The Spirit of the Man
THE SPIRIT OF
By ALAN SULLIVAN
THE jungle's edge rose like a solid, green wall within a hundred feet of the white men's camp. On the other side was a strip of yellow sand, and, beyond that, a black, unwrinkled river, gliding mysteriously from the unknown. Three men sat on camp stools around a small table that was set close to the strip of sand. At a little distance a group of blacks squatted near a fire, from which a thin pencil of smoke climbed into the motionless air. There was talk, in the low, even accents that the wilderness imposes on those who brave her solitudes, then a lighting of pipes—and silence. Presently the three disappeared into the brown pyramid of a weatherbeaten tent, the blacks vanished to their own shelter—a little further down stream—and there was heard only the lisp of water along the shore, and a faint crepitant sound from behind the jungle wall.
A damp coolness succeeded the day's blistering heat, while from innumerable caverns of distance came the voice of the forest, tuned to every conceivable pitch. It seemed that every tree-top harboured some invisible tenant who suddenly flung his secret message to the throbbing air. Deep and shrill, rough and smooth, bland, hoarse, broken, threatening, from a myriad of throats the challenge swelled, with the quiver of a violin, the pure note of a flute, the thrill of pipes and boom of beaten drums. Thus for an hour, till the diapason reached its height, and sank slowly to an almost imperceptible whisper, punctuated at times by a bell-like call, whose monotone heralded the advance of silence.
The camp was deep in sleep, when something stirred at the edge of the jungle colonnade. The tangle of lianas parted, and, framed in vines, the flat face of a great ape was turned toward the river. He stood, monstrous, hairy and half human, his black lips lifted, his pointed ears twitching, a master of the jungle surveying the environment of man with a savage and poignant fascination. With nostril and ear he tested the silence for sign of danger, then moved noiselessly forward.
A hundred yards away a black porter sighed in his sleep, and the beast became instantly rigid. Presently he raised himself to full height, rolling a round head on his massive shoulders, so that his trunk thrust up from the tangle of grass and vine like that of some hideous god, till, dropping on all fours and crouching close to the ground, he crept stealthily on. A moment later he put out a horny hand, made a deep soft rumble in his muscle-bound throat, and felt timidly at the corner of the camp table. Strange odours assailed his nostrils, and every nerve was tensely ready for escape.
Soon the fear in the black eyes became assuaged, and he slid his blunted fingers along the smooth surface toward a metal cup. He did not know what the cup was for, but, that evening, had watched the men putting it to their faces time after time. Then his teeth fastened in it, and, as the edge pressed hard against his nose, he became horribly frightened and threw the thing away. Next he essayed a fork that a lazy cook had left unwashed, and the faint taste of strange food gave him a queer thrill, just as if the taste were not entirely new. After that he stayed quite still for a time, till he began to hunt nervously about for the cup, and, finding it, laid it back on the table with a little chuckle of pleasure. Finally he leaned his great arms on the smooth boards, and stared wistfully at the tent.
There was now neither fear nor anger in the terrible features, but only a vast wonder. He had known of the presence of these new animals for days, and something had been calling him ever since they came. He knew, too, that the jungle was afraid of them—as it was of him—and this made him feel as though they were not his natural enemies. He could not trust them yet, for, balanced in the tree-tops, he had seen too much killing, but a far-away voice told him to keep as close as he dared and see as much as he might. And it appeared now that, for animals who were weak and moved so slowly, they were very powerful.
From the tent came the sound of a voice, sleepy but distinct. The great ape stiffened where he stood, ready for instant flight. But in the same instant he heard a whisper commanding him to stay, and promising that there was no danger, so he remained tensely poised, while little quivers ran through his body. The sounds sank into his brain, and presently his wide, grey lips began to twist in wordless imitation. He made no noise, but stood there with contorted face till the sound died. It seemed that he ought to be able to do this if he tried. But he was also sure that this was not the time. Presently, creeping close to the tent, he crouched low in the half light and rested a long time without stirring.
In the middle of the next forenoon the white men struck into the jungle, walking single file. The trail was crooked, much overgrown and indistinct. A hundred feet above them the great ape swung easily through the branches. He did not know where they were going, or why: he only knew that he wanted to go, too. He had been thinking about them in his own way ever since he slipped out of camp in the small of the morning, his brain full of tumult. Finding his mate, he had angered her by making strange sounds with lips and throat, so that he had not slept at all. And he desired, above all things, to keep this new matter secret.
So for hours he watched and brooded. The rest of the tribe swung along, but he chased them away with a fury that drew glances of surprise from the men beneath. As time passed, the great ape became conscious of a queer, protective impulse that prompted him to search the tree-tops for dangers which might threaten the things below, and which, he was somehow assured, they could not see for themselves. Busy with all this, he forgot—for the first time in his life—to eat, and was downcast when the men began to retrace their steps. He was even a little used to the report of a rifle, having decided that there was no danger unless he could see the strange animals' eyes at the same time. That night, at sundown, his mate received a severe beating, and he took up his observation point again.
There was little done in camp that evening which escaped notice. Fire was made, and the ape screwed up his eyes at the red flower that sprang between the heap of sticks. He reasoned that it had to do with food. The fact that the three white men did no work, removed them—in the ape's mind—from the blacks, who were in no way strange to him. So he followed everything with a steady, unwinking stare and profound stirrings in his hairy breast, and when the camp had gone to sleep, he began a close and painstaking survey.
First to the fire. There was no red flower now. When he looked for it, he hurt his fingers. Then to the table, where he found more things than before. Lifting the cup, he did not bite, and a little water trickled down his gullet. The hairless brows lifted with surprise. He tried the fork again, and, pushing it too far in, pricked his throat. He puzzled over this, and did it the second time, without hurting. From that he went on, learning not to grasp things too strongly, because it seemed to hurt them. Finally he sat in a camp chair, which immediately collapsed. He leaped from its ruins straight into the air, with the poignant knowledge that he had done something wrong. Then, as though to conceal the crime, he stuffed the fragments under a bush.
And all this time he was getting happier. The camp was very quiet. He made no noise himself, and was perfectly aware of all that went on in the near-by jungle. He knew that there was a leopard not far off, hunting wild pigs; he knew there were elephant within smelling distance; he knew that his mate had stolen up as near as she dared. But, for all of this, a subtle instinct told him that his place was here. He wanted to crawl near the strange animals and lie down beside them. And just then he heard the faintest possible splash in the black water. A crocodile had lifted himself, shining, from the river, and waddled slowly across the strip of sand.
The ape bristled where he stood, for to all apes the crocodile is a thing of fear. There is no escape, once those long jaws have closed, and it is vain to batter at that bony skull. The man-like beast knew this, and his first impulse was to fly, when there rose within him a grim fury that this monster should threaten those whom he now suddenly and in a queer way recognised as friends. His hairy throat began to swell, the flat face grew distorted with rage, great muscles bulged on neck and arms as he crouched. The crocodile glanced at him malevolently with a narrow, vicious eye, then, taking no further heed, waddled nearer the tent. He had strayed down stream from a pool miles further up, and was in strange waters. But the tent interested him exceedingly.
The scaly twenty-foot length had covered half the distance, when the ape made a little dancing motion. Simultaneously his right paw touched something round and smooth and hard. It was the handle of a shovel. The callous fingers closed on it, and for the first time in his life the big brute knew that he was armed. It had no weight, but he felt that with this he could strike and stand further off than ever before. The crocodile halted for an instant, having perceived something new, then lurched silently forward. He had smelled that which was within the tent.
There were only a few yards left when the ape hurled himself into the air. He landed just outside the hissing swing of the crocodile's deadly tail, and, lifting the shovel, brought it down with terrific force on the broad, sheathed neck. A clatter of metal on bone, and the thing split in his grip. Grabbing the handle, he waged war, giving vent to hoarse, choking grunts of fury. The crocodile rocked in anger. He hardly felt the blows, but the smell of live meat was in his black muzzle, and he was not wont to be baulked of his desire. The great jaws clashed and half his length skidded to right or left as the big, hairy body danced, barking, beside him. Then from the tent came a shout, and three men tumbled into the moonlight.
The ape recognised something in the hands of the first, and heard more shouts from the blacks, who came racing up, but for the very first time he was too lost in anger to know fear. The passion of protection had transformed him into a demon. Came a flash and a sharp report. His side felt suddenly sore, and where the crocodile's eye had been was now a gaping hole. At that he knew instinctively that there was no further need for help, and these new kinsmen had hurt him. Swaying in sheer wonder, he waited, till at a shout that saved his life, though he could not know it, he flung himself at the jungle, and traversed the clearing in a series of amazing leaps.
A guard was posted at the water's edge, and the camp drifted back to slumber after a hot argument as to what the fight had been really about. But no man came near the truth. Half a mile away the great ape flouted the consolation of his mate, and nursed a bloody tear in his side. He was horribly chagrined. He could not reason the thing out—for no reason was in him—but was divided between resentment and a strong desire to be alone. His memory was applicable to places, food, and other apes, but not to any previous emotions, so he could not go back over what he had done and see where the fault lay. The point was that he had made a mistake. He sat for a long time, then, toward morning, worked his way deliberately toward the clearing. Swinging across the tree-tops, his mind cleared, for this seemed the solution to all things. He was willing almost to be hurt again, if they would only let him be near them.
So it came that the white men never left camp without their invisible convoy When they went up the river to shoot crocodiles in the big pool, he paralleled their course on shore, cheerfully silent as he clambered from branch to branch. Silence, he had learned, was the chief requirement. When the black water was thrashed yellow by dying monsters, he did not chatter with excitement, but watched it as evidence of the power of these mighty pygmies whom he was beginning to love, in spite of the bare scar on his side. When they stopped in the jungle to eat, he remained poised and motionless, far overhead. When they talked, he listened, his ears stiffly erect, and at their laughter he knew that all was well. When they slept, he patrolled the jungle wall, unseen by the black guard at the river's side, a grim sentinel, held in dread by all that moved within the forest.
In the same degree did his tribal instinct dwindle. Noisy conclaves in the tree-tops held no invitation for him now. Avoiding the insensate chatter of his band, he made for himself a particular domain, a few square yards of green, where no other ape intruded, and gave himself up to wistful imaginings that always ended just where they began. Once he threw some ripe fruit into the camp, and fled because a man reached for his rifle. The next night he laid fruit on the ground beside the tent, and was rewarded when his masters picked it up with wonderment. And all the time something warned him to keep carefully out of sight.
Then came the greatest day of his life. It was toward evening when one of the men picked up his rifle and sauntered into the jungle, passing close to the ape's hiding-place. The latter followed automatically. It was the first occasion when any one of them had walked thus alone. They moved deliberately, man and beast, while all around the jungle throbbed with teeming life. The ape felt more important than ever before, but experienced a strange sense of apprehension. They were half a mile from camp when the rifle spoke without warning, and the invisible guardian saw that it had not been lifted to the master's shoulder. Simultaneously the master pitched forward on his face.
The ape hung motionless in space and stared down. This had never happened before, and he knew that something was wrong. The man did not stir, so he dropped to a lower branch, choking with excitement. Still there was silence, and, with wild nerves tuned to the highest pitch, he descended inch by inch till he swayed twenty feet above the ground. Man-smell and blood-smell were in his twitching nostrils.
On his great rounded back the hair rose stiffly as, grasping the rough trunk, he moved imperceptibly earthward. Touching the ground, he had a strange feeling of joy at being alone with the master. He was full of fear and nameless delight.
The man did not stir. A broad black paw went timidly out, and rested like a feather on the slack shoulder. The ape quivered at the touch, and fear became suffused in dumb compassion. The smell of man and blood rolled up in thick invisible waves, burdened with death and danger, but he fought back his savage instinct with all the power of a new and profound conviction. They were kinsmen, this thing and he. Then, prompted by he knew not what, he turned the man over, marvelling at his lightness, and laid a horny finger on the hole in the torn shoulder. And all the time he knew that the jungle was whispering, watching, and waiting. But the jungle would never get this.
After an instant of indecision, the great beast darted a hundred yards away, returning with a few aromatic leaves, which he pushed gently into the wound. It was what he would have done for himself. The bleeding decreased and he was very happy. Soon it seemed there was something else to be provided, and he flung himself into the jungle, coming back burdened with fruit. This he laid beside the still figure.
Moments passed, and the brute became convinced that something had been forgotten. He puzzled over it, growing more and more excited, till, following the law of the wild, he began to call. The voice of him, rough, broken, and beseeching, lifted into the tree-tops, and the jungle all around became populous. A myriad bright eyes peered through the leafy screen; a myriad small forms drew closer and closer. The ape knew it, but paid no heed. Ever his voice swelled, the vast lungs emptied and filled, and hairy hands drummed on the great, arched breast. The clamour of it rolled through swamp and thicket, till, all in a breath, the jungle became silent, for, far away, moved that which was stranger to its gloom.
The ape heard them first, and, darting up the nearest tree, watched till his other masters found that which they sought. He heard their exclamations, and saw faces turned to the green canopy overhead. His sharp eyes missed nothing when they slung the limp figure between two black porters, and one of the white men, with a quick upward glance, stooped and put the fruit in the bulging hammock. And when the small procession moved riverward, he glided above it—a ghost in the shadows—his throbbing heart filled with unspeakable things.
A week after that, the new animals went away. The ape knew for two days that they were going. Nothing else could explain what he saw. At the same time he had a definite feeling that it was no use to try and follow. He brought no more fruit; he forgot even to eat, but balanced hour after hour in his hiding-place, watching with eyes that were full of age and a nameless wistfulness. He was conscious now of things that made his head hurt, and when he saw one of the new animals—his one—carried into the biggest canoe, great tears rolled down his naked face. Then there were voices and a stir by the water's edge, and after that the jungle silence.
Dropping to the ground, he moved across the clearing and stood upright where once had been the camp. The man-smell still clung to it, and came most strongly from the flat place where the tent had stood. The ape surveyed the litter that was left, picking up things here and there, only to let them slip from listless fingers. Presently he found a battered metal cup, and from a near-by bush pulled out the fragments of a camp chair. At that he sat down, holding the latter between his feet and the cup in his black paws. Then he put the cup slowly to his lips.
Day waned, but the big brute did not stir. Night came on, and the jungle began to talk. The shadows lengthened, till he was lost in their gloom. Of all the forest people, he alone was motionless, he alone felt grief. A breath had reached him from without the wilderness, a light had flickered uncertainly in the savage brain. The breath had died away, and the light was nearly extinguished, but somewhere in that formidable skull glowed a surviving spark.
He swayed where he sat, and, beating his breast, flung a wild complaint to the stars. The harsh note penetrated the purple distance till lesser beasts shivered in the dark, and all that walked or climbed or crept took heed to their going. Gradually the cry sharpened, while grief merged into wonderment, and wonderment mounted to a blind fury. Then, grasping his treasure, and drunk with the lust to kill, the gorilla hurled himself into the jungle.