A New Knowledge of the Frontier

UNTIL to-day I have smiled, with all the superiority of joy, on the frontiersmen who have insisted upon telling me that all journeyings were not like ours. As they looked into each other’s eyes I saw strange things that baffled me in those looks. ‘ You must remember that there are such things as hoodoo trips,’ they would say.

‘I snap my fingers at your hoodoos,’ I have answered. And to myself I have whispered, ‘They know not the spirit. The two of us are vagabonds; we are charmed.’

Until to-day I have never deemed it necessary to heed their words. Until to-day I have been a blithe thing holding out my arms to the billowy clouds, to the unquenchable sunshine of Manchuria. I have stood on the top of windy winter passes, exulting in the wild free life of these outpost trails, glorying in the sting of the air, the hardship, and the danger.

Even these last months, which have been full of baffled waiting within my house, — not at all like our former life of companionship on the trail, — I have heard but one message from the frontier lying just outside my door: the clear-spoken message of its recreating power. But to-day I am tortured with apprehension. Can it be that for us there is another knowledge of the frontier? But surely, if such knowledge were for us, my husband, who is a seasoned pioneer, would have discovered it long before this. I am sure the wilderness holds no lonely terrors for him. And lately has he not proved it anew? It is early September now, and from the first of April the vagabond gods have deprived him of all companionship on the trail; for during these months the bandits have fairly rioted over the land, and despite our general indifference to bandits and such bold folk, the powers-that-be declared that these were moments for caution; nothing would induce them to let a woman run straight out to meet such evil bands as were reported to infest even the towns.

So in April my husband went out without me. When he came back on the first of May, it was as I had expected : that solitary month had made him only the more keen-eyed and virile. I felt that the men who condoled with him on the loneliness of the trip evidently knew nothing of the joys of such travel. He was at home but three days when he was ready to start again. And surely I am right in what the wilderness always means to him; for when he returned after two months more of such travel and we started in a launch up the Liao River, he was all the light-hearted boy. How he talked those first days as we moved up the river! Again I said to myself, ‘The loneliness that other men fear never harms him. These past three months which he has spent with the days entirely bare of any companionship with white men are the final test. Out of the silences he has drawn new life, out of the solitude his spirit has come forth yet more free and buoyant.’

That was six weeks ago, and when, after some three days, the launch broke down and he decided that he could not wait to have it mended but would do the journey alone on horseback, I was doubly sure that the frontier had never brought him a sinister meaning. If it had, he certainly would have rebelled against going out to it again, alone. But to-day I am tortured with doubt. Suppose that the eagerness he displayed on the launch were the eagerness of starvation, not of young life. Suppose that, unknown to him, in the three months that he had been traveling alone there had accumulated within him fragments of loneliness — what then would this further solitary journey mean to him?

I am no longer a blithe spirit; something vaguely menacing surrounds me. I roam through the house and within me something moans as the rain and wind moan outside. The frontier no longer beckons with gay enticing fingers. This port appears a tiny and helpless thing facing the three hundred thousand square miles of untamed Manchuria. I shrink away from this wild unsettled country, for it has suddenly become for me a lean and hungry wolf slinking into the town to devour it. And my husband? The wolf may harm him. The night is rain-chilled. I will sit by the fire with the curtains all drawn, to shut out the sobbing rain and that stealthy approach of the savage land.

Sitting thus, fascinated by that silent, ruthless, advancing force, I did not hear the door open. When something impelled me to look up, there stood my husband, gaunt and worn as if he had come from some forty days’ vigil in the wilderness. There was that in his appearance that made me cry out, ‘What is it?' It was not because he was toil-worn or even emaciated. A journey into the unfrequented places of the earth always strips a man of all the sleek, well-fed aspect of the town. But in his eyes was that strange look that I had seen in the eyes of those other frontiersmen when they had warned me against the frontier.

Fragment by fragment my husband has told me his tale, and for me that look is no longer veiled — it is the look of one who has struggled with some demon. Now, while my husband is asleep, spent with his terrible contest, I go over and over in the silence of the night what he has told me, piecing together that fragmentary tale, determined in so doing that it shall yield me significance.

My vague apprehensions have become realities. Six weeks ago, on that fatal day when our launch broke down, my husband suddenly realized that he was starved for human companionship. When he decided that he must face the interior again on horseback, a strange sensation took possession of him. Why did something always happen to rob him of companionship? He began to feel as if there were some relentless hand continually pulling him back, back into solitude, into the alien world that had already held him so long. As he thought of the past, he saw it made up solely of solitude and yellow men. He thought ahead: there stretched innumerable days of more solitude, more yellow men. He began to think of this new journey with a lethargy of spirit, as if a chord too often struck had grown silent. He knew that he was very tired from weeks of hasty arduous travel, and thought that his feeling was due to that. But he says that it never occurred to him not to go. He had never turned back when there was a piece of work to be done; he did not intend to do so now.

When he reached Tiehling, where he was to get his ponies, everything was against him. Before this, his belief in his hand, his indomitable will, had never failed him in difficulties; but at the very start of this trip the men who surrounded him seemed to know with the sure and uncanny instinct of primitive men that something was different — that the strong will which had carried him so far was now not so strong. He was puzzled at his inability to secure the service he wanted. He paid high prices, but he secured poor ponies, poor service. The ‘boy,’ his stand-by, left him on the plea of the death of his grandfather.

With no knowledge that something had snapped within himself, my husband went doggedly on with his preparations. He held his lethargy of spirit as unimportant, for he still believed himself bigger and stronger than all the great primal strength of the frontier; he would bend it to his desires. Although the summer rains had started, although the yellow men rebelled, although his spirit was tired, he would not turn back. He never had. He never would.

And so, late one afternoon, with the leaden skies above him, with poor servants and poorer animals, he rode forth from his starting-point to go to the very border of Manchuria and over into Mongolia — rode off into the tall kaoliang. I can see him, erect and determined, on his good-for-nothing pony, lost in a moment in the waving grain-fields, riding straight toward the all-embracing solitude.

Hour after hour he plodded along, with the wet sharp leaves of the kaoliang cutting his face, spraying him with water. The lack-lustre day ended, a duller twilight came on. As quietly but as inevitably as the twilight and the night descended, there settled over him a strange and horrid depression. Struggle as I know he must have, he was unable to throw it off. The night deepened around him; the depression deepened within him, like some sticky black evil.

I can see him on every step of the way, for once we made that part of the journey together. It must have been very late when he rode into the low hills that surrounded the town, that was his night’s stopping-place; and of necessity he would be feeling his way in the darkness, his sole guide the gleam of two parallel lines of water — the ruts of the road. An hour ago, as he told me his broken tale, he seemed not to be here; it was from that far-off lonely road, picking his way along, that he entreated me. ‘Good God! I must end that eternity of mud, of living burial in the kaoliang, of thoughts stale as death. Surely I was not to be caught in the grip of a loneliness I had heard other men tell about, a thing so malignant that it poisons every adventure of the road!’ With words like these he begged me here to-night to save him from something, as if even now I could change it all.

When at last there appeared the flicker of low lights on the horizon, he plunged recklessly through the mud, through the blackness, until he reached the lantern swinging over the agent’s door. ‘I worked like a Turk that night,’ he said. He scented ‘squeeze,’ and that gave him his chance to dig at things. I imagine that he worried the agent’s account as a tenacious dog worries a bone; and when he started again the next day, he thought that he had succeeded in ridding himself of the depression of the previous day. But again there was that impotence destroying his control over men and things. As the day advanced, the loneliness, which in the morning he held in abeyance, pushed him down, down. The disasters grew worse and more frequent; his substitute boy grew badnatured and unwilling, his muleteers reckless and unruly. The day ended by a muleteer jumping sidewise on a pack-mule as they were passing a perfect morass of mud and water. The mule, losing his balance, fell, breaking his leg in the fall. A sullen group, cursing in two languages, they shot the mule, and, dividing his pack among them, started for the dirty, unfrequented Inn of the Blue Fish.

While those aliens slept around him, he stood far into the night — stood shivering over a tiny brazier, trying to dry out his clothes enough to make it safe to lie down and sleep. In those moments of the night, he evidently came to conceive of the loneliness as a kind of shadowy shape keeping him ghastly company.

I do not know the details of what followed; I think that he does not know himself. He knows only one thing — that for weeks he made his way slowly, painfully, doggedly, traveling harder than he had ever traveled before, trying to out-travel that evil phantom of solitude which lay down to sleep with him, which sat by his side as he ate. He came to live with one hope — that he could lose his horrible guest at the border when he slipped over into Mongolia. He went over in his mind the tales he had heard of this new country — a country of magic, he was sure. Of course the buoyancy of life would return to him when he left behind the monotony of kaoliang, blue-clad Orientals, and endless red mud. Already he felt the first faint stirrings of joy that come to the inveterate wanderer when he thinks of new, untried countries. At the border his spirit would rise and slay this phantom.

But when he reached the border of Manchuria and passed over into Mongolia, there was no change from the kaoliang, the blue-clad Oriental, the endless red mud. There were no robed Mongols in wine-colored robes, no herders of vast flocks of sheep, no shaven lamas watching over Tibetan temples, no bold horsemen riding ponies like mad and then dropping below a level horizon. There on the border he came to know Mongolia simply by the fact that the crops were poorer, the land less cared for. ‘There is no Mongolia,’ he cried out to himself. ‘It has turned Chinese in speech, in dress, in manners, in occupation; the Chinese always absorb all nations they encounter.’

In his despair he did not stop to reason that at the boundaries of nations there is always an intermingling. He saw nothing but the absorbing power of the Chinese, and into his mind, already distorted by loneliness, came a horrible fear. He too was speaking Chinese; he too was dropping into the ways of the Chinese! Were they absorbing him? Could he ever again be like other white men? Each day he felt his identity diminishing. From then on it seemed to shrivel and shrink before his very eyes. Two grim spectres instead of one accompanied him. With insinuating voices they whispered to him, ‘You can never escape us.’ Said one, ‘A lonely man is forgotten by his kind’; the other murmured, ‘ Each day you are less a white man.’

But the shreds of his will still held against those hideous guests, as he had come to look upon them. He still held them in abeyance. He still fought them, until a certain evening when he and his now almost demoralized train straggled into an inn at dark. A drunken soldier reeled toward him, hit his boy a resounding crack over the head, and then, before my husband’s numbed senses grasped the scoundrel’s meaning, the creature had him covered with his rifle. He has only a vague recollection of one of his escort coming up in time to knock the gun into the air just before it went off. Always before, such narrow escapes had made us rebound with exaltation of spirit, intensifying the mere sense of existence until our spirits leaped with some vivid elemental joy that made us gloat over the sting that sharpened the reality of our existence. But my husband now realized but one thing — that he, the man who had been able to cope with all difficulties of the trail, had not been sufficiently master of himself to get ready his revolver in that moment when the soldier had reeled toward his boy. Others had had to save him! Then real fear gripped him. Those phantom guests had seen what manner of man he really was. They knew that he could not conquer them any more than he could save himself from the soldier.

God-forsaken days followed. On over the plains he made his way, through drizzle, through rain, through mud. He no longer rejected those horrible guests; where he went he invited them to go. He spent hours ingratiating them, trying to please them. He allowed nothing to interrupt their communings together, and he toyed with the cowardly things they whispered in his ear.

How he kept on with his now demoralized train, I scarcely know. A sort of sixth sense must have kept him moving back toward the border of Manchuria. He lost count of what day of the month it was, even what day of the week. None of them knew just where they were in a land made unfamiliar by its shroud of mists. At last, one night when the train of dejected mules and muleteers was moving more slowly than ever (the boy had deserted days before, and he knew none of the men would last much longer), they saw a long, level line of low lights above the flat horizon.

‘There’s Sze Ping Kas,’ cried his soldier guide.

He did not hear.

‘The fire-cart comes there!’ shouted the soldier in his ear.

Over the racking anguish of his thoughts came these words, and for a moment his real self penetrated the cloudy, cowering new personality that he had come to call himself. He jumped from his spent pony. ‘I’ll get there,’ he thought, ‘I can lead him — I’ll kill all those damned insinuating shapes that deny I am myself.’

But that resurrection of himself was only for a minute, then it faded away; and his new self and his two guests became confused in his mind. Sometimes they were in his way, sometimes they stumbled behind and he had to stop and wait for them. After a time, he does not know how long, he got as far as the outskirts of the town. As he huddled there on a stone, those shadowy things leaped up before him—living horrors cackling, mocking, gibbering at him.

‘We’ve found you out — you’re weak. You are absorbed into the yellow race. You bear the marks. You can never go back to your kind. Better end it all!’ they railed.

Then it was that his true personality seemed utterly extinguished. He looked at the long line of low lights, but there was no meaning in them for him now. There was nothing left for him but the spectres. Again he heard them at it: ‘What’s a white man doing here?’ How they mocked! He crouched to spring, his fingers went tense to grasp their shadowy throats. If he ended it, they should all end it together. He jumped for them.

But instead of the spectres, he stood face to face with a friend, a man with whom in the past he had shared many a hard trail. ‘I’ve roused you at last,’ his friend was saying, as he grasped him by the hand. ‘Guess you’re about all in.’ Then, as he looked into his eyes he exclaimed, ‘Had a hoodoo trip, eh? How does it come that an old hand like you could let himself in for a scourging from the frontier? Come along with me. Three of us have a mess together over here.’

‘Guess you’ll have to excuse me,’ began my husband. ‘Been off in the country a long time; I’m not fit for civilized company.’

‘Billy-be-damned! You need to come whether you are fit for it or not,’ urged his friend. ‘Rifle the supply-closet, fellows,’ he called as, a few minutes later, the two of them stepped arm in arm over the threshold of the little house into warmth and light.

My husband sank into a chair and passed his hand over his eyes. How wonderful were the voices, how splendid the light! Oh, surely this was not to be another tantalizing mirage of the night! He could grasp this light, these men. It must be true, for had not the gibbering horrors with their foul suggestions left him? Yes, the good common things of life had come back to him. All was as it always had been in the world of men.

They stood with their glasses in their hands. ‘Here’s to you,’ they were saying.

Oh, the warm goodness of their companionship! My husband jumped to his feet to touch his glass to theirs, but the light, the warm sense of human companionship, the humanness, where were they? They were vanishing. He stretched out groping hands —

Dim and far-away the voice of his friend reached him: ‘He has fainted. Wonder what’s the matter? It’s something more than fatigue. But he’s not the sort of man to fail under the test of the land. I know; I have made a lot of trips with him. He is not one of those persons who wreck themselves with revenging hate for the frontier because she has shown them that they are tawdry; he is not one of the weak who mistake her silence and liberty for license.’

Then light at last broke on what had been to my husband the blackness of defeat. Men still believed in him! There was but one thing wrong, he knew it now — no man can live long without his own kind. ‘I had done it,’ he said, ‘and had thus made the joyous things of solitude and silence into a forbidding and lonely abode for my soul. The frontier gives a man no quarter; she either makes him or mars him according to the strength or weakness of his soul; and the strength of every man’s soul is not in himself alone.’

The night is finished: the fire is a heap of burned-out ashes, the wild beating of the rain is hushed in the dawn. With a deeper knowledge, I throw open our windows to greet the frontier morning.