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Targets by Gouverneur Morris

 

"On the contrary," said Gardiner, "lightning very often strikes twice in the same place, and often three times. The so-called all-wise Providence is still in the experimental stage. My grandmother, for instance, presented my grandfather with fifteen children: seven live sons and eight dead daughters. That's when the lightning had fun with itself. And when the epidemic of ophthalmia broke out in the Straits Settlements, what class of people do you suppose developed the highest percentage of total loss of sight in one or both eyes?—why the inmates of the big asylum for the deaf and dumb in Singapore: twenty per cent of those poor stricken souls went stone blind. Then what do you think the lightning did? Set the blooming asylum on fire and burned it to the ground. And then, I dare say, the elements retired to some region of waste, off in space somewhere, and sat down and thundered with laughter. But it wasn't through with the deaf and dumb, and blind, and roofless even then. It was decided by government, which is the next most irresponsible instrument to lightning, to transfer the late inmates of the asylum to a remantled barrack in the salubrious Ceylon hills; and they were put aboard a ram-shackle, single-screw steamer named the Nerissa. She was wrecked—"

"Coast of Java—in '80, wasn't it?" said Pedder, who has read nothing but dictionaries and books of black-and-white facts and statistics in the course of a long life otherwise entirely devoted to misdirected efforts to defeat Colonel Bogey at golf.

"It was," said Gardiner, "and the lightning was very busy striking. It drowned off every member of the crew who had any sense of decency; and of the deaf and dumb passengers selected to be washed ashore a pair who were also blind. Those saved came to land at a jungly stretch of coast, dented by a slow-running creek. The crew called the place Quickstep Inlet because of the panicky and inhuman haste in which they left it."

"Why inhuman?" asked Ludlow.

"Because," said Gardiner, "they only gave about one look at their two comrades in misfortune who were deaf, and dumb, and blind, and decided that it was impracticable to attempt to take them along. I suppose they were right. I suppose it would have been the devil's own job. The really nasty part was that the crew made a secret of it, and when some of them, having passed through the Scylla and Charybdis of fright and fever, and foul water, and wild beasts, reached a settlement they didn't say a word about the two unfortunates who had been deliberately abandoned."

"How was it found out then?" Pedder asked.

"Years and years afterward by the ravings in liquor of one of the crew, and by certain things that I'd like to tell you if you'd be interested."

"Go on," said Ludlow.

"The important thing," said Gardiner, "is that the pair were deserted—not why they were deserted, or how it was found out that they had been. And one thing—speaking of lightning and Providence—is very important. If the pair hadn't been blind, if the asylum hadn't been burned, if the Nerissa hadn't been wrecked, and if the crew hadn't deserted them—they would never in this world have had an opportunity to lift to their lips the cup of human happiness and drink it off.

"The man did not know that he had been deserted. He vaguely understood that there had been a shipwreck and that he had been washed ashore—alone, he thought. When he got hungry he began to crawl round and round with his hands in front of his face feeling for something to eat, trying and approving of one handful of leaves and spitting out another. But thirst began to torment him, and then, all of a sudden, he went souse into the creek that there emptied into the sea. That way of life went on for several days. And all the while, the woman, just as she had come ashore, was keeping life going similarly—crawling about, always near the creek, crossing the beach at low tide to the mud flats and rooting among the mollusks, and stuffing herself with any kind of sea-growth that tasted good enough. The two were probably often within a few feet of each other; and they might have lived out their lives that way without either of them ever having the least idea that he or she was not the only human being in that part of the world. But something—pure accident or some subtle instinct—brought them together. The man was out crawling with one hand before his face—so was the woman. Their hands met, and clinched. They remained thus, and trembling, for a long time. From that time until the day of their death, years and years later, they never for so much as one moment lost contact with each other.

"Daily they crawled or walked with infinite slowness, hand in hand, or the arm of one about the waist of the other—neither knowing the look, the age, the religion or even the color of the other. But I know, from the only person fitted to judge, that they loved each other tremendously and spotlessly—these two poor souls alone in that continuous, soundless, sightless, expressionless night. I know because their baby, when he grew up, and got away from that place, and learned white man's talk—told me.

"He left Quickstep Inlet when he was about fifteen years old, naked as the day he was born; ignorant of everything—who he was or what he was, or that the world contained anything similar to him. It was some restless spirit of exploration that smoulders I suppose, in every human heart, that compelled him to leave the few hundred acres of shore and wood that were familiar to him. He carried with him upon his bold journey a roll of bark, resembling birch-bark, upon which he had scratched with a sharp shell the most meaningless-looking lines, curves, spirals and gyrations that you can imagine. He will have that roll in his possession now, I expect, for even when I knew him—when he was twenty years old, and could talk English pretty nimbly, he could hardly bear to be separated from it—or, if he let you take one of the sheets in your hands, he would watch you as a dog watches the person that is about to give him his dinner. But he ran very little risk of having it stolen. Nobody wanted it.

"He must have been a gentle savage, with all sorts of decent inherited instincts, for when I knew him he had already taken kindly to civilization. At first, of course, they had a bad time with him; they couldn't talk to him, and when, quite naturally and nonchalantly he would start in to do the most outrageous things, they had to teach him better, literally by force. If Pedder weren't such an old stickler for propriety, I could go more into detail. You needn't look offended, Ped, you know you are very easily shocked, and that you make it unpleasant for everybody. He was taken on by the English consul at Teerak, who was a good fellow, and clothed, and taught to speak English, and, as a beginning, to work in the garden. Indoor work seemed to have almost the effect of nauseating him; and houses and closed doors threw him at first into frenzies of fear, and always made him miserable. It was apparent in his face, but more in his way of putting up his fists when in doubt, that he wasn't Dutch nor German nor French. He was probably English, they thought, but he might have been American, and so they had an orthodox christening and named him Jonathan Bull. Of course, after he got the trick of speech, they found out, by putting two and two together, just about who and what he was; and that he was of English parentage. But, of course, they had to let the name stand.

"The first thing, he told me, that ever came to him in the way of a thought was that he was different from his parents—that they couldn't see, nor hear, nor make a noise as he could. He could remember sitting comfortably in the mud at low tide and being convulsed with laughter at his mother's efforts to find a fat mussel that was within a few inches of her hand. He said that within a small radius his parents had made paths, by constant peregrinations in search of food, that had become so familiar to them that they could move hither and thither, hand in hand, with considerable precision and alacrity. It was one of his earliest mischievous instincts to place obstacles in those paths, and take a humorous view of the consequent tumbles.

"The only intercourse that he could have with his parents was, of course, by sense of touch. And he told me that, whenever they could catch him, they would kiss him and fondle him. But he didn't like to be caressed, especially in the daytime. It was different at night when one became nervous and afraid; then he used to let himself be caught; and he said that he used to hold hands with his mother until he went to sleep and that when he awoke it was to find that the clasp still held. It was a long time before he realized that what to him were whimsical pranks, were in the nature of tragedies to his parents. If he put a stumbling-block in one of their paths, it upset the whole fabric of their daily life, made them feel, I suppose, that they were losing such faculties as they possessed: memory and the sense of touch—and they would be obliged either to walk with infinite slowness, or actually to crawl. And it was long before he realized that things which were perfectly simple and easy for him, were frightfully difficult for them; and he said that his first recollection of a tender and gentle feeling was once when—heaven only knows how—his parents found a nest with eggs in it—and brought these eggs to him. He realized then something of what a prize these eggs must have seemed to them—for he had often scrambled into trees and glutted himself with eggs, whereas, so far as he could recollect, his parents had never had any at all. He began from that time on to collect choice tidbits for them; and wondered why he had not done so before. And they rewarded him with caresses and kisses; I suppose his real reward was his own virtue. Anyway, though very gradually at first, instinct taught him to be a good son to them.

"The lessons that he learned of life were, first of all, from his parents, who were always near at hand for study; second, from birds and animals, there being a pool not far up the creek where even tigers sometimes came to drink; from occasional monkeys; but mostly, of course, by intuition and introspection.

"He noticed that birds and animals all had the use of sight and hearing, and were able to make sounds; and his own forest-trained senses soon perceived different meanings, and even shades of meaning in certain of these sounds. The larger animals were not, of course, constantly under observation, and from tigers, for instance, he learned only the main principles of tiger-talk—a kind of singsong snuffling purr that means 'get out of the way'; the cringing whine that means the tiger is very sorry for himself; and two or three of the full-throated roars: the one expressing rage, the one expressing fear, and the one expressing pained astonishment. But into the vocabularies of birds he penetrated very deeply.

"One day, when I had got to know Jonathan rather well, he surprised me by saying, 'the minute I got the idea, I talked all day long, but it was years before I thought of writing down what I said, instead of plain trying to remember. At first, when I'd say something that I wanted to remember, I'd have to coax my head into remembering the place where I had said it, near which tree, or which stone on the beach, what had happened to make me think of saying it, and then, more often than not, I could repeat it word for word,' Then he showed me the sheets of bark with the scratches and scrawls and gyrations on them. 'It isn't spelled writing,' he explained, 'or what they call picture writing. I don't believe it has enough general principles for me to be able to explain it as a system, though it has a sort of system to it. If it's like anything, I think it must be like the way they write down music. It would be, wouldn't it? Because beasts don't talk with words, they talk with sounds, and I copycatted my language from beasts and birds,'

"I asked him what the writing on the bark was all about. He said, and he blushed, as every young author, and most old ones, should, that the writing was just more or less nothing—all about different kinds of things. So I pointed specifically to the top of one sheet, and said, 'begin there and tell me what that's about.' 'If I began there,' he said, 'I'd have to go backward; that's the finish of—oh!' he literally threw himself on my mercy with the most ingenuous blushing face. 'Oh,' he said, 'I suppose you'd call them poems.' I, of course, had my doubts of that; but I kept countenance, and said, 'well, what's that one about?' He looked puzzled for a moment, and then he smiled. 'Why,' he said, 'I suppose it's about me, about the way I felt one day, I suppose; but if I tried to say it into English it would just sound damn foolish; but, perhaps, you'd sooner hear it in my own language. It's better, because, after all, you can't turn sounds into words, can you?' 'Go ahead,' I said.

"His hands, holding the sheet of bark shook a little with embarrassment, and he was very red in the face; and before he could begin—I suppose you would call it reading—he had to wet his lips two or three times. I expected, of course, to hear the usual grunts and minor guttural sounds of the usual very primitive dialect. But Jonathan's own particular patent language was not that sort of thing at all. He began with the faintest, and most distinct rustling of leaves—I can't imagine how he made the sound at all. It seemed to come from somewhere between the back of his throat and his lips, and to have nothing to do with his tongue or vocal cords. It lasted for, perhaps, half a minute; dying out, fainter and fainter and finer and finer into complete silence. Then, from the distant point where the rustling had last been heard, there came the softest little throaty whistle, three times repeated; then, for two good minutes without seeming to draw breath, the young man burst into peal after peal of the sweetest, clearest, highest, swiftest whistling that you can possibly imagine. I don't know how he did it—he didn't even purse or move his lips—they were barely parted, in a kind of plaintive, sad little smile—and the notes came out; that was all. Of course I can't tell you what the thing meant word for word or sound for sound; but, in general, it said youth, youth and spring: and I tell you it had those compositions of Mendelssohn, and Grieg, and Sinding lashed to the mast. Well, the leaves rustled again, a little lower in the scale, I think, but wouldn't swear to it, and the first little soft throaty whistle was twice repeated—and there was a little, tiny whisper of a human moan. And that was the end of that poem.

"I made him read to me from his bark sheets until he was tired out. And the next day I was at him again early, and the next. Suppose you were living in a jumping-off place, bored to death, and blowing yourself every fifth or sixth day to a brand new crop of prickly heat; and wanted to go away, and couldn't because you had to sit around until a fat Dutchman made up his mind about a concession; and suppose the only book in the place was on the uses of and manufacture and by-products of the royal palm, written in a beastly language called Tamil, which you only knew enough of to ask for tea and toast at four o'clock in the morning, and were usually understood to mean soda biscuits and a dish of buffalo milk. And suppose that then you came across the complete works of Shakespeare—and that you had never read them—or the Odyssey and that you had never read that—or, better, suppose that there was a Steinway piano in your sitting-room, and that one day the boy who worked the punka for you dropped the rope and sat down at the piano and played Beethoven from beginning to end—as Rubenstein would have played him—and suppose you had never heard a note of Beethoven before. It was like that—listening to the works of Jonathan Bull."

Gardiner paused, as if considering very carefully what he should say.

"No!" he said presently, "I'm not overdoing it. My judgment of Jonathan Bull is no longer a sudden enthusiasm, as the natural effort of a man to make his own discoveries seem more important to his friends than they deserve. He is one of the giants. Think of it: he had made, on an impulse of out and out creation, the most expressive of all languages, so far as mere sound goes; and as if that were not enough, he had gone ahead and composed in that language incomparable lyrics. The meanings were in the sounds. You couldn't mistake them. Have you ever heard a tiger roar—full steam ahead? There was one piece that began suddenly with a kind of terrible, obsessing, strong purring that shook the walls of the room and that went into a series of the most terrible tiger roars and ended with the nightmare screams of a child. I have never been so frightened in my life. And there was a snake song, a soft, wavy, piano, pianissimo effect, all malignant stealth and horror, and running through it were the guileless and insistently hungry twitterings of baby birds in the nest. But there were comical pieces, too, in which ludicrous adventures befell unsophisticated monkeys; and there was a whole series of spring-fever songs—some of them just rotten and nervous, and some of them sad and yearning—and some of them—I don't know just how to put it—well, some of them you might say were not exactly fit to print. One thing he read me—it was very short—consisted of hoarse, inarticulate, broken groans—I couldn't make out what it meant at all. And I was very curious to know, because it seemed to move Jonathan himself much more than anything else of his.

"'You know,' he explained to me, 'my father and mother couldn't make any sound at all—oh, yes—they could clap their hands together and make a sound that way—but I mean with their voices—they hadn't any voices—sometimes their lips smacked and made a noise over eating, or kissing; but they couldn't make sounds in their throats. Well, when my mother died—just think, she couldn't make my father understand that she was sick; and I couldn't. I tried every way. He didn't know that she was leaving him—I'm glad you can't see that poor blind face of her's, turned to father's blind face and trying to tell him good-by—I see it, almost all the time,' he said. 'You know they were always touching—I can't remember a single second in all those years when they weren't at least holding hands. She went in the night. My father was asleep with one arm over and about her. As she got colder and colder it waked him. And he understood. Then he began to make those dumb, helpless groans, like that piece I just read you—the nearest he got to speaking. He sat on the ground and held her in his arms all the rest of the night, and all the next day, and the next night—I couldn't make him let go, and every little while he went into those dreadful, dumb groanings. You don't get brought up in the jungle without knowing death when you see it, and what dead things do. The second night, about midnight, the news of my mother's death began to get about; and horrible, hunchbacked beasts that I had never seen or dreamed of before began to slink about among the trees, and peer out, and snuffle, and complain—and suddenly laugh just like men. And I was so frightened of them, and of the night anyway, that every now and then I'd go into a regular screaming fit, and that would drive them away and keep them quiet for a time, but pretty soon I'd hear their cautious steps, way off, drawing closer and closer, and then the things would begin to snuffle, and complain, and laugh again—they had disgusting, black dogfaces, and one came very close, and I could see the water running out of its mouth. But when dawn began to break they drew farther and farther away, until you could only hear them—now and then.

"'My father looked very white and ill, as was natural enough; but his face now had a peaceful, contented expression. I didn't understand at first that he, in his turn, was dying. But it wasn't of a broken heart, as you might suppose, or anything like that; he had gnawed his left wrist until he got the arteries open; and he was bleeding to death.

"'Once a big dead fish was washed up on the beach—it was when I was quite a little boy—but I remembered how, after a day or two, even my parents had no trouble in finding it, and I remembered how my father had scooped a hole in the sand and buried it. So I scooped a great deep hole in the sand, very deep until water began to trickle into it. And I had sense enough, when it came to filling up the hole, to put in lots of big stones, the biggest I could roll in. And I'm strong. I stayed on—for about six months, getting lonelier and lonelier—and then spring came. I think that was really what started me. I still go almost crazy every spring—anyway I got to this place, and found people.'"

* * * * *

"What's he doing now?" asked Pedder.

"He's trying," said Gardiner, "to do it in English. Of course it seems impossible that he should succeed. But then it was absolutely impossible for Shakespeare to do what he did with the English language, wasn't it? And yet he did it."

"But—" said Pedder.

"Ped," said Gardiner, "we don't control the lightnings; and you never can tell where they are going to strike next—or when."

Ludlow flushed a little, and did not look at his friends.

"Wouldn't it be wonderful," he said, "to be loved and to be in love the way his father and mother were. Maybe they were the ones that really heard and saw, and—sang. We admire the lily, but we owe her to the loves of the blind rain for the deaf and the dumb earth…."

Nobody spoke for some moments. It had been the only allusion that Ludlow had made in years and years to that which had left him a lonely and a cynical man.

"I wonder," Pedder mused, "how it ever occurred to a blind, deaf mute that severing his wrist with his teeth would induce death?"

Gardiner shrugged his shoulders.

"It is always interesting," he said, "to know just which part of a story—if any—is thought worthy of consideration by a given individual."