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   Chapter 5 No.5

Jaffery By William John Locke Characters: 24179

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


It is some years now since that golden August afternoon, and my memory of the details of the story of Liosha as told by Jaffery and illustrated picturesquely by the lady herself is none of the most precise. Incidentally I gathered, then and later in the smoking-room from Jaffery alone, a prodigious amount of information about Albania which, if I had imprisoned it in writing that same evening as the perfect diarist is supposed to do, would have been vastly useful to me at the present moment. But I am as a diarist hopelessly imperfect. I stare, now, as I write, at the bald, uninspiring page. This is my entry for Aug. 4th, 19-.

"Weighed Susan. 4 st. 3.

"Met Jaffery at station.

"Albanian widow turned up unexpectedly after lunch. Fine woman. Going to be a handful. Staying week-end. Story of meeting and Prescott marriage.

"Promised Susan a donkey ride. Where the deuce does one get donkeys warranted quiet and guaranteed to carry a lady? Mem: Ask Torn Fletcher.

"Mem: Write to Launebeck about cigars."

Why I didn't write straight off to Launebeck about the cigars, instead of "mem-ing" it, may seem a mystery. It isn't. It is a comfortable habit of mine. Once having "mem-ed" an unpleasant thing in my diary, the matter is over. I dismiss it from my mind. But to return to Liosha-I find in my entry of sixty-two words thirty-five devoted to Susan, her donkey and the cigars, and only twenty-seven to the really astonishing events of the day. Of course I am angry. Of course I consult Barbara. Of course she pats the little bald patch on the top of my head and laughs in a superior way and invents, with a paralysing air of verity, an impossible amplification of the "story of meeting and Prescott marriage." And of course, the frivolous Jaffery, now that one really wants him, is sitting astride of a cannon, and smoking a pipe and, notebook and pencil in hand, is writing a picturesque description of the bungling decapitation by shrapnel of the general who has just been unfolding to him the whole plan of the campaign, and consequently is provokingly un-getatable by serious persons like myself[A].

[A] Hilary is writing at the end of the late Balkan war.-W.J.L.

So for what I learned that day I must trust to the elusive witch, Memory. I have never been to Albania. I have never wanted to go to Albania. Even now, I haven't the remotest desire to go to Albania. I should loathe it. Wherever I go nowadays, I claim as my right bedroom and bath and viands succulent to the palate and tender to the teeth. My demands are modest. But could I get them in Albania? No. Could one travel from Scutari to Monastir in the same comfort as one travels from London to Paris or from New York to Chicago? No. Does any sensible man of domestic instincts and scholarly tastes like to find himself halfway up an inaccessible mountain, surrounded by a band of moustachioed desperadoes in fustanella petticoats engirdled with an armoury of pistols, daggers and yataghans, who if they are unkind make a surgical demonstration with these lethal implements, and if they are smitten with a mania of amiability, hand you over, for superintendence of your repose, to an army of satellites of whom you are only too glad to call the flea brother? I trow not. Personally, I dislike mountains. They were made for goats and cascades and lunatics and other irresponsible phenomena of nature. They have their uses, I admit, as windscreens and water-sheds; and beheld from the valley they can assume very pretty colours, owing to varying atmospheric conditions; and the more jagged and unenticing they are, the greater is their specious air of stupendousness. . . . At any rate they are hindrances to convenient travel and so I go among them as little as possible.

To judge from the fervid descriptions given us by Jaffery and Liosha, Albania must be a pestilentially uncomfortable place to live in. It is divided into three religious sects, then re-divided into heaven knows how many tribes. What it will be when it gets autonomy and a government and a parliament and picture-palaces no one yet knows. But at the time when my two friends met it was in about as chaotic a condition as a jungle. Some tribes acknowledged the rule of the Turk. Others did not. Every mountainside had a pretty little anarchical system of its own. Every family had a pretty little blood feud with some other family. Accordingly every man was handy with knife and gun and it was every maiden's dream to be sold as a wife to the most bloodthirsty scoundrel in the neighbourhood. At least that was the impression given me by Liosha.

When the tragedy occurred she herself was about to be sold to a prosperous young cutthroat of whom she had seen but little, as he lived, I gathered, a couple of mountains off. They had been betrothed years before. The price her father demanded was high. Not only did he hold a notable position on his mountain, but he had travelled to the fabulous land of America and could read and write and could speak English and could handle a knife with peculiar dexterity. Again, Liosha was no ordinary Albanian maiden. She too had seen the world and could read and write and speak English. She had a will of her own and had imbibed during her Chicago childhood curiously un-Albanian notions of feminine independence. Being beautiful as well, she ranked as a sort of prize bride worth (in her father's eyes) her weight in gold.

It was to try to reduce this excessive valuation that the young cutthroat visited his father's house. During the night two families, one of whom had a feud with the host and another with the guest, each attended by an army of merry brigands, fell upon the sleeping homestead, murdered everybody except Liosha, who managed to escape, plundered everything plunderable, money, valuables, household goods and live stock, and then set fire to the house and everything within sight that could burn. After which they marched away singing patriotic hymns. When they had gone Liosha crept out of the cave wherein she had hidden, and surveyed the scene of desolation.

"I tell you, I felt just mad," said Liosha at this stage of the story.

* * *

I remember Barbara and Doria staring at her open-mouthed. Instead of fainting or going into hysterics or losing her wits at the sight of the annihilation of her entire kith and kin-including her bridegroom to be-and of her whole worldly possessions, Liosha "felt just mad," which as all the world knows is the American vernacular for feeling very angry.

"It was enough to turn any woman into a raving lunatic," gasped Barbara.

"Guess it didn't turn me," replied Liosha contemptuously.

"But what did you do?" asked Dora.

"I sat down on a stone and thought how I could get even with that crowd." She bit her lip and her soft brown eyes hardened.

Where the lonely figure in black and white sat brooding.

"And that's where we came in, don't you see?" interposed Jaffery hastily.

You can imagine the scene. The two Englishmen, one gigantic, red and hairy, the other wiry and hawk-like, jogging up the mountain path on ragged ponies and suddenly emerging onto that plateau of despair where the lonely figure in black and white sat brooding.

Under such unusual conditions, it was not difficult to form acquaintance. She told her story to the two horror-stricken men. British instinct cried out for justice. They would take her straight to the Vali or whatever authority ruled in the wild land, so that punishment should be inflicted on the murderers. But she laughed at them. It would take an army to dislodge her enemies from their mountain fastnesses. And who could send an army but the Sultan, a most unlikely person to trouble his head over the massacre of a few Christians? As for a local government, the mallisori, the mountain tribes, did not acknowledge any. The Englishmen swore softly. Liosha nodded her head and agreed with them. What was to be done? The Englishmen, alter giving her food and drink which she seemed to need, offered their escort to a place where she could find relations or friends. Again she laughed scornfully.

"All my relations lie there"-she pointed to the smoking ruins. "And I have no friends. And as for your escorting me-why I guess it would be much more use my escorting you."

"And where would you escort us?"

"God knows," she said.

Whereupon they realised that she was alone in the wide world, homeless and penniless, and that for a time, at least, they were responsible to God and man for this picturesque Albanian damsel who spoke the English of the stockyards of Chicago. Again what was to be done? They could take her back to Scutari, whence they had come, in the hope of finding a Roman Catholic sisterhood. The proposal evoked but lukewarm enthusiasm. Liosha being convinced that they would turn her into a nun-the last avocation in the world she desired to adopt. Her simple idea was to go out to America, like her father, return with many bags of gold and devote her life to the linked sweetness of a gradual extermination of her enemies. When asked how she would manage to amass the gold she replied that she would work in the packing-houses like her mother. But how, they asked, would she get the money to take her to Chicago? "It must come from you!" she said. And the men looked at each other, feeling mean dogs in not having offered to settle her there themselves. Then, being a young woman of an apparently practical mind, she asked them what they were doing in Albania. They explained. They were travellers from England, wandering for pleasure through the Balkans. They had come from Scutari, as far as they could, in a motor-car. Liosha had never heard of a motor-car. They described it as a kind of little railway-engine that didn't need rails to run upon. At the foot of the mountains they had left it at a village inn and bought the ragged ponies. They were just going ahead exploring.

"Do you know the way?" she asked with a touch of contempt.

They didn't.

"Then I guess I'll guide you. You pay me wages every day until you're tired and I'll use the money to go out to Chicago." And seeing them hesitate, she added: "No one's going to hurt me. A woman is safe in Albania. And if I'm with you, no one will hurt you. But if you go on by yourselves you'll very likely get murdered."

Fantastic as was her intention, they knew that, as far as they themselves were concerned, she spoke common-sense. So it came to pass that Liosha, having left them for a few moments to take grim farewell of the charred remains of her family lying hidden beneath the smouldering wreckage, returned to them with a calm face, mounted one of the ponies and pointing before her, led the way into the mountains.

Now, if old Jaff would only sit down and write this absurd Odyssey in the vivid manner in which he has related bits of it to me, he would produce the queerest book of travel ever written. But he never will. As a matter of fact, although he saw Albania as few Westerners have done and learned useful bits of language and made invaluable friends, and although he appreciated the journey's adventurous and humorous side, it did not afford him complete satisfaction. A day or two after their start, Prescott began to shew signs of peculiar interest in their guide. In spite of her unquestioning readiness to shoulder burdens, Prescott would run to relieve her. Liosha has assured me that Jaffery did the same-and indeed I cannot conceive Jaffery allowing a female companion to stagger along under a load which he could swing onto his huge back and carry like a walnut. To go further-she maintains that the two quarrelled dreadfully over the alleviation of her labours, so much so, that often before they had ended their quarrel, she had performed the task in dispute. This of course Jaffery has blusteringly denied. She was there, paid to do certain things, and she had to do them. The way Prescott spoiled her and indulged her, as though she were a little dressed-up cat in a London drawing-room, instead of a great hefty woma

n accustomed to throw steers and balance a sack of potatoes on her head, was simply sickening. And it became more sickening still as Prescott's infatuation clouded more and more the poor fellow's brain. Jaffery talked (not before Liosha, but to Adrian and myself, that night, after the ladies had gone to bed) as if the girl had woven a Vivien spell around his poor friend. We smiled, knowing it was Jaffery's way. . . .

At all events, whether Jaffery was jealous or not, it is certain that Prescott fell wildly, blindly, overwhelmingly in love with Liosha. Considering the close intimacy of their lives; considering that they were in ceaseless contact with this splendid creature, untrammelled by any convention, daughter of the earth, yet chaste as her own mountain winds; and considering that both of them were hot-blooded men, the only wonder is that they did not fly at each other's throats, or dash in each other's heads with stones, after the fashion of prehistoric males. It is my well-supported conviction, however, that Jaffery, honest old bear, seeing his comrade's very soul set upon the honey, trotted off and left him to it, and made pretence (to satisfy his ursine conscience) of growling his sarcastic disapproval.

"The devil of it was," he declared that night, with a sweep of his arm that sent a full glass of whiskey and soda hurtling across space to my bookshelves and ruining some choice bindings-"the devil of it was," said he, after expressing rueful contrition, "that she treated him like a dog, whereas I could do anything I liked with her. But she married him."

Of course she married him. Most Albanian young women in her position would have married a brave and handsome Englishman of incalculable wealth-even if they had not Liosha's ulterior motives. And beyond question Liosha had ulterior motives. Prescott espoused her cause hotly. He convinced her that he was a power in Europe. As a Reuter correspondent he did indeed possess power. He would make the civilised world ring with this tale of bloodshed and horror. He would beard Sultans in their lairs and Emperors in their dens. He would bring down awful vengeance on the heads of her enemies. How Sultans and Emperors were to do it was as obscure as at the horror-filled hour of their first meeting. But a man vehemently in love is notoriously blind to practical considerations. Prescott put his life into her hands. She accepted it calmly; and I think it was this calmness of acceptance that infuriated Jaffery. If she had been likewise caught in the whirlpool of a mad passion, Jaffery would have had nothing to say. But she did not (so he maintained) care a button for Prescott, and Prescott would not believe it. She had promised to marry him. That ideal of magnificent womanhood had promised to marry him. They were to be married-think of that, my boy!-as soon as they got back to Scutari and found a British Consul and a priest or two to marry them. "Then for God's sake," roared Jaffery, "let us trek to Scutari. I'm fed up with playing gooseberry. The Giant Gooseberry. Ho! ho! ho!"

So they shortened their projected journey and, making a circuit, picked up the motor-car-a joy and wonder to Liosha. She wanted to drive it-over the rutted wagon-tracks that pass for roads in Albania-and such was Prescott's infatuation that he would have allowed her to do so. But Jaffery sat an immovable mountain of flesh at the wheel and brought them safely to Scutari. There arrangements were made for the marriage before the British Vice-Consul. On the morning of the ceremony Prescott fell ill. The ceremony was, however, performed. Towards evening he was in high fever. The next morning typhoid declared itself. In two or three days he was dead. He had made a will leaving everything to his wife, with Jaffery as sole executor and trustee.

This sorry ending of poor Prescott's romance-I never knew him, but shall always think of him as a swift and vehement spirit-was told very huskily by Jaffery beneath the wistaria arbour. Tears rolled down Barbara's and Doria's cheeks. My wife's sympathetic little hand slid into Liosha's. With her other hand Liosha fondled it. I am sure it was rather gratitude for this little feminine act than poignant emotion that moistened Liosha's beautiful eyes.

"I haven't had much luck, have I?"

"No, my poor dear, you haven't," cried Barbara in a gush of kindness.

In the course of a few weeks to have one's affianced husband murdered and one's legal though nominal husband spirited away by disease, seemed in the eyes of my gentle wife to transcend all records of human tragedy. Very soon afterwards she made a pretext for taking Liosha away from us, and I had the extraordinary experience of seeing my proud little Barbara, who loathes the caressive insincerities prevalent among women, cross the lawn with her arm around Liosha's waist.

The rest of the bare bones of the story I have already told you. Jaffery, after burying his poor comrade, took ship with Liosha and went to Cettinje, where he entrusted her to the care of old friends of his, the Austrian Consul and his wife, and made her known as the widow of Prescott of Reuter's to the British diplomatic authorities. Then having his work to do, he started forth again, a heavy-hearted adventurer, and, when it was over, he picked up Liosha, for whom Frau von Hagen had managed to procure a stock of more or less civilised raiment, and brought her to London to make good her claim, under Prescott's will, to her dead husband's fortune.

Now this is Jaffery all over. Put him on a battlefield with guns going off in all directions, or in a shipwreck, or in the midst of a herd of crocodiles, and he will be cool master of the situation, and will telegraph to his newspaper the graphic, nervous stuff of the born journalist; but set him a simple problem in social life, which a child of fifteen would solve in a walk across the room, and he is scared to death. Instead of sending for Barbara, for instance, when he arrived in London, or any other sensible woman, say, like Frau von Hagen of Cettinje, he drags poor Euphemia, a timid maiden lady of forty-five, from her tea-parties and Bible-classes and Dorcas-meetings at Tunbridge Wells, and plants her down as guide, philosopher and friend to this disconcerting product of Chicago and Albania. Of course the poor lady was at her wits' ends, not knowing whether to treat her as a new-born baby or a buffalo. With equal inevitability, Liosha, unaccustomed to this type of Western woman, summed her up in a drastic epithet. And in the meanwhile Jaffery went about tearing hair and beard and cursing the fate that put him in charge of a volcano in petticoats.

"I have a great regard for Euphemia," said Barbara, later in the day-they were walking up and down the terrace in, the dusk before dinner-"but I have some sympathy with Liosha. Tolstoi! My dear Jaffery! And the City Temple! If she wanted to take the girl to church, why not her own church, the Brompton Oratory or Farm Street?"

"Euphemia wouldn't attend a Popish place of worship-she still calls it Popish, poor dear-to save her soul alive, or anybody else's soul," replied Jaffery.

"Then pack her off at once to Tunbridge Wells," said Barbara. "She's even more helpless than you, which is saying a great deal. I'll see to Liosha."

Jaffery protested. It was dear of her, sweet of her, miraculous of her, but he couldn't dream of it.

"Then don't," she retorted. "Put it out of your mind. And there's Franklin. Come to dinner."

"I'm not a bit hungry," he said gloomily.

We dined; as far as I was concerned, very pleasantly. Liosha, who sat on my right, refreshingly free in her table manners (embarrassingly so to my most correct butler), was equally free in her speech. She provided me with excellent entertainment. I learned many frank truths about Albanian women, for whom, on account of their vaccine subjection, she proclaimed the most scathing contempt. Her details, in architectural phrase, were full size. Once or twice Doria, who sat on my left, lowered her eyes disapprovingly. At her age, her mother would have been shocked; her grandmother would have blushed from toes to forehead; her great-grandmother might have fainted. But Doria, a Twentieth Century product, on the Committee of a Maternity Home and a Rescue Laundry, merely looked down her nose . . . I gathered that Liosha, for all her yearning to shoot, flay alive, crucify and otherwise annoy her enemies, did not greatly regret the loss of the distinguished young Albanian cutthroat who was her affianced. Had he lived she would have spent the rest of her days in saying, like Melisande, "I am not happy." She would have been an instrument of pleasure, a producer of children, a slaving drudge, while he went triumphantly about, a predatory ravisher, among the scattered Bulgarian peasantry. In fact, she expressed a whole-hearted detestation for her betrothed. I am pretty sure, too, that the death of her father did not leave in her life the aching gap that it might have done.

You see, it came to this. Her father, an American-Albanian, wanted to run with the hare of barbarism and hunt with the hounds of civilisation. His daughter (woman the world over) was all for hunting. He had spent twenty years in America. By a law of gravitation, natural only in that Melting Pot of Nations, Chicago, he had come across an Albanian wife. . . .

Chicago is the Melting Pot of the nations of the world. Let me tell you a true tale. It has nothing whatever to do with Jaffery Chayne or Liosha-except perhaps to shew that there is no reason why a Tierra del Fuegan foundling should not run across his long-lost brother on Michigan Avenue, and still less reason why Albanian male should not meet Albanian female in Armour's stockyards. And besides, considering that I was egged on, as I said on the first page, to write these memoirs, I really don't see why I should not put into them anything I choose.

An English novelist of my acquaintance visiting Chicago received a representative of a great daily newspaper who desired to interview him. The interviewer was a typical American reporter, blue-eyed, high cheekboned, keen, nervous, finely strung, courteous, intensely alive, desirous to get to the heart of my friend's mystery, and charmingly responsive to his frank welcome. They talked. My friend, to give the young man his story, discoursed on Chicago's amazingly solved problem of the conglomeration of all the races under Heaven. To point his remarks and mark his contrasts he used the words "we English" and "you Americans." After a time the young man smiled and said: "But am not an American-at least I'm an American citizen, but I'm not a born American."

"But," cried my friend, "you're the essence of America."

"No," said the young man, "I'm an Icelander."

Thus it was natural for Liosha's father to find an Albanian wife in Chicago. She too was superficially Americanised. When they returned to Albania with their purely American daughter, they at first found it difficult to appear superficial Albanians. Liosha had to learn Albanian as a foreign language, her parents and herself always speaking English among themselves. But the call of the blood rang strong in the veins of the elders. Robbery and assassination on the heroic scale held for the man an irresistible attraction, and he acquired great skill at the business; and the woman, who seems to have been of a lymphatic temperament, sank without murmuring into the domestic subjection into which she had been born. It was only Liosha who rebelled. Hence her complicated attitude towards life, and hence her entertaining talk at the dinner table.

I enjoyed myself. So, I think, did everybody. When the ladies rose, Jaffery, who was nearest the door, opened it for them to pass out, Barbara, the last, lingered for a second or two and laid her hand on Jaffery's arm and looked up at him out of her teasing blue eyes.

"My dear Jaff," she said, "what kind of a dinner do you eat when you are hungry?"

* * *

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