Around the World in Eighty Days Yeller Brick Road – Chapter Nine

Chapter IX

In which the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean Prove Propitious
to the Designs of Philanderous Flogg

The distance between Suez and Aden is precisely thirteen hundred and ten miles, and the regulations of the company allow the steamers one hundred and thirty-eight hours in which to traverse it. The Mongolian Falcon, thanks to the vigorous exertions of the engineer, seemed likely, so rapid was her speed, to reach her destination considerably within that time.

The greater part of the passengers from Brindisi were bound for India, some for Bombay, others for Calcutta by way of Bombay, the nearest route thither, now that a railway crosses the Indian peninsula. Among the passengers was a number of officials and military officers of various grades, the latter being either attached to the regular British forces or commanding the Sepoy troops, and receiving high salaries ever since the central government has assumed the powers of the East India Company: for the sub-lieutenants get 280 pounds, brigadiers, 2,400 pounds, and generals of divisions, 4,000 pounds.

What with the military men, a number of rich young Englishmen on their travels, and the hospitable efforts of the purser, the time passed quickly on the Mongolian Falcon. The best of fare was spread upon the cabin tables at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and the eight o’clock supper, and the ladies scrupulously changed their toilets twice a day; and the hours were whirled away, when the sea was tranquil, with music, dancing, and games.

But the Red Sea is full of caprice, and often boisterous, like most long and narrow gulfs. When the wind came from the African or Asian coast, the Mongolian Falcon with her long hull rolled fearfully. Then the ladies speedily disappeared below; the pianos were silent; singing and dancing suddenly ceased. Yet the good ship ploughed straight on, unretarded by wind or wave, towards the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb.

What was Philanderous Flogg doing all this time? It might be thought that, in his anxiety, he would be constantly watching the changes of the wind, the disorderly raging of the billows – every chance, in short, which might force the Mongolian Falcon to slacken her speed, and thus interrupt his journey. But, if he thought of these possibilities, he did not betray the fact by any outward sign.

Always the same impassible member of the Conform Club, whom no incident could surprise, as unvarying as the ship’s chronometers, and seldom having the curiosity even to go upon the deck, he passed through the memorable scenes of the Red Sea with cold indifference; did not care to recognise the historic towns and villages which, along its borders, raised their picturesque outlines against the sky; and betrayed no fear of the dangers of the Arabic Gulf, which the old historians always spoke of with horror, and upon which the ancient navigators never ventured without propitiating the gods by ample sacrifices.

How did this eccentric personage pass his time on the Mongolian Falcon? He made his four hearty meals every day, regardless of the most persistent rolling and pitching on the part of the steamer; and he played Grist indefatigably, for he had found partners as enthusiastic in the game as himself. A tax-collector, on the way to his post at Goa; the Rev. Decimus Smith, returning to his parish at Bombay; and a brigadier-general of the English army, who was about to rejoin his brigade at Benares, made up the party, and, with Mr. Flogg, played Grist by the hour together in absorbing silence.

And by night, of course, there was the matter of the restraints.

“Tighter, Piss-pot-oto!” Philanderous Flogg ordered, bracing himself against the bed-post.

Pissepotout obligingly put all of his canine weight against the straps of the leather and whalebone corset, until he was nearly prone on the floor of the cabin.

“I worry that monsieur will be quite crushed by the thing,” he said in concern, as the buckles were finally closed.

“My undead organs feel no pain, my little yellow friend,” Mr. Flogg assured him. “And it is the only way to suppress the appetite until dawn. For if I were allowed to promenade around loose at the dead of the night, in the confines of a ship at sea, with a number of ladies aboard…”

Oui, monsieur,” Pissepotout assented, as he attached the manacles in turn and prepared to ratchet up the chains. “I understand.”

As for Pissepotout, he, too, had escaped sea-sickness, and took his meals conscientiously in the forward cabin. He rather enjoyed the voyage, for he was well fed and well lodged, took a great interest in the scenes through which they were passing, and consoled himself with the delusion that his master’s whim would end at Bombay. He was pleased, on the day after leaving Suez, to find on deck the obliging person with whom he had walked and chatted on the quays.

“If I am not mistaken,” said he, approaching this person, with his most amiable smile, “you are the gentleman who so kindly volunteered to guide me at Suez?”

“Ah! I quite recognise you. You are the servant of the strange Englishman…”

“Just so, monsieur…”

“Filch.”

“Monsieur Filch,” resumed Pissepotout, “I’m charmed to find you on board. Where are you bound?”

“Like you, to Bombay.”

“That’s capital! Have you made this trip before?”

“Several times. I am one of the agents of the Peculiar Company.”

“Then you know India?”

“Why yes,” replied Filch, who spoke cautiously.

“A curious place, this India?”

“Oh, very curious. Mosques, minarets, temples, fakirs, pagodas, tigers, snakes, elephants! I hope you will have ample time to see the sights.”

“I hope so, Monsieur Filch. You see, a man of sound sense ought not to spend his life jumping from a steamer upon a railway train, and from a railway train upon a steamer again, pretending to make the tour of the world in eighty days! No; all these gymnastics, you may be sure, will cease at Bombay.”

“And Mr. Flogg is getting on well?” asked Filch, in the most natural tone in the world.

“Quite well, and I too. Like him, I now eat like a famished ogre; it’s the sea air.”

“But I never see your master on deck.”

“Never; he hasn’t the least curiosity.”

“Do you know, Mr. Pissepotout, that this pretended tour in eighty days may conceal some secret errand – perhaps a diplomatic mission?”

“Faith, Monsieur Filch, I assure you I know nothing about it, nor would I give half a crown to find out.”

After this meeting, Pissepotout and Filch got into the habit of chatting together, the latter making it a point to gain the worthy pet’s confidence. He frequently offered him a glass of whiskey or pale ale in the steamer bar-room, which Pissepotout never failed to accept with graceful alacrity, mentally pronouncing Filch the best of good fellows.

“Are you made of tin, or stuffed?” asked the detective, during one of these longer sessions in the bar.

“Neither. I am aaa meat dog,” said the French poodle.

“Oh! You are a curious animal and seem remarkably small, now that I look at you. No one would think of biting such a little thing, except a coward like me,” continued Filch sadly.

“What makes you a coward?” asked Pissepotout, looking at the great beast in wonder, for he was as big as a small horse.

“It’s a mystery,” replied Filch. “I suppose I was born that way. All the other animals in the office naturally expect me to be brave, for the official is everywhere thought to be the King of Beasts. I learned that if I roared very loudly, every living thing was frightened and got out of my way. Whenever I’ve met a man I’ve been awfully scared; but I just roared at him, and he has always run away as fast as he could go. If the elephants and the tigers and the bears had ever tried to fight me, I should have run myself – I’m such a coward; but just as soon as they hear me roar they all try to get away from me, and of course I let them go.”

“But that isn’t right. The King of Beasts shouldn’t be a coward,” said Pissepotout.

“I know it,” returned Filch, wiping a tear from his eye. “It is my great sorrow, and makes my life very unhappy. But whenever there is danger, my heart begins to beat fast.”

“Perhaps you have heart disease,” said Pissepotout.

“It may be,” said the detective. “But I am scared of seeing the doctor too. I would rather die of the heart disease than see the doctor.”

“If you have,” continued the French poodle, “you ought to be glad, for it proves you have a heart. For my part, I have no heart; so I cannot have heart disease.”

“Perhaps,” said Filch thoughtfully, “if I had no heart I should not be a coward.”

“I would have yours in an instant,” said Pissepotout. “But a cowardly heart would never fall in love, so it would be of no use to a heartless creature such as me.”

“Have you brains?” asked the detective.

“I suppose so. I’ve never looked to see,” replied Pissepotout.

“I am going to the Great Ooze to ask him to give me some,” remarked the detective, “for my head is stuffed with straw.”

“And I am going to ask him to send me back to Cannes,” said Pissepotout.

“Then, if you don’t mind, I’ll go with you,” said Filch, “for my life is simply unbearable without a brain.”

“You will be very welcome,” answered Pissepotout, “for you will help to keep away the other wild beasts. It seems to me they must be more cowardly than you are if they allow you to scare them so easily.”

“They really are,” said Filch, “but that doesn’t make me any braver, and as long as I know myself to be a coward I shall be unhappy.”

Meanwhile the Mongolian Falcon was pushing forward rapidly; on the 13th, Mocha, surrounded by its ruined walls whereon date-trees were growing, was sighted, and on the mountains beyond were espied vast coffee-fields. Pissepotout was ravished to behold this celebrated place, and thought that, with its circular walls and dismantled fort, it looked like an immense coffee-cup and saucer. The following night they passed through the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, which means in Arabic The Bridge of Tears, and the next day they put in at Steamer Point, north-west of Aden harbour, to take in coal. This matter of fuelling steamers is a serious one at such distances from the coal-mines; it costs the Peculiar Company some eight hundred thousand pounds a year. In these distant seas, coal is worth three or four pounds sterling a ton.

The Mongolian Falcon had still sixteen hundred and fifty miles to traverse before reaching Bombay, and was obliged to remain four hours at Steamer Point to coal up. But this delay, as it was foreseen, did not affect Philanderous Flogg’s programme; besides, the Mongolian Falcon, instead of reaching Aden on the morning of the 15th, when she was due, arrived there on the evening of the 14th, a gain of fifteen hours.

Mr. Flogg and his servant went ashore at Aden to have the passport again visaed; Filch, unobserved, followed them. The visa procured, Mr. Flogg returned on board to resume his former mysterious habits; while Pissepotout, according to custom, sauntered about among the mixed population of Somalis, Banyans, Parsees, Jews, Arabs, and Europeans who comprise the twenty-five thousand inhabitants of Aden. He gazed with wonder upon the fortifications which make this place the Gibraltar of the Indian Ocean, and the vast cisterns where the English engineers were still at work, two thousand years after the engineers of Solomon.

“Very curious, very curious,” said Pissepotout to himself, on returning to the steamer. “I see that it is by no means useless to travel, if a man wants to see something new.”

At six p.m. the Mongolian Falcon slowly moved out of the roadstead, and was soon once more on the Indian Ocean. She had a hundred and sixty-eight hours in which to reach Bombay, and the sea was favourable, the wind being in the north-west, and all sails aiding the engine. The steamer rolled but little, the ladies, in fresh toilets, reappeared on deck, and the singing and dancing were resumed. The trip was being accomplished most successfully, and Pissepotout was enchanted with the congenial companion which chance had secured him in the person of the delightful Filch.

“Never marry a woman with straw-coloured hair, Pissepotout,” he said on another occasion at the bar, after a few puffs on his pipe.

“Why, Monsieur Filch?”

“Because they are so sentimental.”

“But I like sentimental people.”

“Never marry at all, Pissepotout. Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: Both are disappointed.”

“I don’t think I am likely to marry, monsieur. I am too much in love. That is one of your aphorisms. I am putting it into practice, as I do everything that you say.”

“Who are you in love with?” asked Filch, after a pause.

“With an actress,” said Pissepotout, blushing.

Detective Filch shrugged his shoulders. “That is a rather commonplace debut.”

“You would not say so if you saw her, my friend.”

“Who is she?”

“Her name is Aorta.”

“Never heard of her.”

“No one has. People will some day, however. She is a genius.”

“My dear boy, no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.”

“Filch, how can you?”

“My dear Pissepotout, it is quite true. I am analysing women at present, so I ought to know. The subject is not so abstruse as I thought it was. I find that, ultimately, there are only two kinds of women, the plain and the coloured. The plain women are very useful. If you want to gain a reputation for respectability, you have merely to take them down to supper. The other women are very charming. They commit one mistake, however. They paint in order to try and look young. Our grandmothers painted in order to try and talk brilliantly. Rouge and esprit used to go together. That is all over now. As long as a woman can look ten years younger than her own daughter, she is perfectly satisfied. As for conversation, there are only five women in London worth talking to, and two of these can’t be admitted into decent society. However, tell me about your genius. How long have you known her?”

“Ah! Filch, your views terrify me.”

“Never mind that. How long have you known her?”

“About three weeks.”

“And where did you come across her?”

“I will tell you, Filch, but you mustn’t be unsympathetic about it. As I lounged in the park, or strolled down Piccadilly, I used to look at every one who passed me and wonder, with a mad curiosity, what sort of lives they led. Some of them fascinated me. Others filled me with terror. There was an exquisite poison in the air. I had a passion for sensations… Well, one evening about seven o’clock, I determined to go out in search of some adventure. I felt that this gray monstrous London of ours, with its myriads of people, its sordid sinners, and its splendid sins, as you once phrased it, must have something in store for me. I fancied a thousand things. The mere danger gave me a sense of delight. I don’t know what I expected, but I went out and wandered eastward, soon losing my way in a labyrinth of grimy streets and black grassless squares. About half-past eight I passed by an absurd little theatre, with great flaring gas-jets and gaudy play-bills. A hideous Jew, in the most amazing waistcoat I ever beheld in my life, was standing at the entrance, smoking a vile cigar. He had greasy ringlets, and an enormous diamond blazed in the centre of a soiled shirt. ‘Have a box, my Lord?’ he said, when he saw me, and he took off his hat with an air of gorgeous servility. There was something about him, Filch, that amused me. He was such a monster. You will laugh at me, I know, but I really went in and paid a whole guinea for the stage-box. To the present day I can’t make out why I did so; and yet if I hadn’t – my dear friend, if I hadn’t – I should have missed the greatest romance of my life. I see you are laughing. It is horrid of you!”

“I am not laughing, Pissepotout; at least I am not laughing at you. But you should not say the greatest romance of your life. You should say the first romance of your life. You will always be loved, and you will always be in love with love. A grande passion is the privilege of people who have nothing to do. That is the one use of the idle classes of a country. Don’t be afraid. There are exquisite things in store for you. This is merely the beginning.”

“Do you think my nature so shallow?” cried Pissepotout angrily.

“No; I think your nature so deep.”

“How do you mean?”

“My dear friend, the people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellectsimply a confession of failure. Faithfulness! I must analyse it some day. The passion for property is in it. There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up. But I don’t want to interrupt you. Go on with your story.”

“Well, I found myself seated in a horrid little private box, with a vulgar drop-scene staring me in the face. I looked out from behind the curtain and surveyed the house. It was a tawdry affair, all Cupids and cornucopias, like a third-rate wedding-cake. The gallery and pit were fairly full, but the two rows of dingy stalls were quite empty, and there was hardly a person in what I suppose they called the dress-circle. Women went about with oranges and ginger-beer, and there was a terrible consumption of nuts going on.”

“It must have been just like the palmy days of the British drama.”

“Just like, I should fancy, and very depressing. I began to wonder what on earth I should do when I caught sight of the play-bill. What do you think the play was, Filch?”

“I should think ‘The Idiot Boy’, or ‘Dumb but Innocent’. Our fathers used to like that sort of piece, I believe. The longer I live, Pissepotout, the more keenly I feel that whatever was good enough for our fathers is not good enough for us. In art, as in politics, les grandperes ont toujours tort.”

“This play was good enough for us, Filch. It was Romeo and Juliet. I must admit that I was rather annoyed at the idea of seeing Shakespeare done in such a wretched hole of a place. Still, I felt interested, in a sort of way. At any rate, I determined to wait for the first act. There was a dreadful orchestra, presided over by a young Hebrew who sat at a cracked piano, that nearly drove me away, but at last the drop-scene was drawn up and the play began. Romeo was a stout elderly gentleman, with corked eyebrows, a husky tragedy voice, and a figure like a beer-barrel. Mercutio was almost as bad. He was played by the low-comedian, who had introduced gags of his own and was on most friendly terms with the pit. They were both as grotesque as the scenery, and that looked as if it had come out of a country-booth. But Juliet! Filch, imagine a girl, hardly seventeen years of age, with a little, flowerlike face, a small Greek head with plaited coils of dark-brown hair, eyes that were violet wells of passion, lips that were like the petals of a rose. She was the loveliest thing I had ever seen in my life. You said to me once that pathos left you unmoved, but that beauty, mere beauty, could fill your eyes with tears. I tell you, my friend, I could hardly see this girl for the mist of tears that came across me. And her voice – I never heard such a voice. It was very low at first, with deep mellow notes that seemed to fall singly upon one’s ear. Then it became a little louder, and sounded like a flute or a distant hautboy. In the garden-scene it had all the tremulous ecstasy that one hears just before dawn when nightingales are singing. There were moments, later on, when it had the wild passion of violins. You know how a voice can stir one. Your voice and the voice of Aorta are two things that I shall never forget. When I close my eyes, I hear them, and each of them says something different. I don’t know which to follow. Why should I not love her? Filch, I do love her. She is everything to me in life. Night after night I go to see her play. One evening she is Rosalind, and the next evening she is Imogen. I have seen her die in the gloom of an Italian tomb, sucking the poison from her lover’s lips. I have watched her wandering through the forest of Arden, disguised as a pretty boy in hose and doublet and dainty cap. She has been mad, and has come into the presence of a guilty king, and given him rue to wear and bitter herbs to taste of. She has been innocent, and the black hands of jealousy have crushed her reedlike throat. I have seen her in every age and in every costume. Ordinary women never appeal to one’s imagination. They are limited to their century. No glamour ever transfigures them. One knows their minds as easily as one knows their bonnets. One can always find them. There is no mystery in any of them. They ride in the park in the morning and chatter at tea-parties in the afternoon. They have their stereotyped smile and their fashionable manner. They are quite obvious. But an actress! How different an actress is! Filch! Why didn’t you tell me that the only thing worth loving is an actress?”

“Because I have loved so many of them, Pissepotout.”

“Oh, yes, horrid people with dyed hair and painted faces.”

“Don’t run down dyed hair and painted faces. There is an extraordinary charm in them, sometimes,” said Filch.

“I wish now I had not told you about Aorta.”

“You could not have helped telling me, Pissepotout. All through your life you will tell me everything you do.”

“Yes, Filch, I believe that is true. I cannot help telling you things. You have a curious influence over me. If I ever did a crime, I would come and confess it to you. You would understand me.”

“People like you – the wilful sunbeams of life – don’t commit crimes, Pissepotout. But I am much obliged for the compliment, all the same. And now tell me – reach me the matches, like a good boy – thanks – what are your actual relations with Aorta?”

The French poodle leaped to his feet, with flushed cheeks and burning eyes. “Filch! Aorta is sacred!”

“It is only the sacred things that are worth touching, Pissepotout,” said Filch, with a strange touch of pathos in his voice. “But why should you be annoyed? I suppose she will belong to you some day. When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance. You know her, at any rate, I suppose?”

“Of course I know her. On the first night I was at the theatre, the horrid old Jew came round to the box after the performance was over and offered to take me behind the scenes and introduce me to her. I was furious with him, and told him that Juliet had been dead for hundreds of years and that her body was lying in a marble tomb in Verona. I think, from his blank look of amazement, that he was under the impression that I had taken too much champagne, or something.”

“I am not surprised.”

“Then he asked me if I wrote for any of the newspapers. I told him I never even read them. He seemed terribly disappointed at that, and confided to me that all the dramatic critics were in a conspiracy against him, and that they were every one of them to be bought.”

“I should not wonder if he was quite right there. But, on the other hand, judging from their appearance, most of them cannot be at all expensive.”

“Well, he seemed to think they were beyond his means,” laughed Pissepotout.

“By this time, however, the lights were being put out in the theatre, and I had to go. He wanted me to try some cigars that he strongly recommended. I declined. The next night, of course, I arrived at the place again. When he saw me, he made me a low bow and assured me that I was a munificent patron of art. He was a most offensive brute, though he had an extraordinary passion for Shakespeare. He told me once, with an air of pride, that his five bankruptcies were entirely due to ‘The Bard,’ as he insisted on calling him. He seemed to think it a distinction.”

“It was a distinction, my dear Pissepotout – a great distinction. Most people become bankrupt through having invested too heavily in the prose of life. To have ruined one’s self over poetry is an honour. But when did you first speak to Miss Aorta?”

“The third night. She had been playing Rosalind. I could not help going round. I had thrown her some flowers, and she had looked at me – at least I fancied that she had. The old Jew was persistent. He seemed determined to take me behind, so I consented. It was curious my not wanting to know her, wasn’t it?”

“No; I don’t think so.”

“My dear Filch, why?”

“I will tell you some other time. Now I want to know about the girl.”

“Aorta? Oh, she was so shy and so gentle. There is something of a child about her. Her eyes opened wide in exquisite wonder when I told her what I thought of her performance, and she seemed quite unconscious of her power. I think we were both rather nervous. The old Jew stood grinning at the doorway of the dusty greenroom, making elaborate speeches about us both, while we stood looking at each other like children. He would insist on calling me ‘My Lord,’ so I had to assure Aorta that I was not anything of the kind. She said quite simply to me, ‘You look more like a prince. I must call you Prince Charming.'”

“Upon my word, friend, Miss Aorta knows how to pay compliments.”

“You don’t understand her, monsieur. She regarded me merely as a person in a play. She knows nothing of life. She lives with her mother, a faded tired woman who played Lady Capulet in a sort of magenta dressing-wrapper on the first night, and looks as if she had seen better days.”

“I know that look. It depresses me,” murmured Detective Filch, examining his rings.

“The Jew wanted to tell me her history, but I said it did not interest me.”

“You were quite right. There is always something infinitely mean about other people’s tragedies.”

“Aorta is the only thing I care about. What is it to me where she came from? From her little head to her little feet, she is absolutely and entirely divine. Every night of my life I go to see her act, and every night she is more marvellous.”

On Sunday, October 20th, towards noon, they came in sight of the Indian coast: two hours later the pilot came on board. A range of hills lay against the sky in the horizon, and soon the rows of palms which adorn Bombay came distinctly into view. The steamer entered the road formed by the islands in the bay, and at half-past four she hauled up at the quays of Bombay.

Philanderous Flogg was in the act of finishing the thirty-third rubber of the voyage, and his partner and himself having, by a bold stroke, captured all thirteen of the tricks, concluded this fine campaign with a brilliant victory.

The Mongolian Falcon was due at Bombay on the 22nd; she arrived on the 20th. This was a gain to Philanderous Flogg of two days since his departure from London, and he calmly entered the fact in the itinerary, in the column of gains.

The weather, he mused, would now be far too hot and humid for the leather apparatus, while the tin gimp-suit, with its tendency to rust, would be excruciatingly inappropriate. Some alternatives would soon have to be procured, in order to prevent a nocturnal tragedy.

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