WHOM THE GODS DESTROY
Is there any limit to the things which science may achieve? And if not, are there some discoveries which Providence must destroy, in order that humanity may be saved from itself? This was the question to which the primitive instinct of the Dyak girl, Chayala, supplied a tragic answer.
H. DE VERE STACPOOLE
AT SANDABAR they are always fighting the harbor mud, and the sound of the dredger at work on the middle passage broke my siesta and brought me on deck to find Collinson seated under the awning.
Collinson, and the skipper of a Shireman boat that was taking in tobacco bales by the wharves, beyond which, the palms drew their pictures against the tropic sky.
There had been a dust-up the night before, between the police and a Shireman stoker, a native woman intervening, and the Shireman skipper was holding forth on the subject of woman as a trouble creator and in language blue as the Sandabar skies.
“Well, I reckon men aren’t above lending her a hand when she wants help,” put in Collinson.
“That’s so,” replied the other—his name was Blake— “but it’s the woman that does the decorations and the topknot. I’ve seen it more than once. I’ve seen it twice in this same port. Last time I was here, just after the war, I had pretty well the same experience about women, only as different in its make-up as whisky from cow’s milk. Dyak, she was, brought over here from Banjermasan, in Dutch Borneo, as a servant or something, by one of the Dutch traders and got her hooks into Lapraik. You’ve never heard of him, no one has, but he ought to have been the best known man in the world and would have been only for Chayala. That was her name.”
He lit a new cigar; then he started in on a story which may bear repetition.
“We’d come in here with a mixed cargo,” said he, “and were taking on a cargo of tobacco, just as we are now— same old boat, too—when, coming down from the club one night, I found a white man lying drunk on the wharf and the native boys guying him.
He’d been drinking Samshu, which is the grandfather of delirium tremens, and when we’d got him a-board and bailed him out, we gave him a bunk till morning.
“That chap was a gentleman, educated at Cambridge college, a sixfooter, but as thin as a scaf’ld pole with cigarette sucking and riotous living, and when he’d had a cup of coffee and half a biscuit next morning he opened out and told about himself, making no bones about calling himself a rotter—which is a bad sign in a man, drunk or sober.
“But I took to him, somehow. I didn’t like him, but I took to him as a sort of curiosity; when he talked of mathematics, I got him on navigating and there wasn’t anything he didn’t know. I’m a bit of a dab at mathematics myself and more ’specially on optics. I was the wrong man for him to palm lies off on, but I couldn’t catch him—he knew everything I knew and a damn sight more, and when he’d passed his examinations, I said to him, ‘You’ve got to clear out of this port and quit fooling, you’re a howling shame before your Maker, you, with that headpiece on you, and cutting up like a hog on the wharves. Will you quit drink if I give you a lift and a new rig-out and five pounds in your pocket when we get to London docks, and hold yourself steady when you get there?’
“ ‘Will I won’t!’ says he.
“Never thanked me, just took the offer same as if it had been a rope thrown to him to pull him out of a pit— which it was. I liked him all the better for that and gave him a tot of rum to fix his nerves, and having nothing better to do that morning I let him yarn and listened to • him.
“He told me his people were well-to-do, and that nothing, not even the drink, could cut him off from a fortune that was coming to him when his uncle died, which wouldn’t be long as the old gentleman was on his beam ends with some disease or ’nuther. It wouldn’t be a big fortune, only some five thousand pounds or so, enough to spend but not to live on, those were his words; and him with his toes sticking out of his boots.
“He said he’d been out of England a year, seeing the world and travelling, mostly on his uppers; said he reckoned he’d seen enough of the world to last him to the Day of Judgment. Then he went asleep in a deck chair on the poop, a disgrace to the ship, and I went ashore to get him some things, giving an order to the quarter master on duty to head him off if he tried to land.
“We were due out next day and out we put, heading north for Singapore, and Lapraik washed and cleaned up, why you wouldn’t have known him! It didn’t matter to me whether he’d last, or whether, when I landed him at the East India Docks, he’d go a howling bust, I felt satisfied.
“I reckon if I was a rich man I’d spend my time picking up wasters and doing for them for the fun of the thing, philanthropy be damned! just for the joke. It’s like growing flowers, it’s quainter than quaint to take a chap all rags and beard and watch your handiwork on him. He don’t last, a hundred to one, but so don’t flowers; but he lasts long enough to give you the satisfaction of looking at your work and I was looking at Lapraik one morning as we were making the passage between Banca and Billiton, when out of the fore hatch, which had been opened because of the cargo, the bo’sun drags a squealing native girl.
“That was Chayala, Lapraik’s girl he’d picked up ashore, and who’d got to know he was aboard. How? Search me! maybe followed him by scent like a dog; Lord knows how, or how she’d managed to get on board and stow herself: helped by one of the native crew, maybe: but there she was, as big as life and not to be got rid of, for we couldn't turn her out of the ship at Singapore. Maybe if we’d had time to stay there a week, I might have grubbed round and found some missionary society or another to take her on, but we were stopping only twelve hours and the cargo winches would be going every minute of the time, so I just spliced them.” “I beg your pardon,” said Collinson, “do you mean you married this man Lapraik to the girl?”
“Yes,” said the other, “that was my meaning. I’m not in favor of piebald marriages, but I reckoned Lapraik couldn’t be knocked down lower than he was and I reckoned the girl was a darned sight too good for him. It was she that made me turn the thing over twice in my mind, but I came to the conclusion that as she’d made her bed, so she must lie on it, as the Scriptures say, and I spliced them for the good of themselves and the ship.
“He was willing enough, and I sent him ashore at Singapore with a couple of sovereigns to get her some woolly togs for the cold weather ahead of us, hoping, maybe, that he’d never come back to the ship and that I’d be able to take Chayala to London and get her on to some missionary society or another, but back he came with the woollies, sober as a church tower, and out we put for London.
“He told me friends would help him wh.en he got there.
HOWEVER that might be, he settled down in the spare cabin with the girl and they began to keep house, so to speak, and I could hear them chattering away in her lingo which he’d picked up as quick as a canary picks up seeds, and, from what I could judge, she was bossing him to rights.
“Marriage makes some women like that, soon as the church door’s shut on them; not that he seemed to mind, he said women should be let talk just as one let dogs bark; said one had got as much sense as the other, meaning brains. It was pure pride in him, black pride, but it had foundation enough, as I came to see when he began to let his mind out to me of an evening on subjects dealing with mathematics or science.
“That chap was either mad or a genius, or maybe both. “One night we were talking together and he broke out on the scientific business and the aether of space.
“ 'Strike a lucifer match,’ says he; ‘for every second it burns it is pouring out thousands of rays, each 180,000 miles long—if not interfered with—why, sir,’ says he, ‘that match out of its feeble store of energy is producing enough force, if it was collected, to drive ten locomotives. If you could cut all its rays into mile sections and bunch them together, you’d have a light visible a mile off that would be a pretty powerful illuminant!’ And that seemed true enough, but I let him rip. ‘Anyhow,’ he said, ‘your lucifer match would show at a mile distance, burning with the light of 180,000 lucifer matches; that’s absolute truth and not to be got away from.
“ ‘Now what really happens,’ he goes on, ‘is just this: Your match throws out nothing in the way of light or energy. It creates modifications in an already existing energy, the aether of space. These modifications travel in the forms of waves at the rate of a hundred and eighty thousand miles a second. They are cheques drawn on energy and ready to be cashed when your light ray meets a photographic plate; or an eye; or anything that stops it. Then the aether puts its hand in its pocket and pays.’
“ ‘You seem to know a lot about the aether,’ said I, not knowing what else to say.
“ ‘If I didn’t I’d be a fool,’ he says. ‘First of all because I have been studying it five years, second because it’s the only real thing—there’s nothing else of any account. Besides, there’s money in it.’
“ ‘How do you work that out?’ I asked him.
“ ‘Stereoscopic moving pictures would mean money,’ said he, “they’ll never get them as they are going on now, but I believe I have a clue to the proper dodge. If I have, you’ll see my name written all over the earth some day and I’ll be able to pay you something on account of what you’ve done for me.’
“That was the first word approaching thanks out of his mouth, and the last, but he meant it, as I was to find later on.
“After that night we often talked together, and he put up some rum ideas that I couldn’t knock down because I hadn’t the cleverness, but one thing he told me I remember. It interested me because he said it had to do with the moving picture stunt. He said there was no such thing as time as we imagined it.
“Somehow or another I had got it into my head that this chap was going to make my fortune. He’d given me to understand that if anything came of the moving picture business, there’d be money enough for ten men and I’d have my share, so anything to do with that stunt was of interest to me and this idea of his as to time seemed the basis of it all.
“He said, roughly speaking, that time was only a measurement of movement, and that if everything was brought to a standstill, sun, moon and everything else, there would be no time, which seemed sensible enough— but he went beyond that and said that a movement once made was a thing fixed, so to say, and was indestructible, and that the cinematograph had already pointed this out in a dim sort of way.
“I tried to argue this with him, but couldn’t follow him, but I hoped he was right as far as it bore on the moving picture business, for it’s the two ends and bight of a truth that the chap who gets hold of stereoscopic photography won’t want to sell hot chestnuts for a living.
“All the same, and the nearer we got to London, the more I began to bother about Chayala and what would happen to her when these two were landed at the docks. I began to tell myself that, owners or not, I ought to have stopped a few more hours at Singapore on the chance of getting some missionary or another to take hold of her and ship her back to Sandabar, for it would be winter time in England and Lapraik’s friends and relations wouldn’t be too much overjoyed seeing him turn up with a Dyak girl in tow, married or not.
“I had it out with him. I said, ‘Look here, I’ve been thinking over this business, we get into dock, November 14th, as near as I can make it, and, as soon as we touch the wharf, you’ve got to hike off and see your friends and make some arrangements about Chayala. I’ve spliced
you, but it’s only a jury-marriage, so to speak, and you’ve got to get a parson to overlay it. Second, you’ve got to show me you have money enough to keep her. Failing that, a dock missionary gets her and back she goes to Sandabar, even if I have to pay the fare!’ He fell in with my meaning and thanked me for the trouble I was taking over the girl, and the morning we fastened up at the docks off he went to the solicitor man who knew all about his affairs, and back he comes in less than four hours jubilant and triumphant, for his uncle had been dead three months and there was five thousand five hundred pounds lying to his credit, to say nothing of a house in Bermondsey worth another thousand. He paid me the money I had spent on him and he gave me a scarf pin worth twenty pounds if it was worth a cent and then he went off into the blue, him and the girl, with a promise to let me have a pull out of the motion picture business if it ever came off and the address of my agent in his pocket.
“I never thought to see anything more of that chap, and still something in my mind wouldn’t let the idea of him rest. I couldn’t help thinking of that fortune he’d hinted at and every time I opened a paper, I kept my eye out for cinematograph news, but never coming across a hint of what I wanted.
“Six months went by and then a year and I’d nearly put Lapraik entirely from my mind, when, coming back one voyage, I found a letter from him at the agents, asking me to call upon him next time I was in London. The letter had only just come and next day having finished up with the Board of Trade, I took a cab to the address he’d given me which was in the Bayswater district.”
Captain Blake paused for a moment to re-light his cigar. Then, flinging the match over the rail, he went on:
“There’s streets in the Bayswater district'of London that seem to have been built for decayed gentlefolk tb live in, tall houses, with basements and half-grown bay windows, and looking as if they’d been whitewashed with second-rate whitewash; area railings with the rust beginning to show—depressing isn’t the word for it, and this street where Lapraik hung out was the pick of the basket, and Number 10 was the number of the house and it seemed to be empty.
“I knocked and rang and knocked, and I was turning to make enquiries at the house next to it, when the door opened and there stood Chayala. She was dressed Western style and it didn’t suit her; she looked ten years older than when I had seen her last, and, more than that, she looked scared. It wasn’t me, it was a look as if she was perpetually scared about something that was on her mind and that she couldn’t get shut of.
“She knew me at once and made no bones about showing me in, shutting the door when I was in the passage and putting up the chain.
“Then she led the way up a stairway that had no carpet, to a room on the first floor. It was at the front of the house and had evidently been a drawing room in the old days; there was scarcely any furniture, except a big couch, and Lapraik was lying on the couch smoking cigarettes.
“He’d altered as bad as Chayala, only in a different way. I reckoned it was drugs as soon as I set eyes on him, but he pulled himself together as soon as he saw who it was and told Chayala to fetch me a chair.
“ ‘Sit down,’ he says, ‘I’ve done it. Hit it off six months ago and I’ve been ever since working out the pictures. I told you I’d let you know and I have, and half the coin will be yours. For you were a good friend to me,’ says he, and he began to work his face as though he were going to cry.
“That was the state he was in.
“ ‘Now look here,’ I said, ‘pictures or no pictures, what have you been doing to yourself? This is worse than the drink, drugs, that’s what you’ve been after, and sorry I am to see it.’
“ ‘Drugs,’ said he, ‘well, supposing it is, I had to keep sober, but I had to have something.’ He got up and went to the mantelpiece and took a capsule from a box and swallowed it; a minute later he was himself again and sitting down on the couch, he began to talk.
“ ‘It was only last week,’ said he, ‘that I managed to get hold of one of the top chaps in the movie business. I told him right out that I had got hold of the stereoscopic trick and could turn out pictures with real round people in them, not shadows. He told me I was wasting his time talking like that, and I said, well, I’ve got the pictures, come and see them. Where’s your studio? asks he, and I told him I had a studio all right, which I have, and actors and all, but I’d give my trade show here in this house and I wouldn’t ask anyone else but him, but that he could bring a friend if he liked. He’s coming to-morrow,’ finished Lapraik, ‘coming at twelve o’clock and if you’ve nothing better to do, you’d better come also.’
“I asked him had he patented his invention, and he said he hadn’t, hadn’t thought of that; said, anyhow, it didn’t matter, that no one could possibly find out the trick he used, and that he could do it later on. I asked him, couldn’t he show me some of the pictures right away and he said he could and would, the only thing that worried him was Chayala.
“Chayala hadn’t bothered a bit the whole time he was experimenting and taking the pictures, she didn’t know what he was doing and didn’t care, but yesterday, and for the first time, she’d seen one of the pictures projected on the screen and the sight of the moving figures had near driven her fantee. Nothing could make her believe it wasn’t devil work. She’d never seen a movie show, having come to Sandabar from Dutch Borneo only a fortnight before she had picked up with Lapraik, and ever since yesterday she’d gone about like a frightened cat—‘but she’ll have to get used to it,’ said he, and he goes to the door and calls Chayala.
“Then, between them, they brought in a big screen from the next room, and set it up, and Lapraik goes to a corner and lugs out his projecting camera, and fixed it at the farther end of the room from the screen.
“It was a big camera but worked with a crank like the first ones, instead of a motor.
“ ‘Where’s your films?’ I asked him, and he went to a box and took out of it a disc like a gramophone disc only it seemed made of glass.
“ ‘There they are,’ says he, ‘there are dozens of pictures on this disc and I have four more in that box, but I think, maybe, this will be enough to give you an idea of how the thing works.’
“He put the disc into the camera and closed it and connected up with an electric light plug by the door. Then he began closing the shutters of the windows and putting the old curtains over the shutters till the place was almost black dark, lit only by a glow on the screen. Then he told me to watch the screen.
“Chayala was crouched down beside the chair where I was sitting and I could hear her teeth chatter in the darkness, and outside I could hear the noise of a car going by.
“I could hear Lapraik fiddling with the mechanism and swearing to himself.
“Then all of a sudden, the projector began to buzz, the light strengthened and changed color to a sort of pale apple green and plop on the screen came a monk riding a mule.
“You’ve never seen a stereoscopic movie, no man has but me and Lapraik, and you couldn’t believe what a difference it is from the old shadow picture. The monk was a real man, round and solid, and the mule was to match, going at a trot, it was, and you could see the cheeks of the monk puffed out with the exertion of riding, but that wasn’t all, there were other figures on the screen beside the monk, sort of background-like moving tapestry with the figures not near so solid, and then all at once the monk went out like the snuff of a candle and one of the background figures came out solid like a thing developing out of mist; it was a woman going along with a dog like a greyhound, she was in a fancy dress, she might have been going to a fancy dress ball by the look of her, she snuffed out like the monk and then the photography got so bad you couldn’t see anything but a jumble of things moving and I said, ‘What’s this you are trying to show me, Lapraik?’
“ ‘It’s supposed to be a fourteenth century road,’ said he, ‘but it’s all very bad; you see it is only in its infancy.’
“Half a horse, the fore-end of him, developed and went out, and the old jumble, like things moving in a darkened glass went on, till the camera gave a click and stopped.
“I heard Chayala breathing hard.. I felt the strangest sick sort of feeling as if there was something evil in all that jumble I’d seen. It wasn’t natural, but what was wrong with it I couldn’t tell.
“ ‘What is it, Lapraika?’ I said again, and the answer came back from him through the dark just as before. ‘It’s supposed to be a fourteenth century road. I took it near Canterbury. I reckon it’s fourteenth byfthe figures, but I took it haphazard. You see this thing can be focussed back to hit the exact time you want; it will be easy when it’s more developed. Those weren’t movie actors, Blake, they were the real thing.’
“ ‘What do you mean by the real thing?’ I asked.
“ ‘People who have left their print in the aether,’ said he, ‘same as you and I are doing. We are all movie actors and there’s nothing extraordinary in it no more than in an ordinary film.’
“ ‘Will you open one of those shutters,’ I said to him, ‘and do it quick.’
“He went and opened a shutter and let the blessed daylight in.
“Chayala had slipped out of the room and I sat while he put the camera away and when he’d done, he went on talking.
“ ‘Given you a joggle?’ said he, ‘but there’s nothing in it more than natural, even though I believe it explains for the first time what ghosts are. It’s just permanent aetherie impressions caught by the fine eye of the camera I’ve invented—nothing more. Even ordinary photography will show up stars on a plate, stars that the eye can’t see; it’s something like that only different. You see the aether surrounding the earth isn’t like the atmosphere, it never moves, there are no winds in it and the impression that life of any sort makes on it is permanent.
“ ‘Now if someone had done a movie picture of that monk when he was alive and kept it till now and shown it, there’d be nothing wonderful in it, the aether has kept the picture of him, that’s all, and I’m able to photograph it. The world’s wound round like a bobbin with pictures, everything that’s ever happened is there, and every man’s life from Edward the Seventh to Pontius Pilate is in pictures showing every blessed thing he has ever done. You get that in your head and you’ll see what’s really in this thing when it’s properly developed, and one can follow up a man by proper focussing. How many saints will he left, I wonder? And I’d never have got near this thing if I hadn’t hit the truth, hinted at by the cinematograph, that a movement is not a momentary thing but a thing that endures always.’
“As I sat listening and looking at him, it came to me all at once that this chap was a faker. It was the look in his face as much as the yarn he was spinning that fetched the idea up. Not an ordinary faker, but a chap desperately clever and cunning mad with a fixed idea he wanted to push. There was no manner of doubt that he’d got hold of the stereoscopic dodge, that was his cleverness; his madness and cunning lay in those faked up figures and all that rigmarole about the aether.
“But the look in his eye was a danger signal that stopped me from getting in the way of the train of his argument, so to speak; my main ambition was to be out of that room and down the stairs and safe in the street, but I had to sit and hear him out whilst he finished his talk, and when it was done, I tried to get him on to more reasonable subjects by asking him how things went with him financially. He said he had only five hundred left out of the money that had come to him from his uncle—that all the rest had gone in experiments and living expenses, but that it didn’t matter now that he’d pulled this business off.
“Then I got away, promising to call at noon on the morrow, and outside, I walked hard trying to shake off the feeling that house had put upon me. I told myself I’d never go back and that I’d clean wasted my time and money in coming, that this chap was a spoofer and that no movie man from Addison Road to Timbuctoo would as much as sniff at his proposition.
“I told myself that, all the way to Westbourne Grove, yet, all the time, something away down in me was talking different. Saying that, spoofer or not, he’d got hold of the stereoscopic business, anyhow, and that it would be sheer madness for me to miss getting my finger into a pie like that.
“I went into a cafe and had luncheon and then got back to my rooms, and sitting there thinking things over, the idea came to me to go and see the movie man Lapraik had told me of. He’d given me the name, it was Jordan, the big distributor, and a telephone directory gave me his address. Half an hour later I was talking to him in his office.
“I shouldn’t have gone. It was sort of low-down on Lapraik to go behind his back to the man he was going to do business with, but for the life of me I couldn’t help nosing round to see what there might be in the affair and whether it was worth my while wasting my time over it. Besides, I had some right, seeing that I was a sort of partner in the business.
“Jordan, and his name fitted him as an almond fits its shell, said there was nothing in the business, that he’d seen a person named Lapraik but had turned him down. Said the whole thing was absurd, that there never could and never would be such a thing as stereoscopic movies, furthermore that such an invention would be useless as the effect would give a falsity to the picture. He said it was on the same line with speaking movies, that such things were possible but useless from the artistic point of view.
“He gave me half an hour of his time and a cigar, and all the while I knew he was lying and was only putting me off till he had fully investigated the matter for himself.
;iI left him with my mind made up, determined to stick to the thing like a tick and if possible get a contract from Lapraik next day, or at all events some paper assuring me of a pull out of the show, and next day I took a Bayswater ’bus and getting out at the end of Westbourne Grove, started to finish my journey on foot. As I reached the corner leading to Lapraik’s, a taxi drew up and out stepped Jordan.
“ ‘Hullo,’ I said, ‘what price stereoscopic movies?’
“He wasn’t a bit put out, you couldn t have put that chap out with anything but a shot gun. Said he had reconsidered the matter, and having paid off his cab, came alone with me, making superfluous remarks on the fineness of the weather.
“As we turned into Lapraik’s street, we saw a crowd halfway down, and at the door of No. 10 a policeman was standing, large as life. ‘Ah ha,’ says Jordan, it seems the trade show is on Now, Mr. Sea Captain, if you don’t want to find yourself tangled in some messy business, follow my example.’
“We walked along till we got to the crowd, and then stood like people who had nothing on earth to do with the affair, listening to what was said.
“A man had murdered a girl and blown his brains out. The newspaper dealer from the corner of the street was our chief informant. The man’s name was Lapraik and he had killed a Chinese girl.
“We hung round for a minute and then walked on.
“ ‘And that’s that,’ said Jordan, ‘thought there was something rum about that chap, but couldn’t help coming to see what was in his story. It’s lucky we arrived too late for his trade show and weren’t in the house, it’s not the sort of publicity one wants, and now good-day to you, Mr. Sea Captain,’ he says, ‘and keep your head shut if you take my advice, for there’s nothing but trouble and expense to be got out of coroners’ courts —at least that’s my experience,’ says he, hailing a taxi.
“I took his advice. I didn’t want to be talked of, in every shipping office in London an’ Cardiff, as the friend of a chap that had murdered a Chink girl. But it was all in the papers that evening, and plain as a pikestaff.
“Chayala had got at the camera and smashed it up with a coal hammer; the hammer was in her hand and she was lying by the thing she’d smashed; Lapraik evidently surprising her at her work, had killed her with the blow of a poker, then shot himself.
“The papers said he was a photographer out of work and that the girl was a Hindoo, both statements not quite accurate, as you’ll perceive.
“I’m bothered about the thing still. Never can quite decide whether there’s a ghost of a reason in that talk of his about the aether pictures—”
Collinson flung his cigar stump away and lit a cigarette.
“If you ask me,” said he, “I think it’s likely there was, and that Chayala was an interposition of the Almighty. She was used to put a stopper on him. There’s nothing that science doesn’t seem able to do nowadays, but there’s a limit, and some day maybe, the Almighty will do what Chayala did—get out a big hammer and smash civilization and science to pieces.”
“She thought it was devil work,” said Blake.
“And maybe she was right,” said Collinson.