The Praying Skipper and Other Stories/Chapter 5

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PRIVATE SAUNDERS, of the Ninth Infantry, was flushed and dazed with fever, but able to walk from the ambulance up a stone stairway into what looked to him like a huge and gilded warehouse. At first glance, he did not see the long rows of cots whose gray blankets blended with the carpet of dusk and shadow in the late winter afternoon. Monstrous golden dragons seemed to writhe and flicker against the roof beams far above him, or twist in play on lines of massive columns. Saunders dropped his kit and leaned on his rifle while he rubbed his eyes with a trembling hand. If this was the hospital of the American army in Peking, he wished that some one would turn out the guard and capture the menagerie that had taken possession. Sliding uncertain feet across the flagged floor, he fell over a cot and gripped a protesting leg, whose owner sputtered:

"Get off o' me, you left-footed lobster. Ain't there no chance for a man to be sick without the roof fallin' on him? Why, hello, Jim, what in blazes is the matter with you? Brace up and holler for the orderly. He's somewhere down at the end of the line, packin' up what's left of Chase of P Company, who just passed in his checks."

Saunders sat on the edge of the cot and wept with the whimper of a tired child:

"Is it the hospital sure enough, Shorty? All them ten-foot dragons makin' faces at me in the dark ain't comfortin' to a man with wheels in his head. Guess this must be the Emp'ror's private temple. Why, here's a dozen o' my pals spraddled around over the floor. I've hit the right place, all right. Lead me to my bunk, an' get me bedded down."

The overworked hospital corps private, who was nurse and orderly for the ward, picked up the accouterments of Saunders, and helped him crawl under the blankets of the cot alongside "Shorty" Blake. The contract surgeon, delaying to question a group of convalescents in the court-yard, came in to examine the new patient, and said "pneumonia" to the nurse. Saunders heard nothing of the consultation, for he was looking up into the gloom of the distant rafters, and trying to count the racing gilded dragons that would not be still and made his head ache intolerably. When lanterns were lighted at the ends of each aisle, the shadows danced worse than before, and to his fevered eyes the great temple was populous with glittering shapes in terrifying agitation.

This, the largest of the clustered buildings in the park of the Temple of Earth, was an extraordinary hospital, even in daylight. Sacred to the annual pilgrimage of the Emperor in his worship of the Supreme Deity, these temples had been inviolate for many centuries until profaned by the conquering foreign allies. The walled park became the camp of the American forces, and one of the most sacred shrines of the land was used as a field hospital. A regiment could have been drilled on the marble pavement without crowding, and the two hundred sick soldiers scattered in the vastness of it were bitten with a sense of chilling desolation.

Between flights of delirium, through his first night in hospital, Saunders heard the groans and restless muttering of many men, and his fancies magnified them into an army. There were neither screens nor walls to divide the wards, only the rows of cots between the carved pillars that marched across the temple floor, so that all individual suffering and the tenacious struggle of dying became common property. The soldiers who passed away in the night time did not trouble their comrades so much as when death came in daylight, and the end was a spectacle thrust upon those in surrounding cots.

A little after midnight the tramp of stretcher bearers punctuated a thin and wailing outcry, coming from that which they bore, and the temple floor awoke with weary curses. Those near the doorway learned that a Chinese coolie, caught in the act of stealing coal from the quarter-master's corral, had been tumbled off a wall by a sentry's shot. The lamentations of the victim rasped sick nerves beyond endurance, and the hospital held no sympathy in its smallest crevice. The coolie was an old man and badly hurt. Opium had made him impervious to customary doses of morphine, and after he had been drugged in quantities to kill four men, he was no nearer rest. From a far corner of the temple the wounded coolie wailed an unending

"Ay oh"—"Ay oh"—"Ay oh!"

Soldiers rose in their blankets and made uproar with cries of—

"Kill him!"

"Smother the brute!"

"Give him an overdose!"

"Now, ain't this an outrage!"

"Hi, there, One Lung, give us a rest, for God's sake!"

"Throw him out in the yard."

Daylight brought to Saunders infinitely grateful respite from a world through which he had fled from flaming dragons that shrieked, as if in torture:

"Ay oh"—"Ay oh"—"Ay oh!"

The grip of his delirium weakened in a few days, and the surgeon called him a "mild case." At the end of a week, Saunders was able to sit up a little and talk with the men around him. But the violence of these early impressions in hospital had unstrung a system drained by long service in the Philippines, and by the contrasting hardships of the cold winter in North China. The gloomy temple frightened the soldier, for sometimes the private has nerves, but he kept his fears to himself, thinking them womanish. He fell to brooding too much of home, and the more he dwelt upon the distance between Peking and those who loved him the more insistent became his morbid fear that he would not go back with his company.

It happened almost daily that the Ninth Regiment band trailed through the hospital compound, playing a dead march. There was always a halt in front of the stone stairway, and after a few moments the dragging music sounded fainter and farther away. A little later those in the temple could barely hear the silvery wail of "taps" floating from a corner of the outer wall, where a line of mounds was growing longer week by week. Then the band returned, playing a Sousa march or a "rag-time" medley. The listeners in hospital filled in the gaps between the music, and the mind of Saunders was busiest of them all in picturing the routine of a soldier's funeral in Peking.

The surgeons looked him over in morning inspection rounds, and said there was nothing the matter to prevent his recovery. "Shorty" Blake and "Bat" Jenkins of P Company strove to make Saunders take some interest in life, and would have been cheered if he had even sworn at the rations and the lack of hospital comforts. They brought him jam and condensed milk from the commissary-sergeant, which he refused to eat; they assembled around his cot the most vivacious convalescents, selecting as entertainers those valiant in poker and campaign stories. Finally Saunders was persuaded to overhaul his haversack and show his slender store of souvenirs gathered in Peking. Blake and Jenkins moved over to pass opinion on the riches, and Saunders welcomed them tremulously:

"I was plannin' to take some things home to mother and sister," he began, "but I didn't have a chance to get much while the lootin' was busy. Wouldn't have done me any good if I had, when the captain had the tents searched and collared most of the company stuff. I ain't sorry I missed it on the loot, for the old lady 'ud throw out o' the window all the stuff I sent her, if she thought it wasn't paid for. She's fierce in backin' foreign missions, an' the Chinamen is her purticuler pets."

Shorty broke in with an oath: "Yes, I know all about P Company's captain and his hair-trigger conscience. He swiped all our loot, but he sent home forty-seven mail packages, duty free. I got that from the postal clerk. What you got left, Saunders?"

The invalid spread an embroidered panel of crimson satin and a roll of blue silk on the edge of his cot, and threw a handful of silver ornaments and a cloisonné snuff-box on the blankets.

"I didn't loot even this stuff," he said, with an apologetic air, "but bought it along the Chien-men Road, so it could go to the home folks with a clean bill of ladin'."

The spectators sniffed incredulously, but with unexpected tact hid any livelier display of doubt.

"Why don't you mail the goods home with a letter, and send a good jolly?" said Jenkins. "We'll get 'em off for you. There's a mail wagon goin' to Tientsin early to-morrow mornin'. Tell the old lady you're fat an' sassy. She'll call in the whole village to show 'em the presents from her brave soldier boy out among them poor, benighted, gentle, murderous Chinese heathen."

Saunders rallied for the afternoon, scrawled a letter, and sent his gifts. Then he buried his head in the blankets and wept, the effort having stirred new depths of hopeless homesickness. Through the following week he failed to gain in strength and spirits, and the surgeon mentioned "nostalgia" once or twice in chatting with the nurse.

"He may lie there and flutter out, with no disease worth a diagnosis," said the "medico." "The poor idiot thinks he would die on the way if he was shipped across country to Taku, to connect with a transport; and he's sure he'll be buried if he stays here. If we can get a little strength in him, I'll see what I can do to get him started home."

Saunders was not yet a dying man, but the natural process of recovery seemed at a standstill. There came a sharp turn for the worse after "Shorty" Blake limped in with a letter, which he tossed to the languid private with a cheery shout of—

"Wake up, Jim; here's the latest news from home. Hurry and tell us the price of butter an' eggs at the corner store."

But Saunders read the letter in silence, and while he read, his thin young face twitched, tears came, and the helpless length of him moved in little jerks that rippled the blankets.

The chaffing queries of his comrades were unanswered, and the patient seemed to be asleep through the afternoon and evening. When the light of the next morning filtered through the latticed windows of oiled paper, "Shorty" Blake saw Saunders grope for the letter under the blanket roll that served him for a pillow, and read it again. His voice was weaker than before, as he beckoned Blake and Jenkins to the cot, and said:

"Here's what comes of my leavin' home to be buried in this muck-heap of a town—an' my folks turned out to starve. You might as well read it, though you can't do any good."

Shorty saw a woman's handwriting, and he took the closely written sheets with singular gentleness. The spelling was imperfect in spots, and there were many erasures, but he stumbled through the uncertain lines, which said:

"My Dearest Son

"No letter has come from you since you left the Philippines, but I'm sure you are all right, because no notice has come to me from the War Department as your next of kin. All I know is that your regiment is in Peking, and I hope and pray you are with it, all safe and sound. Sister Mary and me are pretty busy, as there has been no one to help us with the place since your brother died last spring. I know your enlistment ain't up for another year, and it's wicked to desert, and they would shoot you for it anyhow, and whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth; but it does seem kind of hard when we want you so much at home that you have to be fighting them poor Chinamen when I've been sending money for their souls these thirty-seven years. But as long as we all have our health there ain't any real troubles I suppose.

"I don't mean to find fault and you mustn't worry about us. I'm as active as a cricket and Mary hasn't been ailin' any to speak of. It's been a good long spell of dry weather, and that's good for my rheumatism, but it wasn't very encouraging for the crops. The mortgage on the house and farm is due in six weeks, and I can't get a renewal, though it's only six hundred dollars, as you know. The bank people is that haughty about the thing that I don't exactly see how we can get around them.

"But where there's a will there's a way, and the Lord tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, and if we ain't got any cash, there's others worse off. Your uncle Joseph is breakin' up fast, and he's ten years younger than me. He's the last of the tribe that's left on either side, and his family won't have anything to spare when he's gone. Of course it's hard to think of losing our old place, but I'm still pretty spry, and my black silk is good as new. I can't just quite tell where Mary and me will be if we leave home so soon, but you write just the same and the postmaster will know. You remember him, that stumpy, light-haired Jameson that married one of the Martins.

"God bless you, my poor wandering boy.

Your loving

Jenkins was reading over "Shorty's" shoulder, and several hairy faces framed in gray blankets had edged silently nearer.

"Well, what do you think of that?" said a Sixth Cavalry corporal. "And here's Saunders been givin' up the ghost without havin' any real troubles. Now it's time for you to brace up, and beg, borrow, or steal the dough and shoot it along to the old homestead. That letter was written more 'n a month ago."

But Saunders had turned his face away and was a useless member of the ways and means committee, which convened with "Shorty" Blake as chairman. A praiseworthy burst of philanthropic ardor subsided when it met the cold fact that the paymaster had not visited camp in two months, and was not expected in Peking before three weeks later. Investigation revealed also that nearly all the available cash in P Company had passed into the hands of three expert poker players, who were reported as being "hard as nails, and wouldn't give a dollar to save their own mothers from the poorhouse."

Saunders showed no symptoms of interest in these endeavors, largely because he foresaw their magnificent futility. He was in a condition of hopeless apathy, and beyond rereading the letter from home now and then, made no effort to rally. He kept a tally of the days remaining before the foreclosure of the mortgage, with a series of thumb-nail scratches on the frame of his cot.

There were twelve days to be marked off when "Shorty" Blake, who had been discharged as cured, clattered into the ward, and yelled as he leaned over Saunders:

"I lost track of my dates while I was in this gold-plated asylum, and my discharge is due to-day, and I was figurin' my enlistment wasn't up for another week. There's a squad of discharged men goin' down to Tientsin in a wagon-train to-morrow, and I've drawn my travel pay, got my papers, and I'm off for little old New York. Here's where I drop off on the way an' do what I can for your old folks in Kansas. Got anything you want to send them?"

Saunders became almost animated as he rolled over and tried to speak in a fluttering whisper:

"I ain't got any money for 'em; but tell 'em I was doin' well when you left me, and to keep their nerve, an' I'll get back as fast as I can. But speakin' between us, Shorty, there's nothin' doin' for me, and I'll be planted before you get to 'Frisco. Maybe I've got some little trick to send along. Wait a minute. Fish around under the cot and find me a roll of rubber blankets."

The uproarious "Shorty" opened the bundle and disclosed a jade teapot, in a wrapping of wadded silk. It was a flawless bit of carving, fashioned from a solid block of imperial green jade, no more than a pretty toy to the soldiers, who examined it indifferently and wondered why Saunders wished to send it to his mother.

"It's the last thing I've got," he explained, "and the last present they'll ever get from me. I think they'd like to know I wasn't so blamed forgetful at the finish. Just lug it along, Shorty, an' if it don't get broke on the way, you can mail it when you cross the country."

The wish and the token were a sick man's whim to Blake, but he wrapped the jade teapot and tucked it in a soft corner of his haversack when he packed his kit late that night. He was vaguely aware that his purpose of finding the distressed family of Saunders would not survive the journey home, yet he had meant it when he made the promise. He believed Saunders as good as dead, because he had seen men die of homesickness in the field hospitals of the Philippines.

"I'll send his silly teapot to his folks," he told another discharged private of P Company, as they climbed into a four-mule wagon next morning; "and I'm sorry I can't help him out, same as you are. If the doctor would pack the poor fool in a wagon and ship him to the sea, he couldn't any more than die on the way, and there 'd be a fightin' chance he'd brace up."

With this farewell tribute of sympathy, the fortunes of Private Saunders slipped into the background among the varied interests which occupied the attention of the late Private Blake along his route to Taku Bar.

In the hospital, Saunders continued to let go his grip on life as gently as possible. Tangible woe and regret had become active agents in assisting the passive manner of his fading away. A new major-surgeon came up from Tientsin to assume charge of the hospital, and he was angry when he examined Saunders and heard the history of the case. "That man is dying of homesickness and worry," he growled to the hospital corps private in the ward; "and now he hasn't enough vitality left in him to risk moving in an ambulance. He'd snuff out like a candle on the way to Tientsin, and you can't keep him alive more than two weeks longer. He may as well die in some comfort as be jolted to death."

Much of the time in the following week Saunders hovered along the borderland of dreams which were not wholly disquieting, for he had become on friendly terms with the gilded dragons on the shadowy rafters, and now and then they talked to him. The sick men of P Company had been sent back to duty, and Saunders did not know those who had taken their places along his aisle of the columned temple. When he noticed them, it was to whisper little inconsequential memories of home, and to tell passers-by of some new discovery gleaned from an intimate familiarity with numberless gilded dragons that never slept. He still noted the tally marks on the frame of his cot, and when he was too weak to reach them, the man in the nearest cot scratched a cross for him until only seven marks remained. The letter was no longer read, but the tragedy it told was woven through much of the delirious talk of the patient.

Meantime "Shorty" Blake had been routed with heavy loss among the canteens and other diversions of Tientsin, and, greatly the worse for wear, made his way to Taku and boarded a Japanese transport bound for Nagasaki. He went ashore in that entertaining port with three Mexican dollars as the melancholy remnant of his pay and travel allowance "to the place of enlistment," and presented his papers to the American quartermaster stationed in Nagasaki, who gave him an order for transportation on the next United States transport sailing for San Francisco.

Discharged Private Blake was much disconcerted when he was informed that no Government vessel was to stop en route from Manila in less than two weeks, and that he was stranded "on the beach," with several other recent losses to the fighting strength of the army in the Orient. A bundle of looted silk had been exchanged in Tientsin for bottles of astonishing Scotch whiskey made in Shanghai, and there was nothing else of cash value in the light marching order of ex-private Blake. He hired a room in a toy-like Japanese hotel, and late that night returned without his three Mexican dollars, but with the perverted energy of a runaway automobile. Charging headlong through the dainty paper walls of the hotel rather than be annoyed by trying to find the door mobilized a small army of Japanese policemen, and memory came back to Blake when he was dragged into the street, his haversack hurled at his head by the agitated landlord.

Daylight found him very thirsty and nervous, wandering along the edge of the bay, waiting for a glimpse of a blue army blouse and the tenuous hope of a small loan. He leaned against the stone wall of the Hatoba, with his haversack under his tortured head, and twisted as his cheek rubbed a hard lump beneath the canvas. Ramming his hand into the haversack with a peevish curse, "Shorty" pulled out a package wrapped in wadded silk, and unrolled a teapot of green imperial jade. A stocky manikin of the Nagasaki police was standing near, and the soldier addressed him and the sleeping harbor without partiality:

"If I didn't forget all about Jim Saunders and his teapot, I'm a liar. An' he must be dead an' planted by this time, an' the old homestead gone to hell, an' nothin' left but this looney little teapot as his last will an' testament. I'll surely send it to Kansas all right, tho' it ain't goin' to cheer the old lady very much. The teapot must be worth as much as a dollar and a half."

Then the demon of thirst gripped Blake by the throat, and the eff ort of swallowing fairly shook him. He slipped the tea-pot into his haversack, and to his credit it must be told that he struggled with temptation for several minutes. Then he muttered weakly: "I ain't goin' to sell it. The teapot will be all safe in hock till I can send for it or make a strike. Who's goin' to know the difference, anyway? Saunders had no business to pass away like a sick chicken, an' load me up with this billy-be-damned piece of bric-a-brac."

But shops and saloons were not yet opened, and "Shorty" Blake walked heavily along many blocks of silent streets, his thirst more raging and insistent as he found himself thwarted. Every scruple vanished and he was ready to sell the teapot for the price of a pint flask of anything searching and fiery.

The rattle of rickshaw wheels made him suddenly alert, and he stumbled toward the sound. As he turned a corner there was a collision, and the racing coolie in the shafts slid on his head, while the passenger barely saved himself from an ugly backward fall. The Japanese officer so nearly upset accepted the awkward apologies of the soldier derelict and politely asked whether he had been hurt. "Shorty" pulled himself together and, saluting instinctively, he spoke with breathless haste:

"No, sir, no damage done, and I hope you wer'n't shook up; but don't you want to buy a prime jade teapot, and help out an American soldier who's broke, an' ain't got no other means of support? I know it ain't worth much, bein' nothin' but a toy, but I need the price, whatever it is."

The officer bowed as if honored by the confidence, and replied: "It is not customary to sell jade teapots in the streets so early in the morning, and I am in the hurry to arrive with my duty. But Japan and America are so great friends since Peking, eh? Is it not? A-h, is th-a-a-t the jade, and from Peking, eh? I do not know everything about jade, but there are many good times for you in that teapot; ha, ha! I think so. I am not so mean to rob the honorable soldier. You will make a borrow of this two yen—two dollars—all right, eh? And you will take my card and the teapot will come with you at my house at noon hour, eh?"

Before the beclogged brain of "Shorty" Blake had caught up with these directions, the rickshaw was whisking around a curve of the hillside, and the derelict was left staring after, the jade teapot in one hand, and two one-yen notes in the other. Visions of wealth made him tingle, and he rewrapped the treasure with reverent deliberation. Then began another battle with a battered fragment of a conscience, and the voice of Saunders was so distinct in his ear that he turned suddenly more than once to mutter to the empty street:

"I'm on the edge of the shivers. It's a bad sign when you hear voices as plain as that. It's that baby whine of his, always cryin', 'Ten days more an' the folks will be homeless and starvin', an' I can't do nothin'.'

"Holy smoke! I've heard that string of dates often enough to keep track of 'em. An' there's three more days leeway or I've missed my count. An' me with a fortune in this little monkey-doodle teapot, if that Jap wasn't stringin' me."

From stories told later to his "bunkie" on the transport, it is probable that "Shorty" Blake passed through great mental stress during the forenoon of his second day in Nagasaki, but that this ordeal was nothing compared with his torments after an interview with a wealthy dealer in curios at the home of a major of Japanese infantry on the hill. There is reason to believe that the discharged private of the China Relief Expedition kept his appointment in a fairly sober condition, although much shaken and easily startled. An hour later, the Japanese officer accompanied "Shorty" Blake to the telegraph office and the branch of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, with an air of anxious guardianship, as if determined to see a wavering project through to the finish. Shorty skipped references to his escort in subsequent narratives, as if the topic were painful, dismissing his interview with the sweeping summary:

"I had to go an' put that little Jap wise to the whole hard-luck story of Jim Saunders. Then he talked to me like a Dutch uncle, and had me on the mourners' bench in no time. Them Japs is strong on filial duty, and he never let up on me till the job was done."

Twenty-four hours later, the Signal Corps operator at the American army station in Peking copied a message addressed to "J. Saunders, P Company, Ninth Infantry, Field Hospital No. 1."

"Sold teapot for eight hundred dollars gold. Have cabled six hundred to old lady to bust mortgage. Will bust Nagasaki wide open with balance. If not dead, brace up.

(Signed) "Shorty."

It seemed indecent to carry this telegram to the bedside of Private Saunders. He had lost all interest in the world of men and things, yet was inexplicably lingering, as if caught in an eddy as he drifted out. Fantasies had fled, and his mind was clearing, as if to pay some heed to the important business of ceasing to be. The message was first read by the major-surgeon, and there was more than professional interest in his tone, as he said to the nurse of the ward:

"Give that man ten drops of digitalis and a dose of brandy, and try to wake him up enough to understand this telegram. It's the only thing on earth that may pull him through. He told me his troubles, and this ought to be his salvation."

The powerful stimulants stirred a current of life in Saunders, and he heard and comprehended the tidings from "Shorty" Blake, and the heroic compromise of that distressed soul who had saved the home of his "pal," but could not let go his grip on the remainder of the windfall. The invalid gulped and there was almost the shadow of a grin in his stammering whisper:

"That b-b-blamed fool Shorty is a —— angel, ain't he? I-I don't b-believe I'm d-dead yet. Say, can I go home if I'll get strong enough to stand the hike?"

This effort exhausted Saunders and he slept awhile. The surgeon was taking his pulse when he awoke, and the friendly nurse holding a cup of beef tea to his lips.

"You seem to have quit making an ass of yourself," said the surgeon; "and I've seen your company commander this afternoon. If you can work up enough strength to stand the trip to the coast, I'll see that your discharge papers are made out. You'll be no more good to the army."

The same inducement had previously failed to interest Saunders, but now he had determined to live, in the mighty inspiration of joy and hope renewed. He drank beef tea and begged for more, and when he flashed a feeble sputter of profanity because he was not allowed a bit of bacon, the ward became noisily cheerful. The captain of P Company was not a hard man, but he had suspected Saunders of malingering until the major-surgeon told him the private's hospital history, and how he had been saved from death by the miraculous intervention of the departed and flagrantly notorious "Shorty" Blake.

"Saunders isn't a bad soldier," said the captain, "but he's always been a bit too sentimental and broody. And if he's decided to save another funeral in the company, you'd better ship him home before he changes his mind. We can't feed him on another batch of such stimulating news if he slumps again. I'll look after his discharge papers, if you will certify him for disability."

It was three weeks later when Saunders, very thin and somewhat wobbly, waited in Nagasaki for the next transport homeward bound from Manila. He met a discharged corporal of Riley's Battery whom he had seen in hospital, and the gunner was eager to tell a highly colored tale whose peroration ran:

"And I was just in time to see the finish of 'Shorty' Blake's bombardment of Nagasaki, and it must have been a wonder all the way. They took him off to the transport in a sampan, with four little Jap policemen sittin' on his head and chest, and him kickin' holes in the cabin roof. The only night I was out with him he was playin' a game of turnin' rickshaws upside down, and sittin' on the axle, with the passenger yellin' murder underneath until Shorty got ready to move on. I asked him where he got all his money for rum and police court fines, and he was that twistified with booze, he says:

"'I ripped the mortgage off the old homestead like the hero in a play, and took my commissions like J. P. Morgan reorganizin' a railroad. If you don't believe it, ask the Jap whose name begins with a jade teapot.'"