Travails With a Donkey

IT began in New York, in the home of Mrs. B—, whose hospitality I was enjoying. I was on the eve of another visit to Haiti in order to acquire inspiration and malaria, and, in response to Mrs. B—’s request to tell her something of that fascinating and littleknown country, I told her about the donkeys — or bourriques, as the natives call them. During my last stay in that land where tom-toms throb at night, and odors of refuse mingle with the fragrance of frangipani, the donkeys had interested me far more than the Haitians.

I described them to my hostess: little gray beasts with sorrowful eyes, patiently picking their way along the tortuous mountain trails and dusty roads, with burdens three times their weight and size— the slaves of Haiti, without whose help the commerce of the country would come to a standstill, and yet how beaten and starved! Inspired by an attentive audience and Pommery sec (1911), I waxed eloquent and recited these verses: —

‘ Down from the hills in the morning
Where the trails are rocky and steep,
Past the low-thatched huts in the village
Where the naked brown babies creep;
With a load that would stagger a camel,
Sure-footed, steady, and meek,
Here he comes down to the market,
The good little gray bourrique.
Laden with goatskins and charcoal,
Coconuts, coffee, and cane,
With a green strap galling his belly,
With a torturing rope for a rein;
Burdened with baskets of mangoes
And casks full of taffia rum,
Here he comes down to the market:
Driven, and deviled, and dumb.
Fleabitten, famished, and faithful
(He ‘ll go without food for a week),
Here ‘s to the hero of Haiti:
The good little gray bourrique!’

Mrs. B— was enchanted. What would she not give to be able to get a little Haitian bourrique! He would have nothing to do but take her children for rides, and when it was cold she could send him to her lovely farm in Virginia. ‘How delightful,’ she said, ‘to watch him browsing there among those fields of peace and plenty and to know that one had rescued him from a life of toil!’

Fortune, I thought, had provided me with an opportunity to do Mrs. B— a favor. I would send her a donkey from Haiti. What a delightful way of expressing appreciation! What an economical and easy way!

I returned to Port-au-Prince and established myself in a house which made up for its lack of conveniences by providing a breath-taking view of the bay, with a purple island hovering in the distance, like a fallen cloud. Before the tropical disease of putting things off had attacked me (would it had seized me on the day of my landing!) I remembered about the donkey and sent for Desty.

It is difficult to describe our relations — Desty’s and mine. He had fallen into my hands — or rather I had fallen into his — when I first came to Haiti and he had told me that his name was Heureuse Destiné. He had stood before me, clad only in cotton trousers that clung to his lean hips in a puzzling and altogether enviable fashion, and with melodious sentences he had convinced me that I would be nothing less than a fool if I did not avail myself of his services. I suppose I might have been called his employer, since I paid him for work which he rarely did. To a little shack behind my house he had brought his blanket, machete, gamecocks, and, as an afterthought, his wife and children — as uncertain about the number of this last-named possession as I was. Thereafter he sat in my yard beneath a mango tree, trimming the cocks’ spurs, sorting coffee beans which his wife gathered and brought to him, or — but very seldom — cleaning my boots. If I wished to discourse about theology, if I desired to leave the common level and enter that rare atmosphere created by one whose simplicity of soul was coupled with an enviable flow of language, I had only to seek out Heureuse Destiné. How pleasant to see the smile which lit up his dusky face as a sudden light illumines a dark room, and what a privilege it was to associate with a mortal who was on such familiar terms with the Holy Occupants of Heaven that neither their exalted states nor their invisibility deterred him from including them in all discussions!

This, then, was the personage whom I entrusted with the task of purchasing a donkey for the charming Mrs. B——.

‘I suppose,’ said I to Desty, ‘that I can buy one for about five dollars?’

He rolled his eyes toward Heaven. Ah, perhaps, if Madame wished a very wizened and sick little bourrique. But such a one as Madame undoubtedly desired would be dearer than that. He asked Saint Joseph if this were not true, and — after a pause which signified, I trust, a struggle with the saintly conscience— Saint Joseph evidently agreed with him, for he went on. He knew of a bourrique, he said, belonging to an old woman in the hills, an angel among bourriques and far too perfect to tread this dirty earth. He could not, of course, tell how much the old woman would ask for the animal, but as for himself, he would have to walk a great distance to make the purchase and that, of course —

‘All right. I’ll give you five dollars for the donkey and three dollars for your trouble, but mind — he must be a young animal and in good condition.’

‘Eight dollars,’ rejoined Desty,‘as the good God knows very well, will buy Madame a fine bourrique.’

When he returned that evening with the donkey, I thought he had brought me a jack rabbit.

‘Why, he’s nothing but ears!’

‘He will grow up to his ears, Madame. Observe the fine, woolly coat.’

The fine, woolly coat did not deceive me. It was baby fuzz which the donkey was even then in the process of shedding, so that it gave him a moth-eaten appearance, and, as I ran my hand along his back and sides, I encountered terrifying depressions between sharp and bony promontories. However, I imagined that there was an appealing look in the soft brown eyes with which he sorrowfully and solemnly regarded me, so I decided to keep him and groom him and feed him, until he was fit to make the journey to the States. I directed Desty to tether him in the back yard and caused that philosopher no little disquietude by insisting that the donkey be brushed and curried every day.

In the silence of the tropic night I was awakened by a fearful sound beneath my bedroom window. Not until ‘silence, like a poultice, came to heal the blows of sound ‘ did I realize, sitting bolt upright in bed, whence this tumult had come. What, thought I, do people find to laugh at in the bray of a donkey? To me it is a heartbreaking sound — a trumpet-call of distress, dying away in a diminuendo of despair; the cry of the most desolate animal in the world.

‘He desires his maman,’ said Desty the next day, as he tied a large rock to the poor beast’s tail.

‘Will you please tell me what you are doing that for?’

‘Madame, with the rock holding down his tail he cannot bray.’

In the light of subsequent events, which totally destroyed my humane feelings toward that particular donkey, I am sorry that I forbade the experiment. It is not unlikely, also, that I might have discovered some heretofore unknown fact regarding the relation of a donkey’s tail to his bray and might, at this moment, be writing an article for the Zoölogical Society instead of the present paper. You have only to watch a donkey braying to concede that an immovable tail would hamper him considerably.

But to return to our muttons, or rather to our bourrique. Despite the fact that a sum of money was given Desty each day for the purchase of grass and carrots, his charge apparently turned up his nose at such fare — at any rate, he did not fatten on it.

‘If the good God wills it,’said Desty, ‘I may prevail upon him to eat oats.’

In Haiti the feeding of oats to your horse is as much a matter of consequence as the feeding of gasoline to your motor, or the feeding of Chicago beef to yourself, for these imported articles of diet are costly. However, without demur I commissioned Desty to buy oats, and the results were astonishing. Not only was the bourrique prevailed upon to eat oats, but he was prevailed upon to consume such quantities that his feed bill, in no time at all, far exceeded his purchase cost.

I had a neighbor, an Englishman, who saw no good in anything in Haiti except the rum. It was, in fact, on account of the rum that he was living there. He pointed out to me one day that, while my donkey was undoubtedly growing fatter and stronger, by a singular coincidence the horse of Desty — a wretched, starving animal that bore its master bareback to and fro — was beginning to assume a more rounded appearance in the middle. Also the gamecocks, whose pugnacious qualities had, until now, been but poorly fostered upon fruit-skins, were strutting and crowing in a noticeable manner, and my neighbor insinuated that they were, in all probability, not feeling their oats — but mine.

I spoke to Desty — a little timidly, I confess — upon the subject, but, when he reproached me with a passage from the Bible and summoned three wellknown saints on the spot to testify in his behalf, I positively blushed at my lack of confidence and beat a retreat to my study, pursued by words of undeniable eloquence and wisdom.

The donkey, I decided, was now ready to be shipped without danger of dying en route. So, having made arrangements for his departure, I cabled Mrs. B—— that I was sending a genuine Haitian bourrique on such and such a steamer and I hoped, when her children rode upon his little back, that she would remember with kindness her friend, and so forth. Thinking of the delight which this cable would bring to the B—— family in far-away New York, I went to bed and awoke the next morning to find that the donkey had disappeared. He had not strayed away of his own accord, for his rope was neatly sliced in two, and there was a distressing look of desolation about the place where he had lately been. Inquiries were made and Desty, on being summoned, broke into lamentations and Isaiah.

‘I will shake the Heavens,’ said Desty, ‘and the earth shall move out of her place, but I shall find for Madame the little bourrique.’ I refused his request for money to lay at the feet of some patron saint in order to be assured of divine assistance in the search. However much I thought of the donkey, I said, I did not think it worth while to trouble the ears of Heaven about him, and thought I had made a fine speech. Desty looked at me pityingly. He did not answer, for his was a vast tolerance and he respected my peculiar notions; but how twisted my sense of values must have seemed to a man who would have readily exchanged any one of his children for a gamecock!

The steamer sailed without the donkey, but another steamer was leaving in two weeks, so I cabled Mrs. B—— again, and set out to buy another donkey. The streets of Portau-Prince are filled with them. They block the crossings; they swarm across the Champ de Mars; they stand in solemn, fly-plagued groups about the market places, waiting the thwack upon the rump and the shrill ‘La! Allez!’ which sends them plodding on beneath another load. One supposes that one could go up to any ragged native and say: ‘I wish to buy your animal — here is the money.’ But donkeys are not to be bought that way in Haiti. In the first place, it is almost impossible to find one in full possession of all the parts belonging to him. (Haitian donkeys are like secondhand Fords in this respect.) Either one ear — or both — or the tail, for some mysterious reason, is missing. In the second place, the owner of a donkey, whether in whole or part, is unwilling to consider a sale. The matter looks fishy to him. Else why should you — wealthy, well-dressed foreigner that you are — descend from your automobile and desire to acquire a bourrique? No — better be on your way and stop trying to put something over on the suspicious Haitian, who has had enough to make him suspicious, goodness knows!

‘I have seen a great many bourriques,’ said I to my neighbor the Englishman, ‘and I am convinced that the one stolen from me is the only one in Haiti with two whole ears and an unscarred hide. I’d give a good deal to get him back.’

‘No use offering a reward. A Haitian won’t bring anything back, even if he finds it, for fear he’ll get locked up as the thief. Why not turn the whole affair over to the gendarmerie? It’s marvelous the way they know how to handle the natives, and I’ll wager they’ll find your stolen donkey for you in no time. Only, knowing how squeamish you are, I ‘d advise you not to investigate their methods of procedure too closely. Give them plenty of cigarettes, and leave them to their own devices.’

Next morning, in response to my telephoned request, a squad of mounted gendarmes galloped into the yard, commanded by a sergeant who had doubtless won promotion through his ability to grow ferocious whiskers. What with pistols, sabre, and moustaches, he was one vast bristle. To him I explained my difficulties, while the soldiers lounged gracefully in their saddles, asking loudly and pointedly, from time to time, if anybody had any cigarettes. The sergeant asked me a number of irrelevant questions, and each time I answered he said, ‘Ah-ha! ‘ in a mysterious manner. Finally he sent for Desty and they engaged in a verbal duel which I was unable to follow, so rapid it was and so explosive. The final remark of Desty, however, delivered as the sergeant rehoisted himself into his saddle, was not lost upon me. I shall not repeat it here, but merely state, as a commentary upon discipline in the Haitian gendarmerie, that the gendarmes laughed uproariously over the sally at their superior’s expense. They left presently, after I had given each man a package of cigarettes.

‘They are pas bon,’ said Desty, watching as they galloped across my flower beds.

‘They have assured me that they will recover my bourrique.’

‘Ah, Madame shall see what she shall see.’

What I saw was a-plenty.

A little past noon, the cavalcade reappeared with sweat-lathered horses and a triumphant air. They were hustling along an old woman who was on foot and who was leading a decrepit female donkey. Arriving in my yard, the old woman sank down upon the steps. She was evidently in the last stages of exhaustion. And as for the donkey!

‘Behold,’ said the sergeant, looking as if he expected the croix de guerre, ‘the woman who sold the bourrique to Madame, and behold the mother of the bourrique herself!'

‘It is customary,’ he explained, seeing my look of bewilderment, ‘to sell something and then to come at night and take it away again. Therefore we have journeyed far and asked many questions in order to locate the one who sold the bourrique to Madame. But something has gone wrong, for this old woman seems to know nothing of the whereabouts of the bourrique; neither is it with the mother who bore it.’

‘But why,’ I cried in exasperation, ‘have you brought them here?’

‘So that Madame can plainly see that her animal is not with them.’

Just then the ancient donkey laid herself down quietly and expired without a groan. The woman began to weep and wring her hands. Her poor beast had been unaccustomed to such rapid travel. Where now would she find another to comfort her in her age and affliction ?

‘Quiet!’ commanded the sergeant. ‘You will have no need of such things in jail.’

Desty, appearing around a corner of the house, took in the situation at a glance.

‘Madame,’ said he with simple dignity, ‘this old woman is my mother.’

I was more stricken with horror than ever.

‘That is true,’ sneered the sergeant, ‘and now perhaps Madame wishes that we put you both in jail, eh? As for the old bourrique, she is already dead. So much the better for her.’

‘You had better get out of here,’ I said to the sergeant, ‘or you ‘ll be dead. A fine mess you ‘ve made of things! ‘

I was so angry that I spoke in English, which he did not understand; but my tone of voice and the manner in which I pointed to the gate needed no interpreting. However, instead of ordering his men to depart, he ordered them to help themselves to my bananas, which I had been guarding with great care and which were just then ready to gather. This order having been well carried out, the gendarmes departed, and not until the last hoof-beat had died away did the old woman’s face lose its look of terror.

‘Ma mère,’ said Desty, ‘this gros blanc femme does not desire that you be placed in the jail. Her heart is torn with sorrow over the loss of that so faithful bourrique which now lies dead before our eyes. She will assuredly buy you another animal.'

‘Certainly,’ I said, eagerly producing a bill.

‘Furthermore,’ said Desty, accepting the money for his mother with gratitude, ‘you must return home, and if you have to walk any more you will die. Madame will provide something.’

‘Certainly.’

He had a horse, he said, which his mother could ride and, affairs being as they were and Heaven witnessing, he would charge me no more than one dollar for the use of his horse.

Hearing them depart some time later, I was surprised, on looking out of the window, to see Desty upon the horse and his mother contentedly trudging along beside him.

‘C’est bien!’ he called to me gayly, for he was aware that I had odd notions regarding chivalry. ‘It is well, Madame. We will take turns!’

During the week preceding the departure of the next steamer, I searched frantically for a bourrique. Having cabled Mrs. B— that the shipping of her gift had been delayed, I could not consider disappointing her or her children a second time, and therefore I laid aside all my other work until I had accomplished that which I had set out to do. I grew less particular in my demands for donkey perfection and was even considering a slightly mangy animal with only half a tail when Desty informed me that he had heard of a bourrique in the country which was in excellent condition, and which could be bought immediately.

In desperation I filled the gas tank and, accompanied by Desty, drove my car out into the cactus wildernesses of Haiti. After losing the way and becoming so tightly stuck in the mud that I had to hire a passing team of oxen to haul us out, we arrived at our destination, a group of huts on the bank of a dry river-bed. The owners of these huts fled as soon as they caught sight of us, but, after boldly searching about, we discovered the bourrique tethered to what, with a stretch of the imagination, might have been called the front porch of a mud-and-bamboo residence. After repeated calls on the part of my companion, an old man came out from behind a poinsettia bush and greeted us. His hair and beard were braided in a peculiar fashion and I regret that I did not observe him more closely, for it is likely that he might have been a priest of the mysterious cult of vaudoux. But my attention was centred on the donkey. There was a familiar look about him.

‘This animal,’ said Desty, when he had talked for a time with the braided person, ‘is for sale for eighteen dollars.’

I considered that an outlandish price, and said so.

‘But if Madame will only recall how difficult it is to find a good bourrique. And if she will only regard the silken coat and magnificent ears of this one.’

I did regard them. The more I looked, the more positive I became that this was the very donkey that had been stolen from me — but how to prove it? There were the gendarmes, of course, and I did not doubt that I was in a perfect den of robbers, but I had had enough of gendarmes. So I separated myself from eighteen dollars, which Desty turned over to the old man, not forgetting to retain a certain sum that went into his own pocket. I did not see how much, but it looked like a good deal. It was his commission, he said.

By dint of much struggling, and a few unladylike words on my part, which I hope the pious Desty did not hear, we managed to shove the unwilling donkey into the car, where he balked in such a manner as to seat himself quite comfortably upon the rear seat, and from this position he surveyed the world in astonishment. Needless to say, we attracted a good deal of attention as we went along, and soon half the population of Port-au-Prince was joyously escorting us.

Deaf to the remarks in pungent Creole which were directed at me and which were not flattering, and blind to the gleeful hails of some acquaintances who considered themselves lucky enough to be passing by at the time, I drove straight to the dock and had the satisfaction of seeing my donkey installed aboard the steamer, which was to sail that evening.

‘Cheer up, old fellow,’ I said as I left him, for he looked so dejected — at least I thought he did; ‘you’ll soon be where you’ll live off the fat of the land.’ He drew a long, shuddering breath and rolled his eyes at me.

On my way home I passed my neighbor, sitting on his front porch and staring sourly at the sunset. I told him that the donkey had sailed.

‘Thank goodness, that’s over! If I’d been told beforehand what a job it would be, I would n’t have believed it.’

‘Humph!’ he answered, gulping down a glass of rum, ‘ where’s your friend Desty?’

‘He’s around somewhere.’

‘ He’s around, all right. He’s around a cockpit, betting his head off. Shrewd fellow, that! First, he steals a donkey from his mother which he sells to you for eight dollars. Then he steals it from you and you buy it back again for eighteen dollars. Twenty-six dollars; one hundred and thirty gourdes in Haitian money; more than five pounds in real money — not counting the oats. Pretty slick, what?’

‘Perhaps. He may be a rascal as you say, but I don’t know how I should have gone about proving it. What would you have done if you had been in my place?’

‘Whaled the black hide off him the day the donkey disappeared — that’s what I’d have done.’

‘It’s difficult,’ I said, ‘to treat him like an ordinary yard-boy. You see, he knows so many saints.’

‘Bah! Saints!

He did not even smile. I remembered suddenly that he was an Englishman.

Several weeks later I received a note from Mrs. R—— thanking me for the donkey, which had arrived safely and which she had immediately shipped to Virginia. It would be best to keep him there, she thought. She hoped I was well, and remained, she begged me to believe, still cordially mine.

It was not the letter of effusive thanks I had expected. Indeed, it struck me as being a little cold and unappreciative, though of course she was not aware of all the trouble I had taken with that gift which she had so lightly accepted and so briefly acknowledged. I was chagrined and disappointed. The more I thought of it — and one thinks of little things in the tropics until they grow to be enormous — the more I thought that Mrs. B— was a graceless and ungrateful lady. I determined when next we met to inform her, in a laughing manner, of my vicissitudes, and I trusted that she would feel properly remorseful and rebuked.

When I returned to the States, the first thing I did was to take myself and my malaria to Hot Springs, Virginia.

Mrs. B—’s estate was near by and, although she was not there, I decided to ride over, a few days after my arrival, and pay respects to my old Haitian friend, the donkey.

The caretaker met me at the gate.

‘Has Mrs. B— got a donkey here? ‘

He reached for my bridle and nodded in a glum manner.

‘I’d like to see him if you’ll tell me where to look for him.’

‘You ‘ll have no trouble finding him, ma’am, if you ‘ll wait a bit. He broadcasts himself regular. Listen!'

From an adjoining orchard came a sound which smote upon my ears and stirred my memory. We all, including the horse, turned our heads in the direction whence it came and waited in silence until the last painful note had died away.

‘Did you ever hear the beat of that?' demanded the caretaker. We walked slowly together toward the orchard.

‘I’d like to poison him!’ he continued. He chuckled disagreeably. ‘And I know Master would like to poison the one that sent him up here.’

I tried to say something, but only succeeded in making a queer clucking noise, unnoticed by the caretaker, who launched upon what was, apparently, his favorite subject.

‘You know where he come from, don’t you? He come from Cuba, or Borneo, or some such South Ameriky place. Some fool woman — begging your pardon, ma’am — ‘

‘Oh, that’s all right,’ I put in bravely; ‘you need n’t beg my pardon.’

‘Well, anyways, that’s what Master called her. Some fool woman,’ he repeated unnecessarily, and with relish, ‘sent him up here trying to make out he was something onusual — like a unicorn, say—when he ain’t nothing but the plumbest, ordinariest, lowdownest jackass ever I see.’

‘But surely he has n’t been much trouble to keep?’

‘Trouble? There ain’t been nothing but trouble since we heard of him. In the first place, it took a hundred dollars and a whole lot of pull to get him away from the docks in New York. They said he had hoof-and-mouth disease.’

‘Hoof-and-mouth disease? Surely not!’

‘Ah, well,’ he rejoined cryptically, ‘you wait an’ see. What good is he anyhow? Look at him, the beast!’

I looked. Belly-deep in the sweet Virginia grass stood my Haitian bourrique. I should never have known him. Gone was the gaunt look; altogether vanished the humble demeanor. There was not a flicker of recognition in the cold eye which he turned upon me, as I climbed the fence and came toward him, holding out a coaxing hand as I used to do in the old days when a banana-skin had been a rare tidbit. As I drew near, he turned slowly and insolently about and presented his posterior. ‘Mind yer eye!' called out a warning voice behind me. In the nick of time! A pair of vicious little hoofs struck the space where my head had lately been, and I set off for the fence as fast as I could go, pursued by a devil in the shape of a donkey — a gray whirlwind of gnashing teeth and flying feet.

‘Tell me he has n’t got hoof-andmouth disease!’ said the caretaker, trying not to show that he was enjoying himself. ‘Bites and kicks — that’s what he does.’

‘I don’t suppose,’ said I faintly from the vile dust from which I had sprung, ‘that the children ride him at all?’

‘I should say not! Think of sending that devil up here and saying he was for them little kids to ride! Disgraceful, I call it. Like to see her try to get on him once, would n’t you?’

‘No,’ I replied, walking stiffly back to my horse, ‘I should n’t. What’s Mrs. B— going to do with the donkey, do you know? ‘

‘Give him back to that fool woman, Master says. Maybe she’ll enjoy being kicked. We sure don’t.’

I tipped the caretaker, though every fibre in me cried out against it.

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is indeed, I muttered to myself as I slowly rode away, to have a thankless child — or a thankless friend — or a thankless donkey! If it were not for me, that creature would be plodding along the scorching trails of Haiti at this very moment, with his bones sticking through his skin. If it were not for me —

And, even as I spoke, down the quiet roadway came the faint echo of a long-drawn-out ‘Heehaw!’—for all the world like mocking, fiendish laughter.