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The Conjure Man of Siargao by Sargent Kayme


When I woke that morning, the monkey was sitting on the footboard of my bed, looking at me. Not one of those impudent beasts that do nothing but grin and chatter, but a solemn, old-man looking animal, with a fatherly, benevolent face.

All the same, monkeys are never to be trusted, even if you know more about them than I could about one which had appeared unannounced in my sleeping room over night.

“Filipe!” I shouted, “Filipe!”

The woven bamboo walls of a Philippine house allow sound and air to pass freely, and my native servant promptly entered the room.

“Take that monkey away,” I said.

“Oh Señor,” cried Filipe. “Never! You cannot mean it. The Conjure man of Siargao brought him to you this morning, as a gift. Much good always comes to the house which the Conjure man smiles on.”

“Who in the name of Magellan is the Conjure man, and why is he smiling on me?” I asked.

“He is an old, old man who has lived back in the mountains for many years. He knows more conjure charms than any other man or woman in Siargao. The mountain apes come to his house to be fed, and people say that he can talk with them. He left no message, but brought the monkey, and said that the beast was for you.”

“Well, take the creature out of the room while I dress, can’t you?”

“Si, Señor,” Filipe replied; but the way in which he went about the task showed that for him, at least, a gift monkey from the Conjure man of Siargao was no ordinary animal. The monkey, after gravely inspecting the hand which Filipe respectfully extended to him, condescended to step from the footboard of the bed upon it, and be borne from the room.

After that the “wise man,” for I gave the little animal this name, was a regular member of my family, and in time I came to be attached to him. He was never mischievous or noisy, and would sit for an hour at a time on the back of a chair watching me while I wrote or read. He was expert in catching scorpions and the other nuisances of that kind which make Philippine housekeeping a burden to the flesh, and never after he was brought to me did we have any annoyance from them. He seemed to feel that the hunting of such vermin was his especial duty, and, in fact, I learned later that he had been regularly trained to do this.

Chiefly, though, he helped me in the increase of prestige which he gave me with the natives. Filipe treated me with almost as much respect as he did the monkey, when he realised that for some inscrutable reason the Conjure man had chosen to favour me with his friendship. The villagers, after that early morning visit, looked upon my thatched bamboo hut as a sort of temple, and I suspect more than once crept stealthily up conveniently close trees at night to try to peer between the slats of which the house was built, to learn in that way if they could, what the inner rooms of the temple were like.

My house was “up a tree.” Up several trees, in fact. Like most of those in Siargao it was built on posts and the sawed off trunks of palm trees. The floor was eight feet above the ground, and we entered by way of a ladder which at night we drew up after us, or rather I drew up, for since Filipe slept at home, the “wise man” and I had our house to ourselves at night. The morning the monkey came, Filipe was prevailed upon to borrow a ladder from another house, and burglarise my home to the extent of putting the monkey in.

I had been in Siargao for two years, as the agent of a Hong Kong firm which was trying to build up the hemp industry there. That was before the American occupation of the islands. The village where I lived was the seaport. I would have been insufferably lonesome if I had not had something to interest me in my very abundant spare time, for during much of the year I was, or rather I had supposed I was, with the exception of the Padre, the only white man on the island. Twice a year the Spanish tax collector came and stayed long enough to wring every particle of money which he possibly could out of the poor natives, and then supplemented this by taking in addition such articles of produce as could be easily handled, and would have a money value in Manila.

The interest which I have referred to as sustaining me was in the plants, trees and flowers of the island. I was not a trained naturalist, but I had a fair knowledge of commercial tropic vegetation before I came to the island, and this had proved a good foundation to work on. Our hemp plantation was well inland, and in going to and from this I began to study the possibilities of the wild trees and plants. It ended in my being able to write a very fair description of the vegetation of this part of the archipelago, explaining how many of the plants might be utilized for medicine or food, and the trees for lumber, dyestuffs or food.

One who has not been there cannot begin to understand the possibilities of the forests under the hands of a man who really knows them. One of the first things which interested me was a bet Filipe made with me that he could serve me a whole meal, sufficient and palatable, and use nothing but bamboo in doing this.

The only thing Filipe asked to have to work with was a “machete,” a sharp native sword. With this he walked to the nearest clump of bamboo, split open a dry joint, and cutting out two sticks of a certain peculiar shape made a fire by rubbing them together. Having got his fire he split another large green joint, the center of which he hollowed out. This he filled with water and set on the fire, where it would resist the action of the heat until the water in it boiled, just as I have seen water in a pitcher plant’s leaf in America set on the coals of a blacksmith’s fire and boiled vigorously. In this water he stewed some fresh young bamboo shoots, which make a most delicious kind of “greens,” and finally made me from the wood a platter off which to eat and a knife and fork to eat with. I acknowledged that he had won the bet.

It was on one of the excursions which I made into the forest in my study of these natural resources, that I met the Conjure man. I had been curious to see him ever since he had called on me that morning before I was awake, and left the “wise man,” in lieu of a card, but inquiry of Filipe and various other natives invariably elicited the reply that they did not know where he lived. I learned afterwards that the liars went to him frequently, for charms and medicines to use in sickness, at the very time they were telling me that they did not even know in what part of the forest his home was. Later events showed that fear could make them do what coaxing could not.

It happened that one of my expeditions took me well up the side of a mountain which the natives called Tuylpit, so near as I could catch their pronunciation. I never saw the name in print. The mountain’s sides were rocky enough so that they were not so impassable on account of the dense under-growth as much of the island was, and I had much less trouble than usual going forward after I left the regular “carabaos” (water buffalo) track.

I had gone on up the mountain for some distance, Filipe, as usual, following me, when, turning to speak to him, I found to my amazement that the fellow was gone. How, when or where he had disappeared I could not imagine, for he had answered a question of mine only a moment before.

If I had been surprised to find myself alone, I was ten times more surprised to turn back again and find that I was not alone.

A man stood in the path in front of me, an old man, but standing well erect, and with keen dark eyes looking out at me from under shaggy white eyebrows.

I knew at once, or felt rather than knew, for the knowledge was instinctive, that this must be the Conjure man of Siargao, but I was dumbfounded to find him, not, as I had supposed, a native, but a white man, as surely as I am one. Before I could pull myself together enough to speak to him, he spoke to me, in Spanish, calling me by name.

“You see I know your name,” he said, and then added, as if he saw the question in my eyes, “Yes, it was I who brought the monkey to your house. I knew so long as he was there no man or woman on this island would molest you.

“You wonder why I did it? Because in all the time you have been here, and in all your going about the island, you have never cruelly killed the animals, as most white men do who come here. The creatures of the forest are all I have had to love, for many years, and I have liked you because you have spared them. How I happened to come here first, and why I have stayed here all these years, is nothing to you. Quite likely you would not be so comfortable here alone with me if you knew. Anyway, you are not to know. You are alone, you see. Your servant took good care to get out of the way when he knew that I was coming.”

“How did you know my name,” I made out to ask, “and so much about me?”

“The natives have told me much of you, when they have been to me for medicines, which they are too thickheaded to see for themselves, although they grow beneath their feet. Then I have seen you many times myself, when you have been in the forest, and had no idea that I, or any one, for that matter, was watching you.”

“Why do I see you now, then?” I asked.

“Because the desire to speak once more to a white man grew too strong to be resisted. Because you happened to come, to-day, near my home, to which,” he added, with a very courteous inclination of his head, “I hope that you will be so good as to accompany me.”

I wish that I could describe that strange home so that others could see it as I did.

Imagine a big, broad house, thatched, and built of bamboo, like all of those in Siargao, that the earthquakes need not shake them down, but built, in this case, upon the ground. A man to whom even the snakes of the forest were submissive, as they were to this man, had no need to perch in trees, as the rest of us must do, in order to sleep in safety. Above the house the plumy tops of a group of great palm trees waved in the air. Birds, more beautiful than any I had ever seen on the island, flirted their brilliant feathers in the trees around the house, and in the vines which laced the tops of the palm trees together a troop of monkeys was chattering. The birds showed no fear of us, and one, a gorgeous paroquet, flew from the tree in which it had been perched and settled on the shoulder of the Conjure man. The monkeys, when they saw us, set up a chorus of welcoming cries, and began letting themselves down from the tree tops. My guide threw a handful of rice on the ground for the bird, and tossed a basket of tamarinds to where the monkeys could get them. Then, having placed me in a comfortable hammock woven of cocoanut fibre, and brought me a pipe and some excellent native tobacco, he slung another hammock for himself, and settled down in it to ask me questions.

Imagine telling the news of the world for the last quarter of a century to an intelligent and once well-educated man who has known nothing of what has happened in all that time except what he might learn from ignorant natives, who had obtained their knowledge second hand from Spanish tax collectors only a trifle less ignorant than themselves.

Just in the middle of a sentence I became aware that some one was looking at me from the door of the house behind me. Somebody or something, I had an uncomfortable feeling that I did not quite know which. I twisted around in the hammock to where I could look.

An enormous big ape stood erect in the doorway, steadying herself by one hand placed against the door casing. She was looking at me intently, as if she did not just know what to do.

My host had seen me turn in the hammock. “Europa,” he said, and then added some words which I did not understand.

The huge beast came towards me, walking erect, and gravely held out a long and bony paw for me to shake. Then, as if satisfied that she had done all that hospitality demanded of her, she walked to the further end of the thatch verandah and stood there looking off into the forest, from which there came a few minutes later the most unearthly and yet most human cry I ever heard.

I sprang out of my hammock, but before I could ask, “what was that?” the big ape had answered the cry with another one as weird as the first.

“Sit down, I beg of you,” my host said. “That was only Atlas, Europa’s mate, calling to her to let us know that he is nearly home. They startled you. I should have introduced them to you before now.”

While he was still talking, another ape, bigger than the first, came in sight beneath the palms. Europa went to meet him, and they came to the house together.

As I am a living man that enormous animal, uncanny looking creature, walked up to me and shook hands. The Conjure man had not spoken to him, that was certain. If any one had told him to do this it must have been Europa. The demands of politeness satisfied, the strange couple went to the farther side of the verandah and squatted down in the shade.

“Can you talk with them?” I suddenly made bold to ask.

“Who told you I could?” the Conjure man inquired sharply.

“Filipe,” I said.

But his question was the only answer my question ever received.

Later, when I said it was time for me to start for home, he set me out a meal of fruit and boiled rice. I quite expected to hear him order Europa to wait on the table, but he did not, and when I came away, and he came with me down the mountain as far as the “carabaos” track, the two big apes stayed on the verandah as if to guard the house.

When we parted at the foot of the mountain, although I am sure he had enjoyed my visit, my strange host did not ask me to come again, and when he gently declined my invitation for him to come and see me, I did not repeat it. I had a feeling that it would do no good to urge him, and that if a time ever came when he wanted to see me again he would make the wish known to me of his own accord.

It was not more than a month after my visit to the mountain home that the Spanish tax collector came for his semi-annual harvest. The boat which brought him would call for him a month later, and in the intervening time he would have got together all the property which could be squeezed or beaten out of the miserable natives. This particular man had been there before, and I heartily disliked him, as the worst of his kind I had yet seen. Inasmuch as he represented the government to which I also had to pay taxes and was, except for the Padre, about the only white man I saw unless it was when some of our own agents came to Siargao, I felt disgusted when I saw that this man had returned. He brought with him, on this trip, as a servant, a good-for-nothing native who had gone away with him six months before to save his neck from the just wrath of his own people for a crime which he had committed. Secure in the protection afforded by his employer’s position, and the squad of Tagalog soldiers sent to help in collecting the taxes, this man had the effrontery to come back and swell about among his fellow people, any one of whom would have cut his throat in a minute if they could have done it without fear of detection by the tax collector.

I noticed, though, that the servant was particularly careful to sleep in the same house with his master, and did not go home at night, as Filipe did. The government representative had a house of his own, which was occupied only when he was on the island. It was somewhat larger than the other houses of the place, but like them was built on posts well up from the ground, and reached by a ladder which could be taken up at will, as, I noticed, it always was at night.

When the collector had been in Siargao less than a week, I was surprised to have him come to my place one day and ask me abruptly if I had ever seen any big apes in my excursions over the island.

I am obliged to confess that I lied to him very promptly and directly, for I told him at once that I never had. You see there had come into my mind at once what the lonely old man on the mountain had said about men who came and killed the animals he loved, and I could see as plainly as when I left them there, the two big apes sitting on the verandah of his home, watching us as we came down the mountain path, and waiting to welcome him when he came home.

The “wise man,” sitting on top of the tallest piece of furniture in the room, to which he had promptly mounted when my caller came in, said nothing, but his solemn eyes looked at me in a way which makes me half willing to swear that he had understood every word, and countenanced my untruthfulness.

The tax collector looked up at the monkey suspiciously, as if he sometime might have heard how the animal came into my possession, as, in fact, I had reason afterwards to think he had.

“Caramba,” he grunted. “I have reason to think there are big apes here. Juan,” his black-leg—in every sense of the word—servant, “has told me there is an old man here who has tamed them. He says he knows where the man lives, back in the mountains.

“If I can find a big ape while I am here, this time,” he went on, “I mean to have him or his hide. There was an agent for a museum of some kind in England, in Manila when I came away, and he told me he would give me fifty dollars for the skin of such a beast.”

He went on talking in this way for quite a while, but I did not more than half hear what he was saying, for I was trying to think of some way in which I could send word to the old man to guard his companions. I finally decided, however, that Juan, though quite vile enough to do such a thing, would never dare to guide his employer to the Conjure man’s house.

I did not properly measure the heart of a native doubly driven by hate of a former master from whom he is free, and fear of a master by whom he is employed at the present time.

The very next day Juan went to the Conjure man’s house, and in his master’s name demanded that one of the apes be brought, dead or alive, to the tax collector’s office.

The only answer he brought back, except a slashed face on which the blood was even then not dry, was:

“Does a father slay his children at a stranger’s bidding?”

The next day I was in the forest all day long. When I came home in the edge of the evening, and passed the tax collector’s house, I said words which I should not wish to write down here, although I almost believe that the tears which were running down my cheeks at the time washed the record of my language off the recording angel’s book, just as they would have blotted out the words upon this sheet of paper.

Europa, noble great animal, lay dead on the ground in front of the house, the slim, strong paw, like a right hand, which she had reached out to welcome me, drabbled with dirt where it had dragged behind the “carabaos” cart in which she had been brought, and which had been hardly large enough to hold her huge body.

I knew it was Europa. I would have known her anywhere, even if Filipe, white with fear and rage, had not told me the story when I reached home.

Juan had guided the tax collector to the mountain home in an evil moment when its owner and Atlas, by some chance were away. The Spaniard had shot Europa, standing in the door, as I had seen her standing, and the two men had brought the body down the mountain.

I think Filipe, and perhaps the other natives, expected nothing less than that the village, if not the whole island, would be destroyed by fire from the sky, that night, or swallowed up in the earth, but the night passed with perfect quiet. Not a sound was heard, nor a thing done to disturb our sleep, or if, as I imagine was the case with some of us who did not sleep, our peace.

Only, in the morning, when no one was seen stirring about the tax collector’s house, and then it grew noon and the lattices were not opened or the ladder let down, the Tagalog soldiers brought another ladder and put it against the house, and I climbed up and went in, to find the two men who stayed there, the Spaniard and Juan, dead on the floor. Their swollen faces, black and awful to look at, I have seen in bad dreams since. On the throat of each were the blue marks of long, strong fingers.

And the body of Europa was gone.