Jack London’s short stories in the Post concerned adventurers, criminals, working men, society folks, and — sometimes — wild animals. In “The Hobo and the Fairy,” from 1911, London tells the heartwarming tale of a homeless man and a bright-eyed, middle class child as they form an unlikely bond on a warm October’s day.
Published on February 2, 1911
He lay on his back. So heavy was his sleep that the stamp of hoofs and cries of the drivers from the bridge that crossed the creek did not rouse him. Wagon after wagon, loaded high with grapes, passed the bridge on the way up the valley to the winery, and the coming of each wagon was like an explosion of sound and commotion in the lazy quiet of the afternoon.
But the man was undisturbed. His head had slipped from the folded newspaper and the straggling, unkempt hair was matted with the foxtails and burs of the dry grass on which it lay. He was not a pretty sight. His mouth was open, disclosing a gap in the upper row where several teeth at some time had been knocked out. He breathed stertorously, at times grunting and moaning with the pain of his sleep. Also, he was very restless, tossing his arms about, making jerky, half-convulsive movements and at times rolling his head from side to side in the bum. This restlessness seemed occasioned partly by some internal discomfort and partly by the sun that streamed down on his face, and by the flies that buzzed and lighted and crawled upon the nose and cheeks and eyelids. There was no other place for them to crawl, for the rest of the face was covered with matted beard, slightly grizzled, but greatly dirt-stained and weather-discolored.
The cheekbones were blotched with the blood congested by the debauch that was evidently being slept off. This, too, accounted for the persistence with which the flies clustered around the mouth, lured by the alcohol-laden exhalations. He was a powerfully built man, thick-necked, broad-shouldered, with sinewy wrists and toil-distorted hands. Yet the distortion was not due to recent toil, nor were the calluses other than ancient that showed under the dirt of the one palm upturned. From time to time this hand clenched tightly and spasmodically into a fist, large, heavy-boned and wicked-looking.
The man lay in the dry grass of a tiny glade that ran down to the tree-fringed bank of the stream. On each side of the glade was a fence of the old stake-and-rider type, though little of it was to be seen, so thickly was it overgrown by wild blackberry bushes, scrubby oaks and young madrofia trees. In the rear a gate through a low paling fence led to a snug, squat bungalow, built in the California Spanish style and seeming to have been compounded directly from the landscape of which it was so justly a part. Neat and trim and modestly sweet was the bungalow, redolent of comfort and repose, telling with quiet certitude of someone that knew and that had sought and found.
Through the gate and into the glade came as dainty a little maiden as ever stepped out of an illustration made especially to show how dainty little maidens may be. Eight years she might have been, and possibly a trifle more, or less. Her little mist and little black-stockinged calves showed how delicately fragile she was; but the fragility was of mould only. There was no hint of anemia in the clear, healthy complexion or in the quick, tripping step. She was a little, delicious blonde, with hair spun of gossamer gold and wide blue eyes that were but slightly veiled by the long lashes. Her expression was of sweetness and happiness; it belonged by right to any face that was sheltered in the bungalow.
She carried a parasol, which she was careful not to tear against the scrubby branches and bramble-bushes as she sought for wild poppies along the edge of the fence. They were late poppies, a third generation, which had been unable to resist the call of the warm October sun.
Having gathered along one fence she turned to cross to the opposite fence. Midway in the glade she came upon the tramp. Her startle was merely a startle. There was no fear in it. She stood and looked long and curiously at the forbidding spectacle and was about to turn back when the sleeper moved restlessly and rolled his head among the burs. She noted the sun on his face and the buzzing flies; her face grew solicitous and for a moment she debated with herself. Then she tiptoed to his side, interposed the parasol between him and the sun and brushed away the flies. After a time, for greater ease, she sat down beside him.
An hour passed, during which she occasionally shifted the parasol from one tired hand to the other. At first the sleeper had been restless; but, shielded from the flies and sun, his breathing became gentler and his movements ceased. Several times, however, he really frightened her. The first was the worst, coming abruptly and without warning. “How deep! How deep!” the man murmured from some profound of dream. The parasol was agitated, but the little girl controlled herself and continued her self-appointed ministrations.
Another time it was a gritting of teeth, as of some intolerable agony. So terribly did the teeth crunch and grind together that it seemed they must crash into fragments. A little later he suddenly stiffened out. The hands clenched and the face set with the savage resolution of the dream. The eyelids trembled from the shock of the fantasy, seemed about to open, but did not. Instead, the lips muttered:
“No! No! And once more, no! I won’t peach.” The lips paused, then went on. “You might as well tie me up, warden, and cut me to pieces. That’s all you can get outa me — blood. That’s all any of you-uns has ever got outa me in this hole.”
After this outburst the man slept gently on while the little girl still held the parasol aloft and looked down with a great wonder at the frowsy, unkempt creature, trying to reconcile it with the little part of life that she knew. To her ears came the cries of men, the stamp of hoofs on the bridge and the creak and groan of wagons heavy-laden. It was a breathless, California Indian-summer day. Light fleeces of cloud drifted in the azure sky, but to the west heavy cloudbanks threatened with rain. A bee droned lazily by. From farther thickets came the calls of quail and from the fields the songs of meadowlarks; and oblivious to it all slept Ross Shanklin — Ross Shanklin, the tramp and outcast, ex-convict 4379, the bitter and unbreakable one who had defied all keepers and survived all brutalities.
Texan-born, of the old pioneer stock that was always tough and stubborn, he had been unfortunate. At seventeen years of age he had been apprehended for horse-stealing. Also, he had been convicted of stealing seven horses that he had not stolen, and he had been sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment. This was severe under any circumstance, but with him it had been especially severe because there had been no prior convictions against him. The sentiment of the people who believed him guilty had been that two years was adequate punishment for the youth, but the county attorney, paid according to the convictions he secured, had made seven charges against him and earned seven fees, which goes to show that the county attorney valued twelve years of Ross Shanklin’s life at less than a few dollars.
Young Ross Shanklin had toiled in hell; he had escaped more than once and he had been caught and sent back to toil in other and various hells. He had been triced up and lashed till he fainted, had been revived and lashed again. He had been in the dungeon ninety days at a time. He had experienced the torment of the straitjacket. He knew what the hummingbird was. He had been farmed out as a chattel by the state to the contractors. He had been trailed through swamps by bloodhounds. Twice he had been shot. For six years on end he had cut a cord and a half of wood each day in a convict lumber camp. Sick or well, he had cut that cord and a half or paid for it under a whip-lash, knotted and pickled.
And Ross Shanklin had not sweetened under the treatment. He had sneered and cursed and defied. He had seen convicts, after the guards had manhandled them, crippled in body for life or left to maunder in mind to the end of their days. He had seen convicts, even his own cellmate, goaded to murder by their keepers, go to the gallows cursing God. He had been in a break in which eleven of his kind were shot down. He had been through a mutiny where, in the prison yard, with gatling guns trained upon them, three hundred convicts had been disciplined with pick-handles wielded by brawny guards.
He had known every infamy of human cruelty and through it all he had never been broken. He had resented and fought to the last; until, embittered and bestial, the day came when he was discharged. Five dollars were given him in payment for the years of his labor and the flower of his manhood. And he had worked little in the years that followed. Work he despised. He tramped, begged and stole, lied or threatened, as the case might warrant; and drank to besottedness whenever he got the chance.
The little girl was looking at him when he awoke. Like a wild animal, all of him was awake the instant he opened his eyes. The first he saw was the parasol, strangely obtruded between him and the sky. He did not start or move, though his whole body seemed slightly to tense. His eyes followed down the parasol handle to the tight-clutched little fingers and along the arm to the child’s face. Straight and unblinking, he looked into her eyes; and she, returning the look, was chilled and frightened by his glittering eyes, cold and harsh, withal bloodshot, and with no hint in them of the warm humanness she had been accustomed to see and feel in human eyes. They were the true prison eyes — the eyes of a man who had learned to talk little; who had forgotten almost how to talk.
“Hello!” he said finally, making no effort to change his position. “What game are you up to?” His voice was gruff, and at first it had been harsh; but it had softened queerly in a feeble attempt at forgotten kindliness.
“How do you do?” she said. “I’m not playing. The sun was on your face and mamma says one oughtn’t to sleep in the sun.”
The sweet clearness of her child’s voice was pleasant to him and he wondered why he had never noticed it in children’s voices before. He sat up slowly and stared at her. He felt that he ought to say something, but speech with him was a reluctant thing.
“I hope you slept well,” she said gravely.
“I sure did,” he answered, never taking his eyes from her, amazed at the fairness and delicacy of her. “How long was you holdin’ that contraption up over me?”
“O-oh!” she debated with herself; “a long, long time. I thought you never would wake up.”
“And I thought you was a fairy when I first seen you.”
He felt elated at his contribution to the conversation.
“No, not a fairy,” she smiled.
He thrilled in a strange numb way at the whiteness of her small, even teeth. “I was just the good Samaritan,” she added.
“I reckon I never heard of that party.” He was cudgeling his brains to keep the conversation going. Never having been at close quarters with a child since he was man-grown, he found it difficult.
“What a funny man not to know about the good Samaritan! Don’t you remember? A certain man went down to Jericho — ”
“I reckon I’ve b’en there,” he interrupted.
“I knew you were a traveler!” she cried, clapping her hands. “Maybe you saw the exact spot.”
“Why, where he fell among thieves and was left half dead. And then the good Samaritan went to him and bound up his wounds, and poured in oil and wine — was that olive oil, do you think?”
He shook his head slowly.
“I reckon you got me there. Olive oil is something the dagos cooks with. I never heard it was good for busted heads.”
She considered his statement for a moment. “Well,” she announced, “we use olive oil in our cooking; so we must be dagos. I never knew what they were before. I thought it was slang.”
“And the Samaritan dumped oil on his head,” the tramp muttered reminiscently. “Seems to me I recollect a sky pilot sayin’ something about that old gent. D’ye know, I’ve been looking for him off ’n’ on all my life and never, scared up hide or hair of him. They ain’t no more Samaritans.”
“Wasn’t I one?” she asked quickly.
He looked at her steadily, with a great curiosity and wonder. Her ear, by a movement exposed to the sun, was transparent. It seemed he could almost see through it. He was amazed at the delicacy of her coloring, at the blue of her eyes, at the dazzle of the sun-touched golden hair; and he was astounded by her fragility. It came to him that she was easily broken. His eye went quickly from his huge, gnarled paw to her tiny hand, in which it seemed to him he could almost see the blood circulate. He knew the power in his muscles and he knew the tricks and turns by which men use their bodies to ill-treat men; in fact, he knew little else and his mind for the time ran in its customary channel. It was his way of measuring the beautiful strangeness of her. He calculated a grip — and not a strong one — that could grind her little fingers to pulp. He thought of fist-blows he had given to men’s heads and received on his own head, and felt that the least of them could shatter hers like an eggshell. He scanned her little shoulders and slim waist, and knew in all certitude that with his two hands he could rend her to pieces.
“Wasn’t I one?” she insisted again.
He came back to himself with a shock — or away from himself as the case happened. He was loath that the conversation should cease.
“What?” he answered. “Oh, yes; you bet you was a Samaritan, if you didn’t have no olive oil.” He remembered what his mind had been dwelling on and asked: “But ain’t you afraid?”
She looked at him as if she did not understand.
“Of — of me?” he added lamely.
She laughed merrily.
“Mamma says never to be afraid of anything. She says that if you’re good — and you think good of other people — they’ll be good too.”
“And you was thinkin’ good of me when you kept the sun off,” he marveled.
“But it’s hard to think good of bees and nasty crawly things,” she confessed.
“But there’s men that is nasty and crawly things,” he argued.
“Mamma says no. She says there’s some good in everyone.”
“I bet you she locks the house up tight at night, just the same,” he proclaimed triumphantly.
“But she doesn’t. Mamma isn’t afraid of anything. That’s why she lets me play out here alone when I want. Why, we had a robber once. Mamma got right up and found him. And what do you think! He was only a poor hungry man. And she got him plenty to eat from the pantry; and afterward she got him work to do.”
Ross Shanklin was stunned. The vista shown him of human nature was unthinkable. It had been his lot to live in a world of suspicion and hatred, of evil-believing and evil-doing. It had been his experience, slouching along village streets at nightfall, to see little children, screaming with fear, run from him to their mothers. He had even seen grown women shrink aside from him as he passed along the sidewalk.
He was aroused by the girl clapping her hands as she cried out: “I know what you are! You’re an open-air crank. That’s why you were sleeping here in the grass.”
He felt a grim desire to laugh, but repressed it.
“And that’s what tramps are — open-air cranks,” she continued. “I often wondered. Mamma believes in the open air. I sleep on the porch at night. So does she. This is our land. You must have climbed the fence. Mamma lets me when I put on my climbers — they’re bloomers, you know. But you ought to be told something. A person doesn’t know when they snore because they’re asleep. But you do worse than that. You grit your teeth. That’s bad. Whenever you are going to sleep you must think to yourself, ‘I won’t grit my teeth; I won’t grit my teeth,’ over and over, just like that; and by-and-by you’ll get out of the habit.
“All bad things are habits. And so are all good things. And it depends on us what kind our habits are going to be. I used to pucker my eyebrows — wrinkle them all up; but mamma said I must overcome that habit. She said that when my eyebrows were wrinkled it was an advertisement that my brain was wrinkled inside and that it wasn’t good to have wrinkles in the brain. Then she smoothed my eyebrows with her hand and said I must always think smooth — smooth inside and smooth outside. And, do you know, it was easy. I haven’t wrinkled my brows for ever so long. I’ve heard about filling teeth by thinking, but I don’t believe that. Neither does mamma.”
She paused, rather out of breath. Nor did he speak, Her flow of talk had been too much for him. Also, sleeping drunkenly, with open mouth, had made him very thirsty; but, rather than lose one precious moment, he endured the torment of his scorching throat. He licked his dry lips and struggled for speech.
“What is your name?” he managed at last.
She looked her own question at him and it was not necessary to voice it.
“Mine is Ross Shanklin,” he volunteered, for the first time in forgotten years giving his real name.
“I suppose you’ve traveled a lot.”
“I sure have, but not as much as I might have wanted to.”
“Papa always wanted to travel, but he was too busy at the office. He never could get much time. He went to Europe once with mamma. That was before I was born. It takes money to travel.”
Ross Shanklin did not know whether to agree with this statement or not.
“But it doesn’t cost tramps much for expenses.” She took the thought away from him. “Is that why you tramp?”
He nodded and licked his lips. “Mamma says it’s too bad that men must tramp to look for work; but there’s lots of work now in the country. All the farmers in the valley are trying to get men. Have you been working?”
He shook his head, angry with himself that he should feel shame at the confession when his savage reasoning told him he was right in despising work. But this was followed by another thought. This beautiful little creature was some man’s child. She was one of the rewards of work.
“I wish I had a little girl like you,” he blurted out, stirred by a sudden consciousness of his newborn passion for paternity. “I’d work my hands off. I — I’d do anything.”
She considered his case with fitting gravity. “Then you aren’t married?”
“Nobody would have me.”
“Yes, they would — if — ”
She did not turn up her nose, but she favored his dirt and rags with a look of disapprobation he could not mistake.
“Go on!” he half shouted. “Shoot it into me! If I was washed — if I wore good clothes — if I was respectable — if I had a job and worked regular — if I wasn’t what I am.”
To each statement she nodded.
“Well, I ain’t that kind,” he rushed on. “I’m no good. I’m a tramp. I don’t want to work — that’s what. And I like dirt.”
Her face was eloquent with reproach as she said: “Then you were only making believe when you wished you had a little girl. like me?”
This left him speechless, for he knew, in all the deeps of his newfound passion, that was just what he did want.
With ready tact, noting his discomfort, she sought to change the subject.
“What do you think of God?” she asked.
“I ain’t never met Him. What do you think about Him?”
His reply was evidently angry and she was frank in her disapproval.
“You are very strange,” she said. “You get angry so easily. I never saw anybody before that got angry about God, or work, or being clean.”
“He never done anything for me,” he muttered resentfully. He cast back in quick review of the long years of toil in the convict camps and mines. “And work never done anything for me neither.”
An embarrassing silence fell.
He looked at her, numb and hungry with the stir of the father-love, sorry for his ill temper, puzzling his brain for something to say. She was looking off and away at the clouds and he devoured her with his eyes. He reached out stealthily and rested one grimy hand on the very edge of her little dress.
It seemed to him that she was the most wonderful thing in the world. The quail still called from the coverts and the harvest sounds seemed abruptly to become very loud. A great loneliness oppressed him.
“I’m — I’m no good!” he murmured huskily and repentantly.
But, beyond a glance from her blue eyes, she took no notice. The silence was more embarrassing than ever. He felt that he could give the world just to touch with his lips that hem of her dress where his hand rested, but he was afraid of frightening her. He fought to find something to say, licking his parched lips and vainly attempting to articulate something — anything.
“This ain’t Sonoma Valley,” he declared finally. “This is fairyland and you’re a fairy. Mebbe I’m asleep and dreaming! I don’t know. You and me don’t know how to talk together, because, you see, you’re a fairy and don’t know nothing but good things — and I’m a man from the bad, wicked world.”
Having achieved this much, he was left gasping for ideas like a stranded fish.
“And you’re going to tell me about the bad, wicked world,” she cried, clapping her hands. “I’m just dying to know.”
He looked at her, startled, remembering the wreckage of womanhood he had encountered on the sunken ways of life. She was no fairy. She was flesh and blood, and the possibilities of wreckage were in her as they had been in him, even when he lay at his mother’s breast. And there was in her eagerness to know.
He said lightly; “This man from the bad, wicked world ain’t going to tell you nothing of the kind. He’s going to tell you of the good things in that world. He’s going to tell you how he loved hosses when he was a shaver, and about the first boss he straddled, and the first hoss he owned. Hosses ain’t like men. They’re better. They’re clean — clean all the way through and backsgain. And, little fairy, I want to tell you one thing — there sure ain’t nothing in the world like when you’re settin’ a tired hose at the end of a long day, and when you just speak and that tired animal lifts under you willing and hustles along. Hosses! They’re my long suit. I sure dote on hosses! Yep. I used to be a cowboy once.”
She clapped her hands in the way that tore so delightfully to his heart and her eyes were dancing as she exclaimed:
“A Texas cowboy! I always wanted to see one! I heard papa say once that cowboys are bow-legged. Are you?”
“I sure was a Texas cowboy,” he answered; “but it was a long time ago. And I’m sure bow-legged. You see, you can’t ride much when you’re young and soft without getting the legs bent some. Why, I was only a three-year-old when I begun. He was a three-year-old too, fresh-broken. I led him up alongside the fence, dumb to the top rail and dropped on. He was a pinto and a real devil at bucking, but I could do anything with him. I reckon he knowed I was only a little shaver. Some hosses knows lots more’n you think.”
For half an hour Ross Shanklin rambled on with his horse reminiscences. Then came a woman’s voice.
“Joan! Joan!” it called. “Where are you, dear?”
The little girl answered; and Ross Shanklin saw a woman, clad in a soft, clinging gown, come through the gate from the bungalow.
“What have you been doing all afternoon?” the woman asked as she came up. “Talking, mamma,” the little girl replied. “I’ve had a very interesting time.” Ross Shanklin scrambled to his feet and stood watchfully and awkwardly. The little girl took the mother’s hand; and she, in turn, looked at him frankly and pleasantly, with a recognition of his humanness that was a new thing to him.
In his mind ran the thought: “The woman who ain’t afraid!” Not a hint was there of the timidity he was accustomed to see in women’s eyes; and he was quite aware of his bleary-eyed, forbidding appearance.
“How do you do?” She greeted him sweetly and naturally.
“How do you do, ma’am?” he responded, unpleasantly conscious of the huskiness and rawness of his voice.
“And did you have an interesting time too?” she smiled.
“Yes, ma’am. I sure did. I was just telling your little girl about hosses.”
“He was a cowboy once, mamma!“ she cried.
The mother smiled her acknowledgment to him and looked fondly down at the little girl.
“You’ll have to come along, dear,” the mother said. “It’s growing late.” She looked at Ross Shanklin hesitantly. “Would you care to have something to eat?”
“No, ma’am; thanking you kindly just the same. I — I ain’t hungry,”
“Then say goodby, Joan,” she said.
“Goodby.” The little girl held out her hand and her eyes lighted roguishly. “Goodby, Mr. Man from the bad, wicked world.”
To him, the touch of her hand as he pressed it in his was the capstone of the whole adventure.
“Goodby, little fairy,” he mumbled. “I reckon I got to be pain’ along.”
But he did not pull along. He stood staring after his vision until it vanished through the gate. The day seemed suddenly empty. He looked about him irresolutely, then climbed the fence, crossed the bridge and slouched along the road.
A mile farther on he aroused at the crossroads. Before him stood a saloon. He came to a stop and stared at it, licking his lips. He sank his hand into his pants pocket and pulled out a solitary dime. “God!” he muttered. “God!” Then, with dragging, reluctant feet, he went on along the road.
He came to a big farm. He knew it must be big because of the bigness of the house and the size and number of the barns and outbuildings. On the porch, in shirtsleeves, smoking a cigar, keen-eyed and middle-aged, was the farmer.
“What’s the chance for a job?” Ross Shanklin asked.
The keen eyes scarcely glanced at him.
“A dollar a day and grub,” was the answer.
Ross Shanklin swallowed and braced himself.
“I’ll pick grapes all right, or anything. But what’s the chance for a steady job? You’ve got a big ranch here. I know hosses. I was born on one. I can drive team, ride, plow, break, do anything that anybody ever done with hosses.”
“You don’t look it,” was the judgment.
“I know I don’t. Give me a chance — that’s all. I’ll prove it.”
The farmer considered, casting an anxious glance at the cloudbank into which the sun had sunk.
“I’m short a teamster and I’ll give you the chance to make good. Go and get supper with the hands.”
Ross Shanklin’s voice was very husky and he spoke with an effort:
“All right. I’ll make good. Where can I get a drink of water and wash up?”
Featured image illustrated by C.D. Williams
Will Levington Comfort became a war correspondent after serving in the Spanish-American War, paving the way to a career as an adventure writer. Willimina Leonora Armstrong, under the pen name Zamin Ki Dost, wrote poems and stories about India after spending time there as a medical missionary at the end of the 19th century. The paralyzed Armstrong penned her stories with the help of Comfort. Their short story “Bear Knob” depicts two rangers in an Indian forest investigating a supposedly dangerous family of bears.
Published on January 10, 1920
Carver, the young Englishman of the forest reserve, whose experience with the deadly karait has been told, was returned by his department to the mountain station above Carlin’s bungalow near Murree. He was given a native deputy, who occupied Beattie’s little cabin across the summit. Carver was rather slow rounding-to after the tragedy and had been permitted for several weeks to remain below for weekends at the Deal bungalow. Skag’s work among the wild animals had become intensely interesting to him. It had been the wedge of their acquaintance on the top rock that first day when they discussed the little venomed one together. The Englishman had never particularly developed his latent knowledge of animal lore, but unquestionably had a way with the little creatures which fascinated the American more than any hunter’s prowess. Skag walked up the path one early morning and joined Carver at the karait’s rock before it was warmed in the sun.
“The little beggars took themselves off after Beattie and their mother had it out together,” Carver explained.
He spoke lightly enough, but the death of his senior officer had dug into the very center of his vitality, so that it was almost a miracle that he fully regained his faculties again. Even now he had a way of looking off into the distance when left alone too long that had warned Carlin of his need for companionship. So Skag stood by closely but unobtrusively, joining him up at the station at least one day in the midweek.
“And you haven’t seen the baby karaits since the mother left them?” he was saying.
“Not a wiggle.”
“And what about the rest of the outfit?”
“You mean her mate?” Carver asked.
“Never was here,” Carver remarked. “Away on foreign business. Off and on for eighteen months I saw her. Twice she hatched a handful of little blue eggs, and presently you’d see the young fiends following her round. She would open her throat for them to leap into if I went too near. But I never saw their father:”
For a long time, the two men looked away across the valley to the slopes of the great mountain that commanded the eye from almost any position in Murree and vicinity. The midslopes were mainly a tight weave of green, broken by occasional great forest trees. The crags began farther toward the summit.
“If you watch long enough you will see bear — black bear — in that big brown patch where the grade is easy.”
He pointed across the valley to a spot on the great mountain slightly below their present eminence. The easy grade that he spoke of was like a big knob on the mountain side.
Its upper surface looked as if it had been burned or trampled recently.
Skag settled himself comfortably, as if to say his fault was rarely in not looking long enough for an object, but Carver observed that it was his experience that the bears only appeared afternoons.
“How far is it over there to the knob?” the American asked.
“Nine or ten miles airline.”
“And the paths?”
“We keep them open after a fashion. I’m supposed to ride over there once a fortnight.”
“A full day’s ride?” Skag questioned.
“Yes, and another to get back,” Carver replied.
“You say a horse can handle himself up and beyond the bear knob?”
The other nodded.
“I’m expecting a horse in a few days. Ian Deal has an Arab he wants me to use. We’re staying in Murree three months longer. I never really got acquainted with bears — even in captivity.”
Carver relished the possibility of an excursion and set himself to prevent Skag’s interest suffering from neglect.
“That knob has been the summer place for one family of bears for a generation, according to the natives. They say that the old sire is losing his morals — that the mother can’t live with him in cub time. For three or four seasons, the natives say, there have been two young in the family — then presently one is missing. The old girl has managed to raise only one for three seasons.”
“Does the male destroy the other one?”
“Evidence circumstantial.” Carver said whimsically. “I’m telling you how it looks to the natives and from this distance across the valley. I’m their nearest white neighbor, you understand.”
“The mother must have her work pretty well cut out to save one cub, if the old one is really ugly.”
“A native young man studying for the Christian ministry informed me seriously that the father bear was an unnatural parent. We really need to look into the matter.”
They watched the distant knob for a long time as they talked without a movement being noted there. Skag started down the path toward Murree, saying: “A real investigation calls for a close-up anyway. But tell me, could one use a dog on a trip like this?”
“An objectionable dog,” Carver answered. “Certainly not Nels.”
“No dog would stand a show with a full-grown black bear of the Hills. I’d hate to see a man-dog like Nels hugged to death by a cub-killer.”
Among the various things to ride on the face of the earth, Skag had tried many. He had done real camel service — days of travel from dawn to dusk, days that forgot themselves in more days. You don’t know what a camel is from a ride or two. Everything in a man, even the structure of his being, hates and cries out against the camel-thing in a period between the first few sittings, while the novelty lasts, and the real adjustment which requires weeks of caravan life. A man has to be born again, at least to be made over on the outside, to strike the rhythm for a long caravan stretch. The camel smell dies out from sheer familiarity; camel sounds cease to be heard because they have worn the delicacy off the eardrum through repetition. A sort of soft insanity takes the body and mind of a white man before he is camel-broke. Nothing in reason could ever give to the lurch or parry the pitch of the camel stride.
And Skag had been present on a racing elephant. It is hard to urge the usual captive hathi up into his real speed, but in certain cases it can be done. Gunpath Rao had actually run with Skag in his howdah. It had taken the marvelous young prince of the Hurdah stockades nearly twenty-four hours to get his gears to high speed, but in that final rousing the result was so fast that anything but an elephant or a locomotive would have left the ground for more than safety intervals. The tendency is markedly to rise in velocity like that.
Days with the circus had not permitted Skag to miss many experiences in the way of sitting creatures even partially designed to carry men and boys — mules, llamas, zebras, even a boy-loving old bull moose. And yet one of the real external joys of his life was to step into the saddle of the black Arab Ian Deal had sent.
In that first half hour in the mountains he knew what riding really meant. The Arab squared his shoulders when warmed to full trot on a straight stretch of road, arched his neck and folded up and under his front hoofs with a rhythm and power that filled the man with exultation and broke a seal somewhere in his chest, letting in more life.
Three or four miles away on the rolling roads he had a clearer sense than ever before what life meant — the joy of it — of what life might be made, and the great pulsing zest of physical well-being. The heat and magnetism surged up to him from under the saddle and from the mane and shoulders. It was like the dance. He knew that the mount loved it as he did and was changing great drafts of cool mountain air into bridled action but unbridled joy.
“I have ridden always,” he told Carlin as he came out from the bath a little later — “ridden many mounts not half so bad, but I never quite knew what a horse could be until today. Why, Carlin, I couldn’t let the groom take care of him when we came in. I had to rub him down myself, and this Arab prince seemed aware that it was a privilege.”
She sat down, not laughing aloud, but smiling as if trying to hold him in his present joy and not break in upon further words.
He was riding with Carver along the narrow, tangled, winding paths on the way up toward bear knob. They carried blanket rolls, saddlebags well stocked and grain for a sparse three days’ feeding. The grade was easier than it appeared from the lesser summit across the valley. There were aisles between the great deodars where the shade was so dense that there was little or no small growth below. They would halt from the sheer joy of the silence and say nothing to each other, after the manner of men; halt in that cathedral dimness until the spell was broken by a bird song, every vibration of every note clear as an etching. In one of these colonnades of majestic trees Carver stopped at length.
“There’s no better place for a camp than this,” he said. “The bear knob is directly above. We can’t leave the horses any nearer their premises.”
“You spoke of a spring,” Skag said.
“Just a little ahead in a tangle of vines. We’re near enough with the horses. You see, the bears come down to drink.”
They picketed, then did some steep bits of climbing among the crags to reach the knob. That which had looked like a tiny kitchen garden from across the valley was now before their eyes, a sunburned, semi-open stretch of several acres. Rock was very close to the surface, many boulders jutting through. Trees were sparse and low because of the shallow soil. Thickets and berry bushes skirted the edges of the open area, and among the great rock piles in the center were many possibilities for natural dens.
After three hours in a screened thicket that commanded the main surface of the knob, Carver slowly reached for his right ankle and drew it out from under him, using both hands. He placed the long leg straight on the ground in front and went after the other. With pained face he waited for the blood to flow into the sleeping members. Then he drew out his watch and held it to Skag, pointing with impressive finger at the hours that had passed.
Skag smiled. The sunlight was in and through him. His eyelids were lowered a trifle sleepily, but that hardly expressed the look of them. The eyes themselves were different — their look somehow out of physical focus, the pupil dilated slightly, as if centered upon a film or shadow too faint for the optic nerve quite to delineate. Carver had changed his position twenty times; Skag not more than once an hour. Moreover, he had not been conscious of strain, and Carver was exhausted.
“You can have ’em,” he whispered monotonously. “Why, I’d rather have a stroll down on the mountainside than a whole pageant of bears! I’d rather have a cigarette than a three-ringed circus of assorted bears. Also I need tea — strong, red, unboiled tea, made of soft spring water — more than any essential knowledge or revelation about High Hill bears.”
Skag held his smile. The other slid himself back out of sight.
Creatures of the wild move in mysterious ways. It was past midafternoon and fully an hour after Carver left before the den of rocks gave forth any life. There was a moment when a certain shadowed entrance was empty, and the next it was filled. There was a field of sun glare between Skag’s eyes and the blotch of shadow which had become darker and was now taking form.
The old dame was standing there. Skag’s mind must have rejected the image at first because of the long waiting. But certainly she was standing there now in thin faded coat and full late-summer fatness. Then she sat. It was easy for her. She quietly rolled back like a rag doll with a head of cotton stuffing and a body which concealed a billiard ball. She didn’t even rock, but the little chap had to roll over and shake himself to be sure he was all out of the den after squeezing past her in the doorway.
There was an interval in silence while the cub further tried himself out in front and his mother with folded hands surveyed the remains of the day. Then suddenly she was bowled over from behind — completely sprawled and walked on — and now standing in front of her and towering over her son was Himself. Life was very real and blithe to Skag, watching in the thicket not more than seventy yards away.
In the next two hours the two grown bears fed from the fringes of thicket on the knob. There were berries and bark and various podded seeds, which is garden truck for the big slow-feeding hibernators — hours of sniffing and threshing and pawing over to make a meal. Meanwhile the baby had no such trouble. He was warm fed before emerging from the den. This was still his mother’s affair anyway. All the shift he had to make for himself was in the spirit of exploration and discovery. He found the world enticing from all angles and hadn’t any particular use for alarm. That was left to the elders also.
He became infested with briers and squealed for his mother to come. She combed and carded him patiently enough until he did it again. Then she stood him on his head and thumped. Presently he sat down on his elbows and pawed into a decayed log. When he was tired with one little padded mit he tried the other. It was some distance from Skag’s screen, but the man now sensed what the end would be.
Red ants! They were doubtless swarming over the little chap before his absorption was broken. It would take some time for them to penetrate his inner coat, but penetrating is what red ants do best.
The little bear sat up and screwed his head round as if listening to himself. Then he stretched high on all claws looking back at different angles. The red ants had penetrated. They were connecting with pure tender cub meat at the roots of a thousand hairs. One small son became so intensely occupied with himself that for a moment he forgot to make sounds. Never before in all his interesting life had so many things been the matter with him at once. He got a sort of head spin working and out of the dusty shine of it. Skag presently heard his screams.
At this point, the mother bear crossed the knob.
Moreover, she came with purpose. She appeared to interpret the trouble from the nature of the screams. Past doubt she knew that log.
There are heroic treatments for Himalayan red ants. A gas tank is good, or a leap from a pier. Not having these at hand, the mother first of all broke the head spin and snatched the small one from the ant city and environs. Then she puddled and pestled him for many minutes in deep dust and took him to her heart.
“Carlin would appreciate that,” Skag muttered softly, letting out a long breath.
Now Himself was walking round his mate as she mended and mothered the grief of the cub. From a distance he appeared actually concerned and attentive, but Skag had seen him emerge from the den over her body — she taking the count after his wallop from behind. Also, he had not put out of mind the bad record concerning this parent which Carver had taken from the natives — the missing cubs and the gossip that involved extended estrangements between him and his mistress. Yet she seemed to hold no grudge against him now nor any alarm.
This mystery deepened. She plumped the infant down and went about her feeding. The little chap grieved a bit, finding himself alone, and scratched himself resentfully from various rests. But presently the broad sun-bright world took him again and he set out for a long walk — this time straight in Skag’s direction.
He couldn’t have been more than three months old. He was very black and round and perfect — still a soft one, in baby teeth and baby fuzz — so perfectly healthy that neither dirt nor grief could long adhere. He merely took the essence of his adventures, shedding the bumps and messes with a kind of winged ease — the plan of the universe being for joy, as he read it. Every passing wind fluffed and groomed him. Only occasionally, he stopped to scratch, trying a new method.
On he came in increasing delight in himself, alternating two and four feet, and very friendly with the ground. And now his figure was lost in the bushes not forty feet away from Skag’s screen. The man’s eyes were called presently across the knob to where one of the large bears was standing, head and shoulders above the small growth on that side. The great head moved slowly round, plainly searching the open for the little one. This was the old male evincing sudden concern for the cub.
Slowly and one-pointedly he crossed the area more or less in the small steps of the straying one. The point to Skag just now was how near the old one would come to him before finding the cub. Across the knob he saw the mother bear rise to her haunches. She could not have missed the purpose of her lord. Apparently she approved of it, for she dropped down and quietly resumed her feeding.
This to Skag was extraordinary, but he was by no means so occupied in the tension of the predicament as not to take a good look at the sire as he approached. Large, rotund, but with beaming countenance, as utterly far from anything malignant in appearance as a sun-bear toy. There was something of the aspect of an old doctor about him, one who had done so many good things for people for so many years as actually to have forgotten any other way to live.
The baby bear was very close, and his father might be expected to sense an intrusion before he reached the cub. Skag held himself quietly in hand, not moving a muscle, putting away the panic impulses of the mind one after another. The big bear halted at the edge of the thicket, sniffed, his manner changing to a sort of puzzled concern, but not in the least aggressive. There were low sounds in his throat, but far from growls. His son heard them, but this hedged-thicket life was quite as absorbing as outside. He was not in the least minded to go without force. The other sniffed querulously and plunged in. There was a squeal, but not from pain; rather the plaint of one dragged away from delightful activity. The two emerged together into the area side by side, crossing toward the mother, still quietly feeding across the knob.
Skag saw the gleam of firelight as he entered the darkness under the deodars. Carver had supper ready and the horses were feeding in grain bags.
“That’s a much-maligned old male,” Skag muttered a second time. “I’m not saying he’s above having wicked spells now and then, but he doesn’t look the part. Nothing meat-fed about his eyes.”
“He has a season’s work mapped out to undo his reputation with the natives,” Carver said.
“I’m far from sure he’s what they think,” Skag added quietly.
“But you say he knocked the madam down when he cared to come out.”
“Yes, and stepped on her. But I’ve been thinking that might be mere household usage in the High Hills. She didn’t hold it against him. I’m far from sure he’s a cub killer. He crossed the knob to collect the straying youngster and the mother went unconcernedly on with her feeding on the far side. Moreover, the cub himself isn’t afraid of his father.”
There was little sleep that night. There were sounds from the spring not to be interpreted. Skag had felt it necessary to tie the Arab short lest he burn himself on a long tether. He had been well grained since he could not pick any feed in the night, but he shivered as he stood, not with cold but with restlessness. Carver intimated that there were disadvantages about using a drawing-room mount for field work, but Skag surprised him by turning the Arab loose altogether.
Now the black one came even closer to their fire, instead of straying, and Skag felt the sweat of fear upon him. Carver was inclined to regard him as a bit oversensitive from prolonged and perfect stable care, but Skag knew something strange was in the air. He tried to listen with the same keen apprehension that the stallion did; tried to get the meaning from the winds that brought a troubling message to the keener nostrils of his mount.
The next morning, Skag minutely examined the spring. It was too leafy and tangled for him to discover any secrets, and where the water flowed under the vines all but the pebbles had been washed away. In the afternoon he went with Carver to the screen, but a second time the Englishman used up his inclination to wait before the bears appeared. Skag had had two hours of his sort of quiet sport and was more than ever convinced of the beneficence of the old male, when he thought he heard a shot and cry from someone far below. The bears were across the area and it was safe for him to leave.
Camp was strange even at a distance. The afternoon was still luminous, though the sun had gone down behind the big mountain. He missed the horses from under their tree. Carver did not answer his call. The Arab’s halter shank was broken at the knot and the long tether of Carver’s beast was gone, picket and all. Ashes and embers of the fire, now cold, had been threshed over the camp. There was blood upon the ground. All the play was gone from the still upper spaces; the clutch of grim finality was at Skag’s heart. Was it Carver? Was it the Arab?
Chilled and bewildered, Skag followed the spattered trail down the slopes, knowing he would not have far to go, because of the extent of the black-red waste upon the stones. And now queerly enough a certain pale hopeless look recurred to him from Carver’s face. It was a haunting sense of secret failure which Skag had never analyzed before, but it roved unmistakably now like a ghost before his eyes — the face of a man whose luck has been bad so long that he has come to expect no better. Skag wondered coldly why Carver’s hidden weakness came to him now. This wasn’t man blood. There was too much of it, if no other reason.
And now he saw the hump on the ground — a sudden revelation in the shadowed green. The strange laxity of a body in death always causes a start. It touched familiarly some inner sense quicker than the registration of the eye. The flanks were lying toward him. It was Carver’s pony — the head pulled forward to the knees. The throat was slashed open, the shoulders torn on each side, the spine laid open above the kidneys. The picture of what had occurred unfolded to Skag. The throat had been opened at the first stroke. That had happened above at the camp. The pony had broken loose and raced down slope until he fell.
The thing had come with him. The thing had not fed, unless a blood drinker. Perhaps it had been frightened away by Carver after the kill was made. And Carver had doubtless followed the Arab.
Now Skag’s eyes as he stood in intense silence caught a sudden speckled brightness above and to the right of the camp near the spring. It was a flash of mysterious gold light in the shadow — hardly like a body, but sinister in effect. Skag stood a moment longer, but saw nothing. Then with utmost stealth he made his way back along the ugly trail to the camp and above, circling round to a position above the spring, keeping covered in thicket but clear of the low-branched trees.
The bears had come down to the water. Skag was certainly puzzled at this moment. That gold flash in the shadow had nothing to do with bears. He saw the two broad black backs in the darkening green where the water washed the stones. He stared that way for several seconds trying to locate the cub. Then the old bears lifted their heads to peer over the thickets. They were looking for the cub too. The mother grunted impatiently. Skag could tell it was she by the waistline.
Now the two little curved front paws appeared, going somewhere, from the thick tangle round the spring to the open under the deodars toward camp. He had explored the thicket by the spring and found it tiresome. He approved of the broad dim aisles before him. Possibly there were enticing flavors in the air from the remains of the man camp. The mother grunted loudly again, but this only quickened the call abroad. Skag wasn’t in the mood for this sort of thing. The bears might go back to the knob as soon as they liked this once. The man wanted Carver — word from Carver and the Arab, and the meaning of the thin gold flash in the shadows.
Right then he got it — an apparition in gold and brown — a huge cat thing from the thicket below the spring, sleuthing the baby bear. This was Skag’s first look at the jaguar in India, as hard to find as the planet Mercury with the naked eye, the most secret and skulking of the great cats. Now the vile head moved roundly as he watched and stalked the cub — in a sort of half circle on a swivel that caught — all the bloodthirst and hate and secrecy of the jungle in the movement — lemon-green eyes of that cold which is on the other side of death, and writhing lips. The jaguar was mad and careless. He had failed to kill the night before. He had made a day kill just now and been driven away.
Skag suddenly loved that baby bear like the child of an old neighbor. The little chap was making straight for the man camp and one of its parents at least was still back at the spring. Skag had a pistol, but it is characteristic that his fingers reached first for a stone.
His movement to throw — and only the hand was visible — was caught by the cat before the stone left his fingers. The stone went wide. To the surprise of Skag, the beast crouched and held his place. Now the baby bear turned and there was a bleating cry from the red mouth — utterly startled and hopeless. The big cat was flattened to spring — the ears rubbed back, the whole figure seemingly fanned in a great wind.
Just at this instant Skag stood up. For a second time he broke the concentration of the killer that faced him fifty yards away.
And then the roar. That in itself was a revelation from the animal world. It was short. It was low as a grunt and yet held that impossible pitch, ripping forth as if bringing the heart of the mountain with it.
Skag’s standing up that instant had held the jaguar’s eyes long enough to give the great male bear advantage for his charge — a vast hurling forth from the thicket. The jaguar, caught too abruptly to run, turned, but did not rise — hugging the ground like a reptile, his body in a half curve like a scimitar. He reeled over on his back as the bear took and folded him in. And now the old sire screamed with pain. It was like taking to his chest two hundred pounds of molten metal — metal that must be crushed cold and very quickly before it burned too deep. To Skag from the distance it seemed that the bear was insanely threshing himself upon the ground. When he rose at last the gold-brown shadowy thing dropped from him and lay soft and stretched.
Skag’s eyes hurt from straining through the shadows. The mother went to her lord and helped to cleanse his wounds, taking his huge head in one paw and pressing it against her neck as she washed the hideous slash across his face. For many minutes she worked, the little chap coming close and watching with a dutiful attitude altogether strange. Night intervened before Skag heard the three pass the spring on their way up to the knob.
Skag meant only to pause at camp long enough to build a fire. It might possibly help Carver in, but the young Englishman’s hail was heard as the first smoke rose.
They looked at each other for a moment, silenced by so much to say.
“Your Arab is doubtless running yet,” Carver remarked. “No chance to come up with him, so I hurried in.”
He sank down, dropping his head on a saddle roll. His voice was very weary as he went on:
“It was strange — just staged to get a man’s nerve,” he muttered. “Why, Hantee, the thing couldn’t have looked dirtier. I was on the slope coming down to camp from your screen just as the jaguar dropped from a tree branch to my pony’s back. Both horses broke loose and the big cat rode my pony down the mountain. That’s the ghastly unforgettable part — to be ridden by that thing until he fell.”
“I saw that it must have been like that,” Skag answered, remembering the roweled shoulders and back. “And then you fired? “
“Just one shot, altogether out of range, as the beast stood over the fallen pony. He vanished. There was nothing to do after that but go after the Arab.”
“That’s a bad cat,” Skag muttered. “Possibly watched us all night from one of these trees. Yes, it was his taint in the air that disrupted the mount.”
Carter shivered, vetoing any idea of supper.
No, you wouldn’t be able to bring the Arab back here,” Skag added. “Not with blood on the ground and that thing lying below.”
“What thing — you mean the pony?” Carver asked wearily.
“No, the cub killer,” Skag said.
“Is — is the old father bear lying down there?”
“No, and the father bear is not the cub killer, but a most natural and estimable parent. I mean that bad cat you shot at. You spoiled his gorge from the pony and he went after the cub bear just a few minutes ago. Bear family was down to the spring, you see.”
“Carver,” Skag added, “there never was a straighter or quicker finish for a yellow cat, but I think I’ll feel better inside the head when that bear roar dies out — the roar when he charged — and the picture that followed.”
They had to wait for daylight to descend the mountain. The Arab had not gone back to Murree, but met them on open ground a half mile down the path — used up a bit, but not seriously harmed.
“I think he would have come in to camp,” Skag said, “except for the taint in the air.”
Carver did not answer, and Skag added with a smile: “I’m sorry about that brave little beast of yours, but for the rest — it’s been a rich two days.”
Illustrations by Charles Livingston Bull
American lawyer and writer, Arthur Train, was a prolific author of legal thrillers. His most popular work featured recurring fictional lawyer Mr. Ephraim Tutt. In “The Lost Gospel,” an explorer searches the Egyptian desert for lost artifacts that will prove or disprove his faith.
Published on June 7, 1924
For all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
“The trouble with Christianity,” said Ismail Bey, “is that it is utterly unpractical.”
“The trouble with Christianity,” said Count Poldolski, “is that we do not really know what Christ taught.”
“The trouble with Christianity,” said Rhoda Calthrop, “is that it has never been tried.”
The party, following the wake of fashion, had come up from Cairo on Calthrop’s dahabeah to see the recent excavations in the Valley of the Kings, and the Cheetah, on whose awning-covered deck they were sitting, was moored along with a hundred other pleasure craft on the east bank of the Nile a mile above Thebes. Ismail Bey waved a sleek white hand across the turbid river toward the red-brown fields that stretched to the Libyan Hills. Under the cobalt arc the whole Egyptian world of palm-rimmed bank, of broken column and ruined temple, as well as the turgid current of the Nile itself, was a welter of dazzling gold, flushed with scarlet and streaked with purple.
“On these sands can be traced the history of all the ancient civilizations — of Assyria and Babylon, of Macedon, Greece and Rome — and of all the old religions.
“Nothing remains of any of them.”
“I thought you were a good Mohammedan, excellency,” commented his hostess.
“I am,” answered Ismail Bey quite calmly. “I obey the sheri’s, I pay the charitable tax, I say my prayers five times a day, I fast during Ramadan, and I have even made the pilgrimage to Mecca. What more is necessary?”
“Faith!” replied Miss Calthrop.
The Egyptian laughed.
“I am a graduate of Balliol,” he said. “All sensible men believe the same thing. What it is no sensible man ever tells.”
“But Christianity remains!” protested the beautiful Princess Zeeka.
“What you call Christianity!” retorted Poldolski. “But does anybody know what Christ really preached? The Gospels are not contemporaneous. They were written many years after the events chronicled therein occurred.”
“Christ gave us a spiritual ideal,” answered Miss Calthrop gravely, “to which we hope the world may some day attain.”
The breeze from the south was stirring the ripples among the sand bars to lavender. Hoopoes and wild pigeons flew downstream — imps fleeing the gates of Paradise, marking the channel to silent boats with widespread lateen sails on their way from Aswan to Cairo and Alexandria, black lacquer on a yellow screen. From an adjacent dahabeah came the insistent rasp of a phonograph playing Papa Loves Mamma. The escarpments to the west smoldered, spraying the sky with gold.
“How mysterious the Nile is!” the princess murmured. “No wonder it is worshiped as a god!”
The Egyptian’s eyes narrowed.
“The Nile,” he replied, “like religion, is born amid the fierce passions of savagery, in the midday darkness of primeval growths, in the ruthlessness of credulity and fanaticism and the strange worship of beasts in the likeness of men — ” He half closed his lids and let the smoke curl slowly from his nostrils as he watched the rose-tinted oval face of the princess. “And like all religions, it eventually disappears.”
“But Christianity does not!” The eyes of the princess were smoldering.
Ismail Bey shrugged.
“If Poldolski is right, your true Christianity may have disappeared already. I do not wish to give offense, my friends; but did not Christ teach self-sacrifice, nonresistance and forgiveness of wrongs? Did he make any distinction between individuals and nations in his teachings? Well — I am, it is true, a Mohammedan — a barbarian, if you will — but to me there is something curiously inconsistent in the application of these doctrines among what you would call the more civilized nations. It is not enough to say that Christ did not mean literally what he said. Does anybody claim that the Prophet Moses or the Prophet Mohammed did not mean exactly what he said? Listen!”
From the circle of sailors seated cross-legged in the bow of the dahabeah came the monotonous thump of a daraboukeh. “Al-lah!” they chanted fiercely. “Al-lah! Al-lah! Al-lah!” The cry rose harsh and nasal in the silence of the sunset.
“Those down there do not doubt that when they die they will go instantly to Paradise,” said the Egyptian.
“That is my point, excellency,” agreed the Pole. “The words of the Koran came from the lips of Mohammed. Christ did not write the Gospels. His meaning has always been the subject of controversy. It is conceivable that the discovery of a new Septuagint might change our entire viewpoint.”
“Like that found by Tischendorf in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai,” suggested Professor Troy of the Azar. “Such manuscripts occasionally turn up. There must be hundreds of them hidden away in ancient libraries or among unexcavated ruins. Our three chief sources of knowledge concerning Christ’s teachings are the Alexandrian manuscript in the British Museum, Codex A, as we call it; the Vatican manuscript at Rome, Codex B; and the Sinaitic, Codex Aleph, at St. Petersburg; and they all range from about 300 to 450 A.D. But the prior existence of certain others is well established — the Lost Gospel referred to by Saint Hermanticus, for example.”
Major Bagley, of the Camel Corps, put down his glass.
“Oh, I say! Have you heard of that too? I always thought it was just another Arab yarn, like the vanished oasis of Kurafra.”
“It’s more than a yarn,” replied Professor Troy. “There are many references to it in the writings of the Fathers. The Fifth Gospel is alleged to have been written in Latin by a member of the household of Pontius Pilate. It is a tradition, you remember, that Procula, Pilate’s wife, secretly visited the Saviour in prison before his crucifixion and became a convert. The story is somehow mixed up with that.”
“What is supposed to have become of this Lost Gospel?” asked Miss Calthrop with interest.
“It is said to have been brought to Egypt, where it disappeared. What have you heard about it, Bagley?”
“I’ve heard such a story, or its first cousin, told around many a caravan fire in strange places,” answered the officer. “Curiously enough, it is usually associated with the legend of Kurafra — the City Devoured by the Sand, as the Bedouins call it. The desert is full of such tales.”
“It always gives me a funny feeling to hear the Arabs refer so casually to historical characters — almost as if they were still alive,” remarked the hostess as she handed Ismail Bey his tea. “But in Egypt the past and the present are one.”
From behind the high bank against which the Cheetah was moored came the syncopated warbling of a flute, closer at hand the creaking of the shadoofs used in the days of Amenhotep. A procession of fellahin carrying tools and baskets, of boys on donkeys, of female figures bearing jars upon their shoulders, moved along the edge of the bluff — children of the Pharaohs sprung to life from the temple walls.
The hostess’ brother, Hugh Calthrop, who had been sitting by himself in the Cheetah’s stern, arose and came forward with a paper in his hand. He was an emotional young fellow, given to doing things on the spur of the moment.
“Look here,” he said, pulling his short mustache nervously, “this is certainly very queer.” He poured himself out a drink.
“Did any of you ever know Paul Trent?”
“I seem to have heard the name.” Professor Troy rubbed his chin as if to stir the magic lamp of recollection.
“Of course,” answered Miss Calthrop. “He used to come to our house in Chicago almost every Sunday afternoon. But wasn’t he killed in the war?”
Calthrop held up the paper.
“I have just had a letter from him!”
“From Paul?” exclaimed his sister incredulously. “But he has been dead ten years!”
“Exactly. This letter which you saw handed to me not ten minutes ago by Yussuf was written to his mother in January, 1914. It’s been wandering around ever since.”
“How is that possible?” asked the Princess Zeeka.
Ismail Bey glanced at her quizzically.
“When you know Egypt better, dearest lady, that will not surprise you.”
“I do not care to know Egypt any better,” she answered coldly. “Please tell us about the letter.”
Calthrop pulled a chair into the group and sat down.
“It’s certainly weird — a voice from the dead and that sort of thing. Trent was a young Egyptologist of Chicago University, out here on his sabbatical. He wanted to do a little original work, and I let him have some money. The last I heard he was in Jerusalem. Then came the war. I assumed, naturally, he’d managed to enlist, and thought no more about it. Anyhow it would have been no time to hunt for missing archeologists. But when the show ended Trent didn’t turn up. Meantime his old mother — who always refused to believe that he would not come back — died herself. I was her executor. The State Department made some sort of an investigation and traced him as far as Bukara in company with a German named Harnach-Hulsen. They simply vanished into the desert.”
“But the letter!” cried the princess. “From where did your friend mail it?”
“It was written in the desert and given to a passing caravan for Siwa. Heaven knows what happened to it. Perhaps the Arab put it in his pocket — if Arabs have pockets — and just forgot it. Or it may have been tucked into a pigeonhole in Bukara or Siwa, or left lying around until it was picked up by somebody who decided that the easiest thing to do was to stick it in the mail — as perhaps it was.”
“But how does it come to you?” asked Professor Troy.
“Because, having been delivered through the mail to Mrs. Trent’s address in Chicago, it has been forwarded to me here as her executor.”
“After all,” commented Ismail Bey, “ten years is not so long for a letter to go ten thousand miles. That is a thousand miles a year. Out here we should call that fast.”
“I will read you the letter,” said Calthrop.
“WESTERN DESERT, BUKARA.”
January 6, 1914.
“‘Dearest mother: You will already have got the letter I mailed you from Cairo on Christmas Day, and learned how at the monastery of the Benedictine Monks of Beuren in Jerusalem I had the luck to stumble upon Max Harnach-Hulsen, the famous German Egyptologist, who became tremendously interested in my theory that Roman and possibly Persian remains would very likely be found in the Libyan Desert north of the Oasis of Beharieh in the direction of the Fayum. My funds were getting rather low and to my great delight he agreed to join forces with me. Otherwise I couldn’t have gone. It appears that the Emperor William II personally is putting up for him and so of course he had first to wire Berlin. Meantime we went on by rail to Cairo for the holidays, and there I found your dear little present. I shall always wear it, mother dear. Thank you a thousand times.
“‘Well, a few days later H-H got a reply from the Kaiser, offering to supply all the necessary funds on the condition that the funds should go to the University of Berlin or, as he put it, “to my people.” That seems fair enough. And I may say there has been no lack of money. Well, we made our arrangements and got off by rail before New Year’s to Medinet-el-Fayum and from there to Beharieh, making the balance of the journey to Bukara by motor and camel. Here it really looked as if we might be badly hung up on account of the difficulty of finding any camels not infected with hump disease. However, H-H, who is an authoritative person, an officer in the Landwehr, went to the gendarmerie and saw the omdeh and made a big noise about the Kaiser, and the first thing I knew we had all the camels we wanted — beautiful slender hajins such as one never sees except in the desert. So this is really goodbye.
“‘I like H-H immensely in spite of his gruff manner, which really doesn’t mean anything. He is a big, reddish man about six feet two, with cropped hair, a thick neck and very large hands and feet, a man of iron — physically and intellectually a reincarnation of what I imagine Bismarck to have been. He is very chummy with the Kaiser and belongs to a sort of dining club of which General von Bernhardi, Admiral von Tirpitz, and the Prince-Bishop of Breslau also are members. He has shown me several very intimate letters from William II, whom he admires extravagantly. In fact he classes him with Hammurabi, Moses, Abraham, Mohammed, Charlemagne, Shakspere and Lincoln.
“‘Well, he may be everything H-H says, but as I don’t know the gentleman, I’m no judge. Anyhow, he must be a clever chap. H-H is obsessed with the idea that there is danger of the Germans, who used to be the best fighting men and most warlike nation in Europe, becoming what he calls a too peace-loving nation. He says that what they need is a shock to reawaken their warlike instincts. I can hardly keep my face straight when he is getting off this bunk. In some ways I feel that H-H isn’t much more sympathetic to me than one of our Arab camel drivers. But he is a regular he-man for all that, and we are great pals. So, good-by again, mother.
Your loving son,
Calthrop turned the letter over dramatically.
“Now listen to what is written in pencil on the back:
“‘Dearest mother: We have made the greatest find in history. I cannot say more now, but we shall both be famous. I am forbidden to reveal its nature, but you will soon learn. We are about two hundred kilometers from Bukara. I have promised Harnach-Hulsen not to say where until we make a formal announcement. I have just time to scratch this off and give it to a passing Bedouin who is on his way to Siwa. God bless you, mother. Hur-rah! Hurrah!
A gray dusk distilled itself along the canals; the surface of the Nile was a steel mirror clouded here and there by the breath of the night wind. A felucca came down midstream, a ripple spreading wide from her bows, her oars swinging to a muffled chantey that might have been the barbaric ritual of some equatorial deity.
“Bismillah!” muttered the Egyptian. “I wonder what they found.”
“God only knows what they found,” answered Calthrop. “But I am going to find out.”
“Hugh,” cried his sister, “you don’t mean you are going to — ”
“Yes — tomorrow. I’m starting for Beharieh, not in the hope of finding Trent, because of course he’s been dead ten years — but of finding what he found.”
There was no sound but the clutch and whisper of the current along the dahabeah’s sides.
“You’d be crazy to try anything of the kind!”
Bagley tossed his cigarette overboard definitely.
“There’s not a drop of water between Bukara and Siwa, and none in the direction of the Fayum. Rohlfs nearly died there in ’72. Our flyers have scoured the desert in every direction around there for five hundred kilometers. Besides,” he added, “I doubt if the frontier districts administrator would give you a permit.”
“All the same, I’m going!” declared Calthrop. “But I won’t risk anybody’s life but my own. I shall go to Bukara, look up some of the Arabs that went with Trent and start out from there. You couldn’t expect me to do anything else!” he exclaimed.
The princess looked at him meaningly. “No,” she said; “no one could expect you to do anything else.”
Calthrop thrust the letter in his pocket and stood up.
“I’m going down to collect my duffel,” he remarked. “The Cairo train leaves at nine.”
He walked alone to the stern again. The Nile was jet. Night had fallen. To his excited imagination it seemed alive with mysterious noises — faint cries and distant shoutings, the neighing of horses, the tramp of legionaries, the crash of arms, the rumble of chariot wheels; while from the bow came the never-ceasing throb of the daraboukeh and at intervals the lonely cry of “Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar! La ilaha illa-llah!”
“In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful: I On the blessed day of Friday, 28th Rabia eth Thani, 1332, there came to our town Bukara the honored Max Harnach-Hulsen, the German, professor of the honored Zawia of Berlin, and also the honored Paul Trent, the American, professor of the honored Zawia of Chicago in the Etats-Unix, and they are carrying the orders of the great and honored General Sir Martin Crafts; and according to the exalted orders we met them with great honor and hospitality and congratulated them on their safe arrival to us. We hoped that God may be exalted, would grant success to their efforts, and return them safe and victorious in the best condition for the sake of the Prophet.
“(Signed) “The Second Adviser of Bukara, Amed El Sussu, May God forgive him.
“The Judge, OSWAN EL BARASSI, May God forgive him.
“The Adviser, SAYED MOHAMMED IBU OMAR EL FADHILL, May God forgive him.
“The Wakil of the Sayed at Bukara, MOHAMMED SALEH EL BASICARI, May God forgive him.”
Thus had read the only official record of the visit of the two archaeologists to the town of Bukara; the only record, in fact, since although Calthrop had stayed there a week he had found no other clew to them. Yet unless all the Arabs who had accompanied Trent and Harnach-Hulsen had died of thirst, one or more of them should be still living in the oasis. He was in the absurd position of having a caravan on his hands and with no idea of where he wanted to go. Inquiries of the omdeh elicited only the customary shrugs and the positive assurance that there were no archaeological remains in that part of the country, for in spite of the difficulty of travel every inch of the Western Desert under the control of the frontier districts administration — which was responsible for the safety of all country not watered by the Nile between the Sudan and the Mediterranean — had been covered time and again by the Camel Corps Patrol. Those who had followed the regular caravan routes to Siwa, to Taizerbo, to Kebabo, on the way to the Tebu or Lake Chad, or to Dachel on the south, had never heard even so much as a whisper of any such place as Kurafra.
And then the omdeh ventured to give Calthrop a piece of advice. Why not, he suggested, instead of starting off blindfold into the desert, without any definite objective, enlarge his caravan and make the trip to Siwa, the ancient site of the Temple of Jupiter Ammon, where he could visit and photograph the rock tombs of the Karit-el-Musabberin, the temple of Aghormi and the ruins at Ummebeida?
Calthrop thanked him and let it go at that. Eventually he caused it to be known throughout the bazaar that he would pay one hundred pounds gold to anyone who would guide his caravan to where he could find any trace of the missing men. Then and then only did Mohammed Ali Ibrahim ben Rahim make his appearance, a desiccated Berber with a skin like a lizard’s, and eyes as sharp and glinting.
“Not of my own knowledge,” he protested, “but by that of my sister’s son, Mohammed Yussuf el Bulaki, the peace of God be on him. For he is no longer living, being taken in his sixty-first year, while I, full of years, am still alive at eighty-two. Neither did I hear it from his own lips, but by hearsay from my sister Fatima, after her son, my nephew, was dead; for I was then dwelling at Siwa, where my grandsons were in attendance at the Zawia, and I heard it from her after she was a widow and had come to dwell with me. Nevertheless, by the accuracy of her repetition am I able to guide the gentleman’s caravan to the spot described by my nephew, for he noted the course by Jerdi, as we call the North Star, in its relation to certain other minor stars and by other methods which it is not necessary to go into.”
And now it was sunset of the fifth day out from Bukara.
“Adaryayan!” shouted Ibrahim. “We have arrived, oh, sick ones!”
The caravan halted in the hatia in the lee of the dunes and two of the baggage camels dropped to their knees. Calthrop, mounted on a fast hajin, had ridden on ahead and was already on the top of the next gherd. As far as his vision carried, one snow-white dune lifted beyond another. All day long they had climbed ridge after ridge under a sun that scorched through helmet and kufiya alike, until now the dispirited camels trailed their heads and gave off that acrid odor which is the inevitable concomitant of thirst. They had had nothing to eat since the third day, when the prickly, juiceless bush of the Mehemsa, sometimes found under the ridges, had entirely disappeared. Now the poor beasts struggled along, limping and wavering, and when they stopped tried to eat the stuffing of the baggage saddles. “Haya alla Salat!” came the call to prayer from below.
“Haya alla Salat!”
Already the Arabs were at their devotions — making kibla, as it is called — washing their hands in the sand, prostrating themselves, and praying with a quick glance over each shoulder and a muttered ejaculation to drive away the evil spirits supposed to be lurking behind them. To Calthrop, sitting alone upon his hajin and looking down upon them from the top of the gherd, it no longer seemed fantastic that these children of the desert should people it with jinn and houris, see the finger prints of Allah upon the drifting sands and hear the voices of his angels in the lisp of the night wind along the wadis.
The setting sun burning upon Calthrop’s back told him that he, like the rest of them, was facing the sacred Kaaba a thousand miles away, toward which amidst this desolate waste of sand they turned as unerringly as the compass needle swings to the magnetic pole. He had always thought of the desert as a dead thing like the surface of the moon; odorless, silent, for the most part motionless; a place of intolerable solitude. To his surprise he had found it quite otherwise, even amid the fantastic desolation of the apparently lifeless dunes. It had not amazed him to find the flat stony plain about Bukara spotted with gray gorse, a grazing ground for sheep and camels, to see long lines of hamlas come stalking over the horizon’s rim laden with ivory and feathers from Wadai and Lake Chad, to find the news of the Near East discussed with passionate earnestness by fadhling caravans; in a word, to find the Western Desert teeming with activity. But what astounded him was that here, far from the routes of the Jalo, Anjela, Siwa, Jaghabub and Darfur caravans, amid the weird, curly hummocks that stretch like an ice flow between Bukara and the Fayum, frequented only by the scattered descendants of the fierce bandits who lurked there in the days of the Romans, where all vegetable growth is extinct and not even a desiccated bush breaks the blinding smoothness of the surface, where no jackal or cony can survive, and where water does not exist — that here he should feel no loneliness, but on the contrary a curious sense of familiarity with it all, as if he had been born, lived and perhaps died there. He was filled with an exalted sense of the power and mystery of God, the unity of all things physical and spiritual, of being guided and directed, of his own essential participation in the affairs of an unseen world. The wind bore across the ridges a faint odor of myrrh, a curious scent of the desert, of the untarnished earth itself; it lifted the white sand from the crests of the gherds and sent it trickling, sifting and whispering in tiny avalanches down into the hatias, seeming to drive the snowy dunes before it like the billows of a mighty sea that swept on and on, irresistible, relentless, inevitable, like the tide submerging whatever came in its way. Indeed, Professor Troy had said that the gherds did move and for that reason were known as traveling dunes; that once the whole Libyan Desert was a well-watered and fertile country supporting a considerable degree of civilization, but that gradually the desert sea that washed the southern edges of its oases had encroached upon and smothered the inhabitants, filling their cisterns, absorbing their lakes, blotting out their villages and towns, rising higher and higher until it submerged even their temples and their hills, driving the population toward the seaboard on the one hand and the Nile upon the other.
From the hatia rose the pungent scent of dung-fed fires and the grumbling roar of the camels. The black goats’-hair tents had been pitched and the water girbas and bales of supplies arranged in a zareba, or hollow square. Supper would be ready in a few minutes. Calthrop was ready for it in spite of his swollen tongue, his burning throat, his inflamed eyes and his cracked lips and gums. He had expected and discounted all that. What he had not fully previsioned was the vast waste of sand through which now for nearly a week the camels had patiently struggled up and down, slipping and sliding, sinking at times almost to their knees. There were no tracks of any sort. Whatever wandering Bedouin might pass that way left no trace behind him — spurlos versenkt. The sun, the wind, and Jerdi, the North Star, are the only guides in this part of the Western Desert. Yet the guide, Mohammed Ali Ihrahim ben Rahim, had never faltered. But another day and they must find water. The camels could last but three or four more at most.
He swept with his glasses the sea of foaming breakers that came rushing toward him, one behind the other, higher and higher. A wisp of sand curled lightly along the top of the gherd like a whiplash. The hajin raised its head, which it had lowered almost to its knees, and wriggled its cushioned lips. It, like its rider, felt a call to something. Then the light dimmed to purple and at the same instant his eye caught a gara, or tabular hill, strangely rectangular in this tipsy curving world. It might, of course, be a trick of shadow, but he knew that a straight shadow can be cast only by a straight line. He looked again. Behind the gara, clearly defined against the side of one of the gherds, was a pyramidal gray patch. He glanced back over his shoulder. The sun was sinking in a whorl of flamingo feathers. The cohorts of the gherds gleamed with purple and gold. Calthrop tightened his rein and plunged down the other side of the dune, urging his hajin to top speed.
There is no twilight in the desert. The sun dies in a single iridescent moment. Yet, when, ten minutes later, Calthrop pulled in his sweating hajin there was still light enough for him to determine that what towered above him against the pale saffron of the afterglow was beyond peradventure the peak of a pyramid. In three tiers it rose to a point fifty feet above the floor of the hatia, terminating in a single massive block. On three sides the engulfing sand rose nearly to the top, then fell away sharply on the fourth, revealing cracks and apertures almost large enough to permit the passage of a human being.
Breathless, he peered through the dusk along the hatia. Surely it had a curious and significant regularity of form — this sandy ravine in the lee of the gherd — like a giant avenue. He hobbled the hajin and walked along the hatia for a hundred yards until, climbing imperceptibly, he found himself standing upon the top of the gara. His hobnails grated harshly; he kicked and struck stone; he was standing upon the pylon of a submerged temple. Kurafra!
He stood there stirred to his heart’s core at the visions conjured by his imagination. Here beneath his feet Amenhotep or Rameses the Great, or possibly even Nimrod, the Assyrian conqueror, had marked the western boundary of his kingdom. Here under the lash had strained thousands of slaves, glistening black giants from Ethiopia, from Numidia and from the distant oases of the west. Here some proud monarch, now a mummy, had raised his shrine to the great Ammon and, reclining with his queen like an Egyptian Canute upon the rim of the desert sea, had looked out across the sandy waves and bidden them to advance no farther. How they had mocked him!
The line of light on the western horizon had vanished. Like lamps turned on by an unseen hand, the firmament unexpectedly blazed with stars. Above, the night was girdled with a sash of silver dust.
Calthrop realized that he could not possibly find his way back to the camp in the dark, but the Arabs would know that he must be nearby and he could rejoin them at daylight. With blanket, haversack, canteen and shamadan, or wind candle, he could be perfectly comfortable. Flashlight in hand, he began looking for a likely spot to sleep. Throwing the circle of light along the surface of the pyramid, he examined the crevices until he found one large enough to creep into, and then worked his body through the aperture and crawled along, turning the ray of light ahead toward the interior. Reddish brown, the rough sandstone leaped toward him, then the gleam lost itself in darkness to reflect a darker surface some thirty feet distant.
Getting to his feet again, Calthrop fished his baggage through the crack behind him, and clasping it in his arms crept along the sandy floor into the chamber, or hollow, under the dome. Clearly he was not the first to be there, for in one corner lay the charred remains of a fire and not far off the skeleton of a sheep. There was also about half an alof, or bundle of fodder, and this he took outside and tossed to the hajin. Then he lit the shamadan, spread out his blanket and prepared to make himself at home.
By the time he had eaten the contents of his haversack, drunk the hot coffee from his vacuum bottle and lit a cigarette he was in a mood of exultation. It was reasonably certain that he was sitting in one of the pyramids that fringed the once-fertile strip watered in ancient times by the great Wadi al Fardi, which had flowed through Taizerbo to Jaghabub and thence past the oasis of Siwa to the Nile. Henceforth Kurafra would no longer be a myth but an actuality. But for how long? As vain to attempt to dam the ocean as these steadily advancing dunes of sand. Another year or so and pyramid and temple might disappear forever.
Lifting the shamadan above his head, Calthrop examined the walls. They were devoid of ornamentation. This upper chamber obviously had played no part in the religious functions of the priesthood of Amon-Ra. There was no means of telling whether the last visitor had been there ten, ten hundred, or ten thousand years ago. Higher up where the walls drew closer together it was harder to see, and Calthrop, who was an agile climber, managed to get a few good handholds and swing himself up nearly to the capstone. For a moment, badly winded, he hung there in the darkness like a bat, looking down between his feet at the glow from the shamadan. Then holding himself by one hand while he braced himself with his feet, he peered with the flashlight into every aperture.
Everywhere it caught on rough ocher-red surfaces except one, where some smaller stones had been heaped together. Pushing them aside he disclosed a blackened box, or receptacle, about eighteen inches square. His position was awkward; he had but a single free hand and that held the light, and as he shifted the object to his shoulder his foot slipped. For a moment or two he swung there and then fell heavily to the floor below, striking his head a violent blow against the edge of his find.
When he came to himself he found that he was severely bruised from head to foot and suffering from a sprained wrist. The flashlight was smashed to atoms. He lay there several minutes more, trying to collect himself, while the wind shrieked and roared through the cracks of the pyramid.
The gibleh had brought the sand storm and it was evidently centering among the ruins of Kurafra. And then Calthrop remembered the casket, and in spite of his pain crawled to his knees and shifted the light from the shamadan this way and that along the floor until he found it lying unharmed nearby. The hide of which it was made was black with age and hard as iron, and the peculiar shapelessness of the affair gave it somewhat the appearance of an enormous dried shark’s egg. With the shamadan elevated upon his haversack, he sat down and lifted the casket upon his knees. As he did so he found that he was trembling.
“Nonsense!” he said aloud. “It’s probably empty anyhow!”
His heart beat like a tom-tom as he grasped the cover, and when he attempted to lift it the leather hinges broke, discharging a small cloud of fine dust. Raising the shamadan above his head, Calthrop looked inside.
“I lifted the shamadan above my head and looked inside,” said Calthrop. “Try to picture to yourself what a tremendous moment that was for me! I was pretty well done after six days on camel back. I’d traveled nearly two hundred and fifty miles. I’d fallen twenty feet and given my head a beastly knock. I’d just discovered the ruins of a city that no white man knew existed. I was more or less lost in the heart of the Libyan Desert. I didn’t know whether I was ever going to get back or not, and I had a queer feeling that I wasn’t alone in the place. I can’t explain it.
“All those elements combined to give the performance a curious feeling of unreality. Was I there, or was I dreaming it? Or was I someone else? Was I sitting cross-legged inside a pyramid five thousand years old, holding this thing on my knees, or where was I? And outside the gibleh was shrieking like all the demons of hell let loose, and the sand came rattling and sifting through the cracks and swirling across the floor. The shamadan flickered and burned blue. I seemed to hear shouts and screams all around, above and below. And that box wasn’t mine! Yes, I confess it, I hesitated a few seconds before lifting the cover. And then I did! At first I couldn’t make out anything, and then I saw there was a mess of papers and — Well, I’ll show you what I found, exactly as I found it.”
Calthrop got up from the dinner table at which they were seated and went to his cabin. He had returned from his trip only that afternoon, but the members of the party had already learned the details from General Hunter of how the caravan had nearly perished of thirst seven days from Bukara, had been found by a flyer sent out by the Frontier Districts Administration, and how Calthrop himself had been finally rescued by a troop of the Camel Corps Patrol under Major Bagley himself.
He was hollow-eyed, burned black, with cracked lips, almost a wreck, but obviously laboring under an exhilaration that approached hysteria. Something had happened to the man; something that had profoundly affected him; something concerning which they had not cared to ask him.
He returned, carrying the casket in his arms, and they watched him breathlessly as he held it above the candles. The only sound was the lap of the current against the river bank, the scream of the frogs, the chanting of the sailors, to the faint pulsations of the daraboukeh. Through the plate-glass windows of the saloon a white moon looked in upon a table decorated with flowers and silverware. The Princess Zeeka, smoking a tiny cigarette in a long jade holder, sat with her chin in her hands, her elbows among the wineglasses, her eyes fastened expectantly upon Calthrop’s face.
“Move those glasses, will you?” he said to his sister. “Push the candles nearer together please, excellency. Yes, I want you all to have the story just as it unfolded itself to me, step by step. What that box contained might have changed the whole history of civilization!”
He waited while Miss Calthrop arranged the glasses, then placed the box in the center of the table and opened it.
“This is what I found!”
And Calthrop held up to their astonished gaze a Roman short sword and scabbard, with its accompanying belt, thickly studded with semiprecious stones. Even after two thousand years the facets of the jewels reflected the candlelight undimmed. Professor Troy examined it carefully.
“Extraordinary! It is of the time of Tiberius. Congratulations, Calthrop. You’ll be famous. Even the coins of Hadrian found in the Fayum created a sensation, and they were nothing to this.”
But the princess looked slightly disappointed.
“I see that you were joking,” she said. “All you meant was that a sword might have changed the destinies of Europe.”
“Wait a moment,” he answered excitedly. “No, I did not refer to the sword, but to something else — that the box once contained.”
“What was that?” asked Ismail Bey. “And what has become of it?”
“These will tell you,” he replied, lifting a bundle of letters. “Do you read German easily?” he asked the princess.
“I do not like to read German,” answered Zeeka.
“Give them to me. I will make a try at it,” said Professor Troy. “I spent three years at Heidelberg in my extreme youth.”
“How soiled they are!” exclaimed the princess. “I am glad I do not have to read them.”
“Do you remember our conversation about Christianity the evening before I left,” went on Calthrop, “and how the professor told us about the legend of the Lost Gospel, and suggested that — ”
“By George, Calthrop!” exploded Troy. “This is a letter from William Hohenzollern, former Emperor of Germany!”
“That does not interest me in the least,” remarked the princess.
Troy wiped his glasses and spread the crumpled sheet upon the snowy damask before him. “Listen,” he commanded,
“‘AT THE MANEUVERS,
“‘August 20, 1913.
“My dear Harnach-Hulsen: I trust that by this time you are safely at Jerusalem. You remember our interesting talk about a year ago, when Cardinal Kopp, Prince-Bishop of Breslau, and our friends Von Tirpitz and Von Bernhardi were present, and we discussed the biological aspect of war. At that time your remarks struck me as of great force. When you have the time I should be glad to have you set them down in writing. I shall see that they are disseminated through the proper educational, military and ecclesiastic channels, in order that the virility of my people may not be permitted to decay through the insidious and demoralizing influence of an effeminate desire for peace which dominates our age and threatens to spoil the soul of the German people according to its true moral significance. War is not merely a necessary element in the life of nations, but an indispensable factor of culture, in which a truly civilized nation finds the highest expression of strength and vitality.
“‘In answer to the query in your last letter, I distinguish between two different kinds of revelation — a progressive historical revelation and a purely religious one, paving the way to the future coming of the Messiah. As to the first, there is not the smallest doubt in my mind that God constantly reveals himself through the human race created by Him, through some great savant or priest or king, whether among the heathens, Jews or Christians.
“‘The second kind of revelation, the more religious kind, is that which is introduced from Abraham onward, slowly, but with foresight, all-wise and all-knowing, the actual revelation of the Almighty.
“‘Is not His Word our authority? Delitzsch, as a good theologian, should not forget that our great teacher Luther taught us to sing and believe, Das Wort sie sollen Lassen stehn.
“‘It must be our guide, until the Messiah, announced and foreshadowed by the prophets and psalmists, shall at last declare himself. In what form or when the Messiah.may appear no one knows. It may be in the far future or he may be on earth among us even now, unrevealed save to those who perceive and understand, beggar or emperor. But the day arrives!
“‘Unfortunately the condition of her majesty has become worse. My heart is filled with the most grievous sorrow. God with us!
“‘With heartiest thanks and many greetings, I remain always,
“‘Your sincere friend,
“‘WILLIAM I. R.’”
“A characteristic epistle, but not highly illuminating,” declared Ismail Bey. “What else have you got there, Calthrop?”
“Did not this same emperor recently remarry?” the Princess Zeeka inquired of Troy.
The professor ignored her, for he regarded her as a bore. Besides, he was engaged at that moment in wondering whom William had in mind in penning the words “beggar or emperor.”
“Yes, dear lady, he did remarry,” answered Ismail Bey. “But having deprived him of the occupation of war, you should not begrudge him the consolation of love.”
“The next in order is Harnach-Hulsen’s answering letter to the Kaiser,” said Calthrop. “Will you help us out again, professor?”
“I knew Harnach-Hulsen years ago at Heidelberg. I recall him chiefly as a duelist for the Saxe-Gothas. He had quite a record.”
“Well, here is his letter. It is a long one. Take your time.”
Professor Troy drew his chair toward the table so that the candlelight fell upon the bundle of sheets in his hand. They were covered with a fine running script.
“He dates his epistle from the Pyramid Emperor William II,” he remarked dryly, glancing at his host.
“‘Jan. 29, 1914.
“‘Imperial and Royal Majesty and All-Highest Lord: With most humble gratitude I acknowledge Your Majesty’s wire received at Cairo. I can already say without egotism that Your Majesty’s interest in this expedition has borne surprising fruit. I have in fact made discoveries of the highest archeological importance, in their way rivaling those of Schliemann.
“‘To take matters in order: After leaving Bukara we proceeded northeastwards toward the Fayum for five days without finding water, although assured by our Berbers that there were desert wells within a distance of two hundred and fifty kilometers. They may have had some sinister plan. I do not trust these people. The only way to get along with them is by dominating them absolutely. The traveling was exceedingly difficult owing to the immense dunes of white sand thrown up by the wind, which drift quite a long distance each year. To cross these dunes is slow and exhausting work, and it is better where possible to follow the hatias between them and to cross at the low places. It is hard to shape any very definite course.
“‘However, on the seventh day, about sunset, when our camels were giving signs of exhaustion, I thought I saw from the top of one of the dunes, at a distance of about a mile, something projecting from the sand that looked like an outcropping of limestone. To my great excitement this proved to be the top of a small pyramid almost entirely submerged; and shortly, at about the right distance, we came upon the two pylons of a temple. It is probable that had we not discovered these they would have been obliterated entirely by the moving sands within a few years.
“‘Here we established our camp and, having measured and photographed the surface remains, began excavating on the side of the pyramid toward the temple, where the stones appeared to have been previously tampered with.
“‘We are proceeding slowly also to excavate the outer surface of the pylons, and have already laid bare not only the usual hymns to Amon-Ra and Sebek, the crocodile god, but also inscriptions made during the reign of Darius and added to by Nektanebes, as well as a Greek inscription in sixty-six lines dating from the second year of the reign of the Emperor Galba, A.D. 69. We have named the pyramid, subject to your gracious permission, the Pyramid of the Emperor William II.
“‘We broke very easily through the outer wall of the pyramid and found a rough passage leading to an unfinished empty chamber. Charred embers and a roll of matting upon the floor showed that robbers had once used it for a hiding place. Concealed in a recess, we found a small chest containing a jeweled belt and short sword, a few gold coins and a papyrus many meters in length. This last appears to be a sort of journal, in the form of a letter addressed to the Emperor Tiberius at Capri by one Gaius Marcus Claudius Silenus, a Roman gentleman traveling in the East under the imperial protection. The Latin text is hard to decipher, probably owing to the fact that it was written in many different localities and under varying conditions. I am translating it as fast as I can with due regard for our other work.
“‘The manuscript is dated at Thebes, in the seven hundred and sixty-sixth year of the founding of the city of Rome, and after the customary complimentary salutations to Tiberius begins with a brief statement that the writer, having killed many crocodiles and lions — these last with the aid of hunting cheetahs of the celebrated breed trained by the Ptolemys — has learned of the ruins of an ancient city called Kurafra lying on the edge of the Western Desert, which he contemplates visiting.
“‘He then proceeds to give a long and unnecessarily detailed account of his travels in Cappadocia, Armenia and Syria, where he was the guest of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, on his way to Caesarea to stay with his cousin, Claudia Procula, wife of Pontius Pilatus, the procurator of Judea. He describes Herod as a drunkard, unfit for kingship, and laboring under the delusion of being the Messias of the Jews, and declares that he caused the murder of Iokanaan because the latter denied the truth of his claim. I regard this as of some historic interest, as it is in flat contradiction of Josephus.
“‘I find the work of translating the papyrus most fatiguing, as I have broken my reading glasses. The manuscript contains a description of the miraculous healing of Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s chief steward, by the thaumaturge known as Jesus, or Joshua, of Nazareth, whom Iokanaan had proclaimed to be the Messias of the Jews, and who was working many miracles throughout Galilee and Samaria. Silenus writes that there is no question about the authenticity of the various cures, since Chuza and Joanna are truthful people, as is also Jairus, a prominent citizen of Capernaum, whose little daughter was brought back to life by the prophet. He also tells how a Jew named Lazarus was similarly raised from the dead, and recounts many restorations of lepers, paralytics, palsied, deaf and dumb, and those officially certified as insane. He describes the great excitement attendant upon these miracles, and mentions a letter that he has received from Claudia Procula, his cousin, asking him to look into the matter with a view to the possibility of inducing the prophet to come to Jerusalem to try to cure Pilate of diabetes.
“‘Silenus then tells of how he went on in the company of Herod Antipas, Herodias and Salome, her daughter, to Jerusalem, where Pilate, who had come up from Caesarea for the Feast of the Passover, was occupying the palace of Herod the Great. He describes how annoyed Antipas is at finding the palace in which he was brought up as a boy commandeered by the Romans and how it has resulted in a certain coldness between himself and the tetrarch, whom he had just been visiting on the friendliest terms. Here he finds to his surprise that his cousin Procula is already, without as yet having seen Christ, more than half a convert to his teachings, fully believing that he is the long-foretold Messias of the Jews. He also related how Pilate is very unpopular with all classes, but particularly the Pharisees, and how they are always plotting his removal by trying to lead him into acts giving the impression that he is disloyal to the emperor.
“‘Then comes a description of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, his cleansing of the temple, and of his accusation by the officers of the Sanhedrin of treason to Caesar, as a result of which he is placed under arrest and brought before Pilate.
“‘Next follows an account of how Silenus is sent secretly to Christ with an offer of freedom if he would cure Pilate of disease, which is refused, and of the trial of Christ, with its background of political plot and counterplot. Pilate, fearful that unless he accedes to the demand of the Sanhedrin and turns Christ over to them he will be accused of treason to Rome, recalls the presence of Herod in the city and accordingly seeks to escape responsibility for either the release or the delivery of the prisoner to the Jews by sending Silenus to Herod with the suggestion that, as Christ is a Galilean, he comes within the latter’s jurisdiction. But the tetrarch is too wily to be caught and sends the prisoner back to Pilate at the praetorium, inwardly pleased at the dilemma in which the Roman procurator finds himself.
“‘Silenus describes how Pilate, realizing that he cannot evade his duty, becomes greatly disturbed, and representing that he will take the case under advisement sends Silenus to Christ to interrogate him as to his actual doctrines and to determine whether they are treasonable. Procula, unknown to her husband, insists on going with him. They find Christ in a dungeon of the Sanhedrin and have a lengthy conversation with him. They also seek him out later and continue the discussion of various phases of his doctrines, more particularly with respect to the ultimate determination of contested issues.
“‘I cannot say that these alleged interpretations of Christ’s philosophy, even if genuine, add anything to the German theory of culture so often elucidated by Your Royal and Gracious Majesty to Von Bernhardi, Von Tirpitz and myself. In fact it may so easily cause a natural confusion and misunderstanding as to our biological point of view that it perhaps would better be suppressed in the higher interests of the state. I am in grave doubt as to what course to pursue, as any suspicion of our discovery on the part of the public would doubtless result in the demand for a complete disclosure, the refusal of which might arouse unfavorable inference.
“‘Would that Your Gracious Majesty were here to direct my thoughts into harmony with the purposes of Almighty God! I am writing this letter in the unlikely hope that I may be able to transmit it to Bukara by some passing caravan.
“‘To my great satisfaction, I learned from your telegram that there had been an improvement in the health of Her Majesty. May God help further.
“‘With the deepest respect, unlimited fidelity and gratitude, I am, All-Highest, Your Imperial and Royal Majesty’s most humble servant,
“Mashallah!” shouted Ismail Bey. “Where is this papyrus?”
He started to look into the casket, but Calthrop restrained him by a touch upon the shoulder.
“A moment, excellency, if you please! Let us take one thing at a time. There is still one other paper — an unfinished letter from Trent to his mother. That letter I will read to you myself:
“‘Jan. 29, 1914.
“‘Dearest mother: At last I can tell you the marvelous news! We’ve found Kurafra! Do you realize what that means? You can’t blame me for being excited. Who wouldn’t be? But Kurafra is nothing to what we found there! Our caravan had a terrible time crossing the dunes, and we were nearly all in when we found the pyramid that marks the site. Of course we both went nearly crazy. I’m sure Harnach-Hulsen would have got drunk if there had been anything to get drunk on but laghbi. As it was, he made a long speech and toasted the Kaiser in lukewarm coffee. Then he had a sort of dedication ceremony and baptized the pyramid. “I name thee Wilhelm der Zweite.” It was funny as anything, although he took it dead seriously.
“‘I didn’t grudge it to him, for I found the Lost Gospel! H-H didn’t! He may claim to, but he didn’t! I got climbing around inside the peak of old Wilhelm Secundus, and there it was, in a box, where it had lain for nineteen hundred years! You see, Marcus Claudius Silenus, who wrote it to send to the Emperor Tiberius … evidently hadn’t time to finish it at Jerusalem and so he took it along with him when he started off to hunt for Kurafra in 31 A.D. H-H says that what undoubtedly happened was that Silenus was murdered by robbers who hid their booty in the pyramid and forgot to come back for it, or were killed or something.
“‘Anyhow, we’ve got it! And it’s the greatest find since the Sinaitic parchment, the Codex Aleph as they call it, and infinitely more important. For it is an actual Fifth Gospel, in which the writer has written down with the greatest care the exact words of Christ about a lot of things that have always been the subject of argument. For example, regarding the individual ownership of property. But, far more important, his ideas about war! This wonderful old papyrus is going to change everything. The language is so simple, yet so beautiful and convincing. Only to think that the fingers that wrote the letters that are lying now before me had just touched those of Jesus! I can’t sleep. I can hardly eat. With this direct revelation and injunction from Christ’s own lips, there can never be any such thing as war again!
“‘Harnach-Hulsen does not seem very well. I am afraid the heat has done him up. He has been acting very queer and grouchy for a couple of days. He — ”
“Why did he not finish the letter?” asked Zeeka.
“That you must judge for yourself.” Calthrop placed the letter with the others and poured himself a glass of brandy and soda.
“Now to go back a little, let me resume my narrative. I’ve told you how I fell with the casket in my arms and hit my head and probably passed out for a while; and how I finally came to, grubbed around for the box and opened it. Finding the sword, of course, gave me a stupendous kick; but naturally it was nothing to the thrill I got out of the letters. I’d give a lot to be able to paint the thing for you exactly as it was.”
He hesitated, put down his glass and fumbled for his words.
“You see, a very queer sort of thing happened. I’m the last person in the world for that kind of an experience. The wind was raising Cain all around and through the pyramid and the flame of my shamadan kept flickering — what’s the word they use? — ‘guttering,’ I guess — and made weird shadows all over the place and gave me a feeling that I was not alone in there. I could feel — presences — emanations or something. And as I read the letters — it’s hard for me to explain — I can only describe it by saying that I lost my time sense; or rather, as it were, I saw time as a whole — going both ways at once. I — well, I seemed to be detached from the whole business. It was as if everything had telescoped — reversed itself or something — and turned inside out. It was quite weird, I can tell you.”
He shut his eyes and passed his hand across his forehead.
“Of course the bang on my head had something to do with it, no doubt — exhaustion and all that — but I found myself looking very intently at the flame of the shamadan. I suppose there is such a thing as autohypnosis. Anyhow, at first it seemed to be just a blur of radiance. The air was full of flying sand and the flame danced and wavered and tore at the wick — and right there It — whatever It was — happened.”
He pulled one of the candles in front of him. Through the window a broad, glittering moon path lay like a silver drugget across the Nile. Calthrop pointed into the flame.
“As I looked,” he said slowly, “the blur focused — if you get what I mean — and everything became very clear — and distinct — and still — and small. I seemed to be inside the flame, looking out, and at the same time to be outside looking in, and seeing myself in there looking out, as if the whole thing were going on at the wrong end of a spy glass and I had gone through. I know it sounds quite mad.”
He laughed nervously.
“Anyhow, it was all more like feeling than seeing; a visual awareness, if there is such a thing, that I was sitting there inside that blooming pyramid in the middle of a sandstorm fishing inside the box by the light of the shamadan. And I felt sure — you’ll probably think me an utter idiot — that there was something in there near me that I can’t possibly describe. The flame burned up bright again until the inside of the pyramid was bright as day and I could see right through it as if it had been made of glass. And out of the middle of the light a great thing like a gigantic seesaw ran up through the pyramid into the sky — into eternity. It said ‘Don’t touch it!’ Then I knew that It was myself and that the seesaw was Time. I found that I was sliding along it, faster and faster, until I was shooting out into space with the velocity of light. As I flew I saw everything that ever happened. You’ve seen those moving pictures that illustrate Einstein’s theory, showing a human being shot into space at such a rate of speed that he goes flying back through the centuries, overtaking and passing the former years? Well, it was like that, you know. I saw everything that ever happened — only backwards.
“I saw the desert floor sinking lower and lower and the pylons of the temple lifting higher and higher, until temple and pyramid both stood free and clear of the sand and joined by a long avenue of sphinxes. I saw caravans of camels and Bedouins on fast hajins — hawk-faced men with cruel mouths — coming and going. I saw the pyramid being built and the slaves dragging the stones into place up an inclined spiral plane that wound around it. The country was soft and green and covered with palm trees, and the air was sweet and laden with moisture. And then I came rushing down aslant time again and seeing it all forward instead of backwards, the desert sand drifting in, the pylons and the pyramid sinking back, back, until I was looking into a fire surrounded by a circle of peering Arab faces, and then I saw that the fire was my own shamadan and the circle of faces was the same face repeated over and over again — the face of old Ibrahim, who was sitting cross-legged there behind me.”
Calthrop laughed again — apologetically.
“How he had found his way there across the dunes in that sandstorm I can’t imagine, but there he was, and his presence gave me considerable relief. He said that he had stood outside for a long time and shouted to me, but the wind must have carried away his voice. I had begun to feel very chilly. Ibrahim went snooping back in the darkness and came back presently with a handful of brush and a few cakes of camel dung, with which we built a fire, and then I pulled out my brandy flask and mixed a couple of stiff drinks with the water from my zemzemieh. He showed no reluctance about taking it.
“Did you ever see an Arab partly boiled? It’s a very curious sight. I fancy we were both pretty well lit up. At all events, he told me the story of his life, and whenever he showed signs of weakening I’d give him another drink. He was eighty-two years old, he said, and had seen many, many things. I let him run on, and by and by he got down to what I was after.
“It was, he said, in the thirteen-hundred-and-thirty-sixth year of the Hejireh that there came to their town of Bukara a red gentleman, a khawlija el hamri, named Harnach-Hulsen, and a white gentleman, a khawaja el abiad, named Trent. When, however, they learned that these gentlemen sought to find Kurafra the Forbidden City, which Allah had caused to disappear, they were afraid and refused to go with them; but eventually the strangers overcame their fears with gold, and they went. Then he, Mohammed Ali Ibrahim ben Rahim, from the knowledge handed down to him by his great-grandfather, who had it from his great-grandfather, led them here in five days’ journey, to their great joy. Now, there was at that time a well in this place which has since filled with sand.
“Accordingly they made their camp at the other end of the hatia beside the well, but the two gentlemen pitched their tent outside the pyramid and Ibrahim remained with them to serve them. Each day they superintended the digging, and transcribed what was written upon the walls of the temple and made photographs. At night they were busy inside their tent. When they found the chest inside the pyramid they were both very much excited and abandoned everything else in order to decipher the parchment. They sat about all day, and because of the heat in the tent they went inside the pyramid and worked there, coming out at evening and mealtimes.
“Then one night they had a violent row. Ibrahim did not know what it was about, but he felt sure it had something to do with the papyrus. It was a still, moonlit night and the Arabs could hear the red gentleman shouting inside the tent at the other end of the hatia. They, of course, did not know what he was saying; but they could make out references to the Prophet Christ and the phrase ‘mahr ve khareb,’ signifying ‘annihilation.’ The voices rose higher and higher, until the Arabs became very much terrified, and at length the two gentlemen came out of the tent. The khawaja el abiad had the box in his arms and the khawaja el hamri was trying to take it away from him. The struggle became so violent that the entire contents, including the sword, fell out upon the sand. The white gentleman grabbed the papyrus, thrust it behind his back and began pleading with the red gentleman. But the latter seemed to have gone mad, for he picked up the sword and drove it through the white gentleman’s breast. Then he wrenched the papyrus out of the hand of the dead man and threw it into the middle of the fire.”
Calthrop’s lips quivered as he reached into the box and removed a blackened stick to which adhered a charred irregular strip of parchment about two inches wide.
“Ad Tiberium Cmsarem Imperatorem Capreae,” spelled out Ismail Bey. “Magistro Meo Salutem Mashallah! It is a part of the letter to Tiberius!”
“The Lost Gospel!” whispered Calthrop. “All that is left of what might have changed the destiny of the world!” And he burst into tears.
There was a prolonged silence. The princess laid her hand gently on Calthrop’s arm. Her own eyes were wet.
“Do not cry,” she said. “Please do not cry!”
“I’m sorry,” he answered. “I’m a bit strung up.” He ground his handkerchief into his eyes. “Well, after Harnach-Hulsen had burned up the papyrus he went back into the tent, and Ibrahim and the other Arabs ran away. When they came back in the morning Trent was dead and Harnach-Hulsen was still in the tent.”
He stopped and took a sip of water.
“And what became of the German?” asked Imail Bey.
“That is highly significant,” said Calthrop. “When the Arabs realized what had happened they were so fearful lest they should be accused of the murder that they killed Harnach-Hulsen and buried the two of them in the same grave.”
Again he paused.
“So the world will never know — ” began his sister as she stared at the fragment of burnt papyrus. Somehow the past seemed very close to all of them — the past which is part of the present, and of the future. From the neighboring dahabeah floated laughter, the tinkle of silver upon glass, the wheeze of the phonograph playing The Barnyard Blues, while myriad frogs shrilled in the shadoofs — lineal descendants of the same batrachians that had sung to sleep the infant Moses and acclaimed his finding by the daughter of the Pharaoh. A great star hung like a sconce of liquid fire over the Temple of Karnak — just such a star as had guided the Magi to the manger of Bethlehem, where lay the infant Christ.
“There isn’t much more to tell,” said Calthrop at length. “Ibrahim said the rest of the Arabs had never returned to Bukara and that he himself had lived in Siwa for five years before going back to his family. His story had pretty well knocked me out. The wind was shrieking outside the pyramid, the fire was almost dead, and it was getting terribly cold in there. I wouldn’t have cared if Eblis himself had been waiting for me out there in the hatia. I threw the things into the casket, bundled up the rest of my stuff and told Ibrahim that I was going back to the caravan no matter what. He protested at first; but finally he gave in, and we went out and found the camels huddled against one another, half buried in sand. The wind nearly tore me off my beast’s back, and whirled my blanket and raincoat in flapping circles above my head. The air was a thick sheet of stinging, biting dust and grit that cut like glass. The screaming gusts seemed to tear my eyes from their sockets. All sense of direction was blotted out, like the sky. One could only feel.
“I don’t know how we ever made the caravan or how we managed to stick it out when we did. But eventually the wind died down, and by dawn the sky was clear and the air still. By nine o’clock the heat had become suffocating. We were seven days from Bukara, and without water our chances of getting back there were small. While the Arabs were packing the camels I climbed up to the top of the gherd from which I had spied the pyramid the night before. What I’m going to tell you isn’t the least queer part of it all either. There wasn’t a sign of either temple or pyramid left! During the night the sand had completely covered both. The desert had finished its job!”
He lit a cigarette at one of the candles.
“Bagley’s told you the rest, of course — how they spotted us with a flyer and the Camel Corps Patrol picked us up about ninety kilos out of Bukara. You can bet I was glad to see them! I had to abandon my caravan but they gave me a fresh hajin and — Well, here I am!”
He began gathering up the papers. Ismail Bey watched him, frowning. “An efficient person — from his own viewpoint — this Harnach-Hulsen,” he mused. “But the world would never have accepted it.”
“Very efficient; very learned,” agreed Professor Troy. “And if you will believe it, as a young man, very sentimental.”
“Didn’t he write a book on Civilization and Decay?” inquired Rhoda Cafthrop.
“Yes; and in it he gave warning of the danger to civilization of the rising tide of barbarism. The Kaiser gave him the Black Eagle for it,” said Troy.
“How beautiful the sword is!” exclaimed the Princess Zeeka. “How the hilt sparkles! I know many of the stones. We have them in Russia, set in our icons. There is beryl and topaz and turquoise and lapis lazuli. Even a sword can be very beautiful.”
Ismail Bey, holding it under the candles, drew the blade part way from the jeweled scabbard. The princess examined it eagerly.
“How bright it is, in spite of its great age!” she said. “Is it not strange for such an old sword to be so blight?”
The Egyptian turned it slowly. The silken shades of the candles tinged the blade a dull red.
“What is that thin black line under the hilt?” asked the princess.
Ismail Bey glanced at her through his eyebrows.
“That, dear lady,” he answered reverently, “is the blood of a very gallant gentleman.”
For several minutes there was no sound save the chirping of the frogs and the melancholy challenge, “Allahu akbar! La-ilahah! Al-lah! Al-lah!”
Then a footstep clattered in the passage, and Hawkins, the wireless operator, immaculate in white duck, entered, cap in hand.
“Beg pardon,” he said, “but Jerusalem is broadcasting, and — the French have just entered the Ruhr!”
Featured image: Illustrated by James H. Crank / SEPS.
Florida journalist and activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a fierce advocate for the preservation of the Everglades. In addition to her stories on the environment, Douglas wrote fiction for the Post that won the O. Henry Prize. One such story is “The Peculiar Treasure of Kings,” a yarn about an aged sailor who finds himself on a bark with a captain who is at once a stranger and close family.
Published on November 26, 1927
Whenever old Johnny Mathew had to rest his face from its enforced habit of cheerfulness he came and sat alone on his favorite bench in the little park at Charlotte Amalie, where his mild seaman’s eye could look out over the shimmering translucence of the bay, where the ships lay lightly. Over him and over the statue of some forgotten Danish prince in a cast-iron Prince Albert coat, a flagstaff pushed a bright American flag up into the steady wind from the Caribbean. It was a comfort to let his face sag and his eyes show their weariness that was often very like desperation, here where no one could notice him, among the raw red croton bushes and the tall upcurving coconuts. Today even his shoulders sagged under his worn cotton coat, and his neatly trimmed gray head drooped to his chest. Old Johnny had had a shock. He had seen his son.
He was on that bark out there in the harbor, the bark Mary Parsons, which three days ago, to his excitement, had moved beautifully under her own canvas to an anchorage among the coal steamers, stately as a lady and splendid as new hope. She was that to him. She meant that he might be able to get a berth on her, any sort of job, to escape from this fear he had of being sent back to the States by the authorities, shamefully, as a pauper. The small wad of money he had left after being discharged from the hospital here would not last another month, and his hopes of getting anything to do on any of these casual steamers that stopped for an hour or two were dwindling with it.
He knew steamships well enough. But like the old sailing man that he was, secretly he had a contempt for them — for steamships that battered and reeked their dirty way among the boom and slide of clean oceans which only sails, to his old-fashioned way of thinking, were fit to serve. The Mary Parsons was bound to Rio with lumber, he found out; but off St. Thomas her captain had been taken dangerously ill and she had put in here so that he could be operated on at the hospital while she communicated with her owners. She was waiting now for orders. And John Mathew’s own son, the son that Annie had made him promise never to hunt up or try to know, was the Mary Parsons’ second mate.
He had noticed the boy for the first time yesterday morning, when he had had himself rowed out to the ship to speak to the mate about a berth. The feel of the ship under him, after these sickly months of earth, the orderly lift of her cordage over his head, had made him happy, although the mate had not been encouraging. He was genial enough about it, to be sure, with a surly sense of power already in the swing of his thick shoulders and his thick hands, and old Johnny had lingered to promote the general friendliness with one or two of those sprightly yarns he carried under his tongue, which often won him dinners from the men from the ships.
The mate, with the command of the Mary Parsons so nearly in his grasp, was ripe for friendliness. Old Johnny was a seaman and no beach comber, he could feel him thinking. As a result, old Johnny spoke as an expert of the chicken at Yellow Charlie’s and of Yellow Charlie’s admirable habit of slipping a little very old Jamaica rum to the elbow of anyone he knew was right. That fixed everything. The mate promptly wanted to be shown.
So old Johnny had started for the ladder, feeling fairly cheery and looking thoroughly sprightly, when he saw the second mate. The thing that startled him was nothing he could put his finger on. It was just a whiff of something familiar in the look of that lean brown youth coming silently down the deck, with a still gray eye and a shut look to his mouth, as if something hot and dogged in him pulled tight at his lips, which might have been more restless than he cared to show. The older, smaller man stood for a moment at the ladder top, caught by that look of something that he had known. The second passed him with a cool glance full in the eye, not bold so much as measuring, and the image of him stuck in old Johnny’s mind in spite of his deeper concern.
He met the mate at the boat landing as the dark slid down the mountainside, and he saw that the second had come along in the boat too. Old Johnny talked easily as he led them up the cobbles, under the wooden galleries, past open doors and windows where lamplight splashed across the murmurous dark. They climbed among the heavy scent of jasmine and frangipani, and the tropic night hummed like Africa below the firm sound of their boots. Old Johnny hardly noticed what his tongue was saying because of the way his disturbed mind darted about the silent young figure at his shoulder. What was it about the boy?
Then over a table with the lamp on it, in the bare second-floor room at Yellow Charlie’s, with the night wind bulging the flowered cotton curtain and the sound of feet shuffling by on the stones below, he had heard the mate say, “Mat Brandon here’s our second, Mr. Mathew. I don’t know’s I told you.” And in the moment in which the boy had stretched a hand, silently, to his, he had seen that scar in the left eyebrow.
It was only a thin white line that cut it sharply in two and went up the forehead an inch — an old scar, almost unnoticeable. But at the sight of that, old Johnny’s body shivered with an unforgotten chill. He had caused that scar himself. It was a memory that turned him sick, even now, in his bed nights. The baby had slipped through his fingers as he held him high one time he had come home a little drunk. He remembered how he had been snatched from a jovial mist by the sight of the little thing bleeding where his forehead had struck the edge of a table. Nothing of anything that he had done, all his life, had been so bitter, so remorseful, so remorseless, as memory of that. His forehead was wet now, suddenly thinking of it.
It was his son, right enough — Mathew Brandon; a son a man could cotton to who had that empty place in him for something to be proud of. When a man’s given up his house and his family, and the place where he grew up and the right to his memories and his name, he has that empty place in him. John Mathew, who had been John Mathew Brandon, thought of that, looking at that scar. Then he rapped on the table smartly to let Yellow Charlie know he had brought him some more customers.
The mate found the chicken good and the old Jamaica rum much to his liking, and his red face turned a slow purple as old Johnny, who did not let himself drink much, kept up the talk that seemed always to be expected of him. The second mate, that young Mat Brandon, who from across the table grew to look more and more like his own grandfather but for the mouth and chin that were his mother’s, did not drink much either. Old Johnny could not decide what that chin on the boy might mean. But he did see that he was like his mother in one thing. Under that quiet he was high-strung. The stillness of his body was almost rigidity. His nerves were tight as fiddle strings under a waiting restraint.
The mate was drinking heavily and boasting now — boasting about the captain’s illness and his own chance at the command. Drunk, he was a sloppy brute. Old Johnny saw that he would be blind drunk and helpless in another fifteen minutes. There was no use in his staying. He said so to Mat Brandon, who nodded carelessly, his gray eyes intent, dark in his waiting face.
Old Johnny’s knees were a little shaky, going slowly down the twisty cobbled street, in the soft vast and blackness of the night. He had a clean bare room in an old Danish house and he was glad to get there, worn out with all this unexpectedness. But the important thing was still that he should get away on that ship. If the captain did die, there would have to be changes. He wouldn’t like that mate for captain, but that was not the point. And whatever promises he had made Annie about not ever seeing the son, whom she considered he had disgraced by his drinking, his lightness, his habit of slipping off to sea without her permission, his being undependable and uproarious, had nothing to do with his own necessity now. Poor Annie. She was such a hard-working, righteous woman. She had that dreadful habit of denying to a man even his last scant measure of self-respect.
He was thinking about that still, sitting on the bench among the crotons, staring out at the bark Mary Parsons, full in the diamond radiance of the light. Or rather, he was not so much thinking about his self-respect as feeling it there in him, the very center of himself. He had been uproarious and undependable, as Annie had said. He had got drunk and wasted money and had disreputable friends. He had had a habit of letting responsibility slip out of his grasp, and the morning sea with the sun on it and men’s laughter and the moving sails of ships had set a wild gayety burning in him — burning in his veins with the conviction that life was nothing to get so solemn about. Even now that he was nearly old, he felt that way still, often, all by himself in the sunshine.
But nobody would give command of a ship to a small man and a laugher. He knew he worked better for someone else. As a mate he wasn’t bad. He could handle men well enough. He could stow a cargo cunningly to favor the nature of the ship. It had been Annie’s chief complaint against him that he had no ambition, no drive — that he was soft.
Well, he had certainly been soft to promise what she wanted of him, to give up the house to her, and his name — and the boy. But on the other hand, it was the least he could do for her if she felt like that. What difference did it make? He knew that in this world he was too proud to explain himself or ask favors or hoard bitterness for things long done. Maybe men did not succeed like that. But any other was simply not the way he thought, that was all.
Abruptly now he looked up and saw his son striding intently along one of the paths, even as he was thinking about him. He walked frowning at the ground. A good tall boy, old Johnny thought with a throb of pleasure, broad-shouldered for all his slenderness. He wished that he knew what the thoughts were behind the narrowed eyes, and what the tight mouth would become in an emergency.
As he looked the other saw him and strode up. “There you are,” he said quickly. “I was just wondering how I could get a hold of you. We’ll need you on the Mary Parsons. Captain Caddogan died this morning — and the mate’s disappeared. He was so drunk I had to leave him there. I cabled the owners and they told me to take the ship out at once, as captain.”
The older man stared up at the narrowed gray eyes, a little darker than his own, which looked down at him unwinkingly. There was a fixity about the boy’s face, as if he was more excited, secretly, than he would let appear. What he said had so surprised old Johnny that he stared up, unwinking, too, with something of that same fixity. It was as if the boy shared some secret knowledge with him, but for the life of him old Johnny did not know what that could be. All he could say was, “You’re — captain?”
“I’ve had my master’s papers for a year,” the other said firmly. “The owners knew that. They knew I was looking to better myself if the chance came. The mate should have known, the thick fool. They want the captain’s body shipped back to his wife. So we’re taking the ship out at five this afternoon.”
“You’ve got a berth for me on her?” old Johnny said slowly, to be certain, in all this welter of thoughts.
“That’s what I’m telling you — first mate,” young Mat said impatiently. “It’s a good thing for you and it’s not a bad thing for me to find you here. The papers are ready to be signed at the port office, as soon as you can, Mr. — er — I forget — ”
“Mathew,” old Johnny said, with his jaw out and his eyes bright — “John Mathew. I can be ready in half an hour.”
“Then get aboard as soon as you can, Mr. Mathew,” his son said, and turned on his heel. “We’ve lost time enough as it is.”
That was how John Mathew came to be standing at last by the lee rail of the Mary Parsons in the late afternoon, with the water of the open sea growing indigo ahead. The ship moved leisurely as she came out from between the sun-scorched headlands of the harbor, with the tug beside her, out until her spread sails, saffron with sunset, filled with the plumping steady force of the trades.
The new captain stood by the weather rail, casting his intent gray glance aloft with the swelling canvas and forward to the sea roughening to sapphire beyond the lifting bowsprit. Old Johnny observed him so, and the men forward who had brought the anchor up smartly under the ring of his own voice, lusty with old power and new relief, and were now coiling down the ropes for running — observed the whole ship with a heart so light it was positively giddy. He told himself that a man escaped from hanging could feel no more thankful than he did. It ran from his warmed heart over his elderly, wiry body, down to his heels, like the stirrings of youth.
With the work of getting the ship clear of the land well done, he could pause for a minute, like this, standing silently by the lee rail, to feel that foolish young jig and giggle in his breast. He dared swear to himself at that moment that he felt gayer and lighter-hearted than that surprising son of his, looking solemn over by the weather rail.
Now that he had time to think of this, free of anxiety, the situation was ridiculous. It tickled that easy sense of the ridiculous in him, the light ability for laughter, which poor Annie had found so hateful. He had to call his own son “Sir” whom he’d seen in diapers. It was good as a circus, when you came to think of it. Maybe about the hardest thing he’d have to do would be to keep his face straight.
And to think, besides, that he had never once had a smell at a command, not once in his life, and this young whippersnapper had calmly walked up and had one tossed in his hat. But then, of course, young bub there had probably his mother’s gift of wanting things fiercely. That was one good way of getting them, if you happen to want them. Old John admitted to himself cheerfully that he was not made that way. A first mate’s berth now, with somebody to take the worst of the responsibility, a good ship like this one under his heels, a crew like that one forward that the other first mate had put the fear of God into, and that wasn’t so bad, as crews went — well, he wouldn’t ask much more than that. And it was decidedly something interesting — more than interesting — that his son was captain here. It gave him a feeling — he hardly knew what it was, except that it was pleasurable. Poor Annie! How she would hate it if she knew he was here, like this, with the heels of his heart jigging and life once more running warmly in his veins.
The ship listed slightly and surged forward, having left all sounds of land behind her and filling her decks with the pleasantly prophetic murmur of full sails and taut cordage and a long wake curving and whitening behind to the already half-forgotten purple bulk of St. Thomas. Old Johnny gave no more than that one backward glance of his eye along the wake at those months of desperation behind him. It was not his way to clutter up his mind with old worries. He was more absorbed in the joy of his deliverance, which grew lustier with every blue wave that went under the forefoot, as if now for the first time he could see how he had snatched his very heel out of the sprung trap of poverty and sickness and old age. It might close on him yet, later. But it had not got him this time, by ginger, and it would be a long time before it had another chance!
The young captain walked his place on the deck and the elderly mate walked his, with their eyes occasionally up and always forward and their faces showing no more than the firm sound of their own boot heels on the planks what thoughts were turning and turning in their heads. Old Johnny went below presently to his supper, on the table that was like so many ship’s tables, under the skylight that was like so many that he had known, and he was served by a steward who might have been any one from a number of ships he could remember, looking back down the long alley of his years. The steward, more specifically, was Greek, with a flabby fat face smudged with a shaven beard like charcoal dust on his jowls, and flabby fat hands. The food was nothing to boast of, but old Johnny would not have it changed for Yellow Charlie’s finest chicken, for anything in the world. He slept heavily later, in the berth that had belonged to the red-faced mate, heavy as a runner exhausted with victory.
He woke easily, as his habit was, to take his watch at midnight, and went on deck lively as a cricket. Yet now that he had slept on his happiness and his sense of escape, he found his thoughts moving, as they had in their sleep, with a kind of deep concern about the figure of his son. On deck, the night was soft and huge and quiet, with the ship moving like a lighted shadow below the great shadows that were sails against the stars, and he could speak quietly to the man at the helm and see to the course and recognize with a quick glance the set of the sails and the quiet figures of his watch forward, even while his deeper thoughts went on.
It was certainly strange to think of having a son, a grown son, a son who followed the water and was the captain of a ship at his age — twenty-four, was it, or twenty-five? It was strange to have a human being near him linked by the cobweb ties of old memories, pain and dreariness and forgotten gleams of delight. It was not so much the thoughts of the past disturbed him, walking slowly and observantly by the weather rail, as that he found himself absorbed, more deeply than he had ever remembered being, in a sort of concern about his son. It was like a slow insatiable curiosity.
What sort of man was he? — that was the whole question. What things did he have in him, in the tough woven fiber of his own individuality, that he had had from his father or from his mother? What was there of his own, besides the unknown fusion of his grandfathers and his great-grandfathers? Would he, in a temper, go screaming mad the way his mother did, or like his Great-uncle Joshua on the Brandon side, who used to get sick to his stomach when he fought? Would he stand up to things and endure them without a word, like his grandfather on his mother’s side, or would he give way under the stress of sober burdens, like his own father?
Old Johnny brought himself up against the rail with the force of that. No, by ginger, he wouldn’t want his son to be the sort of man he was! No! No, by heaven! He saw himself at that moment too clearly. He was what he was, and he would stand for anything that came to him as a result of it — stand and not murmur and not regret. But he did not want his son to be like him. There would be no pride for him in learning that his son was like him. But if he were better, if he could prove himself better, better able to meet life on its own terms, more complete, more master of himself, more of a — well, of a man — ah, there would be pride for you!
Old Johnny threw his head back, and his shoulders, as a little shudder of revelation struck him, thinking what it would be like to be as proud as that. If what Annie was, that difficult, righteous, high-strung woman, and what he was could fuse somehow into the body and being of this son so that he could be a new being, made of them both and of all their shadowy trails of forbears, but a better one than either — great jumping Jupiter Amon, old Johnny saw blindingly, that would be — why, that would be — along with food and work to do that you could do, on a good ship — well, that would be about all a man could ask for!
It was a damn sight more than he had ever thought to ask for, he told himself soberly, watching the stars wheel and giving an ear to the creak of cordage and the rushing sound of water under the driven bows, slow deep rollers foaming along timber, that answered to the same deep chord in him who had heard it so almost all the years of his life.
When the new second mate of the Mary Parsons, who had been the boatswain, a Swede, a thin chap with a long bony head and knobby hard hands, awkward on the end of stringy arms, came up to relieve him, with the light from the binnacle flashing up on his long gold eyeteeth and his tow-colored eyebrows as he glanced down to read the card, old Johnny went below to his berth, sobered with the weight of so much thinking. The last thing he thought of, rolling over in his bunk, was that he hoped to God he wasn’t going to turn sentimental. At his age that would be hard to bear.
The dazzling morning brightness splashed through the open skylight on the cups and plates that the steward was laying for breakfast. Old Johnny glanced up through the opening at the piled white of the canvas and at the compass swinging over the captain’s place, assuring himself that nothing much of importance about the ship had been changed while he slept. The wind was holding well. The young captain dropped down the stairs from the after deck, where he had been having a look around for an hour or two, in his pajamas and nodded at his first mate, standing quietly by his chair.
“Fine morning, sir,” old Johnny said, repressing violently the muscle in the corner of his mouth that would twitch. “I see the wind’s holding.”
“Good wind, all right,” his son replied absently, sitting down. “Hey, steward, what’s the idea? The bacon’s burned and my knife’s not clean. Is that coffee hot, Mr. Mate? No, I thought not. Take back this dishwater, steward, and tell the cook to pull himself together. Perhaps you both think you can get by with this as you did when the other captain was sick. I’m giving you fair warning now. I’m not going to have anything dirty or slovenly on my ship. If you can’t scour the knives, there’s plenty men forrard who’d be glad of your place. I want this whole place swept up and the finger marks washed off the door paint. At eleven I shall inspect your pantry and you can warn the cook I shall look into the galley. Send the carpenter aft and have him fix that loose hinge on my door. Snap into it now!” His mouth shut and he sugared his oatmeal deliberately, and old Johnny dipped into his, still checking his wild desire to laugh.
That was Annie’s very housecleaning eye the boy had on him. She used to be death on finger marks on the door paint. But it was a good thing in a ship captain. No sense to letting things go slovenly. That red-faced mate, who had thought himself so sure of this command, would hardly have noticed if the knives had never been washed.
What had happened to that mate, by the way, old Johnny thought suddenly, as the subdued steward brought him a smoking cup of coffee. Drunk and disappeared! What did the boy mean by “disappeared?” Surely he couldn’t mean done away with! Old Johnny glanced slowly at the young captain silently inspecting the new platter of bacon, and studied that tight mouth and that jaw. Was it a jaw that would not stop at anything when there was something he wanted?
Old Johnny had hardly thought of that before because he had had so much else to think of. Men had got drunk and men had disappeared, to his knowledge, before this. But he had seen this boy’s face that night, watching the red-faced man turn swinish and sodden, and the memory of that look on it — that intent, high-strung, very nearly dangerous look — struck him now with a light chill. There was the same face at the head of the table, still intent, still silent, but now it had a ruddy color under the brown, and the mouth had smiled at him.
The boy was wearing the first day of his command with an unmistakable joyousness under the restraint of his position. Yet what had he done to bring him to it? It troubled old Johnny more than he liked to confess. Was he growing squeamish as well as sentimental in his old age? What difference did it make to him? He was here, wasn’t he?
It was pleasant to be on deck in the broad brilliance of the morning, with the ship racing forward splendidly over a sea of ridged and dazzling indigo. The intent face of the captain was there by the weather rail. And presently he was ordering more sail crowded on. Old Johnny snapped with vigor into his work, letting his head blow clear of thoughts. The jib boom thrashed steadily at the southward horizon. The deck bustled.
When the work of spreading the additional canvas was done the captain ordered the standing rigging overhauled, replaced and repaired, and told old Johnny privately that if that didn’t keep the men busy enough he could have out the chipping hammers and get at the cable. Old Johnny saw that there was something working at the boy behind his tight mouth and his narrowed eyes — something that drove him as he was driving the men and the ship.
Well, that was all right, the mate thought mildly, getting into the stride of his job. The boy seemed to know his stuff. He had ambition. If it was work he wanted old Johnny could supply it for him. It was good to get at it again after all these months. In no time at all he had the decks humming with orderly activity. The men weren’t a bad sort. He let them have a joke or two now and then along with orders and liked the way they took to it. He was getting to know the members of the crew as individuals, recognizing an old hand and a good worker here and there, recognizing which ones would shirk in a pinch and which ones could be depended on.
There was a little red-headed feller in his own watch who made him laugh, he was so like a monkey. Restless like a monkey and always on the grin. But a smart hand, none better. He knew well that what often seemed like freshness and impudence from a man like this was only a kind of nervous energy. Give a feller like that a pace to set the others and he’d have them all looking lively. That kind would work harder on a joke at the right minute than for a dozen belaying pins ready up the sleeve. Not that old Johnny wouldn’t be there with a blackjack anytime he had to. But he never liked that way.
The captain was certainly driving that ship. Morning after morning the mate found him crowding on every thread she could bear. Day after day she went booming down the latitudes with a bone in her teeth and a white wake boiling astern. And day after day the small elderly mate, caught up into the accustomed routine of a ship, the orderly sequence of watches, the work of the day and the work of the night, found himself accustomed to the hidden things which worked in his mind, about the captain, who was strangely also his son.
He knew little more about him than he had learned at first. He had turned no more pages in what was practically a book closed and locked to him. The boy was there, intent on his work, vigilant, unsparing of himself, a capable master. His driving force might often seem like a force that was driven. His mouth never was allowed to slip into restlessness. What he thought — by the captain’s rail in the captain’s watches, shut in his own room nights, pacing the deck in some tranquil hour of loneliness before sundown, when the sea was roughened lightly by the good following winds — old Johnny could not guess.
But one thing the mate did know, and that was that in spite of himself he was growing proud of that boy. Day by day the warmth of that lifted in that empty place in him — lifted until the elderly man thought often he must be all lighted up with it like a church on fire. It caught him unexpectedly, in a long night watch or moving among the men or swapping yarns with the second mate. It crept over him suddenly like day out of the sea, and there he would be, in a breathless moment, blazing with pride.
He was proud of the ship, too, and the way the men were working, but he could talk about that pride. They were all proud of that ship, and they talked about it — the watch off duty forward, and the mates aft, having another cup of coffee after supper, with their elbows on the table and their eyes turning automatically now and then through the open skylight to the high piled sails, ruddy with the dregs of a great tropic sun. But the other pride was a secret thing, a thing he had all to himself, to hoard and hug to himself, rolled up in his bunk or walking silently by the helmsman, in the long nights or the blue, amazing afternoons.
Then the northeast trades, blowing fitfully over a sea smooth as bright hot pewter, failed. The ship rolled a little on the long polished swells, her yards creaking, her empty sails slatting. The sky was stainless; an infinity of blue burned a fierce white at the zenith, where the bare sun smoked. The ship’s rails were scorching to the hand. Her shadow lay short under her bows, blue fire, through which the dolphins arched their backs. Only smudges of light airs darkened idly the immense platter of the sea. The lowered careless voices of the crew at work in whatever shade they could find sounded loud in the dazzling stillness.
Young Captain Mat Brandon stood and clutched the poop railing with stiffened fingers. His forehead was ridged under his visor. The mate, with that quick old glance of his that always included the figure of the young captain in his observation of the ship, saw that the dark gray eyes glittered. From time to time he strode to the rail to see if in some vagrant air the ship had steerage way. But she lay heavily, with the swells hissing up and down her sides, as if she were anchored.
“The Old Man’s taking it hard,” the second mate muttered to the first, meeting him below the poop.
Old Johnny had no temptation to smile now at the humor in calling the captain that. He was used to it by now. He only frowned a little himself and changed the subject uneasily. He was uneasy, not so much at the hot calm itself — he’d lived through dozens — but at the mounting tension he felt in the boy. He could read every inflection of his, every muscle twitch, every suppressed, smoldering gesture. Annie had been like that. He had always been able to read the storm signs days before. Old Johnny would turn from his involuntary study of the young face with a half sigh. It wouldn’t do for him to be too much like his mother.
It was a long day before the captain would acknowledge that the wind had failed. He could not believe it — he would not at first. It was only a temporary lull. No wind could flat out so completely. The mate saw the growing bitterness in the boy, as if the weather were a personal injustice. Yet the steely hours wore on, burning and absorbed. The sun glared to westward slowly, with the round metal of the ship’s bells hurrying after. Behind the captain’s back, the man at the helm, one hand upon the unmoving wheel, whistled idly and long drawn out for the wind which did not come.
That night there was a moon — a great hot lopsided thing, slitting the hot black circle of the sea to lay its incandescence on the unwrinkling water and upon the ship. Her decks were bleached bone white with it, and the sails hung white and the shadow of the rigging lay across the decks, black barred like iron. The ship moved and dipped to the unseen milky swells alongside and all her sails slatted dismally. The watch off duty gathered on the fore hatch and men sang in a straggling chorus to the gasp of an accordion someone had brought on deck. The glaring white of the moon fell upon huddled naked shoulders and sprawling legs, and old Johnny could make out colors in the luminance, the dull blue of dungarees, the red of a mopping bandanna.
The captain’s boot heels sounded loud upon the planks. He stopped by the rail and spoke suddenly, gnawing his lip: “Damn that accordion! I always hate the things. I suppose that red-headed idiot’s playing it. That’s him yowling off key. I’d like to see his jaw knocked shut for once.”
“He’s a good hand enough,” old Johnny said mildly after a pause. It was the undertones of the boy’s voice he hated — too ragged, too much like Annie’s — not like the master of a ship.
“Of course you’d put in your oar for him,” young Mat said violently. “You and he are as thick as thieves. It’s the grinning way he acts I can’t stand. Smart Aleck. I’d like to smash that blasted accordion.”
“Got no call to interfere with a man off duty,” old Johnny insisted stoutly.
The captain said vehemently, “Aw, you’re an old — ” and stopped himself abruptly. “Listen!” he said. “Is that wind?”
There were no sounds except of the slack sails and the men’s voices forward. Around the horizon, below the blistering radiance of the moon, the stars burned steadily, like the lights of far-off ships. There was no wind. The captain ground his teeth on his burst of talk. The old mate kept silent. The captain resumed his dogged walk.
An hour or two later he stopped abruptly and said,” I shan’t go below much until the wind comes.”
He was on deck a long time. Old Johnny, coming up after the deep refreshment of his sleep, washed and sprightly, saw him having his morning coffee under the awning, his eyes reddened slightly with sleeplessness, his hair on end. The crew were cheerfully washing down the deck with a great splash and glitter of water from the brimming buckets. The redhead made some sort of joke behind his hand to the man next him and glanced aft at the captain, and the old mate hoped that Mat had not noticed it. The man was harmless enough and his joking was even valuable. Old Johnny had seen before this what heat and calm and inactivity could do to the raw nerves of men. He tried to keep them healthily busy.
He wished with all his heart he could do the same thing for the boy there, eating his heart out for wind for his first ship.
But all day there was no wind, and the next, and the next. Not a hatful, not a capful, not even a decent handful of air, to stir the heat which quivered up from the decks, where the glue between the planks melted and bubbled slowly. The men, stripped to their waists, went about their work with the sweat shining on their brown muscles, yawning in the widening or narrowing shadows of the sails. On the unstirring plate of the sea the shadows of the topmasts, like blades of a sundial, lengthened and wheeled and shortened under the sun.
The maddening futility of the dead calm was drawing the crew into silent and uncertain tempers, as old Johnny had known would happen. Tension seemed to spread to them from the gaunt young figure of the captain, his somber face drawn and blackened by the breathless sun. He would stare with blistered eyes at the blazing surface of the ocean, standing by the rail so long and so rigidly that the crew glanced up at him more often than ever, and whispered among themselves. Sometimes he paced doggedly, sometimes he dashed below for a mouthful of water or a bite of food taken hastily, glancing up through the skylight to see if the wind had come in his absence from the deck.
Among the crew bad feeling bred, and endless small explosions of wrath. Old Johnny played endless games of double solitaire with the second in the breathless nights, feeling the heat as nothing beside the mounting tension on the ship. His bright observant eye saw everything. In a low voice, so that it would not annoy the captain, he spun long picturesque yarns that kept the second mate’s blue eye bulging and drew the cook and the steward to the pantry threshold, with their eyes eager and their mouths grinning. He loved to hold them like that by the color and cunning of his words. It kept them good-natured — and him too.
But he could do nothing for the captain. That was about what it meant to be captain of a ship. Nobody could do anything for you. It was all on your shoulders. The fact of that was an isolation. That was why old John had never had any hankering after a command. He liked to be closer to people than that. But now, without any interest or desire on his part, it was almost as if he shared the feelings of command through the nerves and body of his son. It was a curious feeling of double existence, and it made it worse that he could not substitute for the younger tension his own older stability and understanding. He grinned often at the irony of it. But there it was, and it got worse.
The captain was taking his balked will out on the crew in irritating and — or so it seemed to the mate — unreasonable orders. He lashed at them unexpectedly for almost invisible faults. And the small red-headed man was his particular victim. He kept him down painting the sail locker by the light of a lantern all one stifling day, from which the mate later had to haul the man, nearly all in, on a pretext. The uncertain tempers of the crew flamed at what they considered persecution, and furious looks and mutterings were turned aft toward the figure of the captain. The mate walked steadily among the men at work, with his voice steady and his eye cool, and that night at supper took without a word a burst of anger from the captain. He did not mind the anger. He was only deeply worried that the boy should have himself so little in hand.
Three days more — four days, and no wind but a light current of air which carried them southward for an hour and dropped them in the same center of the same brazen, unchanging circle, that went white with sun or purple black with the sun’s passing, like a slow shutter turned on and off. Tension ran like a red-hot wire through the men cooped forward between the blistering bulwarks. One corner of the captain’s mouth slipped from its tightness and he gnawed it endlessly.
That night, in the middle of his own watch, when the captain had been below for an hour trying to get some sleep, old Johnny had a sudden impulse to go below also. Or perhaps he only wanted to reassure himself that the captain was asleep. The second mate’s snores were vibrant from his own room. But in the dim stifling light of the cabin, with the lowered lantern and the starlight streaming in, the old mate stopped abruptly and felt his knees tremble.
The door of the captain’s room was open. There was a dim light in there also. The captain was standing with his back to the doorway and he was pouring something out of a long bottle into a glass.
Right then old Johnny knew how badly the boy wanted that drink, because he wanted one himself with every fiber of his old body. He had never needed a drink so badly in his life. He could have snatched the bottle from the hand and drunk from it with the sudden hot force of the desire that burned him. Yet that familiar pose, the tiny sound of liquid pouring, was like acid eating into him — because it might be that in this the boy was like him. If he were like him, old Johnny knew, and clenched his hand on the table edge to realize, that one drink was not going to be enough. The warm relaxing that would work along the fingers, the blurring of the painful edges of reality, the delicious approach of oblivion along jangling nerves — old Johnny knew all that. He ached for it at that moment. But it meant drunkenness. His old fist slammed on the table. Not drunkenness for the captain of a ship!
The sound startled the tall young figure. He turned around, the bottle in one hand, the brimming glass in the other. In the half-light, his eyes met the fixed gaze of the old man with a desperate glassiness.
The older man said slowly, “I wouldn’t, sir, if I were you. It’s tough on you. I can see that. And a drink would go good. I’ll say that myself. But I wouldn’t if I were you.”
The glassy eyes held his as he spoke with nothing in his face or voice but quietness — no tension, no accusation. He thought for a moment the boy would raise the glass to his lips and drink anyway, from the spasm that contracted the face suddenly.
But presently he dropped his eyes to the glass as if he had not seen it before and said huskily, “What’ll I — do with it, then?”
“Throw it out the porthole,” old Johnny said evenly. “And the bottle with it. There’ll be better bottles in Rio, when we’re off the ship.”
They listened to the small splashes in the dark sea outside there and the old man ached a little at the face young Mat turned to him. There were deep lines of sleeplessness in it, but the eyes were not the hot ones of a thwarted drunkard so much as the bewildered ones of a little boy.
“Come up on deck, sir,” old Johnny said, and if his voice was tender he couldn’t help it. “It’s stifling down here. I’ll have your canvas chair brought up. You’ve got to let yourself go a little, you know. This calm won’t last forever.”
The night was at least quiet, up there — so quiet it seemed they could hear the dew dripping from the sails. The air was lukewarm, like half-cooled tea, but at least it could be breathed. Men forward, sleeping half naked on the fore hatch, moved arms or legs uneasily and the watch about the deck were listless drooping shadows.
Old Johnny had the captain’s canvas chair set in the deep shadow of the rail. But for a while the boy stood with his elbows on the broad rail, and old Johnny put his elbows on it and leaned beside him. Down in the milky gray of the sea alongside phosphorus stirred with little stirrings of the surface, soft brightness licking along the still timbers. Old Johnny wrenched his mind hastily from his thought that that rum bottle might be floating down there, bobbing about, where it could be picked up with a bucket on a line. The boy’s shoulders were beside his.
Old Johnny found himself fumbling in his mind for the most gorgeous, the longest-winded yarn he knew, and slowly found it, glittering, in the depths of his memory. He began to pay it out gently, every word in its right place, the suspense built up with little pauses. Under the stir of its events laughter ran like a healing flame. It was the best tale he knew, and he told it of himself and Bill Broadhead — a tale of a ship derelict and haunted in tropic seas, an old stocking full of pearls, an island of hidden temples and birds like blazing emeralds, and Bill Broadhead fighting with a cutlass up ruined stairs in moonlight, that led to women’s laughter and a huge escape. He knew, as the young head beside his was held rigid in the glamour he cast cunningly, like a net, that he had never told the tale better in all his life. He knew he had never told it with so serious an intent.
When it was over and the hour was gone he stayed silent until the boy beside him moved with a half sigh, moved and stretched and grinned.
“That was one swell yarn,” he said lightly, and his face was easy in the glow of the starboard lantern — “one swell yarn. A stockingful of pearls, eh? I bet that feels nice in the hand. Wow! I guess I must be sleepy.” The canvas chair creaked a little under his weight. Old Johnny did not move from the rail. The idle sails slatted a little with the movement of the ship. Presently he turned around and looked over at the long figure in the chair. It was still, and a hand was heavy on the deck. The captain was asleep. Old Johnny stood there, not moving a finger, staring down. Deeper than the awakened desire for drink an ache moved in him. There was something about those young bony knees that broke his heart. It was as physical as that, as if something clutched and tore his heart wide open. The worst of it was, he could do nothing to help him — not one thing.
The actual pain of that astonished him. He would not have believed he could feel like that about anyone. It drove him back to his need for a drink. He felt as he had used to, coming off a long dry voyage, burning up with thirst. Well, he’d just have to go thirsty, that was all. He’d thrown away his chance, he told himself with grim humor, and it wouldn’t do for the mate to be seen fishing off the poop with a bucket. He’d have to drink water, and like it, and pray for wind. He did, at that.
The next night there was a fight forward, sudden as the breaking of a stretched wire. Old Johnny had been expecting it. The men came tumbling from the forecastle to form a muttering rampart about the locked dark figures swaying and grunting and grappling in the shadow. The captain watched with a furious face, but old Johnny strolled forward. The men were not too intent to make way for him, and he stood there watchful and alert.
They were not fighting with knives, he was glad to see. There was the thud of bare feet on the deck and the smack of honest blows on bare flesh. The circle of the men shifted with the shifting of the fighters. And in a gasping bit of silence, when the slippery bodies clinched and fumbled, old Johnny raised a remark or two, the heavy broad wit men liked, and listened appraisingly to their sudden roar of laughter. Presently, in another pause, amid more laughter, the men were separated and helped off to wash. Old Johnny strolled aft again, with the relaxed voices of the crew behind him, drowsy as bees after a swarm.
The captain’s eye was a dark coal as he went up the ladder. “I won’t have fighting aboard my ship,” he snapped. “Another time you can have them clapped in irons. I won’t have it, I tell you!”
“Just a scuffle,” the old man said easily. “Ought to have boxing gloves aboard — take the edge off them.”
“I begin to think you’ve a poor idea of discipline, Mr. Mate,” the captain said furiously. “How’d you expect me to run this ship with a soft crew that isn’t taught a proper respect for their officers?”
The old man looked him mildly in the eye. “They’ll work all right,” he said. The captain snorted and walked away. Old Johnny looked after him reflectively. Now the boy’s mother, after that, wouldn’t have spoken to him for three days.
But he had not to wait that long. For that afternoon the sea darkened fitfully in long widening fans, and wind moved, ruffling and undependable, about the ship. The sails filled slowly to a fresher breeze that presently blew west by south, blowing away the stifling exhalation that hung about her. The ship answered the helm. The watch sprang smartly to trim the yards, and the captain, hearing the shouts of the mate, the thud of feet and the creaking of tackle, let all the tension slip from his face in one long grin. But no sooner was the ship an hour or two upon her course than the wind drooped and died, and the ship lay again becalmed. In another hour a breeze sprang from a totally different quarter, so swiftly that the ship was almost taken aback. The yards were squared. The ship heeled slightly on another course. And in four hours more, in a glassy moment of twilight, the breeze left them altogether.
So it went for five days of variable, inconstant, heartbreaking airs. The captain chewed his lips over his charts and at his sights, and his face was drawn and dark. The men dropped into their bunks after duty, worn out mentally as well as physically by the constant fret of labor that did no good. And the old mate began to know that he was old. There were twinges in his back after a long watch, such as he had never felt in his life before, and when he went below to his bunk his legs felt a thousand years in them. His vigilance, his spring, was outwardly as good as the younger man’s. But inside him it was as if a bell had been struck. Yet with all the force of his inherent pride he fought all that off, aches and slowing up and sleeplessness and an unresting, burning desire for a drink. His jaw was tight and his eye was keen. The captain did not call him easy now.
At last, after a night of dead calm, the ship began to move steadily forward. The light was pearly, the greenish waves edged with slate. As the day gathered under slow gold swords striking upward behind low clouds and across a long sea, the breeze freshened and the foresail filled. The captain and both mates stood on deck to watch the ship go forward in the new clean light and it was as if a tight band had snapped from about their chests. They were out of the doldrums at last.
“It will hold,” the captain said, with sleeplessness bleary on his eyelids. “Call me if it doesn’t.” And he went below.
After four hours the captain came on deck again. The wind was fresh and strong. The cordage hummed. On the yards the great spread of canvas held stiff overseas foaming in sapphire, touched with frothing vivacious lines of white. The captain’s face was scrubbed and jubilant, but the driving force, new-lighted, blazed in his eyes.
Now the Mary Parsons moved steady as a steamer under the roaring glorious south trades, and old Johnny gloried to see her go, never once relaxing that cautious grip he had upon himself. It would not be two weeks to Rio in this wind.
There was a week left — five days — four days. The crew were tidying up the ship for port, scraping teak, polishing brass, painting interminably. A pleasant sense of journey’s end ran about them. Only the captain did not relax in it. He was still feverish to make time, to get the voyage done.
What happened thereafter happened like a clap of thunder on a clear day. There were only three days left before making port and already the wind was shifting a little, tainted with the land. To westward a sullen bank of mist lay low like dirt-colored mountains.
Old Johnny came on deck in the middle of his watch below the next morning, drawn by the changed color of the light and the abrupt motions of the ship. It was racing and bucking against a sea of fretted heaving milk under the damp blast of a sullen southwest wind. The helmsman stood stiffly, his anxious eyes on the sails, fighting the jerked rudder. But the captain had not shortened sail. The watch forward were gazing at the sea and at the sails, and then aft, as if awaiting an order. The captain stood like an iron post by the rail and his face was iron.
Old Johnny hurried up with the wind in his blinking eyes. “What about shortening sail?” he shouted. “I don’t like the look of that. It feels like a pampero.”
“Pampero your eye!” the captain snapped. “You’re getting old, Mathew. You’re losing your grip. Want me to run before every little squall, do you?”
“But look!” The mate clutched the younger arm.
The bank of dirt-colored cloud was climbing the sky fiercely. Through it lightning spread in seams and below it the sea went the color of dirt. The ship plunged and pitched in the damp uncertain air that pushed the men in the face. The captain tightened his jaw and shook off the hand impatiently, turning his back to the wind.
Then — pandemonium. Old Johnny was aware of a vast force which fell like a stone upon him and upon the ship — a force demoniac and shrieking before which the ship reeled violently. Above in the screaming murk a sail blew out like a shot from a cannon. In the constant ghastly flicker of lightning he saw it flash whitely once down the wind. He was struggling to turn his body about and open his eyes and shout an order. But his voice was crammed back into his lungs. The slant of the deck before him was a high hill, racing with stinging rain.
The ship righted herself with a long shudder and the wind caught her, and forward there were crashings and poundings and a boil of sea over the weather rail. As he stared wildly through half-opened eyes he saw the fore-top gallant sheet give way. The gallant sail straightened out like a plank, straining the mast until it quivered and bent. In the instant the fore-royal and gallant yards broke off with a shrieked crashing, toppling down on the streaming deck among the hissing flight and tangle of ropes. One man was knocked down like a belaying pin and rolled into the lee scuppers. The others scattered where they could. The debris hung half over the lee rail, bumping dangerously, and the ship listed to it under the ghastly foam pouring over the lee rail.
The captain’s voice, that strained the blood vessels on his forehead, lifted faintly across the wind. “All hands! Leggo main royal and gallant halyards! Lively! Another blow — ”
The men swarmed to the order, slipping and struggling and catching at the fife rail as the ship reeled, shuddering, and the roused sea struck viciously.
“Axes!” the captain bellowed through cupped hands. “Axes — wreckage — adrift!” And with the old mate at his heels he raced down the ladder.
They were immediately above their knees in the sea that shipped regularly over both rails. Old Johnny gasped with the cold of it and the wrenching blows of it on his body. The murky light was lifting and now it seemed that the wind struck with less force, but it was a back-breaking job to swing axes and keep footing. Old Johnny heaved his with the packed force of every muscle and his son’s heaving shoulders were beside him, in the tail of his eye.
The wind screamed suddenly and behind the captain’s head a huge sea lifted a dirty edge over the rail. It crashed inboard, shaking the ship. Old Johnny had dropped his ax and clutched the rail, but almost as it toppled he looked for his son, letting go his clutch to leap toward him, yelling, “Mat, look out!”
He felt a terrible wrenching heave and under the ton of cold water that fell on him something that might have been a rope caught him about the knees. The world heaved violently, whirling, and became a seething drop into darker water, bottomless. He gulped wet bitter salt, whirling and staring into boiling dark depths. Something crashed into his ribs and the pain sent him dizzy, even as he had a flashed glimpse of the ship to windward, and a gulp of air. He clawed the air with a dripping hand and shouted. “Mat — Mat!” he yelled, and yelled again, before he was knocked into blackness and oblivion.
When he came back into the world, it was slowly, among mists of weakness that were curiously delicious. His body was a vagueness in which he floated and in his fogged glance grew slowly the familiar white-painted planks with bolts in them above his head. He recognized that the ship was moving easily, even as he knew the handles of the chest of drawers built across the wall at his feet. Oblivion caught at him from time to time, and he sank back into it gratefully, among thronging hints of dream. But clearer and more persistent than those were the drawer handles and the white-painted bolts and something round and whitish that slowly became the steward’s face, before it changed to the face of his son, the captain of the ship.
He was broad awake then and his body was a battered thing between immovable tightness, but he could look about him with clear eyes and a clear head and see his own gnarled old hands on the blanket and the buttons on his son’s coat. He grinned slowly.
“It feels as if I got run through a meat grinder,” he said. “How’s the ship?”
“Booming along in,” Mat Brandon said cheerfully.
The old man took a long slow look into the boy’s face. There was an untidy bristle of beard on it, and it was white and lined deeply with fatigue. But the locked look was gone from the mouth and there was no fever in the gray eyes that met his calmly. New warmth ran through old Johnny as staunch as his own heart’s beats. He liked the released look on that face — by ginger, he liked it!
“You’ve got a couple of busted ribs on you,” the captain of the ship was saying. “The steward and I fixed them up as well as we could according to the book, but I’ll be glad to get you ashore to a doctor. We’ll be in tomorrow sometime. How do you feel?”
“Comfortable, ’s a matter of fact,” old Johnny said. He was discovering that he must not breathe too deeply. An arrow of pain lay there, as if in waiting. And he was growing aware of many aches. “How’d I get aboard?”
“That red-headed feller,” Mat said. “He jumped after you like chain lightning and we slung him a rope. His collar bone’s broken. You know I — it’s funny, but I’ve been wishing right along, since then, that I had gone over for you myself.”
“Crazy,” old Johnny said slowly, trying to stiffen his lips against a grin. He was watching the boy’s unconscious face through half-shut eyes. “That’d been a fine thing to do, and you the master of a ship!”
“Yeah,” the boy said slowly. His elbows were on his knees and his eyes were on his loosely clasped fists. “Of course I knew that. But you know I’ve been thinking — it was my fault we got overtaken that way. I was wild not to lose any more time.”
“Aw, those pamperos — you can’t ever tell about them. You’ll have to remember you got to keep your eye peeled along this coast. And you’re right about being wild. You’ve been kinda too strung up tight all this trip. You better not be like that another time.”
“I know,” Mat said shamefacedly. “I don’t know what got into me. But I guess I got to worrying about that mate. I’d sort of like to tell you about the mate.”
“No need to if you don’t want to,” old Johnny said briefly, with his eyes screwed tight and his heart thumping.
“I been wanting to all along. It kinda got into my head that you thought I murdered him — or something. And then I got to worrying about what the owners would do if they heard about it. That’s why I was so wild when the wind failed, and afterward, when there was a chance to make up the time. You see — the mate got himself drunk. You remember. You were there. But then I got him drunker than that and I had him hidden. That Yellow Charlie had him taken to a shack out in the jungle somewhere. I paid him. He wasn’t hurt any. You see, I wanted the ship more than he ever did. It was a rotten trick, of course. But I’m not sorry.”
“What you going to do about it?” old Johnny said suddenly, opening his eyes.
“Nothing yet,” he said, meeting the old man’s eye firmly. “There’s nothing sensible yet to be done about it, except going up and telling the owners just how it was when I get the ship back to New York. Maybe the mate’s made a howl by this time. I don’t care. I’m going to prove to them I can handle the ship for them better than he could. And I want to say — I’ve got a lot to thank you for. You’ve taught me an awful lot.”
“Aw, shucks!” old Johnny said weakly, shuffling his hands on the blanket. “You were only a stiff kid. Man’s got to grow some to be a captain. I followed the water and learned the different ways of captains before you were born. And you’ve grown. I can see that. You’ll be a good one. It’s like you had good seagoing blood in you and a will to do things well and smartly. Only you don’t need to take things so high-strung.”
“I’ll tell the world you get steadied,” Mat said absently. “I feel years older. I wish you were going to be along on the voyage back.”
The old man looked steadily at a bolt over his head. That’s right. He’d be in hospital again. And after that — The slow pain dug into him at his deeper breath. Oh, well, why worry?
“Maybe you’ll drop me a card from New York,” he said. “I’ll be curious about — the ship.”
“I’m going to do that,” Mat said slowly. “I’m sure going to do that. And you’ll write me when you get well, whether you get another berth or not. It might be — we might ship together sometime again.”
“I won’t be holding many more mate’s jobs,” old Johnny said calmly. “I’m pleased to know you’d like to, though.”
“Well, you’ll let me know,” Mat said, getting up. “I’d kind of like to know. I’ll tell the steward to bring you some soup.” In the door, he stood a moment and turned back. “You’ve never said” — he spoke slowly — “whether you’ve got any folks or not that you could go to. I’ve wondered. Haven’t you got somebody — a son — somewhere?”
The grin that spread over old Johnny’s face at that could not by any force of his be repressed. His eyes leered a little in sheer delight at the joke of it as he looked up into the other’s concerned face. Poor Annie, how she’d hate it if she knew how her son stood there, looking down at him with anxiety and — yes, there was no doubt of it — with affection. How she’d hate to know that her worthless husband was actually being cared for by her son. Well, he’d keep his promise to her.
“No,” he lied cheerfully, “I haven’t got any son.”
After Mat had gone out he lay there, wrapped in comfort, his mouth still twitching at the thought of it with something very like a giggle. Deep down in the place where his pride lived, that would not let him explain or regret or ask quarter from his world, the increased flame of it lifted in a great warming glow.
He’d been weak and mistaken and foolish in his time. He’d been proud, without having much of anything to be proud of. But now, he thought, a king couldn’t be any prouder than he was or had the right to be. Now, by Jupiter, he was the father of a man!
Featured image: Illustrated by Anton Otto Fischer.
Edmund Gilligan wrote for the The American Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Argosy, and the Post between 1956-1962. His short story “One of Us Must Die” covers the enthralling tale of a crew battling the sleet-chilled Atlantic waters while at sea.
Published on September 8, 1962
By lamp-lighting time alongshore, the Medea of Gloucester lay sound asleep at the herring wharf in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, where the Roseway River empties into the Atlantic. The schooner had hurried across the Bay of Fundy under a whole mainsail because she had never gone fishing so late in the year, and her people wished to find shelter to size things up. There had been signs of bad weather far behind her. Off Cape Sable, her landfall, she had found more reasons to hurry. The westerly wind had become curiously dry, and the barometer had risen. Later she had sighted hurricane rollers rising out of a very long swell. When she swept along the western edge of Roseway Bank, the squally halo around the first quarter moon had vanished, and the barometer had fallen to “Fair.” So she slept in peace, the uneasy peace of November.
Huddled under the eaves of the icehouse, three dark-clad men gazed at the Medea as she lightly rose and fell to bow line and stern line, her iron gear atinkling. By moonlight and starlight the Medea displayed her old-time beauties: bottle green hull, cherry-stained bulwarks, white crosstrees and her name in gold, mildly gleaming under skeins of frost. Those men knew the Medea well enough, and they knew why she lay there: to buy their herring in the morning to make bait for the halibut on far Banquereau, which was her workshop. Herring they had in plenty on ice, and the sale meant much to them, coming so late in the season. They would have a little more Christmas money. They understood that the Medea had dared to make a November voyage for the same purpose. There had not been much money earned that fall on the Grand Banks; the price of halibut had been too low at Boston. Now it had risen.
Talking of these matters, they crossed the wharf, took a kindly look at her mooring lines and walked up the lane, praising the fatness of their herring and declaring the Medea’s skipper surely would be pleased when he ran his testing thumb down the herring bellies and found them fresh.
In the galley of the Medea, aft of her forecastle where eighteen of her dorymen slept in their tiered bunks, one man stayed merrily awake. He was her cook, known to the Grand Bankers as “Long Tom” because his handsome head, well silvered now, lay so far from his feet. The dorymen asserted that in any kind of fog he couldn’t see his boots. He answered that his boots weren’t worth such a difficult glance anyway.
Tom had finished his ordinary chores. Mugs and dishes were washed and put away, his pans scoured. He had just taken twenty loaves of bread out of his great oven. In there now his apple pies were already adding a cinnamon bouquet to the other delicious fragrances. He had yet to brush the top crusts with a gull’s feather dipped in butter. The feather and butter were at hand.
At the moment, Long Tom was resisting temptation of the worst kind — one offered by himself. He was a cook who enjoyed his own cooking. In fifty years of labor in that one galley he had never tasted a dish which he could not praise. And he tasted all that he made. Even when he hard-boiled fifty eggs for the shack locker, where dorymen coming off watch could “mug up” on tea and cookies, he always ate one or two to make sure. His chocolate cake had made the Medea the envy of the Gloucester fleet. Such cakes bore fudge icing, and Long Tom couldn’t tolerate an icing less than half an inch thick.
His present temptation had a chocolate nature too: precisely, a yard-square tray of fudge cooling on a shelf under the half-open port. He had used the last of his Jersey cream for it, and he had put into it an array of excellent English walnuts. He had a benevolent purpose in mind, and he intended to carry it out when the fudge had hardened enough to be cut. He had to combat his desire to taste. To that resistance he carried all the force of his plumpness and of his agile mind.
At such a crisis Long Tom took refuge in the Bible, not exactly for instruction but chiefly to employ his mind. The Book of Job had served him well a thousand times. Long Tom had never quite settled the question of Job. “Patience of Job, do I hear you say? Why, he don’t strike me as being a model of patience. What answer did he make to his chum? ‘Wherefore do the wicked live, become old, yea, are mighty in power?’ And didn’t he come out all right in the end? Aye, there’s something of a sea lawyer about that man. Shouldn’t be surprised if he’d once been before the mast — and a poor cook in the galley.”
When he had beguiled his heart by thoughts of Job and Satan, he turned in a soberer mood to The New Testament, in which he always read much during the Christmas season. “Matthew, Mark, Luke or John?” He chose John, and for a time he sat enthralled, because these were saints whose hearts spoke well to his. He placed the Bible in its tin box and turned to the cutting of the fudge. He had all but finished when Satan whispered, “My dear Job — I mean, of course, my dear Tom — isn’t that a rather odd-looking piece over there south by east, a little east? I mean that one with a whole kernel in it.”
After he had eaten it and savored each crumb to the last, Tom looked behind him quickly and seemed surprised. “Well, now, I really didn’t have to do that. I knew it was good, very good.”
He filled three plates with fudge and climbed the companionway step by step, carefully. On the way aft he paused in the lee of the starboard nest of dories and measured the starry night. The Pole Star burned fierce as a bonfire, and he could make out even the faint stars of the Little Bear, so clearly they shone in the winter hovering aloft. He passed to the cabin and went below into its dusk. He put the plates down and rapped his knuckles against the great lamp, burning low in its gimbals. It was his duty to keep lamps trimmed and full.
In the starboard bunk Captain Matthew Duane lay asleep, his boots near at hand, ready, even in harbor, to be jumped into. Under the black curve of his moustache his lips shaped a stern word. He frowned and gently struck his mouth, just as if it had spoken of its own accord and had vexed him mightily in his dreams. “I’d give a lot to know what he said,” whispered Tom. He gave a plate of fudge. The skipper whispered again and began to turn over, his secret kept.
Long Tom stepped lightly to the port bunks. In the lower one lay Dick Rodney, the oldest hand in the Medea and the best sailing master ever she had. She liked him, that vessel did, and willingly performed things for him that she would not for others, especially when close-hauled and beating to windward to hit the lively Wednesday market at Boston. Neither chick nor child did that man have, as they used to say of bachelors in the bygone days. On the Medea’s tenth birthday he had come aboard, a greenhorn, and he had never left her even to lay off one trip. The sea and the oars and the hauling of halibut had shaped him into the Atlantic style: heavy-shouldered, lithe in the long legs and able, very able, in the many uses of the great frost-scarred hands calmly folded together in the grace of dreamless sleep. Dark hands they were, half again as large as the cook’s, and his were not a boy’s hands by any means.
“Happy birthday, Dick,” whispered Long Tom, although it wasn’t anybody’s birthday and he was just trying to entertain himself. “Happy birthday — and may you have another one very, very soon.” He placed Dick’s portion at the foot of his bunk, where his pipes lay in a rack of white porcelain, an ancient thing with odd English words on it that had been fished up one day on Sable Island Bank.
In the upper bunk a man lay awake. Long Tom had no difficulty in standing face-to-face with him; he was tall enough for that. Such wakefulness surprised Tom not at all. He had expected it; in fact, this doryman — greenhorn, rather — was the reason for his night visit. He knew well enough what must be the thoughts of a youngster on his first trip to stormy Banquereau — and in November. He had known the lad’s father, Dennis Nolan, a good man in a vessel and, in a dory, the best of dorymates. Now he saw in the gazing eyes and the thick wheaten-colored shock of hair the father’s eyes and the father’s head. The young man’s forehead shone white in the dim lamplight because he had been living ashore. On the voyage across Fundy, Long Tom had watched the new hand with affectionate care and had helped Dick Rodney in the schooling of him, for Dick took charge of the greenhorns one by one through the Grand Banks seasons. This one now required something more than lessons in seamanship.
“You don’t sleep, young man?”
“No, sir, I don’t. I’ve been thinking — and it keeps me awake.”
“You’ve Dick Rodney for a dorymate, and he’s taught you well coming over, so you’ve no cause for worry, David.”
“You both been good to me, cook.”
“And I brought something for you right now.” He held out the plate. “Just you take some of this, David, for I know you’ve a sweet tooth, and a sweet tooth satisfied — ah! that puts a man asleep. So I guess you’ll be all right, young man, if now you take another piece and fall asleep and sort of work up an appetite for breakfast by the right kind of dreaming. Aye, the young need sleep. And so good night.”
In the afternoon, after her bait had been stowed in ice, the Medea took the tide that served her. Under headsails only, she passed through the harbor entrance and, once outside, laid on all her muslin and was soon running free to the chosen fishing grounds.
Now, standing among the other dorymen on her streaming deck, young Nolan learned to cut bait in the larger chunks required when a vessel is rigged for halibut. Dick Rodney stood by him and showed him how to thrust the chunks onto the big Norway hooks, hanging a fathom apart on shorter lines tied to the main line of the trawl. He taught him the skill of coiling the baited hooks on squares of canvas to be lashed into bundles called “skates.”
“And once a halibut has taken hold,” said Dick, “he ain’t hard to haul — not in winter, I mean — because we’ll be fishing in eighty fathoms maybe, and he’s dead beat by the time he tugs all that way. Now in summer, when you take fish in forty fathoms, they have a short fight coming up and come to the gaff strong and frolicsome. You understand me, my boy?”
“Yes, Mr. Rodney.”
“Ah, you must drop the ‘Mister’ now, David, though it’s real respectful like of you and all right in the beginning and shows your good breeding, but now you must learn to call me ‘Dick’ because we’re dorymates now and forever friends, the best of friends, depending entirely one upon the other in the dory. Besides, you may be calling out a warning sudden like, and ‘Dick’ is the quick word.”
“I’ll do so, Dick.”
Before sunset the westerly wind became very cold and a fine rain fell, almost a mist. Everything cleared up for a time, and the sunset took on a violet coloring. Before the sun really got down, a cloud bank under it changed to a purple hue. Squalls burst out of that bank and ripped along the horizon, making quite a rumpus over the tide rips. Despite the unsteady nature of the weather, the Medea plunged into the dark night and, without taking a reef or changing course, crossed the Sambro Banks and swung away until she changed course to go along the southern edge of Sable Island Bank.
During this sailing toward the Gully of Banquereau, where the gear must be put to work, Dick drilled his greenhorn hard until he knew the use and place for each tool of their trade: bailer and water jar, bucket and food tin, the gaff to hook fish and the gobstick to club big ones. He showed him the bottom plug of their dory, which is knocked out when the dory is hoisted aboard. “In this way, lad,” he said, holding up the plug in his right hand, “brine and blood can be hosed out through the plughole and — watch now! — in this way the plug is jammed into place before we lower again.”
Obedient to this order shouted by Captain Duane near the helm, Dick Rodney’s dory, No. I of the starboard nest, came swinging out, and the dorymates went down in it for the opening of a brisk campaign.
Young Nolan sat to the oars and took the direction of the set from the captain’s extended arm: southward. Dick sent down the first anchor to hold the trawl, and after it he flung the buoy carrying the dory’s flag. He took up his heaving stick, a willow wand cut in the marshes of home, and began the deft lifting and tossing of the baited hooks, coil after coil. The baits sank, score by score, down to the halibut roving along the hills and valleys of the ocean floor. With the first skate down, Dick tied on another string, and young Nolan rowed on, eagerly watching the clever hands, the great arms and shoulders bending, swaying at their tasks.
Meanwhile, the Medea, under jib and jumbo, glided northward, dropping the other dories. She came jogging back again, and at eight o’clock, when the sun was well up, she gave the fishing signal : two whirls of her horn crank.
“And now I’ll haul, lad.”
Wearing the white cotton gloves of his trade, Dick laid the trawl line over the wheel of a gurdy set near the bow, and he bent down to haul. The first few hooks came up untouched; the next one brought from him a cry of dismay.
“Dogfish! Drat ‘em!” He slatted the twisting fish against the gunwale and knocked it off. Over the quiet sea came the same slatting noise repeated in other dories, a dismal sound for all hands because it showed that the useless dogfish were swarming below. The shouts of anger soon ceased. The dogfish had fled before the voracious halibut.
“Greenhorn luck, lad! Here he comes!” Its eyeless side uppermost, a halibut five feet long slanted violently to the surface, its snout tugging hard against Dick’s strength. It thrashed in such force that a torrent of foam quite concealed its mottled, rust-hued length. For an instant it floated in an idling way and then turned over ponderously until the two eyes on its right side stared upward dully. Driven by a quick frenzy, it tried to dive. The tight line checked the halibut’s thrust, and at that moment Dick swung the gaff down into the space between the eyes. He hauled on the gaff with both hands until the fish came over the gunwale. Dick struck three times with his gobstick before the fish ceased to struggle.
For the next three days Dick and young Nolan labored from daybreak until moonrise over their trawls, and often they pitchforked their fish aboard the Medea by the light of oil torches on her deck. On the fourth day Dick let his dorymate make his first haul, and up the fish came, hook after hook. Each conquest excited young Nolan until he laughed aloud and struck the gaff so fiercely that Dick had to caution him to take it easy because the dory had almost a full load.
“Hey!” Young Nolan shouted in amazement at the repeated surge far below of a fish that drew the gunwale down. An immense halibut had taken the last bait, and the gashing steel drove it rampaging down and away, back and forth. “Ah, Dick, he’s thundering big!”
Foot by foot, fathom by fathom, the fish yielded to the unfaltering strain on the line. Despite the freezing wind, and the sleet-chilled water, young Nolan sweated over the gurdy. His breath blew vapor out and he gasped harshly. He bent far down to renew his hold on the line and heaved so strongly that the fish came swerving to the foam. Maddened by the hook, it flung its bulk grandly against the dory. In falling, the halibut struck a blow with its tail that actually drove the dory off in a sideways glide.
“Now then, David!”
At Dick’s signal young Nolan swung the gaff high and swung it down and into the massive head. This first blow stunned the fish. It lay sluggish, and thus young Nolan got his chance to club it three times with the gobstick. The fish shuddered its fathom length. Its tail sagged and its gills spurted water with an odd choking sound. The fish rolled on the surface, and they saw that it was by far the greatest yet taken by the Medea. No one man could haul such a fish over the gunwale. Dick lifted his own gaff, drove its blade into the thickest part of the tail, and hauled.
At that very instant, from far off, where the Medea sailed among the other dories, there came the wail of her horn, three times howling the danger signal: Cut! Cut all gear!
One upward glance revealed to Dick the onrush of a squall in which streams of sleet glittered. A November northwester had caught up with them at last. Out of blue water there had risen a black, whitecapped sea. A second comber bulged in its wide path. Both seas joined and doubled in a wave that exploded against the dory. Even such an assault could not overwhelm a Gloucester dory. Its high sides and solid gunwales had been designed, through the Grand Banks centuries, to withstand such shocks and to yield sturdily before them. So their dory slid off smoothly. Half-hidden in the welter of that sea, Dick shouted the Medea’s signal: “Cut! In the name of God! Cut your gear, David!”
Young Nolan had already obeyed the Medea. In a sweep of his bait knife he sliced the line that held the halibut. At this sudden end to the strain, the halibut’s head sank down with such force that the gaff sprang free and rose in David’s hand lightly into the darkening air. Carried high above the gunwale by the sea, the halibut strove hard for a diving thrust of its tail. This furious action had the effect of raising its head once more. In this position it thrashed its tail and head in a vaulting action out of the water and into the air. It fell, and its great mass struck full along the gunwale. The dory turned over.
In the moment before the gunwale sank, young Nolan had tottered in his place, both hands upraised, the bloodied gaff against his yellow storm hat. In the same tick of time Dick had flung himself backward across the mound of fish in an effort to trim the dory and counterbalance the force of the falling halibut. He failed. The other gunwale came up violently. They were pitched outward into the sea.
The sea rolled over them. A second comber followed. Very soon nothing could be seen except the flat bottom of the dory. A ripple of foam spread down the bottom and split against the bottom plug, a battered cylinder of wood two inches high, three broad.
The halibut came up and swam awkwardly this way and that. It plowed through foam and flotsam — bailer, oars, mast — and reddening water ran out of its jaws. The fish sounded. A buoy swam up, struck an oar and swept away on the tide. A white-gloved hand reached out of the water, grasped at the buoy, failed and began a clumsy openhanded thrashing. Dick Rodney came up — first his hand, then his storm hat and at last his gasping mouth, spurting water. Burdened by thick winter clothes and by his boots full of water, he could make no headway.
The dory swung toward him. He flailed the water frantically with his arms. His hands clawed at the bottom of the dory and slipped off. The dory sank with a falling sea. He lunged once more and reached up for the bottom plug, the only thing on which a man could lay hold. In the crook of two fingers of his right hand, he drew himself out of the water. He lay moaning on the flat bottom, his face turned to the unlighted clouds.
Soon the strain of clinging to the plug weakened his grasp. His hand was too big for it. There wasn’t enough wood for his hand to ply its strength. He seized the plug with his left hand. He spewed water, and sucked in air rapidly. As if the neardeath had dulled his heart and senses, he lay sprawled, one boot dragging in the sea. “Ah, thank God, thank God!”
At once, his gravest duty brought him up to his knees. He looked wildly around, then carefully. He saw nothing. A thick gray vapor rolling in from the west drew over the water where the Medea struggled to find her dories. Dick shouted, “David! David!”
Not waiting for an answer, he made one up for himself — that his dorymate had not risen and must be drowning under the dory, where the trawl had caught him. Dick slid off the bottom. Holding to the gunwale, he let himself go down until he could reach into the dory. He came up to breathe. At the third trial his hand found a living thing. He laid hold and drew it toward him. A hand in there seized his arm. Dick bore backward and came up with young Nolan in his grasp. Dick tried to seize the plug, and, as before, a subsiding sea brought it near. He drew himself onto the bottom. He dragged young Nolan to his side and held him close while the water seeped out between the young man’s clenched teeth.
“Breathe, lad, breathe! Safe and sound!” His hand clamped on the plug, Dick made a desperate venture into the lamed consciousness of that young body. He struck young Nolan’s mouth a shrewd blow and rolled him over. The seeping of water became a rough belching. The fog closed over them, a sign that the gale was swinging away to the northward.
David spoke. “It was the fish, Mr. Rodney. Not me.”
“Aye, the fish!” The dory tipped. Under the force of the washing sea, young Nolan slid down and almost into the water. Dick shifted his weight to trim the bottom. When it lay level, he drew young Nolan back. The dory began to slant the other way, and again young Nolan slid down. Dick tried to sink his fingernails into the boards. This he couldn’t do. Another sea struck over them. They lay a time underwater. A cross sea sluiced under the stern. This rising forced young Nolan toward the bow.
“Hold to my arm, lad.”
The other obeyed. In a moment of ease, while the dory rode nearly level, Dick changed his grasp on the plug from his right hand to the left. The strain had become intolerable under the weight and thrust of two bodies depending on his two fingers. Seeing this, young Nolan stared at the narrow hold of Dick’s hand on the wood. “Even you, Dick — you can’t do it.”
“Change your grip to my knee, David. Hold hard now.”
The flooding tide began to turn the dory round and round. Soon the whirling action became so strong that they sagged in a heavier way, and Dick’s grasp on the plug began to weaken rapidly. His fingers slipped from the sodden wood, and they were sliding into the sea when the dory floated level again. Dick renewed his hold.
He could not long maintain it. Had the plug been the size of an oar handle, nothing save death itself could have broken his grasp. His two fingers might keep him safe until the Medea came in her search. Two fingers could not hold two such men. They could save only one.
The wounded halibut came alongside and died. The dorymen began their prayers, muttering together in the overwhelming salt, in the dark of night. Young Nolan cried out, “God have mercy on my soul!” And, “Ah, my poor mother!” Thereupon, he let go his grasp on Dick’s knee and let himself fall down the tipping dory. He had made his choice.
That choice was not acceptable to Dick Rodney. He caught young Nolan at the edge and took his hand and forced the slender fingers into place around the plug. Three of the fingers took good hold.
“Hear me, David? Do you hear me? I’ll swim to yonder buoy and save myself. Hold on desperate and she’ll come to you. And to me.” Saying this, he rose to his knees. He bowed his head in brief prayer. He bent down to young Nolan and said, “The Lord be with you, David. I’ll be on my way now.” He plunged into the sea, and the sea received him.
Long after nightfall the oil torches on the Medea’s deck flared yellow in the west, where she sailed in the traditional circle of search, closing in spoke by spoke to the position that No. 1 dory had taken. The schooner had a hard time finding the other dories in that fog. Now she swept round and round until she picked up the first buoy of No. 1’s trawl, then the second. Very soon a man aloft made out the dory, where it had drifted — well away from its trawl buoys — and they took young Nolan off it.
The first thing they had to tell him was that there had been no buoy near to keep Dick Rodney up. They told him that even the strongest swimmer could not have lived in that sea, and more — that Dick could not swim a stroke. Nor could any man in that vessel. Dorymen refused to learn because nothing could help a heavy clad man in the waters they worked in.
These matters were gently explained to him while he lay in the captain’s bunk, where he could be better tended by the captain and Long Tom. Those two understood quickly enough that their greenhorn had been badly hurt, not in the body but elsewhere — the place of grief. He made no answer to their patience. Nor did he change the stare of his eyes or the firm set of his mouth. He could not sleep — or would not. He neither ate nor drank.
All the first night, after the Medea had swung away on the wearisome beat to windward and to home, young Nolan lay there, his eyes apparently set on the lamp swaying to the schooner’s sway. Long Tom saw that this was not a true gaze, because, when he stood between the lamp and the bunk, the eyes kept on gazing. Thus young Nolan became a mystery to their hearts, one that they had found obscure in their Atlantic myths and legends. They believed he did not wish to live. His face became a white mask when the wind burn faded, and his eyes grew larger in the gauntness changing his cheek. He frightened them. Only his voice — a word — could guide them to his inwardness. He did not say it.
At midnight a change came in the wind; it hauled around until it blew fair for the Medea and once more sent her running free toward her landfall far away. She sailed quietly now; the wind flowing off her sails made the only music. This agreeable change relieved Captain Duane’s anxiety for the other men, who had been handling sail so often. So he sat in the galley with Long Tom and talked in whispers of a sentence by a doryman at dinner: “Too bad. He had the makings of a good doryman.” After saying that, the doryman had taken the watch in the cabin while the captain and Long Tom were at dinner, and he had since gone aft again to watch David’s face. Captain Duane whispered, “They have given the youngster up? Is that it, Tom?”
Long Tom’s answer was cut off by the hasty return of the doryman. “Captain, the poor lad has spoken.”
“What words, eh? Tell us that, Jock.”
“‘Why?’ And that’s all. Just ‘Why?’ “
The captain stepped forward in an eager movement. “And I am just the man that can answer that word!”
Long Tom held Captain Duane back a time while he made a pot of fresh tea and cut a thick slice of bread. He buttered the bread and then poured honey over it. They went aft and stood by the bunk where young Nolan lay — unchanged, impassive.
The captain said, “You hear me, David? Do you at last ask why? And will I not give you the answer? Not mine, but another’s. Were you not sworn friends with Dick Rodney? Dorymates that must cleave to each other even to death? Then —”
Young Nolan had not seemed to be hearing or seeing. Yet, at the last question, his immobility broke. His right hand rose in a plea for silence. His eyes became expressive, and his expression one of bewilderment. He whispered a word. They could not hear it. They bent forward anxiously.
“Eh?” whispered the captain. “What’s that, David?”
They heard: “I did so cleave. I made the offer first, captain, I was ready.” He gave up and passed into a profound reflection, as if he understood for the first time the true meaning of the moment when he had taken his hand away from Dick Rodney’s knee.
At the revelation of this secret, the captain’s eyes turned to Long Tom’s. They looked deeply at each other, not in the earlier questioning way, but in the way of wonder. And this soon changed to a kind of sober joy.
The captain said, “Even so, even so.” In renewed eagerness he sought the words he wished to recite. “Then all the better is the answer, David, and I give it word for word: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ Ah! Were you not at that moment a friend, indeed? Was not his deed friendly?”
His voice loud in the certain power of words that had triumphed down the ages, he laid down the sacred law. In his belief that there could be no task now except the restoration of David’s physical being, his right hand changed from its gesture of entreaty to a sign toward the bread. Nevertheless the sublime words failed, and his own words counted for little.
“Why?” Young Nolan raised his voice to clearness in his tenacious pursuit of an answer. “Oh, he never laid eyes on me before this trip! Oh, my God, why?”
At this, the cry of Job, Long Tom stepped forward and, laying his hand on young Nolan’s forehead, said, “I will answer you, David, and it is my own answer. But first drink this and eat this bread.” He lifted the young man’s head and waited until the mug was empty and the bread gone. He then said, “Listen. This is the holy time of year for the giving of gifts, one friend to another. Didn’t you tell me you was going to give Dick a pipe with a meerschaum bowl for his Christmas? Once we’d sold our fish and had our settlement day and our pay? Aye, you did! Now I hear you offered him another gift — your life. And, Dick, he has given you that very gift. ‘Twas all he had to give — his life. Do you now refuse it, David? No! Take his gift and treasure it all your days. This is Long Tom’s word.”
Young Nolan’s eyes closed. He fell back sighing, and his lips loosened in a return of tenderness. He said, “By the Lord Christ — yes! I will treasure his gift. Forever and one day more.” And he fell into the saving sleep.
Featured image: Illustration by Carroll Jones (©SEPS)
Richard Matthews Hallet is best known for his sea stories, no doubt inspired from his life growing up on the Atlantic Ocean in Maine. His life of writing ocean adventures was nearly an impossibility — until his story “The Black Squad” was picked up by the Post in the early 1900s, saving his career. After his first story was published, he continued to write adventure stories for the Post, one of the best being “Misfortune’s Isle” which has since been adapted into several radio and film programs using Hallet’s Island as the location for their eerie tales.
Published on November 9, 1929
C’aptain Arad’s first glimpse of the Doha Delfina Crispo showed him a soul imprisoned. The rebellious eye, the rich mouth shadowed by black hair, the very pose of her slim body in the open carriage, were all eloquent of her captivity. She was the wife of Don Narciso Crispo, captain general of Zamboanga, but now resident in Manila — a little monkey of a man, yellow as a faded sunflower from jaundice, and with a limp acquired from a drunken fall into a tiger pit outside of Singapore. Ambitious and romantic, Doha Delfina had nothing to do but rise at eleven in the morning, take chocolate, hold her soul firm, and through a broken oyster shell in the oyster-shell window of her balcony watch the black soldiers, the cigar makers and ship captains filing past.
Half-breed women — those mestizas with the magnificent hair and the hint of China in their eye corners — could vary the monotony by leaning out occasionally to spit at a mark with betel-nut juice — say, for choice, the sombrero of a passing caballero. Dona Delfina, a woman of rank, had to content herself with French and Spanish novels, and an occasional cigar. She remained in advanced dishabille until four in the afternoon, usually. When an earthquake had moved the upper walls of the house on its beams — they stuck out four or five feet, so as to give what Arad called margin enough to veer and haul on — she had been perhaps the only woman in Manila who had not rushed into the streets beating her breast and crying, “Misericordia! Don Jorge, misericordia!” Her heart, no doubt, had stopped in her bosom, but she had only bowed her head and prayed to be engulfed, snatched bodily away from such a hateful destiny.
The satirical earthquake had contented itself with putting a queer kink into the cathedral roof, overthrowing the bull-ring parapets, and bringing down one of the eight arches of the iron bridge over the River Pasig. After that, everything was as before. The cathedral bells tolled at stated times, the clack of stone hammers beating out tobacco leaf was resumed in the tobacco factory, and at four o’clock, when the sea breeze revived, carriages in an endless chain began to revolve on the Calzada — the boulevard just outside the walls on the bay side of the town.
These carriages were called the shoes of the country — in fact, no woman of rank could walk so much as a hundred paces — and Doha Delfina’s shoe was drawn by two gray Manila ponies, one bestridden by a postilion in shiny black leggings, a spur on his left heel, tight shorts, a spicy jacket, and a hat as hard and black as a japanned-iron coal scuttle. Doha Delfina would usually be looking past this individual’s ears at the shipping in the bay. Certainly every size and shape and intention of ship was there, a quaint intermingling of chain, hemp, grass rope, coir and bamboo cables; and among these Arad’s ship, the Water Witch of Salem, was not the least conspicuous, with her black hull and painted ports, her rigging freshly tarred and rattled down, and the house flag flying at her peak.
“They tell me these Spanish women wear no stockings,” Arad’s friend, Captain Michael O’Cain, was muttering in his ear.
Arad replied somberly, “How is a man going to tell? You shouldn’t lean so hard on hearsay, Michael.”
Orderlies in powder-blue uniforms, cocked hats and jack boots, with heavy carbines on their shoulders and long steel swords jangling at their sides, were riding up and down madly, keeping order. The sun was sinking now, and one of these orderlies blew a blast on a trumpet. As if by a flourish of magic, the line of carriages, headed by the captain general and the archbishop of Manila, stopped; the military band of black soldiers was hushed; and by common consent, all — gentlemen, orderlies, soldiers and servants — took off their hats gracefully to repeat a silent vesper prayer. Captain Arad saw that Doha Delfina still sat erect, unmollified. She was bareheaded, her shoulders narrowed under her black mantilla, the last gleam of the sun’s upper limb reflected in her eyes. The fierce warrior’s head of Jamboo, the interpreter, was just beyond her, fixed in an attitude of attentive worship, but his divinity was nearer, evidently, than the flaming skies.
Now the prayer was over and the slow movement of dished wheels on the yellow road was resumed. Doha Delfina passed Captain Arad so close that she might have touched him with that fan showing a picture of a fallen bullfighter; instead she masked her mouth with it, but her eyes smiled. Don Narciso was half asleep at her side. If that little yellow man should die, Captain Arad thought, Delfina, unlike the Fiji Island women, would not be found imploring his relatives to strangle her, so that she might follow him into the beyond.
By a queer chance, that very night Don Narciso was all but throttled in his bed by robbers, or more likely pirates, who had succeeded in swarming over the city walls. He was rescued just in time by the big halberdier stationed outside his door; but the pirates were in sufficient force to escape without loss of any of their number. In the morning the bay was peaceful, but the scandal of pirates actually attacking a town of these dimensions while it slept was being discussed on every corner. Captain Arad waited in person on Don Narciso, sat with him beard to beard — as Narciso himself said — in the sala of his stone house.
“I am glad,” the trader began, “to see that these rascals after all have done you no great damage, Excellency.”
Don Narciso, sitting in a white nightcap, felt of his throat.
“A man who is afraid to die never truly lives,” he muttered, with a miserable attempt at boldness, but he could not keep a tear from trickling over the lacquered surface of that famous glass eye, blown and colored and inserted for him by the celebrated Doctor Pablo.
“True,” the Yankee shipmaster agreed. “But even if these pirates are run to earth, opportunities for dying will be plentiful enough for any man placed as Your Excellency is. If you let them run wild, in the end there’s nothing they won’t attempt. Here you are, for example, in a modern city, protected by a wall and ditch, drawbridges, gates, sally ports, soldiers, with a watch set every night; yet the beggars break in and all but choke the life out of you personally.”
“Maledictions and fatalities,” Don Narciso breathed.
“Fatalities. Exactly. A broadside of my thirty-two pounders in the middle of them will furnish fatalities enough.”
“But they have escaped.”
“Not without leaving a clue. My kind friend Jamboo, Yang-Po’s interpreter, picked up one of their muskets on the shore this morning. An English musket with the Tower stamped on the lock. By a private mark I know it for a musket I traded myself to a pirate — Seriff Sahibe. I know his nest. It’s a river mouth on the coast of Borneo. You’ll know it by an island there with a queer Malay name, but the English of it is Misfortune’s Isle.
“Misfortune’s Isle. But that is the island — the island — ”
“Of the upas tree, you are going to say. Exactly. What harm? The stories about that tree are nonsense. It will neither singe the hair nor numb the faculties of those who lie under it. The Dyaks extract a poison from it, I admit, to tip their arrows with, and they worship the tree, naturally; but these other stories are pure invention.”
“But I am told that the river’s mouth is stockaded,” Narciso objected.
“We can get round that. Lash whaleboats to the piles at low tide, and as the tide rises the buoyancy of the boats will pluck the piles out like so many radishes.”
“But our arms. The weapons of my soldiers. Half the time our guns miss fire; the percussion caps are abominable. The least moisture, a squall or a fall of dew, and we are helpless. We are forced to make our own powder, since the government of Spain forbids the importation of powder into Manila.”
“That reminds me of my friend Billy Sturgis,” Arad laughed. “His owner furnished him with nothing but quakers — wooden guns, Excellency, painted black — but he smuggled aboard four actual cannon, with ball and powder answerable; and with these he beat off pirates in the China Sea and saved ship and cargo. His owner made him pay freight on the cannon both ways, when he heard of it.”
“I am as much in earnest as those eight thirty-two pounders aboard my ship. I tell you, I have guns and powder enough to blast Misfortune’s Isle out of the water, upas tree and all; but — I am only a trader. Ugly stories of tyranny could easily get afloat if I effected this without official cooperation. My owners wouldn’t like it. They would argue that I had gone out of my way to unlatch those guns. I should be worse off than Billy Sturgis. Now, if I can say that you, señor, commandeered my services, I am on better ground.”
“Who are these pirates?”
“A league of three forces, principally. There are Malays headed by Seriff Sahibe; there are Dyaks — head-hunters — under Gapoor; and there is that misplaced band of Chinamen — convicts — who seized the junk in which they were being transported from Hong-Kong to Singapore. Jamboo tells me they are all members of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Heaven and Earth. Our friend Yang-Po — the Captain China — is the head of that organization, it so happens. He tells me it was founded by him to set crooked things straight. Yang-Po owes his life to me. His junk is in the bay, and he agrees to pilot us into the shadow of Misfortune’s Isle. My friend O’Cain, if you consent, follows us in my ship, the Water Witch.”
“And do not forget, Don Narciso!” Doila Delfina cried — she had suddenly come on the scene, exquisitely girlish in flowered English muslin with a gardenia blossom in her hair. “We heard only yesterday that Spain will make any man count of Manila who will rid these waters of pirates.”
“But suppose Yang-Po cannot persuade these Chinamen,” Narciso faltered.
“Well, what are a few Chinamen more or less? Knock ‘em down; they’re only tea and rice. Set me ashore at that stockade with two loaded pistols,” the trader said sternly, and with cunning grandiloquence suited to the Spaniard’s needs, “have I not still an advantage? Do I not stake my one life against two others?”
“Ah, Dios,” Delfina murmured in a tone of worship, “quel hombre!”
What a man. This murmur turned the edge of all Narciso’s arguments. He was in the miserably equivocal position of an arrant coward with a widespread reputation for courage and an ambition to maintain it. His restless wife had three times already, on the coast of Chile, goaded him into lucky undertakings. As he sat now, he was Knight of the Grand Cross of the Military Order of Saint Hermenegildo, and of the Military Order of San Fernando, and decorated with seven more crosses of merit for war services — once removed — in the campaigns of both hemispheres.
“But you, señor captain — what have you to gain?” he finally demanded.
“Trade. I don’t want to conceal anything. This river is full of gold and antimony ore, and the limestone cliffs of the island, I am told, contain edible birds’ nests. My friend Houqua at Canton loves bird’s nest soup. He will give me a shipload of raw silk and broken silver in exchange.”
Don Narciso got up hastily and said he would consider the proposition further. Flanked by huge halberdiers and standing at the head of a broad damp flight of stone stairs in his earthquake proof house, he shouted down to the retreating Arad the various honors imparted, the signal obligations conferred by Arad’s presence, by the mere shadow of his shadow, on this house and on the family of which he, Don Narciso, was the least considerable member. Dona Delfina stood darkly, ravishingly limned against a lime-washed wall. Captain Arad was stirred; he felt a wash of subtle emotion in his blood. It was as if he had glimpsed under a flying moon the wings and heels of a superb China trader, going with the strength of the monsoon, and suddenly sliding up onto a coral shoal and sticking fast, so that no press of canvas could snatch her off into the deeper water.
“Adiosito,” her lips had fashioned noiselessly — a little farewell. A farewell with the ghost of a return in it. At Felipe Bustamente’s noisy boarding house, when O’Cain roared “Does the lady wear stockings or not?” Arad said somberly, “No matter for that. She has a soul, Mike.”
When he found, after the expedition had started, that Dofia Delfina had stowed herself away aboard Yang-Po’s venerable junk, Captain Arad wished he had not thought so much about the lady’s soul. This piece of folly on her part was a threat to trade. If Don Narciso knew she was aboard, he would be quite capable of turning the ship’s head for Manila. As it was, he had almost beat a retreat when they had lost sight of the Water Witch in a squall.
It was on the night following that Dofia Delfina, barefooted, in the half-breed’s costume of blue-and-white-striped pantaloons and a straw-colored pills shirt, put herself in Captain Arad’s way. This was in the waist of the ship, near the big pole mast, and in the shadow of one of those enormous bell-mouthed cannon. She hungrily filched a cheroot from the pocket of his coat. She had, she whispered, got herself brought aboard as a sack of feathers. Was he surprised? But she would contrive to make herself useful, she assured him. She would stay concealed until Don Narciso’s knees showed signs of buckling under him, and then Captain Arad would see how she could stiffen him. One way or another, she had been present at all his campaigns, and always with good effect.
“Is his nerve still good, after last night’s squall?” she inquired.
“Not too good. He fell and bruised his hip.”
“If it had not been for those feathers in which I came,” Delfina said, “I should be nothing but bruises now. It was worse than the earthquake — this squall of yours. Then, when I heard the cannon fired, I thought the pirates had attacked us.”
“We fired that shot to shatter a waterspout.”
“And you succeeded?”
“Yes. At least we got the contents of the spout, but in the form of heavy rain, instead of solid water. But the plague of it is, the rain got through the decks into-the powder tubs. Our powder is useless — all except that in the firecrackers. But there’s no going back. We haven’t water enough left. And everybody got so excited over the waterspout that nobody thought of catching water when it fell — or nobody but me, and I prefer river water.”
“Keep in this bag of feathers one more night, and I will make you a grandee of Spain,” Arad muttered. “Condesa.”
“Ah, condesa. That is good.”
“But now I must get up where I can watch Yang-Po’s piloting.”
“Buenas noches,” Delfina whispered, and blew smoke deliberately into his ear. “How well this title would become you, señor — el conde. The great count with his black hair, and this mouth which it is certain you have inherited from your mother. It is so very sweet. Ah, adiosito.”
The foot of the bamboo ladder he ascended had pasted on it a red label in the Chinese, reading, “May the going up be peaceful,” but with Delfina’s smoke — her fire — hot in his ear, he couldn’t at once recompose himself.
Yang-Po, the Captain China, had been smoking opium, and now, to keep himself awake, had knotted his pigtail to the rigging above his head. He swayed like a hanged man with each motion of the junk, but each time they swam past one of these black headlands, the helmsman sent Jamboo, the interpreter, to touch the Captain’s shoulder. Whereupon the Captain would look at his chart and order a cock sacrificed to the Queen of Heaven. The chart, unrolled at his feet, was on peach-colored rice paper, and showed the one proper courses straight track — with serpents and dragons writhing out of the deep on every hand. Arad, glancing over Yang-Po’s shoulder, went a little cold to see that on this chart Siberia was jammed up close against Africa, with disastrous effect on the two or three surrounding oceans. Still, it was likely that Yang-Po knew his ship’s footing in these waters.
But Don Narciso appeared to have his doubts.
“You are sure this man knows where he is going?”
“He cannot fail,” Arad said. “I know him of old. I met him first when he was a student at Canton, a literary graduate of the third degree. That, of course, is a guarantee that he has learning enough to fill five carts. Later he was one of the keepers of the temple of the Silver Moon off Lin Tin, and he used to come out and beg rice of us when we were bound down the China Sea.”
“Beg? Beg, you say?”
“This rascal was born begging. Whenever we smoked the rats out of the ship he was at hand to catch them when we threw them overboard. A forehanded man, Excellency. Later he was foolish enough to sell us, out of the Number One Temple at Honan, the sacred hog that was being kept to die of its own fat. We bought it for opium, and that came to the emperor’s ears. Our man wasn’t judged fit for strangulation after that. They crammed the wooden collar over his ears instead; that thing was four feet across any way you measured it. Yang-Po couldn’t lie down, he couldn’t feed himself, and the penalty is strangulation for feeding anybody in the collar, as you know. I found him in a ditch, took him aboard the Witch, got the ship’s carpenter to saw the collar off, and gave him rum and salt horse. You see whether he is obligated to me.”
“It was after that that he joined the Brotherhood of Heaven and Earth?”
“Yes. He and this fellow Jamboo joined forces, got a fast sampan, and preyed on the Chinese market boats and petty traders coming into Batavia — those fellows who do smuggling business with the Dutch monopolists. Our friends got some pretty rich hauls. Molucca spices, coffee and pepper from Sumatra, gold dust, camphor, slaves and rattan from Borneo, tin from Banca, tortoise shell and dye woods from Timor. You can imagine they weren’t long in getting to be pretty respectable citizens, Excellency. Jamboo was busy learning all those languages; and, in fact, I believe the fellow knows the very language of the birds; he will tell you what the trees are whispering in these plaguy rivers.”
“You say they are pirates themselves?” Don Narciso said, aghast.
“Not any more.” Arad laughed. “Not since they got hold of this junk. No, they are traders, like myself. This very voyage, for example, the junk is full of — sacks of feathers,” he dropped out with a grim twist of his mouth and a look over his shoulder at the crooked pole mast of ironwood with the bark only half scraped off. “You will find, Excellency,” he went on, quoting Byron, a favorite of his, “that this Captain China is as mild a man as ever cut a throat.”
Don Narciso brought out, with a quaver, that they ought not to close with these pirates before sighting the Water Witch, lost sight of in last night’s squall. “Our powder is useless, remember,” the captain general of Zamboanga said.
“That may be a providence. These gun barrels are cracked, and wound with nothing but bolt silk. The touch holes are as big as the muzzles. Two men were injured destroying that spout last night. Better, in any case, trust to stabbing knives.”
The fierce Jamboo, in his quilted fighting clothes, came direct from the helmsman to say that Misfortune’s Isle was now in sight. Yang-Po untied his pigtail, picked up from the chart his supper of salt, dried vegetables and rice in a coconut shell, and lifted the canopy of red cloth over the compass. The little whirligig of a man there, carved out of sapan wood and fixed to the huge needle, kept on pointing his finger north. The limestone cliffs of Misfortune’s Isle were close enough for them to see the broken coral belt at its foot, gleaming in wicked white patches against a black background of mangrove jungle on shore.
“Do we attack tonight?” Jamboo inquired, grounding his spear on the deck. His bronze head with its cluster of godlike curls moved closer. Arad, remembering the look of worship he had cast at Delfina on the Calzada, thought it would be just as well if Jamboo, as well as Don Narciso, remained in ignorance of her presence on board. Jamboo was a waif, he did not know his own father or so much as the place and hour of his birth; but to an imaginative man, this may have advantages. These slumberous watches, when he had had nothing to do but shake awake that stuffed figure of the hanging Yang-Po, it had been easy for Jamboo to imagine himself the son of a king, or perhaps a pirate by descent, as he was one already by taste. What if he were the son of Serif Sahibe himself, and so in his own person the inheritor of these resplendent gardens of the sun and master of fierce lives? Yet, in fact, he was only an interpreter.
“Attack? There is no hurry,” the Captain China yawned. “The coiling Peach Tree of the Royal Lady of the West was three thousand years before it had a blossom, and another three thousand before it bore fruit. Who knows whether it will be necessary to attack, venerable elder brother?”
“But if we do not attack the tiger in his den, how shall we have his cubs?” Jamboo insisted.
“I have been dancing with women in the palace of the moon. I cannot answer questions,” the Captain China said. “Sacrifice a cock,” he ordered, “to the Queen of Heaven.”
In the storm just passed, the Queen of Heaven, sitting in her apartment aft, cross legged in a ribbed and gilded shell, had toppled, and would have fallen if some of the sailors had not, with their profane hands, held her in her place.
“She is weak!” Jamboo had cried.
“She is angry, perhaps,” the Captain China had suggested. On either hypothesis, it would do no harm to shore her up.
The other omens were not too auspicious. The waterspout was nothing in itself, but the bursting gun had made the cannoneers timid about serving the other guns. Moreover, Don Narciso’s black soldiers had been wretchedly seasick the whole time, and some had filed the sights off their guns because of a tendency to catch in the clothing in rough weather. Again there were signs that the typhoon was not yet done with them — as, the sinking of pale phosphorescent moons through the water at night, a spotty haze following a red sunset, the haze alternating with clear patches in which the summits of the hills showed black, and finally an irregular swell across the oily face of the waters. If that Bully of the North meant to resume his antics, it would be well to have an anchorage, the Captain China said.
The upshot was, they put the junk fairly into the shadow of Misfortune’s Isle. When the limestone cliffs seemed ready to fall on the decks, Yang-Po made a motion of his hand, and there followed the splash of the junk’s huge, wooden, single-fluked anchor, weighted with stones. This was echoed by a single ominous note from a gong hidden at the heart of a banyan tree on the right bank of the river. Yang-Po answered with three peals on a gong of his own, and all was quiet.
Morning showed the two yellow tablelands of Misfortune’s Isle not a biscuit’s toss away. In the cleft or notch between them was set a pinnacle rock shaped like a ninepin, and reeling as if for a fall. At the foot of Ninepin Rock stood the upas tree, a mighty tan-colored trunk rising sixty feet without a branch, and crowned with a thick tuft of glossy dark green foliage. Even by morning light, the great poison tree, with its clustering legends, had something eerie, ominous, about it. It stood solitary on its blasted island. Not another tree, not so much as a shrub or spear of grass, was visible there, from the sinister circular halls high on the table-lands, where the Dyaks hung and smoke-dried heads, down to the beach of black volcanic sand at the foot of the upas tree.
Even Arad, getting into the lowered whaleboat with Jamboo and the Captain China, was glad to turn his eyes away from that tree and toward the river’s mouth, where morning was breaking in a hot golden haze back of the stockade closing the channel to anything larger than a proa. The lookout banyan tree on the right bank was full of bamboo ladders, and red monkeys hung chattering from the rungs of these. The tree was deserted, except for the Hue flash of the day-flying moth and the flit of leaf-green pigeons with blood-red eyes and feet. The whaleboat passed so close that Arad, standing in the stern sheets, could see the gleam of scarlet figs with honey drops at their tips; and in a few more strokes, they were in the shadow of Seriff Sahibe’s house.
The proa called the Singh Rajah, its brass swivels shining in the sun, was moored abreast of this house and was crowded with men. But nobody opposed Yang-Po’s going on into Seriff Sahibe’s house. This house, perched thirty feet over the water on slender legs, they entered by a ladder of notched logs leading to a hole in the floor. An alligator basking on a stone shelf half in and half out of water slid into the mud like something rolled on casters.
Seriff Sahibe himself was in an antique tunic of chain mail and a helmet decorated with bird-of-paradise feathers, but his legs were bare. He was sick, and lay on a bamboo platform raised a foot or more off the floor, since before now Dyak slaves and others had been known to circumvent the guardian alligator and thrust the tips of poisoned spears through the bamboo flooring, with its flimsy snaking of rattan, and into the bodies of unsuspecting sleepers.
Gapoor, the Dyak chief, was also here. His huge brass earrings he had turned up and toggled against his skull by a tiger tooth thrust through the upper part of the ear itself. This would prevent a sword from shearing the ear from his head, and was a warlike sign, which Jamboo and the Captain China recognized by merely squatting on the floor instead of sitting cross-legged. Both had previously eased their sarongs up over the handles of their stabbing knives.
Gapoor’s Sulu wife, in yellow clothes, and fair as an Italian, with her forehead shaved to match the narrow double arch of hair-line brows, offered betel-nut juice out of a silver mortar. All but Yang-Po drank, and nothing broke the decorum of Jamboo’s harangue except now and then the alligator’s rubbing his scales against the bark of the house posts, or once suddenly snapping to his jaws, which might have been wide open for ten or fifteen minutes through sheer laziness or inattention.
More insidious was the occasional creak in the rafters, a subtle swaying of the whole house on its attenuated legs; due, Arad found, to the weaving and looping, in the dark overhead, of Serif Sahibe’s pet anaconda, whose body was as thick through as a strong man’s upper leg. There was apparently no end to him. He did nothing worse, actually, than dislodge a couple of centipedes from the thatch; but once or twice Arad knew, by a sickening odor and an arrested expression on the handsome face of the Sulu wife, that the seeking head of this pet was within a foot of his own. If the conversation, through any blundering of Jamboo’s or through Gapoor’s misinterpreting the most innocent words, took a wrong turn, who could answer for the disposition of those giant black folds?
But so far Jamboo was doing very well. He explained to Seriff Sahibe that the white shipmaster had come to trade, and would pluck the riches of the limestone caverns of Misfortune’s Isle to gratify his Chinese friend Houqua’s palate for bird’s-nest soup.
Seriff Sahibe played with his toes and asked why the shipmaster had not come in his own ship? That was pertinent, and Jamboo replied glibly that the shipmaster’s ship was refitting at Manila, and that the Captain China was his friend and knew these waters. Seriff Sahibe fluttered his lids. Perhaps he thought it more likely that the Captain China had been retained to detect frauds. The Captain had a gift that way, as was known. If the Dutch at Amboyna hung their clove bags over water to increase their weight by absorption, Yang-Po would know it by squeezing the cloves in his fist. Again, if the Hong merchants at Canton offered, as tea, chopped elm and willow leaves dyed with Prussian blue, or if the traders at Bombay adulterated opium with pounded poppy leaves and camels’ dung, Yang-Po’s counsel was invaluable. He knew, too — this literary graduate, with his five cartloads of knowledge — how to test the purity of camphor; and he could tell gold from brass filings by simply picking up the stuff on his wet finger ends.
Whatever his thoughts, Serif Sahibe listened politely. The Captain China seemed innocence itself. He accompanied Jamboo’s remarks with lifts of the brow, shrugs, head slants and polite hissings, but the pirate knew that members of the Brotherhood of Heaven and Earth had to be watched for small signs. Fatalities might result from not knowing the difference between Yang-Po’s twirling his cue from left to right and from right to left. But only men born to set crooked things straight would know how to interpret it if a silver cup containing betel-nut juice should be lifted with three fingers instead of two, or set down untasted on the flat of a war drum. Certainly the Captain China had not drunk his liquor, which was a breach of etiquette, and he had not sat cross-legged in the presence, which was a worse breach.
When the conference broke up, everyone was as wise as when it started, but the whaleboat returned safely to the junk. That night Jamboo deserted, and despite peril from ranjows — sharpened bamboo stakes concealed in the ground, with poison at their tips — made his way, it was known later, to the Malay camp.
“Ten thousand bushels of sorrow, how could I suppose this?” the Captain China asked Don Narciso.
“Pick up the anchor and make sail,” the captain general urged. “This man will tell them the truth about us.”
“There is one truth torture cannot wring from him, because he does not know it,” the Captain China said sleepily. “That is, that we are, aground here, on stiff green mud. There is no moving.”
“No moving?” Don Narciso gasped.
“No moving. It is best to retire and take opium.”
Don Narciso fell back a step, fetched up on the point of his sword, and muttered, “Perdido” — lost. Standing in hot sunshine, which struck also those cliff faces of Misfortune’s Isle, and the snake-green leaves of the ghastly upas, Don Narciso cast a horror-stricken look about him. Nature perhaps had joined man’s conspiracy against his life. He put a hand to his throat. This air was next to impossible to breathe. It might be nothing but a distillation of those venomous leaves, dropped into a man’s blood stream.
“Some kinds of trouble can be avoided by fleeing with a bag of dogwood tied to your arm and drinking chrysanthemum flower wine as you run, but this is not that kind of trouble,” the Captain China informed Don Narciso. “Excuse me, august one, if I spend a part of this evening dancing with the women in the palace of the moon.”
This was the same as smoking opium; and the helmsman brought him his pipe. Narciso shut himself into his cabin, and Captain Arad was able to seek out Delfina, who lay in the shadow of the giant mat sail, crumpled across its two horses.
“The Witch is not in sight?” she whispered.
“No. But there is worse news. Jamboo, the interpreter, has betrayed us.”
“He has gone ashore.”
“That is perhaps to spy. I must tell you my secret. It was Jamboo who brought me aboard personally on his shoulders in that bag of feathers. He is my slave; he has no thoughts except what I put into his head. ‘It was I who got him to put into your head the very idea of this expedition, senor. Confess, he was the first to approach you on the subject.”
The first. This was true. It had been Jamboo who brought him that English musket and suggested the availability of Yang-Po’s junk. Delfina’s mirthful eyes gleamed very near.
“You say that you —”
“I. Yes. I was bored to the whites of my eyes in that sleepy Manila. I prayed for anything — pirates, a change of husbands. Then Jamboo came with that musket, and I had sent him to you before I thought twice.”
“You see. He worships me,” Delfina explained with a confident motion of her lips.
“Worse and worse. He must think his chances of acquiring you outright, without let or hindrance, are better from the other side. It’s probable now he has bartered away what information he has for the promise of you. No doubt he will go right on worshiping you after he has taken you up into his bamboo house and set you to pounding betel nut,” Arad went on a little ferociously. “They worship white women here traditionally. The story is that they have got one penned up in this cursed tree hanging over our heads, but I don’t know.”
“You frighten me!” Delfina cried. “You think, señor”
“I frighten you too late. And I don’t know what I think. I think the earthquake should have swallowed you. I think I ought to let these Dyaks have you. They know how to treat infidelity.”
“Infidelity? Señor — señor!”
“Isn’t that the name for it, when a wife tries to get rid of her husband by taking advantage of his weakness for titles? These Dyaks, for a less offense, would bury you to the waist and stone you with medium sized stones. That’s the penalty in their code. Well, is Jamboo’s worship worth this? I suppose you return it. No doubt you two will live together happily, once Don Narciso’s brains have been eaten and his head hung in the smokehouse.”
“You are beside yourself,” Delfina cried faintly. “How can you doubt that it is you I worship? From the very instant of my vesper prayer, senor
Doha Delfina was as silent as if he had closed his hand about her throat. There was a sound of guitars forward in the hands of the Indian chamber band, playing to keep Don Narciso’s spirits up. This gust of music died, and there was nothing but a spluttering of firecrackers, a creaking of the bamboo quarter galleries under the tread of yellow feet, a bubbling of oil in the cook room. They were boiling it in three cast-off whalers’ try-pots, to pour down on the heads of pirates. Captain Arad, looking down at Delfina’s dark slenderness, saw her shoulders move. She was sobbing quietly. He felt like a warrior whose best weapon has been struck out of his hand in the very hour of battle.
“Come,” he said softly. “I must get you out of this ship before the attack.”
It was dark enough on the table land over the upas tree, but Arad went fast, scarcely waiting for Delfina to get her breath. She was sopping wet in her striped silk pantaloons and piña shirt; but she had swum away from the ship’s side with her head well out of water, unwilling to get her hair wet; and now, withdrawing thorn hairpins, she let the dry hair down round her modestly.
Captain Arad had a coil of rattan rope on his arm and a canvas bag in his fist, with food, torches and water. The climb here by that series of notched logs hung against the face of the cliff had not been easy. The notches in the logs were far apart, forcing him to bring his knee practically to his chin for each step; and most of the way he had carried Delfina, lashed bodily against his back with a few turns of the rattan.
“Here’s the mouth of that cave I spoke of,” he said, barring her way with his arm. “It’s crammed full of birds’ nests, and there may be a bat or two, but nothing to frighten you. You’ll have food and water, and rope to help you down when the time comes. I’ve told you that we are as good as dead men on the junk. Jamboo, your friend, has told those beggars that our powder is worthless; and they outnumber us ten to one. But there’s still a chance to save O’Cain’s skin and yours. I don’t know what’s delaying him. He may have struck on a shoal; he may have foundered. Well, say he has; say he’s sitting in an open boat now with the salt stinging him and only a pillow case of moldy bread between his knees, he’s still making for the island.”
Delfina didn’t answer, and Arad, prodded by the mention of O’Cain, asked out of a clear sky, “Do you wear stockings in Manila?”
Delfina had seemingly not heard one syllable of this. She murmured, her lips stiff with horror, “I cannot be left here. Señor, no, no. I had rather the poison of the upas killed me. . . How near it is. It is not twenty feet down to Ninepin Rock, and from there I could easily jump into the top of the tree. . . Señor captain, I am growing numb already. I cannot feel my toes; my hands are cold. Do you not feel yourself a dreamy something here, as if — as if our souls had slid out of our bodies?”
“No. The soul is the grain, the body is the sack containing it, Yang-Po says. When the grain — the soul — is out, the sack loses its shape. But you are evidently still in possession of your soul, señora. You will be able to give O’Cain his signal.”
“I had forgotten. . . They say there are no fish in the waters round this island, and that birds flying over it drop dead.”
“Birds are mortal. They must drop dead somewhere.”
“Still, nothing is growing here. Not so much as a shrub.”
“I don’t deny this tree has poison. Its sap is a kind of yellow froth, and Dyaks put it in a hollow reed with ten folds of linen round it. But it’s nonsense to say it poisons the air or withers the soul.”
“Still, the manchineel —”
“I know. But a drop of dew from the manchineel must actually fall on your skin to blister it. There’s another tree — I forget its name, but it shakes like a reed if you touch it, and it will wrestle you down if you pick it up by the roots. For that matter, I’ve seen fire coming from the camphor tree in Houqua’s gardens at Canton, but it’s a queer kind of fire that won’t even singe the hair.”
Yang-Po’s junk, hung all round with scarlet lanterns, gleamed in the blue abyss under their heels, and in the shadow of the upas tree.
“At least, do not leave me for a moment,” Delfina murmured pathetically. She tiptoed dangerously near the edge of the cliff, and Arad, with a restraining arm around her, felt her hair like the brushing of black flame against the back of his hand. “You say a woman is supposed to be imprisoned in this tree?”
“A white woman, the story is. She had sinned. The bitterness of her tears mingling with the sap is what gives the poison strength. Her imprisonment is her power.”
“Her power for evil!” Delfina cried, shuddering closer.
“Well, anyway, as long as she’s nipped here, just so long these fellows go on getting a first-class poison for their blow pipes. But it’s on the cards, they all admit, that sooner or later she’ll escape. And that, if I’m any judge, will knock them cold as a gun. . . I must get back,” he muttered, without, however, stirring hand or foot.
“No, señor,” Delfina said in a very small voice.
There must certainly be some subtle poison in this tree — or was it the poison of Delfina’s iron little will? It was the sort of poison that forces a man to ply himself with arguments. Why, after all, should he return to the junk? Why stir himself to save the life of that opium-fogged literary graduate or the still less useful captain general of Zamboanga? It was better looking down from this safe aerie, with Delfina’s head ever so lightly posed against his shoulder. . . But where could she have learned that habit of the Dyak women of binding up flowers in the hair at night, so as to impart a fragrance to the strands? . . . He breathed deep.
“I will not have you killed before my eyes,” Delfina faltered, and grew heavy in his arms.
“If I am killed, my thousand pieces of gold,” Arad whispered, using the words of the Malay warrior to his principal wife on parting, “wind about me this yellow sash from your waist, strew my body with petals from your hair, let my sightless eyes feel your salt tears, and may my ears hear the whisper of your faithful soul, borne to me on the winds of the eternal.”
“You tear me in pieces. . . Señor, they are doomed. Let them die, and let us die here by ourselves, apart, in a day or two — under God’s frown. Or possibly, if God wills —”
“You are a worse poison than the upas!” Captain Arad shouted. He thrust her away from him into the cave’s narrow mouth. Before the drumming of the swallows’ wings had died, he was over the cliff’s edge and halfway down that dangerous log ladder.
The Captain China, very somber in his mulberry-colored jacket, had with difficulty brought himself back from the arms of those women in the palace of the moon. What he saw on board the junk inclined him to return forthwith to that celestial employment, which had no moral reckoning. The cannoneers were piling up lumpy cannon balls of malleable iron between the guns; the largest of which, cracked from end to end of its barrel, but tightly wrapped with many windings of a good quality of silk, had a red label on the breech which read, The Solitary Idea. But the solitary idea of this gun was to frighten the enemy by posing in the mere likeness of a gun, as Yang-Po well knew.
Brass oil cups with floating cotton wicks burning in the bottoms of buckets threw a weird light into the sweating yellow faces of the stone carriers, who were piling huge boulders and red lacquered stinkpots in the quarter galleries; and the black soldiers of Don Narciso were aiding with noisy prayers.
Don Narciso himself, the fierce gleam of his undaunted glass eye within a foot of the Captain China’s face, cried out, “Are no measures to be taken?”
The Captain China said, “Ter-Haar, thou son of a burnt mother, hand here the rice spoon.”
A cosmopolitan spirit, he believed that superstitions, like religions, had their grain of truth. Ter-Haar, a Malay seaman, brought a huge wooden spoon to which lumps of rice still clung; and the Captain China muttered an incantation which would have dropped the arms of Dyak rowers at their sides if it could have been brought to their attention. But in the very midst of it the Captain China’s head fell forward, he lapsed for whole heartbeats into that favorite world of his, more vast and inconclusive, whose parapets swarmed with women of the moon. Their eyes were like sloes and their fingers twined in his pigtail. Still the earth would not let him go.
“If our enemies prevail after all these exertions, it is just. It is because we have maltreated them in a former life,” he muttered sleepily. Arad shook him savagely.
“This ship is bedlam!” the Salem master cried. “What are those devils yelling for down there?”
“They are giving orders,” the Captain China said, as if already asleep and answering some question put to him in a dream. “They are all commanders in their own right.”
He sank to his knees. Arad, seizing his pigtail, took a hitch with it to a piece of ratline stuff overhead. Yang-Po, his heels off the deck, smiled beatifically, and remained hanging, with his head fallen forward and his arms folded on his chest, in the customary attitude of a pilot.
“Your kindness to me,” he said faintly, “is like the touch of spring on a dying tree.”
“Hist! They are coming!” Don Narciso cried to Arad. There was a moment of comparative quiet, but even so, the rolling of a Malay oar in its rattan grommet could hardly have been distinguished from the sound of a fish jumping for a moth. The dazzle of lights necessary to the Chinese in battle made it impossible to see a dozen feet away from the junk’s side.
“These fools,” Arad muttered, “will probably dump all those stones into the water at the first rattle of an oar.”
“What — what tortures do these tribes use with prisoners of war?” Don Narciso asked thickly.
“They have no invention, really,” Arad answered, staring toward the mangrove jungle. “Ordinarily they bind a man face down to a bamboo platform with a hole in it just at the fifth rib; and a sharpened palm shoot just under the hole grows into the victim’s heart. Nature is swift here. The palm shoot kills in from twelve to twenty hours. If they have a little more time they smear a man’s naked body with wild honey and hold him crushed down against an ant’s nest. That is more artistic.”
Don Narciso pulled at the ends of his mustache in quick succession with the same hand.
“The thing is, not to be caught. And let me warn you now, Excellency, against those long poles of theirs ending in flesh hooks. When they get close enough, they shove these things over the rail and drag you overboard, like spearing eels. Keep in the middle of the deck until the stinkpots have been thrown.”
The gong in the distant banyan struck once. Captain Arad ran down three or four bamboo ladders and came to the guns. The gunners stood waiting in white clothes, with crimson symbols for victory and happiness scrawled on their backs, and matches smoking in their hands. The powder tubs were uncovered, but since the powder was hopelessly bad, there was no harm in that. Through an open sea door, Arad could see the Queen of Heaven, with countless cups of cold tea untasted at her knees. Centuries ago, a virgin, she had saved her brother, who was on the point of drowning, and had been deified. This accounted for these prostrations, thumpings, decapitations of fowls, and the knocking of already flattened noses on the teakwood deck.
A voice cried in Arad’s ear, “Do you not hear, my officer, that wailing cry of a night bird? That will guide them. If it is in front of them, they retreat; but if it is behind them, they advance.”
A heart-stopping yell all ‘round the junk, with a mad outburst of gong music, showed how the pirates had taken advantage of that bird’s advice. Jamboo was known to be able to interpret cleverly the language of birds, and he would naturally favor an attack. The Chinese ship comrades yelled “Hi-yi-yi!” and began to roll their boulders overboard. They also rushed up to the galleries giant ladles of boiling oil, slopping over at the edges. And they threw thousands of firecrackers. But they could see nothing — not so much as the shapes of those murderous proas — and they were in too much of a hurry to be rid of their boulders. It was unlikely that Seriff Sahibe had risked more than a handful of his proas to draw this clumsy fire of stones. Even now a splash and roll of oars showed that he was in retreat.
“We have beaten them off!” Don Narciso cried, running to the ship’s side.
“It took the whole of our artillery to do it,” Arad reminded him. “They have simply drawn our fang. They’ll be back before we have time to boil more oil.”
“Where shall I take my stand?” Don Narciso asked fearfully.
“Ask the Queen of Heaven,” Arad answered.
The proas were closing with the junk again; and out of nowhere, at the end of a shining bamboo pole sliding along the rail over the cold, stiff-necked cannon, a hideously pronged flesh hook appeared. It drifted straight for Don Narciso. The unlucky captain general was paralyzed with horror. It was plain that he was not going to be able to exert himself to dodge this hook, and Arad got a hand in his collar and yanked him to his knees. The hook passed over their heads; and staring up at it, those two looked straight into an unexpected burst of yellow fire, coming from the limestone cliffs of Misfortune’s Isle.
“It’s the upas tree!” Arad shouted.
In fact, it was the upas tree that had mysteriously broken into flame. It was a giant torch, a deadly wand, flourished over their heads, destroying the secrecy of the attack and touching the hearts of warriors cold in the very heat of battle ardor. The blood-shot eyes of those followers of Seriff Sahibe rolled in their heads; for they had seen a sight which filled them with despair and terror. There was a recoiling clash of oars, spears and muskets, an indescribable banging of gongs. When the Chinese up the river had tried to frighten away a plague of locusts by beating on gongs, and again, when they had tried to banish an eclipse of the moon by the same means, the Dyaks had sneered; but they had reason now to call on all their gongs. For not even Arad’s phlegmatic western eyes had failed to see, rising as if out of the heart of the flame itself, and drifting fast, with wide-flung arms and streaming hair, a woman shape vanishing against the limestone cliffs.
And not even Arad was certain, for that second, that this was not the upas prisoner, the very soul of poison, escaping, and in a mood to call down tardy vengeance from the black skies.
Captain Arad and Captain Michael O’Cain sat with the old Hong merchant, Houqua, in his gardens at Canton. Houqua’s house was like a string of Pompeiian villas, delicately carved and gilded, hung with horn lanterns ending in red silk tassels. Priceless silk paintings adorned the walls, and here and there was scrawled in thick brush strokes the symbol of happiness.
The three friends sat outdoors by night at a black lacquered table under an ancient camphor tree. This terrace was paved with polished granite, and granite blocks of high luster edged the fish pond, where lotus leaves floated and where a company of eight ducks were performing figures to the music of a bamboo flute. This flute was in the hands of an entertainer — one of the Disciples of the Pear Garden — in an opposite pavilion. Arad got up restlessly and strolled to the water’s edge.
Lanterns were everywhere. They hung from the ivory balustrade of the steep little bridge over the fish pond, from the eaves of the house, from the lower branches of the camphor tree and from the two stone towers on the river’s bank. The bank itself was paved, but with rough granite, the blocks dogged one to another with iron dogs, and sloping gradually under water.
“Pulo Chalacca — that was the name of it,” O’Cain muttered to Houqua. “Misfortune’s Isle. ‘Tis well named. Jamboo, I hear, was stoned to death with medium sized stones — no one of them, mind you, big enough to kill him outright; but in the end they wore him down. Those pirates ran away so fast they left Seriff Sahibe’s pet anaconda behind them, and took the women and children in the old proas. Yang-Po is nothing now but a chambermaid for the birds’-nests caves; he goes around burning sulphur in them and making inducements to the birds to build again. ‘Take little and give much’ — that’s his motto now.”
“And Doha Delfina?” Houqua inquired.
“Well, she got back her little man with the glass eye, it’s true, but still and all, there she is in Manila, and goes out at four o’clock, when the sea breeze springs up, and the little postilion ahead of her in his shiny hat on the gray horse’s back. Maybe once a week she can watch the half breed women, with their hair down, waltzing with their chins on their partners’ shoulders — but what does that avail?
“And there’s Arad, here, Houqua. I’ve had Chinese doctors to him; they’ve taken his pulse in both arms from the wrists to the shoulders. There’s some out about him, and they don’t know what. Misfortune’s Isle — that’s the long and short of it. Maybe I was well out of it. Still, I would have given a shipload of broken silver for a sight of that prisoner in the tree, breaking loose in her glory and flying free at the end of that rope tied to Ninepin Rock. Whatever the custom in Manila, Houqua, she wore no stockings there. It was necessary to the scheme to have her looking like an immortal. And haven’t I heard you say yourself we shall have no clothes in heaven, because, although bodies have souls, it’s not likely that clothes have souls to match? Or if they do, who’s to guarantee that the clothes will die with the body, and not sooner or later?”
“There are no soulful garments,” Houqua agreed, tracing a symbol of happiness in the air with his pipe stem.
“Right. So there was I, a week late in the Witch, what with her grounding and ourselves dropping her guns over the side and buoying them, and rolling all the provisions and water casks aft to work her off, and then fishing up the guns again. All I got was hearsay. Narciso Crispo’s expedition, when I got there, would have been just a collection of heads hanging in the head halls with tufts of grass in the ears and orange cowries for eyes, if Dona Delfina hadn’t put that upas to the torch. Well, it’s certain the king will send them out a patent of nobility. They’re grandees of Spain this minute; Narciso is as good as Count of Zamboanga. And why not? Oughtn’t a man to be ennobled for seeing his wife float head-first out of a burning tree on a desert isle, and he with not the first suspicion of her being there? It was enough to blind him in his glass eye, and I told him so.”
It was strange, Houqua said. Yes, certainly it was Number One curio pigeon. Strange business. He had heard tell of the upas poison.
“You have an art with trees yourself,” O’Cain said, pointing at a maidenhair with fan-shaped leaves. This tree had been tortured into the likeness of a pagoda by confining its roots in stone crocks, and by other means. Here and there on the terrace were other trees, trimmed in the images of fish, camels and elephants. “You can all but make trees weep with the torture, as you do your women; but you do not know how to confine a woman in a tree. It’s a wonderful poison results, they say, when it’s quickened with lime juice. It works with a sharp burning in the head, and death. Its criminals condemned to die, they tell me, that are sent to tap the poison; and they give them leather hoods to put over their heads, and tell them to go toward the tree with the wind at their backs; and even so, only one in ten returns.
“Well, is Captain Arad poisoned then? He’s still about on his feet. Here he is with every reason to feel satisfied — a saving voyage, with the brotherhood digging antimony ore for him at Pulo Chalacca, and he with birds’ nests worth their weight in silver. . . Hist, here he is.”
“Birds’ nests,” Arad repeated, stepping out of the shadow of the camphor tree, which had a play of silver sparks out of its twigs and leaves. “We had better stick to birds’ nests, Mike. The raw nest, after the bird has flown, but before the egg has been laid. And I can sell you nests, Houqua, as big as a quarter orange, some of them, at forty Spanish dollars the pound.”
Houqua blinked his eyes. Across the fish pond one of the Disciples of the Pear Garden cracked his whip, and the performing ducks turned as one duck and swam toward him like mad.
“The last duck gets a taste of the whip!” O’Cain chortled.
“Why? There has to be a last duck,” Arad muttered darkly.
“Which proves the necessity of punishment on this earth!” O’Cain roared.
Bird’s-nest soup was put before them in three blue bowls. Arad dipped a spoon into this fabled soup. It would, Houqua assured him, put fat around the ribs, make old men young and young men able, and perform other marvels, such as making pirates homeless and filling the coffers of Salem merchant princes on the other side of the world. Yet it seemed to Arad that, considering how hard it was to get, the soup was rather tasteless. His thoughts were far away. He asked himself how these two could agree so glibly that garments — say, the flowered muslin or the striped pantaloons of the valiant Delfina — had no soul. As well say there had been no soul in that out breathed “Adiosito” from the cave’s mouth — farewell for a little, with that wraith of a promise of return in it. And as if he had been himself the last duck, the trader felt across his own shoulders the crack of the whip, and was aware that the upas poison, in some form, was in his veins, only not quickened; and that it had a power to tarnish the most gilded triumph.
Featured image: Anton Otto Fischer