At first sight you would take “Mac” for a mere roustabout, like most who go a’soldiering. But before long you’d begin to wonder where he got his rich and fluent vocabulary and his warehouse of information. Then you’d run across the fact that he had once finished a course in a middle-western university—and forgotten it. The schools had left little of their blighting mark upon him, yet “pump” “Mac” on any subject from rapid-fire guns to grand opera and you’d get at least a reasonable answer. Though you wouldn’t guess the knowledge was there unless you did pump for it, for “Mac” was not of the type of those who overwork the first person pronoun, not because of foolish diffidence but merely because it rarely occurred to him as a subject of conversation. Seventeen years in the marine corps—you were sure he was “jollying” when he first said it—had taken “Mac” to most places where warships go, from Pekin and “the Islands” to Cape Town and Buenos Ayres, and given him not merely an acquaintance with the world but—what is far more of an acquisition—the gift of getting acquainted in almost any stratum of the world in the briefest possible space of time.
“Mac” spoke not only his English and Italian but a fluent “Islands” Spanish; he knew enough French to talk even to Martiniques, and he could moreover make two distinct sets of noises that were understood by Chinese and Japanese respectively. He was a man just reckless enough in all things to be generous and alive, yet never foolishly wasteful either of himself or his meager substance. “Mac” first rose to fame in the census department by appearing one afternoon at Empire police station dragging a “bush” native by the scruff of the neck with one hand, and carrying in the other the machete with which the bushman had tried to prove he was a Colombian and not subject to questioning by the agents of other powers.
Renson—well, Renson was in some ways “Mac’s” exact antithesis and in some his twin brother. He was one of those youths who believe in spending prodigally and in all possible haste what little nature has given them. Wherefore, though he was younger than “Mac” appeared to be, he already looked older than “Mac” was. In Zone parlance “he had already laid a good share of the road to Hell behind him.” Yet such a cheery, likable chap was Renson, so large-hearted and unassuming—that was just why you felt an itching to seize him by the collar of his olive-drab shirt and shake him till his teeth rattled for tossing himself so wantonly to the infernal bow-wows.
Renson’s “bush” troubles were legion. Not only were there the seducing brown “Spigoty” women out in the wilderness to help him on his descending trail, but when and wherever fire-water of whatever nationality or degree of voltage showed its neck—and it is to be found even in “the bush”—there was Renson sure to give battle—and fall. “It’s no use bein’ a man unless you’re a hell of a man,” was Renson’s “influenced” philosophy. How different this was from his native good sense when the influence was turned off was demonstrated when he returned from cautiously reconnoitering a cottage far back in the wilds one dark night and reported as his reason for postponing the enumerating: “If you’d butt in on one o’ them Martinique booze festivals they’d crown you with a bottle.”