Jim Maitland - H.C. McNeile - ebook

Jim Maitland ebook

H. C. Mcneile



Jim Maitland is a crazy, wandering wanderer. He crosses the globe wherever he pleases. At the beginning of the book, he is in the southern seas and meets storyteller Dick Leyton, who becomes his traveling companion. Wherever they go, they will need to prove their decency and face criminals.

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YOU probably do not know the Island of Tampico. I will go further and say you have probably never even heard of the Island of Tampico. And in many ways you are to be pitied. If ever there was a flawless jewel set in a sapphire sea Tampico is that jewel. And because flawless jewels are few and far between the loss is yours.

But on balance you win. For if ever there was a place where soul and body rotted more rapidly and more completely I have yet to find it. That beautiful island, a queen even amongst the glories of the South Seas, contained more vice to the square mile than did ever the slums of a great city. For in any city there is always work to be done; through a portion of the twenty-four hours at least, the human flotsam are given in labour. But in Tampico there was no work to be done, save by the very few who came for a space on business and departed in due course.

In Tampico, where fruit and enough food could be had for the asking, there was no struggle to survive. In fact, no one ever struggled in Tampico save for one thing–drink. Drink could not be had for the asking. Drink had to be paid for in hard cash. And hard cash was not plentiful amongst the derelicts who came to that island, and having come remained till death took them, and another false name was written roughly on a wooden cross to mark the event. Wood is cheap in Tampico, which is why the tombstones in the graveyard of the lost are monotonous to look at. After all, who could be expected to put, up the price of a perfectly good bottle of gin in order to erect some fool ornamental stone on the grave of a man who had died of delirium tremens?

It was out of the beaten track of the big liners by many hundred miles: only small boats ever called–boats principally engaged in the fruit trade, with passenger accommodation for six in the first class. For fruit was the particular trade of Tampico; fruit and various tropical products which grew so richly to hand that it was almost unnecessary to pick them. If you waited long enough they fell into your hands. And nobody ever did anything but wait in Tampico, which is why it is so utterly rotten. Even when a lump of ambergris comes ashore–fat and stinking and an Event with a capital E–the fortunate finder does not hurry. True, he may knife the man who tries to steal it, but otherwise his movements are placid. There is a dealer in the town, and ambergris means drink for weeks, or maybe days, according to the capacity for liquid of the finder. The scent upon your dressing-table, my lady, has ambergris in it, though the whale which supplied it is dead, and the man who found it is dead too.

The first time I saw Raymond Blair he had just found a lump of the stuff and was, in consequence, utterly and supremely happy. I’d heard, about him from MacAndrew the trader, and I watched him with the pitiful interest a sound man always feels for the down and outer.

“The most hopeless case of all,” MacAndrew had said to me in the club the night before. “A brilliantly educated man–Balliol–he told me one evening just before he got insensible. He’ll spout classics at you by the yard, and if he’s in good form–not more than one bottle inside him–he’ll keep a dinner-table in roars of laughter.”

“He belongs to the club?” I said in some surprise. MacAndrew shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s easier to belong to our club here than the Bachelors’ in London. He’s got money, you see–quite a bit of money. Comes out every month. And, he’s educated–a gentleman. And he’s a drunkard. Hopeless, helpless, unredeemable.” He filled his pipe thoughtfully. “And though it’s a strange thing to say, it’s better to keep him drunk. It’s all that keeps what little manhood is left in him alive. When he’s sober he’s dreadful.

“Towards the end of the month always, before the money comes– he isn’t a man, he’s a crawling, hideous thing. Anything, literally anything will he do to get drink. And there’s a Dago swine here who torments him. He loathes him because one night Blair–who was drunk and therefore in good form–put it across the Dago in a battle of words, so that the whole club roared with laughter. And the Dago gets his revenge that way. Why, I’ve seen him, when Blair has been crawling on the floor–and that’s not a figure of speech, mark you, I mean it–crawling on the floor for the price of a drink, make him stand up on a table and recite Humpty Dumpty,’ and other nursery rhymes, and then give him a few coppers at the end as a reward. And he’s Balliol.”

“But can’t anything be done?” I asked.

MacAndrew had laughed a little sadly.

“When you’ve been here a little longer, you won’t ask that question.”

I was sitting in the window of the club as Raymond Blair came in, and we had the room to ourselves. He had been pointed out to me a few days previously, but he had then been far too drunk to recognise anybody, and from the look he gave me as he crossed the room it was evident that he regarded me as a stranger. I took no notice of him, and after a while he came over and drew up a chair.

“A stranger I think, sir, to our island?”

His voice was cultivated, and he spoke with the faintest suspicion of a drawl.

“I arrived about a week ago,” I answered a little abruptly. Somehow or other the thought of this English gentleman standing on a table reciting nursery rhymes at the command of a Dago stuck in my throat. It seemed so utterly despicable, and yet–poor devil, who was I to judge?

“And are you staying long?”

“Probably a month,” I said. “It depends.”

He nodded portentously, and it was then that I saw he was already drunk.

“A charming island,” he remarked, and his hand went out to the bell-push. “We must really have a drink to celebrate your first visit.”

“Thank you–not for me!” I answered briefly, and he gave a gentle, tolerant smile.

“As you like,” he remarked, with a wave of his hand. “Most new arrivals refuse to drink with me, in a well-meant endeavour to save me from myself. But I’m glad to say it’s quite useless–I passed that stage long ago. Such a fatiguing stage, too, when one is struggling uselessly. Far better to drift, my dear sir, far better.”

He took a long gulp of the double whisky-and-soda which the native waiter, without even asking for orders, had placed beside him.

“I am only myself now,” he continued gravely, “when I am drunk. I am supplied regularly with money from–er–a business source at home, and I am thereby enabled to be myself with comparative frequency.”

It was then, I think, that I realised what an utterly hopeless case he was, but I said nothing and let him ramble on.

“I get it monthly.” He was gazing dreamily out of the window, across the water to the white line of surf where the lazy Pacific swell lifted and beat on a great coral reef. “A most prosperous business, though this month the remittance has not arrived. Most strange; most peculiar. The boat came in as usual, but nothing for me. And so you can imagine my feelings of pleasure when I found yesterday afternoon a quite considerable lump of ambergris on the shore. The trouble is that the dealer is such a robber. A scandalous price, sir, he gave me–scandalous. Still, better than nothing. Though I am afraid my less fortunate confreres outside will have to suffer for his miserliness. Charity and liquor both begin at home. It is the one comfort of having the club, one can escape from them.”

I glanced into the street, and there I saw his confreres. Five haggard, unshaven human derelicts clustered under the shade of a palm tree, eyeing the door of the club hungrily, wolfishly, waiting for this product of a university to share with them some of the proceeds of his find.

“As you see,” he continued affably, “they are not quite qualified for election even to the Tampico club.” He dismissed the thought of them with a wave of his hand. “Tell me, sir, does the Thames still glint like a silver-grey streak by Chelsea Bridge as the sun goes down? Do the barges still o chugging past Westminster? Do children still sail boats on the Round Pond back London way?”

And for the life of me I could not speak. Suddenly, with overwhelming force, the unutterable pathos of it all had me by t he throat, so that I choked and muttered something about smoke going the wrong way. Hopeless, helpless, unredeemable, MacAndrew had said. Aye–but the tragedy of it; the ghastly, fierce tragedy. Back London way–

With wistful eyes he was staring once more over the wonderful blue of the sea, and he seemed to me as a man who saw visions and dreamed dreams. Dreams of the might have been; dreams of a dead past. And then he pulled himself together and ordered another whisky and soda. He was himself once more– Raymond Blair–drunkard and derelict; and as for me, the moment of overwhelming pity had passed.

I was in Tampico–and facts were facts. But it left its mark–that moment: through all that followed the memory of the haunting tragedy in his face stuck to me. Maybe it made me more tolerant than others were: more tolerant certainly than Jim Maitland. For it was in Tampico that I first met Jim, and Blair was the unwitting cause of it.

It must have been a month or five weeks later. The fortnightly boat had just come in, and I intended to leave Tampico in her next day. It was tea- time, and, as I turned into the club, I saw a stranger lounging on the veranda. And because in the outposts of Empire one does not wait for an introduction, I went up to him and spoke. He rose as I reached him, and I noticed that he was very tall.

“I’d better introduce myself,” he said with a faint, rather pleasant drawl. “My name is Maitland–Jim Maitland.”

I looked at him with suddenly awakened interest. So this was the man of whom the Assam tea-planter had spoken–the celebrated Jim Maitland who lived and didn’t vegetate.

“My name is Leyton,” I answered, “and I’m glad to meet you. Several strong men had to be helped to bed a few weeks ago after the shock they got when I said that not only had I never met you, but that I’d actually never heard of you.”

He grinned–a slow, lazy grin–and then and there I took to him. And, strange to say, after all these years the memory of him which lives freshest in my mind is the memory of that first evening before I knew him at all.

If I shut my eyes, though it’s fifteen years ago, I can still see that immaculately dressed figure–tall, lean and sinewy, the bronzed clean- cut face tanned with years of outdoor life–and clearest of all, the quite unnecessary eyeglass. Of the inward characteristics that went to make up Jim Maitland–of his charm, of his incredible lack of fear, of his great heart, I knew nothing at the time. That knowledge was to come later. On that afternoon in Tampico I saw only the outside man, and, in spite of the eyeglass, I pronounced him good.

“Yes–I know most of the odd corners out here,” he said as we sat down, and I rang for a waiter. “Though funnily enough I’ve never been to Tampico before.”

“What’s yours?” I said as the waiter appeared.

“Whisky and soda, thanks,” he answered, stretching out his long legs in front of him.

“Yes–as I say–I’ve never been here before. I’ve just arrived in the boat, and I want to get off in her again tomorrow rather particularly.”

A peculiar look, half cynical, half amused, came into his eyes for a moment–a look to the meaning of which I had no clue. And then the amusement and the cynicism changed, I thought, to sadness, but, maybe, I was wrong, and it was only my imagination. Certainly his eyes were expressionless as they met mine over the top of his glass.

“Here’s how,” he said. “You know this place well?”

“Been here six weeks,” I answered. “Going tomorrow myself.”

“Six weeks should be enough for you to tell me what I want to know. I joined the Moldavia at Port Said, and struck up an acquaintance with a little woman on board. She was all by herself–extraordinarily helpless, never-been-out-of-England-before type and all that–and she was coming here. In fact, she’s come this afternoon by the boat to join her husband. I gather he’s a fruit merchant in Tampico on rather a big scale. Well, when we berthed there was no sign of him on the landing. So I took her up to that shack of an hotel, and started to make inquiries. Couldn’t find out anything, so I came along here.” He put down his glass suddenly and rose. “Hullo! here she is.”

I glanced up and saw a sweet-looking girl coming towards us along the dusty street. Her age may have been about twenty-five, but her wonderful freshness was that of a girl of seventeen. And it seemed to me as if Tampico had vanished, and I was standing in an old English garden with the lilac in full bloom.

“Mr. Leyton,” murmured Maitland, and I bowed.

She nodded at me charmingly, and then gave him the sweetest and most beseeching of smiles.

“I couldn’t wait in the hotel, Jim,” she said. “It’s a horrible place.”

“The Tampico hotel,” I laughed, “is not an hotel but a sports club for the insect world.”

She sat down daintily, and I thought of the few leather-skinned products of Tampico. And then–why, I know not–I glanced at Jim Maitland. And his eyes were fixed on the girl, with that same strange, baffling expression in them that I had noticed before–the expression that in years to come I was destined to see so often. But at the moment I remember thinking that it was, perhaps, as well that he was going by the boat next day. Strange things are apt to happen in the Tampicos of this world– things which are not ordained by the Law and the Prophets.

Then I realised he was speaking, and recalled my wandering attention to the question before the house.

“He can’t have got your letter, Sheila. Or, perhaps, he may be away from the island on business.”

“Well, I asked everyone at the hotel, after you went out, but they didn’t seem to understand,” she said a little tremulously.

The man turned to me.

“Mrs. Blair has lost or temporarily mislaid her husband,” he remarked whimsically. “A large reward is offered information as to his whereabouts.”

“Blair,” I said, puzzled, my mind being busy with fruit merchants of the place. “Blair! I don’t seem know the name.”

“Raymond Blair,” she cried, leaning forward. “Surely you must know him.”

And for a moment it seemed to me as if the street behind her and everything within my vision turned black. How long I sat there staring at her foolishly I know not–perhaps but the fraction of a second. A kindly Providence has endowed me with a face which has enabled me to win more money at poker than I have lost, and when I heard myself speaking again in a voice I hardly recognised, her face still wore the same little eager, questioning smile.

“How stupid of me,” I remarked steadily. “Raymond Blair! Why– of course. The last time I saw him he was going into the interior of the island, and he did say, if I remember aright, that he might be catching the boat which left a fortnight ago.”

I felt the eye behind that eyeglass boring into me, and I wouldn’t meet it. In an island where if a man sneezes the fact is known by the whole community in half an hour, the whereabouts of a leading member of society are not a matter of vague conjecture. But she didn’t know it, poor child–with her English ideas. And I watched the smile fade from her face, to be replaced by a little pitiful questioning look which she turned on Jim Maitland.

“Perhaps I could go to his house,” she said doubtfully. “If you could tell me where it is.”

And now I was lying desperately, furiously.

“He was going to have it done up,” I remarked. “I think, Mrs. Blair, that the best thing to do would be for you to go back to the hotel, while I make inquiries as to where your husband is. If he is away from the island, I think you had better put up with the chaplain’s wife until–er– until he returns.”

And it was at that moment that MacAndrew passed by to go into the club and nodded to me.

“Perhaps your friend might know,” she hazarded. There was nothing for it, and I rose and caught MacAndrew by the arm. My grip was not gentle, and, as he swung round, my eyes blazed a message at him.

“Mrs. Blair has come out to join her husband, Mac,” I said. “You know–Raymond Blair.”

I heard him mutter “God in Heaven,” under his breath, but MacAndrew was a poker player himself of no mean repute. “I have a sort of idea that he sailed on business by the last boat, didn’t he?” I continued.

He took his cue.

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