NIGHT brought one of these men to each of our cabins, and put a party of them drinking in the saloon. After my habit of thinking of people in crowds, as an Anglican Church, or an ethical society, a labour movement, a federation of proprietors, or suffragists, or Jews, or stockbrokers' clerks, crowds moving with massed exactitude by the thousand at least, when prompted, this man O'Brien standing on his two legs by himself, old man Jim, and the rest, each of them defending and running his own particular kingdom, and governing that, ill or well--for I saw them fairly drunk now and then--and never waiting for a word from any master or delegate, made me wonder whether till then I had met a living man, or had heard merely of a population of bundles of newspapers. These men had no leaders. They attended to all that. Each had to find his own way. They were unrelated to anything I knew, and beyond the help of even a candidate for Parliament. I suppose they had never heard of a Defence League. They could have found no use for it, because a challenge to defend themselves would never catch them unwilling or unable. Each man soldiered himself, and perhaps was rather too ready to deal with a show of insolence, or an assumption of power in another. Yet they were not the violent and headstrong fellows of romantic tales. They were simple and kind, submitting with a sick smile to the prickly ridicule of their fellows round the board. They regarded meat, drink, and tobacco as common; they were ready to leap into the dark for a friend.
There was one young bearded Englishman among them who was more than a friendly figure to me. All were friendly; but the Americans bore themselves with the easy assurance of the favoured heirs of Adam; though their successful work in that tropical swamp perhaps justified them. The Englishman had less of that assurance of a unique favour which was so completely bestowed that irresolution never shook the aplomb of its lucky inheritors. He came into my cabin one night, hoping he was not disturbing me, and bringing as a present a sheaf of native arrows tipped with red and blue macaw feathers, as he had promised.
"They come from Bolivia--forest Indians--three hundred miles from here." He explained he had reached our point in the Brazilian forest from the Pacific side. He had crossed the mountains, descended to the level jungle at the base of the Andean wall, and followed the rivers eastward, alone in a canoe till he chanced upon our steamer unloading Welsh fuel into a forest clearing. To a new-comer in a mysterious land, this was a clear invitation to listen, and I looked at the man expectantly. He was lighting his pipe. The country through which he must have passed was unknown, as our maps showed. But he simply indicated that manner of his advent, as though it were the same as any other, and sat looking through the door of my cabin, smoking, absently gazing at the night scene on the after-deck.
The hombres were working at the hold immediately below us, their labours made obscurely bright by a roaring flame of volatalised oil. The light pulsed on the face of the Englishman, and chequered my cabin in black and luminous gold. Of all the region of forest about us nothing showed but a cloud of leaves, which leaned towards us out of the night, supported on two pale, tremulous columns. The hold of the ship was a black rectangle, and the almost naked negroes and brown men moving about it, or peering into the chasm, were like sinister figures on an inscrutable business about the verge of the pit. They were not men, but the debris of men, moving with awful volition, merely a bright cadaverous mask hovering in a void, or two arms upheld, or a black headless trunk. For the roaring illuminant on deck dismembered the ship and its occupants, bursting into the weight of surrounding night as a fixed explosion, beams rigid and glowing, and shadows in long solid bars radiating from its incandescent heart.
"I'm glad you're here," said my companion. He never gave me his name, and I do not know it now. "I hav'n't heard home talk for a year. Hav'n't heard much of anything. A little Spanish coming along; and here some American."
We continued looking at the puzzling, disrupted scene outside for some time without speaking, secure in a chance and lucky sympathy. Then a basket of coal tipped against a hatch coaming and whirled away, scattering the men. We rose to see if any were hurt.
"Curious, this desperate haste, isn't it?" said the Englishman. "At every point of the compass from here there's at least a thousand miles of wilderness. Excepting at this place it wouldn't matter to anybody whether a thing were done to-night, or next week, or not at all. But look at those fellows--you'd think this was a London wharf, and a tide had to be caught. Here they are on piece-work and overtime, where there's nothing but trees, alligators, tigers, and savages. An unknown Somebody in Wall Street or Park Lane has an idea, and this is what it does. The potent impulse! It moves men who don't know the language of New York and London down to this desolation. It begins to ferment the place. The fructifying thought! Have you seen the graveyard here? We've got a fine cemetery, and it grows well. Still, this railway will get done. Yes, people who don't know what it's for, they'll make a little of it, and die, and more who don't know what it's for, and won't use it when it's made, they'll finish it. This line will get its freights of precious rubber moving down to replenish the motor tyres of civilisation, and the chap who had the bright idea, but never saw this place, and couldn't live here a week, or shovel dirt, or lay a track, and wouldn't know raw rubber if he saw it, he'll score again. Progress, progress! The wilderness blossoms as the rose. It's wonderful, isn't it?"
I was just a little annoyed. After all, I was part of the job. I'd made my sacrifices, too. But I admitted what he said. Why not? It was something, that fancy, that every rattle of the winch outside, bringing up another load, moved abruptly under the impulse of another thought from London Town--six thousand miles away; two months' travel. Great London Town! It was true. If London shut off its good will that winch would stop, and the locomotives would come to a stand to rot under the trees, and the lianas would lock their wheels; and in a month the forest would have foundered the track under a green flood. Where the American accent was dominant, the jaguars would moan at night. That long wound in the forest would be annealed and invisible in a year. While it persisted, the idea could conquer and maintain.
"Yes, but it's all chance," said the Englishman.
"That uncertain and impersonal will controls us. Have you ever worked desperately, the fever in your bones, at a link in a job the rest of which was already abandoned, though you didn't know it? Yet perhaps even so there is something gained, the knowledge that all you do is fugitive, that there is nothing but an idea, which may be withdrawn without warning at any moment, under the most complicated and inspiring structure. Having that foreknowledge you can work with a light heart, secure against betrayal, ready with your own laugh when the mockery comes. A community finds it must have a bridge; Wall Street hears of it, and finances a contractor, who finds an architect to design it. An army builds it. And then this blessed old planet moves in its sleep, and the obstructing river flows another way. Well for us we can rarely see the beginning and the end of the work we are doing. Most of the men on this job have not been here three months. They come and shovel a little dirt, and die. Or they get frightened, and go. But that idea, that remains here, using up men and forests, using up all that comes within its invisible influence, drawing in material and pressing it into its unseen mould, so that out of the invisible sprouts a railway, projecting length by length, transmuted men and timber. A courtier once gave his cloak to Queen Elizabeth to save her feet; but what is that when these men give their bodies to make an easier road for the commerce of their fellows? They say every sleeper on a tropical line represents a man. The conquering human, who lives by dying! "The unseen idea remains--some stranger's idea--of gain; profit out of a necessity not his, filled by other men unknown to him. You can't escape it. First and last, it uses you. It uses you up. You may twist and double, but 'when me you fly, I am the wings,' as Emerson says. Once, once, I deliberately tried to escape from it, to get out of its range. I thought it was local, that idea, a mean and local urge. I believed I had escaped it too. I was young, though, then. But we all try when we're young. There is but one way of escape--you may use up others; but that isn't an easy way of escape, for some of us.
"No alternative but that, and a man cannot take it. There you are; use, or be used. Once I thought I had escaped. Once upon a time, every morning at eight o'clock, I went to an office in Leadenhall Street. Know that place? My first job. I was one in a crowd of fifty clerks. We sat on high stools, facing each other across double-desks. There were brass rails above each desk, where we rested ledgers and letter baskets. Each of us marked his stool somewhere with a personal symbol. My own, my sole point of vantage there, my support in life, that high stool; and I would have been prepared to maintain it upright--following our office code of honour, I as firm as may be upon it--even if, treacherously blabbing, I had had to deprive all my fellow-clerks of their supports in life. We were not a community, working out a common ideal. An idea used us. And that was a job I got as a favour, mark you. Some one had known my dead father.
"I knew the name of my boss, but that was all. I never spoke to him. I used to see him, a middle-aged man with sad eyes and a petulant mouth, clean shaved, and bald headed. He came in a carriage every morning, and went straight to a room kept from us by opaque glass. I used to wonder what he did in there. He rarely came into the office. When he did come into it, his was the only voice which ever spoke there above a whisper; a sharp, startling, and minatory voice. But we rarely saw him there. A bell would ring, a sinister summons on the ceiling over the desk of a principal clerk, and that chap would drop anything he was doing, anything, and go. I've seen my senior clerk, an elderly man in spectacles, jump as if he'd been struck when his bell whirred. It was such an awfully solemn place. Nobody ever thought of calling across that room, but would go round to another desk, and whisper. You felt you were part of a grave and secret plot, scribbling away to bring it to a completion, and that all your fellow-conspirators were possible traitors.
"But the plot was never complete. It went on and on, day after day, in an everlasting, suffocating sanctity, with the opaque shining glass front of the private room overlooking us, a luminous face entirely blank, though you knew the brain behind it saw everything, and was aware of all. It even knew old Beckwith, my senior, had got deeply into debt through his wife's doctor's bills, and had been fool enough to go to the moneylenders. His bell sprang a summons one morning; in Beckwith went; came out again, looking grey, poor old perisher, went straight to the hat rack, passed awkwardly through the swing doors, letting in a burst of traffic noise from the street, while we watched him furtively, and that was the last of Beckwith. I have heard our boss was a rigid moralist. He said a man who drank, gambled, or got into debt, not being able to control his own life, was no good for the business of another man. A system should have no bowels. Out the incompetent had to go. It was Spartan, but it paid twenty per cent., I've heard. Once we had a rebellious interruption of our sacred quiet, but only once. I never knew exactly why it was. We had a huge factory somewhere in the East End--Cubitt Town way--and one afternoon a woman came to the counter, and asked for the cashier. She was so obviously East End, in a shawl, that the counter clerk was shocked at the bare idea of it. She kept demanding the cashier. The clerk politely, but nervously, because of her rising, emotional voice, resisted her. She began to shout. We all stopped to see what would happen. Shouting there! She was still crying out--she wanted justice for a daughter whose body had got into a machine, I think--and the cashier was forced to appear. I was surprised that he was so quiet with her. She was weeping hysterically at our polished mahogany counter, with its immaculate blotters, and flat, crystal ink-pots, where there were men in silk hats, looking at the unusual scene sideways and smiling. She could not be pacified; and suddenly she picked up an ink-pot, and hurled it through that frozen glass face of the private room. A devastating crash. The shocking, raucous horror of blasphemy. The silence following was unendurable. We looked to the private door for outraged power to appear. Nothing happened. A policeman came and removed the woman, the cashier smiling indulgently at the officer, and shaking his head. The system, after a momentary halt, moved on again, broad, serene, and irresistible. "I never catch the smell of an open Bible now but it conjures a picture of that arid office, angular, polished, and hard, where the ledgers before the disciplined men exude a dusty, leathery smell. But there I stayed for years, smelling it, and making out bills of lading and invoices. It was my lot. There was a junior who assisted me, a chap with flat, shiny hair parted in the middle. He had a habit of whispering about girls, when he was not whispering about the music hall last night, or the football next Saturday. When the cashier, a young man, and a relative of the boss, came walking down the avenue of desks, his sharp eyes narrowed to slits, and his mouth a little open, it was funny to see my junior put on speed, and get an intent and earnest look in his face.
"When I was done for the day, I'd get my book out of my bag, and wonder, going home, whether I'd ever see those places I read about, Java, India, and the Congo, where you went about in a white helmet and a white uniform, and did things in a large, directive way, helping Indians and niggers to make something of their country. Not this niggling, selfish, pretty chandlery written large in stone, mahogany, and glass, disguised in magnitude and gravity. Cocoanut palms and forests with untold tales. But like the boys who found fun with the girls, with music halls and football, but were afraid of the sack. I did nothing. I was even afraid of the girls.
"One day as usual I went with some of the other fellows to lunch, at an A.B.C. shop. We always went there. The girls knew us and would smile at our jokes. Small coffee and a scone and butter. My life! I found a Telegraph some one had left on a chair, and I read it more because I didn't want to listen to that virulent abuse of our mean cashier-- he certainly was mean--than because I wanted to read. In it, by chance, I noticed an advertisement for a book-keeper who would go to the tropics. That I noted. Of course, I stood no chance. But I could try.
"That night at home I wrote an application. I wrote it, I think, a dozen times, till the letter was impeccable, a thing of beauty and precision. I felt this was a most momentous affair. Whether it was the excitement of doing something in the veritable direction of romance, or whether it was through reading 'Waterman's Wanderings' I don't know, but I remember a curious dream I had that night. I was alone in a forest which made me afraid and expectant. It was still and secretive. You know the empty stage in an unnatural, rosy light, with a glorified distance in which you expect a devil or a fairy queen to appear. There was a hammock hanging motionless from a branch. Something was in it, but I could not see what. That hammock was as still as the leaves hanging over it. Then the hammock shook, and a girl rose in it and smiled at me. She was tiny, but adult, and her eyes were shining in the dusk of her hair, which fell thickly over her little, coffee-coloured breasts.
"A telegram came for me, just as I was leaving for the office one morning. It required me to call on Mr. Utah R. Brewster at the Hotel Palace, that very day, but at a time when I should have been industriously at work for another. The question was, should I catch that morning 'bus I had never missed--or take all the possibilities beyond this door which promised to open on romance? I made up my mind, which went drunk with rebellion. I got into my seventh-day clothes. Utah R. Brewster and freedom! The Black-wall 'bus--do you remember those old hearses, with a straight companionladder to the upper deck where the outside passengers sat, knees up, back to back along the middle?-- well, it had to go by the office, and I was actually in doubt whether, aware of my unprecedented revolt, it would stop outside the familiar glum office and lawfully refuse to budge till I alighted. It went on, blundering past the place, all strangely unconscious of what it was doing, bearing me with my courage screwed down to bursting-point. The driver even said what a lovely May morning it was.
"The Hotel Palace! I had often seen that ornate building when Saturday afternoon release took me west. Red carpeting on the steps, a glimpse of ferns, women all as strange as exotics going in and out, and between me and it a chasm which cut clear to the very centre of the earth. I carried my attack beyond the portals. It was nothing, after all. A flunkey put me in a chair too full of cushions to be easy, and I watched men and women who, at that time of the day, when all the folk I knew were making desperate and cunning efforts to keep their places here safe--I watched those men and women behaving as though all eternity were theirs, and it was the angels' business to bear them up. It was as great a mystery to me whose every week-day morning was the inviolate possession of another, as Joshua's solar miracle. I was called, led along a silent corridor full of shut doors, and after a long walk found myself beyond all the noise of London, far in solitude with a man in a dressing-gown, who stood before a fire, working a cigar with strong, mobile lips. He put up a monocle, and looked at me shyly. Then began to walk up and down the hearth-rug, talking.
"'Well,' he said. 'All right. I guess you'll do. Say, you look pretty fit. You don't drink, eh? Don't get nervous when you see the dead, huh? All right.' He put his monocle back into his eye, and grinned at me. I told him, in a rush, how much I wanted to see the tropics. He said nothing. He got a large blue map, intricate with white lines, and told me of The Company. The Job.
"I did not fully comprehend it then. I don't now. He left out too much. There was no beginning and no ending. There was hardly a middle. He merely indicated unrelated points; but at any rate the points were so widely sundered and so different that the bare indication of them conveyed a sense of an enormous undertaking, difficult, important, and necessary. Work for an army. I should be but an insignificant sutler in that army. But at least I should be one in it, one of those putting this important affair through for future generations. The communal idea, this. The very size of it gave me a sense of security. It was too broad-based to collapse. Success was inherent in its impersonal nature. A state affair. Brewster briefly mentioned some showy names, names of great financiers. They were my generals, and I should never see them. But their reputations were partly in my keeping.
"Hallelujah! I had escaped. I never went back to the office. I never replied to its curt inquiry. In a week I sailed from Liverpool. Much I heard, on the mail boat, of The Company, this new enterprise which was going to make a tropical region one of the richest countries in the world; develop it, fling its riches to all. In four weeks more I arrived at a small tropical island, at which I had to wait for The Company's tug to take me to the mainland and my business.
"There was a club-house ashore, where I stayed for a few days. There I met some men who had been working for The Company, but for incomprehensible reasons were leaving this work to which I had come so eagerly; they were returning home. They were strangely pallid and limp as though the dark of some hot damp underground had turned their blood white. Their talk was drawled out, the weary utterance of the disillusioned who yet showed fate no resentment. They might have been the dead speaking, long untouched by any warm human vanity. I was really glad to get away from them. A tug conveyed me to the mouth of the river, up which I was to proceed to my station. I joined a shallow-draught river steamer.
"The river, that gateway to my dream come true, was a narrow place, a cleft in universal trees, every tree the same. Mangroves, I suppose. Soon the forest changed, often rising on each bank to meet overhead. Those were uncertain places of leaves and dead timber, and as quiet and still as churchyard yews at midnight. The thumps of our paddlewheels did not sound pleasant. Deeper and deeper we went, making turns so often that I wondered how we could ever be got out again. Sometimes in an open space we saw a flock of birds. I saw no other sign of life. There were no men. All my fellow-passengers--there were ten of us--were newcomers; some from the States, some from Germany, and a Frenchman. I was the only Englishman. Each of us knew what was expected of himself; none of us knew what that was which all would be doing. There were clerks with us, miners, civil engineers, timber men, and a metallurgist. We speculated much, were perhaps a trifle anxious, but reposed generally on the great idea.
"In two hundred miles we reached a clearing. 'Why it should have been at that particular place did not show. But there it was, the tangible link in an invisible, encompassing scheme. It was my place. I landed with my box. There was a white man on the river bank, sitting on a sea-chest, his head in his hands. He looked up. 'You the victim?' he said. 'Well, there you are'--sweeping a lazy arm round the small enclosed ground--'that's your job. There's your store. There's your house. That's where the niggers live.'
"'Pedro!' he called. A copper-coloured native, in shorts and a wide grass hat, loafed over to us. 'This is your servant,' he said. 'He's a bit mad, but he's not a fool. He's all right. Keep your eye on the niggers though. They are fools, and they're not mad. You'll find the inventory and the accounts in the desk in your hut. The quinine's there too. Take these keys. Oh, the mosquito curtain's got holes in it. See you mend it. I couldn't. Had the shakes too bad. Cheer up!'
"He went aboard. The steamer saluted me with its whistle, turned a corner, and the sound of its paddles diminished, died. I seemed to concentrate, as though I had never known myself till that instant when the sound of the steamer failed, when the last connection with busy outer life was gone. I could smell something like stephanotis. In that dead silence my hearing was so acute that I caught a faint rustling, which I thought might be the sound of things growing. I turned and went to my hut, sad Pedro following with my box. The cheap American clock in the hut made a terrific noise, filling the afternoon with its rapid and ridiculous beat, trying to recall to me that time still was moving quickly, when it was quite evident that time had now come for me to an absolute stand in a broad-glowing noon. I sat surveying things from a chair. Then leisurely took my envelope and read my instructions--how I was to receive and take charge of shovels, lanterns, machinery parts, railway metals, soap, cooking utensils, axes, pumps, and so on, which consignments I must divide and parcel according to directions to come, marking each consignment for its own destination. The names of a hundred destinations I should hear about in my future work were given. They were names meaning nothing to me. Then followed some brief rules for a novice in the governing of men. Through all the rules ran an incongruous note for such a place as that, a reminiscence of Leadenhall Street and its miserable whine. Yet it hardly disturbed me. I sat and thought over this expansion of my life. A melancholy bird called in two notes at intervals. The leaves which formed the thatch of my hut hung a long coarse black fringe at the door. My walls were of leaves, and the floor a raft of small logs, still with the bark on, just clear of the ground. The sunlight came through one dark wall, studding it with sparks. No. That dubious and familiar note in the instructions was nothing. I was clear beyond all that now--all those occasions for carking anxiety which deprave the worker, and make him hate the task to which whipping necessity drives him. The domineering manner of my instructions, the fretfulness of the old correspondence I found carelessly scattered about, addressed to my predecessor, was the illusion. The forest behind the hut, the black river, the quiet, the insects, the foreign smell, the puzzling men, my men to command, who kept passing without in the violent light, they were not from books any more, they made evidence direct to my own senses now. I was authority and providence, moulding and protecting as I thought right. This place should be kept reasonable, four square, my plot of earth to be clean and unashamed, frankly open to the eye of the sky. I would see what I could do; and I would start now. I laughed at authority--all I could see of it--reflected in a fragment of mirror kept to a door tree by nail heads; the funny hat and the shirt which did not matter, bad as it was, for I was authority there by every reason of that white shirt; and the beard which was coming. Latitude, my boy, latitude! I strolled out to survey my little world.
"Of the weeks that followed, nothing comes back so strongly as some quite irrelevant incidents. A tiger I saw one morning, swimming the river. Pedro, insensible for two days with fever; and death, which came to over-rule my viceroy authority. The first blow! There was a flock of parrots which visited us one day, and it surprised me that the men should regard them merely as food. But there was work to be done, and in a definite way; but why we did it--and I know we did it well--and how it joined up with the Job, I could not see. That was not my affair. There was the inventory to be checked, for one thing, and before I was through with it the work had fairly imprisoned me, and the new romantic circumstances became blurred and over written. That inventory was so extravagantly wrong that in a week I was going about heated and swearing at the least provocation. It was fraudulent. There was a sporadic disorder of goods irreconcilable with their neat records, though each record bore the signs and counter-signs of Heaven knows how many departments of the Company. All an inextricable welter of calm errors, neatly initialled by unknown fools.
"Every few days a steamer of the Company would call, loaded with more goods, or would come down river to me to take goods away. The confusion grew and interpenetrated, till I felt that nothing but dumping all that was there into the river, and beginning again with a virgin station, would ever clear the muddle. The place grew maddening through ridiculous blundering from outside. I had six men to attend to, all with temperatures and all useless. The arrears of accounts, my work on sweltering nights while the very niggers slept, the arrears grew. A steam-shovel came, without its shovel, and not all my written protests to headquarters could complete that irrational creature lying in sections rotting in sun and rain, minus the very reason for its existence, an impediment to us and an irritation. Constant urgent orders came to me from up country to ship there this abortion. I declined, in the name of sanity. There followed peremptory demands for a complete steam-shovel, violent with animosity for me, the unknown idiot who obstinately refused to let a steam-shovel go, just as though I was in love with the damned thing, and could not part with it. But I understood those letters. They were from chaps, irritated, like myself, by all this awful tomfoolery. And from headquarters came other letters, shot with a curt note of innocent insolence, asking whether I was asleep there, or dead, and adding, once, that if I could not keep up communications better I had better make way for one who could. There were plenty who could do it. Pleasant, wasn't it? They complained querulously of my accounts, almost insinuating that I debited more wages to the Company than I credited to the men. I had too many sick men, they said. Did I pamper them? And again, I had too many who died; I must take care; they did not want the local government to get alarmed.
"The time came when I got amusement out of those letters from headquarters; for their faults were so plain that I conceived the headquarters staff having much time to spend, and a sort of instruction at large to administer ginger to men, like myself, on the spot, on general principles, so to keep us not only alive, but brisk and anxious; and doing it with the inconsequential abandon of little children playing with sharp knives. I got comfort from that view; and when I looked round my placid domain where my men, with whom I was on good terms, laboured easily and rightly under the still woods, I told myself I was still fretting because the business was new, that things would come easier soon. But at night I felt I was anxious exactly because it was all so old and familiar to me.
"One day, having given a group of men at work in a distant corner of the clearing some advice, I noticed a little path enter the wood beside a big tree. I had never been into the forest. To tell the truth, I had had no time. The trees stood round us, keeping us from--what? I had always felt a little doubt of what was there and could not be seen. I turned inwards. I found myself at once in a cool gloom. I went on curiously, peering each side into those shadows, where nothing moved, and in an hour came to another clearing, smaller than my own, and with no river in view. By the sun, which now I saw again, this place was north of our station. The opening was being rapidly choked by a new growth. I was turning for home again, for the afternoon was late, when I saw a hammock slung between two saplings beside a dismantled hut. I could just see the hammock and hut through the scrub. I went over there, and was so carefully looking for snakes and beastly things in the bush that I had arrived before I knew it. The hut had been long abandoned. The hammock had something in it, and I was turning something in my mind as I went up to it. There were some ragged clothes in the bottom of it, partly covering bones, and among the rags was a globe of black hair.
"Next morning I woke late, feeling I had gone wrong. My hands were yellow and my finger nails blue, and I was shaking with cold. But the tootling of an up-coming steamer forced me to business. The steamer was towing six lighters, filled with labourers. They were Poles, I think. Afterwards, I learned, some hundreds of these men had been collected for us somewhere by a clever, business-like recruiting agent, who promised each poor wretch a profitable time in the Garden of Eden. My responsibility, thirty of them, was landed. They stood by the river, gaping about them, wondering, some alarmed, more of them angry, most clad in stuffy woollens, poor souls. Having the fever, I was not very interested. I told my negro foreman to find them shelter and to put them to work. We were making our clearing larger, and were building more store-houses.
"Something like the pale morning light which wakens you, weary from a fitful sleep, to the clear apprehension again of an urgent trouble which has filled the night with dreams, I came through each bout of fever to know there was really trouble outside with the new men. Daily I had to crawl about, shivering, my head dizzy with quinine, till the fever came near its height, when I got into my hammock, and would lie there, waiting, burning and dry, tremulous with an anxiety I could not shape. Sometimes then I saw my big negro foreman come to the door, look at me, as though wishing to say something, but leave, reluctantly, when I motioned him away.
"One morning I was better, but hardly able to walk, when shouts and a running fight, which I could see through the door, showed me the Poles had mutinied. There was a hustling gang of them outside my door, filling it with haggard, furious faces. I could not understand them, but one presently began to shout in French. They refused to work. The food was bad. They wanted meat. They wanted their contracts fulfilled. They wanted bread, clothes, money, passages out of the country. They had been fooled and swindled. They were dying. I argued plaintively with that man, but it made him shout and gesticulate. At that the voices of all rose in a passionate tumult, knives and axes flourishing in the sunlight. In a sudden cold ferocity, not knowing what I was doing, I picked up my empty gun--I had no ammunition--and moved down on them. They held for a moment, then broke ground, and walked away quickly, looking back with fear and malice. Next day they had gone. Yes, actually. The poor devils. They had gone, with the exception of a few with the fever. They had taken to that darkness around us, to find a way to the coast. Talk of the babes in the wood! The men had no food, no guide, and had they known the right direction they could not have followed it. If the Company did not take you out of that land, you stayed there; and if the Company did not feed you there, you died. No creature could leave that clearing, and survive, unless I willed it. The forest and the river kept my men together as effectively as though they were marooned without a boat on a deep-sea island. Those men were never heard of again. Nobody was to blame. Whom could you blame? The Company did not desire their death. Simply, not knowing what they were doing, those poor fellows walked into the invisibly moving machinery of the Job, not knowing it was there, and were mutilated.
"We had news of the same trouble with the Poles up river. Some of the mutineers tried to get to the sea on rafts. Such amazing courage was but desperation and a complete ignorance of the place they were in. One such raft did pass our place. Some of them were prone on it, others squatting; one man got on his feet as the raft swung by our clearing, and emptied his revolver into us. A few days later another raft floated by, close in, with six men lying upon it. They were headless. Somewhere, the savages had caught them asleep.
"No. I was not affected as much as you might think. I began to look upon it all with insensitive serenity. I was getting like the men I met on the islands, months before. I saw us all caught by something huge and hungry, a viewless, impartial appetite which swallowed us all without examination; which was slowly eating me. I began to feel I should never leave that place, and did not care. Why should others want to leave it, then? Often, through weakness, the trees around us seemed to me to sway, to be veiled in a thin mist. The heat did not weigh on my skin, but on my dry bones. I was parched body and mind, and when the men came with their grievances I felt I could shoot any of them, for very weariness, to escape argument. The insolence from headquarters I filed for reference no longer, but lit my pipe with it. But the correspondence ceased at length, and because now I was callous to it, I failed to notice it had stopped.
"Some vessels passed down river, coming suddenly to view, a rush of paddles, and were gone, tootling their whistles. The work went on, mechanically. The clearing grew. The sheds spread one by one. The inventory was kept, the accounts were dealt with. There came a time when I was forced to remember that the steamer had not called for ten days. We were running short of food. I had a number of sick, but no quinine. The men, those quick, faithful fellows with the dog-like, patient eyes, they looked to me, and I was going to fail them. I made pills of flour to look like quinine, for the fever patients, trying to cure them by faith. I wrote a report to headquarters, which I knew would get me my discharge; I was not polite. There was no meat. We tried dough fried in lard. When I think of the dumb patience of those black fellows in their endurance for an idea of which they knew nothing, I am amazed at the docility and kindness inherent in common men. They will give their lives for nothing, if you don't tell them to do it, but only let them trust you to take them to the sacrifice they know nothing about.
"That went on for a month. We were in rags. We were starved. We were scarecrows. No steamer had been by the place, from either direction, for a month. Then a vessel came. I did not know the chap in charge. He seemed surprised to see us there. He opened his eyes at our gaunt crew of survivors, shocked. Then he spoke.
"'Don't you know?' he asked.
"Even that ridiculous question had no effect on me. I merely eyed him. I was reduced to an impotent, dumb query. I suppose I was like Jack the foreman, a gaping, silent, pathetic interrogation. At last I spoke, and my voice sounded miles away. 'Well, what do you want here?'
"'I've come for that steam shovel. I've bought it.'
"The man was mad. My sick men wanted physic. We all wanted food. But this stranger had come to us just to take away our useless steam shovel. 'I thought you knew,' he said. 'The Company's bought out. Some syndicate's bought 'em out. A month ago. Thought the Company would be too successful. Spoil some other place. There's no Company now. They're selling off. What about that steam shovel?'"