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- The Great Impersonation - 2/50 -
noxiousness with the perfume of some sickly, exotic shrub.
"Why, you're Devinter!" he exclaimed suddenly,--"Sigismund Devinter! You were at Eton with me--Horrock's House--semi-final in the racquets."
"And Magdalen afterwards, number five in the boat."
"And why the devil did the doctor here tell me that your name was Von Ragastein?"
"Because it happens to be the truth," was the somewhat measured reply. "Devinter is my family name, and the one by which I was known when in England. When I succeeded to the barony and estates at my uncle's death, however, I was compelled to also take the title."
"Well, it's a small world!" Dominey exclaimed. "What brought you out here really--lions or elephants?"
"You mean to say that you've taken up this sort of political business just for its own sake, not for sport?"
"Entirely so. I do not use a sporting rifle once a month, except for necessity. I came to Africa for different reasons."
Dominey drank deep of his hock and seltzer and leaned back, watching the fireflies rise above the tall-bladed grass, above the stumpy clumps of shrub, and hang like miniature stars in the clear, violet air.
"What a world!" he soliloquised. "Siggy Devinter, Baron Von Ragastein, out here, slaving for God knows what, drilling niggers to fight God knows whom, a political machine, I suppose, future Governor-General of German Africa, eh? You were always proud of your country, Devinter."
"My country is a country to be proud of," was the solemn reply.
"Well, you're in earnest, anyhow," Dominey continued, "in earnest about something. And I--well, it's finished with me. It would have been finished last night if I hadn't seen the smoke from your fires, and I don't much care--that's the trouble. I go blundering on. I suppose the end will come somehow, sometime-- Can I have some rum or whisky, Devinter--I mean Von Ragastein-- Your Excellency--or whatever I ought to say? You see those wreaths of mist down by the river? They'll mean malaria for me unless I have spirits."
"I have something better than either," Von Ragastein replied. "You shall give me your opinion of this."
The orderly who stood behind his master's chair, received a whispered order, disappeared into the commissariat hut and came back presently with a bottle at the sight of which the Englishman gasped.
"Napoleon!" he exclaimed.
"Just a few bottles I had sent to me," his host explained. "I am delighted to offer it to some one who will appreciate it."
"By Jove, there's no mistake about that!" Dominey declared, rolling it around in his glass. "What a world! I hadn't eaten for thirty hours when I rolled up here last night, and drunk nothing but filthy water for days. To-night, fricassee of chicken, white bread, cabinet hock and Napoleon brandy. And to-morrow again--well, who knows? When do you move on, Von Ragastein?"
"Not for several days."
"What the mischief do you find to do so far from headquarters, if you don't shoot lions or elephants?" his guest asked curiously.
"If you really wish to know," Von Ragastein replied, "I am annoying your political agents immensely by moving from place to place, collecting natives for drill."
"But what do you want to drill them for?" Dominey persisted. "I heard some time ago that you have four times as many natives under arms as we have. You don't want an army here. You're not likely to quarrel with us or the Portuguese."
"It is our custom," Von Ragastein declared a little didactically, "in Germany and wherever we Germans go, to be prepared not only for what is likely to happen but for what might possibly happen."
"A war in my younger days, when I was in the Army," Dominey mused, "might have made a man of me."
"Surely you had your chance out here?"
Dominey shook his head.
"My battalion never left the country," he said. "We were shut up in Ireland all the time. That was the reason I chucked the army when I was really only a boy."
Later on they dragged their chairs a little farther out into the darkness, smoking cigars and drinking some rather wonderful coffee. The doctor had gone off to see a patient, and Von Ragastein was thoughtful. Their guest, on the other hand, continued to be reminiscently discursive.
"Our meeting," he observed, lazily stretching out his hand for his glass, "should be full of interest to the psychologist. Here we are, brought together by some miraculous chance to spend one night of our lives in an African jungle, two human beings of the same age, brought up together thousands of miles away, jogging on towards the eternal blackness along lines as far apart as the mind can conceive."
"Your eyes are fixed," Von Ragastein murmured, "upon that very blackness behind which the sun will rise at dawn. You will see it come up from behind the mountains in that precise spot, like a new and blazing world."
"Don't put me off with allegories," his companion objected petulantly. "The eternal blackness exists surely enough, even if my metaphor is faulty. I am disposed to be philosophical. Let me ramble on. Here am I, an idler in my boyhood, a harmless pleasure-seeker in my youth till I ran up against tragedy, and since then a drifter, a drifter with a slowly growing vice, lolling through life with no definite purpose, with no definite hope or wish, except," he went on a little drowsily, "that I think I'd like to be buried somewhere near the base of those mountains, on the other side of the river, from behind which you say the sun comes up every morning like a world on fire."
"You talk foolishly," Von Ragastein protested. "If there has been tragedy in your life, you have time to get over it. You are not yet forty years old."
"Then I turn and consider you," Dominey continued, ignoring altogether his friend's remark. "You are only my age, and you look ten years younger. Your muscles are hard, your eyes are as bright as they were in your school days. You carry yourself like a man with a purpose. You rise at five every morning, the doctor tells me, and you return here, worn out, at dusk. You spend every moment of your time drilling those filthy blacks. When you are not doing that, you are prospecting, supervising reports home, trying to make the best of your few millions of acres of fever swamps. The doctor worships you but who else knows? What do you do it for, my friend?"
"Because it is my duty," was the calm reply.
"Duty! But why can't you do your duty in your own country, and live a man's life, and hold the hands of white men, and look into the eyes of white women?"
"I go where I am needed most," Von Ragastein answered. "I do not enjoy drilling natives, I do not enjoy passing the years as an outcast from the ordinary joys of human life. But I follow my star."
"And I my will-o'-the-wisp," Dominey laughed mockingly. "The whole thing's as plain as a pikestaff. You may be a dull dog--you always were on the serious side--but you're a man of principle. I'm a slacker."
"The difference between us," Von Ragastein pronounced, "is something which is inculcated into the youth of our country and which is not inculcated into yours. In England, with a little money, a little birth, your young men expect to find the world a playground for sport, a garden for loves. The mightiest German noble who ever lived has his work to do. It is work which makes fibre, which gives balance to life."
Dominey sighed. His cigar, dearly prized though it had been, was cold between his fingers. In that perfumed darkness, illuminated only by the faint gleam of the shaded lamp behind, his face seemed suddenly white and old. His host leaned towards him and spoke for the first time in the kindlier tones of their youth.
"You hinted at tragedy, my friend. You are not alone. Tragedy also has entered my life. Perhaps if things had been otherwise, I should have found work in more joyous places, but sorrow came to me, and I am here."
A quick flash of sympathy lit up Dominey's face.
"We met trouble in a different fashion," he groaned.
Dominey slept till late the following morning, and when he woke at last from a long, dreamless slumber, he was conscious of a curious quietness in the camp. The doctor, who came in to see him, explained it immediately after his morning greeting.
"His Excellency," he announced, "has received important despatches from home. He has gone to meet an envoy from Dar-es-Salaam. He will be away for three days. He desired that you would remain his guest until his return."
"Very good of him," Dominey murmured. "Is there any European news?"
"I do not know," was the stolid reply. "His Excellency desired me to inform you that if you cared for a short trip along the banks of the river, southward, there are a dozen boys left and some ponies. There are plenty of lion, and rhino may be met with at one or two places which the natives know of."
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