The orang-outang in the big iron cage lashed to the sheep-pen began the discussion. The night was stiflingly hot, and as I and Hans Breitmann, the big-beamed German, passed him, dragging our bedding to the fore-peak of the steamer, he roused himself and chattered obscenely. He had been caught somewhere in the Malayan Archipelago, and was going to England to be exhibited at a shilling a head. For four days he had struggled, yelled, and wrenched at the heavy bars of his prison without ceasing, and had nearly slain a lascar, incautious enough to come within reach of the great hairy paw.
‘It would be well for you, mine friend, if you was a liddle seasick,’ said Hans Breitmann, pausing by the cage.’ You haf too much Ego in your Cosmos.’
The orang-outang’s arm slid out negligently from between the bars. No one would have believed that it would make a sudden snakelike rush at the German’s breast. The thin silk of the sleeping-suit tore out; Hans stepped back unconcernedly to pluck a banana from a bunch hanging close to one of the boats.
‘Too much Ego,’ said he, peeling the fruit and offering it to the caged devil, who was rending the silk to tatters.
Then we laid out our bedding in the bows among the sleeping Lascars, to catch any breeze that the pace of the ship might give us. The sea was like smoky oil, except where it turned to fire under our forefoot and whirled back into the dark in smears of dull flame. There was a thunderstorm some miles away; we could see the glimmer of the lightning. The ship’s cow, distressed by the heat and the smell of the ape-beast in the cage, lowed unhappily from time to time in exactly the same key as that in which the look-out man answered the hourly call from the bridge. The trampling tune of the engines was very distinct, and the jarring of the ash-lift, as it was tipped into the sea, hurt the procession of hushed noise. Hans lay down by my side and lighted a good-night cigar. This was naturally the beginning of conversation. He owned a voice as soothing as the wash of the sea, and stores of experiences as vast as the sea itself; for his business in life was to wander up and down the world, collecting orchids and wild beasts and ethnological specimens for German and American dealers. I watched the glowing end of his cigar wax and wane in the gloom, as the sentences rose and fell, till I was nearly asleep. The orang-outang, troubled by some dream of the forests of his freedom, began to yell like a soul in purgatory, and to pluck madly at the bars of the cage.
‘If he was out now dere would not be much of us left hereabout,’ said Hans lazily. ‘He screams goot. See, now, how I shall tame him when he stops himself.’
There was a pause in the outcry, and from Hans’ mouth came an imitation of a snake’s hiss, so perfect that I almost sprang to my feet. The sustained murderous sound ran along the deck, and the wrenching at the bars ceased. The orang-outang was quaking in an ecstasy of pure terror.
‘Dot stopped him,’ said Hans. ‘I learned dot trick in Mogoung Tanjong when I was collecting liddle monkeys for some peoples in Berlin. Efery one in der world is afraid of der monkeys — except der snake. So I blay snake against monkey, and he keep quite still. Dere was too much Ego in his Cosmos. Dot is der soul-custom of monkeys. Are you asleep, or will you listen, and I will tell a dale dot you shall not pelief?’
‘There’s no tale in the wide world that I can’t believe,’ I said.
‘If you haf learned pelief you haf learned somedings. Now I shall try your pelief. Goot! When I was collecting dose liddle monkeys — it was in ‘79 or ‘80, und I was in der islands of der Archipelago — over dere in der dark’— he pointed southward to New Guinea generally —‘Mein Gott! I would sooner collect life red devils than liddle monkeys. When dey do not bite off your thumbs dey are always dying from nostalgia — home-sick — for dey haf der imperfect soul, which is midway arrested in defelopment — und too much Ego. I was dere for nearly a year, und dere I found a man dot was called Bertran. He was a Frenchman, und he was goot man — naturalist to his bone. Dey said he was an escaped convict, but he was naturalist, und dot was enough for me. He would call all der life beasts from der forest, und dey would come. I said he was St. Francis of Assizi in a new dransmigration produced, und he laughed und said he haf never preach to der fishes. He sold dem for tripang — beche-demer.
‘Und dot man, who was king of beasts-tamer men, he had in der house shust such anoder as dot devil-animal in der cage — a great orang-outang dot thought he was a man. He haf found him when he was a child — der orang-outang — und he was child und brother und opera comique all round to Betran. He had his room in dot house — not a cage, but a room — mit a bed und sheets, und he would go to bed und get up in der morning und smoke his cigar und eat his dinner mit Bertran, und walk mit him hand in hand, which was most horrible. Herr Gott! I haf seen dot beast throw himself back in his chair und laugh when Bertran haf made fun of me. He was NOT a beast; he was a man, und he talked to Bertran, und Bertran comprehend, for I have seen dem. Und he was always politeful to me except when I talk too long to Bertran und say nodings at all to him. Den he would pull me away — dis great, dark devil, mit his enormous paws — shust as if I was a child. He was not a beast; he was a man. Dis I saw pefore I know him three months, und Bertran he haf saw the same; and Bimi, der orang-outang, haf understood us both, mit his cigar between his big dog-teeth und der blue gum.
‘I was dere a year, dere und at dere oder islands — somedimes for monkeys und somedimes for butterflies und orchits. One time Bertran says to me dot he will be married, because he haf found a girl dot was goot, und he enquire if this marrying idee was right. I would not say, pecause it was not me dot was going to be married. Den he go off courting der girl — she was a half-caste French girl — very pretty. Haf you got a new light for my cigar? Ouf! Very pretty. Only I say, “Haf you thought of Bimi? If he pull me away when I talk to you, what will he do to your wife? He will pull her in pieces. If I was you, Bertran, I would gif my wife for wedding-present der stuff figure of Bimi.” By dot time I had learned some dings about der monkey peoples. “Shoot him?” says Bertran. “He is your beast,” I said; “if he was mine he would be shot now!”
‘Den I felt at der back of my neck der fingers of Bimi. Mein Gott! I tell you dot he talked through dose fingers. It was der deaf-and-dumb alphabet all gomplete. He slide his hairy arm round my neck, und he tilt up my chin und looked into my face, shust to see if I understood his talk so well as he understood mine.
‘“See now dere!” says Bertran, “und you would shoot him while he is cuddlin’ you? Dot is der Teuton ingrate!”
‘But I knew dot I had made Bimi a life’s-enemy, pecause his fingers haf talk murder through the back of my neck. Next dime I see Bimi dere was a pistol in my belt, und he touched it once, und I open der breech to show him it was loaded. He haf seen der liddle monkeys killed in der woods: he understood.
‘So Bertran he was married, and he forgot clean about Bimi dot was skippin’ alone on der beach mit der half of a human soul in his belly. I was see him skip, und he took a big bough und thrash der sand till he haf made a great hole like a grave. So I says to Bertran, “For any sakes, kill Bimi. He is mad mit der jealousy.”
‘Bertran haf said “He is not mad at all. He haf obey und lofe my wife, und if she speak he will get her slippers,” und he looked at his wife agross der room. She was a very pretty girl.
‘Den I said to him, “Dost dou pretend to know monkeys und dis beast dot is lashing himself mad upon der sands, pecause you do not talk to him? Shoot him when he comes to der house, for he haf der light in his eye dot means killing — und killing.” Bimi come to der house, but dere was no light in his eye. It was all put away, cunning — so cunning — und he fetch der girl her slippers, und Bertran turn to me und say, “Dost dou know him in nine months more dan I haf known him in twelve years? Shall a child stab his fader? I haf fed him, und he was my child. Do not speak this nonsense to my wife or to me any more.”
‘Dot next day Bertran came to my house to help me make some wood cases for der specimens, und he tell me dot he haf left his wife a liddle while mit Bimi in der garden. Den I finish my cases quick, und I say, “Let us go to your houses und get a trink.” He laugh and say, “Come along, dry mans.”
‘His wife was not in der garden, und Bimi did not come when Bertran called. Und his wife did not come when he called, und he knocked at her bedroom door und dot was shut tight — locked. Den he look at me, und his face was white. I broke down der door mit my shoulder, und der thatch of der roof was torn into a great hole, und der sun came in upon der floor. Haf you ever seen paper in der waste-basket, or cards at whist on der table scattered? Dere was no wife dot could be seen. I tell you dere was nodings in dot room dot might be a woman. Dere was stuff on der floor und dot was all. I looked at dese things und I was very sick; but Bertran looked a liddle longer at what was upon the floor und der walls, und der hole in der thatch. Den he pegan to laugh, soft und low, und I knew und thank Gott dot he was mad. He nefer cried, he nefer prayed. He stood all still in der doorway und laugh to himself. Den he said, “She haf locked herself in dis room, and he haf torn up der thatch. Fi donc! Dot is so. We will mend der thatch und wait for Bimi. He will surely come.”
‘I tell you we waited ten days in dot house, after der room was made into a room again, und once or twice we saw Bimi comin’ a liddle way from der woods. He was afraid pecause he haf done wrong. Bertran called him when he was come to look on the tenth day, und Bimi come skipping along der beach und making noises, mit a long piece of black hair in his hands. Den Bertran laugh and say, “Fi donc!” shust as if it was a glass broken upon der table; und Bimi come nearer, und Bertran was honey-sweet in his voice und laughed to himself. For three days he made love to Bimi, pecause Bimi would not let himself be touched. Den Bimi come to dinner at der same table mit us, und the hair on his hands was all black und thick mit-mit what had dried on der hands. Bertran gave him sangaree till Bimi was drunk and stupid, und den ——’
Hans paused to puff at his cigar.
‘And then?’ said I.
‘Und den Bertran he kill him mit his hands, und I go for a walk upon der beach. It was Bertran’s own piziness. When I come back der ape he was dead, und Bertran he was dying abofe him; but still he laughed liddle und low und he was quite content. Now you know der formula of der strength of der orang-outang — it is more as seven to one in relation to man. But Bertran, he haf killed Bimi mit sooch dings as Gott gif him. Dot was der miracle.’
The infernal clamour in the cage recommenced. ‘Aha! Dot friend of ours haf still too much Ego in his Cosmos. Be quiet, dou!’
Hans hissed long and venomously. We could hear the great beast quaking in his cage.
‘But why in the world didn’t you help Bertran instead of letting him be killed?’ I asked.
‘My friend,’ said Hans, composedly stretching himself to slumber, ‘it was not nice even to mineself dot I should live after I haf seen dot room mit der hole in der thatch. Und Bertran, he was her husband. Goot-night, und — sleep well.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10