The Interpreters by George A. Birmingham

From “The Adventures of Dr. Whitty.”

At the end of January, after three weeks of violently stormy weather, the American barque, “Kentucky,” went ashore at Carrigwee, the headland which guards the northern end of Ballintra. She struck first on some rocks a mile from the shore, drifted over them and among them, and was washed up, frightfully shattered, on the mainland. The captain and the crew were saved, and made their way into the town of Ballintra. They were dispatched thence to Liverpool, all of them, except one sailor, a forecastle hand, whose right leg had been broken by a falling spar. This man was brought into Ballintra in a cart by Michael Geraghty, and taken to the workhouse hospital. He arrived in a state of complete collapse, and Dr. Whitty was sent for at once.

The sailor turned out to be a man of great strength and vigour. He recovered from the effects of the long exposure rapidly, had his leg set, and was made as comfortable as the combined efforts of the whole workhouse hospital staff could make him. Then it was noticed that he did not speak a word to anyone, and was apparently unable to understand a word that was said to him. The master of the workhouse, after a consultation with the matron and the nurse, came to the conclusion that he must be a foreigner. Dr. Whitty was sent for again and the fact reported to him.

“I was thinking,” said the master, “that you might be able to speak to him, doctor, so as he’d be able to understand what you said.”

“Well, I can’t,” said the doctor. “I’m not a professional interpreter, but I don’t see that it much matters whether you’re able to talk to him or not. Give him his food. He’ll understand the meaning of a cup of tea when it’s offered him, whatever language he’s accustomed to speak. That’s all you need care about. As a matter of fact, he’ll be just as well off without having you and the nurse and the matron sitting on the end of his bed and gossiping with him all day long.”

“What’s troubling me,” said the master, “is that I’ve no way of finding out what religion he is.”

“I don’t see,” said the doctor, “that his religion matters in the least to us. He’s not going to die.”

“I know that. But I have to enter his religion in the book. It’s the rule that the religion of every inmate of the house or the hospital must be entered, and I’ll get into trouble after if I don’t do it.”

“Well,” said the doctor, “there’s no use asking me about it. I can’t talk to him any better than you can, and there isn’t any way of telling by the feel of a man’s leg whether he’s a Catholic or a Protestant.”

“That may be,” said the master, who disliked this sort of flippant materialism, “but if I was to enter him down as a Catholic, and it turned out after that he was a Protestant, there’d be a row I’d never hear the end of; and if I was to have him down as a Protestant, and him being a Catholic all the time, there’d be a worse row.”

Dr. Whitty was a good-natured man, and was always ready to help anyone who was in a difficulty. He felt for the master of the workhouse. He also had a natural  taste for solving difficult problems, and the question of the sailor’s religion attracted him.

“Tell me this, now,” he said. “Had he any kind of a Prayer Book or a religious emblem of any sort on him when you were taking the clothes off him?”

“Not one. I looked myself, and the nurse went through his pockets after. Barring a lump of ship’s tobacco and an old knife, there wasn’t a thing on him.”

“That’s not much use to us,” said the doctor. “I never heard of a religion yet that forbid the use of tobacco or objected to people carrying penknifes. If you’d found a bottle of whiskey on him, now, it might have helped us. We’d have known then that he wasn’t a Mohammedan.”

“What’ll I do at all?”

“I’ll tell you what it is,” said the doctor. “I’ll go round the town and I’ll collect all the people in it that can speak any language besides English. I’ll bring them up here and let them try him one by one. It’ll be a queer thing if we can’t find somebody that will be able to make him understand a simple question.”

Dr. Whitty called first at the Imperial Hotel, and had an interview with Lizzie Glynn.

“Lizzie,” he said, “you’ve had a good education at one of the most expensive convents in Ireland. Isn’t that a fact?”

“It is,” she said. “And I took a prize one time for playing the piano.”

“It’s not piano-playing that I expect from you now,” said the doctor, “but languages. You speak French, of course?”

“I learned it,” said Lizzie, “but I wouldn’t say I could talk it very fast.”

“Never mind how slow you go,” said the doctor, “so long as you get it out in the end. Are you good at German?”

“I didn’t learn German.”

“Italian?”

“There was one of the sisters that knew Italian,” said Lizzie, “but it wasn’t taught regular.”

“Russian? Spanish? Dutch?”

Lizzie shook her head.

“That’s a pity. Never mind. I’ll put you down for French, anyway. I’ll take you up with me to the workhouse hospital at six o’clock this evening. I want you to speak French to a man that’s there, one of the sailors out of the ship that was wrecked.”

“I mightn’t be fit,” said Lizzie, doubtfully.

“Oh, yes, you will. Just look up the French for religion before you start, and get off the names of the principal kinds of religion in that language. All you have to do is to ask the man, ‘What is your religion?’ and then understand whatever it is he says to you by the way of an answer.”

Dr. Whitty next called on Mr. Jackson and explained the situation to him. The rector, rather unwillingly, offered French, and seemed relieved when he was told that that language was already provided for.

“I thought,” said the doctor, “that you’d be sure to know Greek.”

“I do,” said the Rector, “but not modern Greek.”

“Is there much difference?”

“I don’t know. I fancy there is.”

“Well, look here, come up and try the poor fellow with ancient Greek. I expect he’ll understand it if  you talk slowly. All we want to get out of him is whether he’s a Protestant or a Catholic.”

“If he’s a Greek at all,” said the rector, “he’ll probably not be either the one or the other.”

“He’s got to be one or the other while he’s here. He can choose whichever happens to be the nearest thing to his own religion, whatever that is. Does Mrs. Jackson know Italian or Spanish?”

“No. I rather think she learned German at school, but I expect——”

“Capital. I’ll put her down for German.”

“I’m sure she’s forgotten it now.”

“Never mind. She can brush it up. There’s not much wanted and she has till six o’clock this evening. I shall count on you both. Good-bye.”

“By the way, doctor,” said Mr. Jackson on the doorstep, “now I come to think of it, I don’t believe there’s a word in ancient Greek for Protestant.”

“There must be. It’s one of the most important and useful words in any language. How could the ancient Greeks possibly have got on without it?”

“There isn’t. I’m perfectly sure there isn’t.”

“That’s awkward. But never mind, you’ll be able to get round it with some kind of paraphrase. After all, we can’t leave the poor fellow without the consolations of religion in some form. Good-bye.”

“And—and—Catholic in ancient Greek will mean something quite different, not in the least what it means now.”

The doctor was gone. Mr. Jackson went back to his study and spent two hours wrestling with the contents of a lexicon. He arrived at the workhouse in the evening  with a number of cryptic notes, the words lavishly accented, written down on small slips of paper.

Father Henaghan was the next person whom Dr. Whitty visited. At first he absolutely declined to help.

“The only language I could make any shift at speaking,” he said “is Latin. And that would be no use to you. There isn’t one sailor out of every thousand, outside of the officers of the Royal Navy, that would know six words of Latin.”

“They tell me,” said the doctor, “that there’s no great difference between Latin and Spanish or Italian. Anyone that knows the one will make a pretty good push at understanding the others.”

“Whoever told you that told you a lie,” said the priest; “and, anyway, I’m not going near that man until I’m sure he’s a Catholic.”

“Don’t be hard-hearted, Father. Think of the poor fellow lying there and not being able to tell any of us what religion he belongs to.”

“I’ll tell you why I won’t go,” said the priest. “There was one time when I was a curate in Dublin, I used to be attending one of the hospitals. People would be brought in suffering from accidents and dying, and you wouldn’t know what they were, Catholic and Protestant. I got into the way of anointing them all while they were unconcious, feeling it could do them no harm, even if they were Protestants. Well, one day I anointed a poor fellow that they told me was dying. What did he do but recover. It turned out then that he was a Protestant, and, what’s more, an Orangeman, and when he heard what was done he gave me all sorts of abuse. He said his mother wouldn’t rest easy in her grave when she heard of it, and more talk of the same kind.”

“This is quite a different sort of case,” said the doctor. “This man’s not dying or the least likely to die.”

“I’ll not go near him,” said the priest.

“I’m sorry to hear you say that, Father. The Rev. Mr. Jackson is coming up, and he’s prepared to ask the man what religion he is in ancient Greek—ancient Greek, mind you, no less. It wouldn’t be a nice thing to have it said about the town that the Protestant minister could talk ancient Greek and that you weren’t fit to say a few words in Latin. Come, now, Father Henaghan, for the credit of the Church say you’ll do it.”

This last argument weighed greatly with the priest. Dr. Whitty saw his advantage and pressed the matter home.

“I’ll put you down,” he said, “for Spanish and Italian.”

“You may put me down if you like, but I tell you he won’t know a word I speak to him.”

“Try him,” said the doctor.

“I’ll not be making a public fool of myself to please you,” said the priest. “If I do it at all I’ll have no one with me in the room at the time, mind that now.”

“Not a soul. You shall have him all to yourself. To tell you the truth, I expect everybody will feel the same as you do about that. The Rev. Mr. Jackson didn’t seem very keen on showing off his ancient Greek.”

Colonel Beresford, when Dr. Whitty called on him, confessed to a slight, a very slight, acquaintance with the Russian language.

“I took it up,” he said, “a long time ago when I was stationed in Edinburgh. There was a Russian scare on at the time and everybody thought there was going  to be a war. I happened to hear that there were a couple of Russian medical students in the University, and I thought if I picked up a little of the language I might fall in for a staff appointment. I’ve nearly forgotten it all now, and I didn’t make any special study of religious terms at the time, but I’ll do the best I can for you. You’ve got all the other languages you say.”

“I think so. I have”—the doctor took a list from his pocket—“French, Miss Lizzie Glynn. She was educated at a first-rate convent, and speaks French fluently. Greek (ancient and modern), the Rev. Mr. Jackson. German and allied tongues, Mrs. Jackson. Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, Father Henaghan. That, with your Russian, makes a tolerably complete list.”

“I’d no idea,” said the colonel, “that we were such a polyglot in Ballintra. By the way, you haven’t got Norwegian.”

“No,” said the doctor, “I haven’t and when you come to think of it, a sailor is more likely to be that, or a Swede, than any thing else. Can you speak it?”

“Not a word.”

“Do you happen to have a dictionary, Norwegian or Swedish, in the house?”

“No.”

“That’s a pity. I’d have tried to work it up a little myself if you had.”

“All I have,” said the Colonel, “is a volume of Ibsen’s plays.”

“Give me that,” said the Doctor, “and I’ll do my best.”

“It’s only a translation.”

“Never mind. I’ll pick up something out of it that may be useful. I have two hours before me. Do you mind lending it to me?”

Dr. Whitty went home with a copy of a translation of “Rosmersholm,” “Ghosts,” and “An Enemy of Society.”

At six o’clock the whole party of linguists assembled in the private sitting-room of the master of the workhouse. Dr. Whitty gave them a short address of an encouraging kind, pointing out that, in performing an act of charity they were making the best possible use of the education they had received. He then politely asked Mrs. Jackson if she would like to visit the foreigner first. She did not seem anxious to push herself forward. Her German, she confessed, was weak; and she hoped that if she was reserved until the last he might possibly recognise one of the other languages before her turn came. Everybody else, it turned out, felt very much as Mrs. Jackson did. In the end Dr. Whitty decided the order of precedence by drawing lots. The colonel, accepting loyally the decision of destiny, went first and returned with the news that the sailor showed no signs of being able to understand Russian. Lizzie Glynn went next, and was no more fortunate with her French.

“I’m not sure,” she said, “did I speak it right. But, right or wrong, he didn’t know a word I said to him.”

Mr. Jackson arranged his notes carefully and was conducted by the doctor to the ward. He, too, returned without having made himself intelligible.

“I knew I should be no use,” he said. “I expect modern Greek is quite different from the language I know.”

Father Henaghan’s Latin was a complete failure. He seemed irritated and reported very unfavourably of the intelligence of the patient.

“It’s my belief,” he said, “that the man’s mind’s gone. He must have got a crack on the head somehow, as well as breaking his leg, and had the sense knocked out of him. He looks to me like a man who’d understand well enough when you talked to him if he had his right mind.”

This view of the sailor’s condition made Mrs. Jackson nervous. She said she had no experience of lunatics, and disliked being brought into contact with them. She wanted to back out of her promise to ask the necessary question in German. In the end she consented to go, but only if her husband was allowed to accompany her. She was back again in five minutes, and said definitely that the man knew no German whatever.

“Now,” said the colonel, “it’s your turn, doctor. Go at him with your Norwegian.”

“The fact is,” said the doctor, “that, owing to the three plays you lent me being merely translations, I’ve only been able to get a hold of one Norwegian word. However, as it happens, it is an extremely useful word in this particular case. The Norwegian for a clergyman,” he said, triumphantly, “is ‘Pastor.’ What’s more, I’ve got a hold of the name of one of their clergy. If this man is a Norwegian, and has been in the habit of going to the theatre, I expect he’ll know all about Pastor Manders.”

“It’s clever of you to have fished that out of the book I lent you,” said the colonel. “But I don’t quite see how it will help you to find out whether our friend with the broken leg is a Protestant or a Roman Catholic.”

“It will help if it’s worked properly, if it’s worked the way I mean to work it, that is to say, if the man is a Norwegian, and I don’t see what else he can be.”

“He might be a Turk,” said Father Henaghan.

“No he couldn’t. I tried him with half a glass of whiskey this morn, and he simply lapped it up. If he had been a Turk the smell of it would have turned him sick. We may fairly assume that he is, as I say, a Norwegian, and if he is I’ll get at him. I shall want you, Father Henaghan, and you, Mr. Jackson, to come with me.”

“I’ve been twice already,” said Mr. Jackson. “Do you really think it necessary for me——”

“I shan’t ask you to speak another word of ancient Greek,” said the doctor. “You needn’t do anything except stand where I put you and look pleasant.”

He took the priest and the rector, seizing each by the arm, and swept them with him along the corridor to the ward in which the injured sailor lay. He set them one on each side of the bed, and stood at the foot of it himself. The sailor stared first at the priest and next at the rector. Then he looked the doctor straight in the face and his left eyelid twitched slightly. Dr. Whitty felt almost certain that he winked; but there was clearly no reason why he should wink with any malicious intent, so he put the motion down to some nervous affection.

“Pastor,” said the doctor, in a loud, clear tone, pointing to Father Henaghan.

The sailor looked vacantly at the priest.

“Pastor,” said the doctor again, indicating Mr. Jackson, with his finger.

The sailor turned his face and looked at Mr. Jackson, but there was no sign of intelligence on his face.

“Take your choice,” said the doctor; “you can have either one or the other. We don’t want to influence you in the slightest, but you’ve got to profess a religion of some sort while you’re here, and these clergymen represent the only two kinds we have. One or other of them you must choose, otherwise the unfortunate master of this workhouse will get into trouble for not registering you. Hang it all! I don’t believe the fool knows a single word I’m saying to him.”

Again, the man’s eyelid, this time his right, eyelid, twitched.

“Don’t do that,” said the doctor; “it distracts your attention from what I’m saying. Listen to me now. Pastor Manders!” He pointed to the priest. “Pastor Manders!” He indicated the rector.

Neither Father Henaghan nor Mr. Jackson had ever read “Ghosts,” which was fortunate. If they had they might have resented the name which the doctor imposed on them. Apparently, the sailor did not know the play either. “Manders” seemed to mean no more to him than “Pastor” did.

“There’s no use our standing here all evening,” said Father Henaghan. “You told me to look pleasant, and I have—I haven’t looked so pleasant for a long time—but I don’t see that any good is likely to come of it.”

“Come on,” said the doctor. “I’ve done my best, and I can do no more. I’m inclined to think now that the man must be either a Laplander or an Esquimaux. He’d have understood me if he’d been a Dane, a Swede, a Norwegian, or even a Finn.”

“I told you, as soon as ever I set eyes on him,” said the priest, “that he was out of his mind. My own  belief is, doctor, that if you give him some sort of a soothing draught, and get him back into his right senses, he’ll turn out to be an Irishman. It’s what he looks like.”

Michael Geraghty, who had carted the injured sailor from the shipwreck, called on Dr. Whitty next day at breakfast-time.

“I hear,” he said, “that you had half the town up yesterday trying could they get a word out of that fellow that’s in the hospital with the broken leg.”

“I had. We spoke to him in every language in Europe, and I’m bothered if I know what country he belongs to at all. There wasn’t one of us he’d answer.”

“Did you think of trying him with the Irish?”

“I did not. Where would be the good? If he could speak Irish he’d be sure to be able to speak English.”

“Would you have any objection to my saying a few words to him, doctor?”

“Not the least in the world. If you’ve nothing particular to do, go up there and tell the master I sent you.”

An hour later Michael Geraghty re-appeared at the doctor’s door. He was grinning broadly and seemed pleased with himself.

“Well, Michael, did you make him speak?”

“I didn’t like to say a word to you, doctor, till I made sure for fear of what I might be bringing some kind of trouble on the wrong man; but as soon as ever I seen that fellow put into my cart beyond at Carrigwee, I said to myself: ‘You’re mighty like poor Affy Hynes that’s gone, only a bit older. I took another look at him as we were coming along the road, and, says I, ‘If Affy  Hynes is alive this minute you’re him. You’ll recollect, doctor, that the poor fellow couldn’t speak at the time, by reason of the cold that was on him and the broken leg and all the hardships he’d been through. Well, looking at him off and on, till I got to the workhouse I came to be pretty near certain that it was either Affy Hynes or a twin brother of his; and Mrs. Hynes, the mother, that’s dead this ten years, never had but the one son.”

“And who was Affy Hynes?”

“It was before your time, of course, and before Father Henaghan was parish priest; but the colonel would know who I mean.” Michael sank his voice to an impressive whisper. “Affy Hynes was the boy that the police was out after in the bad times, wanting to have him hanged on account of the way that the bailiff was shot. But he made off, and none of us ever knew where he went to, though they did say that it might be to an uncle of his that was in America.”

“Did he murder the bailiff?”

“He did not; nor I don’t believe he knew who did, though he might.”

“Then what did he run away for?”

“For fear they’d hang him,” said Michael Geraghty. “Amn’t I just after telling you?”

“Go on,” said the doctor.

“Well, when Affy came to himself after all the hardship he had it wasn’t long before he found out the place he was in. ‘It’s Ballintra,’ says he to himself, ‘or it’s mighty like it.’ There did be a great dread on him then that the police would be out after him again, and have him took; and, says he, into himself like, so as no one would hear him, ‘I’ll let on I can’t understand  a word they say to me, so as they won’t know my voice, anyway.’ And so he did; but he went very near laughing one time when you had the priest and the minister, one on each side of him, and ‘Pastor,’ says you——”

“Never mind that part,” said the doctor.

“If it’s displeasing to you to hear about it, I’ll not say another word. Only, I’d be thankful if you’d tell me why you called the both of them Manders. It’s what Affy was saying to me this minute: ‘Michael,’ says he, ‘is Manders the name that’s on the priest that’s in the parish presently?’ ‘It is not,’ says I, ‘but Henaghan.’ ‘That’s queer,’ said he. ‘Is it Manders they call the minister?’ ‘It is not,’ I says; ‘it’s Jackson. There never was one in the place of the name of Manders, priest or minister.’ ‘That’s queer,’ says he ‘for the doctor called both the two of them Manders.’”

“So he understood every word we said to him all the time?” said the doctor.

“Not the whole of it, nor near the whole,” said Michael Geraghty. “He’s been about the world a deal, being a sailor and he said he could make out what Miss Glynn was saying pretty well, and knew the minister’s lady was talking Dutch, though he couldn’t tell what she was saying, for it wasn’t just the same Dutch as he’d been accustomed to hearing. The colonel made a middling good offer at the Russian. Affy was a year one time in them parts, and he knows; but he said he’d be damned if he could make any kind of a guess at what either the priest or the minister was at, and he told me to be sure and ask you what they were talking because he’d like to know.”

“I’ll go up and see him myself,” said the doctor.

“If you speak the Irish to him he’ll answer you,” said Michael.

“I will, if he likes,” said the doctor. “But why won’t he speak English?”

“There’s a sort of dread on him,” said Michael Geraghty. “I think he’d be more willing to trust you if you’d speak to him in the Irish, it being all one to you. He bid me say to you, and it’s a good job I didn’t forget it, that if so be he’s dying, you might tell Father Henaghan he’s a Catholic, the way he’d attend on him; but if he’s to live, he’d as soon no one but yourself and me knew he was in the place.”

Dr. Whitty went up to the workhouse, turned the nurse out of the ward, and sat down beside Affy Hynes.

“Tell me this now,” he said, “why didn’t you let me know who you were? I wouldn’t have told on you.”

“I was sorry after that I didn’t,” said Affy, “when I seen all the trouble that I put you to. It was too much altogether fetching the ladies and gentlemen up here to be speaking to the like of me. It’s what never happened to me before, and I’m sorry you were bothered.”

“Why didn’t you tell me then?”

“Sure, I did my best. Did you not see me winking at you once, when you had the priest and the minister in with me, as much as to say: ‘Doctor, if I thought I could trust you I’d tell you the truth this minute.’ I made full sure you’d understand what it was I was meaning the second time, even if you didn’t at the first go-off.”

“That’s not what I gathered from your wink at all,” said the doctor. “I thought you’d got some kind of a nervous affection of the eye.”

“It’s a queer thing, now,” said Affy, “that the two of them reverend gentlemen should have the same name, and that Manders.”

“We’ll drop that subject,” said the Doctor.

“We will, of course, if it’s pleasing to you. But it is queer all the same, and I’d be glad if I knew the reason of it, for it must be mighty confusing for the people of this place, both Catholic and Protestant. Tell me now, doctor, is there any fear that I might be took by the police?”

“Not a bit. That affair of yours, whatever it was, is blown over long ago.”

“Are you certain of that?”

“I am.”

“Then as soon as I’m fit I’ll take a bit of a stroll out and look at the old place. I’d like to see it again. Many’s the time I’ve said to myself, me being, may be, in some far-away country at the time, ‘I’d like to see Ballintra again, and the house where my mother lived, and the bohireen that the asses does be going along into the bog when the turf’s brought home.’ Is it there yet?”

“I expect it is,” said the doctor.

“God is good,” said Affy. “It’s little ever I expected to set eyes on it.”