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"I went forward, and ordered the chain to be hauled in short,
so as to be ready to trip the anchor and move the steamboat at
once if necessary. `Will they attack?' whispered an awed voice.
`We will all be butchered in this fog,' murmured another.
The faces twitched with the strain, the hands trembled slightly,
the eyes forgot to wink. It was very curious to see the contrast
of expressions of the white men and of the black fellows of our crew,
who were as much strangers to that part of the river as we,
though their homes were only eight hundred miles away.
The whites, of course greatly discomposed, had besides a curious
look of being painfully shocked by such an outrageous row.
The others had an alert, naturally interested expression;
but their faces were essentially quiet, even those of the one or two
who grinned as they hauled at the chain. Several exchanged short,
grunting phrases, which seemed to settle the matter to
their satisfaction. Their headman, a young, broad-chested black,
severely draped in dark-blue fringed cloths, with fierce
nostrils and his hair all done up artfully in oily ringlets,
stood near me. `Aha!' I said, just for good fellowship's sake.
`Catch `im,' he snapped, with a bloodshot widening of his eyes
and a flash of sharp teeth--'catch `im. Give `im to us.'
`To you, eh?' I asked; `what would you do with them?' `Eat `im!'
he said curtly, and, leaning his elbow on the rail, looked out
into the fog in a dignified and profoundly pensive attitude.
I would no doubt have been properly horrified, had it not
occurred to me that he and his chaps must be very hungry:
that they must have been growing increasingly hungry for at
least this month past. They had been engaged for six months
(I don't think a single one of them had any clear idea of time,
as we at the end of countless ages have. They still belonged
to the beginnings of time--had no inherited experience to teach
them as it were), and of course, as long as there was a piece
of paper written over in accordance with some farcical law
or other made down the river, it didn't enter anybody's head
to trouble how they would live. Certainly they had brought
with them some rotten hippo-meat, which couldn't have lasted
very long, anyway, even if the pilgrims hadn't, in the midst
of a shocking hullabaloo, thrown a considerable quantity
of it overboard. It looked like a high-handed proceeding;
but it was really a case of legitimate self-defense. You can't
breathe dead hippo waking, sleeping, and eating, and at the same
time keep your precarious grip on existence. Besides that,
they had given them every week three pieces of brass wire,
each about nine inches long; and the theory was they were to buy
their provisions with that currency in river-side villages.
You can see how THAT worked. There were either no villages,
or the people were hostile, or the director, who like the rest
of us fed out of tins, with an occasional old he-goat thrown in,
didn't want to stop the steamer for some more or less
recondite reason. So, unless they swallowed the wire itself,
or made loops of it to snare the fishes with, I don't see
what good their extravagant salary could be to them.
I must say it was paid with a regularity worthy of a large and
honorable trading company. For the rest, the only thing to eat--
though it didn't look eatable in the least--I saw in their
possession was a few lumps of some stuff like half-cooked dough,
of a dirty lavender color, they kept wrapped in leaves,
and now and then swallowed a piece of, but so small that it
seemed done more for the looks of the thing than for any serious
purpose of sustenance. Why in the name of all the gnawing devils
of hunger they didn't go for us--they were thirty to five--
and have a good tuck in for once, amazes me now when I think of it.
They were big powerful men, with not much capacity to weigh
the consequences, with courage, with strength, even yet, though their
skins were no longer glossy and their muscles no longer hard.
And I saw that something restraining, one of those human
secrets that baffle probability, had come into play there.
I looked at them with a swift quickening of interest--
not because it occurred to me I might be eaten by them before
very long, though I own to you that just then I perceived--
in a new light, as it were--how unwholesome the pilgrims looked,
and I hoped, yes, I positively hoped, that my aspect was not so--
what shall I say?--so--unappetizing: a touch of fantastic
vanity which fitted well with the dream-sensation that pervaded
all my days at that time. Perhaps I had a little fever too.
One can't live with one's finger everlastingly on one's pulse.
I had often `a little fever,' or a little touch of other things--
the playful paw-strokes of the wilderness, the preliminary trifling
before the more serious onslaught which came in due course.
Yes; I looked at them as you would on any human being,
with a curiosity of their impulses, motives, capacities,
weaknesses, when brought to the test of an inexorable
physical necessity. Restraint! What possible restraint?
Was it superstition, disgust, patience, fear--or some kind
of primitive honor? No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience
can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is;
and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles,
they are less than chaff in a breeze. Don't you know
the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment,
its black thoughts, its somber and brooding ferocity? Well, I do.
It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly.
It's really easier to face bereavement, dishonor, and the perdition
of one's soul--than this kind of prolonged hunger. Sad, but true.
And these chaps too had no earthly reason for any kind
of scruple. Restraint! I would just as soon have expected restraint
from a hyena prowling amongst the corpses of a battlefield.
But there was the fact facing me--the fact dazzling, to be seen,
like the foam on the depths of the sea, like a ripple on an
unfathomable enigma, a mystery greater--when I thought of it--
than the curious, inexplicable note of desperate grief in this
savage clamor that had swept by us on the river-bank, behind
the blind whiteness of the fog.