3.—The Amazing Travels of Mr. Yarner
There was no fault to be found with Mr. Yarner till he made his trip around the world.
It was that, I think, which disturbed his brain and unfitted him for membership in the club.
“Well,” he would say, as he sat ponderously down with the air of a man opening an interesting conversation, “I was just figuring it out that eleven months ago to-day I was in Pekin.”
“That’s odd,” I said, “I was just reckoning that eleven days ago I was in Poughkeepsie.”
“They don’t call it Pekin over there,” he said. “It’s sounded Pei-Chang.”
“I know,” I said, “it’s the same way with Poughkeepsie, they pronounce it P’Keepsie.”
“The Chinese,” he went on musingly, “are a strange people.”
“So are the people in P’Keepsie,” I added, “awfully strange.”
That kind of retort would sometimes stop him, but not always. He was especially dangerous if he was found with a newspaper in his hand; because that meant that some item of foreign intelligence had gone to his brain.
Not that I should have objected to Yarner describing his travels. Any man who has bought a ticket round the world and paid for it, is entitled to that.
But it was his manner of discussion that I considered unpermissible.
Last week, for example, in an unguarded moment I fell a victim. I had been guilty of the imprudence—I forget in what connection—of speaking of lions. I realized at once that I had done wrong—lions, giraffes, elephants, rickshaws and natives of all brands, are topics to avoid in talking with a traveller.
“Speaking of lions,” began Yarner.
He was right, of course; I had spoken of lions.
“—I shall never forget,” he went on (of course, I knew he never would), “a rather bad scrape I got into in the up-country of Uganda. Imagine yourself in a wild, rolling country covered here and there with kwas along the sides of the nullahs.”
I did so.
“Well,” continued Yarner, “we were sitting in our tent one hot night—too hot to sleep—when all at once we heard, not ten feet in front of us, the most terrific roar that ever came from the throat of a lion.”
As he said this Yarner paused to take a gulp of bubbling whiskey and soda and looked at me so ferociously that I actually shivered.
Then quite suddenly his manner cooled down in the strangest way, and his voice changed to a commonplace tone as he said,—
“Perhaps I ought to explain that we hadn’t come up to the up-country looking for big game. In fact, we had been down in the down country with no idea of going higher than Mombasa. Indeed, our going even to Mombasa itself was more or less an afterthought. Our first plan was to strike across from Aden to Singapore. But our second plan was to strike direct from Colombo to Karuchi—”
“And what was your third plan?” I asked.
“Our third plan,” said Yarner deliberately, feeling that the talk was now getting really interesting, “let me see, our third plan was to cut across from Socotra to Tananarivo.”
“Oh, yes,” I said.
“However, all that was changed, and changed under the strangest circumstances. We were sitting, Gallon and I, on the piazza of the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo—you know the Galle Face?”
“No, I do not,” I said very positively.
“Very good. Well, I was sitting on the piazza watching a snake charmer who was seated, with a boa, immediately in front of me.
“Poor Gallon was actually within two feet of the hideous reptile. All of a sudden the beast whirled itself into a coil, its eyes fastened with hideous malignity on poor Gallon, and with its head erect it emitted the most awful hiss I have heard proceed from the mouth of any living snake.”
Here Yarner paused and took a long, hissing drink of whiskey and soda: and then as the malignity died out of his face—
“I should explain,” he went on, very quietly, “that Gallon was not one of our original party. We had come down to Colombo from Mongolia, going by the Pekin Hankow and the Nippon Yushen Keisha.”
“That, I suppose, is the best way?” I said.
“Yes. And oddly enough but for the accident of Gallon joining us, we should have gone by the Amoy, Cochin, Singapore route, which was our first plan. In fact, but for Gallon we should hardly have got through China at all. The Boxer insurrection had taken place only fourteen years before our visit, so you can imagine the awful state of the country.
“Our meeting with Gallon was thus absolutely providential. Looking back on it, I think it perhaps saved our lives. We were in Mongolia (this, you understand, was before we reached China), and had spent the night at a small Yak about four versts from Kharbin, when all of a sudden, just outside the miserable hut that we were in, we heard a perfect fusillade of shots followed immediately afterwards by one of the most blood-curdling and terrifying screams I have ever imagined—”
“Oh, yes,” I said, “and that was how you met Gallon. Well, I must be off.”
And as I happened at that very moment to be rescued by an incoming friend, who took but little interest in lions, and even less in Yarner, I have still to learn why the lion howled so when it met Yarner. But surely the lion had reason enough.