Ali Baba - Thestreamplay
Fiction Novel Short Story

Ali Baba


I saw him first on the army transport that was taking him, and me, and some fifty other civilian employees, to the Philippines. We were huddled in bad quarters on the main deck; above us, on the upper deck, with air, space, comfort, and a fine sense of superiority, the military caste was throned. We should have been hot, I think, and uncomfortable, and humiliated, had he not managed to bathe us, as it were, in the golden reflection of his dreams.

He was going to the Islands to be an officer in the Constabulary (a third lieutenant, I think). He was six feet three, as thin as he was long, and had tremendous hands, the white knuckles of which he was in the habit of cracking. He had one of those narrow foreheads that hold just one idea, but that very fixedly; a crop of rough red hair, and a whole firmament of freckles; his eyes were blue, and invisible ripples of humor seemed playing perpetually about his mouth. But really, he had little humor; he was very serious. He would stride with his long legs all over the ship, always with the air of starting off on an errand of great importance, cracking his knuckles like a gatling gun, and very silent; but once you cornered him, at the first advance he would suddenly become confidential to the last degree.

“I’m after the stuff,” he would announce, cocking his hat toward his right ear (his hat, already, was a rakish military sombrero), and looking straight at you with his ridiculously candid eyes. “The stuff—that’s what we’re all after, down there” (he spoke as if out of superior knowledge of that country where he had never been); “that’s what we’re all after—that school-teach here, that gospel-sharp over there, you, I, all of us, we’re out for the stuff. And I’m going right for it, too. No pretense about me. No ‘benevolent assimilation,’ no ‘little brown brother’ fake; cart-wheels for Willie!”

He stopped, and by the faintest of opalescent hazes coming over the pellucid blue of his eyes, you could tell that he dreamed. But soon the dream clamored for expression.

“And say,” he’d begin again, excitedly, “oh, say, maybe I haven’t a chance for it—oh, no, not at all, not at all at all—Oh, say—cracky!”

The fact that he was speaking ironically he would emphasize with a wink that convulsed the whole left side of his face, and right away, with a magnificent generosity, he would pour out his plans. They were based, or course, upon the powers of his office:—Third Lieutenant Philippine Constabulary!

“Understand what that means? How many men will I have, eh? Under my command; belonging to me? Two hundred? One hundred? Fifty? Let’s say forty, for safety. Forty Thieves, and I their Ali Baba! They’ll be some kind of niggers, I suppose—Tagalans, Visayogs, Macalabes” (he had the names absurdly mixed). “I’ll train ‘em—rule of iron, see? I’ll own them, body and soul. And I’ll teach them to shoot. I met a lieutenant of cavalry from down there. He tells me none of these people can shoot. I’ll teach mine to shoot.”

He bounded up, strode the length of the deck, cracking his knuckles. He returned, sat down abruptly, fixed his eyes upon me with

 a profound stare, and, dropping his voice, “Do you see me?” he said; “do you see me now, out there, away off in the interior, cut off from headquarters, no other white man near, there in the midst of a rich country, a planturous country full of cocoanuts, and bananas, and cane and tobacco and hemp, and shimmering cloths, peopled with a lot of little brown folk that can’t shoot, do you see me there, with my Forty Thieves, efficient, husky fellows who obey me like a God and shoot like the devil—do you see me there, eh?—Oh, say, cracky!”

Again his enthusiasm sent him soaring out of his chair; he went the length of the ship, skipping like a school-girl who has just been told a secret. He plumped back, his eyes in mine, his head wagging from side to side with an indescribable air of jolly rascality.

“I was going into the New York Police; but lordy, when I heard of this—no New York Police for me. That’s just small graft; this—this is Finance. Just imagine me in that planturous land” (where he got the adjective I don’t know, but in his mouth it was marvelously expressive; it rolled off his tongue, heavy and fat as butter) “with my Forty Thieves!”

It was thus, of course, that he acquired his name, for these confidences that he made to me he was constantly making to every one else. We encouraged him, I think. Somehow or other, there in our squalid quarters, with the weight of caste above us, he was the consolation, the poetry, the romance; he opened up horizons; he filled the head of the least imaginative of us with palms and reefs and pearls and gold and richly-woven stuffs, with visions of some sort of adorably free and licentious life (impossible, alas, to the most of us, coffined in our training and heredity), with a picture of swaggering, clashing, and splendid Graft. But sometimes, at the bottom of our beings, we felt an envy, a biting regret. It was too easy, altogether too easy, you know, the way he was going to do it, the way he was going to solve his life, acquire riches, power, happiness. A melancholy descended upon us, doomed to the hard road.

We came into Manila Bay in the nucleus of a tropical shower. The rain came down as if, in the vague smother above, some bewitched fleet of legend were furiously bailing; the vessel cowered beneath the weight. Then the sun reappeared, flashed up the deck, the rigging, the flanks of the ship. Luminous upon a luminous sea, we slid toward a city glowing white and shot with the gold of spires and domes. Ali Baba stood at the peak; the rain under which he had stood bareheaded was sliding slowly down his body like a mantle of diamonds, and he shimmered splendidly. He leaned forward as if to leap; his huge hands went out in a spreading gesture that covered the city, the island—the whole archipelago, and he said (I was modestly standing behind him): “This world is mine!” He had evidently read Monte Cristo.

A week later I met him on the Luneta, in charge of two hundred convicts from Bilibid who were tearing down ramparts. It was rather a prosaic billet; he admitted it was a “contretemps,” a delay, but nothing more. He was very splendid. His khaki, red-trimmed, followed his angular frame with incredible fidelity, a huge revolver hung on his hip, his shoes, belt, and puttees were new and yellow, and at the slightest movement he fairly crackled. In this short time he had already acquired a lot of extraordinary information about the country, and he bristled with plans. In the interior, he explained, there lived bacenderos--Spanish mestizos--on lands big as empires, rich as Solomon’s mines, with whole populations at their mercy, with silver and carriages and retinues of servants, and—he didn’t blush—beautiful daughters. “See me there, with my Thieves? Oh, what squeeze!” And then—this time he did blush, a faint rosy hue—there was the chance of a marriage. An officer, moderately good-looking, brass-buttoned and powerful,—amid these isolated people, very wealthy, but lacking society,—might aspire to much—to anything. He threw out his chest, he crackled.

Then there were the cocoanuts—millions of them—and each tree producing one dollar a year, regular as clock-work. What did I think of a tax, eh? Nice, wouldn’t it be, a little tax of ten cents a tree? No one would notice it—and yet it would be a revenue, quite a tidy revenue.

Others of his plans struck me as rather fantastic. One of these was based on crocodiles. It seemed that these saurians fairly swarmed in the rivers�of the interior (always the interior). He intended to set his Thieves (in the rare moments left them, I suppose, between their other operations) fishing for them. He assured me that there were immense profits to be made in crocodile leather. Also, in the southern islands there were dattos, fabulously rich, who owned all the pearl fisheries. It would be easy (with the aid of his Forty Thieves) to own a datto, and hence the fisheries:—all the pearls of the Orient would be his.

With malice, but gently, I brought him back to the present and to reality. But he only said, pointing to the walls which the convicts were tearing down: “These stones, these old ramparts, what do you think, isn’t there graft there? Historical, romantic, and all that. Ship ‘em off, smuggle them away, to the United States—wouldn’t people pay to see these stones?”

I left him standing there in the blazing sunshine, his head ebulliscent.

Already, though, a perverse Fate was toying with him. The” interior,” which in his mouth called up visions hazed in gold-dust, was to remain long tantalizingly closed to him. For months he was kept at his first detail. Every morning, between crashing portals, he marched out at the head of two hundred gaunt and somber men clad in black and white stripes, with black pagoda hats upon their shaven pates; all day, in the pouring sunlight, he watched them swarming over the walls like the fellahs of a Pharaoh; at night he marched them back and saw the doors crash shut upon them. Then he was transferred to headquarters for clerical duty; and for a year he bent over a desk, made out papers, wound and unwound red tape.

So that when finally he was freed, he was famished. He was sent to Samar. By the providential dispensation which enables me to tell this story, I was there already, stationed at the provincial capital. His post was fifty miles further up the coast. It was hardly the “planturous” country he had dreamed. With difficulty we were keeping a fringe of coast in moderate peace, while the whole interior of the Island seethed in the hands of the red Pulajanes; and this fringe, you understand, what with past wars, with present raids, and with reconcentration camps, was lacking in baunderos of wealth and taste, possessors of silver, carriages, and se�oritas. Ali Baba’s town was a dreary place, his principality almost a famine district, and he hadn’t been in charge ten days before the cholera stalked in and established itself as if it had struck there its Canaan.

He galloped in down the main street of my town very dashingly one morning, sprang off in front of the Provincial House, and ran briskly up the stairs. But when he was close, we noticed that he was rather drawn and white. Also, his uniform (that brilliant affair with which he had dazzled the populace when with his convicts on the Luneta) had degenerated. White threads showed here and there, the back was shiny, and the strap of one of his puttees was reinforced with twine. At the first words with him, however, I decided that the change was purely superficial. He had come for medical supplies. As they were being loaded in a carro, we stood backs to the wall, superintending. “Graft there, don’t you think?” he asked, pointing with his chin at the packages (he seemed to consider me, by virtue of my office, an authority on the subject).


 doubt,” I answered. “A man with a pain in his stomach will pay something now-a-days for a little chlorodyne.”

He flamed up instantly. “Bet your life. You understand. Imagine an old geezer, an old rich geezer, down and out with that blamed cholera; put a little of that medicine stuff under his nose—and he’d pay something for it—oh, wouldn’t he though—oh, no, not at all! Say, do you know, this country is too easy, too easy altogether; it makes a man ashamed.”

Then he rode off, splendid rogue that he was, at a funeral pace, behind a carro laden as for a nurse. After this, for two months, we saw little of him. He would make sudden flitting appearances, ride into town, make requisitions for medicines, disinfectants, rice, and disappear again. There was a sag to his spine, and there were perpendicular lines in his forehead; one day he admitted to me that the training of his “Thieves” was being seriously delayed, and in the next breath spoke vaguely and without conviction of some sort of “graft” that was “immense.” The truth was that his district, too big for ten administrators, was being severely scourged, as was shown by the rude statistics of the village presidentes. I was sent up there to report on a projected bridge.

I reached his place late in the afternoon; after an aseptic dinner of corned beef, canned corn, tinned fruit, and boiled water, we leaned on the sill of the wide window and smoked. The hut was on the plaza; this was clear on the opposite side. The sun had set, far off, very somberly, a line as of blood still streaked the horizon, and from the sea, a gray patch at the end of a long and gradual declivity of musty jungle, a multitude of great black bats were flying, making for the hills. They passed overhead, by hundreds, by thousands, incessantly and smoothly, with a gentle, velvety flapping, and a mournfulness descended from them; they were like a sable pall falling from the sky upon the Land, upon the world, about our hearts.

The unkempt little muchacho came in and touched his master on the shoulder. A woman stood at the door of the sala, an old crone, corroded with age. She looked down upon the big, twitching toes of her bare feet; she trembled, and from her wooden lips there came an unintelligible mutter, like water running out of a bottle. I caught the words “nina,” “sickness.” While she talked, Ali Baba was buckling on his puttees, his poor, decrepit puttees, the straps of which by now were all string, his belt (with the big Colt’s; it had never been fired, I believe); he seized a satchel full of bottles; “So long,” he said, and was out. From the window we saw him go down the main street on a ridiculously small pony, his feet almost dragging on the ground, his worn sombrero flapping loosely, and upon his hip the satchel, which gave him that queer air of world-innocence one notices in a collector of herbs or beetles. “Ali Baba, hell,” growled one of my companions (we were three); “looks Don Quixote to me!” To which the other replied, “We all degenerate in this country.”

We went to bed after a while. I heard him return later, stamp up the stairs; at the head an explosion of whispers met him, and I heard him go down again. Some one banged resoundingly at the portals of the cuartel next door, a fresh horse was led out—and I heard him trot off. Some hours later he came back; I heard his cot creak as he threw himself upon it, then again there were the respectful knockings, whisperings, a subdued wailing, and again I heard him go down the stairs and heard a drumming of hoofs diminish in the distance.

He was still out when I got up; after the boy had cooked my breakfast, I lounged over to the cuartel to see the Forty Thieves. They were not brilliant, the Thieves; they had no shoes, their calico uniforms were in rags, and the torn brims of their big straw hats flapped discouraged over their faces. They were all in the basement (the cuartel was a deserted convent), squatting in groups about big black pots of rice into which they were digging with an unashamed eagerness ingenuous to the point of being touching. To one side, against the wall, three weak little ponies whisked what was left of their tails over their saddle-raw

 backs. Ali Baba came in as I was looking. He stopped, legs apart, and looked too. I saw him out of the corner of my eye, and I thought that his uniform, by this time, was really passing the bounds of average decency; his hair, too, had lost its metallic luster, and his freckles seemed washed out. A sort of sullen disappointment suddenly overcame me. “So these are your Forty Thieves,” I said perversely, because I felt bad.

“Poor devils,” he remarked objectively. “No clothes, no food, no nothing. Poor devils!”

“Can they shoot?” I asked, still mean with disillusion. “The Pulajanes are raiding again.”

He shrugged his shoulders; I could see that he was really discouraged. He squatted upon his heels, examining the Thieves with a sort of detached, scientific interest; then suddenly, without the slightest grain of reason, he flashed up with his old spirit. “But I’ll teach them, Jack,” he said; “I’ll teach them; you just wait, you just see; I’ll still be King around here!”

But when, as I was leaving the town, I turned in the saddle for a last look, I saw him at the door of the cuartel, peering in upon his command, the Forty Thieves, once the base of glittering structures of Wealth, Power, and Illicit Romance. His shoulders sagged; he had the air of a man looking, in the morning, over the ruins of his house which has burned during the night, who calculates the strength of a wall left here, the value of the debris left there, and wonders whether out of the palace that was, he can erect a decent hut.

Well, he never did get them” trained”; never did the Forty Thieves achieve the heights of efficiency and cohesion and loyalty so rigidly expected of them; they never even learned to shoot, though he did manage to get out of the poor devils a fidelity that showed up rather prettily at the end.

Two weeks later the Pulajanes, the “Red Ones,” swarmed down from the hills at night.

The outskirts of the pueblo were already crackling when he awoke, and the fear-mad inhabitants were flowing beneath his window like a black rivet capped with white froth. He sprang out of that window, ran to the cuartel, got his Thieves together, and charged for the Casa Popular—the Municipal House.

It was rather beautiful, that. Imagine these poor, slovenly disreputables, badly armed, untrained, filled, no doubt, with a distrust of themselves, with a knowledge of their insufficiency, of the hopelessness of any cause which they might champion—and in spite of this following their “Capitan” and he, the “Capitan,” aware with absolute certitude of their worthlessness, using them anyway, at this extremity relying upon them out of a burst of loyalty, as it were, of exasperated loyalty to the dreams he had dreamed!

So Ali Baba and his Thieves charged for the Casa Popular. Why the Casa Popular? Because there, in a safe, were the town funds, which he was supposed to guard—such are the contradictions in the human bosom. These funds, we found out later, consisted of exactly ten silver pesos. They charged. With six men he stamped up the stairs (the building was already on fire), while the rest of the Thieves, down below, shot away blindly into burning huts; he got the safe and sent it crashing out of a window. Then, altogether, they rolled it out into the center of the plaza (the whole pueblo was burning about them now), and there, in the open, they formed about it and made a stand.

The thing lasted longer than might have been expected—longer than in all mercy it should have lasted. These poor Forty Thieves couldn’t shoot much; but the other fellows shot badly, too. So, for many hours, statuesquely black in the glow, Ali Baba and his Forty Thieves remained grouped about the safe, guarding the Municipal Funds (ten pesos). Against a background of burning huts, they saw about them in swarms the frothing Pulajanes dance their weird and menacing dance. These had on white camisas with great crosses smeared with blood over their breasts; their left arms were bound with bamboo sticks, and upon these stiffened left arms they clashed their bolos in a whetting movement. At intervals, with pulsing hysteria, they surged forward—and the Forty Thieves shot away as best they knew, then clubbed rifles, then bit and scratched—and extraordinary as it may seem, aided by Ali Baba’s big revolver, they three times swept the safe clean of invaders. By then, though, there weren’t Forty Thieves, only a handful, and the Pulajanes, in a refinement of cruelty, stopped charging. From a great circle about the doomed little band, they began a desultory firing. They were poor shots, their arms were bad, their ammunition old, and it was slow work; but little by little the remnant of the Forty Thieves became quiet. One would say “Dios,” and suddenly take hold of his abdomen and turn upon Ali Baba a profound stare; another would say nothing, but simply roll over and spill his limited brains at Ali Saba’s feet. It took a long time.

When the cavalry arrived and scattered the devils, the Forty Thieves were intertwined in a silent mass about the safe; and Ali Baba lay upon the safe, his big body sprawled as if at the last he had sought to cover as much of it as possible, his face to the moon, which had risen full some hours before, and now poured down upon him a very white light.

We stood there, a few of us, a long time. The horsemen were crashing down the jungle and killing here and there, the town people were returning from their hiding places. They congregated about us, and when finally we noticed them, they formed a solid wall about the group of dead men. An old crone, the one whom we had seen that night at his house, broke through the ring. She knelt at his head, passed her hands slowly, in a gesture of extraordinary gentleness and respect, over his closed

eyes—then stopped and put her withered lips to his cold forehead—and suddenly, as if this were a signal, from all sides there rose a wailing of women.

We drove them away. He lay there upon the safe like a general upon a caisson. Torches were brought. They roared; sometimes they prevailed, or a glow from the embers of the town passed like an undulation, and the light upon him was like blood; sometimes it was the moon, and then the light was very white.

Thus he ended, his plans unfulfilled. He was a being of genial conceptions, but from the first he had been given no chance. A malign Fate had toyed with him; Duty, which he had so lightly disdained, had in revenge caught him in her cogs and ground him. He had meant to steal an empire; he died guarding ten pesos. Perhaps, after all, was he but a dreamer?