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Title: A Question of Latitude
Author: Davis, Richard Harding
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Question of Latitude" ***


By Richard Harding Davis

Of the school of earnest young writers at whom the word muckraker had
been thrown in opprobrium, and by whom it had been caught up as a title
of honor, Everett was among the younger and less conspicuous. But, if
in his skirmishes with graft and corruption he had failed to correct the
evils he attacked, from the contests he himself had always emerged with
credit. His sincerity and his methods were above suspicion. No one
had caught him in misstatement, or exaggeration. Even those whom he
attacked, admitted he fought fair. For these reasons, the editors of
magazines, with the fear of libel before their eyes, regarded him as a
“safe” man, the public, feeling that the evils he exposed were due
to its own indifference, with uncomfortable approval, and those he
attacked, with impotent anger. Their anger was impotent because, in the
case of Everett, the weapons used by their class in “striking back”
 were denied them. They could not say that for money he sold sensations,
because it was known that a proud and wealthy parent supplied him
with all the money he wanted. Nor in his private life could they find
anything to offset his attacks upon the misconduct of others. Men had
been sent to spy upon him, and women to lay traps. But the men reported
that his evenings were spent at his club, and, from the women, those who
sent them learned only that Everett “treats a lady just as though she IS
a lady.”

Accordingly, when, with much trumpeting, he departed to investigate
conditions in the Congo, there were some who rejoiced.

The standard of life to which Everett was accustomed was high. In his
home in Boston it had been set for him by a father and mother who,
though critics rather than workers in the world, had taught him to
despise what was mean and ungenerous, to write the truth and abhor a
compromise. At Harvard he had interested himself in municipal reform,
and when later he moved to New York, he transferred his interest to
the problems of that city. His attack upon Tammany Hall did not utterly
destroy that organization, but at once brought him to the notice of
the editors. By them he was invited to tilt his lance at evils in
other parts of the United States, at “systems,” trusts, convict camps,
municipal misrule. His work had met with a measure of success that
seemed to justify Lowell’s Weekly in sending him further afield, and
he now was on his way to tell the truth about the Congo. Personally,
Everett was a healthy, clean-minded enthusiast. He possessed all of the
advantages of youth, and all of its intolerance. He was supposed to be
engaged to Florence Carey, but he was not. There was, however, between
them an “understanding,” which understanding, as Everett understood it,
meant that until she was ready to say, “I am ready,” he was to think of
her, dream of her, write love-letters to her, and keep himself only for
her. He loved her very dearly, and, having no choice, was content to
wait. His content was fortunate, as Miss Carey seemed inclined to keep
him waiting indefinitely.

Except in Europe, Everett had never travelled outside the limits of
his own country. But the new land toward which he was advancing held no
terrors. As he understood it, the Congo was at the mercy of a corrupt
“ring.” In every part of the United States he had found a city in the
clutch of a corrupt ring. The conditions would be the same, the methods
he would use to get at the truth would be the same, the result for
reform would be the same.

The English steamer on which he sailed for Southampton was one leased
by the Independent State of the Congo, and, with a few exceptions, her
passengers were subjects of King Leopold. On board, the language was
French, at table the men sat according to the rank they held in the
administration of the jungle, and each in his buttonhole wore the tiny
silver star that showed that for three years, to fill the storehouses
of the King of the Belgians, he had gathered rubber and ivory. In the
smoking-room Everett soon discovered that passengers not in the service
of that king, the English and German officers and traders, held aloof
from the Belgians. Their attitude toward them seemed to be one partly of
contempt, partly of pity.

“Are your English protectorates on the coast, then, so much better
administered?” Everett asked.

The English Coaster, who for ten years in Nigeria had escaped fever and
sudden death, laughed evasively.

“I have never been in the Congo,” he said. “Only know what they tell
one. But you’ll see for yourself. That is,” he added, “you’ll see what
they want you to see.”

They were leaning on the rail, with their eyes turned toward the
coast of Liberia, a gloomy green line against which the waves cast
up fountains of foam as high as the cocoanut palms. As a subject of
discussion, the coaster seemed anxious to avoid the Congo.

“It was there,” he said, pointing, “the Three Castles struck on the
rocks. She was a total loss. So were her passengers,” he added. “They
ate them.”

Everett gazed suspiciously at the unmoved face of the veteran.

“WHO ate them?” he asked guardedly. “Sharks?”

“The natives that live back of that shore-line in the lagoons.”

Everett laughed with the assurance of one for whom a trap had been laid
and who had cleverly avoided it.

“Cannibals,” he mocked. “Cannibals went out of date with pirates. But
perhaps,” he added apologetically, “this happened some years ago?”

“Happened last month,” said the trader.

“But Liberia is a perfectly good republic,” protested Everett. “The
blacks there may not be as far advanced as in your colonies, but they’re
not cannibals.”

“Monrovia is a very small part of Liberia,” said the trader dryly. “And
none of these protectorates, or crown colonies, on this coast pretends
to control much of the Hinterland. There is Sierra Leone, for instance,
about the oldest of them. Last year the governor celebrated the
hundredth anniversary of the year the British abolished slavery. They
had parades and tea-fights, and all the blacks were in the street in
straw hats with cricket ribbons, thanking God they were not as other men
are, not slaves like their grandfathers. Well, just at the height of the
jubilation, the tribes within twenty miles of the town sent in to say
that they, also, were holding a palaver, and it was to mark the fact
that they NEVER had been slaves and never would be, and, if the governor
doubted it, to send out his fighting men and they’d prove it. It cast
quite a gloom over the celebration.”

“Do you mean that only twenty miles from the coast--” began Everett.

“TEN miles,” said the Coaster, “wait till you see Calabar. That’s our
Exhibit A. The cleanest, best administered. Everything there is model:
hospitals, barracks, golf links. Last year, ten miles from Calabar, Dr.
Stewart rode his bicycle into a native village. The king tortured him
six days, cut him up, and sent pieces of him to fifty villages with the
message: ‘You eat each other. WE eat white chop.’ That was ten miles
from our model barracks.”

For some moments the muckraker considered the statement thoughtfully.

“You mean,” he inquired, “that the atrocities are not all on the side of
the white men?”

“Atrocities?” exclaimed the trader. “I wasn’t talking of atrocities. Are
you looking for them?”

“I’m not running away from them,” laughed Everett. “Lowell’s Weekly is
sending me to the Congo to find out the truth, and to try to help put an
end to them.”

In his turn the trader considered the statement carefully.

“Among the natives,” he explained, painstakingly picking each word,
“what you call ‘atrocities’ are customs of warfare, forms of punishment.
When they go to war they EXPECT to be tortured; they KNOW, if they’re
killed, they’ll be eaten. The white man comes here and finds these
customs have existed for centuries. He adopts them, because--”

“One moment!” interrupted Everett warmly. “That does not excuse HIM.
The point is, that with him they have NOT existed. To him they should be
against his conscience, indecent, horrible! He has a greater knowledge,
a much higher intelligence; he should lift the native, not sink to him.”

The Coaster took his pipe from his mouth, and twice opened his lips to
speak. Finally, he blew the smoke into the air, and shook his head.

“What’s the use!” he exclaimed.

“Try,” laughed Everett. “Maybe I’m not as unintelligent as I talk.”

“You must get this right,” protested the Coaster. “It doesn’t matter
a damn what a man BRINGS here, what his training WAS, what HE IS. The
thing is too strong for him.”

“What thing?”

“That!” said the Coaster. He threw out his arm at the brooding
mountains, the dark lagoons, the glaring coast-line against which the
waves shot into the air with the shock and roar of twelve-inch guns.

“The first white man came to Sierra Leone five hundred years before
Christ,” said the Coaster. “And, in twenty-two hundred years, he’s got
just twenty miles inland. The native didn’t need forts, or a navy, to
stop him. He had three allies: those waves, the fever, and the sun.
Especially the sun. The black man goes bare-headed, and the sun lets him
pass. The white man covers his head with an inch of cork, and the sun
strikes through it and kills him. When Jameson came down the river from
Yambuya, the natives fired on his boat. He waved his helmet at them for
three minutes, to show them there was a white man in the canoe. Three
minutes was all the sun wanted. Jameson died in two days. Where you are
going, the sun does worse things to a man than kill him: it drives him
mad. It keeps the fear of death in his heart; and THAT takes away his
nerve and his sense of proportion. He flies into murderous fits, over
silly, imaginary slights; he grows morbid, suspicious, he becomes a
coward, and because he is a coward with authority, he becomes a bully.

“He is alone, we will suppose, at a station three hundred miles from
any other white man. One morning his house-boy spills a cup of coffee on
him, and in a rage he half kills the boy. He broods over that, until he
discovers, or his crazy mind makes him think he has discovered, that
in revenge the boy is plotting to poison him. So he punishes him again.
Only this time he punishes him as the black man has taught him to
punish, in the only way the black man seems to understand; that is, he
tortures him. From that moment the fall of that man is rapid. The heat,
the loneliness, the fever, the fear of the black faces, keep him on
edge, rob him of sleep, rob him of his physical strength, of his moral
strength. He loses shame, loses reason; becomes cruel, weak, degenerate.
He invents new, bestial tortures; commits new, unspeakable ‘atrocities,’
until, one day, the natives turn and kill him, or he sticks his gun in
his mouth and blows the top of his head off.”

The Coaster smiled tolerantly at the wide-eyed eager young man at his

“And you,” he mocked, “think you can reform that man, and that hell
above ground called the Congo, with an article in Lowell’s Weekly?”

Undismayed, Everett grinned cheerfully.

“That’s what I’m here for!” he said.

By the time Everett reached the mouth of the Congo, he had learned that
in everything he must depend upon himself; that he would be accepted
only as the kind of man that, at the moment, he showed himself to be.
This attitude of independence was not chosen, but forced on him by the
men with whom he came in contact. Associations and traditions, that in
every part of the United States had served as letters of introduction,
and enabled strangers to identify and label him, were to the white men
on the steamer and at the ports of call without meaning or value. That
he was an Everett of Boston conveyed little to those who had not heard
even of Boston. That he was the correspondent of Lowell’s Weekly meant
less to those who did not know that Lowell’s Weekly existed. And when,
in confusion, he proffered his letter of credit, the very fact that it
called for a thousand pounds was, in the eyes of a “Palm Oil Ruffian,”
 sufficient evidence that it had been forged or stolen. He soon saw that
solely as a white man was he accepted and made welcome. That he was
respectable, few believed, and no one cared. To be taken at his face
value, to be refused at the start the benefit of the doubt, was a novel
sensation; and yet not unpleasant. It was a relief not to be accepted
only as Everett the Muckraker, as a professional reformer, as one holier
than others. It afforded his soul the same relaxation that his body
received when, in his shirt-sleeves in the sweltering smoking-room, he
drank beer with a chef de poste who had been thrice tried for murder.

Not only to every one was he a stranger, but to him everything was
strange; so strange as to appear unreal. This did not prevent him from
at once recognizing those things that were not strange, such as corrupt
officials, incompetence, mismanagement. He did not need the missionaries
to point out to him that the Independent State of the Congo was not
a colony administered for the benefit of many, but a vast rubber
plantation worked by slaves to fill the pockets of one man. It was not
in his work that Everett found himself confused. It was in his attitude
of mind toward almost every other question.

At first, when he could not make everything fit his rule of thumb, he
excused the country tolerantly as a “topsy-turvy” land. He wished to
move and act quickly; to make others move quickly. He did not understand
that men who had sentenced themselves to exile for the official term
of three years, or for life, measured time only by the date of their
release. When he learned that even a cablegram could not reach his home
in less than eighteen days, that the missionaries to whom he brought
letters were a three months’ journey from the coast and from each other,
his impatience was chastened to wonder, and, later, to awe.

His education began at Matadi, where he waited until the river steamer
was ready to start for Leopoldville. Of the two places he was assured
Matadi was the better, for the reason that if you still were in favor
with the steward of the ship that brought you south, he might sell you a
piece of ice.

Matadi was a great rock, blazing with heat. Its narrow, perpendicular
paths seemed to run with burning lava. Its top, the main square of the
settlement, was of baked clay, beaten hard by thousands of naked feet.
Crossing it by day was an adventure. The air that swept it was the
breath of a blast-furnace.

Everett found a room over the shop of a Portuguese trader. It was caked
with dirt, and smelled of unnamed diseases and chloride of lime. In it
was a canvas cot, a roll of evil-looking bedding, a wash-basin filled
with the stumps of cigarettes. In a corner was a tin chop-box, which
Everett asked to have removed. It belonged, the landlord told him, to
the man who, two nights before, had occupied the cot and who had died
in it. Everett was anxious to learn of what he had died. Apparently
surprised at the question, the Portuguese shrugged his shoulders.

“Who knows?” he exclaimed. The next morning the English trader across
the street assured Everett there was no occasion for alarm. “He didn’t
die of any disease,” he explained. “Somebody got at him from the
balcony, while he was in his cot, and knifed him.”

The English trader was a young man, a cockney, named Upsher. At home he
had been a steward on the Channel steamers. Everett made him his most
intimate friend. He had a black wife, who spent most of her day in a
four-post bed, hung with lace curtains and blue ribbon, in which she
resembled a baby hippopotamus wallowing in a bank of white sand.

At first the black woman was a shock to Everett, but after Upsher
dismissed her indifferently as a “good old sort,” and spent one evening
blubbering over a photograph of his wife and “kiddie” at home, Everett
accepted her. His excuse for this was that men who knew they might die
on the morrow must not be judged by what they do to-day. The excuse did
not ring sound, but he dismissed the doubt by deciding that in such heat
it was not possible to take serious questions seriously. In the fact
that, to those about him, the thought of death was ever present, he
found further excuse for much else that puzzled and shocked him. At
home, death had been a contingency so remote that he had put it aside as
something he need not consider until he was a grandfather. At Matadi,
at every moment of the day, in each trifling act, he found death must be
faced, conciliated, conquered. At home he might ask himself, “If I eat
this will it give me indigestion?” At Matadi he asked, “If I drink this
will I die?”

Upsher told him of a feud then existing between the chief of police and
an Italian doctor in the State service. Interested in the outcome only
as a sporting proposition, Upsher declared the odds were unfair, because
the Belgian was using his black police to act as his body-guard while
for protection the Italian could depend only upon his sword-cane. Each
night, with the other white exiles of Matadi, the two adversaries met
in the Cafe Franco-Belge. There, with puzzled interest, Everett watched
them sitting at separate tables, surrounded by mutual friends, excitedly
playing dominoes. Outside the cafe, Matadi lay smothered and sweltering
in a black, living darkness, and, save for the rush of the river, in
a silence that continued unbroken across a jungle as wide as Europe.
Inside the dominoes clicked, the glasses rang on the iron tables, the
oil lamps glared upon the pallid, sweating faces of clerks, upon the
tanned, sweating skins of officers; and the Italian doctor and the
Belgian lieutenant, each with murder in his heart, laughed, shrugged,
gesticulated, waiting for the moment to strike.

“But why doesn’t some one DO something?” demanded Everett. “Arrest them,
or reason with them. Everybody knows about it. It seems a pity not to DO

Upsher nodded his head. Dimly he recognized a language with which he
once had been familiar. “I know what you mean,” he agreed. “Bind ‘em
over to keep the peace. And a good job, too! But who?” he demanded
vaguely. “That’s what I say! Who?” From the confusion into which
Everett’s appeal to forgotten memories had thrown it, his mind suddenly
emerged. “But what’s the use!” he demanded. “Don’t you see,” he
explained triumphantly, “if those two crazy men were fit to listen to
SENSE, they’d have sense enough not to kill each other!”

Each succeeding evening Everett watched the two potential murderers with
lessening interest. He even made a bet with Upsher, of a bottle of fruit
salt, that the chief of police would be the one to die.

A few nights later a man, groaning beneath his balcony, disturbed his
slumbers. He cursed the man, and turned his pillow to find the cooler
side. But all through the night the groans, though fainter, broke into
his dreams. At intervals some traditions of past conduct tugged at
Everett’s sleeve, and bade him rise and play the good Samaritan.
But, indignantly, he repulsed them. Were there not many others within
hearing? Were there not the police? Was it HIS place to bind the wounds
of drunken stokers? The groans were probably a trick, to entice him,
unarmed, into the night. And so, just before the dawn, when the mists
rose, and the groans ceased, Everett, still arguing, sank with a
contented sigh into forgetfulness.

When he woke, there was beneath his window much monkey-like chattering,
and he looked down into the white face and glazed eyes of the
Italian doctor, lying in the gutter and staring up at him. Below his
shoulder-blades a pool of blood shone evilly in the blatant sunlight.

Across the street, on his balcony, Upsher, in pajamas and mosquito
boots, was shivering with fever and stifling a yawn. “You lose!” he

Later in the day, Everett analyzed his conduct of the night previous.
“At home,” he told Upsher, “I would have been telephoning for an
ambulance, or been out in the street giving the man the ‘first-aid’
drill. But living as we do here, so close to death, we see things more
clearly. Death loses its importance. It’s a bromide,” he added. “But
travel certainly broadens one. Every day I have been in the Congo, I
have been assimilating new ideas.” Upsher nodded vigorously in assent.
An older man could have told Everett that he was assimilating just as
much of the Congo as the rabbit assimilates of the boa-constrictor, that
first smothers it with saliva and then swallows it.

Everett started up the Congo in a small steamer open on all sides to the
sun and rain, and with a paddle-wheel astern that kicked her forward at
the rate of four miles an hour. Once every day, the boat tied up to a
tree and took on wood to feed her furnace, and Everett talked to the
white man in charge of the wood post, or, if, as it generally happened,
the white man was on his back with fever, dosed him with quinine. On
board, except for her captain, and a Finn who acted as engineer, Everett
was the only other white man. The black crew and “wood-boys” he soon
disliked intensely. At first, when Nansen, the Danish captain, and the
Finn struck them, because they were in the way, or because they were
not, Everett winced, and made a note of it. But later he decided the
blacks were insolent, sullen, ungrateful; that a blow did them no harm.

According to the unprejudiced testimony of those who, before the war, in
his own country, had owned slaves, those of the “Southland” were
always content, always happy. When not singing close harmony in the
cotton-fields, they danced upon the levee, they twanged the old banjo.
But these slaves of the Upper Congo were not happy. They did not dance.
They did not sing. At times their eyes, dull, gloomy, despairing,
lighted with a sudden sombre fire, and searched the eyes of the white
man. They seemed to beg of him the answer to a terrible question. It was
always the same question. It had been asked of Pharaoh. They asked it of
Leopold. For hours, squatting on the iron deck-plates, humped on their
naked haunches, crowding close together, they muttered apparently
interminable criticisms of Everett. Their eyes never left him. He
resented this unceasing scrutiny. It got upon his nerves. He was sure
they were evolving some scheme to rob him of his tinned sausages, or,
possibly, to kill him. It was then he began to dislike them. In reality,
they were discussing the watch strapped to his wrist. They believed it
was a powerful juju, to ward off evil spirits. They were afraid of it.

One day, to pay the chief wood-boy for a carved paddle, Everett was
measuring a bras of cloth. As he had been taught, he held the cloth in
his teeth and stretched it to the ends of his finger-tips. The wood-boy
thought the white man was giving him short measure. White men always HAD
given him short measure, and, at a glance, he could not recognize that
this one was an Everett of Boston.

So he opened Everett’s fingers.

All the blood in Everett’s body leaped to his head. That he, a white
man, an Everett, who had come so far to set these people free, should be
accused by one of them of petty theft!

He caught up a log of fire wood and laid open the scalp of the black
boy, from the eye to the crown of his head. The boy dropped, and
Everett, seeing the blood creeping through his kinky wool, turned ill
with nausea. Drunkenly, through a red cloud of mist, he heard himself
shouting, “The BLACK nigger! The BLACK NIGGER! He touched me! I TELL
you, he touched me!” Captain Nansen led Everett to his cot and gave him
fizzy salts, but it was not until sundown that the trembling and nausea

Then, partly in shame, partly as a bribe, he sought out the injured boy
and gave him the entire roll of cloth. It had cost Everett ten francs.
To the wood-boy it meant a year’s wages. The boy hugged it in his arms,
as he might a baby, and crooned over it. From under the blood-stained
bandage, humbly, without resentment, he lifted his tired eyes to those
of the white man. Still, dumbly, they begged the answer to the same

During the five months Everett spent up the river he stopped at many
missions, stations, one-man wood posts. He talked to Jesuit fathers,
to inspecteurs, to collectors for the State of rubber, taxes, elephant
tusks, in time, even in Bangalese, to chiefs of the native villages.
According to the point of view, he was told tales of oppression, of
avarice, of hideous crimes, of cruelties committed in the name of trade
that were abnormal, unthinkable. The note never was of hope, never of
cheer, never inspiring. There was always the grievance, the spirit of
unrest, of rebellion that ranged from dislike to a primitive, hot hate.
Of his own land and life he heard nothing, not even when his face was
again turned toward the east. Nor did he think of it. As now he saw
them, the rules and principles and standards of his former existence
were petty and credulous. But he assured himself he had not abandoned
those standards. He had only temporarily laid them aside, as he had left
behind him in London his frock-coat and silk hat. Not because he would
not use them again, but because in the Congo they were ridiculous.

For weeks, with a missionary as a guide, he walked through forests into
which the sun never penetrated, or, on the river, moved between banks
where no white man had placed his foot; where, at night, the elephants
came trooping to the water, and, seeing the lights of the boat, fled
crashing through the jungle; where the great hippos, puffing and
blowing, rose so close to his elbow that he could have tossed his
cigarette and hit them. The vastness of the Congo, toward which he
had so jauntily set forth, now weighed upon his soul. The immeasurable
distances; the slumbering disregard of time; the brooding, interminable
silences; the efforts to conquer the land that were so futile, so
puny, and so cruel, at first appalled and, later, left him unnerved,
rebellious, childishly defiant.

What health was there, he demanded hotly, in holding in a dripping
jungle to morals, to etiquette, to fashions of conduct? Was he, the
white man, intelligent, trained, disciplined in mind and body, to be
judged by naked cannibals, by chattering monkeys, by mammoth primeval
beasts? His code of conduct was his own. He was a law unto himself.

He came down the river on one of the larger steamers of the State, and,
on this voyage, with many fellow-passengers. He was now on his way home,
but in the fact he felt no elation. Each day the fever ran tingling
through his veins, and left him listless, frightened, or choleric. One
night at dinner, in one of these moods of irritation, he took offence
at the act of a lieutenant who, in lack of vegetables, drank from
the vinegar bottle. Everett protested that such table manners were
unbecoming an officer, even an officer of the Congo; and on the
lieutenant resenting his criticism, Everett drew his revolver. The
others at the table took it from him, and locked him in his cabin.
In the morning, when he tried to recall what had occurred, he could
remember only that, for some excellent reason, he had hated some one
with a hatred that could be served only with death. He knew it could not
have been drink, as each day the State allowed him but one half-bottle
of claret. That but for the interference of strangers he might have shot
a man, did not interest him. In the outcome of what he regarded
merely as an incident, he saw cause neither for congratulation or
self-reproach. For his conduct he laid the blame upon the sun, and
doubled his dose of fruit salts.

Everett was again at Matadi, waiting for the Nigeria to take on cargo
before returning to Liverpool. During the few days that must intervene
before she sailed, he lived on board. Although now actually bound north,
the thought afforded him no satisfaction. His spirits were depressed,
his mind gloomy; a feeling of rebellion, of outlawry, filled him with

While the ship lay at the wharf, Hardy, her English captain, Cuthbert,
the purser, and Everett ate on deck under the awning, assailed by
electric fans. Each was clad in nothing more intricate than pajamas.

“To-night,” announced Hardy, with a sigh, “we got to dress ship. Mr.
Ducret and his wife are coming on board. We carry his trade goods, and I
got to stand him a dinner and champagne. You boys,” he commanded, “must
wear ‘whites,’ and talk French.”

“I’ll dine on shore,” growled Everett.

“Better meet them,” advised Cuthbert. The purser was a pink-cheeked,
clear-eyed young man, who spoke the many languages of the coast glibly,
and his own in the soft, detached voice of a well-bred Englishman. He
was in training to enter the consular service. Something in his poise,
in the assured manner in which he handled his white stewards and the
black Kroo boys, seemed to Everett a constant reproach, and he resented

“They’re a picturesque couple,” explained Cuthbert. “Ducret was
originally a wrestler. Used to challenge all comers from the front of
a booth. He served his time in the army in Senegal, and when he was
mustered out moved to the French Congo and began to trade, in a small
way, in ivory. Now he’s the biggest merchant, physically and every other
way, from Stanley Pool to Lake Chad. He has a house at Brazzaville built
of mahogany, and a grand piano, and his own ice-plant. His wife was a
supper-girl at Maxim’s. He brought her down here and married her. Every
rainy season they go back to Paris and run race-horses, and they say the
best table in every all-night restaurant is reserved for him. In Paris
they call her the Ivory Queen. She’s killed seventeen elephants with her
own rifle.”

In the Upper Congo, Everett had seen four white women. They were pallid,
washed-out, bloodless; even the youngest looked past middle-age. For
him women of any other type had ceased to exist. He had come to think of
every white woman as past middle-age, with a face wrinkled by the sun,
with hair bleached white by the sun, with eyes from which, through
gazing at the sun, all light and lustre had departed. He thought of them
as always wearing boots to protect their ankles from mosquitoes, and
army helmets.

When he came on deck for dinner, he saw a woman who looked as though she
was posing for a photograph by Reutlinger. She appeared to have stepped
to the deck directly from her electric victoria, and the Rue de la Paix.
She was tall, lithe, gracefully erect, with eyes of great loveliness,
and her hair brilliantly black, drawn, a la Merode, across a broad, fair
forehead. She wore a gown and long coat of white lace, as delicate as
a bridal veil, and a hat with a flapping brim from which, in a curtain,
hung more lace. When she was pleased, she lifted her head and the
curtain rose, unmasking her lovely eyes. Around the white, bare throat
was a string of pearls. They had cost the lives of many elephants.

Cuthbert, only a month from home, saw Madame Ducret just as she was--a
Parisienne, elegant, smart, soigne. He knew that on any night at Madrid
or d’Armenonville he might look upon twenty women of the same
charming type. They might lack that something this girl from Maxim’s
possessed--the spirit that had caused her to follow her husband into the
depths of darkness. But outwardly, for show purposes, they were even as

But to Everett she was no messenger from another world. She was unique.
To his famished eyes, starved senses, and fever-driven brain, she was
her entire sex personified. She was the one woman for whom he had always
sought, alluring, soothing, maddening; if need be, to be fought for; the
one thing to be desired. Opposite, across the table, her husband, the
ex-wrestler, chasseur d’Afrique, elephant poacher, bulked large as an
ox. Men felt as well as saw his bigness. Captain Hardy deferred to
him on matters of trade. The purser deferred to him on questions of
administration. He answered them in his big way, with big thoughts, in
big figures. He was fifty years ahead of his time. He beheld the Congo
open to the world; in the forests where he had hunted elephants he
foresaw great “factories,” mining camps, railroads, feeding gold and
copper ore to the trunk line, from the Cape to Cairo. His ideas were the
ideas of an empire-builder. But, while the others listened, fascinated,
hypnotized, Everett saw only the woman, her eyes fixed on her husband,
her fingers turning and twisting her diamond rings. Every now and again
she raised her eyes to Everett almost reproachfully, as though to say,
“Why do you not listen to him? It is much better for you than to look at

When they had gone, all through the sultry night, until the sun drove
him to his cabin, like a caged animal Everett paced and repaced the
deck. The woman possessed his mind and he could not drive her out. He
did not wish to drive her out. What the consequences might be he did not
care. So long as he might see her again, he jeered at the consequences.
Of one thing he was positive. He could not now leave the Congo. He would
follow her to Brazzaville. If he were discreet, Ducret might invite
him to make himself their guest. Once established in her home, she MUST
listen to him. No man ever before had felt for any woman the need he
felt for her. It was too big for him to conquer. It would be too big for
her to resist.

In the morning a note from Ducret invited Everett and Cuthbert to join
him in an all-day excursion to the water-fall beyond Matadi. Everett
answered the note in person. The thought of seeing the woman calmed
and steadied him like a dose of morphine. So much more violent than the
fever in his veins was the fever in his brain that, when again he was
with her, he laughed happily, and was grandly at peace. So different was
he from the man they had met the night before, that the Frenchman and
his wife glanced at each other in surprise and approval. They found
him witty, eager, a most charming companion; and when he announced his
intention of visiting Brazzaville, they insisted he should make their
home his own.

His admiration, as outwardly it appeared to be, for Madame Ducret, was
evident to the others, but her husband accepted it. It was her due. And,
on the Congo, to grudge to another man the sight of a pretty woman was
as cruel as to withhold the few grains of quinine that might save his
reason. But before the day passed, Madame Ducret was aware that the
American could not be lightly dismissed as an admirer. The fact
neither flattered nor offended. For her it was no novel or disturbing
experience. Other men, whipped on by loneliness, by fever, by primitive
savage instincts, had told her what she meant to them. She did not
hold them responsible. Some, worth curing, she had nursed through the
illness. Others, who refused to be cured, she had turned over, with a
shrug, to her husband. This one was more difficult. Of men of Everett’s
traditions and education she had known but few; but she recognized the
type. This young man was no failure in life, no derelict, no outcast
flying the law, or a scandal, to hide in the jungle. He was what, in her
Maxim days, she had laughed at as an aristocrat. He knew her Paris as
she did not know it: its history, its art. Even her language he spoke
more correctly than her husband or herself. She knew that at his home
there must be many women infinitely more attractive, more suited to him,
than herself: women of birth, of position; young girls and great ladies
of the other world. And she knew, also, that, in his present state, at
a nod from her he would cast these behind him and carry her into the
wilderness. More quickly than she anticipated, Everett proved she did
not overrate the forces that compelled him.

The excursion to the rapids was followed by a second dinner on board
the Nigeria. But now, as on the previous night, Everett fell into sullen
silence. He ate nothing, drank continually, and with his eyes devoured
the woman. When coffee had been served, he left the others at table,
and with Madame Ducret slowly paced the deck. As they passed out of the
reach of the lights, he drew her to the rail, and stood in front of her.

“I am not quite mad,” he said, “but you have got to come with me.”

To Everett all he added to this sounded sane and final. He told her that
this was one of those miracles when the one woman and the one man who
were predestined to meet had met. He told her he had wished to marry
a girl at home, but that he now saw that the desire was the fancy of
a school-boy. He told her he was rich, and offered her the choice of
returning to the Paris she loved, or of going deeper into the jungle.
There he would set up for her a principality, a state within the State.
He would defend her against all comers. He would make her the Queen of
the Congo.

“I have waited for you thousands of years!” he told her. His voice was
hoarse, shaken, and thick. “I love you as men loved women in the Stone
Age--fiercely, entirely. I will not be denied. Down here we are cave
people; if you fight me, I will club you and drag you to my cave. If
others fight for you, I will KILL them. I love you,” he panted, “with
all my soul, my mind, my body, I love you! I will not let you go!”

Madame Ducret did not say she was insulted, because she did not feel
insulted. She did not call to her husband for help, because she did not
need his help, and because she knew that the ex-wrestler could break
Everett across his knee. She did not even withdraw her hands, although
Everett drove the diamonds deep into her fingers.

“You frighten me!” she pleaded. She was not in the least frightened. She
only was sorry that this one must be discarded among the incurables.

In apparent agitation, she whispered, “To-morrow! To-morrow I will give
you your answer.”

Everett did not trust her, did not release her. He regarded her
jealously, with quick suspicion. To warn her that he knew she could not
escape from Matadi, or from him, he said, “The train to Leopoldville
does not leave for two days!”

“I know!” whispered Madame Ducret soothingly. “I will give you your
answer to-morrow at ten.” She emphasized the hour, because she knew
at sunrise a special train would carry her husband and herself to
Leopoldville, and that there one of her husband’s steamers would bear
them across the Pool to French Congo.

“To-morrow, then!” whispered Everett, grudgingly. “But I must kiss you

Only an instant did Madame Ducret hesitate. Then she turned her cheek.
“Yes,” she assented. “You must kiss me now.”

Everett did not rejoin the others. He led her back into the circle of
light, and locked himself in his cabin.

At ten the next morning, when Ducret and his wife were well advanced
toward Stanley Pool, Cuthbert handed Everett a note. Having been told
what it contained, he did not move away, but, with his back turned,
leaned upon the rail.

Everett, his eyes on fire with triumph, his fingers trembling, tore open
the envelope.

Madame Ducret wrote that her husband and herself felt that Mr. Everett
was suffering more severely from the climate than he knew. With regret
they cancelled their invitation to visit them, and urged him, for his
health’s sake, to continue as he had planned, to northern latitudes.
They hoped to meet in Paris. They extended assurances of their
distinguished consideration.

Slowly, savagely, as though wreaking his suffering on some human thing,
Everett tore the note into minute fragments. Moving unsteadily to the
ship’s side, he flung them into the river, and then hung limply upon the

Above him, from a sky of brass, the sun stabbed at his eyeballs. Below
him, the rush of the Congo, churning in muddy whirlpools, echoed against
the hills of naked rock that met the naked sky.

To Everett, the roar of the great river, and the echoes from the land he
had set out to reform, carried the sound of gigantic, hideous laughter.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Question of Latitude" ***

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