Bertran and Bimi

The orang-outang in the big iron cage lashed to the sheep-pen began the discussion. The night was stiflingly hot, and as I and Hans Breitmann, the big-beamed German, passed him, dragging our bedding to the fore-peak of the steamer, he roused himself and chattered obscenely. He had been caught somewhere in the Malayan Archipelago, and was going to England to be exhibited at a shilling a head. For four days he had struggled, yelled, and wrenched at the heavy bars of his prison without ceasing, and had nearly slain a Lascar, incautious enough to come within reach of the great hairy paw.

‘It would be well for you, mine friend, if you was a liddle seasick,’ said Hans Breitmann, pausing by the cage. ‘You haf too much Ego in your Cosmos.’

The orang-outang’s arm slid out negligently from between the bars. No one would have believed that it would make a sudden snakelike rush at the German’s breast. The thin silk of the sleeping-suit tore out; Hans stepped back unconcernedly to pluck a banana from a bunch hanging close to one of the boats.

‘Too much Ego,’ said he, peeling the fruit and offering it to the caged devil, who was rending the silk to tatters.

Then we laid out our bedding in the bows among the sleeping Lascars, to catch any breeze that the pace of the ship might give us. The sea was like smoky oil, except where it turned to fire under our forefoot and whirled back into the dark in smears of dull flame. There was a thunderstorm some miles away; we could see the glimmer of the lightning. The ship’s cow, distressed by the heat and the smell of the ape-beast in the cage, lowed unhappily from time to time in exactly the same key as that in which the look-out man answered the hourly call from the bridge. The trampling tune of the engines was very distinct, and the jarring of the ash-lift, as it was tipped into the sea, hurt the procession of hushed noise. Hans laid down by my side and lighted a goodnight cigar. This was naturally the beginning of conversation. He owned a voice as soothing as the wash of the sea, and stores of experiences as vast as the sea itself; for his business in life was to wander up and down the world, collecting orchids and wild beasts and ethnological specimens for German and American dealers. I watched the glowing end of his cigar wax and wane in the gloom, as the sentences rose and fell, till I was nearly asleep. The orang-outang, troubled by some dream of the forests of his freedom, began to yell like a soul in purgatory, and to pluck madly at the bars of the cage.

‘If he was out now dere would not be much of us left hereabout,’ said Hans lazily. ‘He screams goot. See, now, how I shall tame him when he stops himself.’

There was a pause in the outcry, and from Hans’ mouth came an imitation of a snake’s hiss, so perfect that I almost sprang to my feet. The sustained murderous sound rang along the deck, and the wrenching at the bars ceased. The orangoutang was quaking in an ecstasy of pure terror.

‘Dot stopped him,’ said Hans. ‘I learned dot trick in Mogoung Tanjong when I was collecting liddle monkeys for some peoples in Berlin. Efery one in der world is afraid of der monkeys—except der snake. So I blay snake against monkey, and he keep quite still. Dere was too much Ego in his Cosmos. Dot is dere soul-custom of monkeys. Are you asleep, or will you listen, and I will tell a dale dot you shall not pelief?’

‘There’s no tale in the wide world that I can’t believe,’ I said.

‘If you haf learned pelief you haf learned somedings. Now I shall try your pelief. Goot! When I was collecting dose liddle monkeys—it was in ’79 or ’80, und I was in der islands of der Archipelago—over dere in der dark’—he pointed southward to New Guinea generally—‘ Mein Gott! I would sooner collect life red devils than liddle monkeys. When dey do not bite off your thumbs dey are always dying from nostalgia—home-sick—for dey haf der imperfect soul, which is midway arrested in defelopment—und too much Ego. I was dere for nearly a year, und dere I found a man dot was called Bertran. He was a Frenchman, und he was goot man—naturalist to his bone. Dey said he was an escaped convict, but he was naturalist, und dot was enough for me. He would call all der life beasts from der forest, und dey

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