The Voice That Breathed O’er Eden

Damon Runyon

Buffalo Times/October 3, 1909


SOMEONE was singing off in the distance.

The voice, a healthy baritone, came floating through the heavy night air full and strong. It was something from lI Travatore, sung in the Italian, and Corporal Monahan, commanding the little outpost, raised himself on his elbow to listen.

“Darn that Englisher,” he muttered. “I wish the niggers would take him away somewhere with ’em so’s I’d never hear his voice again.”

“Who is it?” asked Carney, who had recently transferred from the Ninth.

“Brett—a bandman,” replied Monahan. “He’s an Englisher, and mostly he’s crazy.”

“Wonder they don’t knock his block off,” said Carney sleepily.

“They like him,” said Monahan. “That is, they like his singing. You’ll hear him nearly every night in some of them barrios warbling like a chipmunk.”

The voice rose and fell in dreamy fashion, like a gentle wind, until finally it died away slowly and softly, and the men on the outpost heard the laughing and hand clapping, and delighted exclamations in Spanish as the natives applauded the vocal efforts of Algernon Swingingham Ambrose-Brett.

Algernon Swingingham Ambrose-Brett!

We shall never see his like again. And we don’t want to. He flitted through a term of service in the United States army like the passing of a dream, and while we shall cherish his memory, if not sacredly, at least vividly, we do not care for encores.

Algernon Swingingham Ambrose-Brett!

Can you imagine that name panoplied in the regalia of a private of the United States army? Can you conjure up a picture of six feet of British roast beef brawn, shoe-horned into a tight fitting olive drab uniform, betokening one of Uncle Sam’s first class fighting men?

Can you, in your wildest flights of imagination, think of an English light opera singer with a baritone voice like liquid gold—a voice that was as moonbeams strung on platinum wires—whatever that means—a voice attuned to a soft conversational tone redolent of drawing rooms, dress suits and monocles, even when answering “heah” to the staccato accents of a brisk first sergeant as he called the roll?

Probably you cannot. It’s a hard task, at best, but if you can picture such a man and such a voice, you have Algernon Swingingham Ambrose-Brett, private of the band.—Infantry, United States Army.

We shall never see his like again.

Ah, that voice of Algernon’s! I am no musician, myself, and am mostly tone deaf. The average piece of classical melody is no sweeter to my ears than the sound you can make by rubbing your hand along a barb wire fence, or throwing rocks on a tin roof, but I know that there have been few voices worth speaking of before or since the time of Algernon.

He came to this country singing a minor role in a light opera company of considerable note. He was the action of a distinguished family in the tight little isle, but it was said he had been profligate, and they had cast him off.

Ordinarily Algernon was the mildest person imaginable, but he had a carefully nurtured appetite for Scotch whiskey fraught with deep possibilities.

Anyhow, Algernon was cast off, and so he took his six feet of brawn, and his moonbeam baritone, along with his innocent blue eyes and fresh complexion, to say nothing of his immaculate dress, into the ranks of light opera. His proudest and most carefully treasured possession was his voice, and he sang because he loved to raise those tinkling notes in song. So he went into light opera, and from there he graduated into the United States Army.

The light opera company disbanded, and left Algernon with little money, but a whole lot of pride. He would not send home for funds, and he didn’t know how to work. Somehow he ran into a soldier, who suggested the army to him. Unlike the average Englishman, Algernon knew nothing at all about soldiering. His idea of enlisting was to find a temporary refuge. It never occurred to him that he could not leave any time he wanted to. It never occurred to him that there was such a thing as class distinction between men and officers in the army. He had been reared in a musical atmosphere, far removed from worldly things.

Algernon enlisted in Kansas City, where the opera company went to pieces. I can well imagine the scene when he entered the recruiting office, because he told me something of his experiences and I know Sergeant Mack, the gruff old fellow who is the presiding genius of the Kansas City office.

“I said: ‘Aw, me good fellow, I should like to secure employment in your awmy,’ ” is what Algernon told me he said to Mack in stating his mission.

He had been coached by whoever it was recommended the army to him, and he also told Mack that he was an American citizen. Whatever doubts his appearance and manner may have aroused in Mack’s mind, Brett got his employment all right, and I expect he also received an experience at the hands of Mack that he will never forget. He intimated that the old sergeant was “rude,” and I don’t doubt it.

Anyhow, Algernon came to the army, and from the moment he first made his appearance with the awkward squad until he received his final papers, he was the wonder of all beholders.

They put him in the band. He could play almost any instrument, excepting the bass drum, and was a pretty valuable man, outside of his total disregard for discipline.

It didn’t do any good to punish him for infractions of the rules, because he would fracture them over again in the same place, and in such, a simple minded manner that led one to doubt his responsibility. Finally they let him alone, and much better results were attained. He dropped into a position similar to that of the regimental dog—he wandered almost at will.

When the regiment struck the Philippines, Algernon was in his glory. He at last found an appreciative audience for his voice. The Filipino is a great lover of music, and Algernon could sing in half a dozen languages, so they went wild over him. Night after night while we were in Manila, Algernon was the guest of honor at the home of some Filipino swell, singing away for dear life.

That was all right while we were in Manila, but when the regiment went to one of the southern islands, Algernon continued his visits with-the natives, and got himself in trouble with the captain. He was warned to keep away from them, but the call of music was too strong, and he would sneak away frequently to spend an evening in some hovel, raising his voice in glandsome song, to an admiring audience of dirty natives.

There were no actual hostilities in the islands, but a vicious ladrone, or robber, named Lonez had a band of native outlaws devastating the particuIar island where we were stationed, and we used to have an occasional mix-up with his crowd. The government at Manila was very anxious to capture Lonez, and had put a big price on his head, dead or alive, but we were never able to get closer to him than rifle shot. He had a retreat somewhere up in the mountains, and it was regarded as inaccessible for troops. So Lonez had a pretty easy thing, dropping down upon the peaceful natives from time to time and levying tribute upon them.

We called the isand where we were located Eden; mostly because no white man could pronounce the right name, and because it was so different from what Eden is popularly supposed to have been. Our Eden was mostly jungle, and generally it was raining.

This man Carney, that I have mentioned as coming from the Ninth, began taking quite an interest in Algernon after he had heard him singing. There was nothing musical about Carney, either. He was a short, squat built fellow, with a Tipperary mug, and the physical aspect of a gorilla, but he was an old and good soldier.

His interest in Algernon was not reciprocated. Frankly, the Englishman was a little afraid of him. Someone told Algernon that Carney was “queer.” And Algernon promptly construed it to mean that Carney was crazy.

And Carney somehow gathered that this was Algernon’s idea, too, although we didn’t know that for some time afterwards.

Carney began making a sort of study of Algernon and Algernon’s movements, The musical bandman continued his visits to the natives, and kept going farther away from camp in his search for audiences, and his fame was bounded only by the limits of the island. The natives used to point him out and take off their hats when they spoke to him, which shows what a voice will do if it is properly worked. Any other soldier in the army would have been waylaid and murdered half a mile from camp, but Algernon, alone and unarmed, used to go ten miles and return loaded with presents. And you couldn’t tell him there was any danger.

One day Carney went to Captain Brooks, commanding his company, and said:

“Sir, I would like to have the captain’s permission to capture Lonez.”

“Humh,” he said. “I guess you can have the captain’s permission, all right, but I’d like to know how you mean to do it.”

“I’ve got a tip he’s going to be at a doings in a small barrio eight miles from here tonight,” said Carney. “A nigger from out in the woods told me. I would like to have permission to get him.”

Lonez had been closer than that to us many a time and we had tried to trap him, too, but the natives always got word to him and he would be gone hours before we reached the place where he had been reported. The country was full of his friends, and even the people he imposed on helped him out every time.

“I want to take one man with me,” said Carney. “I’ve got a little scheme of my own to land Lonez, and I’d like to try it out.”

“You couldn’t get within a mile of him before he’d be gone,” said the captain.

“Well, I’ve got a plan that I think will work,” insisted Carney. “Let me have one man and take a chance.”

“What one man?” asked the captain.

“Brett, of the band,” replied Carney.

The captain eyed him as though doubting his sanity. “Why, that fellow would be a dead weight on you if you got into trouble,” he said, laughing loudly.

“I’d like to take Brett,” repeated Carney. “I need him in my business.”

“Well, Carney, you can try it, but I must insist on a squad of men following you as a measure or safety. If you get Lonez there are several hundred pesos in sight for you, but I’m not particularly impressed with your chances.”

Carney saluted and went out, hurrying over to his quarters where he got his rifle and two belts of ammunition. Then without a by-your-leave, he appropriated a sergeant’s revolver and went over to the band quarters.

It was along toward evening and dusk was coming on.

“Brett,” said Carney, briskly, “you’re under arrest.”

“Why, Carney, old chap, what’s the row?” asked Algernon vaguely; not exactly perturbed, because arrest was nothing new to him, but wondering just what he had done.

“Come with me,” said Carney gruffly,

“Here’s a deuced go,” commented Brett.

The attitude of Carney puzzled him. but he supposed from the fact that the soldier had his rifle and side arms that Carney was on guard and had simply been detailed to escort him to the guard house.

Someone saw them vanishing toward the edge of town, Brett out in front, talking back over his shoulder, and Carney behind, walking stiffly with his rifle at a “ready,” and bayonet fixed. After retreat the captain of Carney’s company sent for him to discuss the proposed capture again, and also to arrange for the squad which was to follow after, but Carney had disappeared and none could say where they went.

“Now,” said Carney, the moment they got into the brush out of sight of the camp, and beyond the furthest outposts. “Now you English son-of-a-gun, you sing!”

“Sing?” asked the astonished Algernon. “Why should I sing, Carney, me boy?”

“Sing! Sing—damn you, sing!” roared Carney, with menace in his tones, “Sing!”

With a cruel bayonet perilously near his rear, and a fearsome looking Irishman behind the bayonet, Algernon had scant choice. Whatever thought of remonstrance he had died away at the sight of Carney’s face.

And Algernon sang.

He sang as he never did before—or since.

If he could lift that baritone voice of his upon the stage and sing as he sang through the Eden jungles that night he would be famous in a jiffy.

Straight into the forest they marched. Algernon’s voice rolling ahead like a mellow wave. He chose something soft and sad, and Carney didn’t like it. As soon as the last note fell, he ordered:

“Something lively now! Sing, damn you, sing!”

Algernon had not the least doubt in the world now but that he was in the hands of a crazy man. He recalled the gossip about Carney being queer, and commenced to sweat. But he sang! My, how he sang!

He turned loose on a rollicking air that carried through the forest like a peal of deep toned bells.

Lights sprang up left and right between the trees, and there was a distant sound of hand clapping. Occasionally they saw a white clad figure and heard an exclamation of “Bueno!” but the natives did not come close enough to note the grim soldier marching behind the singer.

Mile after mile they traveled, passing lighted barrios by the score, and every foot of the way was strewn with the golden notes of Algernon’s voice.

Finally they came to a village even more brilliantly lighted than any of the others, where a great deal of merry-making seemed to be in progress. Laughter and song floated through the air, and the tinkling of harps and guitars gave notice of an event out of the ordinary.

The approach of Algernon’s voice, now somewhat husky as the result of eight miles of strenuous travel, brought silence over the village, but it was the silence of appreciation.

“Bravo! Americano!” yelled a hundred voices when the song was ended, and the applause was terrific.

Algernon and his escort came to a halt behind a big hedge of trees right on the edge of the village. The natives had a big fire on the little plaza in front of the inevitable chapel. They seemed to be having a very good time indeed. Carney and Algernon now commanded a full view of proceedings but were not visible to the villagers themselves.

“Sing, damn you, sing!” hissed Carney, the instant the applause lessened. He shot the gleaming bayonet toward Algernon’s stomach with a truly frightening gesture, and he was plainly excited.

Algernon, badly scared, began on a new song, and the natives listened intently. They thought they were being serenaded.

“Which one is Lonez?” muttered Carney in Algernon’s ear. “Sing it.”

Algernon probably divined Carney’s purpose at that moment. He came to a part of the song which required a repetition of a line several times, and without losing a note, Algernon substituted for the song word:

“The fat man; the fat man; the fat man,” and sang it like one possessed.

Now I have every reason to believe that Carney intended shooting Lonez from ambush. He never said so, but we have Algernon’s word for it that he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a bayonet come to shoulder level, and then remain steadily for a full minute, as though it were being carefully aimed. There was only one fat man in the party around the fire, and what would have happened to that fat man in a few seconds more is disagreeable to contemplate. But the fat man, who was Lonez, all right, suddenly arose, and started toward the hedge. It was quite evident that he intended welcoming the singer.

Carney jumped behind a tree with the admonition:

“Sing, damn you, sing!”

The natives saw the fat bandit disappear behind the hedge in smiling anticipation. They did not see him advance, hand out-stretched to Algernon, who stood transfixed, but singing soulfully. They did not see the dark form that slipped from behind a tree, and they did not see the rifle butt drop heavily on Lonez’ head. The heavy fall of the bandit chief was lost in the sudden roar of melody that sprang from Algernon’s throat at a point in the song where his voice should have been very soft.

Neither did they see the dark form bend and pick up the fat man, swinging his limp body across a brawny shoulder like a sack of oats, and they did not hear the guttural injunction:

“Sing, damn you, sing!”

And, of course, they could not see the black nosed revolver pointed at the throat of Algernon Swingingham Ambrose-Brett.

But they did note that the singing seemed to somehow be receding, and getting farther and farther away, and they sat as though entranced by this circumstance, until the voice suddenly died out altogether. Then there came crashing through the thickets couriers from other villages with word that an armed party had left the American camp and was headed that way.

En masse the villagers rushed behind the hedge. The found an American rifle, and a few drops of blood on the dry leaves.

Headlong they hurried through the forest, only to be met by still more villagers with word that the American party was advancing rapidly. So the natives dispersed to their homes, as became peaceful villagers, puzzling over the fate of the ladrone chief.

A strong moon lighted up the road along which Captain Brooks and a large squad was hastening, when the advance came in contact with a strange calvacade.

Ahead marched Algernon Swingingham Ambrose-Brett, bearing the head and shoulders of a burly native; behind came Private Carney, tugging at the feet of the same native, who gurgled and groaned in soporific unconsciousness. Upon the native’s stomach, in convenient reach of Private Carney’s hand, reposed a heavy six-shooter.

While Carney made brief, but lucid explanation, Algernon stood by in silence. Spoken to, he made wondrous noise in his throats, but no words of understanding came therefrom.

“What’s the matter with Brett?” demanded the captain, noting this condition.

“Oh, he’s a little hoarse,” said Carney. Then he made a threatening gesture toward Algernon.

“Sing, damn you, sing!”

But Algernon did not sing, and it was a long time after that before he did, too.




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