The Mountain of Fears/The Bamboula
FROM the deck of the ship the night seemed split into three zones of darkness: the vague water, with its elusive surface sheen; the heavier murk of the land, which was not black, but a deep tone of color impalpable from lack of light; then the sky, which was all that was left, and rested prone upon the other two, with no intermediary separation.
I leaned on the rail and tried to pick out the features of the land; a pale band of beach crept out of the opacity, and it seemed to me that I could see dark splotches where the compèche was piled. Now and then a light would spark out and disappear, in many cases its swinging motion proving it to be a torch carried in some black fist. A thin land breeze had sprung up, and it brought off the scent of the damp earth, whiffs of wood smoke, and now and then the heavy fragrance of the stephanotis. Deeper in the gloom tossing hills threw their rough shoulders against the opaque sky.
Suddenly, from a shadowy recess in the black land there arose the steady beat of a drum—a pulsing, cavernous sound, measured in rhythmic time, neither loud nor fast; a patient sound, yet a note impalpable in quality, insistent and seeming like the throbbing heart-beat of the savage island sleeping under the black mantle of the night.
There came an alert step on the deck behind me, and a throaty voice, with the hint of a German accent, remarked at my shoulder:
It was Dr. Leyden who spoke—a shipmate whom I had met the day we both went aboard at Demerara. He had just come down the Essequibo, after three months' orchid-hunting in the bush; an interesting man, who was by profession what one might call a "market-naturalist." By that I mean that he was one of these not ultra-scientific collectors who can tell a rare specimen when they see it and who do the outdoor work of the "closet naturalist," in whose place they get the fever, and to whom they are ready to sell fame at so much per bone, or bug, or plant. He had been everywhere, barring the populous communities, and was at home with all primitive peoples. "No, Doctor," he said to me one day, "I speak very few languages, no more than nine or ten, but I am acquainted with a great many dialects!" He could acquire an ordinary savage dialect in about a month.
"What is it?" said I, in answer to his remark. "A dance?"
"Perhaps—it sounds like it. There are but few lights yonder in the village and there are torches moving on the mountain-side. Wait—let us see."
Just below us a shore-boat was hanging to the staging at the foot of the accommodation ladder, waiting, no doubt, to take some visitors ashore. Leyden called down to them in Créole, asking if there was to be a dance that night. One of the men replied somewhat sulkily that there was not.
"A minute," said Leyden, turning to me. He slipped below, and directly I heard what appeared to be the voice of a Haytian stevedore coming from one of the freight-ports. A boatman in the bow replied guardedly, and for a few minutes there was a conversation in low tones. Soon it ceased, and Leyden rejoined me.
"There is to be a dance," said he, "but it is a small affair."
"Was that you talking from below?" I asked.
"Yes. I stood back in the shadow, and the fellow thought that he was speaking with one of the black gang. They do not like to discuss the bamboula with leblancs."
"Your imitation was extraordinary. If I had not suspected what you were up to I could have sworn that it was one of the Haytian boatmen talking. You must have lived in this country."
"It was but three months, and that several years ago. I came here to catch snails. There was an experience—a thing odd and uneven. It is possible that you would be interested—listen!" He held up one hand.
From out of the illusive velvety depths that marked the contours of the tumbling hills came monotonously the "tom-tom-tom-tom-tom-tom-tom," now rising with the puff of the land breeze, waning slightly, yet unvarying as the swing of a pendulum. With it came the night smells of flowers drenched in dew and the mouldy reek of the tropic woods.
"Smell it!" said Leyden. He leaned both elbows on the rail and dropped the butt of his cigar into the black water, where it drowned with a spiteful little hiss. "The 'bamboula'—the smell of the trees and the stephanotis—ach, how it seems as if it were last night! That bamboula, with its torn-tom-tom! First it is quaint, then it is a nuisance, then irritating irritating, then fascinating, and last of all it maddens. To think that such a people should have learned the secret of repeated concussions on a single group of brain-cells——"
"You have heard it before?" I interrupted, for I knew all of this he was telling me and wanted his story.
"Yes. It was when I was here five years ago looking for snails. I was crossing on a French boat, and the second day out I met the Doctor and Madame Fouchère. He was a Haytian, a marabout, an Adonis carved out of jet, for you know that breed are of a type magnificent and hold their fineness of skin and feature far into advanced age. He was an intelligent man, highly educated and skilled in his profession. I learned afterwards that he was the left-handed son of a former President by a marabout woman—one of the usual cases of placage of those high in official circles. Fouchère had been educated in France, and after talking with him for a while one forgot that he was black; yet I will confess to a sense of shock when he presented me to madame.
"She might easily have passed for pure French. I fancy that I was the only person aboard who could see the outcrop of African—or, to be polite, Haytian. She was charming in manner and appearance, inclined to be fair, with blue eyes and that dusky blonde hair which will defy any pedigree. Her face was pretty, rather piquant, and her figure svelte and full of grace. Altogether she was most attractive and not lacking in a certain chic, but there was a furtive expression about her eyes like that which I have noticed in the eyes of a trained lioness.
"I talked with the Fouchères many times during the voyage, and learned that since their marriage they had lived in Paris and were returning to Hayti for the first time. Madame, it appeared, although Haytian by birth, had been sent to a convent school in France when a mere child and had not visited her native country since then.
"The day after our arrival in New York we sailed for Hayti by the Dutch mail. By this time I had grown to know them quite well. A very decent fellow, Fouchère; different from the average educated Haytian—but, then, he was of quite a higher type. On parting at Port-au-Prince he made me promise to visit them before I left the island."
Leyden paused and shifted his position, leaning back against an awning stanchion and hooking the fingers of one hand over the bolt-rope above his head. The night had darkened, for a heavy cloud-bank had drifted across to shroud that part of the sky where the late moon would rise. It welded to itself the dim, broken outline of the mountain-tops and gave to the sable contour of the land the sinister aspect of looming almost to the zenith—and all the while from somewhere just beneath the surface came the hollow, rhythmic beat of the bamboula.
"Enough to drive one loi," muttered Leyden.
I heard a rustling from the shore-boat lying at the staging. The crew were softly picking up their oars.
"They are getting restless, those fellows below. They cannot stand it long, this night and that noise. Ho! they are shoving off without their fares." He leaned over the rail and hailed the boatman in Créole.
"Ou ça v'aller?" he called, with a trace of irony. They paid no attention.
"Attention, mon cher! Ou ça v'aller??" he called, peremptorily.
"Ca ou dit!" growled one of the men, sulkiiy.
"Côté bamboula la?" called Leyden. They began to row again, without answering, but it seemed to me that I caught a mutter which sounded like "nère vous écrasse!"
Leyden chuckled. "Like master, like man in this savage country," he remarked, absently. "But I was telling you about Fouchère. When I had got my snails and a beetle or two I remembered my promise to Fouchère and looked him up. He had a nice place, for Hayti, up at La Coupe. I sent word that I was coming the day before, and one of his servants came down the mountain on horseback with a note from Madame expressing herself as charmed. I went up the following forenoon. You know what the journey is from Port-au-Prince to La Coupe: six miles of steady upward strain by two emaciated, dying ponies, along a road which the rains have made the dry bed of a torrential cataract; a half-wrecked surrey fastened together with ropes, two of the wheels on the wrong side before, the bush turning in the hub of one of them and screaming like a soul in torment; bad sights and bad smells at every hand, and all about you scenery which seems almost as divine as the Garden of Paradise.
"When finally I arrived, feeling like the pea in a tin whistle, the Fouchères were awaiting me; and when Madame led me through the house to the verandah in the rear, whence one got the full magnificence of the view of the green valley stretching away to Port-au-Prince, the sparkling blue of the bay, the vivid green of the mountains rising behind Bisoton, and far in the distance the cloud-capped island of Gonave, I felt amply repaid for the sun and the dust and other trials of the trip up.
"Our dejeuner was very good, though, like even the best in Hayti, falling just a little short of being clean, and later in the day Dr. Fouchère ordered his ponies saddled, and we rode higher up the mountain to a point whence we were able to enjoy a magnificent view of the bay on one side and the big lakes which form part of the geographical boundary between Hayti and Santo Domingo on the other.
"We dined at six, for the Haytians retire early when they retire at all. After dinner, as we sat upon the verandah with our cigars, I became conscious of a certain lack of repose on the part of both my host and hostess. Madame was obviously making an effort to be at ease, yet all of the time it seemed to me that she was under a certain tension; alert, expectant and a little restive—as one listens for a summons—or fears that perhaps it may have passed unobserved. Dr. Fouchère was also distrait, and several times I noticed that he turned his head sharply to one side, as if striving to catch some hidden sound.
"It was such a night as this—dark, still, partly clouded, but with stars and a late moon. At times there would be a flare of lightning in the south, but the five o'clock shower had come and gone and there would be no more rain. I was narrating an experience in Java, and they appeared to be interested; then, as I talked on, there came pulsing up from the valley beneath the slow, measured beat of a bamboula.
"I heard a rustle from the chaise-longue occupied by Madame; the dull glow at the end of Dr. Fouchère's cigar blazed suddenly bright, then died away again.
"I went on with my story, but all of the time that wretched drum was sounding its even, tireless beat, and, although a good way off, there was something insistent about the noise which refused to be ignored. As I talked on, it began to set a time for my speech, and I found myself unconsciously trying to adjust it to my words, or, more properly, to adjust my words to it. Some people have a more distinct perception of time and rhythm, just as some have a keener musical ear, and I have both. The result was that before long I began to get a bit confused, missed the point of my anecdote and finished lamely and with some anger.
" 'Will that fellow never finish beating that drum?' I demanded impatiently of my host. Of course, I had heard such instruments before during my sojourn in the country, and had often noticed the children thumping them in the daytime, so that the sound had no especial significance for me.
"The lighted end of Dr. Fouchère's cigar suddenly glowed again, then he remarked: 'I am afraid that noise will go on all night, Dr. Leyden. I understand that the peasants are having one of their dances to-night.' He slightly emphasized the word peasants.
" 'The bamboula?' I asked, curiously, for, of course, I knew of the rites attendant upon voodoo worship, although I had never witnessed them.
" 'Yes,' he answered; 'one of my servants told me this evening that there was to be a dance to-night. This relic of paganism is one of the curses of our country, Dr. Leyden. Although we whites have done our best to discountenance it, it still persists.'
"Unlike most Haytians of the better class, who pretend to a black aristocracy socially superior to the white, Dr. Fouchère always referred to himself as white, although a blacker man never walked in the full blaze of the equatorial sun. No doubt this was due to his prolonged residence among the white race.
" 'Is the affair, then, as bad as it is painted?' I inquired, for I had heard some very somber stories of the bamboula.
"He hesitated for an instant, and in the pause my ear caught the click of Madame's little slipper tapping the floor to the time of the distant drum.
" 'It is primitive,' replied my host. 'A virile people do not forget in a day the customs of centuries.' He paused again, and, as before, I heard the click-click of Madame's slipper marking the beat of the drum.
" 'Perhaps Dr. Leyden is fatigued and would wish to retire,' she suggested. 'One rises early——'
" 'Indeed,' I protested, 'I am accustomed to sleep but little, but pray do not let me keep you and Dr. Fouchère from your repose.' To tell the truth, the thought of lying on a bed and counting the strokes of that infernal drum was terrifying to me.
"There was another brief pause, but in the interval I heard Fouchère's fingers softly tapping the rail in concert with the drum and the slipper of Madame."
Leyden paused and stared into the viscid water beneath. The land breeze was fanning steadily now; the regular pulses of sound had swelled in volume, but the interval was unchanged.
He continued, without looking up. "'Derrière mornes, gagner mornes,' as the Haytian proverb has it," he sighed. "But I did not guess what was behind their solicitude for my comfort. Fouchère politely denied any wish to retire, and Madame said that she would wait a little longer before asking to be excused.
" 'Come, we will smoke a fresh cigar,' said Fouchère, presently. He clapped his hands, but no servant appeared.
" 'The rascals are all out,' he said, apologetically. 'If you will pardon me, I will go myself.'
"I turned to Madame. 'Do you not find some of these customs rather terrifying?' I asked; 'and this country, with its glaring sunlight and impenetrable shade, its rank, exuberant, primordial peoples——' I heard her give a short gasp in her throat; then she turned to me, bringing her white face, with its delicate features and great, luminous eyes, close to mine.
" 'They live!' she answered, in a low, fierce voice. 'They live, and feel, and their blood runs——'
"She sank back, and at this moment Dr. Fouchère returned and offered me a cigar, which I took thankfully, for I wanted to drown the sensual smell of plant and fern wafted from the woods beneath and the maddening odor of the stephanotis growing in the garden at our feet. If he had offered me strong drink, cognac, absinthe, or even opium, I might have taken it, too, for there was something in the darkness of the night that blinded the reason and voices in the soft air and scent-laden breeze that called insidiously to the senses; and all the while droned on the amphorous note of the drum, though now it seemed to come from the inside, impelling one to fervid action.
" 'Those fools will dance and drink and revel to-night,' growled Fouchère, 'and to-morrow there will not be one in the village fit to stand upon his feet.'
" 'Then,' said I, with an attempt at jocuarity, 'they may seek your professional advice.'
" 'No,' he muttered, 'they will go to the ——'—the priest—the arch-devil
"There was a swift rustle, and Madame had leapt to her feet and was pacing the verandah with clinging, cat-like steps. I arose.
" 'I am fatigued from sitting still,' she explained, with a light but nervous laugh. 'See, the moon is rising.'
"I glanced toward the east and saw a dull yellow glow before which the low stars paled. Madame permitted herself another turn of the verandah, and as she passed the banded shaft of light which smote through the jalousies from the illuminated room I noticed that her slim fingers were closing and opening as if- she were in pain. Her light footsteps fell in unison with the beat of the bamboula.
"My host and I talked on different things, and still Madame paced back and forth, and every time she passed the barred zone of light I saw the white fingers writhing in and out, and at times clutching the light fabric of her skirt in a grip that left it creased and seamed—and still the drum beat on and on. Fouchère's manner of speech had changed; his statements were short and arbitrary, as if challenging contradiction; his chair had come down to all four legs, and he sat bolt upright, tense, together, as if prepared to spring upward at a bound. As the light over the mountain glowed brighter I could see the silhouette of his straight back against the sky, as straight and cleanly cut as one of the posts of the verandah.
"Soon Madame paused in her promenade, and, walking to the rail, gazed at the glowing light in the sky, and as she stood, the drum, partially drowned before by her light step and the swish of her skirts, welled out resonantly. I glanced at her curiously. It was still too dark to distinguish her features, but a naturalist, or, more properly, perhaps, a collector, can see things to which better eyes than his are blind, and it seemed to me that I caught a swift quiver as it flashed across her mobile face. Suddenly she turned.
" 'I think that I shall beg to be excused,'she said, in a low voice. 'The heat of the day has fatigued me, and the night air is cool and promises refreshing sleep. Would not Monsieur wish also to retire?'
"Dr. Fouchère arose as if to show me to my room. I had no desire to go to bed, for I did not think I could sleep; but, following the line of least resistance, I went.
"Lying on my bed, with that old and jaundiced moon peering through the window and the whole earth wrapped in the stillness of utter space, the bamboula, which had never ceased, seemed pounding at the portals of my brain. Have you ever, after a day of almost superhuman physical exertion—say a long march through the jungle carrying a double pack—lain too tired to sleep and listened to your overtaxed heart pounding its pulse against your ear-drums? No? Well, it is hard to say what else that drum was like. It appeared, too, to have grown louder, although the time continued to be exactly the same.
"Before long I dozed a little, but the drum beat on, weaving weird and distorted pictures. I saw the stark, whirling figures glistening ebony-red in the lurid firelight, the outer circle of fantastic shadows gyrating in a wider arc; the flash of flames between the circling shapes—others partly hidden—watching from the black hollows between the buttressed boles of the trees. The old, old rites—bursting out in this civilized era like embryonic cells in the adult—cancer-cells—you understand, Doctor. Later on, the sickly yellow moon, high in the zenith, its pale light quenching that of the dying embers of the fire and waning itself before the dawn. The things it looked down upon—the heaving figures of the devotees—and all about the pure, sweet peace of the tropic night!
" 'Tom - tom - tom - tom- tom - tom - tom - tom,' went the drum, and then I awoke with a shiver and began to dress. I stepped to the window for added light, and other noises than those of the drum welled up from the valley beneath. Air was stirring, and it blew through my jalousies and filled the room with the smell of the stephanotis.
" 'Quietly as a cat I slipped down the stairs and out into the night. Not a sound, not a flicker of light came from any of the little houses in the village. I followed the road down the mountain for a way, and then, as I am a tracker and the moon was well up, I found a path which others had taken since the dew. It skirted the hill, then dipped abruptly into the jungle.
"It was easy to guess its course, for with my bushman's education I saw that many persons had traveled that trail since sunset. Down it went, twisting and turning, this way and that: but all the time the beat of the drum, though muffled by the heavy foliage, was growing nearer and nearer.
"It was dark in the jungle, but the moon was up, and there were open spaces here and there. The smell of the smoke—and another smell—were in the air, and I was growing wary and looking for sentries, when my eye was caught by something white hanging to a thorn. I loosed it and held it in a moon-ray—and recognized a fragment of the gown worn that night by Madame Fouchère."
Leyden stopped speaking, then began to hum a little German doggerel. Down below the visitors were saying good-night, and I could hear the men kissing each other on their thick lips. "Ah, mon cher!" they kept saying. "Oh—oh, mon cher!—Oh, m'cher!" Then there would be a rattle of very good Parisian French, because the better classes pride themselves upon their elegance of speech.
"And then?" said I, presently, to Dr. Leyden. He threw out his hands with a Teutonic gesture of disgust.
"Ach!—then I went back, of course. I found a muddy spot in the open, just to make sure, and I saw that Fouchère had passed also. He wore the latest French boots—Madame was still in her high-heeled French slippers at twenty francs the pair."
He turned to me with a languid air. "One does not spy upon one's host and hostess during their religious devotions, you know. You understand, Doctor. Those things are not quite—shall we say dignified? Besides—by the way, have you a cigar, or shall I ring? Ah, thanks! As I was about to say, the thing had lost its—its glamour. Madame was too nearly white. It was the primitive element that had so strongly appealed to me—not the hyper-æsthetic. One need not go to Hayti for that. Fouchère belonged at the party, perhaps—but Madame . . .
"No, I went back, and the sound of a bamboula has never since been able to strike a sympathetic chord in me—but I detest the odor of the stephanotis."