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Ch. 3: The Wandering Jew

(1891)


'If you go once round the world in an easterly direction, you gain one
day,' said the men of science to John Hay. In after years John Hay went
east, west, north, and south, transacted business, made love, and begat
a family, as have done many men, and the scientific information above
recorded lay neglected in the deeps of his mind with a thousand other
matters of equal importance.

When a rich relative died, he found himself wealthy beyond any
reasonable expectation that he had entertained in his previous career,
which had been a chequered and evil one. Indeed, long before the legacy
came to him, there existed in the brain of John Hay a little cloud-a
momentary obscuration of thought that came and went almost before he
could realize that there was any solution of continuity. So do the bats
flit round the eaves of a house to show that the darkness is falling. He
entered upon great possessions, in money, land, and houses; but behind
his delight stood a ghost that cried out that his enjoyment of these
things should not be of long duration. It was the ghost of the rich
relative, who had been permitted to return to earth to torture his
nephew into the grave. Wherefore, under the spur of this constant
reminder, John Hay, always preserving the air of heavy business-like
stolidity that hid the shadow on his mind, turned investments, houses,
and lands into sovereigns---rich, round, red, English sovereigns, each
one worth twenty shillings. Lands may become valueless, and houses fly
heavenward on the wings of red flame, but till the Day of Judgment a
sovereign will always be a sovereign--that is to say, a king of
pleasures.

Possessed of his sovereigns, John Hay would fain have spent them one by
one on such coarse amusements as his soul loved; but he was haunted by
the instant fear of Death; for the ghost of his relative stood in the
hall of his house close to the hat-rack, shouting up the stairway that
life was short, that there was no hope of increase of days, and that the
undertakers were already roughing out his nephew's coffin. John Hay was
generally alone in the house, and even when he had company, his friends
could not hear the clamorous uncle. The shadow inside his brain grew
larger and blacker. His fear of death was driving John Hay mad.

Then, from the deeps of his mind, where he had stowed away all his
discarded information, rose to light the scientific fact of the Easterly
journey. On the next occasion that his uncle shouted up the stairway
urging him to make haste and live, a shriller voice cried, 'Who goes
round the world once easterly, gains one day.'

His growing diffidence and distrust of mankind made John Hay unwilling
to give this precious message of hope to his friends. They might take it
up and analyse it. He was sure it was true, but it would pain him
acutely were rough hands to examine it too closely. To him alone of all
the toiling generations of mankind had the secret of immortality been
vouchsafed. It would be impious--against all the designs of the Creator--
to set mankind hurrying eastward. Besides, this would crowd the
steamers inconveniently, and John Hay wished of all things to be alone.
If he could get round the world in two months--some one of whom he had
read, he could not remember the name, had covered the passage in eighty
days--he would gain a clear day; and by steadily continuing to do it for
thirty years, would gain one hundred and eighty days, or nearly the half
of a year. It would not be much, but in course of time, as civilisation
advanced, and the Euphrates Valley Railway was opened, he could improve
the pace.

Armed with many sovereigns, John Hay, in the thirty-fifth year of his
age, set forth on his travels, two voices bearing him company from Dover
as he sailed to Calais. Fortune favoured him. The Euphrates Valley
Railway was newly opened, and he was the first man who took ticket
direct from Calais to Calcutta--thirteen days in the train. Thirteen
days in the train are not good for the nerves; but he covered the world
and returned to Calais from America in twelve days over the two months,
and started afresh with four and twenty hours of precious time to his
credit. Three years passed, and John Hay religiously went round this
earth seeking for more time wherein to enjoy the remainder of his
sovereigns. He became known on many lines as the man who wanted to go
on; when people asked him what he was and what he did, he answered--

'I'm the person who intends to live, and I am trying to do it now.'

His days were divided between watching the white wake spinning behind
the stern of the swiftest steamers, or the brown earth flashing past the
windows of the fastest trains; and he noted in a pocket-book every
minute that he had railed or screwed out of remorseless eternity.

'This is better than praying for long life,' quoth John Hay as he turned
his face eastward for his twentieth trip. The years had done more for
him than he dared to hope.

By the extension of the Brahmaputra Valley line to meet the newly-
developed China Midland, the Calais railway ticket held good via Karachi
and Calcutta to Hongkong. The round trip could be managed in a fraction
over forty-seven days, and, filled with fatal exultation, John Hay told
the secret of his longevity to his only friend, the house-keeper of his
rooms in London. He spoke and passed; but the woman was one of resource,
and immediately took counsel with the lawyers who had first informed
John Hay of his golden legacy. Very many sovereigns still remained, and
another Hay longed to spend them on things more sensible than railway
tickets and steamer accommodation.

The chase was long, for when a man is journeying literally for the dear
life, he does not tarry upon the road. Round the world Hay swept anew,
and overtook the wearied Doctor, who had been sent out to look for him,
in Madras. It was there that he found the reward of his toil and the
assurance of a blessed immortality. In half an hour the Doctor, watching
always the parched lips, the shaking hands, and the eye that turned
eternally to the east, won John Hay to rest in a little house close to
the Madras surf. All that Hay need do was to hang by ropes from the roof
of the room and let the round earth swing free beneath him. This was
better than steamer or train, for he gained a day in a day, and was thus
the equal of the undying sun. The other Hay would pay his expenses
throughout eternity.

It is true that we cannot yet take tickets from Calais to Hongkong,
though that will come about in fifteen years; but men say that if you
wander along the southern coast of India you shall find in a neatly
whitewashed little bungalow, sitting in a chair swung from the roof,
over a sheet of thin steel which he knows so well destroys the
attraction of the earth, an old and worn man who for ever faces the
rising sun, a stop-watch in his hand, racing against eternity. He cannot
drink, he does not smoke, and his living expenses amount to perhaps
twenty-five rupees a month, but he is John Hay, the Immortal. Without,
he hears the thunder of the wheeling world with which he is careful to
explain he has no connection whatever; but if you say that it is only
the noise of the surf, he will cry bitterly, for the shadow on his brain
is passing away as the brain ceases to work, and he doubts sometimes
whether the doctor spoke the truth.

'Why does not the sun always remain over my head?' asks John Hay.

Rudyard Kipling