The Lure of Kartabo
A HOUSE may be inherited, as when a wren rears its brood in turn within its own natal hollow; or one may build a new home such as is fashioned from year to year by gaunt and shadowy herons; or we may have it built to order, as do the drones of the wild jungle bees. In my case, I flitted like a hermit crab from one used shell to another. This little crustacean, living his oblique life in the shallows, changes doorways when his home becomes too small or hinders him in searching for the things which he covets in life. The difference between our estates was that the hermit crab sought only for food, I chiefly for strange new facts — which was a distinction as trivial as that he achieved his desires sideways and on eight legs, while I traversed my environment usually forward and generally on two.
The word of finance went forth and demanded the felling of the second growth around Kalacoon, and for the second time the land was given over to cutlass and fire. But again there was a halting in the affairs of man, and the rubber saplings were not planted or were smothered; and again the jungle smiled patiently through a knee-tangle of thorns and blossoms, and the charred clumps of razor-grass sent forth skeins of saws and hanks of living barbs.
I stood beneath the familiar cashew trees, which had yielded for me so bountifully of their crops of blossoms and hummingbirds, of fruit and of tanagers, and looked out toward the distant jungle, which trembled through the expanse of palpitating heat-waves; and I knew how a hermit crab feels when its home pinches, or is out of gear with the world. And, too, Nupee was dead, and the jungle to the south seemed to call less strongly. So I wandered through the old house for the last time, sniffing the agreeable odor of aged hypo still permeating the dark room, recovering the empty stains of skins and traces of maps on the walls, and refilling in my mind the vacant shelves. The vampires had returned to their chosen roost, the martins still swept through the corridors, and as I went down the hill, a moriche oriole sent a silver shaft of song after me from the sentinel palm, just as four years ago he had greeted me.
Then I gathered about me all the strange and unnamable possessions of a tropical laboratory — and moved. A wren reaches its home after hundreds of miles of fast aerial travel; a hermit crab achieves a new lease with a flip of his tail. Between those extremes and in no less strange a fashion I moved. A great barge pushed off from the Penal Settlement, piled high with my zoölogical Lares and Penates, and along each side squatted a line of paddlers, — white-garbed burglars and murderers, forgers and fighters, — while seated aloft on one of my ammunition trunks, with a microscope case and a camera close under his watchful eye, sat Case, King of the Warders, the biggest, blackest, and kindest-hearted man in the world.
Three miles up river swept my moving-van; and from the distance I could hear the half-whisper — which was yet a roar—of Case as he admonished his children. ‘Mon,’ he would say to a shirking, shrinking coolie second-story man, ‘mon, do you t’ink dis the time to sleep? What thoughts have you in your bosom, dat you delay de Professor’s household?’ And then a chanty would rise, the voice of the leader quavering with that wild rhythm which had come down to him, a vocal heritage, through centuries of tom-toms, and generations of savages striving for emotional expression. But the words were laughable or pathetic. I was adjured to
Oh, de mon — mon — blow de mon down.’
Or the jungle reechoed the edifying reiteration of
Sardines — and bread,
Sardines — and bread — AND!
Sardines — and bread.’
The thrill that a whole-lunged chanty gives is difficult to describe. It arouses some deep emotional response, as surely as a military band, or the reverberating cadence of an organ, or a suddenly remembered theme of opera.
As my aquatic van drew up to the sandy landing-beach, I looked at the motley array of paddlers, and my mind went back hundreds of years to the first Spanish crew which landed here, and I wondered whether these pirates of early days had any fewer sins to their credit than Case’s convicts—and I doubted it.
Across my doorstep a line of leafcutting ants was passing, each bearing aloft a huge bit of green leaf, or a long yellow petal, or a halberd of a stamen. A shadow fell over the line, and I looked up to see an anthropomorphic enlargement of the ants, — the convicts winding up the steep bank, each with cot, lamp, table, pitcher, trunk, or aquarium balanced on his head, — all my possessions suspended between earth and sky by the neck-muscles of worthy sinners. The first thing to be brought in was a great war-bag packed to bursting, and Number 214, with eight more years to serve, let it slide down his shoulder with a grunt — the self-same sound that I have heard from a Tibetan woman carrier, and a Mexican peon, and a Japanese porter, all of whom had in past years toted this very bag.
I led the way up the steps, and there in the doorway was a tenant, one who had already taken possession, and who now faced me and the trailing line of convicts with that dignity, poise, and perfect self-possession which only a toad, a giant grandmother of a toad, can exhibit. I, and all the law-breakers who followed, recognized the nine tenths involved in this instance and carefully stepped around. When the heavy things began to arrive, I approached diffidently, and half suggested, half directed her deliberate hops toward a safer corner. My feelings toward her were mingled, but altogether kindly, — as guest in her home, I could not but treat her with respect, — while my scientific soul reveled in the addition of Bufo guttatus to the fauna of this part of British Guiana. Whether flashing gold of oriole, or the blinking solemnity of a great toad, it mattered little — Kartabo had welcomed me with as propitious an omen as had Kalacoon.
Houses have distinct personalities, either bequeathed to them by their builders or tenants, absorbed from their materials, or emanating from the general environment. Neither the mind which had planned our Kartabo bungalow, nor the hands which fashioned it; neither the mahogany walls hewn from the adjoining jungle, nor the whitepine beams which had known many decades of snowy winters — none of these were obtrusive. The first, had passed into oblivion, the second had been seasoned by sun and rain, papered by lichens, and gnawed and bored by tiny wood-folk into a neutral inconspicuousness as complete as an Indian’s deserted benab. The wide verandah was open on all sides, and from the bamboos of the front compound one looked straight through the central hallway to bamboos at the back. It seemed like a happy accident of the natural surroundings, a jungle-bound cave, or the low, rambling chambers of a mighty hollow tree.
No thought of who had been here last came to us that first evening. We unlimbered the creaky-legged cots, stiff and complaining after their three years’ rest, and the air was fdled with the clean odor of micaceous showers of naphthaline from long-packed pillows and sheets. From the rear came the clatter of plates, the scent of ripe papaws and bananas, mingled with the smell of the first fire in a new stove. Then I went out and sat on my own twelve-foot bank, looking down on the sandy beach and out and over to the most beautiful view in the Guianas. Down from the right swept slowly the Mazaruni, and from the left the Cuyuni, mingling with one wide expanse like a great rounded lake, bounded by solid jungle, with only Kalacoon and the Penal Settlement as tiny breaks in the wall of green.
The tide was falling, and as I sat watching the light grow dim, the water receded slowly, and strange little things floated past down-stream. And I thought of the no less real human tide which long years ago had flowed to my very feet and then ebbed, leaving, as drift is left upon the sand, the convicts, a few scattered Indians, and myself. In the peace and quiet of this evening, time seemed a thing of no especial account. The great jungle trees might always have been lifeless emerald water-barriers, rather than things of a few centuries’ growth; the rippleless water bore with equal disregard the last mora seed which floated past, as it had held aloft the keel of an unknown Spanish ship three centuries before. These men came up-river and landed on a little island a few hundred yards from Kartabo. Here they built a low stone wall, lost a few buttons, coins, and bullets, and vanished. Then came the Dutch in sturdy ships, cleared the islet of everything except the Spanish wall, and built them a jolly little fort intended to command all the rivers, naming it Kyk-over-al. To-day the name and a strong archway of flat Holland bricks survive.
In this wilderness, so wild and so quiet to-day, it was amazing to think of Dutch soldiers doing sentry duty, and practising with their little bellmouthed cannon on the islet, and of scores of negro and Indian slaves working in cassava fields all about where I sat. And this not fifty or a hundred or two hundred years ago, but about the year 1613, before John Smith had named New England, while the Hudson was still known as the Maurice, before the Mayflower landed with all our ancestors on board. For many years the story of this settlement, and of the handful of neighboring sugarplantations is one of privateer raids, capture, torture, slave-revolts, disease, bad government, and small profits, until we marvel at the perseverance of these sturdy Hollanders. From the records still extant, we glean here and there amusing details of the life which was so soon to falter and perish before the oppressing jungle. Exactly two hundred and fifty years ago one Hendrik Rolwas appointed commander of Kyk-over-al. He was governor, captain, store-keeper, and Indian trader, and his salary was thirty guilders, or about twelve dollars, a month — about what I paid my cook-boy.
The high tide of development at Kartabo came two hundred and three years ago, when, as we read in the old records, a Colony House was erected here. It went by the name of Huis Naby (the house near-by), from its situation near the fort. Kyk-over-al was now left to the garrison, while the commander and the civil servants lived in the new building. One of its rooms was used as a council chamber and church, while the lower floor was occupied by the company’s store. The land in the neighborhood was laid out in building lots, with a view to establishing a town; it even went by the name of Stad Cartabo, and had a tavern and two or three small houses, but never contained enough dwellings to entitle it to the name of town, or even village.
The ebb-tide soon set, in, and in 1739 Kartabo was deserted, and thirty years before the United States became a nation, the old fort on Kyk-over-al was demolished. The rivers and rolling jungle were attractive, but the soil was poor, while the noisome mud-swamps of the coast proved to be fertile and profitable.
Some fatality seemed to attach to all future attempts in this region. Gold was discovered, and diamonds, and to-day the wilderness here and there is powdering with rust and wreathing with creeping tendrils great piles of machinery. Pounds of gold have been taken out and hundreds of diamonds, but thus far the negro pork-knocker with his pack and washing-pan is the only really successful miner.
The jungle sends forth healthy trees two hundred feet in height, thriving for centuries, but it reaches out and blights the attempts of man, whether sisal, rubber, cocoa, or coffee. So far the ebb-tide has left but two successful crops to those of us whose kismet has led us hither — crime and science. The concentration of negroes, coolies, Chinese, and Portuguese on the coast furnishes an unfailing supply of convicts to the settlement, while the great world of life all about affords to the naturalist a bounty rich beyond all conception.
So here was I, a grateful legatee of past failures, shaded by magnificent clumps of bamboo, brought from Java and planted two or three hundred years ago by the Dutch, and sheltered by a bungalow which had played its part, in the development and relinquishment of a great gold mine.
For a time we arranged and adjusted and shifted our equipment, — tables, books, vials, guns, nets, cameras, and microscopes, — as a dog turns round and round before it composes itself to rest. And then one day I drew a long breath, and looked about, and realized that I was at home. The newness began to passfrom my little shelves and niches and blotters; in the darkness I could put my hand on flash or watch or gun; and in the morning I settled snugly into my woollen shirt, khakis, and sneakers, as if they were merely accessory skin.
In the beginning there were three of us and four servants — the latter all young, all individual, all picked up by instinct, except Sam, who was as inevitable as the tides. Our cook was too good-looking and too athletic to last. He had the reputation of being the fastest sprinter in Guiana, with a record, so we were solemnly told, of 91/5 seconds for the hundred — a veritable Mercury, as the last world’s record of which I knew was 93/5. His stay with us was like the orbit of some comets, which make a single lap around the sun never to return, and his successor Edward, with unbelievably large and graceful hands and feet, was a better cook, with the softest voice and gentlest manner in the world.
But Bertie was our joy and delight. He too may be compared to a star — one which, originally bright, becomes temporarily dim, and finally attains to greater magnitude than before. Ultimately he became a fixed ornament of our culinary and taxidermic cosmic system, and whatever he did was accomplished with the most remarkable contortions of limbs and body. To watch him rake was to learn new anatomical possibilities; when he paddled, a surgeon would be moved to astonishment; when he caught butterflies, a teacher of physical culture would not have believed his eyes.
At, night, when our servants had sealed themselves hermetically in their room in the neighboring thatched quarters, and the last squeak from our cots had passed out on its journey to the far distant goal of all nocturnal sounds, we began to realize that, our new home held many more occupants than our three selves. Stealthy rustlings, indistinct scrapings, and low murmurs kept us interested for as long as ten minutes; and in the morning we would remember and wonder who our fellow tenants could be. Some nights the bungalow seemed as full of life as the tiny French homes labeled, ‘Hommes 40: Chevaux 8,’ when the hastily estimated billeting possibilities were actually achieved, and one wondered whet her it were not better to be the cheval premier, than the homme quarantième.
For years the bungalow had stood in sun and rain unoccupied, with a watchman and his wife, named Hope, who lived close by. The aptness of his name was that of the little Barbadian muletram which creeps through the coralwhite streets, striving forever to divorce motion from progress and bearing the name Alert. Hope had done his duty and watched the bungalow. It was undoubtedly still there and nothing had been taken from it; but he had received no orders as to accretions, and so, to our infinite joy and entertainment, we found that in many ways it was not only near jungle, it was jungle. I have compared it with a natural cave. It was also like a fallen jungle-log, and we some of the small folk who shared its dark recesses with hosts of others. Through the air, on wings of skin or feathers or tissue membrane; crawling or leaping by night; burrowing underground; gnawing up through the great supporting posts, swarming up the bamboos and along the pliant curving stems to drop quietly on the shingled roof—thus had the jungle-life come past Hope’s unseeing eyes and found the bungalow worthy residence.
The bats were with us from first to last. We exterminated one colony which spent its inverted days clustered over the centre of our supply chamber, but others came immediately and disputed the ownership of the dark room. Little chaps with great ears and noseleaves of sensitive skin spent the night beneath my shelves and chairs, and even my cot. They hunted at dusk and again at dawn, slept in my room, and vanished in the day. Even for bats they were ferocious, and whenever I caught one in a butterfly-net, he went into paroxysms of rage, squealing in angry passion, striving to bite my hand and, failing that, chewing vainly on his own long fingers and arms. Their teeth were wonderfully intricate, and seemed adapted for some very special diet, although beetles seemed to satisfy those which I caught. For once, the systematist had labeled them opportunely, and we never called them anything but Furipterus horrens.
In the evening great bats as large as small herons swept down the long front gallery where we worked, gleaning as they went; but the vampires were long in coming, and for months we neither saw nor heard of one. Then they attacked our servants, and we took heart, and night after night exposed our toes, as conventionally accepted vampirebait. When at last they found that the color of our skins was no criterion of dilution of blood, they came in crowds. For three nights they swept about us with hardly a whisper of wings, and accepted either toe or elbow or finger, or all three, and the cots and floor in the morning looked like an emergency hospital behind an active front. In spite of every attempt at keeping awake, we dropped off to sleep before the bats had begun, and did not waken until they left. We ascertained however that there was no truth in the belief that they hovered or kept fanning with their wings. Instead, they settled on the person with an appreciable flop, and then crawled to t he desired spot.
One night I made a special effort and, with bared arm, prepared for a long vigil. In a few minutes bats began to fan my face, the wings almost brushing, but never quite touching my skin. I could distinguish the difference between the smaller and the larger, the latter having a deeper swish, deeper and longer drawn-out. Their voices were so high and shrill that the singing of the jungle crickets seemed almost contralto in comparison. Finally, I began to feel myself the focus of one or more of these winged weasels. The swishes became more frequent, the returnings almost doubling on their track. Now and then a small body touched the sheet for an instant, and then, with a soft little tap, a vampire alighted on my chest. I was half sitting up, yet I could not see him, for I had found that, the least hint of light ended any possibility of a visit. I breathed as quietly as I could, and made sure that both hands were clear. For a long time there was no movement, and the renewed swishes made me suspect that the bat had again taken flight. Not until I felt a tickling on my wrist did I know that my visitor had shifted, and unerringly was making for the arm which I had exposed. Slowly it crept forward, but I hardly felt the pushingof the feet and pulling of the thumbs as it crawled along. If I had been asleep, I should not have awakened. It continued up my forearm and came to rest at my elbow. Here another long period of rest, and then several short, quick shifts of body. With my whole attention concentrated on my elbow, I began to imagine various sensations as my mind pictured the long, lancet tooth sinking deep into the skin, and the blood pumping up. I even began to feel the hot rush of my vital fluid over my arm, and then found that I had dozed for a moment and that all my sensations were imaginary. But soon a gentle tickling became apparent, and in spite of putting this out of my mind, and with increasing doubts as to the bats being still there, the tickling continued. It changed to a tingling, rather pleasant than otherwise, like the first stage of having one’s hand asleep.
It really seemed as if this were the critical time. Somehow or other the vampire was at work with no pain or even inconvenience to me, and now was the moment to seize him, call for a lantern, and solve his supersurgical skill, the exact method of this vespertilial anaesthetist. Slowly, very slowly, I lifted the other hand, always thinking of my elbow, so that I might keep all the muscles relaxed. Very slowly it approached, and with as swift a motion as I could achieve, I grasped at the vampire. I felt a touch of fur and I gripped a struggling, skinny wing; there came a single nip of teeth, and the wing-tip slipped through my fingers. I could detect no trace of blood by feeling, so turned over and went to sleep. In the morning I found a tiny scratch, with the skin barely broken; and, heartily disappointed, I realized that my tickling and tingling had been the preliminary symptoms of the operation.
Marvelous moths which slipped into the bungalow like shadows; pot tarantulas; golden-eyed gongasocka geckos; automatic, house-cleaning ants; opossums large and small; tiny lizards who had tongues in place of eyelids; wasps who had doorsteps and watched the passing from their windows — all these were intimates of my laboratory table, whose riches must be spread elsewhere; but the sounds of the bungalow were common to the whole structure.
One of the first things I noticed, as I lay on my cot, was the new voice of the wind at night. Now and then I caught a familiar sound, — faint, but not to be forgotten, — the clattering of palm fronds. But this came from Boomboom Point, fifty yards away (an outjutting of rocks where we had secured our first giant catfish of that name). The steady rhythm of sound which rose and fell with the breeze, and sifted into my window with the moonbeams, was the gentlest shussssssing, a fine whispering, a veritable fern of a sound, high and crisp and wholly apart from the moaning around the eaves which arose at stronger gusts. It brought to mind the steep mountainsides of Pahang, and windy nights which presaged great storms in high passes of Yunnan.
But these wonder times lived only through memory, and were misted with intervening years, while it came upon me during early nights, again and again, that this was Now, and that int o the hour-glass neck of Now was headed a maelstrom of untold riches of the Future — minutes and hours and sapphire days ahead — a Now which was wholly unconcerned with leagues and liquor, with strikes and salaries. So I turned over with the peace which passes all telling — the forecast of delving into the private affairs of birds and monkeys, of great butterflies and strange frogs and flowers. The seeping wind had led my mind on and on from memory and distant sorrows to thoughts of the joy of labor and life.
At half-past five a kiskadee shouted at the top of his lungs from the bamboos, but he probably had a nightmare, for he went to sleep and did not wake again for half-an-hour. The final swish of a bat’s wing came to my ear, and the light of a fog-dimmed day slowly tempered the darkness among the dusty beams and rafters. From high overhead a sprawling tarantula tossed aside the shriveled remains of his night’s banquet, the emerald cuirass and empty mahogany helmet of a longhorned beetle which eddied downward and landed upon my sheet.
Immediately around the bungalow the bamboos held absolute sway, and while forming a very tangible link between the roof and the outliers of the jungle, yet no plant could obtain foothold beneath their shade. They withheld light, and the mat of myriads of slender leaves killed off every sprouting thing. This was of the utmost value to us, providing shade, clear passage to every breeze, and an absolute dearth of flies and mosquitoes. We found that the clumps needed clearing of old stems, and for two days we indulged in the strangest of weedings. The dead stems were as hard as stone outside, but the axe bit through easily, and they were so light that we could easily carry enormous ones, which made us feel like giants, though, when I thought of them in their true botanical relationship, I dwarfed in imagination as quickly as Alice, to a pigmy tottering under a blade of grass. It was like a Brobdingnagian game of jack-straws, as the cutting or prying loose of a single stem often brought several others crashing to earth in unexpected places, keeping us running and dodging to avoid their terrific impact. The fall of these great masts awakened a roaring swish ending in a hollow rattling, wholly unlike the crash and dull boom of a solid trunk. When we finished with each clump, it stood as a perfect giant bouquet, looking, at a distance, like a tuft of green feathery plumes, with the bungalow snuggled beneath as a toadstool is overshadowed by ferns. The vitality of this growth was remarkable, and after we cut and planted a seventy-fivefoot stem for a flag-pole, the joints sprouted green shoots so rapidly that we had to lower and trim it from time to time, in order to raise the flag.
Scores of the homes of small folk were uncovered by our weeding out — wasps, termites, ants, bees, woodroaches, centipedes; and occasionally a small snake or great solemn toad came out from the debris at the roots, the latter blinking and swelling indignantly at this sudden interruption of his siesta. In a strong wind the stems bent and swayed, thrashing off every imperfect leaf, and sweeping low across the roof, with strange scrapings and bamboo mutterings. But they hardly ever broke and fell. In the evening, however, and in the night, after a terrific storm, a sharp, unexpected rat-tat-tattat, exactly like a machine-gun, would smash in on the silence, and two or three of the great grasses, which perhaps sheltered Dutchmen generations ago, would snap and fall. But the Indians and Bovianders who lived nearby knew this was no wind, nor yet weakness of stem, but Sinclair, who was abroad and who was cutting down the bamboos for his own secret reasons. He was evil, and it was well to be indoors with all windows closed; but further details were lacking, and we were driven to clothe this imperfect ghost with history and habits of our own devising.
The birds and other inhabitants of the bamboos were those of the more open jungle—flocks drifting through the clumps, monkeys occasionally swinging from one to another of the elastic tips, while toucans came and went. At evening, flocks of parrakeets and great black orioles came to roost, courting the safety which they had come to associate with the clearings of human pioneers in the jungle. A box on a bamboo stalk drew forth joyous hymns of praise from a pair of little God-birds, as the natives call the housewrens, who straightway collected all the grass and feathers in the world, stuffed them into the tiny chamber, and after a time performed the ever-marvelous feat of producing three replicas of themselves from this hay-filled box. The father-parent was one concentrated mite of song, with just enough feathers for wings to enable him to pursue caterpillars and grasshoppers as raw material for the production of more song. He sang at the prospect of a home; then he sang to attract and win a mate; more song at the joy of finding wonderful grass and feathers; again melody to beguile his mate, patiently giving the hours and days of her body-warmth in instinct-compelled belief in the future. He sang while he took his turn at sitting; then he nearly choked to death trying to sing while stuffing a bug down a nestling’s throat; finally, he sang at the end of a perfect nesting season; again, in hopes of persuading his mate to repeat it all, and this failing, sang in chorus in the wren quintette — I hoped, in gratitude to us. At least from April to September he sang every day, and if my interpretation be anthropomorphic, why so muchthe better for anthropomorphism. At any rate, before we left, all five wrens sat on a little shrub and imitated the morning stars, and our hearts went out to the little virile featherlings, who had lost none of their enthusiasm for life in this tropical jungle. Their one demand in this great wilderness was man’s presence, being never found in the jungle except in an inhabited clearing, or, as I have found them, clinging hopefully to the vanishing ruins of a dead Indian’s benab, waiting and singing in perfect faith until the jungle had crept over it all and they were compelled to give up and set out in search of another home, within sound of human voices.
Bare as our leaf-carpeted bambooglade appeared, yet a select little company found life worth living there. The dry sand beneath the house was covered with the pits of ant-lions, and as we watched them month after month, they seemed to have more in common with the grains of quartz which composed their cosmos than with the organic world. By day or night no ant or other edible thing seemed ever to approach or be entrapped ; and month after month there was no sign of change to image. Yet each pit held a fat, enthusiastic inmate, ready at a touch to turn steamshovel, battering-ram, bayonet, and gourmand. Among the first thousandand-one mysteries of Kartabo I give a place to the source of nourishment of the sub-bungalow ant-lions.
Walking one day back of the house, I observed a number of small holes, with a little shining head just visible in each, which vanished at my approach. Looking closer, I was surprised to find a colony of tropical doodle-bugs. Straightway I chose a grass-stem and, squatting, began fishing as I had fished many years ago in the southern states. Soon a nibble and then an angry pull, and I jerked out the irate little chap. He had the same naked bumpy body and the fierce head, and when two or three were put together, they fought blindly and with the ferocity of bulldogs.
To write of pets is as bad taste as to write in diary form, and, besides, I had made up my mind to have no pets on this expedition. They were a great deal of trouble and a source of distraction from work while they were alive; and one’s heart was wrung and one’s concentration disturbed at their death. But Kib came one day, brought by a tiny copper-bronze Indian. He looked at me, touched me tentatively with a mobile little paw, and my firm resolution melted away. A young coatimundi cannot sit man-fashion like a bear-cub, nor is he as fuzzy as a kitten or as helpless as a puppy, but he has ways of winning to the human heart, past all obstacles.
The small Indian thought that three shillings would be a fair exchange; but I knew the par value of such stock, and Kib changed hands for three bits. A week later a thousand shillings would have seemed cheap to his new master. A coati-mundi is a tropical, arboreal raccoon of sorts, with a long, everwriggling snout, sharp teeth, eyes that twinkle with humor, and clawed paws which are more skillful than many a fingered hand. To the scientists of the world he is addressed as Nasua nasua nasua — which lays itself open to the twin ambiguity of stuttering Latin, or the echoes of a Princetonian football yell. The natural histories call him coati-mundi, while the Indian has by far the best of it, with the ringing, climatic syllables, Kibihée! And so, in the case of a being who has received much more than his share of vitality, it was altogether fitting to shorten this to Kib — Dunsany’s giver of life upon the earth.
My heart’s desire is to run on and tell many paragraphs of Kib; but that, as I have said, would be bad taste, which is one fonn of immorality. For in such things sentiment runs too closely parallel to sentimentality, — moderation becomes maudlinism, — and one enters the caste of those who tell anecdotes of children, and the latest symptoms of their physical ills. And the deeper one feels the joys of friendship with individual small folk of the jungle, the more difficult it is to convey them to others. And so it is not of the tropical mammal coati-mundi, nor even of the humorous Kib that I think, but of the soul of him galloping up and down his slanting log, of his little inner ego, which changed from a wild thing to one who would hurl himself from any height or distance into a lap, confident that we would save his neck, welcome him, and waste good time playing the game which he invented, of seeing whether we could touch his little cold snout before he hid it beneath his curved arms.
So, in spite of my resolves, our bamboo groves became the homes of numerous little souls of wild folk, whose individuality shone out and dominated the less important incidental casement, whether it happened to be feathers, or fur, or scales. It is interesting to observe how the Adam in one comes to the surface in the matter of names for pets. I know exactly the uncomfortable feeling which must have perturbed the heart of that pioneer of nomenclaturists, to be plumped down in the midst of ‘the greatest aggregation of animals ever assembled’ before the time of Noah, and to be able to speak of them only as this or that, he or she. So we felt when inundated by a host of pets. It is easy to speak of the species by the lawful Latin or Greek name; we mention the specimen on our laboratory table by its common natural-history appelation. But the individual who touches our pity, or concern, or affection demands a special title — usually absurdly inapt.
Soon in the bamboo glade about our bungalow ten little jungle friends came to live, and to us they will always be Kib and Gawain, George and Gregory, Robert and Grandmother, Raoul and Pansy, Jennie and Jellicoe.
Gawain was not a double personality — he was an intermittent reincarnation, vibrating between the inorganic and the essence of vitality. In a reasonable scheme of earthly things he filled the niche of a giant green treefrog, and one of us seemed to remember that the Knight Gawain was enamored of green, and so we dubbed him. For the hours of daylight Gawain preferred the rôle of a hunched-up pebble of malachite; or if he could find a leaf, he drew eighteen purple vacuum toes beneath him, veiled his eyes with opalescent lids, and slipped from the mineral to the vegetable kingdom, flattened by masterly shading which filled the hollows and leveled the bumps; and the leaf became more of a leaf than it had been before Gawain was merged with it.
Night, or hunger, or the merciless tearing of sleep from his soul wrought magic and transformed him into a glowing, jeweled spectre. He sprouted toes and long legs; he rose and inflated his sleek emerald frog-form; his sides blazed forth a mother-of-pearl waistcoat — a myriad mosaics of pink and blue and salmon and mauve; and from nowhere if not from the very depths of his throat, there slowly rose twin globes, — great eyes, — which stood above the flatness of his head, as mosques above an oriental city. Gone were the neutralizing lids, and in their place, strange upright pupils surrounded with vermilion lines and curves and dots, like characters of ancient illuminated Persian script. And with these appalling eyes Gawain looked at us, with these unreal crimson-flecked globes staring absurdly from an expressionless emerald mask, he contemplated roaches and small grasshoppers, and correctly estimated their distance and activity. We never thought of demanding friendship, or a hint of his voice, or common froggish activities from Gawain. We were content to visit him now and then, to arouse him, and then leave him to disincarnate his vertebral outward phase into chlorophyll or lifeless stone. To muse upon his courtship or emotions was impossible. His life had a feeling of sphinx-like duration — Gawain as a tadpole was unthinkable. He seemed ageless, unreal, wonderfully beautiful, and wholly inexplicable.