O. Henry Memorial Award Stories of 1921 by Various - HTML preview
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O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1921
The Heart Of Little Shikara ........................................................................................3
The Man Who Cursed The Lilies..............................................................................24
The Urge ..................................................................................................................37
The Victim Of His Vision.........................................................................................70
Martin Garrity Gets Even .........................................................................................95
Stranger Things ...................................................................................................... 106
Comet .................................................................................................................... 129
Fifty-Two Weeks For Florette ................................................................................ 140
Wild Earth ............................................................................................................. 164
The Tribute............................................................................................................ 195
The Getaway .......................................................................................................... 199
"Aurore" ................................................................................................................. 206
Mr. Downey Sits Down .......................................................................................... 218
The Marriage In Kairwan........................................................................................ 232
Grit ........................................................................................................................ 249
The Heart Of Little ShikaraBy EDISON MARSHALL From Everybody's I
If it hadn't been for a purple moon that came peering up above the dark jungle just at nightfall, it would have been impossible to tell that Little Shikara was at his watch. He was really just the colour of the shadows--a rather pleasant brown--he was very little indeed, and besides, he was standing very, very still. If he was trembling at all, from anticipation and excitement, it was no more than Nahar the tiger trembles as he crouches in ambush. But the moon did show him--peering down through the leaf-clusters of the heavy vines--and shone very softly in his wide-open dark eyes.
And it was a purple moon--no other colour that man could name. It looked almost unreal, like a paper moon painted very badly by a clumsy stage-hand. The jungle-moon quite often has that peculiar purplish tint, most travellers know, but few of them indeed ever try to tell what causes it. This particular moon probed down here and there between the tall bamboos, transformed the jungle--just now waking--into a mystery and a fairyland, glinted on a hard-packed elephant trail that wound away into the thickets, and always came back to shine on the coal-black Oriental eyes of the little boy beside the village gate. It showed him standing very straight and just as tall as his small stature would permit, and looked oddly silvery and strange on his long, dark hair. Little Shikara, son of Khoda Dunnoo, was waiting for the return of a certain idol and demigod who was even now riding home in his howdah from the tiger hunt.
Other of the villagers would be down to meet Warwick Sahib as soon as they heard the shouts of his beaters--but Little Shikara had been waiting almost an hour. Likely, if they had known about it, they would have commented on his badness, because he was notoriously bad, if indeed--as the villagers told each other--he was not actually cursed with evil spirits.
In the first place, he was almost valueless as a herder of buffalo. Three times, when he had been sent with the other boys to watch the herds in their wallows, he had left his post and crept away into the fringe of jungle on what was unquestionably some mission of witchcraft. For small naked brown boys, as a rule, do not go alone and unarmed into the thick bamboos. Too many things can happen to prevent them ever coming out again; too many brown silent ribbons crawl in the grass, or too many yellow, striped creatures, no less lithe, lurk in the thickets. But the strangest thing of all--and the surest sign of witchcraft--was that he had always come safely out again, yet with never any satisfactory explanations as to why he had gone. He had always looked some way very joyful and tremulous--and perhaps even pale if from the nature of things a brown boy ever can look pale. But it was the kind of paleness that one has after a particularly exquisite experience. It was not the dumb, teeth-chattering paleness of fear."I saw the sergeant of the jungle," Little Shikara said after one of these excursions. And this made no sense at all.
"There are none of the King's soldiers here," the brown village folk replied to him. "Either thou liest to us, or thine eyes lied to thee. And didst thou also see the chevron that told his rank?""That was the way I knew him. It was the black bear, and he wore the pale chevron low on his throat."
This was Little Shikara all over. Of course he referred to the black Himalayan bear which all men know wears a yellowish patch, of chevron shape, just in front of his fore legs; but why he should call him a jungle-sergeant was quite beyond the wit of the village folk to say. Their imagination did not run in that direction. It never even occurred to them that Little Shikara might be a born jungle creature, expatriated by the accident of birth--one of that free, strange breed that can never find peace in the villages of men."But remember the name we gave him," his mother would say. "Perhaps he is only living up to his name."
For there are certain native hunters in India that are known, far and wide, as the Shikaris; and possibly she meant in her tolerance that her little son was merely a born huntsman. But in reality Little Shikara was not named for these men at all. Rather it was for a certain fleet-winged little hawk, a hunter of sparrows, that is one of the most free spirits in all the jungle.
And it was almost like taking part in some great hunt himself--to be waiting at the gate for the return of Warwick Sahib. Even now, the elephant came striding out of the shadows; and Little Shikara could see the trophy. The hunt had indeed been successful, and the boy's glowing eyes beheld--even in the shadows--the largest, most beautiful tigerskin he had ever seen. It was the great Nahar, the royal tiger, who had killed one hundred cattle from near-by fields.
Warwick Sahib rode in his howdah, and he did not seem to see the village people that came out to meet him. In truth, he seemed half asleep, his muscles limp, his gray eyes full of thoughts. He made no answer to the triumphant shouts of the village folk. Little Shikara glanced once at the lean, bronzed face, the limp, white, thin hands, and something like a shiver of ecstasy went clear to his ten toes. For like many other small boys, all over the broad world, he was a hero-worshipper to the last hair of his head; and this quiet man on the elephant was to him beyond all measure the most wonderful living creature on the earth.
He didn't cry out, as the others did. He simply stood in mute worship, his little body tingling with glory. Warwick Sahib had looked up now, and his slow eyes were sweeping the line of brown faces. But still he did not seem to see them. And then--wonder of wonders--his eyes rested full on the eyes of his little worshipper beside the gate.
But it was quite the way of Warwick Sahib to sweep his gray, tired-out eyes over a scene and seemingly perceive nothing; yet in reality absorbing every detail with the accuracy of a photographic plate. And his seeming indifference was not a pose with him, either. He was just a great sportsman who was also an English gentleman, and he had learned certain lessons of impassiveness from the wild. Only one of the brown faces he beheld was worth a lingering glance. And when he met that one his eyes halted in their sweeping survey--and Warwick Sahib smiled.That face was the brown, eager visage of Little Shikara. And the blood of the boy flowed to the skin, and he glowed red all over through the brown.
It was only the faintest of quiet, tolerant smiles; but it meant more to him than almost any kind of an honour could have meant to the prematurely gray man in the howdah. The latter passed on to his estate, and some of the villagers went back to their women and their thatch huts. But still Little Shikara stood motionless--and it wasn't until the thought suddenly came to him that possibly the beaters had already gathered and were telling the story of the kill that with startling suddenness he raced back through the gates to the village.
Yes, the beaters had assembled in a circle under a tree, and most of the villagers had gathered to hear the story. He slipped in among them, and listened with both outstanding little ears. Warwick Sahib had dismounted from his elephant as usual, the beaters said, and with but one attendant had advanced up the bed of a dry creek. This was quite like Warwick Sahib, and Little Shikara felt himself tingling again. Other hunters, particularly many of the rich sahibs from across the sea, shot their tigers from the security of the howdah; but this wasn't Warwick's way of doing. The male tiger had risen snarling from his lair, and had been felled at the first shot.
Most of the villagers had supposed that the story would end at this point. Warwick Sahib's tiger hunts were usually just such simple and expeditious affairs. The gun would lift to his shoulder, the quiet eyes would glance along the barrel--and the tiger, whether charging or standing still--would speedily die. But to-day there had been a curious epilogue. Just as the beaters had started toward the fallen animal, and the white Heavenborn's cigarette-case was open in his hand, Nahara, Nahar's great, tawny mate, had suddenly sprung forth from the bamboo thickets.
She drove straight to the nearest of the beaters. There was no time whatever for Warwick to take aim. His rifle leaped, like a live thing, in his arms, but not one of the horrified beaters had seen his eyes lower to the sights. Yet the bullet went home--they could tell by the way the tiger flashed to her breast in the grass.
Yet she was only wounded. One of the beaters, starting, had permitted a bough of a tree to whip Warwick in the face, and the blow had disturbed what little aim he had. It was almost a miracle that he had hit the great cat at all. At once the thickets had closed around her, and the beaters had been unable to drive her forth again.
The circle was silent thereafter. They seemed to be waiting for Khusru, one of the head men of the village, to give his opinion. He knew more about the wild animals than any mature native in the assembly, and his comments on the hunting stories were usually worth hearing."We will not be in the honoured service of the Protector of the Poor at this time a year from now," he said. They all waited tensely. Shikara shivered. "Speak, Khusru," they urged him.
"Warwick Sahib will go again to the jungles--and Nahara will be waiting. She owes two debts. One is the killing of her mate--and ye know that these two tigers have been long and faithful mates. Do ye think she will let that debt go unpaid? She will also avenge her own wound.""Perhaps she will die of bleeding," one of the others suggested.
"Nay, or ye would have found her this afternoon. Ye know that it is the wounded tiger that is most to be feared. One day, and he will go forth in pursuit of her again; and then ye will not see him riding back so grandly on his elephant. Perhaps she will come here, to carry away our children."
Again Shikara tingled--hoping that Nahara would at least come close enough to cause excitement. And that night, too happy to keep silent, he told his mother of Warwick Sahib's smile. "And some time I--I, thine own son," he said as sleepiness came upon him, "will be a killer of tigers, even as Warwick Sahib."
"Little sparrow-hawk," his mother laughed at him. "Little one of mighty words, only the great sahibs that come from afar, and Warwick Sahib himself, may hunt the tiger, so how canst thou, little worthless?"
"I will soon be grown," he persisted, "and I--I, too--will some time return with such a tiger-skin as the great Heaven-born brought this afternoon." Little Shikara was very sleepy, and he was telling his dreams much more frankly than was his wont. "And the village folk will come out to meet me with shoutings, and I will tell them of the shot--in the circle under the tree."
"And where, little hawk, wilt thou procure thine elephants, and such rupees as are needed?"
"Warwick Sahib shoots from the ground--and so will I. And sometimes he goes forth with only one attendant--and I will not need even one. And who can say--perhaps he will find me even a bolder man than Gunga Singhai; and he will take me in his place on the hunts in the jungles."
For Gunga Singhai was Warwick Sahib's own personal attendant and gun-carrier--the native that the Protector of the Poor could trust in the tightest places. So it was only to be expected that Little Shikara's mother should laugh at him. The idea of her son being an attendant of Warwick Sahib, not to mention a hunter of tigers, was only a tale to tell her husband when the boy's bright eyes were closed in sleep.
"Nay, little man," she told him. "Would I want thee torn to pieces in Nahara's claws? Would I want thee smelling of the jungle again, as thou didst after chasing the water-buck through the bamboos? Nay--thou wilt be a herdsman, like thy father--and perhaps gather many rupees."
But Little Shikara did not want to think of rupees. Even now, as sleep came to him, his childish spirit had left the circle of thatch roofs, and had gone on tremulous expeditions into the jungle. Far away, the trumpet-call of a wild tusker trembled through the moist, hot night; and great bell-shaped flowers made the air pungent and heavy with perfume. A tigress skulked somewhere in a thicket licking an injured leg with her rough tongue, pausing to listen to every sound the night gave forth. Little Shikara whispered in his sleep.
A half mile distant, in his richly furnished bungalow, Warwick Sahib dozed over his after-dinner cigar. He was in evening clothes, and crystal and silver glittered on his board. But his gray eyes were half closed; and the gleam from his plate could not pass the long, dark lashes. For his spirit was far distant, too--on the jungle trails with that of Little Shikara.II
One sunlit morning, perhaps a month after the skin of Nahar was brought in from the jungle, Warwick Sahib's mail was late. It was an unheard-of thing. Always before, just as the clock struck eight, he would hear the cheerful tinkle of the postman's bells. At first he considered complaining; but as morning drew to early afternoon he began to believe that investigation would be the wiser course.
The postman's route carried him along an old elephant trail through a patch of thick jungle beside one of the tributaries of the Manipur. When natives went out to look, he was neither on the path nor drowned in the creek, nor yet in his thatched hut at the other end of his route. The truth was that this particular postman's bells would never be heard by human ears again. And there was enough evidence in the wet mould of the trail to know what had occurred.
That night the circle under the tree was silent and shivering. "Who is next?" they asked of one another. The jungle night came down, breathless and mysterious, and now and then a twig was cracked by a heavy foot at the edge of the thickets. In Warwick's house, the great Protector of the Poor took his rifles from their cases and fitted them together.
"To-morrow," he told Gunga Singhai, "we will settle for that postman's death." Singhai breathed deeply, but said nothing. Perhaps his dark eyes brightened. The tiger-hunts were nearly as great a delight to him as they were to Warwick himself.
But while Nahara, lame from Warwick's bullet, could no longer overtake cattle, she did with great skilfulness avoid the onrush of the beaters. Again Little Shikara waited at the village gate for his hero to return; but the beaters walked silently to-night. Nor were there any tales to be told under the tree.
Nahara, a fairly respectable cattle-killer before, had become in a single night one of the worst terrors of India. Of course she was still a coward, but she had learned, by virtue of a chance meeting with a postman on a trail after a week of heart-devouring starvation, two or three extremely portentous lessons. One of them was that not even the little deer, drinking beside the Manipur, died half so easily as these tall, forked forms of which she had previously been so afraid. She found out also that they could neither run swiftly nor walk silently, and they could be approached easily even by a tiger that cracked a twig with every step. It simplified the problem of living immensely; and just as any other feline would have done, she took the line of least resistance. If there had been plenty of carrion in the jungle, Nahara might never have hunted men. But the kites and the jackals looked after the carrion; and they were much swifter and keener-eyed than a lame tiger.
She knew enough not to confine herself to one village; and it is rather hard to explain how any lower creature, that obviously cannot reason, could have possessed this knowledge. Perhaps it was because she had learned that a determined hunt, with many beaters and men on elephants, invariably followed her killings. It was always well to travel just as far as possible from the scene. She found out also that, just as a doe is easier felled than a horned buck, certain of this new kind of game were more easily taken than the others. Sometimes children played at the door of their huts, and sometimes old men were afflicted with such maladies that they could not flee at all. All these things Nahara learned; and in learning them she caused a certain civil office of the British Empire to put an exceedingly large price on her head.
Gradually the fact dawned on her that unlike the deer and the buffalo, this new game was more easily hunted in the daylight--particularly in that tired-out, careless twilight hour when the herders and the plantation hands came in from their work. At night the village folk kept in their huts, and such wood-cutters and gipsies as slept without wakened every hour to tend their fires. Nahara was deathly afraid of fire. Night after night she would creep round and round a gipsy camp, her eyes like two pale blue moons in the darkness, and would never dare attack.
And because she was taking her living in a manner forbidden by the laws of the jungle, the glory and beauty of her youth quickly departed from her. There are no prisons for those that break the jungle laws, no courts and no appointed officers, but because these are laws that go down to the roots of life, punishment is always swift and inevitable. "Thou shall not kill men," is the first law of the wild creatures; and everyone knows that any animal or breed of animals that breaks this law has sooner or later been hunted down and slain--just like any other murderer. The mange came upon her, and she lost flesh, and certain of her teeth began to come out. She was no longer the beautiful female of her species, to be sung to by the weaver-birds as she passed beneath. She was a hag and a vampire, hatred of whom lay deep in every human heart in her hunting range.
Often the hunting was poor, and sometimes she went many days in a stretch without making a single kill. And in all beasts, high and low, this is the last step to the worst degeneracy of all. It instils a curious, terrible kind of blood-lust--to kill, not once, but as many times as possible in the same hunt; to be content not with one death, but to slay and slay until the whole herd is destroyed. It is the instinct that makes a little weasel kill all the chickens in a coop, when one was all it could possibly carry away, and that will cause a wolf to leap from sheep to sheep in a fold until every one is dead. Nahara didn't get a chance to kill every day; so when the opportunity did come, like a certain pitiable kind of human hunter who comes from afar to hunt small game, she killed as many times as she could in quick succession. And the British Empire raised the price on her head.
One afternoon found her within a half mile of Warwick's bungalow, and for five days she had gone without food. One would not have thought of her as a royal tigress, the queen of the felines and one of the most beautiful of all living things. And since she was still tawny and graceful, it would be hard to understand why she no longer gave the impression of beauty. It was simply gone, as a flame goes, and her queenliness was wholly departed, too. In some vague way she had become a poisonous, a ghastly thing, to be named with such outcasts as the jackals or hyenas.
Excessive hunger, in most of the flesh-eating animals, is really a first cousin to madness. It brings bad dreams and visions, and, worst of all, it induces an insubordination to all the forest laws of man and beast. A well-fed wolf-pack will run in stark panic from a human being; but even the wisest of mountaineers do not care to meet the same gray band in the starving times of winter. Starvation brings recklessness, a desperate frenzied courage that is likely to upset all of one's preconceived notions as to the behaviour of animals. It also brings, so that all men may be aware of its presence, a peculiar lurid glow to the balls of the eyes.
In fact, the two pale circles of fire were the most noticeable characteristics of the long, tawny cat that crept through the bamboos. Except for them, she would hardly have been discernible at all. The yellow grass made a perfect background, her black stripes looked like the streaks of shadow between the stalks of bamboo, and for one that is lame she crept with an astounding silence. One couldn't have believed that such a great creature could lie so close to the earth and be so utterly invisible in the low thickets. A little peninsula of dwarf bamboos and tall jungle grass extended out into the pasture before the village and Nahara crept out clear to its point. She didn't seem to be moving. One couldn't catch the stir and draw of muscles. And yet she slowly glided to the end; then began her wait. Her head sunk low, her body grew tense, her tail whipped softly back and forth, with as easy a motion as the swaying of a serpent. The light flamed and died and flamed and died again in her pale eyes.
Soon a villager who had been working in Warwick's fields came trotting in Oriental fashion across the meadow. His eyes were only human, and he did not see the tawny shape in the tall grass. If any one had told him that a full-grown tigress could have crept to such a place and still remained invisible, he would have laughed. He was going to his thatched hut, to brown wife and babies, and it was no wonder that he trotted swiftly. The muscles of the great cat bunched, and now the whipping tail began to have a little vertical motion that is the final warning of a spring.
The man was already in leaping range; but the tiger had learned, in many experiences, always to make sure. Still she crouched--a single instant in which the trotting native came two paces nearer. Then the man drew up with a gasp of fright.
For just as the clear outlines of an object that has long been concealed in a maze of light and shadow will often leap, with sudden vividness, to the eyes, the native suddenly perceived the tiger.
He caught the whole dread picture--the crouching form, the terrible blue lights of the eyes, the whipping tail. The gasp he uttered from his closing throat seemed to act like the fall of a firing-pin against a shell on the bunched muscles of the animal; and she left her covert in a streak of tawny light.
But Nahara's leaps had never been quite accurate since she had been wounded by Warwick's bullet, months before. They were usually straight enough for the general purposes of hunting, but they missed by a long way the "theoretical centre of impact" of which artillery officers speak. Her lame paw always seemed to disturb her balance. By remembering it, she could usually partly overcome the disadvantage; but to-day, in the madness of her hunger, she had been unable to remember anything except the terrible rapture of killing. This circumstance alone, however, would not have saved the native's life. Even though her fangs missed his throat, the power of the blow and her rending talons would have certainly snatched away his life as a storm snatches a leaf. But there was one other determining factor. The Burman had seen the tiger just before she leaped; and although there had been no time for conscious thought, his guardian reflexes had flung him to one side in a single frenzied effort to miss the full force of the spring.
The result of both these things was that he received only an awkward, sprawling blow from the animal's shoulder. Of course he was hurled to the ground; for no human body in the world is built to withstand the ton or so of shocking power of a three-hundred-pound cat leaping through the air. The tigress sprawled down also, and because she lighted on her wounded paw, she squealed with pain. It was possibly three seconds before she had forgotten the stabbing pain in her paw and had gathered herself to spring on the unconscious form of the native. And that three seconds gave Warwick Sahib, sitting at the window of his study, an opportunity to seize his rifle and fire.
Warwick knew tigers, and he had kept the rifle always ready for just such a need as this. The distance was nearly five hundred yards, and the bullet went wide of its mark. Nevertheless, it saved the native's life. The great cat remembered this same far-off explosion from another day, in a dry creek-bed of months before, and the sing of the bullet was a remembered thing, too. Although it would speedily return to her, her courage fled and she turned and faced into the bamboos.
In an instant, Warwick was on his great veranda, calling his beaters. Gunga Singhai, his faithful gun-carrier, slipped shells into the magazine of his master's high-calibered closerange tiger-rifle. "The elephant, Sahib?" he asked swiftly."Nay, this will be on foot. Make the beaters circle about the fringe of bamboos. Thou and I will cross the eastern fields and shoot at her as she breaks through."
But there was really no time to plan a complete campaign. Even now, the first gray of twilight was blurring the sharp outlines of the jungle, and the soft jungle night was hovering, ready to descend. Warwick's plan was to cut through to a certain little creek that flowed into the river and with Singhai to continue on to the edge of the bamboos that overlooked a wide field. The beaters would prevent the tigress from turning back beyond the village, and it was at least possible that he would get a shot at her as she burst from the jungle and crossed the field to the heavier thickets beyond."Warwick Sahib walks into the teeth of his enemy," Khusru, the hunter, told a little group that watched from the village gate. "Nahara will collect her debts."
A little brown boy shivered at his words and wondered if the beaters would turn and kick him, as they had always done before, if he should attempt to follow them. It was the tigerhunt, in view of his own village, and he sat down, tremulous with rapture, in the grass to watch. It was almost as if his dream--that he himself should be a hunter of tigers--was coming true. He wondered why the beaters seemed to move so slowly and with so little heart.
He would have known if he could have looked into their eyes. Each black pupil was framed with white. Human hearts grow shaken and bloodless from such sights as this they had just seen, and only the heart of a jungle creature--the heart of the eagle that the jungle gods, by some unheard-of fortune, had put in the breast of Little Shikara--could prevail against them. Besides, the superstitious Burmans thought that Warwick was walking straight to death--that the time had come for Nahara to collect her debts. III
Warwick Sahib and Singhai disappeared at once into the fringe of jungle, and silence immediately fell upon them. The cries of the beaters at once seemed curiously dim. It was as if no sound could live in the great silences under the arching trees. Soon it was as if they were alone.
They walked side by side, Warwick with his rifle held ready. He had no false ideas in regard to this tiger-hunt. He knew that his prey was desperate with hunger, that she had many old debts to pay, and that she would charge on sight.
The self-rage that is felt on missing some particularly fortunate chance is not confined to human beings alone. There is an old saying in the forest that a feline that has missed his stroke is like a jackal in dog-days--and that means that it is not safe to be anywhere in the region with him. He simply goes rabid and is quite likely to leap at the first living thing that stirs. Warwick knew that Nahara had just been cheated out of her kill and someone in the jungle would pay for it.
The gaudy birds that looked down from the tree-branches could scarcely recognize this prematurely gray man as a hunter. He walked rather quietly, yet with no conscious effort toward stealth. The rifle rested easily in his arms, his gray eyes were quiet and thoughtful as always. Singularly, his splendid features were quite in repose. The Burman, however, had more of the outer signs of alertness; and yet there was none of the blind terror upon him that marked the beaters."Where are the men?" Warwick asked quietly. "It is strange that we do not hear them shouting." "They are afraid, Sahib," Singhai replied. "The forest pigs have left us to do our own hunting." Warwick corrected him with a smile. "Forest pigs are brave enough," he answered. "They are sheep--just sheep--sheep of the plains."
The broad trail divided, like a three-tined candlestick, into narrow trails. Warwick halted beside the centre of the three that led to the creek they were obliged to cross. Just for an instant he stood watching, gazing into the deep-blue dusk of the deeper jungle. Twilight was falling softly. The trails soon vanished into shadow--patches of deep gloom, relieved here and there by a bright leaf that reflected the last twilight rays. A living creature coughed and rustled away in the thickets beside him."There is little use of going on," he said. "It is growing too dark. But there will be killings before the dawn if we don't get her first."
The servant stood still, waiting. It was not his place to advise his master. "If we leave her, she'll come again before the dawn. Many of the herders haven't returned--she'll get one of them sure. At least we may cross the creek and get a view of the great fields. She is certain to cross them if she has heard the beaters."In utter silence they went on. One hundred yards farther they came to the creek, and both strode in together to ford.
The water was only knee-deep, but Warwick's boots sank three inches in the mud of the bottom. And at that instant the gods of the jungle, always waiting with drawn scimitar for the unsuspecting, turned against them.
Singhai suddenly splashed down into the water, on his hands and knees. He did not cry out. If he made any sound at all, it was just a shivering gasp that the splash of water wholly obscured. But the thing that brought home the truth to Warwick was the pain that flashed, vivid as lightning, across his dark face; and the horror of death that left its shadow. Something churned and writhed in the mud; and then Warwick fired.
Both of them had forgotten Mugger, the crocodile, that so loves to wait in the mud of a ford. He had seized Singhai's foot, and had already snatched him down into the water when Warwick fired. No living flesh can withstand the terrible, rending shock of a highpowered sporting rifle at close range. Mugger had plates of armour, but even these could not have availed against it if he had been exposed to the fire. As it was, several inches of water stood between, a more effective armour than a two-inch steel plate on a battleship. Of course the shock carried through, a smashing blow that caused the reptile to release his hold on Singhai's leg; but before the native could get to his feet he had struck again. The next instant both men were fighting for their lives.
They fought with their hands, and Warwick fought with his rifle, and the native slashed again and again with the long knife that he carried at his belt. To a casual glance, a crocodile is wholly incapable of quick action. These two found him a slashing, darting, wolf-like thing, lunging with astounding speed through the muddied water, knocking them from their feet and striking at them as they fell.
The reptile was only half grown, but in the water they had none of the usual advantages that man has over the beasts with which he does battle. Warwick could not find a target for his rifle. But even human bodies, usually so weak, find themselves possessed of an amazing reserve strength and agility in the moment of need. These men realized perfectly that their lives were the stakes for which they fought, and they gave every ounce of strength and energy they had. Their aim was to hold the mugger off until they could reach the shore.
At last, by a lucky stroke, Singhai's knife blinded one of the lurid reptile eyes. He was prone in the water when he administered it, and it went home just as the savage teeth were snapping at his throat. For an instant the great reptile flopped in an impotent halfcircle, partly reared out of the water. It gave Warwick a chance to shoot, a single instant in which the rifle seemed to whirl about in his arms, drive to his shoulder, and blaze in the deepening twilight. And the shot went true. It pierced the mugger from beneath, tearing upward through the brain. And then the agitated waters of the ford slowly grew quiet.
The last echo of the report was dying when Singhai stretched his bleeding arms about Warwick's body, caught up the rifle and dragged them forty feet up on the shore. It was an effort that cost the last of his strength. And as the stars popped out of the sky, one by one, through the gray of dusk, the two men lay silent, side by side, on the grassy bank.
Warwick was the first to regain consciousness. At first he didn't understand the lashing pain in his wrists, the strange numbness in one of his legs, the darkness with the great white Indian stars shining through. Then he remembered. And he tried to stretch his arm to the prone form beside him.
The attempt was an absolute failure. The cool brain dispatched the message, it flew along the telegraph-wires of the nerves, but the muscles refused to react. He remembered that the teeth of the mugger had met in one of the muscles of his upper arm, but before unconsciousness had come upon him he had been able to lift the gun to shoot. Possibly infection from the bite had in some manner temporarily paralyzed the arm. He turned, wracked with pain, on his side and lifted his left arm. In doing so his hand crossed before his eyes--and then he smiled wanly in the darkness.
It was quite like Warwick, sportsman and English gentleman, to smile at a time like this. Even in the gray darkness of the jungle night he could see the hand quite plainly. It no longer looked slim and white. And he remembered that the mugger had caught his fingers in one of its last rushes.
He paused only for one glance at the mutilated member. He knew that his first work was to see how Singhai had fared. In that glance he was boundlessly relieved to see that the hand could unquestionably be saved. The fingers were torn, yet their bones did not seem to be severed. Temporarily at least, however, the hand was utterly useless. The fingers felt strange and detached.
He reached out to the still form beside him, touching the dark skin first with his fingers, and then, because they had ceased to function, with the flesh of his wrist. He expected to find it cold. Singhai was alive, however, and his warm blood beat close to the dark skin.But he was deeply unconscious, and it was possible that one foot was hopelessly mutilated.
For a moment Warwick lay quite still, looking his situation squarely in the face. He did not believe that either he or his attendant was mortally or even very seriously hurt. True, one of his arms had suffered paralysis, but there was no reason for thinking it had been permanently injured. His hand would be badly scarred, but soon as good as ever. The real question that faced them was that of getting back to the bungalow.
Walking was out of the question. His whole body was bruised and lacerated, and he was already dangerously weak from loss of blood. It would take all his energy, these first few hours, to keep his consciousness. Besides, it was perfectly obvious that Singhai could not walk. And English gentlemen do not desert their servants at a time like this. The real mystery lay in the fact that the beaters had not already found and rescued them.
He wore a watch with luminous dial on his left wrist, and he managed to get it before his eyes. And then understanding came to him. A full hour had passed since he and his servant had fought the mugger in the ford. And the utter silence of early night had come down over the jungle.
There was only one thing to believe. The beaters had evidently heard him shoot, sought in vain for him in the thickets, possibly passed within a few hundred feet of him, and because he had been unconscious he had not heard them or called to them, and now they had given him up for lost. He remembered with bitterness how all of them had been sure that an encounter with Nahara would cost him his life, and would thus be all the more quick to believe he had died in her talons. Nahara had her mate and her own lameness to avenge, they had said, attributing in their superstition human emotions to the brute natures of animals. It would have been quite useless for Warwick to attempt to tell them that the male tiger, in the mind of her wicked mate, was no longer even a memory, and that premeditated vengeance is an emotion almost unknown in the animal world. Without leaders or encouragement, and terribly frightened by the scene they had beheld before the village, they had quickly given up any attempt to find his body. There had been none among them coolheaded enough to reason out which trail he had likely taken, and thus look for him by the ford. Likely they were already huddled in their thatched huts, waiting till daylight.
Then he called in the darkness. A heavy body brushed through the creepers, and stepping falsely, broke a twig. He thought at first that it might be one of the villagers, coming to look for him. But at once the step was silenced.
Warwick had a disturbing thought that the creature that had broken the twig had not gone away, but was crouching down, in a curious manner, in the deep shadows. Nahara had returned to her hunting.IV
"Some time I, too, will be a hunter of tigers," Little Shikara told his mother when the beaters began to circle through the bamboos. "To carry a gun beside Warwick Sahib--and to be honoured in the circle under the tree!"
But his mother hardly listened. She was quivering with fright. She had seen the last part of the drama in front of the village; and she was too frightened even to notice the curious imperturbability of her little son. But there was no orderly retreat after Little Shikara had heard the two reports of the rifle. At first there were only the shouts of the beaters, singularly high-pitched, much running back and forth in the shadows, and then a pellmell scurry to the shelter of the villages.
For a few minutes there was wild excitement at the village gates. Warwick Sahib was dead, they said--they had heard the shots and run to the place of firing, and beat up and down through the bamboos; and Warwick Sahib had surely been killed and carried off by the tigress. This dreadful story told, most of the villagers went to hide at once in their huts; only a little circle of the bravest men hovered at the gate. They watched with drawn faces the growing darkness.
But there was one among them who was not yet a man grown; a boy so small that he could hover, unnoticed, in the very smallest of the terrible shadow-patches. He was Little Shikara, and he was shocked to the very depths of his worshipping heart. For Warwick had been his hero, the greatest man of all time, and he felt himself burning with indignation that the beaters should return so soon. And it was a curious fact that he had not as yet been infected with the contagion of terror that was being passed from man to man among the villagers. Perhaps his indignation was too absorbing an emotion to leave room for terror, and perhaps, far down in his childish spirit, he was made of different stuff. He was a child of the jungle, and perhaps he had shared of that great imperturbability and impassiveness that is the eternal trait of the wildernesses.
He went up to one of the younger beaters who had told and retold a story of catching a glimpse of Nahara in the thickets until no one was left to tell it to. He was standing silent, and Little Shikara thought it possible that he might reach his ears."Give ear, Puran," he pleaded. "Didst thou look for his body beside the ford over Tarai stream?" "Nay, little one--though I passed within one hundred paces."
"Dost thou not know that he and Singhai would of a certainty cross at the ford to reach the fringe of jungle from which he might watch the eastern field? Some of you looked on the trail beside the ford, but none looked at the ford itself. And the sound of the rifle seemed to come from thence.""But why did he not call out?" "Dead men could not call, but at least ye might have frightened Nahara from the body. But perhaps he is wounded, unable to speak, and lies there still--" But Puran had found another listener for his story, and speedily forgot the boy. He hurried over to another of the villagers, Khusru the hunter.
"Did no one look by the ford?" he asked, almost sobbing. "For that is the place he had gone."
The native's eyes seemed to light. "Hai, little one, thou hast thought of what thy elders had forgotten. There is level land there, and clear. And I shall go at the first ray of dawn-"
Lastly Little Shikara went to his own father, and they had a moment's talk at the outskirts of the throng. But the answer was nay--just the same. Even his brave father would not go to look for the body until daylight came. The boy felt his skin prickling all over."But perhaps he is only wounded--and left to die. If I go and return with word that he is there, wilt thou take others and go out and bring him in?" "Thou goest!" His father broke forth in a great roar of laughter. "Why, thou little hawk! One would think that thou wert a hunter of tigers thyself!"
Little Shikara blushed beneath the laughter. For he was a very boyish little boy in most ways. But it seemed to him that his sturdy young heart was about to break open from bitterness. All of them agreed that Warwick Sahib, perhaps wounded and dying, might be lying by the ford, but none of them would venture forth to see. Unknowing, he was beholding the expression of a certain age-old trait of human nature. Men do not fight ably in the dark. They need their eyes, and they particularly require a definite object to give them determination. If these villagers knew for certain that the Protector of the Poor lay wounded or even dead beside the ford, they would have rallied bravely, encouraged one another with words and oaths, and gone forth to rescue him; but they wholly lacked the courage to venture again into the jungle on any such blind quest as Little Shikara suggested.
But the boy's father should not have laughed. He should have remembered the few past occasions when his straight little son had gone into the jungle alone; and that remembrance should have silenced him. The difficulty lay in the fact that he supposed his boy and he were of the same flesh, and that Little Shikara shared his own great dread of the night-curtained jungle. In this he was very badly mistaken. Little Shikara had an inborn understanding and love of the jungle; and except for such material dangers as that of Nahara, he was not afraid of it at all. He had no superstitions in regard to it. Perhaps he was too young. But the main thing that the laugh did was to set off, as a match sets off powder, a whole heartful of unexploded indignation in Shikara's breast. These villagers not only had deserted their patron and protector, but also they had laughed at the thought of rescue! His own father had laughed at him.Little Shikara silently left the circle of villagers and turned into the darkness.
At once the jungle silence closed round him. He hadn't dreamed that the noise of the villagers would die so quickly. Although he could still see the flame of the fire at the village gate behind him, it was almost as if he had at once dropped off into another world. Great flowers poured perfume down upon him, and at seemingly a great distance he heard the faint murmur of the wind.
At first, deep down in his heart, he had really not intended to go all the way. He had expected to steal clear to the outer edge of the firelight; and then stand listening to the darkness for such impressions as the jungle would choose to give him. But there had been no threshold, no interlude of preparation. The jungle in all its mystery had folded about him at once.
He trotted softly down the elephant trail, a dim, fleet shadow that even the keen eyes of Nahara could scarcely have seen. At first he was too happy to be afraid. He was always happy when the jungle closed round him. Besides, if Nahara had killed, she would be full-fed by now and not to be feared. Little Shikara hastened on, trembling all over with a joyous sort of excitement.
If a single bird had flapped its wings in the branches, if one little rodent had stirred in the underbrush, Little Shikara would likely have turned back. But the jungle-gods, knowing their son, stilled all the forest voices. He crept on, still looking now and again over his shoulder to see the village fire. It still made a bright yellow triangle in the dusk behind him. He didn't stop to think that he was doing a thing most grown natives and many white men would not have dared to do--to follow a jungle trail unarmed at night. If he had stopped to think at all he simply would have been unable to go on. He was only following his instincts, voices that such forces as maturity and grown-up intelligence and selfconsciousness obscure in older men--and the terror of the jungle could not touch him. He went straight to do what service he could for the white sahib that was one of his lesser gods.
Time after time he halted, but always he pushed on a few more feet. Now he was over halfway to the ford, clear to the forks in the trail. And then he turned about with a little gasp of fear.The light from the village had gone out. The thick foliage of the jungle had come between.
He was really frightened now. It wasn't that he was afraid he couldn't get back. The trail was broad and hard and quite gray in the moonlight. But those far-off beams of light had been a solace to his spirit, a reminder that he had not yet broken all ties with the village. He halted, intending to turn back.
Then a thrill began at his scalp and went clear to his bare toes. Faint through the jungle silences he heard Warwick Sahib calling to his faithless beaters. The voice had an unmistakable quality of distress.
Certain of the villagers--a very few of them--said afterward that Little Shikara continued on because he was afraid to go back. They said that he looked upon the Heaven-born sahib as a source of all power, in whose protection no harm could befall him, and he sped toward him because the distance was shorter than back to the haven of fire at the village. But those who could look deeper into Little Shikara's soul knew different. In some degree at least he hastened on down that jungle trail of peril because he knew that his idol was in distress, and by laws that went deep he knew he must go to his aid.V
The first few minutes after Warwick had heard a living step in the thickets he spent in trying to reload his rifle. He carried other cartridges in the right-hand trousers pocket, but after a few minutes of futile effort it became perfectly evident that he was not able to reach them. His right arm was useless, and the fingers of his left, lacerated by the mugger's bite, refused to take hold.He had, however, three of the five shells the rifle held still in his gun. The single question that remained was whether or not they would be of use to him.
The rifle lay half under him, its stock protruding from beneath his body. With the elbow of his left arm he was able to work it out. Considering the difficulties under which he worked, he made amazingly few false motions; and yet he worked with swiftness. Warwick was a man who had been schooled and trained by many dangers; he had learned to face them with open eyes and steady hands, to judge with unclouded thought the exact percentage of his chances. He knew now that he must work swiftly. The shape in the shadow was not going to wait all night.
But at that moment the hope of preserving his life that he had clung to until now broke like a bubble in the sunlight. He could not lift the gun to swing and aim it at a shape in the darkness. With his mutilated hands he could not cock the strong-springed hammer. And if he could do both these things with his fumbling, bleeding, lacerated fingers, his right hand could not be made to pull the trigger. Warwick Sahib knew at last just where he stood. Yet if human sight could have penetrated that dusk, it would have beheld no change of expression in the lean face.An English gentleman lay at the frontier of death. But that occasioned neither fawning nor a loss of his rigid self-control.
Two things remained, however, that he might do. One was to call and continue to call, as long as life lasted in his body. He knew perfectly that more than once in the history of India a tiger had been kept at a distance, at least for a short period of time, by shouts alone. In that interlude, perhaps help might come from the village. The second thing was almost as impossible as raising and firing the rifle; but by the luck of the gods he might achieve it. He wanted to find Singhai's knife and hold it compressed in his palm.
It wasn't that he had any vain hopes of repelling the tiger's attack with a single knifeblade that would be practically impossible for his mutilated hand to hold. Nahara had five or so knife-blades in every paw and a whole set of them in her mouth. She could stand on four legs and fight, and Warwick could not lift himself on one elbow and yet wield the blade. But there were other things to be done with blades, even held loosely in the palm, at a time like this.
He knew rather too much of the way of tigers. They do not always kill swiftly. It is the tiger way to tease, long moments, with half-bared talons; to let the prey crawl away a few feet for the rapture of leaping at it again; to fondle with an exquisite cruelty for moments that seem endless to its prey. A knife, on the other hand, kills quickly. Warwick much preferred the latter death.
And even as he called, again and again, he began to feel about in the grass with his lacerated hand for the hilt of the knife. Nahara was steadily stealing toward him through the shadows.
The great tigress was at the height of her hunting madness. The earlier adventure of the evening when she had missed her stroke, the stir and tumult of the beaters in the wood, her many days of hunger, had all combined to intensify her passion. And finally there had come the knowledge, in subtle ways, that two of her own kind of game were lying wounded and helpless beside the ford.
But even the royal tiger never forgets some small measure of its caution. She did not charge at once. The game looked so easy that it was in some way suggestive of a trap. She crept forward, a few feet at a time. The wild blood began to leap through the great veins. The hair went stiff on the neck muscles.But Warwick shouted; and the sound for an instant appalled her. She lurked in the shadows. And then, as she made a false step, Warwick heard her for the first time.
Again she crept forward, to pause when Warwick raised his voice the second time. The man knew enough to call at intervals rather than continuously. A long, continued outcry would very likely stretch the tiger's nerves to a breaking point and hurl her into a frenzy that would probably result in a death-dealing charge. Every few seconds he called again. In the intervals between the tiger crept forward. Her excitement grew upon her. She crouched lower. Her sinewy tail had whipped softly at first; now it was lashing almost to her sides. And finally it began to have a slight vertical movement that Warwick, fortunately for his spirit, could not see.
Then the little light that the moon poured down was suddenly reflected in Nahara's eyes. All at once they burned out of the dusk; two blue-green circles of fire fifty feet distant in the darkness. At that Warwick gasped--for the first time. In another moment the great cat would be in range--and he had not yet found the knife. Nothing remained to believe but that it was lost in the mud of the ford, fifty feet distant, and that the last dread avenue of escape was cut off.
But at that instant the gasp gave way to a whispered oath of wonder. Some living creature was running lightly down the trail toward him--soft, light feet that came with amazing swiftness. For once in his life Warwick did not know where he stood. For once he was the chief figure of a situation he did not entirely understand. He tried to probe into the darkness with his tired eyes."Here I am!" he called. The tiger, starting to creep forward once more, halted at the voice. A small straight figure sped like an arrow out of the thickets and halted at his side.
It was such an astounding appearance as for an instant completely paralyzes the mental faculties. Warwick's first emotion was simply a great and hopeless astonishment. Long inured to the mystery of the jungle, he thought he had passed the point where any earthly happening could actually bewilder him. But in spite of it, in spite of the fire-eyed peril in the darkness, he was quite himself when he spoke. The voice that came out of the silence was wholly steady--a kindly, almost amused voice of one who knows life as it is and who has mastered his own destiny."Who in the world?" he asked in the vernacular. "It is I--Little Shikara," a tremulous voice answered. Except for the tremor he could not keep from his tone, he spoke as one man to another.
Warwick knew at once that Little Shikara was not yet aware of the presence of the tiger fifty feet distant in the shadows. But he knew nothing else. The whole situation was beyond his ken.But his instincts were manly and true. "Then run speedily, little one," he whispered, "back to the village. There is danger here in the dark."
Little Shikara tried to speak, and he swallowed painfully. A lump had come in his throat that at first would not let him talk. "Nay, Protector of the Poor!" he answered. "I--I came alone. And I--I am thy servant."
Warwick's heart bounded. Not since his youth had left him to a gray world had his strong heart leaped in just this way before. "Merciful God!" he whispered in English. "Has a child come to save me?" Then he whipped again into the vernacular and spoke swiftly; for no further seconds were to be wasted. "Little Shikara, have you ever fired a gun?""No, Sahib--" "Then lift it up and rest it across my body. Thou knowest how it is held--"
Little Shikara didn't know exactly, but he rested the gun on Warwick's body; and he had seen enough target practice to crook his finger about the trigger. And together, the strangest pair of huntsmen that the Indian stars ever looked down upon, they waited. "It is Nahara," Warwick explained softly. For he had decided to be frank with Little Shikara, trusting all to the courage of a child. "It all depends on thee. Pull back the hammer with thy thumb."
Little Shikara obeyed. He drew it back until it clicked and did not, as Warwick had feared, let it slip through his fingers back against the breach. "Yes, Sahib," he whispered breathlessly. His little brave heart seemed about to explode in his breast. But it was the test, and he knew he must not waver in the sahib's eyes."It is Nahara, and thou art a man," Warwick said again. "And now thou must wait until thou seest her eyes."
So they strained into the darkness; and in an instant more they saw again the two circles of greenish, smouldering fire. They were quite near now--Nahara was almost in leaping range."Thou wilt look through the little hole at the rear and then along the barrel," Warwick ordered swiftly, "and thou must see the two eyes along the little notch in front."
"I see, Sahib--and between the eyes," came the same breathless whisper. The little brown body held quite still. Warwick could not even feel it trembling against his own. For the moment, by virtue of some strange prank of Shiv, the jungle-gods were giving their own strength to this little brown son of theirs beside the ford."Thou wilt not jerk or move?"
"Nay, Sahib." And he spoke true. The world might break to pieces or blink out, but he would not throw off his aim by any terror motions. They could see the tiger's outline now--the lithe, low-hung body, the tail that twitched up and down."Then pull the trigger," Warwick whispered. The whole jungle world rocked and trembled from the violence of the report.
When the villagers, aroused by the roar of the rifle and led by Khusru and Puran and Little Shikara's father, rushed down with their firebrands to the ford, their first thought was that they had come only to the presence of the dead. Three human beings lay very still beside the stream, and fifty feet in the shadows something else, that obviously was not a human being, lay very still, too. But they were not to have any such horror story to tell their wives. Only one of the three by the ford, Singhai, the gun-bearer, was even really unconscious; Little Shikara, the rifle still held lovingly in his arms, had gone into a half-faint from fear and nervous exhaustion, and Warwick Sahib had merely closed his eyes to the darting light of the firebrands. The only death that had occurred was that of Nahara the tigress--and she had a neat hole bored completely through her neck. To all evidence, she had never stirred after Little Shikara's bullet had gone home. After much confusion and shouting and falling over one another, and gazing at Little Shikara as if he were some new kind of a ghost, the villagers got a stretcher each for Singhai and the Protector of the Poor. And when they got them well loaded into them, and Little Shikara had quite come to himself and was standing with some bewilderment in a circle of staring townspeople, a clear, commanding voice ordered that they all be silent. Warwick Sahib was going to make what was the nearest approach to a speech that he had made since various of his friends had decoyed him to a dinner in London some years before.
The words that he said, the short vernacular words that have a way of coming straight to the point, established Little Shikara as a legend through all that corner of British India. It was Little Shikara who had come alone through the jungle, said he; it was Little Shikara's shining eyes that had gazed along the barrel, and it was his own brown finger that had pulled the trigger. Thus, said Warwick, he would get the bounty that the British Government offered--British rupees that to a child's eyes would be past counting. Thus in time, with Warwick's influence, his would be a great voice through all of India. For small as he was, and not yet grown, he was of the true breed.
After the shouting was done, Warwick turned to Little Shikara to see how he thought upon all these things. "Thou shalt have training for the army, little one, where thy good nerve will be of use, and thou shalt be a native officer, along with the sons of princes. I, myself, will see to it, for I do not hold my life so cheap that I will forget the thing that thou hast done to-night."And he meant what he said. The villagers stood still when they saw his earnest face. "And what, little hawk, wilt thou have more?" he asked. Little Shikara trembled and raised his eyes. "Only sometimes to ride with thee, in thy howdah, as thy servant, when thou again seekest the tiger."
The whole circle laughed at this. They were just human, after all. Their firebrands were held high, and gleamed on Little Shikara's dusky face, and made a lustre in his dark eyes. The circle, roaring with laughter, did not hear the sahib's reply, but they did see him nod his head."I would not dare go without thee now," Warwick told him.
And thus Little Shikara's dreams came true--to be known through many villages as a hunter of tigers, and a brave follower and comrade of the forest trails. And thus he came into his own--in those far-off glades of Burma, in the jungles of the Manipur.
The Man Who Cursed The LiliesBy CHARLES TENNEY JACKSON From Short Stories
Tedge looked from the pilot-house at the sweating deckhand who stood on the stubby bow of the Marie Louise heaving vainly on the pole thrust into the barrier of crushed water hyacinths across the channel.Crump, the engineer, shot a sullen look at the master ere he turned back to the crude oil motor whose mad pounding rattled the old bayou stern-wheeler from keel to hogchains.
"She's full ahead now!" grunted Crump. And then, with a covert glance at the single passenger sitting on the fore-deck cattle pens, the engineman repeated his warning, "Yeh'll lose the cows, Tedge, if you keep on fightin' the flowers. They're bad f'r feed and water--they can't stand another day o' sun!"
Tedge knew it. But he continued to shake his hairy fist at the deckhand and roar his anathemas upon the flower-choked bayou. He knew his crew was grinning evilly, for they remembered Bill Tedge's year-long feud with the lilies. Crump had bluntly told the skipper he was a fool for trying to push up this little-frequented bayou from Cote Blanche Bay to the higher land of the west Louisiana coast, where he had planned to unload his cattle.
Tedge had bought the cargo himself near Beaumont from a beggared ranchman whose stock had to go on the market because, for seven months, there had been no rain in eastern Texas, and the short-grass range was gone.
Tedge knew where there was feed for the starving animals, and the Marie Louise was coming back light. By the Intercoastal Canal and the shallow string of bays along the Texas-Louisiana line, the bayou boat could crawl safely back to the grassy swamp lands that fringe the sugar plantations of Bayou Teche. Tedge had bought his living cargo so ridiculously cheap that if half of them stood the journey he would profit. And they would cost him nothing for winter ranging up in the swamp lands. In the spring he would round up what steers had lived and sell them, grass-fat, in New Orleans. He'd land them there with his flap-paddle bayou boat, too, for the Marie Louise ranged up and down the Intercoastal Canal and the uncharted swamp lakes and bays adjoining, trading and thieving and serving the skipper's obscure ends.
Only now, when he turned up Cote Blanche Bay, some hundred miles west of the Mississippi passes, to make the last twenty miles of swamp channel to his landing, he faced his old problem. Summer long the water hyacinths were a pest to navigation on the coastal bayous, but this June they were worse than Tedge had ever seen. He knew the reason: the mighty Mississippi was at high flood, and as always then, a third of its yellow waters were sweeping down the Atchafalaya River on a "short cut" to the Mexican Gulf. And somewhere above, on its west bank, the Atchafalaya levees had broken and the flood waters were all through the coastal swamp channels.
Tedge grimly knew what it meant. He'd have to go farther inland to find his free range, but now, worst of all, the floating gardens of the coast swamps were coming out of the numberless channels on the crevasse water.
He expected to fight them as he had done for twenty years with his dirty bayou boat. He'd fight and curse and struggle through the les flotantes, and denounce the Federal Government, because it did not destroy the lilies in the obscure bayous where he traded, as it did on Bayou Teche and Terrebonne, with its pump-boats which sprayed the hyacinths with a mixture of oil and soda until the tops shrivelled and the trailing roots then dragged the flowers to the bottom.
"Yeh'll not see open water till the river cleans the swamps of lilies," growled Crump. "I never seen the beat of 'em! The high water's liftin' 'em from ponds where they never been touched by a boat's wheel and they're out in the channels now. If yeh make the plantations yeh'll have to keep eastard and then up the Atchafalaya and buck the main flood water, Tedge!"
Tedge knew that, too. But he suddenly broke into curses upon his engineer, his boat, the sea and sky and man. But mostly the lilies. He could see a mile up the bayou between cypress-grown banks, and not a foot of water showed. A solid field of green, waxy leaves and upright purple spikes, jammed tight and moving. That was what made the master rage. They were moving--a flower glacier slipping imperceptibly to the gulf bays. They were moving slowly but inexorably, and his dirty cattle boat, frantically driving into the blockade, was moving backward--stern first!
He hated them with the implacable fury of a man whose fists had lorded his world. A water hyacinth--what was it? He could stamp one to a smear on his deck, but a river of them no man could fight. He swore the lilies had ruined his whisky-running years ago to the Atchafalaya lumber camps; they blocked Grand River when he went to log-towing; they had cost him thousands of dollars for repairs and lost time in his swamp ventures.Bareheaded under the semi-tropic sun, he glowered at the lily-drift. Then he snarled at Crump to reverse the motor. Tedge would retreat again!
"I'll drive the boat clean around Southwest Pass to get shut of 'em! No feed, huh, for these cows! They'll feed sharks, they will! Huh, Mr. Cowman, the blisterin' lilies cost me five hundred dollars already!"
The lone passenger smoked idly and watched the gaunt cattle staggering, penned in the flat, dead heat of the foredeck. Tedge cursed him, too, under his breath. Milt Rogers had asked to make the coast run from Beaumont on Tedge's boat. Tedge remembered what Rogers said--he was going to see a girl who lived up Bayou Boeuf above Tedge's destination. Tedge remembered that girl--a Cajan girl whom he once heard singing in the floating gardens while Tedge was battling and cursing to pass the blockade.He hated her for loving the lilies, and the man for loving her. He burst out again with his volcanic fury at the green and purple horde. "They're a fine sight to see," mused the other, "after a man's eyes been burned out ridin' the dry range; no rain in nine months up there--nothin' green or pretty in----"
"Pretty!" Tedge seemed to menace with his little shifty eyes. "I wish all them lilies had one neck and I could twist it! Jest one head, and me stompin' it! Yeh!--and all the damned flowers in the world with it! Yeh! And me watchin' 'em die!"
The man from the dry lands smoked idly under the awning. His serenity evoked all the savagery of Tedge's feud with the lilies. Pretty! A man who dealt with cows seeing beauty in anything! Well, the girl did it--that swamp angel this Rogers was going to visit. That Aurelie Frenet who sang in the flower-starred river--that was it! Tedge glowered on the Texan--he hated him, too, because this loveliness gave him peace, while the master of the Marie Louise must fume about his wheelhouse, a perspiring madman.
It took an hour for the Marie even to retreat and find steerage-way easterly off across a shallow lake, mirroring the marsh shores in the sunset. Across it the bayou boat wheezed and thumped drearily, drowning the bellowing of the dying steers. Once the deckhand stirred and pointed."Lilies, Cap'n--pourin' from all the swamps, and dead ahead there now!" Scowling, Tedge held to the starboard. Yes, there they were--a phalanx of flowers in the dusk. He broke into wild curses at them, his boat, the staggering cattle.
"I'll drive to the open gulf to get rid of 'em! Outside, to sea! Yeh! Stranger, yeh'll see salt water, and lilies drownin' in it! I'll show yeh 'em dead and dried on the sands like dead men's dried bones! Yeh'll see yer pretty flowers a-dyin'!"The lone cowman ignored the sneer. "You better get the animals to feed and water. Another mornin' of heat and crowdin'--" "Let 'em rot! Yer pretty flowers done it--pretty flowers--spit o' hell! I knowed 'em--I fought 'em--I'll fight 'em to the death of 'em!"
His little red-rimmed eyes hardly veiled his contempt for Milt Rogers. A cowman, sailing this dusky purple bay to see a girl! A girl who sang in the lily drift--a-sailing on this dirty, reeking bumboat, with cattle dying jammed in the pens! Suddenly Tedge realized a vast malevolent pleasure--he couldn't hope to gain from his perishing cargo; and he began to gloat at the agony spread below his wheelhouse window, and the cattleman's futile pity for them.
"They'll rot on Point Au Fer! We'll heave the stink of them, dead and alive, to the sharks of Au Fer Pass! Drownin' cows in dyin' lilies--"
And the small craft of his brain suddenly awakened coolly above his heat. Why, yes! Why hadn't he thought of it? He swung the stubby nose of the Marie more easterly in the hot, windless dusk. After a while the black deckhand looked questioningly up at the master."We're takin' round," Tedge grunted, "outside Au Fer!"
The black stretched on the cattle-pen frame. Tedge was a master-hand among the reefs and shoals, even if the flappaddle Marie had no business outside. But the sea was nothing but a star-set velvet ribbon on which she crawled like a dirty insect. And no man questioned Tedge's will.Only, an hour later, the engineman came up and forward to stare into the faster-flowing water. Even now he pointed to a hyacinth clump.
"Yeh!" the master growled. "I'll show yeh, Rogers! Worlds o' flowers! Out o' the swamps and the tide'll send 'em back again on the reefs. I'll show yeh 'em--dead, dried white like men's bones." Then he began to whisper huskily to his engineer: "It's time fer it. Five hundred fer yeh, Crump--a hundred fer the nigger, or I knock his head in. She brushes the bar, and yer oil tank goes--yeh understand?" He watched a red star in the south.Crump looked about. No sail or light or coast guard about Au Fer--at low tide not even a skiff could find the passages. He nodded cunningly:
"She's old and fire-fitten. Tedge, I knowed yer mind--I was always waitin' fer the word. It's a place fer it--and yeh say yeh carry seven hundred on them cows? Boat an' cargo-three thousand seven hundred--"
"They'll be that singed and washed in the sands off Au Fer that nobody'll know what they died of!" retorted Tedge thickly. "Yeh, go down, Crump, and lay yer waste and oil right. I trust yeh, Crump--the nigger'll get his, too. She'll ride high and burn flat, hoggin' in the sand----""She's soaked with oil plumb for'ard to the pens now," grunted Crump. "She's fitten to go like a match all along when she bumps--" He vanished, and the master cunningly watched the ember star southeasterly.
He was holding above it now, to port and landward. The white, hard sands must be shoaling fast under the cattle-freighted Marie. It little mattered about the course now; she would grind her nose in the quiet reef shortly.
Tedge merely stared, expectantly awaiting the blow. And when it came he was malevolently disappointed. A mere slithering along over the sand, a creak, a slight jar, and she lay dead in the flat, calm sea--it was ridiculous that that smooth beaching would break an oil tank, that the engine spark would flare the machine waste, leap to the greasy beams and floors.
The wheezy exhaust coughed on; the belt flapped as the paddle wheel kept on its dead shove of the Marie's keel into the sand. Hogjaw had shouted and run forward. He was staring into the phosphorescent water circling about the bow when Crump raised his cry:"Fire--amidships!"
Tedge ran down the after-stairs. Sulphurously he began cursing at the trickle of smoke under the motor frame. It was nothing--a child could have put it out with a bucket of sand. But upon it fell Tedge and the engineer, stamping, shouting, shoving oil-soaked waste upon it, and covertly blocking off the astounded black deckman when he rushed to aid.
"Water, Hogjaw!" roared the master. "She's gainin' on us--she's under the bilge floor now!" He hurled a bucket viciously at his helper. And as they pretended to fight the fire, Crump suddenly began laughing and stood up. The deckman was grinning also. The master watched him narrowly.
"Kick the stuff into the waste under the stairs," he grunted. "Hogjaw, this here boat's goin'--yeh understand? We take the skiff and pull to the shrimp camps, and she hogs down and burns--"The black man was laughing. Then he stopped curiously. "The cows--" "Damn the cows! I'll git my money back on 'em! Yeh go lower away on the skiff davits. Yeh don't ask me nothin'--yeh don't know nothin'!" "Sho', boss! I don't know nothin', or see nothin'!"
He swung out of the smoke already drifting greasily up from the foul waist of the Marie Louise. A little glare of red was beginning to reflect from the mirrored sea. The ripples of the beaching had vanished; obscurely, undramatically as she had lived, the Marie Louise sat on the bar to choke in her own fetid fumes.
Tedge clambered to the upper deck and hurried to his bunk in the wheelhouse. There were papers there he must save--the master's license, the insurance policy, and a few other things. The smell of burning wood and grease was thickening; and suddenly now, through it, he saw the quiet, questioning face of the stranger.
He had forgotten him completely. Tedge's small brain had room but for one idea at a time: first his rage at the lilies, and then the wrecking of the Marie. And this man knew. He had been staring down the after-companionway. He had seen and heard. He had seen the master and crew laughing while the fire mounted.Tedge came to him. "We're quittin' ship," he growled. "Yes, but the cattle--" The other looked stupefiedly at him. "We got to pull inside afore the sea comes up--" "Well, break the pens, can't you? Give 'em a chance to swim for a bar. I'm a cowman myself--I cain't let dumb brutes burn and not lift a hand--"
The fire in the waist was beginning to roar. A plume of smoke streamed straight up in the starlight. The glare showed the younger man's startled eyes. He shifted them to look over the foredeck rail down to the cattle. Sparks were falling among them, the fire veered slightly forward; and the survivors were crowding uneasily over the fallen ones, catching that curious sense of danger which forewarns creatures of the wild before the Northers, a burning forest, or creeping flood, to move on."You cain't leave 'em so," muttered the stranger. "No; I seen you--"
He did not finish. Tedge had been setting himself for what he knew he should do. The smaller man had his jaw turned as he stared at the suffering brutes. And Tedge's mighty fist struck him full on the temple. The master leaned over the low rail to watch quietly.
The man who wished to save the cattle was there among them. A little flurry of sparks drove over the spot he fell upon, and then a maddened surge of gaunt steers. Tedge wondered if he should go finish the job. No; there was little use. He had crashed his fist into the face of a shrimp-seine hauler once, and the fellow's neck had shifted on his spine
-and once he had maced a woman up-river in a shantyboat drinking bout--Tedge had got away both times. Now and then, boasting about the shrimp camps, he hinted mysteriously at his two killings, and showed his freckled, hairy right hand.
"If they find anything of him--he got hurt in the wreck," the master grinned. He couldn't see the body, for a black longhorn had fallen upon his victim, it appeared. Anyhow, the cattle were milling desperately around in the pen; the stranger who said his name was Milt Rogers would be a lacerated lump of flesh in that mad stampede long ere the fire reached him. Tedge got his tin document box and went aft.
Crump and Hogjaw were already in the flat-bottomed bayou skiff, holding it off the Marie Louise's port runway, and the master stepped into it. The heat was singeing their faces by now.
"Pull off," grunted the skipper, "around east'ard. This bar sticks clean out o' water off there, and you lay around it, Hogjaw. They won't be no sea 'til the breeze lifts at sunup." The big black heaved on the short oars. The skiff was a hundred yards out on the glassy sea when Crump spoke cunningly, "I knowed something----""Yeh?" Tedge turned from his bow seat to look past the oarsman's head at the engineman. "Yeh knowed----" "This Rogers, he was tryin' to get off the burnin' wreck and he fell, somehow or----" "The oil tank blew, and a piece o' pipe took him," grunted Tedge. "I tried to drag him out o' the fire--Gawd knows I did, didn't I, Crump?"
Crump nodded scaredly. The black oarsman's eyes narrowed and he crouched dumbly as he rowed. Tedge was behind him--Tedge of the Marie Louise who could kill with his fists. No, Hogjaw knew nothing--he never would know anything.
"I jest took him on out o' kindness," mumbled Tedge. "I got no license fer passenger business. Jest a bum I took on to go and see his swamp girl up Des Amoureaux. Well, it ain't no use sayin' anything, is it now?"
A mile away the wreck of the Marie Louise appeared as a yellow-red rent in the curtain of night. Red, too, was the flat, calm sea, save northerly where a sand ridge gleamed. Tedge turned to search for its outlying point. There was a pass here beyond which the reefs began once more and stretched on, a barrier to the shoal inside waters. When the skiff had drawn about the sand spit, the reflecting waters around the Marie had vanished, and the fire appeared as a fallen meteor burning on the flat, black belt of encircling reef.
Tedge's murderous little eyes watched easterly. They must find the other side of the tidal pass and go up it to strike off for the distant shrimp camps with their story of the end of the Marie Louise--boat and cargo a total loss on Au Fer sands.
Upon the utter sea silence there came a sound--a faint bawling of dying cattle, of trampled, choked cattle in the fume and flames. It was very far off now; and to-morrow's tide and wind would find nothing but a blackened timber, a swollen, floating carcass or two--nothing more.
But the black man could see the funeral pyre; the distant glare of it was showing the whites of his eyes faintly to the master, when suddenly he stopped rowing. A drag, the soft sibilance of a moving thing, was on his oar blade. He jerked it free, staring."Lilies, boss--makin' out dis pass, too, lilies--" "I see 'em--drop below 'em!" Tedge felt the glow of an unappeasable anger mount to his temples. "Damn 'em--I see 'em!"
There they were, upright, tranquil, immense hyacinths--their spear-points three feet above the water, their feathery streamers drifting six feet below; the broad, waxy leaves floating above their bulbous surface mats--they came on silently under the stars; they vanished under the stars seaward to their death."Yeh!" roared Tedge. "Sun and sea to-morry--they'll be back on Au Fer like dried bones o' dead men in the sand! Bear east'ard off of 'em!"
The oarsman struggled in the deeper pass water. The skiff bow suddenly plunged into a wall of green-and-purple bloom. The points brushed Tedge's cheek. He cursed and smote them, tore them from the low bow and flung them. But the engineman stood up and peered into the starlight.
"Yeh'll not make it. Better keep up the port shore. I cain't see nothin' but lilies east'ard-worlds o'flowers comin' with the crevasse water behind 'em." He dipped a finger to the water, tasted of it, and grumbled on: "It ain't hardly salt, the big rivers are pourin' such a flood out o' the swamps. Worlds o' flowers comin' out the passes--""Damn the flowers!" Tedge arose, shaking his fist at them. "Back out o' 'em! Pull up the Au Fer side, and we'll break through 'em in the bay!" Against the ebb tide close along Au Fer reef, the oarsman toiled until Crump, the lookout, grumbled again.
"The shoal's blocked wi' 'em! They're stranded on the ebb. Tedge, yeh'll have to wait for more water to pass this bar inside 'em. Yeh try to cross the pass, and the lilies 'll have us all to sea in this crazy skiff when the wind lifts wi' the sun.""I'm clean wore out," the black man muttered. "Yeh can wait fer day and tide on the sand, boss." "Well, drive her in, then!" raged the skipper. "The in-tide'll set before daylight. We'll take it up the bay."
He rolled over the bow, knee-deep in the warm inlet water, and dragged the skiff through the shoals. Crump jammed an oar in the sand; and warping the headline to this, the three trudged on to the white dry ridge. Tedge flung himself by the first stubby grass clump.
"Clean beat," he muttered. "By day we'll pass 'em. Damn 'em--and I'll see 'em dyin' in the sun--lilies like dried, dead weeds on the sand--that's what they'll be in a couple o' days-he said they was pretty, that fello' back there--" Lying with his head on his arm, he lifted a thumb to point over his shoulder. He couldn't see the distant blotch of fire against the low stars--he didn't want to. He couldn't mark the silent drift of the sea gardens in the pass, but he gloated in the thought that they were riding to their death. The pitiless sun, the salt tides drunk up to their spongy bulbs, and their glory passed--they would be matted refuse on the shores and a man could trample them. Yes, the sea was with Tedge, and the rivers, too; the flood waters were lifting the lilies from their immemorable strongholds and forcing them out to their last pageant of death.
The three castaways slept in the warm sand. It was an hour later that some other living thing stirred at the far end of Au Fer reef. A scorched and weakened steer came on through salt pools to stagger and fall. Presently another, and then a slow line of them. They crossed the higher ridge to huddle about a sink that might have made them remember the dry drinking holes of their arid home plains. Tired, gaunt cattle mooing lonesomely, when the man came about them to dig with his bloody fingers in the sand.
He tried another place, and another--he didn't know--he was a man of the short-grass country, not a coaster; perhaps a sandy sink might mean fresh water. But after each effort the damp feeling on his hands was from his gashed and battered head and not life-giving water. He wiped the blood from his eyes and stood up in the starlight."Twenty-one of 'em--alive--and me," he muttered. "I got 'em off--they trampled me and beat me down, but I got their pens open. Twenty-one livin'--and me on the sands!"
He wondered stupidly how he had done it. The stern of the Marie Louise had burned off and sogged down in deep water, but her bow hung to the reef, and in smoke and flame he had fought the cattle over it. They clustered now in the false water-hole, silent, listless, as if they knew the uselessness of the urge of life on Au Fer reef.
And after a while the man went on eastward. Where and how far the sand ridge stretched he did not know. Vaguely he knew of the tides and sun to-morrow. From the highest point he looked back. The wreck was a dull red glow, the stars above it cleared now of smoke. The sea, too, seemed to have gone back to its infinite peace, as if it had washed itself daintily after this greasy morsel it must hide in its depths.
A half hour the man walked wearily, and then before him stretched water again. He turned up past the tide flowing down the pass--perhaps that was all of Au Fer. A narrow spit of white sand at high tide, and even over that, the sea breeze freshening, the surf would curl?
"Ships never come in close, they said," he mused tiredly, "and miles o' shoals to the land
-and then just swamp for miles. Dumb brutes o' cows, and me on this--and no water nor feed, nor shade from the sun."
He stumbled on through the shallows, noticing apathetically that the water was running here. Nearly to his waist he waded, peering into the starlight. He was a cowman and he couldn't swim; he had never seen anything but the dry ranges until he said he would go find the girl he had met once on the upper Brazos--a girl who told him of sea and sunken forests, of islands of flowers drifting in lonely swamp lakes--he had wanted to see that land, but mostly the Cajan girl of Bayou Des Amoureaux.
He wouldn't see her now; he would die among dying cattle, but maybe it was fit for a cattleman to go that way--a Texas man and Texas cows.
Then he saw a moving thing. It rode out of the dark and brushed him. It touched him with soft fingers and he drew them to him. A water hyacinth, and its purple spike topped his head as he stood waist-deep. So cool its leaves, and the dripping bulbs that he pressed them to his bloody cheek. He sank his teeth into them for that coolness on his parched tongue. The spongy bulb was sweet; it exhaled odorous moisture. He seized it ravenously. It carried sweet water, redolent of green forest swamps!
Like a starving animal he moved in the shoals, seeing more drifting garden clumps. And then a dark object that did not drift. He felt for it slowly, and then straightened up, staring about.
A flat-bottomed bayou skiff, and in it the oars, a riverman's blanket-roll of greasy clothes, and a tin box! He knew the box. On one end, in faded gilt, was the name "B. Tedge." Rogers had seen it on the grimy shelf in the pilothouse on the Marie Louise. He felt for the rope; the skiff was barely scraping bottom. Yes, they had moored it here--they must be camped on the sands of Au Fer, awaiting the dawn.
A boat? He didn't know what a Texas cowman could do with a boat on an alien and unknown shore, but he slipped into it, raised an oar, and shoved back from the sandy spit. At least he could drift off Au Fer's waterless desolation. Tedge would kill him to-morrow when he found him there; because he knew Tedge had fired the Marie for the insurance.
So he poled slowly off. The skiff drifted now. Rogers tried to turn to the oar athwart, and awkwardly he stumbled. The oar seemed like a roll of thunder when it struck the gunwale.
And instantly a hoarse shout arose behind him. Tedge's voice--Tedge had not slept well. The gaunt cattle burning or choking in the salt tide, or perhaps the lilies of Bayou Boeuf-anyhow, he was up with a cry and dashing for the skiff. In a moment Rogers saw him.
The Texas man began driving desperately on the oars. He heard the heavy rush of the skipper's feet in the deepening water. Tedge's voice became a bull-like roar as the depth began to check him. To his waist, and the slow skiff was but ten yards away; to his great shoulders, and the clumsy oarsman was but five.
And with a yell of triumph Tedge lunged out swimming. Whoever the fugitive, he was hopeless with the oars. The skiff swung this way and that, and a strong man at its stern could hurl it and its occupant bottom-side up in Au Fer Pass. Tedge, swimming in Au Fer Pass, his fingers to the throat of this unknown marauder! There'd be another one go--and nothing but his hands--Bill Tedge's hands that the shrimp camps feared. Just hold him under--that was all. Tread water, and hold the throat beneath until its throbbing ceased. Tedge could; he feared no man. Another overhand stroke, and he just missed the wobbling stern of the light skiff.
He saw the man start up and raise an oar as if to strike. Tedge laughed triumphantly. Another plunge and his fingers touched the gunwale. And then he dived; he would bring his back up against the flat bottom and twist his enemy's footing from under him. Then in the deep water Tedge lunged up for the flat keel, and slowly across his brow an invisible hand seemed to caress him.
He opened his eyes to see a necklace of opalescent jewels gathering about his neck; he tore at it and the phosphorescent water gleamed all about him with feathery pendants. And when his head thrust above water, the moment's respite had allowed the skiff to straggle beyond his reach.
Tedge shouted savagely and lunged again--and about his legs came the soft clasp of the drifting hyacinth roots. Higher, firmer; and he turned to kick free of them. He saw the man in the boat poling uncertainly in the tide not six feet beyond him. And now, in open water, Tedge plunged on in fierce exultance. One stroke--and the stars beyond the boatman became obscured; the swimmer struck the soft, yielding barrier of the floating islands. This time he did not lose time in drawing from them; he raised his mighty arms and strove to beat them down, flailing the broad leaves until the spiked blossoms fell about him. A circlet of them caressed his cheek. He lowered his head and swam bull-like into the drift; and when he knew the pressure ahead was tightening slowly to rubbery bands, forcing him gently from his victim, Tedge raised his voice in wild curses.
He fought and threshed the lilies, and they gave him cool, velvety kisses in return. He dived and came up through them; and then, staring upward, he saw the tall, purple spikes against the stars. And they were drifting--they were sailing seaward to their death. He couldn't see the boat now for the shadowy hosts; and for the first time fear glutted his heart. It came as a paroxysm of new sensation--Tedge of the Marie Louise who had never feared.
But this was different, this soft and moving web of silence. No, not quite silence, for past his ear the splendid hyacinths drifted with a musical creaking, leaf on leaf, the buoyant bulbs brushing each other. The islets joined and parted; once he saw open water and plunged for it--and over his shoulders there surged a soft coverlet. He turned and beat it; he churned his bed into a furious welter, and the silken curtain lowered.He shrank from it now, staring. The feathery roots matted across his chest, the mass of them felt slimy like the hide of a drowned brute. "Drownin' cows"--he muttered thickly--"comin' on a man driftin' and drownin'--no, no!
Lilies, jest lilies--damn 'em!"
The tall spiked flowers seemed nodding--yes, just lilies, drifting and singing elfin music to the sea tide. Tedge roared once again his hatred of them; he raised and battered his huge fists into their beauty, and they seemed to smile in the starlight. Then, with a howl, he dived.
He would beat them--deep water was here in the pass, and he would swim mightily far beneath the trailing roots--he would find the man with the boat yet and hurl him to die in the hyacinth bloom.
He opened his eyes in the deep, clear water and exulted. He, Tedge, had outwitted the bannered argosies. With bursting lungs he charged off across the current, thinking swiftly, coolly, now of the escape. And as he neared the surface he twisted to glance upward. It was light there--a light brighter than the stars, but softer, evanescent. Mullet and squib were darting about or clinging to a feathery forest that hung straight down upon him. Far and near there came little darts of pale fire, gleaming and expiring with each stir in the phosphorescent water.
And he had to rise; a man could not hold the torturing air in his lungs for ever. Yes, he would tear a path to the stars again and breathe. His arms flailed into the first tenuous streamers, which parted in pearly lace before his eyes. He breasted higher, and they were all about him now; his struggles evoked glowing bubble-jewels which drifted upward to expire. He grasped the soft roots and twisted and sought to raise himself. He had a hand to the surface bulbs, but a silken mesh seemed tightening about him.
And it was drifting--everything was drifting in the deep pass of Au Fer. He tried to howl in the hyacinth web, and choked--and then he merely fought in his close-pressing cocoon, thrusting one hard fist to grasp the broad leaves. He clung to them dumbly, his face so close to the surface that the tall spiked flowers smiled down--but they drifted inexorably with a faint, creaking music, leaf on leaf.
Tedge opened his eyes to a flicker of myriad lights. The sound was a roaring now--like the surf on the reefs in the hurricane month; or the thunder of maddened steers above him across this flowery sea meadow. Perhaps the man he had killed rode with this stampede? Tedge shrank under the lilies--perhaps they could protect him now? Even the last stroke of his hands made luminous beauty of the under-running tide.
An outward-bound shrimp lugger saw the figures on Au Fer reef and came to anchor beyond the shoals. The Cajan crew rowed up to where Milt Rogers and Crump and the black deckhand were watching by a pool. The shrimpers listened to the cowman, who had tied the sleeve of his shirt about his bloody head.
"You can get a barge down from Morgan City and take the cows off before the sea comes high," said Rogers quietly. "They're eating the lilies--and they find sweet water in 'em. Worlds o' lilies driftin' to sea with sweet water in the bulbs!" And he added, watching Crump and the black man who seemed in terror of him: "I want to get off, too. I want to see the swamp country where worlds o' flowers come from!"
He said no more. He did not even look in the pool where Crump pointed. He was thinking of that girl of the swamps who had bid him come to her. But all along the white surf line he could see the green-and-purple plumes of the hyacinth warriors tossing in the breeze--legion upon legion, coming to die gloriously on Au Fer's sands.But first they sent a herald; for in Tedge's hand, as he lay in the pool, one waxen-leafed banner with a purple spear-point glittered in the sun.
The UrgeBy MARYLAND ALLEN From Everybody's
She is now a woman ageless because she is famous. She is surrounded by a swarm of lovers and possesses a great many beautiful things. She has more than one Ming jar in the library at her country place; yards upon yards of point de Venise in her top bureaudrawer. She is able to employ a very pleasant, wholesome woman, whose sole duty it is to keep her clothes in order.
She wears superb clothes--the last word in richness and the elegance of perfection-clothes that no man can declaim over, stimulating himself the while with shot after shot of that most insidious of all dope, self-pity. You see, she earns them all herself, along with the Ming jars, the point de Venise, the country place, and countless other things. She is the funniest woman in the world--not in her press-agent's imagination, but in cold, sober fact. She can make anybody laugh; she does make everybody.
Night after night in the huge public theatres of the common people; in the small private ones of the commoner rich; in Greek amphitheatres where the laughter rolls away in thunderous waves to be echoed back by distant blue hills; in institutions for the blind; in convalescent wards; everywhere, every time, she makes them laugh. The day labourer, sodden and desperate from too much class legislation, the ego in his cosmos and the struggle for existence; the statesman, fearful of losing votes, rendered blue and depressed by the unruliness of nations and all the vast multitude of horrors that lie in between--all of these, all of them, she makes laugh. She is queen of the profession she has chosen-unusual for one of her sex. She is the funniest woman in the world.When she is at home--which is seldom--she has many visitors and strives, if possible, to see none of them. "You know, I entertain so much," she pleads in that vivid, whimsical way of hers that holds as much of sadness as mirth. But this time, it being so early in the afternoon, she was caught unawares.
The girls--they were nothing but girls, three of them--found her out upon the lawn, sitting on a seat where the velvety green turf fell away in a steep hillside, and far beneath them they could see the river moving whitely beyond the trees. They halted there before her, happy but trembling, giggling but grave. They were gasping and incoherent, full of apologies and absurd tremors. It had taken their combined week's savings to bribe the gardener. And they only wanted to know one thing: How had she achieved all this fame and splendour, by what magic process had she become that rarest of all living creatures, the funniest woman in the world?
It was an easy enough question to ask and, to them, hovering twittering upon high heels a trifle worn to one side, a simple one for her to answer. She looked at them in that humorous, kindly way of hers, looked at their silly, excited, made-up faces with noses sticking out stark, like handles, from a too-heavy application of purplish-white powder. Then her glance travelled down the velvety green slope to the bright river glancing and leaping beyond the shady trees.
Did she think of that other girl? Sitting there with that strange smile upon her face, the smile that is neither mirth nor sadness, but a poignant, haunting compound of both, did she remember her and the Urge that had always been upon her, racking her like actual pain, driving her with a whip of scorpions, flaying her on and on with a far more vivid sense of suffering than the actual beatings laid on by her mother's heavy hand, the thing that found articulation in the words, "I must be famous, I must!"
She belonged in the rear of a batch of a dozen, and had never been properly named. The wind was blowing from the stockyards on the dark hour when she arrived. It penetrated even to the small airless chamber where she struggled for her first breath--one of a "flat" in the poorest tenement in the worst slum in Chicago. Huddled in smelly rags by a hastily summoned neighbour from the floor above, the newcomer raised her untried voice in a frail, reedy cry. Perhaps she did not like the smell that oozed in around the tightly closed window to combat the foul odours of the airless room. Whatever it was, this protest availed her nothing, for the neighbour hurriedly departed, having been unwilling from the first, and the mother turned away and lay close against the stained, discoloured wall, too apathetic, too utterly resigned to the fate life had meted out to her to accord this most unwelcome baby further attention. This first moment of her life might easily serve as the history of her babyhood.
Her father was also indifferent. He brought home his money and gave it to his wife-children were strictly none of his business. Her brothers and sisters, each one busily and fiercely fending for himself, gave no attention to her small affairs.
Tossed by the careless hand of Fate into the dark sea of life to swim or perish, she awoke to consciousness with but one thought--food; one ruling passion--to get enough. And since, in her habitual half-starved state, all food looked superlatively good to her, cake was the first word she learned to speak. It formed her whole vocabulary for a surprisingly long time, and Cake was the only name she was ever known by in her family circle and on the street that to her ran on and on and on as narrow and dirty, as crowded and as cruel as where it passed the great dilapidated old rookery that held the four dark rooms that she called home.
Up to the age of ten her life was sketchy. A passionate scramble for food, beatings, tears, slumber, a swift transition from one childish ailment to another that kept her forever out of reach of the truant officer.
She lay upon the floor in a little dark room, and through the window in the airless airshaft, high up in one corner, she could see a three-cornered spot of light. At first she wondered what it was, since she lived in a tenement, not under the sky. Then it resolved itself into a ball, white and luminous, that floated remote in that high place and seemed to draw her, and was somehow akin to the queer, gnawing pain that developed about that time beneath her breastbone. It was all inarticulate, queer and confused. She did not think, she did not know how. She only felt that queer gnawing beneath her breastbone, distinct from all her other pains, and which she ascribed to hunger, and saw the lovely, trembling globe of light. At first she felt it only when she was ill and lay on the tumbled floor bed and looked up through the dark window; afterward always in her dreams.After she passed her tenth birthday the confusion within her seemed to settle as the queer pain increased, and she began to think, to wonder what it could be.
A year or two later her father died, and as she was the only child over whom her mother could exercise any control, the report of her death was successfully impressed upon the truant officer, so that she might be put to work unhindered to help the family in its desperate scramble for food, a scramble in which she took part with vivid earnestness. She was hired to Maverick's to wash dishes.
Maverick was a Greek and kept an open-all-night chop-house, a mean hole in the wall two doors from the corner, where Cake's surpassing thinness made her invaluable at the sink. Also the scraps she carried home in her red, water-puckered hands helped out materially. Then her mother took a boarder and rested in her endeavours, feeling she had performed all things well.
This boarder was a man with a past. And he had left it pretty far behind, else he had never rented a room and meals from the mother of Cake. In this boarder drink and debauchery had completely beaten out of shape what had once been a very noble figure of a man. His body was shrunken and trembling; the old, ragged clothes he wore flapped about him like the vestments of a scarecrow. His cheeks had the bruised congested look of the habitual drinker, his nose seemed a toadstool on his face, and his red eyes were almost vanished behind puffy, purple, pillow-like lids. His voice was husky and whispering, except when he raised it. Then it was surprisingly resonant and mellow, with something haunting in it like the echo of an echo of a very moving sweetness.
One night Cake, returning all weary and played-out from dish-washing at Maverick's, heard him speaking in this loud voice of his, pushed the door open a crack, and peeked in. He was standing in the middle of the floor evidently speaking what the child called to herself "a piece." Her big mouth crooked derisively in the beginning of what is now her famous smile. The lodger went on speaking, being fairly well stimulated at the time, and presently Cake pushed the door wider and crept in to the dry-goods box, where her mother always kept a candle, and sat down.
The lodger talked on and on while Cake sat rapt, the flickering candle in her hands throwing strange lights and shadows upon her gaunt face. How was she to know she was the last audience of one of the greatest Shakespearian actors the world had ever seen? It was a grave and wondering Cake that crept to her place to sleep that night between her two older sisters. And while they ramped against her and chewed and snorted in her ears, she listened all over again to that wonderful voice and was awed by the colour and beauty of the words that it had spoken. She slept, and saw before her the globe of light, trembling and luminous, the one bright thing of beauty her life had ever known, that seemed to draw her up from darkness slowly and with great suffering. Trembling and weeping she awoke in the dawn, and the strange pain that had tortured her so much and that she had called hunger and sought to assuage with scraps from the plates that came to the sink at Maverick's became articulate at last. With her hands clasped hard against her breast she found relief in words."I gotta be somebody," sobbed the child. "I mus' be famous, I mus'!"
She arose to find life no longer a confused struggle for food, but a battle and a march; a battle to get through one day to march on to the next, and so on and on until, in that long line of days that stretched out ahead of her like chambers waiting to be visited, she reached the one where rested Fame, that trembling, luminous globe of beauty it was so vitally necessary for her to achieve. "How come he c'n talk like that?" she demanded of herself, musing on the lodger's wonderful exhibition over the greasy dish-water at Maverick's.
And that night she asked him, prefacing her question with the offering of an almost perfect lamb-chop. Only one piece had been cut from it since the purchaser, at that moment apprised by Maverick himself that the arrival of the police was imminent, had taken a hasty departure."Who learned you to talk that-a-way?" demanded Cake, licking a faint, far-away flavour of the chop from her long, thin fingers.
The lodger, for a moment, had changed places with the candle. That is to say, he sat upon the dry-goods box, the candle burned upon the floor. And, having been most unfortunate that day, the lodger was tragically sober. He bit into the chop voraciously, like a dog, with his broken, discoloured teeth."A book 'learned' me," he said, "and practice and experience--and something else." He broke off short. "They called it genius then," he said bitterly. Cake took a short step forward. That thing beneath her prominent breastbone pained her violently, forced her on to speak. "You learn me," she said.
The lodger ceased to chew and stared, the chop bone uplifted in his dirty hand. A pupil for him!
"You want to do this perhaps," he began. "Pray do not mock me; I am a very foolish, fond old man----"
The disreputable, swollen-faced lodger with a nose like a poisoned toadstool vanished. Cake saw an old white-haired man, crazy and pitiful, yet bearing himself grandly. She gasped, the tears flew to her eyes, blinding her. The lodger laughed disagreeably, he was gnawing on the chop bone again."I suppose you think because you've found me here it is likely I'll teach you--you! You starved alley cat!" he snarled. Cake did not even blink. It is repetition that dulls, and she was utterly familiar with abuse. "And suppose I did--'learn' you," he sneered, "what would you do with it?" "I would be famous," cried Cake.
Then the lodger did laugh, looking at her with his head hanging down, his swollen face all creased and purple, his hair sticking up rough and unkempt. He laughed, sitting there a degraded, debauched ruin, looking down from the height of his memories upon the gaunt, unlovely child of the slums who was rendered even more unlovely by the very courage that kept her waiting beside the broken door."So you think I could learn you to be famous, hey?" Even the words of this gutter filth he sought to construe into something nattering to himself.
Cake nodded. Really she had not thought of it that way at all. There was no thinking connected with her decision. The dumb hours she had spent staring up the air-shaft had resolved themselves with the passing years into a strange, numb will to do. There was the light and she must reach it. Indeed the Thing there behind the narrow walls of her chest gave her no alternative. She did not think she wanted to be an actress. It was a long time after that before she knew even what an actress was. She did not know what the lodger had been. No. Instinctively, groping and inarticulate, she recognized in him the rags and shreds of greatness, knew him to be a one-time dweller in that temple whither, willing or not, she was bound, to reach it or to die.
The lodger looked down at the naked chop bone in his hand. The juicy, broiled meat was comforting to his outraged stomach. Meat. The word stood out in his mind to be instantly followed by that other word that, for him, had spelled ruin, made him a ragged panhandler, reduced him to living among the poorest and most hopeless. Drink! He raised his head and eyed Cake with crafty calculation.
"What will you pay me for such teaching?" he demanded, and looked down again at the bone.
What he did in the end, Cake herself was satisfied came to him afterward. At first he was actuated only by the desire to procure food and drink--more especially the drink--at the cost of the least possible effort to himself.
Cake saw the look, and she knew. She even smiled a little in the greatness of her relief. She saw she had been right to bring the chop, and appreciated that her progress along road to fame would be as slow or fast as she could procure food for him in lesser or larger quantities."I'll bring you eats," she said cunningly. "From Maverick's," she added. By which she meant the eats would be "has-is"--distinctly second class, quite possibly third. The lodger nodded. "And booze," he put in, watching her face. "And booze," Cake assented.
So the bargain was struck in a way that worked the most cruel hardship on the girl. Food she could steal and did, blithely enough, since she had no monitor but the lure of brightness and that Thing within her breast that hotly justified the theft and only urged her on. But booze was a very different proposition. It was impossible to steal booze--even a little. To secure booze she was forced to offer money. Now what money Cake earned at Maverick's her mother snatched from her hand before she was well within the door. If she held out even a dime, she got a beating. And Cake's mother, in the later years of her life, besides being a clever evader of the police and the truant officer, developed into a beater of parts. Broken food the child offered in abundance and piteous hope. But the lodger was brutally indifferent."Food," he scoffed. "Why, it says in the Bible--you never heard of the Bible, hey?" Cake shook her tangled head.
"No? Well, it's quite a Book," commented the lodger. He had been fortunate that day and was, for him, fairly intoxicated. "And it says right in there--and some consider that Book an authority--man cannot live by food alone. Drink--I drink when I have occasion, and sometimes when I have no occasion--Don't you know what drink is, alley-cat? Very well, then, wine is wont to show the mind of man, and you won't see mine until you bring me booze. Get out!"
And Cake got out. Also, being well versed in a very horrid wisdom, she took the food with her. This was hardly what the lodger had expected, and I think what respect he was capable of sprouted for her then.
Behind a screen of barrels in the corner of the alley Cake ate the broken meats herself, taking what comfort she could, and pondering the while the awful problem of securing the booze, since she must be taught, and since the lodger moved in her sphere as the only available teacher.
There was a rush up the alley past her hiding-place, a shout, and the savage thud of blows. Very cautiously, as became one wise in the ways of life in that place, Cake peered around a barrel. She saw Red Dan, who sold papers in front of Jeer Dooley's place, thoroughly punishing another and much larger boy. The bigger boy was crying.
She did not care what happened to the bigger boy, though she respected Red Dan the more. She knew where the money was going to come from to buy the lodger's booze. It meant longer hours for her; it meant care to work only out of school hours; it meant harder knocks than even she had experienced; it meant a fatigue there were no words to describe even among the beautiful, wonderful, colourful ones the lodger taught her. But she sold the papers and she purchased the booze.
Her mother did not know where she spent this extra time. She did not care since the money came in from Maverick's steadily each week. Neither did the lodger care how the booze was procured; the big thing to him was that it came.
At first these lessons were fun for him; the big, gawky, half-starved, overworked child seeing so vividly in pictures all that he told her in words. Full-fed on the scraps from Maverick's--he was no longer fastidious--well stimulated by the drink she brought, he took an ugly sort of degraded pleasure in posturing before her, acting as he alone could act those most wonderful of all plays, watching with hateful, sardonic amusement the light and shadow of emotion upon her dirty face. Oh, he was a magician, no doubt at all of that! Past master in the rare art of a true genius, that of producing illusion.Then he would make Cake try, rave at her, curse her, strike her, kill himself laughing, drink some more and put her at it again.
Night after night, almost comatose from the fatigue of a day that began while it was still dark, she carried a heaped-up plate and a full bottle to the lodger's room and sat down upon the dry-goods box with the candle beside her on the floor. And, having thus secured her welcome, night after night she walked with him among that greatest of all throngs of soldiers and lovers, kings and cardinals, queens, prostitutes and thieves.If the liquor was short in the bottle a dime's worth, the lesson was curtailed. At first Cake tried to coax him. "Aw, c'mon, yuh Romeo on th' street in Mantua." But the lodger was never so drunk that he made the slightest concession.
"Yes, I'm Romeo all right--the lad's there, never fear, gutter-snipe. But--the bottle is not full."
After that she never attempted to change his ruling. She was letter perfect in the bitter lesson, and if the sale of papers did not bring in enough to fill the bottle, she accepted the hard fact with the calm of great determination and did not go near the lodger's room, but went to bed instead.
After the lodger had been teaching her for several years her mother died and was buried in the potters' field. Cake managed to keep two rooms of the wretched flat, and no word of his landlady's demise reached the lodger's drink-dulled ears. Otherwise Cake feared he might depart, taking with him her one big chance to reach the light. You see, she did not know the lodger. Things might have been different if she had. But he was never a human being to her, even after she knew the truth; only a symbol, a means to the great end.
Her brothers went away--to the penitentiary and other places. One by one the flood of life caught her sisters and swept them out, she did not know to what. She never even wondered. She had not been taught to care. She had never been taught anything. The knowledge that she must be famous danced through her dreams like a will-o'-the-wisp; had grown within her in the shape of a great pain that never ceased; only eased a little as she strove mightily toward the goal.
So she still sold papers, a homely, gawky, long-legged girl in ragged clothes much too small for her, and slaved at Maverick's for the lodger's nightly dole that he might teach her and she be famous.
At first he was keen on the meat and drink--more especially the drink. Later, gradually, a change came over him. Only Cake did not notice this change. She was too set on being taught so she could become famous. At first the lodger was all oaths and blows with shouts of fierce, derisive laughter intermingled."My God!" he would cry. "If Noyes could only see this--if he only could!"
This Noyes, it appeared, was a man he furiously despised. When he was in the third stage of drunkenness he would never teach Cake, but would only abuse his enemies, and this Noyes invariably came in for a fearful shower of epithets. It was he as Cake heard it, sitting huddled on the old dry-goods box, the candle casting strange shadows into her gaunt, unchildlike face, who was the cause of the lodger's downfall. But for Noyes--with a blasting array of curses before the name--he would now have what Cake so ardently strove for: Fame. But for Noyes he would be acting in his own theatre, riding in his own limousine, wearing his own diamonds, entertaining his own friends upon his own gold plate.
When he was still too sober to take a really vital interest in the teaching, he was a misanthrope, bitter and brutal, with an astonishing command of the most terrible words. At these times he made the gravest charges against Noyes; charges for which the man should be made accountable, even to such a one as the lodger. One evening Cake sat watching him, waiting for this mood to pass so that the teaching might begin.
"If I was youse," she said at last, "and hated a guy like youse do this Noyes, I'd fetch 'im a insult that'd get under his skin right. I'd make evens wit' 'im, I would, not jes' talk about it.""Oh, you would!" remarked the lodger. He took a long pull at the bottle. "You be Queen Kathrine, you alley-cat."
So the nightly teaching began with the usual accompaniment of curses, blows, and shouts of brutal laughter. But when it was over and the lodger was sinking to the third stage that came inevitably with the bottom of the bottle, he kept looking at his pupil queerly."Oh, you would! Oh, you would, would you?" He said it over and over again. "Oh, you would, would you?"
And after that he was changed by the leaven of hate her suggestion had started working in him. For one thing, he took a far greater interest in the teaching for its own sake. Of that much the girl herself was thankfully aware. And she thought, Cake did, that the dull husk of self was wearing away from that part of her destined to be famous, wearing away at last. The lodger's curses changed in tone as the nights filed past, the blows diminished, the laughter became far more frequent.
Cake, as rapidly reaching the end of her girlhood as the lodger was nearing the limits of his drink-sapped strength, redoubled her efforts. It was very plain to her that he could not live much longer; death in delirium tremens was inevitable. After that, she decided, school would not keep, and she must try her fortune.
Then one night in the midst of the potion scene when she felt herself Juliet, soft, passionate, and beautiful, far away in the land of tragic romance, she heard the lodger crying:"Stop--my God, stop! How do you get that way? Don't you know there's a limit to human endurance, alley-cat?"
He was fairly toppling from the dry-goods box. His eyes were popping from his head, and in the flickering candlelight his face looked strained and queer. In after life she became very familiar with that expression; she saw it on all types of faces. In fact, she came to expect to see it there. But she did not know how to analyze it then. She glimpsed it only as a tribute to her performance, so immense that she had to be halted in the middle, and felt correspondingly elated. She was exactly right in her deduction. But Cake and the lodger advanced along very different lines of thought.
The next night he was shaky, came all too quickly to the teaching period, and left it as speedily. Then he retired to the flock mattress in the corner of the room and called Cake to bring the candle.
"I've an idea I'm going to leave you, gutter-snipe," he said, "and I doubt if I ever see you again. The end of life cancels all bands. And the one that bound you to me, alley-cat, was very material, very material indeed. The kind that runs easily in and out of a black bottle." He laughed.
"You Shakespearian actress!" He laughed again, longer this time. "But I have not forgotten you," he resumed. "In addition to all that I have taught you, I am going to leave you something. Here," he fumbled out a square envelope and Cake took it between her hands. "Take that to the address written on it," said the lodger, "and see what the gentleman does." He began to laugh again.
"Noyes----" he cried and broke off to curse feebly but volubly. Cake did not even glance in his direction. She went away out of the room, too utterly stunned with fatigue to look at the letter in her dingy hand.The next morning the lodger was dead. He was buried in the potters' field quite near his old landlady.
This second funeral, such as it was, closed the shelter that Cake, for want of a more fitting name, had called home. She decided to put all her years of bitterly acquired learning to the test. And as she best knew what she had bought and paid for it she felt she could not fail. She unfolded from a scrap of newspaper the envelope presented her by the lodger and carefully studied the address.
Cake could both read and write, having acquired these arts from a waiter at Maverick's, who also helped her steal the broken meats with which she secured her artistic education. And, watching the steady disappearance of the food, this waiter marvelled that she got no fatter as she grew upward, hovering about in hope of becoming her lover if she ever did. But even if that miracle had ever been accomplished the helpful waiter would still have waited. Cake's conception of a real lady was Queen Katherine; Cleopatra her dream of a dangerous, fascinating one. And what chance in the world for either with a waiter?
Cake read the name and address upon the envelope freely as the hopeful bread-caster had taught her: Arthur Payson Noyes, National Theatre. With the simplicity and dispatch that characterized her, she went to that place. To the man reposing somnolently in the broken old chair beside the door she said she had a letter for Mr. Noyes. The doorkeeper saw it was a large, swanking envelope with very polite writing. He straightened up in the chair long enough to pass her in, and then slumped down again.
Cake found herself in a queer, barnlike place, half room and half hallway, feebly illumined by a single electric bulb suspended above the door. Very composedly she looked about her. If Mr. Arthur Noyes lived in this place, he was one of her own kind and there was no need for any palpitation on her part. Anyway, she was looking solely for her chance to become famous, and she brought to this second stage of her search the same indifference to externals, the same calm, unfaltering courage as she had to the first."Now, then," said a voice briskly. "Say what you want. We have not advertised for any extra people. At least--not this year."
A short, stout man emerged from the shadows. He was very blond, with his hair cut snapper, and his pale eyes popped perpetual astonishment. She returned his look steadily and well. She knew she was born to be famous, and fame has a certain beauty of dignity utterly lacking in mere success.
"I am not an extra person," she replied. "I have come to see Mr. Noyes," and she displayed once more the large square envelope, her legacy from the lodger, the knife with which she proposed to shuck from its rough shell that oyster, the world.The man looked even more astonished, if the thing could have been accomplished, and regarded her keenly--stared. "Come this way," he said.
Cake followed him along a narrow passage that turned off to the right, down five steps, across a narrow entry, up three more steps--although it seems quite silly, she never in her life forgot the odd number of those worn steps--and halted before a closed door. On this the fat man knocked once and opened immediately without waiting."Someone I think you'll see," he said, standing between Cake and the interior. There came to her a murmur over his chunky shoulder.
"She has a letter from----" The fat man dropped his voice and mumbled. "Positive," he said, aloud, after a pause broken only by the vague murmur within the room. "I'd know his fist anywhere. Yes." Then he pushed the door open wide, stood aside, and looked at Cake. "Walk in," he said.She did so. Beautifully. Poems have been written about her walk. Two kinds.
The room she entered was square, with concrete floor and rough walls. But Cake did not notice the room for three reasons: The rug on the floor, four pictures on the walls, and the man who looked at her as she entered.
They gazed at each other, Cake and this man, with sudden, intense concentration. He was a genius in his line, she as surely one in hers. And, instinctively, to that strange, bright flame each rendered instant homage. What he saw he described long afterward when a million voices were vociferously raised in a million different descriptions. What she saw she likened in her mind to a dark sheath from which a sword flashed gloriously. That sword was his soul.
"He says your name is Plain Cake--is that true?" He referred to the lodger's letter held open in his hand, and by that she knew he was Arthur Noyes. And great. That last she had not needed any telling.
Perhaps you have been so fortunate as to see her. If so you know that to step forward is her only preparation. She was poised, she was gone. Then suddenly she heard the lodger's voice crying:"Stop--my God, stop! How do you get that way? Don't you know there's a limit to human endurance, alley-cat?"
She broke off, staring confusedly into space just the height of his debauched old figure crouching on the dry-goods box. Then with swift realization of her surroundings, her vision cleared. It was the fat man in the checked suit she saw leaning helplessly against the closed door. His jaw sagged, his eyes were frightfully popped, his face wore the same strained, queer look she had come to see so often on the lodger's, and he made weak little flapping gestures with his hands.
Cake looked then at Arthur Noyes. His face was white as the letter in his hand, his dark eyes were dilated with a look of dreadful suffering, the numb, unconscious reaction of one who has received a mortal blow."Come here, Crum," he cried as if there was no one else in the room. And Crum fairly tottered forward. "What do you make of this?" asked Noyes, while Cake stood and listened. "I--I--" stammered Crum exhaustedly. "My God," he groaned, "it's too much for me. And training!"
"Oh, trained," Cake heard Noyes say. "Such training as only he could give. Years of it, that's plain. And then to send her to me. A Shakespearean actress for me! To insult me like that--"
"It's too much for me, Boss," said Crum again. "Still--Oh--oh, my!" His back was turned, but Cake saw his whole body shake.
"Meier?" Crum became immediately composed, and Cake saw that he was tremendously surprised. "You don't mean that you're going to--After this? Why, she's in the know. Look at her. It's perfect!"And they both turned and looked at Cake standing unconscious and serene on the other side of the room. You who have seen her know just how perfect the pose was.
"It is perfect," Noyes said. "I'd be a pretty poor sport if I did not acknowledge that." Then his voice dropped and Cake only caught snatches here and there. "... such genius ... once in a century ... get even with him in a way he least expects ... wipe off the slate entirely ... no comeback to my play ... let him see that for himself. Call Meier." Then he turned to Cake."Sit down, please," he said courteously. "I have sent for a man who may give you an engagement."
She returned his gaze so quietly that he was puzzled. About her was neither nervous anticipation nor flighty vivacity. The actions of her audience of two left her in-curious and calm. You see, she was used to the lodger. Also she had worked to be famous so long that all the flowery borders of self were worn down to the keen edge of doing. Of Plain Cake she thought not at all. But then, she never had. Only of the light at the end of the passage that now loomed so bright to her watching eyes.It seemed only a minute before Noyes spoke again: "This is Mr. Meier." He regarded her shrewdly all the time. Cake bowed to Mr. Meier, a fat, gaudy gentleman with thick, hairy hands. And Mr. Meier looked at Noyes and shook his head. She realized they had already been talking together. "Never before," Mr. Meier said. "If you will repeat the potion scene," Arthur Noyes suggested. "This time, I trust, you will not be interrupted," he added politely.
And Cake stepped once more into that rich orgy of emotion. This time, though dimly aware of noise and a confusion of shouting, she carried the scene through to the end. "Romeo, I come! This do I drink to thee." She lay for a moment where she had fallen close to the heavenly colours of the rug.
"Goo-hood Gaw-hud!" gasped Mr. Meier, and Cake sat up. She saw he was rather collapsed upon a chair near which he had been standing up when she began. His fat face was purple, and tears stood in his eyes. But Arthur Noyes had not changed. White, with that look of mortal hurt, he still stood straight and slim against the table."You cannot offer her less than two hundred a week to begin," he said with the same air of being alone with Mr. Meier. "No, oh, no, no, no, no!" sighed Mr. Meier, wiping his eyes.
He rose and bowed to Cake with the queerest respect, still wiping his eyes with the back of his thick, hairy hands. It was a striking commentary upon her years of training that both of these men, successful from long and hard experience, paid her the compliment of thinking her an old hand at the game.
"Mine is the Imperial Theatre, Miss," said Meier. "You should be there to-night by seven o'clock. It ain't necessary we should rehearse. No, oh, no, no, no, no! And now, perhaps"
-he looked her up and down, oddly--"perhaps I can take you to your--hotel?"
Then she went to the stage entrance of the Imperial Theatre, presented the card Mr. Meier had given her, and entered. Once inside she was taken to a dressing room by a fat, comfortable, middle-aged woman who seemed to be waiting for her. After a very short and, to Cake, tranquil period, Mr. Meier bustled in."Of course, Miss, you know this is a Revue," he explained, rubbing his hands with a deference that Cake shed utterly, because she did not know it was there.
She nodded, accepting his statement. "We make 'em laugh here," said Mr. Meier. Again Cake nodded; she knew exactly as much about the show as she did before. "You close the second act; it's the best place for you. Leafy, here, will help you dress."
Cake sat still while Leafy dressed her, very hushed and still. The light blazed so near after all these hard, lean years of pursuit, years in which the little affairs of life, like the business of growing from a child to a woman, had simply passed her by. Of that Urge to be famous she was even more burningly aware; herself she did not know at all.
Mr. Meier came and took her by the hand. His fat face was pale and sweating, he seemed almost awestruck by Cake's calm. He drew her out of the dressing room and through a crowd of people, men and women with painted faces, some beautifully, some extravagantly and strangely dressed. They all stared. One woman shook her head. A man said: "Search me! I never saw her before."
Then Mr. Meier thrust her out in the face of a bright light. "Begin," he said hoarsely. "Walk over there and begin."
Quietly Cake obeyed. She had walked right into the bright light that had drawn her so hard and so long. Of course it was time for her to begin. And with this bright light in her face, which soon became to her the candle in that dark room left so far behind, she fared away to the magic land of beautiful make-believe.
And only when Juliet, that precocious child, sank down poisoned did she become aware of the uproar about her. The shouts of the lodger, "Stop--my God, stop! How do you get that way?" augmented a million times. It was this she heard.
Slowly Cake lifted herself on her hands, dazedly she peered through the heart of the great light that had caused her such suffering and that she had followed faithfully so bitterly long. On the other side she saw faces, rows and rows of them mounting up to the very roof. Faces laughing; faces convulsed, streaming with tears; faces with eyes fixed and wearing that same queer, strained look she had noticed before; hundreds of faces topping each other in semicircular rows, all different but all alike in that they were all laughing.She rose to her knees and rested there on all fours--staring.
Laughter! A great clapping of hands rolled about her like thunder, dying down and rising again to even greater volume. Cries of "Go on," assailed her ears, mingled with, "Stop, stop! I can't bear it!"
The curtain fell before her, blotting out the vision of those faces, making the uproar slightly dimmer. Mr. Meier advanced and lifted her to her feet. He moved weakly, exhausted with mirth."Even Noyes," he gasped. "He--he can't help it. Oh, my goo-hood Gaw-hud!" Cake looked away from him to the men and women that thronged about her. The same faces that had turned to her such a short while ago; but now, how different! "Oh, don't criticise," one woman cried. "Hand it to her! She can't be beat. She's the one that comes once in a century to show the rest of us what really can be done." "Meier," shouted a man. "Meier--she'll have to go back, Meier; she's stopped the show." Quiet and very still, Cake drew away. It seemed to her only a moment later that Leafy touched her arm. "Mr. Meier has taken a suite for you here in this hotel," she said. "Can't you eat a little,
Eat? She had never had enough to eat in her life. Her life? She had spent her life securing food for the lodger that he might teach her to be famous. Leafy lifted the spoon of hot soup to her lips and immediately she drank--she who had never had enough to eat in her life. Morsel by morsel from the bountifully filled table the kindly dresser fed her. Obediently she ate, and the hot, rich food stimulated her to swifter, more agonizing thought.
Then, for the first time, she saw Arthur Noyes standing with his back against a closed door. She read pity in his eyes, comprehension, great wonder, and what she did not know then was the love that came to a rare perfection between them and has never faded--and has no place in this story."Will you tell me," he said, "what your name is, where your home is, and who are those that love you there?" Then he broke off and shrank a little against the door. "Oh, don't," he protested.
Yet she had only looked at him and smiled. But it came to her keenly in her new awareness that his questions covered the whole of a woman's life: Her name, her home, and the ones that loved her there. While she--she had no name, she did not even know the lodger's name. She looked down with strange astonishment at her grown-up figure, her woman's hands. She saw herself a ragged, gaunt, bushy-headed child moving on a tight rope above a dark abyss, intent only upon a luminous globe floating just out of reach ahead of her, that she stretched out for eagerly with both her hands. Suddenly the lovely bubble burst and the child was a woman, falling and falling among rows of convulsed, shining white faces to the sound of gargantuan laughter."You tell me," Arthur Noyes pleaded gently.
And she did so very simply and beautifully. She did know Shakespeare; it was the only English that she had ever been taught. So Noyes heard how she became an instrument in the hands of the man who hated him mortally, and owed her debut and her terrible awakening to what he considered the only sporting answer to that insult. While he listened he pondered, awestruck, upon the fact that out of all this muck and blackness, the degradation of hate by the lodger, the refinement of hate by himself, had flowered that rarest of all human creatures--one that could make the whole world laugh."He always hated me," he said. "I told him he had traded his genius for drink, and he never forgave me. Where is he now?" "Now?" Cake looked up at him in startled wonder. It came over her suddenly that he counted upon the lodger's being in the Imperial Theatre that night.
"Now?" she repeated. "Why, he is dead." It took Noyes a minute to recover. "What will you do?" he asked her. "Will you go on from this start, continue this--this sort of success?" He felt it the basest cruelty, in the face of her story, to say it was the only kind she was ever destined to make. He waited for her answer, wondering, and a little awestruck. It seemed to him they had come to the supreme test of her genius.
And she looked up at him with such sadness and such mirth--such tragic, humorous appreciation of the darkness in which she had been born, the toilsome way she had travelled to the Great Light and what it actually revealed when she arrived.
"I will go on from this success," she said. Involuntarily she raised her hand to her breast. "I must, since it is the only way for me. You see," with a humour far more touching than the saddest tears, "I must be famous."And she smiled that smile that hurt him, the smile the world loves and will give anything to see. The most famous funmaker of her time looked away from the bright river fleeting beyond the trees to her giggling, half-terrified visitors. "Fame," she said, "is a secret that cannot be told. It must be discovered by the seeker. Let me offer you tea as a substitute."