The Box of Counters

THE BOX OF COUNTERS
By H. H. EWERS

Om dat de werelt is soe ongetru
Daer om gha ie in den ru.
— Breughel the Elder.

I had been waiting a very long time that evening for Edgard Widerhold. I was lying in a long chair, while the boy behind me slowly pulled the punkah. The old fellow had Hindoo boys, who had followed him here a long time ago. And now their sons and grandsons served him, too. They are good servants, and know how to wait on us. “Go on, Dewla, tell your master I am waiting.”

“Atcha, Sahib.” Without a sound he glided away. I was lying on the terrace, and, like a vision, I saw the “Clear Stream” beneath. An hour ago the week-old clouds had dissolved; an hour ago the tepid rain had stopped falling, and the broad shafts of low light from the evening sun made bars across the violet mists of Tonkin.

Below the junks were riding at their moorings, and stirring from their sleep. The crews crawled out on deck; with round shovels, floor cloths, and tamarind-brooms they sluiced out the water and cleaned the sampans. But no one talked; they worked so quietly it was all but impossible to hear them; hardly a sound rose up to disturb the leaves and tendrils on the bank. A large junk sailed past, closely packed with légionnaires. I waved to the officers lying in the sampan; they returned my salute wistfully. I dare say they would have rather sat with me on the spacious verandah of Edgard Widerhold’s bungalow than have sailed up river for days and weeks through the hot rain, up to their miserable station. I counted — there were at least fifty légionnaires on the junk. A few were Irishmen and Spaniards; a few Flemings and Swiss, no doubt . . . and all the rest were Germans. Who may they be? No teetotalers, but boys after the heart of Tilly or of mad Duke Christian. There are sure to be some incendiaries amongst them, robbers and murderers — what better could be chosen for the purposes of war? They know their trade, you may believe me. There are others, too, from amongst the upper ten, those who disappear from society, to go under in the troubled waters of the Légion — clergymen and professors, members of the high nobility and officers. A bishop was killed in the storming of Ain-Souf; and how long ago is it that a German man-of-war came from Algiers for the corpse of another légionnaire and rendered to it all the honors due to a prince of the blood?

I lean over the balustrade: “Vive la Légion!” And they answer back, bawling loud from their raucous, drinkers’ throats, “Vive la Légion! Vive la Légion!” They have lost their country, their family, their home, their honor, and their money. They have got only one thing left, which has to do duty for it all, esprit de corps —— —— “Vive la Légion!”

I know them. Drinkers and gamblers, souteneurs, deserters from camps all over the world. Anarchists all of them — who do not know what anarchism is, who rebelled and fled from the oppression of some insupportable compulsion. Half criminals and half children, small brains and big hearts — real soldiers. Landsknechts with the right instinct, that sacking and violating women is a fine thing, their very own profession; for they have been hired for killing, and he who may do the greater thing should also be allowed to do the lesser one. They are adventurers who were born too late into this world of ours, who were not strong enough to hew out their own pathways. Each of them has been too weak for that, has collapsed in the undergrowth, and can move no further forward. A flickering will o’ the wisp has led him astray long ago from the beaten track, and he was not able to find a way of escape. Something went wrong, but he does not know where. Each of them has been stranded, a miserable and helpless wreckage. But they find each other, they close the ring, they build a new pride of their own: “Vive la Légion!” It is mother and home and honor and country to them, all in one. Listen to their shouts: “Vive, vive la Légion!”

The junk draws away into the evening, westward, where at the second turn the Red River rolls into the Clear Stream. There she disappears, steers deep into the mist, far into this country of violet poisons. But they do not fear anything, these fair, bearded men; not fever, not dysentery, and least of all the yellow rebels. Have they not got alcohol enough and opium and their trusted Lebel rifles? What more could they want? Forty of the fifty will have to die; but, never mind, whoever comes back signs on again, for the glory of the Légion, not for that of France.

Edgard Widerhold entered the verandah. “Have they passed?” he asked me.

“Who?”

“The légionnaires!” He went to the balustrade and looked down the river. “Thank goodness, they have gone. The devil take them; I cannot stand seeing them.”

“Is that so?” I said. Of course, like everybody else in the country, I knew the peculiar relations between the old fellow and the Légion, and I tried to fathom it. That’s why I feigned surprise. “Is that so? And still the whole Légion adores you. A captain of the second Légion told me of you at Porquerolles, years ago: if ever I came to the Clear Stream I was to be sure to visit Edgard Widerhold.”

“That must have been Karl Hauser, of Muhlhausen.” “No; it was Dufresnes.”

The old man sighed. “Dufresnes, the Auvergnat! It’s many a glass of Burgundy he drank here.”

“Like all the rest, no doubt!”

Eight years ago, the house, nicknamed “Le Bungalow de la Légion,” had closed its doors; and Mr. Edgard Widerhold, “le bon Papa de la Légion,” had instituted his depot of supplies in Edgardhafen. That was the small harbor of Widerhold’s farm, two hours down river. The old man had persisted in having even the postal designation, “Edgardhafen,” on the stamp, and not “Port d’Edgard.” For though his house had indeed been closed to the Légion since that time, neither his heart nor his hospitality had been lacking. Every passing junk of the Légion called at Edgardhafen, and the manager took a few cases of wine aboard for officers and men. With it went always the old man’s visiting card with the message: “Mr. Edgard Widerhold regrets greatly not being able to see the gentlemen this time. He begs of them to accept kindly the present gift, and is drinking the health of the Légion.” And every time the officer in command would express thanks for the kind present and the hope of being able to thank the giver in person on his return. But it never went any further; the doors of the spacious house near the Clear Stream remained closed to the Légion. Sometimes a few officers still paid a call, old friends, whose wine-gladdened voices had rung often enough through the rooms. The boys took them to the verandah and put the choicest wines in front of them; but the officers would never be able to see the old man. Consequently they stayed away; slowly the Légion got used to the new way. There were already many who had never seen him, who only knew that at Edgardhafen it was the thing to call, to take wine aboard, and to drink the health of a mad old German. Every one of them looked forward to this, the only break of the hopeless journey through the rain on the Clear Stream, and Edgard Widerhold was as much liked in the Légion as before.

When I came to him I was the first German he had talked to for years — of course he had seen many of them down the river. I am certain the old fellow hides behind a curtain and looks down whenever a junk of the Légion passes. But to me he talked again in German. I think that’s the reason why he keeps me here, always finding some new reason for postponing my departure.

The old fellow does not belong to the shouting kind. He abuses the German Empire like a pickpocket. He is very old, but must needs live ten times as many years to suffer all the penalties which his crimes of lèse majesté alone would cost him. He curses Bismarck, because he allowed the continuance of the Kingdom of Saxony and did not annex Bohemia, and he curses the third Emperor because he allowed himself to be cheated into swapping the East African Empire for Heligoland. And Holland! We must have Holland, if we mean to live on, Holland and her Sunda Islands. It’s got to be, it cannot be helped; we shall go to the devil if we do not get it. Then of course the Adriatic! Austria is a calculated piece of nonsense, an idiocy which is a blot on any self-respecting map. Ours are her German provinces, and, as we cannot allow them to shut the door in our face, we have to have the Slavonic districts which keep us from the Adriatic as well, Carniola and Istria. “The Devil take me!” he shouts; “I know we shall get lice in our furs with them! But rather a fur with lice than being frozen to death without a fur!” Already today he sees himself sailing under the black-white-and-red from a German Trieste to a German Batavia.

Then I ask him, “And what about our friends, the English?”

“The English!” he bawls: “they shut up if you hit them square on the jaw!”

He loves France, and is glad for her to have a spacious place in the sun; but he hates the English. Such is his way; if a German pours poisonous abuse over Emperor and Empire, he rejoices in it and laughs. And if a Frenchman jokes at our expense, he laughs, but is not slow in paying him back by recalling the latest idiocies of the Governor at Saigon. But if an Englishman dares so much as make the most innocent remark about the most idiotic of our consuls, he waxes furious. That was the reason that he had to leave India. I do not know what the English colonel said, but I know that Edgard

Widerhold lifted up his riding whip and knocked one of his eyes out. That is now as many as forty years ago, may be fifty or sixty. He had to flee, went to Tonkin, and was squatting on his farm long before the French came into the country. Then he hoisted the Tricolore on the Clear Stream, sad that it was not the black-white-and-red flag that waved to the breeze, but still glad that at least it was not the Union Jack.

Nobody knows how old he actually is. Whom the tropics do not devour in his younger years they dessicate. They make him weatherproof and hard, and give him a mail of yellow leather, which defies all corruption. Such an one was Edgard Widerhold. An octogenarian, perhaps a nonagenarian, he was six hours daily in the saddle. Long and narrow was his face, long and narrow his hands, every finger armed with big yellow nails, each longer than a match, hard as steel, sharp and curved like the claws of a wild animal.

I offered him my cigarettes. I had long ago given up smoking them, the sea air had spoiled them. But he loved them — they had been made in Germany.

“Won’t you tell me for once why you banished the Légion from your bungalow?”

The old fellow did not go away from the balustrade. “No!” he said. Then he clapped his hands. “Bana! Dewla! Wine, glasses!” The boys set the table; he sat down near me, and pushed the papers towards me. “There,” he went on, “have you read the Post? The Germans gained a splendid victory in the motor race at Dieppe. Benz and Mercédès or whatever make they are. Zeppelin has finished his airship — he promenades over Germany and Switzerland, wherever he wants. There, look at the last page — chess tournament at Ostend. Who has got the prize? A German! Really it would be a joy to read the papers if only they had not to chronicle the doings of the lot in Berlin. Look at their idiocies —— ——.”

But I interrupted him. I did not care to hear any more about the diplomatic stupidities of these gigantic asses. I drank to him “Good health! To-morrow I have got to go.” The old man pushed his glass away. “What — to-morrow?”

“Yes; Lieutenant Schlumberger will pass with part of the third battalion. He is going to take me along.”

He gave the table a blow with his fist. “That is a dirty trick!” —— “What?”

“That you want to go to-morrow, to the devil! A low down trick I call it.”

“Well, after all, I cannot stay here for ever!” I laughed. “It will be two months, next Tuesday ——”

“That’s just it! Now that I’ve got used to you. Had you ridden away after an hour, I should not have cared.”

But I would not give in. Good Lord, had he not had people staying with him often enough and seen them leave again, one after the other? Until some fresh ones arrived.

That made him start. In olden times, yes, indeed, in olden times he would not have lifted a finger to keep me. But now, who was there to see him now? Two people a year, and once every five years a German, ever since he could not bear any longer to see the légionnaires.

There I got him again. And I told him I would stay another week if he told me why ——

That, again, he called a low down trick — what, a German poet bartering his ware, like a tradesman?

I argued upon that. “Raw material,” I said. “Wool from the peasant. But we spin the threads and weave colored rugs.” He liked that; he laughed. “For three weeks I shall sell the story!”

I have learned bargaining at Naples. Three weeks for a story — most expensive. And then, I told him, it meant buying a pig in a poke without knowing whether the stuff was any use at all. At the best I would get two hundred marks for the story, and I had been here already two months, and he wanted me to stay for another three weeks — and all the time I had not produced as much as a line. And, after all, there would have to be something for myself, and as it was I was always out of pocket, and, in short, he was ruining me.

But the old fellow looked after his own. “The twenty-seventh is my birthday,” he said. “I do not want to spend it by myself. Well, then, eighteen days — that’s the best I can do! I will not tell the story for less.”

“All right, then,” I sighed, “that is a bargain!”

The old fellow shook hands. “Bana,” he called, “Bana! Take away the wine. Bring shallow glasses and champagne.”

“Atcha, Sahib, atcha.”

“And you, Dewla, get Hong-Dok’s box and the counters.” The boy brought the box, and at a nod of his master’s put it in front of me, pressing a spring so that the lid moved back. It was a big box made of sandalwood, the delicate scent of which filled the air in a moment. The wood was closely inlaid with the tiniest leaves of mother o’ pearl and ivory, the sides were carved with elephants, crocodiles, and tigers set in scroll-work. But the lid showed a picture of the Crucifixion; it may have been copied from an old print. Only the Saviour was beardless, had a round, or rather full, face, which, however, betrayed an expression of the most terrible suffering. There was no wound in the side of the body, neither was there a proper cross; this Christ seemed to have been nailed to a flat board. The tablet at His head did not show the letters I. N. R. I., but others, viz., K. V. K. S. II. C. L. E.

This presentment of the Crucified God had an uncanny realism; I could not help being reminded of Mathias Grunewald’s painting, although they had nothing at all in common. The innermost conception was radically different; this artist did not seem to have derived his powers of attaining the extreme limit of realism in portraying the terrible from an immense pity or from a capability of understanding, but rather from a passionate hatred, a voluptuous submersion in the torments of the sufferer. The work had been executed with an immense amount of pains; it was the masterpiece of a great artist.

The old fellow saw my enthusiasm. “You have it,” he said quietly.

I grasped the box with both hands. “Do you want to make a present of it to me?”

He laughed. “Present — no! But I have sold you my story, and the box you hold — is my story.”

I was burrowing amongst the counters — round, triangular, and rectangular pieces of mother o’ pearl of a deep metallic iridescence. Each single one showed on both sides a little picture, the contours cut out, the details finely chased.

“Will you give me the key to it?” I asked.

“You are playing with the key there! If you put the counters in order nicely, as they follow each other, you may read my story as in a book. But now close down the lid and listen.

Fill up, Dewla!”

The boy filled the glasses, and we drank. Then he charged the short pipe of his master, handed it to him, and put a light to it.

The old fellow inhaled the acrid smoke and blew it out sharply. Then he leant back and motioned to the boy to start the punkah.

“You see,” he began, “it is quite correct what Captain Dufresnes or whoever else it was told you. This house well deserved being called the bungalow of the Légion. Up here the officers sat and drank — and the privates down below in the garden; often enough I invited the latter also to come up on the verandah. You know, the French do not have those ridiculous notions of class difference as we have them; off duty the ranker is as good as his general. Most of all this holds good in the colonies, and particularly in the Légion, where many an officer is a peasant, and many a ranker a gentleman. I used to go down and drink with the men in the garden, and whoever I liked I asked to come upstairs. Believe me, I met in those days many a curious beggar, many a hard-boiled sinner, and many a babe longing for his mother’s apron strings. That was my great museum, the Légion, my great big book, which told me new fairy tales and adventures over and over again.

“For the boys used to tell me things; they liked to get me by myself and to open their hearts to me. You see, it is quite true, the légionnaires loved me, not only because of the wine and the few days’ rest which they got here. You know the kind of people they are, and that each considers his rightful property whatever he claps his eyes on; that it is not safe for either officer or ranker to leave the smallest thing lying about, for it would disappear in the twinkling of an eye. Well, then, in over twenty years it happened only once that a légionnaire stole something from me, and his comrades would have killed him had I not interceded myself on his behalf. You do not believe that? Neither should I if somebody else told me, and still it is literally true. The boys loved me because they were well aware that I loved them. How did it all come about? Good Lord, as the time went on. No wife, no child, and quite by myself out here through all the years. The Légion — well, it was the only thing, that gave me back Germany, that made the Clear Stream German for me, in spite of the Tricolore. I know, the law-abiding citizens at home call the Légion the foulest dregs and scum of the nation. Gaol fodder, worth nothing better than to perish. But these dregs, which Germany spat out contemptuously on to these latitudes, these outcasts, of no use any longer in the beautifully regulated home land, contained dross of such rare color that my heart laughed with joy. Dross indeed! Not worth a farthing for the jeweler, who sells big diamonds set in heavy rings to prosperous butchers. But a child would pick it up on the sands. A child and old fools like myself, and mad poets like yourself, who are both — children and fools! For us this dross is valuable, and we do not want at all that it should perish. But it perishes. Without help, one piece after another — and their manner of perishing, pitifully, miserably, through long tortures, that’s what I cannot bear. A mother may see her children dying, two or three. She is sitting there, her hands in her lap, and cannot help them; she cannot. But all that passes, and the day will come when she will get the better of her pain. But I — the father of the Légion — have seen a thousand children die, each month, nearly every week they died away. And I had no power to help them, none at all. You see now why it is I do not collect dross any longer; I cannot go on seeing my children die.

“And how they died! In those days the French had not penetrated the country as far as to-day. The furthest outpost was only a three days’ sail up the Red River, and there were exposed posts in and around Edgardhafen. Dysentery and typhoid were the usual and expected thing in those damp camps, and side by side with both tropical anæmia cropped up here and there. You know this particular illness; you know also how quickly it kills. Quite a light, weak attack of fever, that scarcely makes the pulse go quicker, day and night. The patient does not want to eat any longer; he gets capricious, like a fine lady. But he wants to sleep, sleep all the time — until at last the end comes slowly, the end that he welcomes because at last he will get his fill of sleep. Those who died of anæmia were the lucky ones, they and the others who fell fighting. God knows, it is no fun to die of a poisoned arrow, but, after all, it is a quick job, over in a few hours. But how few were there who died like that — scarcely one amongst a thousand. And for their luck the others had to pay heavily enough, those who happened to fall alive into the hands of those yellow devils. There was Karl Mattis, who had deserted from the Deutz-Cuirassiers, corporal in the first company, a broth of a boy, who would not be deterred by the maddest danger. When the Gambetta station was attacked by a force a thousand times superior in numbers, he undertook with two others to slip through and to take the news to Edgardhafen. During the night they were attacked, one of them was killed, Mattis was shot in the knee. He sent on his comrade and covered his flight for two hours against the Black-flags. At last they caught him, tied his hands and legs together, and tied him to a tree trunk, over there on the shallow banks of the stream. For three days he was lying there, until the crocodiles devoured him, slowly, bit by bit, and still they had more pity than their two-legged fellow countrymen. Half a year later they captured Hendrik Oldenkott, of Maastricht, a seven-foot giant, whose incredible strength had been his ruin; in a state of heavy intoxication he had killed his own brother with his bare fist. The Légion saved him from the gaol, but not from the judges he found over here. Down there in the garden we found him, still alive. They had cut his belly open, filled the abdominal cavity with rats, and neatly sewed it up again. Lieutenant Heudelimont and two privates had their eyes picked out with red hot needles; they were found in the woods half dead of starvation. They hacked off Sergeant Jakob Bieberich’s feet and made him play Mazeppa on a dead crocodile. Near Edgarhafen we fished him out of the river; for three cruel weeks he lived on in the hospital before he died.

“Is the list long enough for you? I can go on, string name on name. One does not cry out here any longer — but had I shed a few tears for each of them they would fill up a barrel, bigger than any in my cellar. And the story contained in this box of counters is only the last little drop which made the full barrel run over.”

The old fellow pulled the box towards himself and opened it. With his long nails he searched among the counters, picked out one, and passed it to me. “There, look you; this is the hero of the story.”

The round mother o’ pearl counter showed the picture of a légionnaire in his uniform. The full face of the soldier showed a striking likeness to the image of Christ on the lid; the reverse showed the same inscription as over the head of the crucified figure: K. V. K. S. II. C. L. E. I read: K. von K., soldier, second class, Légion Etrangère.

“That’s correct!” said the old fellow. “That’s he: Karl von K ——” He interrupted himself. “No, never mind about the name. If you want, you could find it easily enough in an old Navy List. He was a naval cadet before he came over here. He had to leave the service and the fatherland at the same time; I believe it was that foolish paragraph 218 of our previous criminal code which brought about his prosecution. There is no paragraph in that code too idiotic to win recruits for the Légion.

“Dear me, he was a joy to look at, the naval cadet! They all called him that, comrades and officers alike. A desperate fellow, who knew that he had gambled away the chances of his life, and now got his sport by playing the Limit all the time. In Algiers he had defended a camp by himself; when every officer and non-com. had fallen he assumed the command of ten légionnaires and a few dozen goumiers, and stuck to the hole, until relief came up a few weeks after. That was when he got promoted for the first time; three times he was promoted, and as many times reduced to the ranks again. That’s their way in the Légion — sergeant to-day and private again to-morrow. As long as they are out in the open it’s all right; but this unbounded liberty cannot stand the atmosphere of the towns; they get into some nasty trouble in a moment. It was also the naval cadet who in the Red Sea jumped after General Barry when he slipped on the gangway and fell into the water. Amid the cheers of the men he fished him out, regardless of the giant sharks.

“His faults? He drank heavily — like every légionnaire. And, like all of them, he was for ever after the women, and at times he forgot to ask nicely for permission first. And then — well, he treated the natives a good deal more en canaille than was absolutely necessary. But otherwise a magnificent fellow, for whom no apple was hanging too high. He was clever; in a few months he spoke the gibberish of the yellow scoundrels better than I had learned to in all the years I have been living here in my bungalow. His comrades thought I was making a fool of myself over him. Well, well, it was not quite as bad as that; but I was very fond of him, and he, too, stood closer to me than the rest. A whole year he was in Edgardhafen: and he drank a mighty gap into my cellar. He did not say, “No, thanks!” when he had only got to the fourth glass, as you do! Go on, drink! Bana, fill up!

“Then he went to Fort Valmy, which was the furthermost station in those days. Four days you have to sail up river in a junk, crawling through the never-ending bends of the Red River. But it is much nearer as the crow flies; on my waler mare I can ride up there in eighteen hours. In those days he came here only very seldom; but, nevertheless, I saw him sometimes when I used to ride there to pay a visit to another friend of mine.

“That was Hong-Dok, the maker of this box.

“You smile? Hong-Dok — a friend of mine? That’s what he was, all the same. Believe me, there are people out here quite your equals — few, very few, I must own. But he was one of them, Hong-Dok. And perhaps he was more than my equal. Fort Valmy — we shall ride out there one of these days; the Marines are quartered there now — no légionnaires any longer. It is an ancient, incredibly dirty town; the small French fortress rises above it on a hill near the river. Narrow, muddy streets, poor miserable houses. But that is only the town of to-day. In olden times, many centuries ago, it must have been a big, beautiful city, until the Black-flags came from the north, those cursed Black-flags, who give us so much trouble still. The heaps of débris around the town are six times as large as the town itself; whoever wants to build there can get the material cheap enough. But right amongst these miserable ruins there stood a big old building — you might have called it a palace — close to the river: Hong-Dok’s house. It had been there from time immemorial, and the Black-flags had spared it out of some kind of religious fear.

“In that house used to live the rulers of this country, Hong-Dok’s ancestors. He had a hundred generations of ancestors, and still another hundred, and yet a third hundred — more than all European dynasties put together — but he knew them all. Knew their names, knew what they had done. Princes they had been and emperors, but Hong-Dok was a wood carver, as his father had been, and his grandfather and great-grandfather. Because the Black-flags had spared the house, it is true, but nothing further, and the rulers were reduced to beggarly poverty like the least of their subjects. Thus the old stone house fell to pieces amongst the red blooms of the hibiscus bushes. Until a new glamor lit it up when the French arrived. For Hong-Dok’s father had not forgotten the history of his country, as had done all those who ought to have been his subjects. And when the Europeans took possession of this country he was the first to give them greeting on the Red River. He rendered invaluable services to the French, and in recognition he was given land and cattle and a small stipend, and was made a kind of civil prefect of the town. That was the last little piece of good fortune that the ancient family experienced. To-day the house lies in ruins, like the surroundings. The légionnaires smashed it; they did not leave one stone upon another; they avenged on it the murder of the naval cadet, because the murderer had escaped them.

“Hong-Dok, my great friend, was the murderer. Here’s his portrait.”

The old man handed me another counter. It showed on one side in Roman letters Hong-Dok’s name; on the other the picture of a native of the noble classes in native costume. But its execution was careless and lacking in detail, not approaching the beautiful work of the other counters.

Edgard Widerhold read my thoughts. “You are right,” he said; “it’s no good, this counter, the only one amongst the lot. It is very curious, just as if Hong-Dok did not care to call even the least attention to his own person. But have a look at this little gem!”

With the claw of his forefinger he shot another counter in my direction. It showed the portrait of a young woman, who was beautiful even according to European notions; she was standing in front of a hibiscus bush, a little fan in her left hand. It was a masterpiece of unsurpassable perfection. The reverse showed again the name, Ot-Chen.

“This is the third figure in the tragedy of Fort Valmy,”

continued the old man. “Here you see a few minor actors and supers. He pushed a few dozen counters across the table; they showed on both sides big crocodiles in all sorts of positions; some of them swimming in the river, others sleeping on the bank, a few with jaws wide open, others again whipping their tails or raising themselves high up on their forelegs. A few were conventionalized; most of them, however, realistic; they all showed an extraordinary observation of the animal’s habits.

Another lot of counters slid across to me, impelled by the yellow claws of the old man. “The venue,” he said. One counter showed a big stone building, evidently the home of the artist; on others were representations of rooms and vignettes of a garden. The latter gave views of the Clear Stream and of the Red River — one of them as seen from Widerhold’s verandah. Every one of these wonderful counters called forth unbounded delight in me; I actually took sides with the artist and against the naval cadet. I stretched out my hand for more counters.

“No!” said the old man; “wait! You shall see it all in proper order, each in its turn. As I have told you, Hong-Dok was a friend of mine, as his father had been. Both of them had worked for me through all those years. I was practically their only customer. When they became rich they kept on cultivating their art — only they would not take money any longer. The father even went so far as to insist on returning to me the last farthing of the money which I had paid him one time and another, and I had to accept it, if I did not wish to offend him. Thus, indeed, the contents of all the cupboards which you are so fond of admiring did not cost me a farthing.

“Through me the naval cadet became acquainted with Hong-Dok; I took him there once myself. I know what you are going to say: the naval cadet was a petticoat-hunter, and Ot-Chen was a most desirable quarry. Is not that it? And I might have thought that Hong-Dok would not just sit there and look on? No, no; there was nothing I could foresee. You might, perhaps, have thought that; but not I, who knew Hong-Dok so well. When all had happened, and Hong-Dok told me the story, up here on the verandah — oh, in a far more quiet and collected way than I do at present — it appeared to me, nevertheless, so unlikely that I found it scarcely possible to believe him. Until, right in the middle of the river, a proof came swimming along, which admitted of no more doubt. I have often thought about the matter, and I think I know now some of the curious reasons which impelled Hong-Dok to his deed. A few, but who could read everything in a brain that carried the impress of a thousand generations and was saturated to the full with power, with art and with the all-penetrating wisdom of opium?

“No, no; there was nothing I could have foreseen. If anybody had asked me then, ‘What would Hong-Dok do, if the naval cadet seduced Ot-Chen or any other of his nine wives?’ I would have answered without fail, ‘He would not even look up from his work!’ Or even, if he is in a good temper, he will make a present of Ot-Chen to the naval cadet. Thus must have acted the Hong-Dok I used to know, thus and not otherwise. Ho-Nam, another one of his wives, he caught once with a Chinese interpreter; he thought it below his dignity to say as much as a single word to either of them. Another time it was Ot-Chen herself who deceived him. So you can see that there was not a particular preference just for this woman by which he was actuated. The almond eyes of one of my Indian boys who had ridden with me to Fort Valmy had fascinated little Ot-Chen, and even if the two were not able to say a word to each other, they soon were in sweet agreement. Hong-Dok caught them in his garden; but he never lifted a hand against his wife, neither would he allow me to punish the boy. All that touched him no more than if a dog barked at him in the street — he would scarcely turn his head. There doesn’t seem to me the most remote possibility that a man of Hong-Dok’s unshakable philosophic calm should have lost his head for a moment and have acted in a sudden ebullition of temper. And, quite apart from that, the severe investigations which we held after his flight amongst his wives and servants showed clearly that Hong-Dok had deliberated and carefully executed even the smallest detail of his deed. Thus it would appear that the naval cadet was a constant visitor to the stone house for three months, and kept up all this time his relations with Ot-Chen, relations of which Hong-Dok was told after the first few weeks by one of his servants. But, in spite of it all, he let them go on with it quietly, rather using the time to mature the cruel manner of his vengeance, which I feel certain he must have decided to take from the first moment.

“But why did he resent as a bitter insult what the naval cadet did, when the same action committed by my Indian boy made him scarcely smile? I may be mistaken, but I think I have found the tortuous path of his thoughts after a prolonged search. Hong-Dok was a king. We laugh if we find on our coins the letters D. G., and most of our European princes deride no less their tenure by the Grace of God. But imagine a ruler who believes in it, whose conviction that he is the Lord’s anointed is really as firm as the rocks. I know the comparison does not quite fit, but there is a certain likeness. Hong-Dok, of course, did not believe in a god; he only believed the precepts of the great philosopher; but that his family was a thing apart, sky high above everybody else, of that he was — and quite rightly so — firmly convinced. From ages without origin his ancestors had been rulers, monarchs of unlimited power. A prince with us, if he has got a scrap of intelligence, knows quite well that there are many thousands in his country who are very much more clever and a great deal better educated than he is himself. Hong-Dok and all his ancestors were equally certain of the contrary; a gigantic chasm had always separated them from the great masses of their people. They alone were rulers, while all the rest were abject slaves. They alone had wisdom and knowledge — they came in contact with their peers only on those rare occasions when ambassadors arrived from the neighboring kingdom on the sea, or from Siam far away in the south, or even Chinese mandarins across the mountains of the savage Meos. We would say, Hong-Dok’s ancestors were gods amongst men. Theirs was a different kind of life: they felt themselves men amongst dirty animals. Do you see the difference? A dog barks at us — we scarcely turn our heads.

“Then arrived the barbarians from the north, the Black-flags. They took the country and destroyed the town, and many other towns in these regions. Only the house of the ruler they would not touch; they did not hurt as much as a hair on anyone’s head who belonged to the ruler’s house. Where peace and quiet had been ruling the country now echoed for ever with murder and killing; but the turmoil did not reach the palace on the Red River. And Hong-Dok’s ancestors despised the savage hordes from the North as much as they had despised their own people; nothing could have bridged the colossal chasm. Animals they were, exactly as the others; but they themselves were men who knew the wisdom of the philosopher.

“Then lightning cleft the mists on the river. From far distant shores strange white beings arrived, and Hong-Dok’s father saw with joyous surprise that they were men. He could see, of course, the difference between himself and the strangers; but this difference was infinitely small, compared with that which separated him from the people of his own country. And, like so many others among the nobles of Tonkin, he felt at once that he belonged to them, and not to the others. Hence his ever ready assistance from the first moment, consisting chiefly in teaching the French to discern between the quiet, peaceful aborigines and the bellicose hordes of the north. And when he was appointed civil prefect of the country the population continued to see in him their real, native sovereign. It was he who had freed them from the nightmare of the Black-flags; the French had only been his tools, foreign warriors he had called into the country. Thus he was considered as ruler by his people, with powers quite as unrestricted as once his ancestors, of whom they were told in half-forgotten tales.

“Thus grew up Hong-Dok, the son of a prince, destined to rule himself. Like his father, he considered the Europeans men, and not silly animals. But now that the good fortune of the old palace had been built up again he had more leisure for looking closely at these strangers, for finding out the differences existing between them and himself, also amongst them. Being in constant touch with the Légion, he acquired as sure a knowledge as my own in recognizing the private who was a gentleman and the officer who was a serf, in spite of the gold lace. Indeed, all through the East it is far more education than birth which distinguishes the gentleman from the serf. He was well aware that all these warriors towered high above his people — but not above himself. While his father had considered every white man as his equal, Hong-Dok did not do so any longer, and the closer and the more intimate his acquaintance with them the fewer he found who could be considered his equals. He agreed they were wonderful, unconquerable warriors — each single one of them worth more than a hundred of the dreaded Black-flags — but was that fame? Hong-Dok despised soldiering as much as any other profession. They all were able to read and to write — their own characters, it is true, but he did not mind that; but there was scarcely one amongst them who knew the meaning of philosophy. Hong-Dok did not demand that they should know the great philosopher, but he expected to find some other foreign wisdom, equally profound. And he found nothing. These white men knew less of the ultimate origin of all things than the lowest smoker of opium. But there was one thing which caused him surprise and greatly lowered his esteem for them: the attitude they assumed to their religion. It was not the religion itself which he disliked, and he thought the Christian creed as good as the others he knew of. Now, our légionnaires are anything but religious, and no clergyman, mindful of his duty, would allow any of them to partake of the Sacrament. And yet at times, in moments of great danger, a mutilated prayer for help tore itself from their hearts. Hong-Dok had noticed that — and he found that these people actually believed that an impossible help might be sent to them by some unknown power. Now he went on with his investigations — did I tell you that Hong-Dok spoke a better French than I? — and made friends with the kindly military chaplain of Fort Valmy. And what he discovered then corroborated more and more the conviction of his own superiority. I remember quite well still, how he talked to me about these matters one evening in his smoking-room, how he smiled when he told me that now he knew how the Christians really looked at their cult, and that even the priest had no understanding for the symbolical.

“The worst of it was that he was right; I had not a word to say to him. We Europeans are believers — or we are not believers. But for Christians in Europe who guard the faith of their fathers with loving care like a beautiful raiment covered with profound symbols, you may look with the lantern of Diogenes, and you may be quite sure you will find not a single one out here in Tonkin. But just some such conception was the most natural thing for this Eastern sage, a thing that goes by itself, indispensable for the man of real education. And when he discovered its downright absence, and was not even understood by the priest in thoughts which he considered the most simple, he lost a great deal of his admiration and esteem. In many things the Europeans were his superiors — things, however, which he thought of scarcely any value. In others, again, they were his equals; but in the matter most important of all, the profoundest recognition of all life, they stood far, far below him. And as the years went on, this contempt gave birth in him to a hatred that slowly grew, the more the foreigners became the actual rulers of his country, the more they advanced, step by step, uniting all power in their strong hands. Already in his country they did not need any longer that mediating semblance of power which they had given to his father, and later on to himself; he felt strongly that his father had been mistaken, and that the old stone house near the river was out of it for ever. I do not believe that, for all that, bitterness crept into the mind of this philosopher, who took life as it came; on the contrary, the consciousness of his own superiority may have been for him a source of joyous satisfaction. The modus of living with the Europeans which he evolved in the course of the years was very simple; he retired into himself as much as he could, but treated them in all externals quite sincerely as his equals. But he closed to everybody the gates and windows of the house behind his angular yellow forehead, and if he opened them at times to me, that was owing to a friendship which he had practically imbibed with his mother’s milk, and which was ever kept alive by my vivid interest in his art.

“Such a one was Hong-Dok. Not for a moment could it stir him, when his wives compromised themselves with the Chinese interpreter or one of my boys. Had there been any results of these trifling escapades, Hong-Dok would simply have had the brats drowned, not out of hatred or revenge, but just as one drowns puppies — simply because they are not wanted. And had the naval cadet, when he took a liking to Ot-Chen, asked him for her as a present, Hong-Dok would have given her to him at once.

“But the naval cadet came into his house like a gentleman — and he took away his wife like a scullion. On the first evening already Hong-Dok recognized that this légionnaire was made of finer stuff than most of his comrades; I could see that, because with him he came out a little from the shell of his courteous reserve. And during their further relations with each other — all that is only surmise on my part — the naval cadet most probably treated Hong-Dok exactly as he would have treated some country gentleman in Germany whose wife he admired. He brought into play the whole range of his glittering amiability, and I am sure he succeeded in fascinating Hong-Dok as much as he had always fascinated me and all his superiors; you simply could not help liking this clever, fresh, and attractive boy. That’s what Hong-Dok did, to the extent of descending from his elevated throne, he, the ruler, the artist, the wise disciple of Confucius, to the extent of making friends with the légionnaire and loving him, certainly loving him more than anybody else.

“Then a servant brought him the news, and he saw from his window how the naval cadet took his pleasure with OtChen in the garden.

“So, that was the reason of his coming to him. Not in order to see him — only because of her, a woman, an animal! Hong-Dok felt shamefully deceived — oh! not at all like a European husband. But that this foreigner should have feigned friendship for him, and that he should have given him his friendship, that was the point. That he in all his proud wisdom, should have been fooled by this base-born soldier who, secretly, like a scullion, went after his wife. That he should have wasted his love on something so miserable, so far below him. You see, that’s what this proud yellow devil could not get over.

* * * * * * *

“One evening his servants carried him up to the bungalow. He descended from the palanquin and came smiling up to the verandah. As usual, he brought me a few presents, little fans, beautifully carved in ivory. A few officers were also here. Hong-Dok greeted them most amiably, sat down with us, and was silent; he scarcely spoke three words until they left an hour afterwards. He waited until the sound of their horses’ trot lost itself along the river; then he spoke up, quite calmly, quite sweetly, as if he had to give me the best of news: ‘I have come to tell you something. I have crucified the naval cadet and Ot-Chen.’

“Although Hong-Dok was not at all in the habit of making jokes, this astounding piece of news caused me but one sensation; there must be some good fun behind it all. And I liked his dry, casual way of speaking so much that I entered into it right away, and asked him, in the same quiet strain, ‘Is that so? And what else have you done with them?’

“He answered. ‘I have had their lips sewed up!’

“This time I laughed. ‘Really, you do not say so! And what other kindnesses have you bestowed on them? — And why?’

“Hong-Dok spoke quietly and seriously, but the sweet smile did not leave the corners of his mouth. ‘Why? I caught them in the act.’

“This expression he liked so much that he repeated it. He had heard or read it somewhere, and he thought it very ridiculous that we Europeans should attach particular importance to catching a rogue exactly at the moment of his deed; just as if it mattered in the least whether he is caught in it, or before or afterwards. He said it with an accent of feigned importance, with an easily noticeable exaggeration, which showed better than anything else his bitter contempt. ‘Am I not right in thinking that in Europe the deceived husband has the right to punish the thief of his honor?’

“This sweet sneer sounded so sure that I could not find words to answer him. He continued therefore, still with the same friendly smile, as if he was recounting the simplest thing in the world: ‘Consequently I have punished him. And as he is a Christian, I thought it best to choose a Christian manner of death; I assumed this would suit him best. Have I done right?’

“I did not care at all for this curious way of joking. Not for a moment did I think he might speak the truth; but I began to feel uncomfortable, and wished he would be done with his story. Of course I believed him when he told me the naval cadet had got entangled with Ot-Chen, and I thought he wanted by means of this occurrence to reduce once more ad absurdum our European notions of honor and morals. So I said only: ‘But certainly! Quite right! I am sure the naval cadet valued greatly this little courtesy.’

“But Hong-Dok shook his head, sadly nearly: ‘No, I do not think so. At least he never said a word about it. He only cried.’

“‘He cried?’

“‘Yes,’ said Hong-Dok, with an expression of sweet melancholy and regret, ‘he cried very much. Far more than OtChen. He kept on praying to his god, and in between he cried. Much worse than a dog which is being killed. It was really very disagreeable. And that’s why I had to have his mouth sewn up!’

“I had had more than enough of these jokes, and wanted to get him to stop. ‘Is that all?’ I interrupted him.

“‘Yes, that’s all. I had them seized and tied and then stripped. Then I had their lips sewn up and had them crucified, throwing them in the river afterwards.’

“I was glad that he had done. ‘Well, and what about it all?’ At last I thought to hear the explanation.

“Hong-Dok looked at me with big eyes, as if he did not quite understand what I wanted. ‘Oh, it was only the vengeance of the poor deceived husband!’

“‘All right,’ I said, ‘all right! But now do tell me what you actually mean! What is the point of your joke?’

“‘The point?’ He showed a happy smile, just as if this word came exactly at the right moment. ‘Oh, please, just wait a little!’ He leant back in his chair and was silent. I did not feel the least desire to urge him further, so I followed his example; let him finish his idiotic murder-story when he wanted.

“Thus we sat for half an hour, neither saying a word. Inside, in the room, the time-piece struck six o’clock. ‘Now they must come,’ said Hong-Dok quietly. Then he turned to me: ‘Will you kindly ask the boy to fetch your telescopes?’ — I called Bana; he brought my telescopes. But before Hong-Dok got hold of one of them he jumped up, leaned far out over the balustrade. He pointed his arm towards the right, in the direction of the Red River, and shouted triumphantly, ‘Look, look! There it is coming, the point of my joke!’

“I took my telescope and looked intensely through it. Far, far up river I noticed a little speck drifting in the middle of the current. It came nearer, I saw a little raft. And on the raft two people, two naked people. Without thinking, I ran to the extreme edge of the verandah, so that I might see better. There was a woman, lying on her back, her black tresses hanging into the water; I recognized Ot-Chen. And, upon her, a man. I did not see his face, but the reddish, fair color of his hair — ah, the naval cadet, the naval cadet! Long iron hooks had fixed hands upon hands, feet upon feet, driven deeply into the boards; thin, dark streaks of blood were running over the white wood. At this moment I saw how the naval cadet lifted his head, shaking it, shaking it wildly. I was certain he wanted to make me a sign — they were still alive, still alive!

“I dropped the telescope; for a second I lost consciousness. But only for a second. Then I shouted, bawling like a madman, for my servants: ‘Down and man the boats!’ I ran back along the verandah. There stood Hong-Dok, smiling sweetly, amiably. Just as if he wanted to ask me: ‘Now then, is the point of my joke not very good?’

“You know, people have often made fun of my long nails. But at that moment, I give you my word, I realized what they were good for. I got hold of the yellow blackguard’s throat and shook him to and fro. And I felt how my claws sank deeply into his cursed throat ——

“Then I let him go. Like a sack he fell down on the ground. Like one possessed, I tore down the stairs, all my servants after me. I ran down the bank to the river, and was the first to cast off one of the boats. One of the boys jumped in, but he went right through the bottom at once, standing up to his hips in water; the centre plank had been broken out. We went to another one, a third one — all along; they were full of water up to the gunwale; out of all of them long planks had been cut. I ordered the servants to get the big junk under way; pell mell we climbed into her. But, as in the boats, we found the bottom perforated with big holes, and had to wade through deep water — quite impossible to get the junk even a yard away from the bank.

“‘Hong-Dok’s servants!’ exclaimed my Indian overseer. ‘They have done it! I saw them slink around near the river!’ “We jumped back on the bank. I gave the order to pull one of the boats ashore, to bail it out, and nail quickly a plank on the bottom. The boys ran into the water, pulled, shoved, pushed, nearly collapsed under the load of the big craft. I kept on shouting to them, and in between I looked out on the river.

“The raft came past quite close, alas! scarcely fifty yards away from the bank. I stretched out my arms, as if I could grasp it, like that, with my hands ——

“What do you say? Swimming? Quite so — on the Rhine or the Elbe! But on the Clear Stream? And it was June, I tell you, June! The river was swarming with crocodiles, particularly as the sun was just setting. The loathsome brutes swam closely round the small raft; I saw one of them lifting itself up on its forelegs, and knocking its long, black snout against the crucified bodies. They could scent their quarry, and went along with it impatiently, down river ——

“And again the naval cadet shook his head desperately. I shouted to him we were coming, coming ——

“But it was as if the cursed river was in league with Hong-Dok; it grasped the boat firmly in tough fingers of mud and would not let go. I also jumped into the water and pulled with the boys. We tore and pushed, we were scarcely able to lift it, inch by inch. And the sun was sinking and the raft was drifting away, further and further.

“Then the overseer brought along the horses. We put ropes round the boat and whipped up the animals. Now things moved. One other effort, and yet another, shouting and whipping! The boat was on the bank. The water ran from it; the boys nailed new planks on the bottom. But dark night had fallen long ago when we started.

“I took the helm, six men bent heavily over the oars. Three were kneeling on the bottom, bailing out the water which kept on coming in. In spite of it all, it rose, until we sat up to the calves in water. I had to tell off two, and yet another two, from the oars for bailing. We advanced with painful slowness ——

“I had big pitch torches for searching. But we did not find anything. Several times we thought we could see the raft far away; when we got near, it was a drifting tree trunk or an alligator. We found nothing. We searched for hours and found nothing. I went ashore in Edgardhafen and gave the alarm. The commander sent out five boats and two great junks. They searched the river for three days. But they had no better luck than we. We despatched wires to all stations down river. Nothing — nobody saw him again, poor naval cadet!

“—— —— What do I think? Well, the raft got stuck somewhere on the bank. Or it drifted against a tree trunk and got smashed. One way or the other, the black reptiles got their prey.”

* * * * * * *

The old man emptied his glass and held it out to the boy. And emptied it once more, quickly, in one draught. Then he stroked his dirty grey beard with his long claws.

“Yes,” he went on, “that’s the story. When we returned to the bungalow Hong-Dok had disappeared, and with him his servants. Then came the investigation — I told you about it already. Naturally nothing new was brought to light. “Hong-Dok had fled. And never again did I hear anything from him, until one day this box with the counters arrived; somebody brought it in my absence. The boys told me it came from a Chinese merchant. I had investigations made, but in vain. There you are, take your box; look at the pictures which you do not know yet.”

He pushed the mother o’ pearl counters towards me. “This one shows Hong-Dok being carried to me by his servants in the palanquin. Here you see me and himself on our verandah; here you see him, how I grasp him by the throat. These are several counters showing how we try to get the boat clear, and here are others recording our search through the night on the river. One counter shows Ot-Chen and the naval cadet being crucified, and the other one how they have their lips sewn up. This is Hong-Dok’s flight; here you see my clawing hand, and on the reverse his neck with the scars.”

Edgard Widerhold relit his pipe. “Now take away your box!” he said. “May the counters bring you good luck on the poker table! There is blood enough sticking to them.” —— —— ——.

And this is a true tale.


Previous | Top | Issue 12, December 1917 | Next


Thelema

If you have found this material useful or enlightening, you may also be interested in

Trademark

Ordo Templi Orientis, O.T.O., and the O.T.O. Lamen design are registered trademarks of Ordo Templi Orientis.

Copyright

All copyrights on Aleister Crowley material are held by Ordo Templi Orientis. This site is not an official O.T.O. website, and is neither sponsored by nor controlled by Ordo Templi Orientis.

The text of this Aleister Crowley material is made available here only for personal and non-commercial use. This material is provided here in a convenient searchable form as a study resource for those seekers looking for it in their research. For any commercial use, please contact Ordo Templi Orientis.