Thursday, May 23, 2013

His Unconquerable Enemy

This is one of my very favorite books, a collection of cruel tales by the author W.C. Morrow, infamous for his wickedly sardonic sense of humor. Well known in his own day, Morrow has fallen into undeserved obscurity.

Like his friend and protege Ambrose Bierce, Morrow was a soldier in the civil war. After the war, he went to San Francisco and got a job writing for a newspaper called The Wasp. There he met Bierce, who was already working at the paper. The two men became friends and could often be found drinking together after hours in the local saloons. When asked about his friend, Bierce once said "I have a story by W.C. Morrow in my pocket and I am afraid to read it". His book The Ape, The Idiot and Other People is a collection of such stories and perhaps the most memorable is this one, His Unconquerable Enemy.

His Unconquerable Enemy

by W.C Morrow

 I was summoned from Calcutta to the heart of India to perform a
difficult surgical operation on one of the women of a great rajah's
household. I found the rajah a man of a noble character, but possessed,
as I afterwards discovered, of a sense of cruelty purely Oriental and
in contrast to the indolence of his disposition. He was so grateful for
the success that attended my mission that he urged me to remain a guest
at the palace as long as it might please me to stay, and I thankfully
accepted the invitation.

 One of the male servants early attracted my notice for his marvellous
capacity of malice. His name was Neranya, and I am certain that there
must have been a large proportion of Malay blood in his veins, for,
unlike the Indians (from whom he differed also in complexion), he was
extremely alert, active, nervous, and sensitive. A redeeming
circumstance was his love for his master. Once his violent temper led
him to the commission of an atrocious crime,--the fatal stabbing of a
dwarf. In punishment for this the rajah ordered that Neranya's right
arm (the offending one) be severed from his body. The sentence was
executed in a bungling fashion by a stupid fellow armed with an axe,
and I, being a surgeon, was compelled, in order to save Neranya's life,
to perform an amputation of the stump, leaving not a vestige of the
limb remaining.

 After this he developed an augmented fiendishness. His love for the
rajah was changed to hate, and in his mad anger he flung discretion to
the winds. Driven once to frenzy by the rajah's scornful treatment, he
sprang upon the rajah with a knife, but, fortunately, was seized and
disarmed. To his unspeakable dismay the rajah sentenced him for this
offence to suffer amputation of the remaining arm. It was done as in
the former instance. This had the effect of putting a temporary curb on
Neranya's spirit, or, rather, of changing the outward manifestations of
his diabolism. Being armless, he was at first largely at the mercy of
those who ministered to his needs,--a duty which I undertook to see was
properly discharged, for I felt an interest in this strangely distorted
nature. His sense of helplessness, combined with a damnable scheme for
revenge which he had secretly formed, caused Neranya to change his
fierce, impetuous, and unruly conduct into a smooth, quiet, insinuating
bearing, which he carried so artfully as to deceive those with whom he
was brought in contact, including the rajah himself.

 Neranya, being exceedingly quick, intelligent, and dexterous, and
having an unconquerable will, turned his attention to the cultivating
of an enlarged usefulness of his legs, feet, and toes, with so
excellent effect that in time he was able to perform wonderful feats
with those members. Thus his capability, especially for destructive
mischief, was considerably restored.

 One morning the rajah's only son, a young man of an uncommonly amiable
and noble disposition, was found dead in bed. His murder was a most
atrocious one, his body being mutilated in a shocking manner, but in my
eyes the most significant of all the mutilations was the entire removal
and disappearance of the young prince's arms.

 The death of the young man nearly brought the rajah to the grave. It
was not, therefore, until I had nursed him back to health that I began
a systematic inquiry into the murder. I said nothing of my own
discoveries and conclusions until after the rajah and his officers had
failed and my work had been done; then I submitted to him a written
report, making a close analysis of all the circumstances and closing by
charging the crime to Neranya. The rajah, convinced by my proof and
argument, at once ordered Neranya to be put to death, this to be
accomplished slowly and with frightful tortures. The sentence was so
cruel and revolting that it filled me with horror, and I implored that
the wretch be shot. Finally, through a sense of gratitude to me, the
rajah relaxed. When Neranya was charged with the crime he denied it, of
course, but, seeing that the rajah was convinced, he threw aside all
restraint, and, dancing, laughing, and shrieking in the most horrible
manner, confessed his guilt, gloated over it, and reviled the rajah to
his teeth,--this, knowing that some fearful death awaited him.

 The rajah decided upon the details of the matter that night, and in the
morning he informed me of his decision. It was that Neranya's life
should be spared, but that both of his legs should be broken with
hammers, and that then I should amputate the limbs at the trunk!
Appended to this horrible sentence was a provision that the maimed
wretch should be kept and tortured at regular intervals by such means
as afterwards might be devised.

 Sickened to the heart by the awful duty set out for me, I nevertheless
performed it with success, and I care to say nothing more about that
part of the tragedy. Neranya escaped death very narrowly and was a long
time in recovering his wonted vitality. During all these weeks the
rajah neither saw him nor made inquiries concerning him, but when, as
in duty bound, I made official report that the man had recovered his
strength, the rajah's eyes brightened, and he emerged with deadly
activity from the stupor into which he so long had been plunged.

 The rajah's palace was a noble structure, but it is necessary here to
describe only the grand hall. It was an immense chamber, with a floor
of polished, inlaid stone and a lofty, arched ceiling. A soft light
stole into it through stained glass set in the roof and in high windows
on one side. In the middle of the room was a rich fountain, which threw
up a tall, slender column of water, with smaller and shorter jets
grouped around it. Across one end of the hall, half-way to the ceiling,
was a balcony, which communicated with the upper story of a wing, and
from which a flight of stone stairs descended to the floor of the hall.
During the hot summers this room was delightfully cool; it was the
rajah's favorite lounging-place, and when the nights were hot he had
his cot taken thither, and there he slept.

This hall was chosen for Neranya's permanent prison; here was he to
stay so long as he might live, with never a glimpse of the shining
world or the glorious heavens. To one of his nervous, discontented
nature such confinement was worse than death. At the rajah's order
there was constructed for him a small pen of open iron-work, circular,
and about four feet in diameter, elevated on four slender iron posts,
ten feet above the floor, and placed between the balcony and the
fountain. Such was Neranya's prison. The pen was about four feet in
depth, and the pen-top was left open for the convenience of the
servants whose duty it should be to care for him. These precautions for
his safe confinement were taken at my suggestion, for, although the man
was now deprived of all four of his limbs, I still feared that he might
develop some extraordinary, unheard-of power for mischief. It was
provided that the attendants should reach his cage by means of a
movable ladder.

 All these arrangements having been made and Neranya hoisted into his
cage, the rajah emerged upon the balcony to see him for the first time
since the last amputation. Neranya had been lying panting and helpless
on the floor of his cage, but when his quick ear caught the sound of
the rajah's footfall he squirmed about until he had brought the back of
his head against the railing, elevating his eyes above his chest, and
enabling him to peer through the open-work of the cage. Thus the two
deadly enemies faced each other. The rajah's stern face paled at sight
of the hideous, shapeless thing which met his gaze; but he soon
recovered, and the old hard, cruel, sinister look returned. Neranya's
black hair and beard had grown long, and they added to the natural
ferocity of his aspect. His eyes blazed upon the rajah with a terrible
light, his lips parted, and he gasped for breath; his face was ashen
with rage and despair, and his thin, distended nostrils quivered.

 The rajah folded his arms and gazed down from the balcony upon the
frightful wreck that he had made. Oh, the dreadful pathos of that
picture; the inhumanity of it; the deep and dismal tragedy of it! Who
might look into the wild, despairing heart of the prisoner and see and
understand the frightful turmoil there; the surging, choking passion;
unbridled but impotent ferocity; frantic thirst for a vengeance that
should be deeper than hell! Neranya gazed, his shapeless body heaving,
his eyes aflame; and then, in a strong, clear voice, which rang
throughout the great hall, with rapid speech he hurled at the rajah the
most insulting defiance, the most awful curses. He cursed the womb that
had conceived him, the food that should nourish him, the wealth that
had brought him power; cursed him in the name of Buddha and all the
wise men; cursed by the sun, the moon, and the stars; by the
continents, mountains, oceans, and rivers; by all things living; cursed
his head, his heart, his entrails; cursed in a whirlwind of
unmentionable words; heaped unimaginable insults and contumely upon
him; called him a knave, a beast, a fool, a liar, an infamous and
unspeakable coward.

 The rajah heard it all calmly, without the movement of a muscle,
without the slightest change of countenance; and when the poor wretch
had exhausted his strength and fallen helpless and silent to the floor,
the rajah, with a grim, cold smile, turned and strode away.

 The days passed. The rajah, not deterred by Neranya's curses often
heaped upon him, spent even more time than formerly in the great hall,
and slept there oftener at night; and finally Neranya wearied of
cursing and defying him, and fell into a sullen silence. The man was a
study for me, and I observed every change in his fleeting moods.
Generally his condition was that of miserable despair, which he
attempted bravely to conceal. Even the boon of suicide had been denied
him, for when he would wriggle into an erect position the rail of his
pen was a foot above his head, so that he could not clamber over and
break his skull on the stone floor beneath; and when he had tried to
starve himself the attendants forced food down his throat; so that he
abandoned such attempts. At times his eyes would blaze and his breath
would come in gasps, for imaginary vengeance was working within him;
but steadily he became quieter and more tractable, and was pleasant and
responsive when I would converse with him. Whatever might have been the
tortures which the rajah had decided on, none as yet had been ordered;
and although Neranya knew that they were in contemplation, he never
referred to them or complained of his lot.

 The awful climax of this situation was reached one night, and even
after this lapse of years I cannot approach its description without a

 It was a hot night, and the rajah had gone to sleep in the great hall,
lying on a high cot placed on the main floor just underneath the edge
of the balcony. I had been unable to sleep in my own apartment, and so
I had stolen into the great hall through the heavily curtained entrance
at the end farthest from the balcony. As I entered I heard a peculiar,
soft sound above the patter of the fountain. Neranya's cage was partly
concealed from my view by the spraying water, but I suspected that the
unusual sound came from him. Stealing a little to one side, and
crouching against the dark hangings of the wall, I could see him in the
faint light which dimly illuminated the hall, and then I discovered
that my surmise was correct--Neranya was quietly at work. Curious to
learn more, and knowing that only mischief could have been inspiring
him, I sank into a thick robe on the floor and watched him.

 To my great astonishment Neranya was tearing off with his teeth the bag
which served as his outer garment. He did it cautiously, casting sharp
glances frequently at the rajah, who, sleeping soundly on his cot
below, breathed heavily. After starting a strip with his teeth,
Neranya, by the same means, would attach it to the railing of his cage
and then wriggle away, much after the manner of a caterpillar's
crawling, and this would cause the strip to be torn out the full length
of his garment. He repeated this operation with incredible patience and
skill until his entire garment had been torn into strips. Two or three
of these he tied end to end with his teeth, lips, and tongue,
tightening the knots by placing one end of the strip under his body and
drawing the other taut with his teeth. In this way he made a line
several feet long, one end of which he made fast to the rail with his
mouth. It then began to dawn upon me that he was going to make an
insane attempt--impossible of achievement without hands, feet, arms, or
legs--to escape from his cage! For what purpose? The rajah was asleep
in the hall--ah! I caught my breath. Oh, the desperate, insane thirst
for revenge which could have unhinged so clear and firm a mind! Even
though he should accomplish the impossible feat of climbing over the
railing of his cage that he might fall to the floor below (for how
could he slide down the rope?), he would be in all probability killed
or stunned; and even if he should escape these dangers it would be
impossible for him to clamber upon the cot without rousing the rajah,
and impossible even though the rajah were dead! Amazed at the man's
daring, and convinced that his sufferings and brooding had destroyed
his reason, nevertheless I watched him with breathless interest.

 With other strips tied together he made a short swing across one side
of his cage. He caught the long line in his teeth at a point not far
from the rail; then, wriggling with great effort to an upright
position, his back braced against the rail, he put his chin over the
swing and worked toward one end. He tightened the grasp of his chin on
the swing, and with tremendous exertion, working the lower end of his
spine against the railing, he began gradually to ascend the side of his
cage. The labor was so great that he was compelled to pause at
intervals, and his breathing was hard and painful; and even while thus
resting he was in a position of terrible strain, and his pushing
against the swing caused it to press hard against his windpipe and
nearly strangle him.

 After amazing effort he had elevated the lower end of his body until it
protruded above the railing, the top of which was now across the lower
end of his abdomen. Gradually he worked his body over, going backward,
until there was sufficient excess of weight on the outer side of the
rail; and then, with a quick lurch, he raised his head and shoulders
and swung into a horizontal position on top of the rail. Of course, he
would have fallen to the floor below had it not been for the line which
he held in his teeth. With so great nicety had he estimated the
distance between his mouth and the point where the rope was fastened to
the rail, that the line tightened and checked him just as he reached
the horizontal position on the rail. If one had told me beforehand that
such a feat as I had just seen this man accomplish was possible, I
should have thought him a fool.

 Neranya was now balanced on his stomach across the top of the rail, and
he eased his position by bending his spine and hanging down on either
side as much as possible. Having rested thus for some minutes, he began
cautiously to slide off backward, slowly paying out the line through
his teeth, finding almost a fatal difficulty in passing the knots. Now,
it is quite possible that the line would have escaped altogether from
his teeth laterally when he would slightly relax his hold to let it
slip, had it not been for a very ingenious plan to which he had
resorted. This consisted in his having made a turn of the line around
his neck before he attacked the swing, thus securing a threefold
control of the line,--one by his teeth, another by friction against his
neck, and a third by his ability to compress it between his cheek and
shoulder. It was quite evident now that the minutest details of a most
elaborate plan had been carefully worked out by him before beginning
the task, and that possibly weeks of difficult theoretical study had
been consumed in the mental preparation. As I observed him I was
reminded of certain hitherto unaccountable things which he had been
doing for some weeks past--going through certain hitherto inexplicable
motions, undoubtedly for the purpose of training his muscles for the
immeasurably arduous labor which he was now performing.

 A stupendous and seemingly impossible part of his task had been
accomplished. Could he reach the floor in safety? Gradually he worked
himself backward over the rail, in imminent danger of falling; but his
nerve never wavered, and I could see a wonderful light in his eyes.
With something of a lurch, his body fell against the outer side of the
railing, to which he was hanging by his chin, the line still held
firmly in his teeth. Slowly he slipped his chin from the rail, and then
hung suspended by the line in his teeth. By almost imperceptible
degrees, with infinite caution, he descended the line, and, finally,
his unwieldy body rolled upon the floor, safe and unhurt!
 What miracle would this superhuman monster next accomplish? I was quick
and strong, and was ready and able to intercept any dangerous act; but
not until danger appeared would I interfere with this extraordinary

 I must confess to astonishment upon having observed that Neranya,
instead of proceeding directly toward the sleeping rajah, took quite
another direction. Then it was only escape, after all, that the wretch
contemplated, and not the murder of the rajah. But how could he escape?
The only possible way to reach the outer air without great risk was by
ascending the stairs to the balcony and leaving by the corridor which
opened upon it, and thus fall into the hands of some British soldiers
quartered thereabout, who might conceive the idea of hiding him; but
surely it was impossible for Neranya to ascend that long flight of
stairs! Nevertheless, he made directly for them, his method of
progression this: He lay upon his back, with the lower end of his body
toward the stairs; then bowed his spine upward, thus drawing his head
and shoulders a little forward; straightened, and then pushed the lower
end of his body forward a space equal to that through which he had
drawn his head; repeating this again and again, each time, while
bending his spine, preventing his head from slipping by pressing it
against the floor. His progress was laborious and slow, but sensible;
and, finally, he arrived at the foot of the stairs.

 It was manifest that his insane purpose was to ascend them. The desire
for freedom must have been strong within him! Wriggling to an upright
position against the newel-post, he looked up at the great height which
he had to climb and sighed; but there was no dimming of the light in
his eyes. How could he accomplish the impossible task?

 His solution of the problem was very simple, though daring and perilous
as all the rest. While leaning against the newel-post he let himself
fall diagonally upon the bottom step, where he lay partly hanging over,
but safe, on his side. Turning upon his back, he wriggled forward along
the step to the rail and raised himself to an upright position against
it as he had against the newel-post, fell as before, and landed on the
second step. In this manner, with inconceivable labor, he accomplished
the ascent of the entire flight of stairs.

 It being apparent to me that the rajah was not the object of Neranya's
movements, the anxiety which I had felt on that account was now
entirely dissipated. The things which already he had accomplished were
entirely beyond the nimblest imagination. The sympathy which I had
always felt for the wretched man was now greatly quickened; and as
infinitesimally small as I knew his chances for escape to be, I
nevertheless hoped that he would succeed. Any assistance from me,
however, was out of the question; and it never should be known that I
had witnessed the escape.

 Neranya was now upon the balcony, and I could dimly see him wriggling
along toward the door which led out upon the balcony. Finally he
stopped and wriggled to an upright position against the rail, which had
wide openings between the balusters. His back was toward me, but he
slowly turned and faced me and the hall. At that great distance I could
not distinguish his features, but the slowness with which he had
worked, even before he had fully accomplished the ascent of the stairs,
was evidence all too eloquent of his extreme exhaustion. Nothing but a
most desperate resolution could have sustained him thus far, but he had
drawn upon the last remnant of his strength. He looked around the hall
with a sweeping glance, and then down upon the rajah, who was sleeping
immediately beneath him, over twenty feet below. He looked long and
earnestly, sinking lower, and lower, and lower upon the rail. Suddenly,
to my inconceivable astonishment and dismay, he toppled through and
shot downward from his lofty height! I held my breath, expecting to see
him crushed upon the stone floor beneath; but instead of that he fell
full upon the rajah's breast, driving him through the cot to the floor.
I sprang forward with a loud cry for help, and was instantly at the
scene of the catastrophe. With indescribable horror I saw that
Neranya's teeth were buried in the rajah's throat! I tore the wretch
away, but the blood was pouring from the rajah's arteries, his chest
was crushed in, and he was gasping in the agony of death. People came
running in, terrified. I turned to Neranya. He lay upon his back, his
face hideously smeared with blood. Murder, and not escape, had been his
intentions from the beginning; and he had employed the only method by
which there was ever a possibility of accomplishing it. I knelt beside
him, and saw that he too was dying; his back had been broken by the
fall. He smiled sweetly into my face, and a triumphant look of
accomplished revenge sat upon his face even in death.


The Ape, The Idiot & Other People by W.C. Morrow , J.B. Lippincott Company, 1897.