If I could have a thousand years—just one little thousand years—more of life, I might, in that time, draw near enough to true Romance to touch the hem of her robe.
Up from ships men come, and from waste places and forest and road and garret and cellar to maunder to me in strangely distributed words of the things they have seen and considered. The recording of their tales is no more than a matter of ears and fingers. There are only two fates I dread—deafness and writer’s cramp. The hand is yet steady; let the ear bear the blame if these printed words be not in the order they were delivered to me by Hunky Magee, true camp-follower of fortune.
Biography shall claim you but an instant—I first knew Hunky when he was head-waiter at Chubb’s little beefsteak restaurant and café on Third Avenue. There was only one waiter besides.
Then, successively, I caromed against him in the little streets of the Big City after his trip to Alaska, his voyage as cook with a treasure-seeking expedition to the Caribbean, and his failure as a pearl-fisher in the Arkansas River. Between these dashes into the land of adventure he usually came back to Chubb’s for a while. Chubb’s was a port for him when gales blew too high; but when you dined there and Hunky went for your steak you never knew whether he would come to anchor in the kitchen or in the Malayan Archipelago. You wouldn’t care for his description—he was soft of voice and hard of face, and rarely had to use more than one eye to quell any approach to a disturbance among Chubb’s customers.
One night I found Hunky standing at a corner of Twenty-third Street and Third Avenue after an absence of several months. In ten minutes we had a little round table between us in a quiet corner, and my ears began to get busy. I leave out my sly ruses and feints to draw Hunky’s word-of-mouth blows—it all came to something like this:
“Speaking of the next election,” said Hunky, “did you ever know much about Indians? No? I don’t mean the Cooper, Beadle, cigar-store, or Laughing Water kind—I mean the modern Indian—the kind that takes Greek prizes in colleges and scalps the half-back on the other side in football games. The kind that eats macaroons and tea in the afternoons with the daughter of the professor of biology, and fills up on grasshoppers and fried rattlesnake when they get back to the ancestral wickiup.
“Well, they ain’t so bad. I like ’em better than most foreigners that have come over in the last few hundred years. One thing about the Indian is this: when he mixes with the white race he swaps all his own vices for them of the pale-faces—and he retains all his own virtues. Well, his virtues are enough to call out the reserves whenever he lets ’em loose. But the imported foreigners adopt our virtues and keep their own vices—and it’s going to take our whole standing army some day to police that gang.
“But let me tell you about the trip I took to Mexico with High Jack Snakefeeder, a Cherokee twice removed, a graduate of a Pennsylvania college and the latest thing in pointed-toed, rubber-heeled, patent kid moccasins and Madras hunting-shirt with turned-back cuffs. He was a friend of mine. I met him in Tahlequah when I was out there during the land boom, and we got thick. He had got all there was out of colleges and had come back to lead his people out of Egypt. He was a man of first-class style and wrote essays, and had been invited to visit rich guys’ houses in Boston and such places.
“There was a Cherokee girl in Muscogee that High Jack was foolish about. He took me to see her a few times. Her name was Florence Blue Feather—but you want to clear your mind of all ideas of squaws with nose-rings and army blankets. This young lady was whiter than you are, and better educated than I ever was. You couldn’t have told her from any of the girls shopping in the swell Third Avenue stores. I liked her so well that I got to calling on her now and then when High Jack wasn’t along, which is the way of friends in such matters. She was educated at the Muscogee College, and was making a specialty of—let’s see—eth—yes, ethnology. That’s the art that goes back and traces the descent of different races of people, leading up from jelly-fish through monkeys and to the O’Briens. High Jack had took up that line too, and had read papers about it before all kinds of riotous assemblies—Chautauquas and Choctaws and chowder-parties, and such. Having a mutual taste for musty information like that was what made ’em like each other, I suppose. But I don’t know! What they call congeniality of tastes ain’t always it. Now, when Miss Blue Feather and me was talking together, I listened to her affidavits about the first families of the Land of Nod being cousins german (well, if the Germans don’t nod, who does?) to the mound-builders of Ohio with incomprehension and respect. And when I’d tell her about the Bowery and Coney Island, and sing her a few songs that I’d heard the Jamaica niggers sing at their church lawn-parties, she didn’t look much less interested than she did when High Jack would tell her that he had a pipe that the first inhabitants of America originally arrived here on stilts after a freshet at Tenafly, New Jersey.
“But I was going to tell you more about High Jack.
“About six months ago I get a letter from him, saying he’d been commissioned by the Minority Report Bureau of Ethnology at Washington to go down to Mexico and translate some excavations or dig up the meaning of some shorthand notes on some ruins—or something of that sort. And if I’d go along he could squeeze the price into the expense account.
“Well, I’d been holding a napkin over my arm at Chubb’s about long enough then, so I wired High Jack ‘Yes’; and he sent me a ticket, and I met him in Washington, and he had a lot of news to tell me. First of all, was that Florence Blue Feather had suddenly disappeared from her home and environments.
“‘Run away?’ I asked.
“‘Vanished,’ says High Jack. ‘Disappeared like your shadow when the sun goes under a cloud. She was seen on the street, and then she turned a corner and nobody ever seen her afterward. The whole community turned out to look for her, but we never found a clew.’
“‘That’s bad—that’s bad,’ says I. ‘She was a mighty nice girl, and as smart as you find em.’
“High Jack seemed to take it hard. I guess he must have esteemed Miss Blue Feather quite highly. I could see that he’d referred the matter to the whiskey-jug. That was his weak point—and many another man’s. I’ve noticed that when a man loses a girl he generally takes to drink either just before or just after it happens.
“From Washington we railroaded it to New Orleans, and there took a tramp steamer bound for Belize. And a gale pounded us all down the Caribbean, and nearly wrecked us on the Yucatan coast opposite a little town without a harbor called Boca de Coacoyula. Suppose the ship had run against that name in the dark!
“‘Better fifty years of Europe than a cyclone in the bay,’ says High Jack Snakefeeder. So we get the captain to send us ashore in a dory when the squall seemed to cease from squalling.
“‘We will find ruins here or make ’em,’ says High. ‘The Government doesn’t care which we do. An appropriation is an appropriation.’
“Boca de Coacoyula was a dead town. Them biblical towns we read about—Tired and Siphon—after they was destroyed, they must have looked like Forty-second Street and Broadway compared to this Boca place. It still claimed 1300 inhabitants as estimated and engraved on the stone court-house by the census-taker in 1597. The citizens were a mixture of Indians and other Indians; but some of ’em was light-colored, which I was surprised to see. The town was huddled up on the shore, with woods so thick around it that a subpoena-server couldn’t have reached a monkey ten yards away with the papers. We wondered what kept it from being annexed to Kansas; but we soon found out that it was Major Bing.
“Major Bing was the ointment around the fly. He had the cochineal, sarsaparilla, log-wood, annatto, hemp, and all other dye-woods and pure food adulteration concessions cornered. He had five-sixths of the Boca de Thingama-jiggers working for him on shares. It was a beautiful graft. We used to brag about Morgan and E. H. and others of our wisest when I was in the provinces—but now no more. That peninsula has got our little country turned into a submarine without even the observation tower showing.
“Major Bing’s idea was this. He had the population go forth into the forest and gather these products. When they brought ’em in he gave ’em one-fifth for their trouble. Sometimes they’d strike and demand a sixth. The Major always gave in to ’em.
“The Major had a bungalow so close on the sea that the nine-inch tide seeped through the cracks in the kitchen floor. Me and him and High Jack Snakefeeder sat on the porch and drank rum from noon till midnight. He said he had piled up $300,000 in New Orleans banks, and High and me could stay with him forever if we would. But High Jack happened to think of the United States, and began to talk ethnology.
“‘Ruins!’ says Major Bing. ‘The woods are full of ’em. I don’t know how far they date back, but they was here before I came.’
“High Jack asks what form of worship the citizens of that locality are addicted to.
“‘Why,’ says the Major, rubbing his nose, ‘I can’t hardly say. I imagine it’s infidel or Aztec or Nonconformist or something like that. There’s a church here—a Methodist or some other kind—with a parson named Skidder. He claims to have converted the people to Christianity. He and me don’t assimilate except on state occasions. I imagine they worship some kind of gods or idols yet. But Skidder says he has ’em in the fold.’
“A few days later High Jack and me, prowling around, strikes a plain path into the forest, and follows it a good four miles. Then a branch turns to the left. We go a mile, maybe, down that, and run up against the finest ruin you ever saw—solid stone with trees and vines and under-brush all growing up against it and in it and through it. All over it was chiselled carvings of funny beasts and people that would have been arrested if they’d ever come out in vaudeville that way. We approached it from the rear.
“High Jack had been drinking too much rum ever since we landed in Boca. You know how an Indian is—the palefaces fixed his clock when they introduced him to firewater. He’d brought a quart along with him.
“‘Hunky,’ says he, ‘we’ll explore the ancient temple. It may be that the storm that landed us here was propitious. The Minority Report Bureau of Ethnology,’ says he, ‘may yet profit by the vagaries of wind and tide.’
“We went in the rear door of the bum edifice. We struck a kind of alcove without bath. There was a granite davenport, and a stone wash-stand without any soap or exit for the water, and some hardwood pegs drove into holes in the wall, and that was all. To go out of that furnished apartment into a Harlem hall bedroom would make you feel like getting back home from an amateur violoncello solo at an East Side Settlement house.
“While High was examining some hieroglyphics on the wall that the stone-masons must have made when their tools slipped, I stepped into the front room. That was at least thirty by fifty feet, stone floor, six little windows like square port-holes that didn’t let much light in.
“I looked back over my shoulder, and sees High Jack’s face three feet away.
“‘High,’ says I, ‘of all the—’
“And then I noticed he looked funny, and I turned around.
“He’d taken off his clothes to the waist, and he didn’t seem to hear me. I touched him, and came near beating it. High Jack had turned to stone. I had been drinking some rum myself.
“‘Ossified!’ I says to him, loudly. ‘I knew what would happen if you kept it up.’
“And then High Jack comes in from the alcove when he hears me conversing with nobody, and we have a look at Mr. Snakefeeder No. 2. It’s a stone idol, or god, or revised statute or something, and it looks as much like High Jack as one green pea looks like itself. It’s got exactly his face and size and color, but it’s steadier on its pins. It stands on a kind of rostrum or pedestal, and you can see it’s been there ten million years.
“‘He’s a cousin of mine,’ sings High, and then he turns solemn.
“‘Hunky,’ he says, putting one hand on my shoulder and one on the statue’s, ‘I’m in the holy temple of my ancestors.’
“‘Well, if looks goes for anything,’ says I, ‘you’ve struck a twin. Stand side by side with buddy, and let’s see if there’s any difference.’
“There wasn’t. You know an Indian can keep his face as still as an iron dog’s when he wants to, so when High Jack froze his features you couldn’t have told him from the other one.
“‘There’s some letters,’ says I, ‘on his nob’s pedestal, but I can’t make ’em out. The alphabet of this country seems to be composed of sometimes a, e, i, o, and u, but generally z’s, l’s, and t’s.’
“High Jack’s ethnology gets the upper hand of his rum for a minute, and he investigates the inscription.
“‘Hunky,’ says he, ‘this is a statue of Tlotopaxl, one of the most powerful gods of the ancient Aztecs.’
“‘Glad to know him,’ says I, ‘but in his present condition he reminds me of the joke Shakespeare got off on Julius Cæsar. We might say about your friend:
“‘Imperious what’s-his-name, dead and turned to stone—
No use to write or call him on the ‘phone.’
“‘Hunky,’ says High Jack Snakefeeder, looking at me funny, ‘do you believe in reincarnation?’
“‘It sounds to me,’ says I, ‘like either a clean-up of the slaughter-houses or a new kind of Boston pink. I don’t know.’
“‘I believe,’ says he, ‘that I am the reincarnation of Tlotopaxl. My researches have convinced me that the Cherokees, of all the North American tribes, can boast of the straightest descent from the proud Aztec race. That,’ says he, ‘was a favorite theory of mine and Florence Blue Feather’s. And she—what if she—’
“High Jack grabs my arm and walls his eyes at me. Just then he looked more like his eminent co-Indian murderer, Crazy Horse.
“‘Well,’ says I, ‘what if she, what if she, what if she? You’re drunk,’ says I. ‘Impersonating idols and believing in—what was it?—recarnalization? Let’s have a drink,’ says I. ‘It’s as spooky here as a Brooklyn artificial-limb factory at midnight with the gas turned down.’
“Just then I heard somebody coming, and I dragged High Jack into the bedless bedchamber. There was peep-holes bored through the wall, so we could see the whole front part of the temple. Major Bing told me afterward that the ancient priests in charge used to rubber through them at the congregation.
“In a few minutes an old Indian woman came in with a big oval earthen dish full of grub. She set it on a square block of stone in front of the graven image, and laid down and walloped her face on the floor a few times, and then took a walk for herself.
“High Jack and me was hungry, so we came out and looked it over. There was goat steaks and fried rice-cakes, and plantains and cassava, and broiled land-crabs and mangoes—nothing like what you get at Chubb’s.
“We ate hearty—and had another round of rum.
“‘It must be old Tecumseh’s—or whatever you call him—birthday,’ says I. ‘Or do they feed him every day? I thought gods only drank vanilla on Mount Catawampus.’
“Then some more native parties in short kimonos that showed their aboriginees punctured the near-horizon, and me and High had to skip back into Father Axletree’s private boudoir. They came by ones, twos, and threes, and left all sorts of offerings—there was enough grub for Bingham’s nine gods of war, with plenty left over for the Peace Conference at The Hague. They brought jars of honey, and bunches of bananas, and bottles of wine, and stacks of tortillas, and beautiful shawls worth one hundred dollars apiece that the Indian women weave of a kind of vegetable fibre like silk. All of ’em got down and wriggled on the floor in front of that hard-finish god, and then sneaked off through the woods again.
“‘I wonder who gets this rake-off?’ remarks High Jack.
“‘Oh,’ says I, ‘there’s priests or deputy idols or a committee of disarrangements somewhere in the woods on the job. Wherever you find a god you’ll find somebody waiting to take charge of the burnt offerings.’
“And then we took another swig of rum and walked out to the parlor front door to cool off, for it was as hot inside as a summer camp on the Palisades.
“And while we stood there in the breeze we looks down the path and sees a young lady approaching the blasted ruin. She was bare-footed and had on a white robe, and carried a wreath of white flowers in her hand. When she got nearer we saw she had a long blue feather stuck through her black hair. And when she got nearer still me and High Jack Snakefeeder grabbed each other to keep from tumbling down on the floor; for the girl’s face was as much like Florence Blue Feather’s as his was like old King Toxicology’s.
“And then was when High Jack’s booze drowned his system of ethnology. He dragged me inside back of the statue, and says:
“‘Lay hold of it, Hunky. We’ll pack it into the other room. I felt it all the time,’ says he. ‘I’m the reconsideration of the god Locomotorataxia, and Florence Blue Feather was my bride a thousand years ago. She has come to seek me in the temple where I used to reign.’
“‘All right,’ says I. ‘There’s no use arguing against the rum question. You take his feet.’
“We lifted the three-hundred-pound stone god, and carried him into the back room of the café—the temple, I mean—and leaned him against the wall. It was more work than bouncing three live ones from an all-night Broadway joint on New-Year’s Eve.
“Then High Jack ran out and brought in a couple of them Indian silk shawls and began to undress himself.
“‘Oh, figs!’ says I. ‘Is it thus? Strong drink is an adder and subtractor, too. Is it the heat or the call of the wild that’s got you?’
“But High Jack is too full of exaltation and cane-juice to reply. He stops the disrobing business just short of the Manhattan Beach rules, and then winds them red-and-white shawls around him, and goes out and. stands on the pedestal as steady as any platinum deity you ever saw. And I looks through a peek-hole to see what he is up to.
“In a few minutes in comes the girl with the flower wreath. Danged if I wasn’t knocked a little silly when she got close, she looked so exactly much like Florence Blue Feather. ‘I wonder,’ says I to myself, ‘if she has been reincarcerated, too? If I could see,’ says I to myself, ‘whether she has a mole on her left—’ But the next minute I thought she looked one-eighth of a shade darker than Florence; but she looked good at that. And High Jack hadn’t drunk all the rum that had been drank.
“The girl went up within ten feet of the bum idol, and got down and massaged her nose with the floor, like the rest did. Then she went nearer and laid the flower wreath on the block of stone at High Jack’s feet. Rummy as I was, I thought it was kind of nice of her to think of offering flowers instead of household and kitchen provisions. Even a stone god ought to appreciate a little sentiment like that on top of the fancy groceries they had piled up in front of him.
“And then High Jack steps down from his pedestal, quiet, and mentions a few words that sounded just like the hieroglyphics carved on the walls of the ruin. The girl gives a little jump backward, and her eyes fly open as big as doughnuts; but she don’t beat it.
“Why didn’t she? I’ll tell you why I think why. It don’t seem to a girl so supernatural, unlikely, strange, and startling that a stone god should come to life for her. If he was to do it for one of them snub-nosed brown girls on the other side of the woods, now, it would be different—but her! I’ll bet she said to herself: ‘Well, goodness me! you’ve been a long time getting on your job. I’ve half a mind not to speak to you.’
“But she and High Jack holds hands and walks away out of the temple together. By the time I’d had time to take another drink and enter upon the scene they was twenty yards away, going up the path in the woods that the girl had come down. With the natural scenery already in place, it was just like a play to watch ’em—she looking up at him, and him giving her back the best that an Indian can hand, out in the way of a goo-goo eye. But there wasn’t anything in that recarnification and revulsion to tintype for me.
“‘Hey! Injun!’ I yells out to High Jack. ‘We’ve got a board-bill due in town, and you’re leaving me without a cent. Brace up and cut out the Neapolitan fisher-maiden, and let’s go back home.’
“But on the two goes; without looking once back until, as you might say, the forest swallowed ’em up. And I never saw or heard of High Jack Snakefeeder from that day to this. I don’t know if the Cherokees came from the Aspics; but if they did, one of ’em went back.
“All I could do was to hustle back to that Boca place and panhandle Major Bing. He detached himself from enough of his winnings to buy me a ticket home. And I’m back again on the job at Chubb’s, sir, and I’m going to hold it steady. Come round, and you’ll find the steaks as good as ever.”
I wondered what Hunky Magee thought about his own story; so I asked him if he had any theories about reincarnation and transmogrification and such mysteries as he had touched upon.
“Nothing like that,” said Hunky, positively. “What ailed High Jack was too much booze and education. They’ll do an Indian up every time.”
“But what about Miss Blue Feather?” I persisted.
“Say,” said Hunky, with a grin, “that little lady that stole High Jack certainly did give me a jar when I first took a look at her, but it was only for a minute. You remember I told you High Jack said that Miss Florence Blue Feather disappeared from home about a year ago? Well, where she landed four days later was in as neat a five-room flat on East Twenty-third Street as you ever walked sideways through—and she’s been Mrs. Magee ever since.”