Cheap by Marjorie Pickthall

A Mystery Story

Ransome said that you might pick up specimens of all the unprettiest afflictions of body and soul in Herares ten years ago. He also said that when he saw any particularly miserable bit of human wreckage, white or brown, adrift on the languid tides of life about the jetty, he always said without further inquiry, "It's Henkel's house you're looking for. Turn to the left, and keep on turning to the left. And if God knew what went on under these trees. He'd have mercy on you."

The house was the last house on the last road of the town. You don't find it now, for no one would live in it after Henkel; and in a season or two the forest had swamped it as the sea swamps a child's boat on the beach. It was a white house in a garden, and after rain the scent of vanilla and stephanotis rose round it like a fog. The fever rose round it like a fog, too, and that's why Henkel got it so cheap. No fever touched him. He lived there alone with a lot of servants—Indians. And they were all wrecks, Ransome said, broken down from accident or disease—wrecks that no one else would employ. He got them very cheap. When they died he got more.

Henkel was a large, soft, yellowish man. Ransome said, "I don't mind a man being large and yellowish, or even soft in reason; but when he shines, too, I draw the line." Henkel had thick hands with bent fingers, and large, brown eyes. He was a Hollander, and in that place he stood apart. For he didn't drink, or gamble, or fight, or even buy rubber. He was just a large, peaceful person who bought things cheap.

He was very clever. He always knew the precise moment, the outmost low-water mark, of a bargain. His house was full of things he'd bought cheap from wrecked companies or dying men, from the mahogany logs in the patio to the coils of telegraph wire in the loft. His clothes never fitted him, for they belonged to men whom the fever had met on the way up the Mazzaron, and who had therefore no further use for clothes. The only things for which Henkel ever paid a fair price were butterflies.

"I went to his house once," said Ransome—"had to. A lame Indian in a suit of gaudy red-and-white stripes opened the door. I knew that striped canvas. It was the awnings of the old Lily Grant, and I saw along the seams the smoke-marks of the fire that had burnt her innards out…. Then the Indian opened the jalousies with a hand like a bundle of brown twigs, and the light shone through green leaves on the walls of the room. From ceiling to floor they flashed as if they were jeweled, only there are no jewels with just that soft bloom of color. They were the cases full of Henkel's butterflies.

"The Indian limped out and Henkel came in. He was limping, too. I looked at his feet and I saw that they were in a pair of some one else's tan shoes. That and a whiff from the servants' quarters made me feel a bit sick. I wanted to say what I had to say and get out as quick as I could. But Henkel would show me his butterflies. Most of us in that place were a little mad on some point. I was, myself. Henkel was mad on the subject of his butterflies. He told me the troubles he'd had getting them from Indians and negroes, and how his men cheated him. He took it very much to heart, and snuffled as he spoke. 'And there's one I haven't got,' he said, 'one I've heard of but can't find, and my lazy hounds of hombres can't find it either, it seems. It's one of the clearwings—transparent. Here's a transparent silver one. But this new one is gold, transparent gold, and the spots are opaque gold.' His mouth fairly watered. 'I tell you, I will spend anything, pay anything, to get that gold butterfly. And if the natives can't or won't find it for me, my friend, I'll send for some one who can and will.'

"I quite believed him, though I was no friend of his. I didn't know much about butterflies, but I guessed that in Paris or London his collection would be beyond price. But I wasn't prepared, two months later, for Scott and his friend.

"Derek Scott. Ever meet him? A very ordinary kind of young Northerner. He was remarkable only in having everything a little in excess of his type—a little squarer in jaw and shoulder, a little longer in nose and leg, a little keener of eye and slower of tongue. I'd never have looked at him twice, as he landed from the dirty steamer with a lot of tin boxes, if it hadn't been that he was hale and sound, with hope in his eyes. Health and hope, at Herares!

"Then little Daurillac ran up the gangway, laughing. I looked at him—every one did—and wondered. And then, to cap the wonder, the two came up to me with their friendly, confident young faces, and asked for Henkel's house.

"'Turn to the left,' I said. And then I added, 'You'll excuse me, but what does Henkel want of you?'

"Scott didn't answer at first, but looked me over with his considering eyes, and I remembered a collarless shirt and a four days' beard. But Daurillac said, 'He wants butterflies of us, Monsieur. I am an entomologist, and my friend he assists me.' He drew up very straight, but his eyes were laughing at himself. Then we exchanged names and shook hands, and I watched them going along the path to Henkel's.

"Next day Scott came down to the jetty. He sat on a stump and stared at everything. He was ready enough to talk, in his guarded way. Yes, he was new to the tropics; in some ways they were not what he had expected, but he was not disappointed. He was here for the novelty, the experience. But his friend, Louis Daurillac, had been in the Indies, and with some of Meyer's men in Burma after orchids. Louis's father was a great naturalist, and Louis was very clever. Yes, Henkel had got hold of him through Meyer. He wanted some one to find this butterfly for him—this golden butterfly at the headwaters of the Mazzaron—some one whose name was yet in the making, some one he could get cheap…. So Louis had come. He was very keen on it. Henkel was to bear all costs, to supply food, ammunition, trade-goods, etc., and pay them according to the number of the new specimens that they found. 'So you see,' said Scott, with his clean smile, 'Louis and I can't lose by it.'

"We talked a bit more, and then young Scott said to me, suddenly: 'Henkel has everything ready, and we start in the morning. You seem to be the only white man about here. Come and see us off, will you?' I said yes; afterward it struck me as curious that he should not have counted Henkel as a white man. He laughed and apologized for the touch of sentiment. 'It's like plunging head first into a very deep sea,' he explained, 'and one likes to have some one on the shore. You'll be here when we come back?' And I said yes, I'd be either unloading on the jetty or in the new cemetery by the canal. But he didn't smile. His light Northern eyes were gravely considering this land where life was held on a short lease, and he looked at me as if he were sorry for me.

"I saw them off the next day. There were six or eight men of Henkel's, loaded with food and trade-goods, and I saw that two of them were sickening where they stood. I looked in Daurillac's brilliant young face, and I hadn't the courage to say anything but, 'Have you plenty of quinine?' He tapped a big tin case, and I nodded. 'And what are you taking for the Indies?' I asked.

"He fairly bubbled over with laughter. 'You would never guess, Monsieur, but we take clocks, little American clocks. The Indies of the Mazzaron desire nothing but little clocks; they like the tick.'

"Their men had turned down one of the jungle paths. They shook hands with me, and Scott met my eyes with his grave smile. 'Just drawing breath for the plunge,' he said, with a glance at the forest beyond the last white roof. Daurillac slipped his arm through Scott's, and drew him after their slow-going hombres. At the bend of the path they turned and waved to me—Scott with a quick lift of the hand. But little Daurillac swept off his hat and stood half turned for a minute; the sun splashed on his dark head, on his Frenchified belt and puttees, on his white breeches, and on an outrageous pink shirt Henkel seemed to have supplied him with. He looked suddenly brilliant and unsubstantial, a light figure poised on the edge of the dark…. One gets curious notions in Herares. The next moment they were gone. The jungle had shut down on them, swallowed them up. They were instantly lost in it as a bubble is lost in the sea.

"Two days before I hadn't known of their existence. But I was there to see them off, and I was there when Scott came back.

"It was well on into the rainy season, and I was down with fever. I was in my house, in my hammock, and the wind was swinging it. It was probably the hammock that did all the swinging, but I thought it was the house, and I had one foot on the floor to try and steady it. But it was no use. The walls lifted and sank all in one rush, like the sides of a ship at sea. Outside I could see a pink roof, a white roof, a tin roof, and then the forest, with the opening of a path like the black mouth of a tunnel. I wanted to watch this tunnel, because I had an idea I'd seen something crawl along it a good while before. But I couldn't manage it; I had to shut my eyes. And then I felt the scratching on my boot.

"I caught hold of the sides of the hammock, but it was some time before I could manage to pull myself up. Then I looked down.

"A man was lying on the floor, face down, just as he had crawled into my hut and fallen. The yellowish fingers of one hand clawed on my boot, and that was the only sign that he was alive. He lay quite still, except for the slow working of his fingers; and I sat still, also, staring down at him with the infinite leisure that follows a temperature of one hundred and five. It was only by slow degrees that I realized that this was Derek Scott come back, and that he was probably dying.

"I got to my feet and bent over him, but I wasn't strong enough to raise him, of course. I was afraid he'd die before any one came. So I took my revolver and aimed as well as I could at that tin roof beneath which my man Pedro was eating his dinner. The barrel went up and down with the walls of the hut, but I must have hit the roof, for the next thing there was a lot of smoke and noise, and Pedro's face, eyes, and mouth open, rushing out of it. There seemed no interval before I found myself sitting in the hammock and saying over and over again, 'But where's the little chap? Where's the little French chap?'

"Scott was still on the floor, but his head was on my man's shoulder, and Pedro was gently feeding him with sips of brandy and condensed milk. He turned and looked at me, and his eyes were clear and considering as ever, though his answer didn't sound quite sane. He said, 'The clocks wouldn't tick.'

"He said it as if it explained everything. Then he unstrapped a tin case from his belt, laid his head on it, and was instantly asleep.

"I cried out, 'Is it the fever, Pedro?' But my man said: 'No, Señor, it is the hunger.' He rolled Scott up very cleverly in a blanket. 'This señor has had the fever, but it is not upon him now. Without doubt he is a little mad from being in the forest so long. But when he wakes he will be stronger.' So much I heard, and no more. Unconsciousness came down on me like a wave. But into the dark heart of that wave I carried the certainty that Pedro knew all about the matter and that he hated Henkel. How or why I was certain of this I don't know. But I was.

"I woke in the cool of the evening. The fresh wind off the river was like the breath of life, and Pedro's face, thrust close to mine, no longer grew large and small by fits. I noticed that it was quite gray, and that his lips twitched as he muttered, 'Señor, Señor—'

"I said: 'Where is the Señor Scott?'

"'He woke a little while ago, and called for water to wash in, and a clean coat, and he used the hair-brush. Then he took the little tin box and went out—went out.'

"I got to my feet, threw an arm over Pedro's shoulder, and he ran with me out into the moonlit street. The track to the fountain lay like a ribbon of silver, and the houses were like silver blocks. And every house was shuttered and silent—breathless. Not a man lounged under the shade of the walls, not a girl went late to draw water, not a dog barked. The little place was deserted in the hold of the forest. It lay like a lonely, luminous raft, in the midst of a black sea. Only ahead of me a man stumbled slowly in the center of the road, and his shadow staggered beside him. I have said there was no other living thing visible. Yet, as this man stumbled past the shuttered houses the very blades of grass, the very leaves on the wall, seemed to have conscious life and to be aware of him. When the wind moved the trees, every branch seemed to be straining to follow him as Pedro and I followed.

"We followed, but we could not gain on him. It was like the dreams of delirium. Pedro and I seemed to be struggling through the silence of Herares as if it were something heavy and resistant, and Scott reeled from side to side, but always kept the same distance ahead. We were still behind when we turned into Henkel's garden, and the scent of the flowers beat in our faces like heat. At the veranda steps we met the servant who had admitted Scott.

"The man was running away. He was a cripple, and he came down the steps doubled up, bundled past us, and was gone. Somewhere a door clashed open. There was no other sound. But in a moment the garden seemed, full of stampeding servants, all maimed, or ill, or aged. They melted silently into the bushes as rats melt into brushwood, and they took no notice of us. I heard Pedro catch his breath quickly. But when a light flared up in one of the rooms it showed no more than Scott talking with Henkel.

"They showed like moving pictures in a frame, and the frame was of dark leaves about the window, which was open. I leaned against the side of it, and Pedro squatted at my feet, his head thrust forward as if he were at a cockfight. I did not know just why I was there. Henkel sat at a table, wagging his head backward and forward; Scott was sitting opposite him. And he looked as Lazarus might have looked when first he heard the Voice and stirred.

"Henkel was saying, 'Dear me, dear me, but why should this have happened?' And Scott answered as he had answered me, in that strange, patient voice:

"'The clocks wouldn't tick.'

"'But they were good clocks,' cried Henkel.

"Scott shook his head. 'No, they were not good clocks,' he explained, gently; 'they were too cheap. They would not go at all in the jungle. An Indian of the Mazzaron does not care what time his clock tells, but he likes it to tick. These were no good. And the food was not good. The things in tins were bad when we opened them.'

"'Mismanagement, mismanagement,' said Henkel, but Scott went on as if he had not heard:

"'We followed the river for two days, and then turned east. In a week after that two of your men were dead. They died of fever. No, the quinine was no good; there was a lot of flour in it. Two days more, and another man died, but he would have died anyhow. It was very hard to see them die and be able to do nothing.

"'The men who were left went so slowly that nearly all our food was gone when we reached the country of the Indies. We made our camp and I shot a pig. That gave us strength, but Louis was very bad then with the fever.

"'The Indies came down, and we spoke with their head men. They thought we were mad, but the clocks pleased them; and they sat round our tents and shook them to make them tick louder until Louis cried out in his fever that all the world was a great clock that ticked. They gave us leave to hunt in their country for butterflies, and the head men told off six to help us. One was very clever. He used to wear his net on his head, with the stick hanging down behind, and he snared the butterflies with a loop of grass as if they were birds.

"'Our tents were of cheap cotton stuff that would not keep the rain out, and the wet came in on Louis and made him worse. But he was young, and I saw to it that he had food, and your men loved him. I do not think he would have died if the clocks had ticked properly.'

"'I do not understand,' said Henkel, blinking his heavy brown eyes.

"'No? They were so cheap that they broke at the first winding. The Indies brought them back and asked for better ones. I had no better ones.'

"'Still I do not understand,' said Henkel, smoothly, and blinked in the lamplight.

"Scott's tired voice went on. 'The Indios were very angry. They brought us no more butterflies, and no more food. And presently, as we went about the camp, or the paths of the forest, the little arrows began to fall in front of us and behind us, though we never saw those who shot at us.'

"'The little arrows?' asked Henkel, heavily. 'I do not understand. Go on.'

"'There is very little to tell. Only a nightmare of hunger, of wet, of fever, of silence, and the little poisoned arrows quivering everywhere. And one day a little dart flickered through a rent in the cotton tenting and struck Louis. He died in five minutes. Then I and the men who were left broke through and came down the Mazzaron. The Indies followed us, and I am the only one left. It is a pity the clocks wouldn't tick, Mister Henkel.'

"'Ya, ya,' said Henkel, leaning over the table, 'but the butterfly?
The golden butterfly? You have found it?'

"Scott opened the tin case slowly and clumsily, drew out the perfect insect, and laid it on the table. But it is wrong to speak of that wide-winged loveliness of glittering and transparent gold as an 'insect.' Henkel sat staring at it, one big yellowish hand curved on either side of it, too happy to speak. His lips moved, and I fancied he was saying to himself, 'Cheap, cheap.'

"'It is very good,' he said at last, cunningly, 'but I am sorry there is only one. I do not know that it is worth very much. But now I will pay you as I promised. There was no agreement that you should receive the other young man's share, and there is only one insect. But I will pay you.'

"Scott was fumbling in his belt. 'Yes,' he said, 'you will pay me,' and he leaned forward with something in his hand. We saw Henkel's face turn to yellow wax, and he tried to stand up, but he was too stout to lift himself quickly. He had no time to turn before Scott shot him through the heart.

"When I broke through the vines, Scott was moving the butterfly out of the way. He looked up at me with his old, considering look, his old clean smile. 'It was cheap at the price,' he said, touching one golden wing with his finger."