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   Chapter 5 No.5

South Wind By Norman Douglas Characters: 19064

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:05


"This is the place," said Mr. Keith.

It was one of a row of tawdry modern buildings, the lower floors of which were utilized as shops-an undistinguished sort of place, in an undistinguished street. They climbed upstairs and wandered through two or three rooms, all alike save that one of them had a balcony; square, white-washed rooms, not very clean, and inadequately furnished with tables, cane-bottomed chairs and a few prints on the walls. There was a lavish display, however, of bottles and glasses, and several shelves were littered with newspapers in different languages. Acetylene lamps hung from the flat ceiling. An odour of stale tobacco and alcohol pervaded the premises. Flies were buzzing against the window-panes.

Half a dozen nondescript members, looking considerably the worse for wear, loafed about moodily or snored in deck chairs. Two or three were writing letters. It was the sulkiest hour of the day. Mr. Heard noticed a slender young Indian and a blond-haired fellow-probably a Scandinavian. They were arguing about cigars with a rosy-cheeked old reprobate whom they called Charlie. An adjoining apartment, the card-room, contained a livelier party, among whom the bishop recognized Mr. Muhlen. He had lost no time in making himself popular. He must have found congenial spirits here.

"Well?" asked Keith.

"Cheap and nasty," suggested the other.

"That's it! They call it the Alpha and Omega Club, to shadow forth its all-embracing international character; it's just a boozing institution, where you run to seed. They come in here, and say the south wind makes them thirsty. Red and Blue Club would be a more appropriate name. That is the whisky they have to drink."

"Why cannot they drink wine or-or ginger beer?"

"He tries to stop that. He would not be able to make any profits on wine."

"Who?"

"The President."

And Mr. Keith proceeded to sketch the history of the establishment.

The Alpha and Omega Club had led a precarious existence. Often its life dangled by a thread for lack of members, or because those members who owed subscriptions were unable or unwilling to pay them. Such had been the case before the accession of the new President. It hung its drooping head; had almost withered away. Mr. Freddy Parker tended the languid flower, and watered it-with whisky of his own composition.

It revived. Or rather (which amounts to the same thing) Mr. Parker revived-sufficiently, at all events, to pay off some of the more pressing of his private debts. Napoleon, or somebody, once remarked: "L'ETAT, C'EST MOI." Mr. Parker thought highly of a strong character like Napoleon. He used to say, when talking things over with his lady in her "boudoir" at the Residency:

"The Club, that's me."

Declaring that wine was the ruin of the place, he imported-it was the lady's idea, originally-the far-famed "Red-and-Blue" brand of whisky in barrels. The liquid was bottled in the cellars of the Residency. What happened during that process was never revealed. It was affirmed, none the less, that one barrel of the original stuff was more than enough for three barrelfuls of the bottled product. Cultured members, on drinking it, were wont to say things about Locusta and Borgia. The commoner sort swore like hell at Freddy Parker. It made you feel squiffy after the sixth glass-argumentative, magisterial, maudlin, taciturn, erotic, sentimental, sea-sick, ecstatic, paralysed, lachrymose, hilarious, pugilistic-according to your temperament. Whatever your temperament it gave you a thundering head next morning, and a throat like Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace. It was known as "Parker's poison."

The stuff was served, at an alluring price, out of bottles adorned with a seductive label-a label which had been designed by an impecunious artist who, after running up a rousing bill for drinks, got off payment on the strength of this job. But the prettiest label in the world could not atone for the mixture within. Members often complained of feeling queer. They threatened to resign. Mr. Parker did not want them to resign; he wanted their subscriptions. He had a grand way with him on such occasions. Whenever one of them complained too bitterly or too persistently-became damned abusive, in fact-he would patiently wait and see which was the fellow's favourite newspaper. That point settled-it was his lady's idea, originally-he would stop the supply of the journal in question, alleging insufficiency of Club revenues. These Napoleon-like tactics generally brought the offending member to his senses.

Mr. Frederick Parker spent a good deal of his time in endeavouring to mask, under a cloak of boisterous good humour, a really remarkable combination of malevolence and imbecility. He was what you call a remittance man. He got so much a quarter-a miserable sum it was-to keep out of England. He travelled about formerly. But no amount of travel, no association with his betters, could pierce his stolid pachydermatous obliquity. He was the worst kind of Englishman; he could not even cheat without being found out. But for the wise counsels of his lady he would have been in the lock-up over and over again. Such being the case, he took a justifiable pride in his Anglo-Saxon origin. Whenever a project seemed too risky-not worth while, he called it-he would say:

"It can't be done. That's a job for a Dago. I'm an Englishman, you know."

He had knocked about the world a good bit, had Mr. Parker. His last known domicile was Nicaragua. There he invested in some land affair-a most unfortunate speculation, as it turned out. All his speculation had a way of turning badly. That was because people, even people in Nicaragua, distrusted him for one reason or another; they said his whole existence was a tangle of shady and ignoble transactions-that he looked like a fraud, and behaved like one. He couldn't help his face; but his face, they soon discovered, was not the only, or even the most, evasive and fugitive part of his personality.

At last Nicaragua, even Nicaragua, got too hot for him.

There was Don Pomponio di Vergara y Puyarola, Nicaraguan Minister of Finance; one might come to terms with a man of that kind. It was arranged between them that His Excellency, who had a large family and many poor dependents, should take over Mr. Parker's landed interests; being a native of the place he might succeed in squeezing a little something out of them. In exchange for this concession an unobtrusive Government job was specially created for Mr. Parker. He was appointed Financial Commissioner for South-Eastern Europe, to reside at Nepenthe or wherever else he pleased-unpaid; the exalted social status conferred by such a post being deemed ample compensation. His sole duty consisted of submitting a short annual report, a pure formality, to his Government.

He departed, but not alone. With him went his familiar spirit, his guardian angel, his lady, his step-sister-a dusky dame of barn-like proportions. Arrived at Nepenthe they rented a small villa, rather out of the way, which they called the Residency. The change of climate did them good. So did the appointment. He was now a person of consequence-the sole representative of a Foreign Power on the island. His official rank procured him not only dignity and a new start in life but, what was still more urgent, credit. It brought him into contact with the local authorities-with the red-haired rachitic judge, for instance, between whom and Mr. Parker there sprang up an intimacy which was viewed with vague forebodings. The lady, being a Catholic-Mr. Parker, too, was suspected of Roman proclivities-was confessed by the parish priest. That was a point gained; the PARROCO being above suspicion, among foreigners at least. She stayed mostly indoors, inventing scandals about people and writing voluminous letters to warn new-comers of the appalling immorality of the place.

To outward appearance the Commissioner and his lady agreed like a brace of turtle-doves. He, too, was a moral and social reformer. But men must live. The refined social status attached to Mr. Parker's honorary post producing nothing tangible in the way of ready cash, he began to cast about for some means of livelihood. They wre getting into debt once more. Something must be done, he declared.

His portly presence, flushed countenance, briar pipe, knickerbockers and white spats had already become a familiar object in the streets of the town, when a terrible uproar at the Club-one of those periodical, approximately monthly, rows at which the police, who hated meddling with foreigners, were reluctantly compelled to intervene-suggested to her that something might be done in that direction. She got him elected President for that year, President for the next, the next, and the next; in spite of the fact that, according to the rules, a new President had to be elected every year. Who cared about rules? He was the Commissioner! People were only too glad to have him there. In fact, like Napoleon, he became a sort of Dictator.

He was now in his element. There were emoluments to be picked up here-percentages, perquisites, and profits of all kinds. He made a little arrangement with the Club laundry-woman to take in his own washing as well, gratis. Under the threat of placing the Club custom elsewhere he concluded a number of treaties, each containing a secret clause which referred to fifteen per cent profit for himself, with the grocer who supplied provisions; and with other tradespeople

dealing in stationery, soap, crockery (broken crockery was a heavy item in the accounts) and such-like Club necessaries. Next, he took the landlord in hand. He would clear out, by God, and take more respectable premises if the rent were not reduced by twenty per cent! Scandalous! Downright robbery! The landlord being a reasonable sort of man, it was agreed that the old rate should stand in the contract, while the balance of twenty per cent found its way into Mr. Parker's pockets, and not, as theretofore, into his own. The same with the servants. From the boy who cleaned the rooms, and whom he changed as often as ever possible, he exacted a monetary deposit as a guarantee of good conduct-a deposit which was never returned, whatever his behaviour had been. Then-the subscriptions. For of course the accounts were never audited; nobody bothered about such things on Nepenthe, with all that south wind hanging about. If they had been he would have squared the auditor up to any sum-a hundred francs, almost; it was worth while. Pickings, he called them. The place, the system suited him down to the ground. He had lived all his life on pickings. He was a retail welsher; he lacked the nerve for sweeping enterprises.

On his accession, the Club was in such a state of demoralization, had become such a public scandal, that Mr. Parker, in his capacity of moralist, would have been the first person to dissolve that assembly of topers and rakes. As financier, he meant to live by it. But how was the place to be purified?

Parker's poison solved that problem, besides yielding a fine slice of additional revenue. The hardest drinkers, the inveterate rowdies, refused to believe that it was anything but the ordinary whisky to which they had been accustomed from childhood; or believing, refused out of sheer boastfulness, or force of habit, to reduce their doses. While the moderate realized the truth and acted accordingly, these others insisted upon regarding it as genuine Scotch-with inevitable and dire results. They succumbed. During the first year of Freddy Parker's reign, eight of these stubborn sinners were carried to their graves. And year by year, the same causes being in action, the process of betterment went on. Extremists dropped off, moderates survived. The Club was purged of its grosser elements, the moral tone of the establishment was raised, through the operation of Parker's poison. It was Napoleon's way with the Paris Parliament, he once explained to his lady, who wondered vaguely how long the hero himself would have outlived the effects of that mixture which she brewed, with her own fair hands, in the dim vaults of the Residency.

Even now it was a pretty tough place. New crooks, like the dubious Mr. Hopkins, new fire-eaters, new cranks, new sots, were always dropping in from different corners of the globe to spread their infection among the more recent crowd of curio-hunters, gentlemen of commerce, nautical wrecks, decayed missionaries, painters, authors and other vagrant riff-raff who frequented the premises. There were rows going on all the time-insignificant rows, mostly about newspapers and gambling debts. Mr. Samuel got his eye blacked over a harmless game of ecarte; Mr. White, one of the steadiest members, threatened to withdraw his subscription on account of the black-beetles; a Swedish sea-captain smashed nine panes of glass-just by way of a friendly demonstration, he said-because the great Upsala journal, the UTAN STAFVEL, was missing from its shelf; a muscular Japanese made himself distinctly offensive about the NICHI-NICHI-SHIN-BUM being out of date, and was going to twist everybody's head off, if it occurred again; the excellent Vice-President, Mr. Richards, tumbled noisily downstairs, nobody knew how or why-all on a single afternoon. The sirocco happened to be particularly trying that day.

On the whole, there was no denying the fact that the Club flourished under the statesman-like autocracy of Mr. Parker. That was partly because, unlike previous presidents, he was generally on the spot. Some great man once made a remark about the need of "the Master's Eye." He believed in that remark. If you run a place, run it yourself. He was ever-present, absorbing at other people's expense his own poison, to the effects of which he seemed to be immune; and borrowing money, on the sly, from the richer and more forgetful members. His uproarious joviality, his echoing ha! ha! became a feature of the place; it deceived the simple, and amused the complex. He was ready to talk about anything with anybody who shoved along; he had a fund of naughty tropical stories for the so-called bawdy section, and could be as sympathetic and pious as you please with a contrite youngster suffering from last night's debauch.

"A hair of the dog," he would suggest with a genial wink, pushing the bottle temptingly nearer.

The regulations had also been improved under his auspices. The entrance fee was imperceptibly raised, while the conditions of entry were relaxed. It was his lady's idea originally. She made it clear that the more numerous the members the greater the quantity of whisky consumed-the greater, therefore, their profits; quite apart from the possibility of additional subscriptions being paid. He agreed. Then, in a sudden glow of commercial enthusiasm, he proceeded to hint that ladies should also be admitted. Regretfully she put her foot down. Anywhere else the proposal would have been welcome. It was out of the question on Nepenthe.

"You're forgetting that Wilberforce woman," she said. "She would have to be carried home every night. It couldn't be done, Freddy. We might as well shut up the shop at once. People would get talking about the place-you know how they talk, as it is."

Miss Wilberforce was a pathetic local figure, a lady by birth, with a ready tongue, wiry limbs, and an insatiable craving for alcohol. She would unavoidably have damaged the reputation of the place, to say nothing of its furniture. She had gone from bad to worse lately.

"Perhaps you're right, Lola. It isn't worth while for those few subscriptions. After all, I'm an Englishman. But how about all those Russians?" he added.

"I've often told you to let them in, Freddy."

"So you have, dear! It was your idea originally. Well, I must think it over again."

He thought it over and regretfully came to the conclusion that it could not be done. Russians were not people of the right kind. They were not honest.

"Russians are too artistic to be honest," he declared.

It was a BON MOT which he had picked up, long ago, from Madame Steynlin, in the days when the lady looked with disfavour on the Muscovite colony. That Lutheran period was over for the present: she was orthodox so far as sentiments were concerned. Nothing could be good enough for the Russians, just then. An acquaintance with Peter, one of the handsomest of the whole batch of religious enthusiasts, had brought about her psychological conversion and altered her outlook upon life. Her heart was in the Urals. But that stupid, malicious epigram had impressed itself on the mind of Mr. Parker, who was hopelessly insensitive to the flaxen curls of Peter.

"No," he decided. "They are not honest. We must draw the line somewhere, Lola. I draw it at Russians. At least I think we ought to. But I'll think it over again."

That was foolish of him, she opined. For the Muscovites would probably have paid their accounts as regularly as other members; and as to their capacity for raising the Club revenues by the destruction of alcohol-why, many people had said unkind things about them, and yet nobody had gone so far as to accuse them of being unable to stow it away in proper Christian style. No wonder. Because there was nothing whatever in their Bible, the GOLDEN BOOK of the divinely inspired Bazhakuloff, to prohibit or even limit the consumption of strong waters. In the matter of dietary he had only bidden them refrain from the flesh of warm-blooded beasts.

Mr. Parker was always thinking things over and coming to the wrong conclusion. It was foolish of him.

She knew him too well to say anything more for the moment. She would have to bide her time because Freddy, of whom she had made an exhaustive study, was a wobbler, and worse than a wobbler. He was stubborn at the wrong season and difficult to manage. He needed careful motherly guidance. All fools, she reflected, were subject to meteoric gleams of common sense. He was no exception to that rule. But whereas they received such flashes with thankfulness, he persisted in regarding them as inspirations of the devil. That was the tragedy of Freddy Parker. It made him into something quinessential-a kind of super-fool….

Mr. Keith enquired:

"You don't want to become a member of this institution, do you,

Bishop?"

The other pondered awhile.

"I am pretty democratic," he replied. "We have some warm places in Africa, you know, and I never allowed myself to be beaten by them. Perhaps I might be of use to some of those poor fellows in there. But I like to do things properly. It would entail at first a little friendly drinking, I'm afraid, in order to gain their confidence. It is not in my character to do one thing and preach another. I cannot pose as an abstainer after the way I enjoyed your luncheon. But the smell of the whisky here-it scares me. My liver-"

"Ah, yes!" said Mr. Keith with a sigh. "No wonder you hesitate. It is quite disheartening, all that drunkenness."

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