carelessly; 'perhaps you might like one yourself. They are light, and should be cool.'
"'His eyes glistened; he could hardly thank me, he was so pleased. I overhauled the lot until I found one that fitted him, and after that he wore it constantly, to the great admiration of the native crews.
"A few days later we found the tribe, with whom I immediately opened negotiations. They were remarkably quick in learning what was required of them, and they were pleased with my goods. Especially they admired Frederick, who went about clad in bright yellow puttees, moleskin trousers, a white drill tunic with a military collar, and a fawn-colored opera hat. It seemed to me that the elegance of his attire had some good effect, for he certainly had great authority with those red Indians—more than I.
"Things went on swimmingly for a while; the savages brought me in specimens of every description; my packing cases were becoming filled, and it looked as if, where my part of it was concerned, Billings University might yet have Putney University 'bluffed off the boards.' The interest of the natives had begun to flag slightly, but I had refreshed it by serving out the harmonicas and jew's-harps —a step which I soon regretted, as my camp became a nightmare of sound. A fortnight later, business becoming slack again, I served out the opera hats, and whipped up their ardor still further by exhibiting the spectacle frames."
Leyden paused and chuckled into his pipe until the sparks spouted from the big china bowl like a roman candle.
"Imagine, Doctor, such a spectacle! I had brought a lot of mosquito netting—pink, it was—and with that I had shown the savages how to make insect. Such a sight! Forty or fifty Indians and bush-niggers, some naked except for a fawn-colored opera hat and a pair of iron spectacles without the lenses; others swathed in flaming calico prints, sitting around my camp blowing into a harmonica or a jew's-harp, or sneaking through the jungle with shrimp-pink butter fly net! The very crocodiles used to crawl out upon the banks and laugh! And the natives all so proud and pleased!
"Then one day a few of them came in and said that they had trapped a maipuri—a kind of water-tapir—over on the other bank. I took a few men and went over to superintend the skinning of the beast, and while so engaged two of the Indians came rushing up to say that a small steamer was coming up the river.
"It turned out to be a little gunboat. Shortly after we left Bolivar there had been one of the semi-annual revolutions, and the new governor of the district, knowing that I had gone up the river, had come up to see what could be made out of me. The matter could have been arranged peaceably enough had it not been for Frederick. On sighting the steamer the fool had promptly armed the boat crews, and when the people from the gunboat landed near the camp they were confronted by an array of twenty half-caste Caribs, armed with bored-out Springfields, and about two-score of Indians, gorgeously equipped with opera hats and spectacles, many of them blowing furiously into harmonicas and all armed with bows and spears.
"Those Indians, as you know, are the most harmless people in the world, but the Caribs will fight, and from all I could learn, for I was across the river at the time, that fool of a Frederick went roaring about, making frenzied orations and challenging the Venezuelans to try to land.
"They did land, and at the first volley Frederick rolled on his back, absolutely unhurt, and howled for mercy. The Caribs retreated firing, and managed to kill one of the people from the gunboat and wound three others. I started back the moment I heard the firing, but by that time my allies had been routed, and I was promptly arrested and put down below in double irons.
"They confiscated all of my specimens, stowing them away on the gunboat, took the boats in tow and down the river we went, leaving the Indians and boatmen in the bush. All of my protests were vain; I had been trading without a license from the government—which did not exist when I went up—in addition to which my people had fired upon government troops, killing a man and wounding others. No appeal to my consul would be permitted; I was no better than a pirate, etc.
"Frederick was chained up near me on the trip down, and he alternated between raving curses at our captors and whimpering like a pup when they cuffed him for it. You see, Doctor, the alien strains were always at work in that man. One minute he was white, the next black. Your French or Spanish or Italian half-caste would have had the cunning that is one of the compensations of the mongrel; but Frederick was in two layers, and sometimes one would be on top and some times the other, but they never mixed. It was even so with his personal appearance, for I noticed that when he was in charge of our men he looked the typical German; his features were aquiline, composed, dignified and showed character. On the other hand, when he was hurt or frightened the actual color of his skin was all that proclaimed him white. His eyes would bulge until the whites were visible all the way around, his forehead crept down, his nose would actually flatten and his lips rolled back in the typical African manner, showing their red linings and the big ivory teeth.
"Before we had reached the mouth of the river he was moping in the usual negro way, and I think that he would have died, as negroes will if their despondency lasts too long, had we been a week longer en voyage."
Leyden ceased speaking and jerked his head irritably toward the fat Italian who had been playing chess with the captain. He had fallen asleep in his chair, and, being a large man, his head had rolled back over the cross bar. A shaft of light from the "" fell upon the expanse of pale, flabby throat, stretched tense by the weight of the pendant head, and as I glanced that way it vibrated with strangling, unwholesome noises.
"Humbert!" called Leyden, in a soft, feminine voice, then quickly turned his back. The sodden mass convoluted; the noises culminated in a strangling snort; one almost heard the vertebræ creak as the strain came upon them; then he sat up and stared about in bewilderment.
"Nothing like the sound of one's name to wake one, especially in a strange place," chuckled Leyden, softly. "I saw on the passenger list that his name was Humbert." He walked to the taffrail and leaned upon it for a moment, watching the glowing disks of phosphorescence whirled to the surface by the screw. They glowed and faded and then glowed again, to merge finally into a broad band of luminous silver that formed the wake.
"They left my specimen cases at Bolivar," he resumed, talking to the rudder, apparently, "and took us around to Cumana, where they lodged us in the nasty little jail which I will show you to-morrow, if we are permitted to land. After a month of it—fever and starvation and vermin" (he scratched his shoulder with a squirm)—"I itch yet when I think of it—after a month of all this I became ennuyé and decided to leave." His voice grew ominously hard. "So one evening I took Frederick and we came away. Frederick was at pretty low ebb by that time, and it took about three days' skillful jockeying to coax his German blood to the top; but eventually I got it there in sufficient volume to make me think that it would remain for an hour or two—and it did!—long enough to enable him to kill one of the devilish nigger guards with his naked hands. I crushed the skull of an other with a jagged piece of rock, and then we wandered down the beach, found a rotten old canoe and paddled out to sea.
"The canoe was half waterlogged, and I knew that it would not carry us very far, so I decided to try and get to Margherita and take our chances on the rest. When the day broke I could just distinguish the outlines of the island, with the usual big cloud hanging over it. We paddled all day long, without seeming to get any nearer; then Frederick grew sulky all at once and threw down his paddle with the remark that he was going to die.
"'You certainly will,' said I, 'unless you keep at work.' I had filled a water-jug that I found in the canoe before we started, but we had nothing to eat since afternoon of the day before, and what we got then was not of a tissue-building character.
"'I am going to die,' Frederick repeated—and then, confound him, he lay down in the bottom of the canoe and did die!"
I grunted—for that seemed to me to be an adequate epitaph for such a person as I fancied Frederick to have been.
"I did not discover it at once," Leyden went on, "but when I did I was rather relieved, as it is harder to share one's nerve with another man than one's food. I slid him over the side of the canoe and kept on with my paddling. Really, Doctor, that day is an absolute blank. About sunset I struck some of the outlying boats of the pearl divers and the next thing that I remember is waking up and finding myself lying in a nasty little hut covered with flies. I think that it was the smell of the shell-heaps on the beach that brought me to life again. But it was odd about that man Frederick, was it not?—and rather illustrates my theory, don't you think?"
"Never mind your theory," said I. "Tell me the rest of the story."
"That was rather odd, too." Leyden permitted himself a few reminiscent puffs. "The chap that rescued me was a French Jew who controlled quite a bit of the pearl-fishing industry on the island. He was clever enough to guess how I came to be floating about in that hollow log, but made no comment at the time. As soon as I was able to get about again, which was in a couple of days, he asked me if I wished to work for him. I declined with thanks, whereupon he said that in that case he felt that duty would compel his handing me over to the authorities. Practically, you see, I was his slave, but there seemed no help for it, so for the time being I took command of one of his larger boats and her crew. He gave me some clothes and my food and that was all.
"In the end I got even. One day, when I had landed my cargo of oysters on the beach and was about to begin opening—for you know the pearl fishers down here open the shells instead of rotting out, as they do in the East—an old native woman who had been squatting near the edge of the pile hobbled over to where I was standing and begged for one of the bivalves to eat. They are not bad, you know. I told her to help herself, expecting, naturally, that she would pick one up at her feet; but instead of that she went around to the other side of the heap and selected one there. This struck me as a bit odd; then, as she hobbled off, it seemed to me that she was in some haste to get away. Acting entirely upon impulse, and with no distinct idea of my motive, I picked up a couple of the oysters and ran after her.
"'Here, mother,' said I, 'take these and give me that one which you have there.'
" 'She favored me with a look which actually reeked with malice, but, as there was no help for it, handed over the oyster. As I took it I saw my employer—or jailer, to be accurate—walking down the beach from his cabin—for he always superintended the opening of the shells, for very obvious reasons, and I had orders never to begin the work until his arrival. He was still some distance off, so, turning my back to him, I whipped out my knife and slit open the mollusk, and there, right on the very lip, was the largest pearl which I have ever seen on Margherita!
"You see, Doctor, when the oysters are thrown down on the beach the heat from the sun and the hot sand often causes them to open an inch or so. This old woman, who had come down, no doubt, with the purpose of begging an oyster to eat, was squatting in front of this especial one, and caught sight of the pearl through the slit between the two shells."
Leyden turned to me suddenly. "What would you have done in such a case, Doctor?"
"Exactly what you did, I fancy," I answered.
"Yes," he replied, slowly; "I was justified. This Frenchman was detaining me through blackmail and forcing me to work like a dog for fear of being turned over to the Venezuelans. I kept the pearl and a week later managed to escape to Curaçao on a schooner. There I sold my pearl for eight hundred dollars, and as soon as I had the money I wrote to the gentleman who had broken up my expedition and offered him five hundred dollars for all my effects delivered to me at Curaçao. They came on the next Dutch steamer and were handed over to me by the captain upon my payment of the money. Three weeks later they were gracing the shelves of the new museum of Billings University and I was on my way to Mexico to collect Aztec relics for the same excellent institution."