Of Luxuries and Hardships
OFTEN you read in books that the missionary lives in luxury, and you are to believe it. He knows it himself — none better than he. When he comes back from a tour of his part of the African forest, and the luxury of his own clearing bursts upon him, he is amazed by it. There it is, like a cup full to the brim with luxury.
Those little mushroom houses of his own planning are shaggy with the thickest of palm-leaf thatch; they stand on ironwood stilts; there is glass in every window of them, and a stove in every kitchen of them, and a batch of white man’s bread in every oven. There is a rose before the door and a cabbage in the garden. There is a black boy in the garden — he is the gardener; and another under the house washing out the clothes — he is the wash-boy; and a boy in the kitchen baking the bread, and one in the middle room playing a crooked game on the table with knives and forks that are twisted.
These are the wonderful servants of the white man. They cry out with joy when they see him returned from his journey — and I ask you, when did your servants do that? It is a luxury. And they rush to tell the white woman — for there is a white woman in that house, and a calendar (which is a thing of the white man entirely), and the white woman has been telling off the days on the calendar against the luxury of her husband’s return. And for that day she has planned the most luxurious meal. She hopes there will be fresh meat, but if the huntsman fails her she means to ‘kill a tin.’ They will have kippered herring or a tin of sausage for supper, and tinned asparagus.
There they will sit under the clear bright light of a double-burner anglelamp, — double-burner, mind you, — with their bark walls about them and the forest wall pushed back from their roof and the large expensive stars above their clearing, — or the moon in the sky, and the sound of dance-drums rising from the valleys, — and the degree of their comfort is excessive. They reread their home letters and the paper that is two months old or the latest novel of three years ago — the sort of thing you would not be found dead doing. Or they look at the butterflies and beetles they have bought for fishhooks, instead of having caught them themselves.
Nothing could better it — unless it rains. If I could tell you what they feel when it is a night like this and the rain roars on the thatch and from all the eaves there is a fall of water that shines in the lamplight, — and the two of them together there, lapped in luxury, — you could not bear to hear of it. Envy would bite you, and you would break the Tenth Commandment. It is just the sort of spectacle that makes anarchists. When it rains, none of their thousands of friends come to see them; they go to bed at nine o’clock; and when, I ask you, had you a chance to do that? You see what I mean.
And if their skies are furnished more elaborately than their station justifies, — as they are, — why so are their houses. There is furniture in those houses that is famous for miles about. Black women come from a distance, and creep up the white woman’s stair on their hands and knees — a most hazardous adventure — to look at the mirror that is there.
I remember a chest of drawers in such a little cabin, and it was priceless. Money could not buy it. The possession of it was a corruption. I owned it for a year, and the thought of it obsessed all my journeys — I would rush untimely home from a professional itineration, to verify its presence. It furnished my room when I was at home and my heart when I was abroad. It had three stomachs, each of these larger than the one above it — all bulged. It was painted to simulate mahogany, but it was more vivid than mahogany, as a painted girl is more vivid than a girl. The three drawers of it must have come inland on the back of a carrier and the body of it on another back. It was the only imported article of furniture in the house, and I witness here and now that one luxury may make a summer. I cannot think how I bore to part with it, as I must have done. The drawers of it stuck in that humid air, but this was not a flaw — that chest of drawers was flawless. It was full of roaches.
And the roaches were there for the people who are sure that we endure the most crushing hardships. They expect so much of the animals and the cannibals and the climate that you hate to disappoint them, and you tell them about the roaches. How big they are, and how silly. How there are so many of them, and that they are forever leaving their little Gladstone bags full of their little foundlings on the steps of your most private doors. That you lace them up in your shoes and pull them out of your pockets and pour them out of your teapots. And once — but no, you think, I won’t tell them that. Besides, these people who are enamored of hardships are not to be put off with a cockroach. Surely, they say, there are days when you live above the level of your cockroaches.
And you are bound to agree that on the days when you have looked higher for your hardships you have found them. You wonder if you will tell these amateurs that there are days when the major hardships are as many as there are missionaries at the station, and the minor hardships are as many as the things they say and do; that the character of such a day is evident from its dawn. You know what you are in for at breakfast; and if you are very, very wise, you know what the other fellow is in for. If you are as wise as that, you take the quinine yourself as well as prescribe it for your neighbor. Neither dose on such a day is superfluous, or ever entirely adequate.
Refinements of technique do not come amiss on such a day. Do not discuss the postman’s schedule — where he should be sleeping the night, or what may be the day and the hour when he will cast his shadow in the clearing. If there are two of you, — and the nature of this hardship is based on the gregarious quantity, — these speculations will produce an optimist whose postman is winged, and a pessimist whose postman has been drowned in a river that has risen under a rain that is about to fall. For that same reason, do not discuss the schedules of steamers; avoid discussion of the merits of station clocks, personal watches, and the time of day. Differences of opinion and desperate loyalties to opposing timepieces in a forest where there is no umpire but the sun, due to set among hills, might breed the hardship of murder. And oh! do not claim inordinate virtues and excessive talents for your house-boy. Let him be as other house-boys are. And don’t diagnose this, either.
Best of all, if you have a job twenty miles away from the station, go off in the morning, and take your day of hardship to yourself. Savor it while you may, for it will not last long. In a respectable mission, where there are no heroes, and there is a bias against the chronicle of adventure, the intoxication of hardship is brief. Presently you will be protesting that it was not like that at all, and that you have had a most wonderful day. You will come limping back to the station whore all the clocks are right and all the food is good, and the house-boy and the wash-boy and the cook are all your friends, and your fellow missionary is your brother; and you have had the most wonderful day, or ten days, or month, in the most wonderful country, and the most wonderful profession, in the world. Such is the effect of the hardship — or is it a luxury? — of fatigue.
There is an essential jewel of fatigue so costly that it must be a luxury. It is a pearl for which you pay many another pearl, and it is done up in endless wrappings of efforts and of hours. You are drawn to it by endless paths in the rainy season — you wander through the débris of the forest, you cross rivers on little bridges that are under water, you struggle through sand by a sea that thunders under an excessive moon. You think not at all of the luxury of fatigue, until suddenly it is night: the stars are out; there is your fire by the way and your pot on the fire. You dry those tears. You drink your coffee. And you feel a rapture. Something from the very bones of you sings under the long pressure of the thorn of fatigue.
I know my metaphors are mixed, and so is the matter of fatigue. It is, indeed, a wine and a thorn and a pearl and an unforgettable rapture. There is no wanderer in the world — soldier, sailor, flyer, missionary, tinker, or other vagabond — but remembers with an extreme and unforgettable nostalgia the rapture of such an end to such a day of effort. There is none of them but is lost when he smells a blend of bacon and coffee and wood-smoke — and is far away in a camp that was broken long ago. There he sits, in a ragged canvas chair by a little fire on the ground; and there is a black boy beside him, or a yellow boy, or a boy enameled in tattoo, who squats before the fire. That ring of light is the exact centre of a shadowy world. He is there at rest, and he is alone. He is altogether lulled by the luxury of the firelight and the silence and the solitude.
Sometimes solitude is a luxury, but not always. Often I have thought of the fishermen of Theocritus, lying against the leafy wall of that wattled cabin by the sea. Because there were two of them, one might tell his dream to the other. And the Two Orphans — each had a sister. Or Dick Whittington — he had his cat. You think of these things when you are lonely, on a night of the rainy season when the rain is like a wall about the little house where you sleep. Or you are lying at night in a house by the sea, and it is the breathless hour of interval between the landbreeze and the sea-breeze. You hear an empty surf at your door, and you are lonely. Or you have been all day on a journey among strange villages, and you come at night to sleep among strangers. By the light of your lantern in this village where the townsfolk sleep you are reading Macbeth. ‘Out, out, brief candle!’ says Macbeth; and you alone there by your lantern, which is the only candle in the whole diameter of the darkness of the forest — you are loath to put it out. Or it is the horrible hour of midday on a journey by the sea, and two of your carriers are quarreling. You sit on a log in the lee of the forest. You hear their grievances, and you administer your languid and impeccable justice; but in the face of these passionate alien furies you feel your isolation and a loneliness. Your carriers regain their customary aspect and are at peace again, but all that day they are strange to your heart — there is everywhere a strangeness. Or you are at home in a village all day, and you have friends in every hut of that village; but in the evening there is a strangeness: there is a shadow of degradation. Dusk falls on that village, and in your heart.
Every missionary in the world knows what I mean, and every girl who is wishing to be a missionary should be told of such hours, and cannot be told. There is no way to be telling her.
All the hardships of which she will have account are tangible, like leopards and cannibals and driver-ants — carnivorous hardships. The leopard that took the German police dog from beside Mrs. Adams’s bed. The cannibal who threw the boy’s head under the eaves of the little mission outpost, saying, ‘There is the white man’s portion; let him come and take it!’ The driverants that do truly drive you from your house — and even on a Saturday night before a communion Sunday, which, in face of the agitations of Saturday and Sunday, is indeed a hardship. These are the favorite hardships. There is a permanent demand for them at home, and in the heart of every young missionary an adequate and fostered fortitude with which to meet them. The last thing such an one looks to see is a reed shaken by the wind. And yet there you are — the woods are full of them — reeds shaken by the wind! And this is the hardship of anticlimax.
There are the leopards and the cannibals and the driver-ants, all truly numerous and truly carnivorous; and for years and years and years you survive them. The cannibals make friends with you. They beg you to visit their villages, where they feed you on chicken stewed in peanuts. There is a leopard’s spoor on the trail and the mark of a big paw, but all you ever see of the leopard is the thrilling striped length of a dead one. The snakes that fall from the trees never fall on you. And when the driver-ants swarm over the little cabin where you live, and you rush away with your clothes gathered up as you go, your kitten escapes with you, the hens are let out of the henhouse, the shepherd delivers the sheep and the goats, and it is all quite matter-offact and different from the event as imagined.
It is all quite different. The sheep set up a clamor in the night and you are sure they are menaced; it will be a leopard, you think. You rush to the window, and there is a mist of light among the high grasses about the path to the sheepfold. It is old Ngalli the shepherd, with his torch of reeds. By that little light the white trunks of the trees flash out and the little log-hut at the foot of them. The savior has come to the sheepcotes, and that high hysterical crying subsides.
You cannot go to bed, the night is too lovely. You watch the stars, until Ngalli comes back to put them out with his torch, which has burned low, and is a light on his feet, and his loin cloth that is the color of earth, and his old brown body, and his withered face that is kind. ‘It was nothing,’ he stops to tell you. There is a little new lamb in one of the sheepcotes. And you are to go to bed, leaving him to care for the sheep.
‘Sleep well,’ says old Ngalli. ‘Am not I the shepherd of the sheep?'