Fool Jones

THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB

I WAS not surprised, only proud anew, to hear of the beautiful way in which our soldiers saluted the bereaved French mother as she stood on a street in Paris. Perhaps there was more outward and courtly ceremony in their standing and doffing hats to the French lady than had ever come within my sight; but I knew well that our rank and file, whom I have seen every day for almost a score of years, had it hidden in them.

There was that soldier in Cebu some eighteen years ago, for example. I was rather new to the Army then, had much to learn about the Service, and was just beginning to get it straightened out that I must order brooms from the quartermaster and soap from the commissary. I was all the way round the world from home, the clanking of the insurrectos’ chains in the Fort San Pedro frightened me into shivers, and I was learning through sickening experience that the odorous little town of Cebu was one of the hottest spots on earth. Jones, private soldier and tiny cog in our army machine, knew all these things, and being quite old enough to be my father, stood in loco parentis as ably as circumstances permitted.

Jones was ‘striker’ to the household, and a striker, as perchance all the world now knows, is that indispensable man chosen from the ranks to serve the needs, tastes, habits, and whims of an officer and his family. His jeering comrades call the striker ‘dog-robber,’ because of an ancient tradition — myth or not, who can say? — that the man filches from the household pet the luscious tidbits once indisputably his very own. Be that as it may, the striker becomes in some mysterious way, however tactfully concealed, the most considerable member of an army officer’s household, to whose vagaries all others gracefully yield.

A long time and many, many strikers have intervened since Jones held sway in my home, but I recall with perfect precision the ‘cut of his jib,’ as our navy cousins have it. I had just come into the port of Cebu across a too turbulent sea, had been tossed about on an unspeakably dirty Spanish steamer by the lashing tail of a typhoon, had brushed elbows with an amazing array of poultry, goats, evil-tempered Filipino ponies, and evil-looking Filipino persons, as fellow passengers. Sights, sounds, smells, the very feel of life itself, were strange beyond description. And now I was climbing the three flights of ebony stairs leading to my eyrie in the crumbling ant-ridden house, where I was to live through exciting days and more exciting nights of Philippine insurrection.

I can truthfully say that nothing I had yet encountered seemed any more remarkable than the soldier I cornered at the top of the stairs. I am not aware that he was known to be the ugliest man in the United States Army; but I am sure that Jones could have claimed the title justly. I could scarcely believe my eyes, that anything human could possess such tallness, such thinness, so crooked and long a nose of a red beyond naming, and withal a gargoyle mouth seen nowhere this side of Notre Dame.

The agony of the cornering was so manifest, that I had the instant desire to assuage it by pretending that there was really no soldier there. The poor trapped creature, in addition to being the homeliest of men (possibly because of it), was likewise the shyest in the presence of women. But though I took no outward cognizance of Jones at that our first meeting, I called him back to me a little later in a very fury of need.

Left alone in my new home, I was gazing out an open window at my unbelievably curious surroundings. I was finding it rather different from Tennessee. Here, in the bamboo trees beside me, were jewel-colored birds flitting about as casually as if they were humble little wrens. Out there, in the shining hot sea, was the island where Magellan had once landed, knelt, and prayed. Down below me — but what was below me? Hideous screams arose from the ground far beneath my window; and looking shudderingly down, I beheld the Philippine version of butchering a hog by plunging a red-hot iron down its throat. Then I screamed, and I screamed for Jones. He was on the floor below, and his extraordinarily long and crooked legs brought him leaping up the stairs.

‘Oh, stop the fiends!’ I implored him.

Jones stopped them. He whipped a revolver from his belt, pointed it at the group of butchers, and then yelled in things. He threw them language, mingled American-Spanish-Visayan — language with magic in its curdling accents, for a profound silence fell upon the Filipinos and they scattered like chaff before a wind.

‘ I would n’t cry no more,’ Jones suggested timidly, as he put his revolver back in his belt. ’I’ve fixed them Gugus a-plenty. I ’lowed I ’d be compelled to shoot ’em plumb full of holes if they ever went to killing a hog that-a-way again. I — well — I’m here to look after you, ma’am, and ding-bust it if I ain’t going to come mighty nigh doing it.’ That was the longest speech Jones ever made me, but how the man served me! Very soon he was made cook of the establishment, and set up his kitchen under the banana trees in the garden. He scoured sea and land for choice dainties, and brought home the most succulent shell-fish and the largest mangoes. He concocted dishes which I could not eat, but which he thought I could. He kicked the stupid muchacho, in utter disregard of my protests, to give celerity to the poor boy’s service. He rounded up the Filipinos who were most expert in carving the lovely shells of Cebu, and those who wove the finest palates, and led them to me by the ear, if need were.

One night, when most of the troops had left the town to attend to a little business out in the hills, a band of insurrectos came in and fired upon our barracks. At the first shot I covered my head with my pillow. At the next I leaped out of bed, ran into the sala, and stood at the open window to see what I might see. It was brilliant moonlight, and across the plaza it was easy to pick out the white-clad Filipinos firing wildly in our direction. But before I could see the last of our soldiers rushing out of barracks to disperse the impertinent enemy, I was snatched by hard firm hands and deposited in a far corner, while Jones, in almost as complete negligée as I, was saying, imploringly, —

‘For Gawd’s sake, ma’am, keep clean away from that there winder, and stay where I put you!’

A moment later a stray bullet went whistling through the window from which Jones had unceremoniously borne me, and buried itself in a wooden pillar inside the house. I remember vividly how Jones swiftly melted away before my gratitude. A mere nothing, saving lives! Another night of violent storm I was again alone and was taken very ill. Never shall I forget Jones’s ministrations. He tended me as skillfully as a woman, and as a tender, gentle woman at that. When he could do no more for me, he ran out into the frightful tempest and brought back from some distance a rather sulky doctor, who opined that the case was not as urgent as ‘that fool Jones’ had described it.

‘The blithering fool had his gun in his hand when he came in to get me,’ the doctor growled. ‘It was one of those murderous automatics, too. The army will go to the dogs if such idiots are turned loose in it.’

When I left Cebu for good, Jones, in an agony of confusion, shook hands with me, and to my utter astonishment and distress puckered up his gargoyle face and wept aloud.

Dear faithful old Jones! I hope — and believe — that there are tens of thousands of just such soldiers as you in this vast new army of to-day.