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© David De Angelis 2017 – all rights reserved
CHAPTER 1. SOMETHING TO BE DONE
CHAPTER 2. SOMETHING IS DONE
CHAPTER 3. THE JESSIE
CHAPTER 4. JOAN LACKLAND
CHAPTER 5. SHE WOULD A PLANTER BE
CHAPTER 6. TEMPEST
CHAPTER 7. A HARD-BITTEN GANG
CHAPTER 8. LOCAL COLOUR
CHAPTER 9. AS BETWEEN A MAN AND A WOMAN
CHAPTER 10. A MESSAGE FROM BOUCHER
CHAPTER 11. THE PORT ADAMS CROWD
CHAPTER 12. MR. MORGAN AND MR. RAFF
CHAPTER 13. THE LOGIC OF YOUTH
CHAPTER 14. THE MARTHA
CHAPTER 15. A DISCOURSE ON MANNERS
CHAPTER 16. THE GIRL WHO HAD NOT GROWN UP
CHAPTER 17. “YOUR” MISS LACKLAND
CHAPTER 18. MAKING THE BOOKS COME TRUE
CHAPTER 19. THE LOST TOY
CHAPTER 20. A MAN-TALK
CHAPTER 21. CONTRABAND
CHAPTER 22. GOGOOMY FINISHES ALONG KWAQUE ALTOGETHER
CHAPTER 23. A MESSAGE FROM THE BUSH
CHAPTER 24. IN THE BUSH
CHAPTER 25. THE HEAD-HUNTERS
CHAPTER 26. BURNING DAYLIGHT
CHAPTER 27. MODERN DUELLING
CHAPTER 28. CAPITULATION
“We are those fools who could not rest In the dull earth we left behind, But burned with passion for the West, And drank strange frenzy from its wind.
The world where wise men live at ease
Fades from our unregretful eyes,
And blind across uncharted seas
We stagger on our enterprise.”
“THE SHIP OF FOOLS.”
He was a very sick white man. He rode pick-a-back on a woolly-headed, black-skinned savage, the lobes of whose ears had been pierced and stretched until one had torn out, while the other carried a circular block of carved wood three inches in diameter. The torn ear had been pierced again, but this time not so ambitiously, for the hole accommodated no more than a short clay pipe. The man-horse was greasy and dirty, and naked save for an exceedingly narrow and dirty loin-cloth; but the white man clung to him closely and desperately. At times, from weakness, his head drooped and rested on the woolly pate. At other times he lifted his head and stared with swimming eyes at the cocoanut palms that reeled and swung in the shimmering heat. He was clad in a thin undershirt and a strip of cotton cloth, that wrapped about his waist and descended to his knees. On his head was a battered Stetson, known to the trade as a Baden-
Powell. About his middle was strapped a belt, which carried a large-calibred automatic pistol and several spare clips, loaded and ready for quick work.
The rear was brought up by a black boy of fourteen or fifteen, who carried medicine bottles, a pail of hot water, and various other hospital appurtenances. They passed out of the compound through a small wicker gate, and went on under the blazing sun, winding about among new-planted cocoanuts that threw no shade. There was not a breath of wind, and the superheated, stagnant air was heavy with pestilence. From the direction they were going arose a wild clamour, as of lost souls wailing and of men in torment. A long, low shed showed ahead, grass-walled and grass-thatched, and it was from here that the noise proceeded. There were shrieks and screams, some unmistakably of grief, others unmistakably of unendurable pain. As the white man drew closer he could hear a low and continuous moaning and groaning. He shuddered at the thought of entering, and for a moment was quite certain that he was going to faint. For that most dreaded of Solomon Island scourges, dysentery, had struck Berande plantation, and he was all alone to cope with it. Also, he was afflicted himself.
By stooping close, still on man-back, he managed to pass through the low doorway. He took a small bottle from his follower, and sniffed strong ammonia to clear his senses for the ordeal. Then he shouted, “Shut up!” and the clamour stilled. A raised platform of forest slabs, six feet wide, with a slight pitch, extended the full length of the shed. Alongside of it was a yard-wide run-way. Stretched on the platform, side by side and crowded close, lay a score of blacks. That they were low in the order of human life was apparent at a glance. They were man-eaters. Their faces were asymmetrical, bestial; their bodies were ugly and ape-like. They wore nose-rings of clam-shell and turtle-shell, and from the ends of their noses which were also pierced, projected horns of beads strung on stiff wire. Their ears were pierced and distended to accommodate wooden plugs and sticks, pipes, and all manner of barbaric ornaments. Their faces and bodies were tattooed or scarred in hideous designs. In their sickness they wore no clothing, not even loin-cloths, though they retained their shell armlets, their bead necklaces, and their leather belts, between which and the skin were thrust naked knives. The bodies of many were covered with horrible sores. Swarms of flies rose and settled, or flew back and forth in clouds.
The white man went down the line, dosing each man with medicine. To some he gave chlorodyne. He was forced to concentrate with all his will in order to remember which of them could stand ipecacuanha, and which of them were constitutionally unable to retain that powerful drug. One who lay dead he ordered to be carried out. He spoke in the sharp, peremptory manner of a man who would take no nonsense, and the well men who obeyed his orders scowled malignantly. One muttered deep in his chest as he took the corpse by the feet. The white man exploded in speech and action. It cost him a painful effort, but his arm shot out, landing a back-hand blow on the black’s mouth.
“What name you, Angara?” he shouted. “What for talk ’long you, eh? I knock seven bells out of you, too much, quick!”
With the automatic swiftness of a wild animal the black gathered himself to spring. The anger of a wild animal was in his eyes; but he saw the white man’s hand dropping to the pistol in his belt. The spring was never made. The tensed body relaxed, and the black, stooping over the corpse, helped carry it out. This time there was no muttering.
“Swine!” the white man gritted out through his teeth at the whole breed of Solomon Islanders.
He was very sick, this white man, as sick as the black men who lay helpless about him, and whom he attended. He never knew, each time he entered the festering shambles, whether or not he would be able to complete the round. But he did know in large degree of certainty that, if he ever fainted there in the midst of the blacks, those who were able would be at his throat like ravening wolves.
Part way down the line a man was dying. He gave orders for his removal as soon as he had breathed his last. A black stuck his head inside the shed door, saying,—
“Four fella sick too much.”
Fresh cases, still able to walk, they clustered about the spokesman. The white man singled out the weakest, and put him in the place just vacated by the corpse. Also, he indicated the next weakest, telling him to wait for a place until the next man died. Then, ordering one of the well men to take a squad from the field-force and build a lean-to addition to the hospital, he continued along the run-way, administering medicine and cracking jokes in bêche-de-mer English to cheer the sufferers. Now and again, from the far end, a weird wail was raised. When he arrived there he found the noise was emitted by a boy who was not sick. The white man’s wrath was immediate.
“What name you sing out alla time?” he demanded.
“Him fella my brother belong me,” was the answer. “Him fella die too much.”
“You sing out, him fella brother belong you die too much,” the white man went on in threatening tones. “I cross too much along you. What name you sing out, eh? You fathead make um brother belong you die dose up too much. You fella finish sing out, savvee? You fella no finish sing out I make finish damn quick.”
He threatened the wailer with his fist, and the black cowered down, glaring at him with sullen eyes.
“Sing out no good little bit,” the white man went on, more gently. “You no sing out. You chase um fella fly. Too much strong fella fly. You catch water, washee brother belong you; washee plenty too much, bime bye brother belong you all right. Jump!” he shouted fiercely at the end, his will penetrating the low intelligence of the black with dynamic force that made him jump to the task of brushing the loathsome swarms of flies away.
Again he rode out into the reeking heat. He clutched the black’s neck tightly, and drew a long breath; but the dead air seemed to shrivel his lungs, and he dropped his head and dozed till the house was reached. Every effort of will was torture, yet he was called upon continually to make efforts of will. He gave the black he had ridden a nip of tradegin. Viaburi, the house-boy, brought him corrosive sublimate and water, and he took a thorough antiseptic wash. He dosed himself with chlorodyne, took his own pulse, smoked a thermometer, and lay back on the couch with a suppressed groan. It was midafternoon, and he had completed his third round that day. He called the house-boy.
“Take um big fella look along Jessie,” he commanded.
The boy carried the long telescope out on the veranda, and searched the sea.
“One fella schooner long way little bit,” he announced. “One fella Jessie.”
The white man gave a little gasp of delight.
“You make um Jessie, five sticks tobacco along you,” he said.
There was silence for a time, during which he waited with eager impatience.
“Maybe Jessie, maybe other fella schooner,” came the faltering admission.
The man wormed to the edge of the couch, and slipped off to the floor on his knees. By means of a chair he drew himself to his feet. Still clinging to the chair, supporting most of his weight on it, he shoved it to the door and out upon the veranda. The sweat from the exertion streamed down his face and showed through the undershirt across his shoulders. He managed to get into the chair, where he panted in a state of collapse. In a few minutes he roused himself. The boy held the end of the telescope against one of the veranda scantlings, while the man gazed through it at the sea. At last he picked up the white sails of the schooner and studied them.
“No Jessie,” he said very quietly. “That’s the Malakula.”
He changed his seat for a steamer reclining-chair. Three hundred feet away the sea broke in a small surf upon the beach. To the left he could see the white line of breakers that marked the bar of the Balesuna River, and, beyond, the rugged outline of Savo Island. Directly before him, across the twelve-mile channel, lay Florida Island; and, farther to the right, dim in the distance, he could make out portions of Malaita—the savage island, the abode of murder, and robbery, and man-eating—the place from which his own two hundred plantation hands had been recruited. Between him and the beach was the cane-grass fence of the compound. The gate was ajar, and he sent the houseboy to close it. Within the fence grew a number of lofty cocoanut palms. On either side the path that led to the gate stood two tall flagstaffs. They were reared on artificial mounds of earth that were ten feet high. The base of each staff was surrounded by short posts, painted white and connected by heavy chains. The staffs themselves were like ships’ masts, with topmasts spliced on in true nautical fashion, with shrouds, ratlines, gaffs, and flag-halyards. From the gaff of one, two gay flags hung limply, one a checkerboard of blue and white squares, the other a white pennant centred with a red disc. It was the international code signal of distress.
On the far corner of the compound fence a hawk brooded. The man watched it, and knew that it was sick. He wondered idly if it felt as bad as he felt, and was feebly amused at the thought of kinship that somehow penetrated his fancy. He roused himself to order the great bell to be rung as a signal for the plantation hands to cease work and go to their barracks. Then he mounted his man-horse and made the last round of the day.
In the hospital were two new cases. To these he gave castor-oil. He congratulated himself. It had been an easy day. Only three had died. He inspected the copra-drying that had been going on, and went through the barracks to see if there were any sick lying hidden and defying his rule of segregation. Returned to the house, he received the reports of the boss-boys and gave instructions for next day’s work. The boat’s crew boss also he had in, to give assurance, as was the custom nightly, that the whale-boats were hauled up and padlocked. This was a most necessary precaution, for the blacks were in a funk, and a whale-boat left lying on the beach in the evening meant a loss of twenty blacks by morning. Since the blacks were worth thirty dollars apiece, or less, according to how much of their time had been worked out, Berande plantation could ill afford the loss. Besides, whale-boats were not cheap in the Solomons; and, also, the deaths were daily reducing the working capital. Seven blacks had fled into the bush the week before, and four had dragged themselves back, helpless from fever, with the report that two more had been killed and kai-kai’d1 by the hospitable bushmen. The seventh man was still at large, and was said to be working along the coast on the lookout to steal a canoe and get away to his own island.
Viaburi brought two lighted lanterns to the white man for inspection. He glanced at them and saw that they were burning brightly with clear, broad flames, and nodded his head. One was hoisted up to the gaff of the flagstaff, and the other was placed on the wide veranda. They were the leading lights to the Berande anchorage, and every night in the year they were so inspected and hung out.
He rolled back on his couch with a sigh of relief. The day’s work was done. A rifle lay on the couch beside him. His revolver was within reach of his hand. An hour passed, during which he did not move. He lay in a state of half-slumber, half-coma. He became suddenly alert. A creak on the back veranda was the cause. The room was L-shaped; the corner in which stood his couch was dim, but the hanging lamp in the main part of the room, over the billiard table and just around the corner, so that it did not shine on him, was burning brightly. Likewise the verandas were well lighted. He waited without movement. The creaks were repeated, and he knew several men lurked outside.
“What name?” he cried sharply.
The house, raised a dozen feet above the ground, shook on its pile foundations to the rush of retreating footsteps.
“They’re getting bold,” he muttered. “Something will have to be done.”
The full moon rose over Malaita and shone down on Berande. Nothing stirred in the windless air. From the hospital still proceeded the moaning of the sick. In the grassthatched barracks nearly two hundred woolly-headed man-eaters slept off the weariness of the day’s toil, though several lifted their heads to listen to the curses of one who cursed the white man who never slept. On the four verandas of the house the lanterns burned. Inside, between rifle and revolver, the man himself moaned and tossed in intervals of troubled sleep.
In the morning David Sheldon decided that he was worse. That he was appreciably weaker there was no doubt, and there were other symptoms that were unfavourable. He began his rounds looking for trouble. He wanted trouble. In full health, the strained situation would have been serious enough; but as it was, himself growing helpless, something had to be done. The blacks were getting more sullen and defiant, and the appearance of the men the previous night on his veranda—one of the gravest of offences on Berande—was ominous. Sooner or later they would get him, if he did not get them first, if he did not once again sear on their dark souls the flaming mastery of the white man.
He returned to the house disappointed. No opportunity had presented itself of making an example of insolence or insubordination—such as had occurred on every other day since the sickness smote Berande. The fact that none had offended was in itself suspicious. They were growing crafty. He regretted that he had not waited the night before until the prowlers had entered. Then he might have shot one or two and given the rest a new lesson, writ in red, for them to con. It was one man against two hundred, and he was horribly afraid of his sickness overpowering him and leaving him at their mercy. He saw visions of the blacks taking charge of the plantation, looting the store, burning the buildings, and escaping to Malaita. Also, one gruesome vision he caught of his own head, sun-dried and smoke-cured, ornamenting the canoe house of a cannibal village. Either the Jessie would have to arrive, or he would have to do something.
The bell had hardly rung, sending the labourers into the fields, when Sheldon had a visitor. He had had the couch taken out on the veranda, and he was lying on it when the canoes paddled in and hauled out on the beach. Forty men, armed with spears, bows and arrows, and war-clubs, gathered outside the gate of the compound, but only one entered. They knew the law of Berande, as every native knew the law of every white man’s compound in all the thousand miles of the far-flung Solomons. The one man who came up the path, Sheldon recognized as Seelee, the chief of Balesuna village. The savage did not mount the steps, but stood beneath and talked to the white lord above.
Seelee was more intelligent than the average of his kind, but his intelligence only emphasized the lowness of that kind. His eyes, close together and small, advertised cruelty and craftiness. A gee-string and a cartridge-belt were all the clothes he wore. The carved pearl-shell ornament that hung from nose to chin and impeded speech was purely ornamental, as were the holes in his ears mere utilities for carrying pipe and tobacco. His broken-fanged teeth were stained black by betel-nut, the juice of which he spat upon the ground.
As he talked or listened, he made grimaces like a monkey. He said yes by dropping his eyelids and thrusting his chin forward. He spoke with childish arrogance strangely at variance with the subservient position he occupied beneath the veranda. He, with his many followers, was lord and master of Balesuna village. But the white man, without followers, was lord and master of Berande—ay, and on occasion, single-handed, had made himself lord and master of Balesuna village as well. Seelee did not like to remember that episode. It had occurred in the course of learning the nature of white men and of learning to abominate them. He had once been guilty of sheltering three runaways from Berande. They had given him all they possessed in return for the shelter and for promised aid in getting away to Malaita. This had given him a glimpse of a profitable future, in which his village would serve as the one depot on the underground railway between Berande and Malaita.
Unfortunately, he was ignorant of the ways of white men. This particular white man educated him by arriving at his grass house in the gray of dawn. In the first moment he had felt amused. He was so perfectly safe in the midst of his village. But the next moment, and before he could cry out, a pair of handcuffs on the white man’s knuckles had landed on his mouth, knocking the cry of alarm back down his throat. Also, the white man’s other fist had caught him under the ear and left him without further interest in what was happening. When he came to, he found himself in the white man’s whale-boat on the way to Berande. At Berande he had been treated as one of no consequence, with handcuffs on hands and feet, to say nothing of chains. When his tribe had returned the three runaways, he was given his freedom. And finally, the terrible white man had fined him and Balesuna village ten thousand cocoanuts. After that he had sheltered no more runaway Malaita men. Instead, he had gone into the business of catching them. It was safer. Besides, he was paid one case of tobacco per head. But if he ever got a chance at that white man, if he ever caught him sick or stood at his back when he stumbled and fell on a bush-trail—well, there would be a head that would fetch a price in Malaita.
Sheldon was pleased with what Seelee told him. The seventh man of the last batch of runaways had been caught and was even then at the gate. He was brought in, heavyfeatured and defiant, his arms bound with cocoanut sennit, the dry blood still on his body from the struggle with his captors.
“Me savvee you good fella, Seelee,” Sheldon said, as the chief gulped down a quartertumbler of raw trade-gin. “Fella boy belong me you catch short time little bit. This fella boy strong fella too much. I give you fella one case tobacco—my word, one case tobacco. Then, you good fella along me, I give you three fathom calico, one fella knife big fella too much.”
The tobacco and trade goods were brought from the storeroom by two house-boys and turned over to the chief of Balesuna village, who accepted the additional reward with a non-committal grunt and went away down the path to his canoes. Under Sheldon’s directions the house-boys handcuffed the prisoner, by hands and feet, around one of the pile supports of the house. At eleven o’clock, when the labourers came in from the field, Sheldon had them assembled in the compound before the veranda. Every able man was there, including those who were helping about the hospital. Even the women and the several pickaninnies of the plantation were lined up with the rest, two deep—a horde of naked savages a trifle under two hundred strong. In addition to their ornaments of bead and shell and bone, their pierced ears and nostrils were burdened with safetypins, wire nails, metal hair-pins, rusty iron handles of cooking utensils, and the patent keys for opening corned beef tins. Some wore penknives clasped on their kinky locks for safety. On the chest of one a china door-knob was suspended, on the chest of another the brass wheel of an alarm clock.
Facing them, clinging to the railing of the veranda for support, stood the sick white man. Any one of them could have knocked him over with the blow of a little finger. Despite his firearms, the gang could have rushed him and delivered that blow, when his head and the plantation would have been theirs. Hatred and murder and lust for revenge they possessed to overflowing. But one thing they lacked, the thing that he possessed, the flame of mastery that would not quench, that burned fiercely as ever in the disease-wasted body, and that was ever ready to flare forth and scorch and singe them with its ire.
“Narada! Billy!” Sheldon called sharply.
Two men slunk unwillingly forward and waited.
Sheldon gave the keys of the handcuffs to a house-boy, who went under the house and loosed the prisoner.
“You fella Narada, you fella Billy, take um this fella boy along tree and make fast, hands high up,” was Sheldon’s command.
While this was being done, slowly, amidst mutterings and restlessness on the part of the onlookers, one of the house-boys fetched a heavy-handled, heavy-lashed whip. Sheldon began a speech.
“This fella Arunga, me cross along him too much. I no steal this fella Arunga. I no gammon. I say, ‘All right, you come along me Berande, work three fella year.’ He say, ‘All right, me come along you work three fella year.’ He come. He catch plenty good fella kai-kai,2 plenty good fella money. What name he run away? Me too much cross along him. I knock what name outa him fella. I pay Seelee, big fella master along Balesuna, one case tobacco catch that fella Arunga. All right. Arunga pay that fella case tobacco. Six pounds that fella Arunga pay. Alle same one year more that fella Arunga work Berande. All right. Now he catch ten fella whip three times. You fella Billy catch whip, give that fella Arunga ten fella three times. All fella boys look see, all fella Marys3 look see; bime bye, they like run away they think strong fella too much, no run away. Billy, strong fella too much ten fella three times.”
The house-boy extended the whip to him, but Billy did not take it. Sheldon waited quietly. The eyes of all the cannibals were fixed upon him in doubt and fear and eagerness. It was the moment of test, whereby the lone white man was to live or be lost.
“Ten fella three times, Billy,” Sheldon said encouragingly, though there was a certain metallic rasp in his voice.
Billy scowled, looked up and looked down, but did not move.
Sheldon’s voice exploded like a pistol shot. The savage started physically. Grins overspread the grotesque features of the audience, and there was a sound of tittering.
“S’pose you like too much lash that fella Arunga, you take him fella Tulagi,” Billy said. “One fella government agent make plenty lash. That um fella law. Me savvee um fella law.”
It was the law, and Sheldon knew it. But he wanted to live this day and the next day and not to die waiting for the law to operate the next week or the week after. “Too much talk along you!” he cried angrily. “What name eh? What name?”
“Me savvee law,” the savage repeated stubbornly.
Another man stepped forward in almost a sprightly way and glanced insolently up. Sheldon was selecting the worst characters for the lesson.
“You fella Astoa, you fella Narada, tie up that fella Billy alongside other fella same fella way.”
“Strong fella tie,” he cautioned them.
“You fella Astoa take that fella whip. Plenty strong big fella too much ten fella three times. Savvee!”
“No,” Astoa grunted.
Sheldon picked up the rifle that had leaned against the rail, and cocked it.
“I know you, Astoa,” he said calmly. “You work along Queensland six years.”
“Me fella missionary,” the black interrupted with deliberate insolence.
“Queensland you stop jail one fella year. White fella master damn fool no hang you. You too much bad fella. Queensland you stop jail six months two fella time. Two fella time you steal. All right, you missionary. You savvee one fella prayer?”
“Yes, me savvee prayer,” was the reply.
“All right, then you pray now, short time little bit. You say one fella prayer damn quick, then me kill you.”
Sheldon held the rifle on him and waited. The black glanced around at his fellows, but none moved to aid him. They were intent upon the coming spectacle, staring fascinated at the white man with death in his hands who stood alone on the great veranda. Sheldon has won, and he knew it. Astoa changed his weight irresolutely from one foot to the other. He looked at the white man, and saw his eyes gleaming level along the sights.
“Astoa,” Sheldon said, seizing the psychological moment, “I count three fella time. Then
I shoot you fella dead, good-bye, all finish you.”
And Sheldon knew that when he had counted three he would drop him in his tracks. The black knew it, too. That was why Sheldon did not have to do it, for when he had counted one, Astoa reached out his hand and took the whip.
And right well Astoa laid on the whip, angered at his fellows for not supporting him and venting his anger with every stroke.
From the veranda Sheldon egged him on to strike with strength, till the two triced savages screamed and howled while the blood oozed down their backs. The lesson was being well written in red.
When the last of the gang, including the two howling culprits, had passed out through the compound gate, Sheldon sank down half-fainting on his couch.
“You’re a sick man,” he groaned. “A sick man.”
“But you can sleep at ease to-night,” he added, half an hour later.
Two days passed, and Sheldon felt that he could not grow any weaker and live, much less make his four daily rounds of the hospital. The deaths were averaging four a day, and there were more new cases than recoveries. The blacks were in a funk. Each one, when taken sick, seemed to make every effort to die. Once down on their backs they lacked the grit to make a struggle. They believed they were going to die, and they did their best to vindicate that belief. Even those that were well were sure that it was only a mater of days when the sickness would catch them and carry them off. And yet, believing this with absolute conviction, they somehow lacked the nerve to rush the frail wraith of a man with the white skin and escape from the charnel house by the whaleboats. They chose the lingering death they were sure awaited them, rather than the immediate death they were very sure would pounce upon them if they went up against the master. That he never slept, they knew. That he could not be conjured to death, they were equally sure—they had tried it. And even the sickness that was sweeping them off could not kill him.
With the whipping in the compound, discipline had improved. They cringed under the iron hand of the white man. They gave their scowls or malignant looks with averted faces or when his back was turned. They saved their mutterings for the barracks at night, where he could not hear. And there were no more runaways and no more nightprowlers on the veranda.
Dawn of the third day after the whipping brought the Jessie’s white sails in sight. Eight miles away, it was not till two in the afternoon that the light air-fans enabled her to drop anchor a quarter of a mile off the shore. The sight of her gave Sheldon fresh courage, and the tedious hours of waiting did not irk him. He gave his orders to the boss-boys and made his regular trips to the hospital. Nothing mattered now. His troubles were at an end. He could lie down and take care of himself and proceed to get well. The Jessie had arrived. His partner was on board, vigorous and hearty from six weeks’ recruiting on Malaita. He could take charge now, and all would be well with Berande.
Sheldon lay in the steamer-chair and watched the Jessie’s whale-boat pull in for the beach. He wondered why only three sweeps were pulling, and he wondered still more when, beached, there was so much delay in getting out of the boat. Then he understood. The three blacks who had been pulling started up the beach with a stretcher on their shoulders. A white man, whom he recognized as the Jessie’s captain, walked in front and opened the gate, then dropped behind to close it. Sheldon knew that it was Hughie Drummond who lay in the stretcher, and a mist came before his eyes. He felt an overwhelming desire to die. The disappointment was too great. In his own state of terrible weakness he felt that it was impossible to go on with his task of holding Berande plantation tight-gripped in his fist. Then the will of him flamed up again, and he directed the blacks to lay the stretcher beside him on the floor. Hughie Drummond, whom he had last seen in health, was an emaciated skeleton. His closed eyes were deep-sunken. The shrivelled lips had fallen away from the teeth, and the cheek-bones seemed bursting through the skin. Sheldon sent a house-boy for his thermometer and glanced questioningly at the captain.
“Black-water fever,” the captain said. “He’s been like this for six days, unconscious. And we’ve got dysentery on board. What’s the matter with you?”
“I’m burying four a day,” Sheldon answered, as he bent over from the steamer-chair and inserted the thermometer under his partner’s tongue.
Captain Oleson swore blasphemously, and sent a house-boy to bring whisky and soda. Sheldon glanced at the thermometer. “One hundred and seven,” he said. “Poor Hughie.”
Captain Oleson offered him some whisky.
“Couldn’t think of it—perforation, you know,” Sheldon said.
He sent for a boss-boy and ordered a grave to be dug, also some of the packing-cases to be knocked together into a coffin. The blacks did not get coffins. They were buried as they died, being carted on a sheet of galvanized iron, in their nakedness, from the hospital to the hole in the ground. Having given the orders, Sheldon lay back in his chair with closed eyes.
“It’s ben fair hell, sir,” Captain Oleson began, then broke off to help himself to more whisky. “It’s ben fair hell, Mr. Sheldon, I tell you. Contrary winds and calms. We’ve ben driftin’ all about the shop for ten days. There’s ten thousand sharks following us for the tucker we’ve ben throwin’ over to them. They was snappin’ at the oars when we started to come ashore. I wisht to God a nor’wester’d come along an’ blow the Solomons clean to hell.”
“We got it from the water—water from Owga creek. Filled my casks with it. How was we to know? I’ve filled there before an’ it was all right. We had sixty recruits-full up; and my crew of fifteen. We’ve ben buryin’ them day an’ night. The beggars won’t live, damn them! They die out of spite. Only three of my crew left on its legs. Five more down. Seven dead. Oh, hell! What’s the good of talkin’?”
“How many recruits left?” Sheldon asked.
“Lost half. Thirty left. Twenty down, and ten tottering around.”
“That means another addition to the hospital. We’ve got to get them ashore somehow.—Viaburi! Hey, you, Viaburi, ring big fella bell strong fella too much.”
The hands, called in from the fields at that unwonted hour, were split into detachments. Some were sent into the woods to cut timber for house-beams, others to cutting cane-grass for thatching, and forty of them lifted a whale-boat above their heads and carried it down to the sea. Sheldon had gritted his teeth, pulled his collapsing soul together, and taken Berande plantation into his fist once more.
“Have you seen the barometer?” Captain Oleson asked, pausing at the bottom of the steps on his way to oversee the disembarkation of the sick.
“No,” Sheldon answered. “Is it down?”
“It’s going down.”
“Then you’d better sleep aboard to-night,” was Sheldon’s judgment. “Never mind the funeral. I’ll see to poor Hughie.”
“A nigger was kicking the bucket when I dropped anchor.”
The captain made the statement as a simple fact, but obviously waited for a suggestion. The other felt a sudden wave of irritation rush through him.
“Dump him over,” he cried. “Great God, man! don’t you think I’ve got enough graves ashore?”
“I just wanted to know, that was all,” the captain answered, in no wise offended.
Sheldon regretted his childishness.
“Oh, Captain Oleson,” he called. “If you can see your way to it, come ashore to-morrow and lend me a hand. If you can’t, send the mate.”
“Right O. I’ll come myself. Mr. Johnson’s dead, sir. I forgot to tell you—three days ago.”
Sheldon watched the Jessie’s captain go down the path, with waving arms and loud curses calling upon God to sink the Solomons. Next, Sheldon noted the Jessie rolling lazily on the glassy swell, and beyond, in the north-west, high over Florida Island, an alpine chain of dark-massed clouds. Then he turned to his partner, calling for boys to carry him into the house. But Hughie Drummond had reached the end. His breathing was imperceptible. By mere touch, Sheldon could ascertain that the dying man’s temperature was going down. It must have been going down when the thermometer registered one hundred and seven. He had burned out. Sheldon knelt beside him, the house-boys grouped around, their white singlets and loin-cloths peculiarly at variance with their dark skins and savage countenances, their huge ear-plugs and carved and glistening nose-rings. Sheldon tottered to his feet at last, and half-fell into the steamerchair. Oppressive as the heat had been, it was now even more oppressive. It was difficult to breathe. He panted for air. The faces and naked arms of the house-boys were beaded with sweat.
“Marster,” one of them ventured, “big fella wind he come, strong fella too much.”
Sheldon nodded his head but did not look. Much as he had loved Hughie Drummond, his death, and the funeral it entailed, seemed an intolerable burden to add to what he was already sinking under. He had a feeling—nay, it was a certitude—that all he had to do was to shut his eyes and let go, and that he would die, sink into immensity of rest. He knew it; it was very simple. All he had to do was close his eyes and let go; for he had reached the stage where he lived by will alone. His weary body seemed torn by the oncoming pangs of dissolution. He was a fool to hang on. He had died a score of deaths already, and what was the use of prolonging it to two-score deaths before he really died. Not only was he not afraid to die, but he desired to die. His weary flesh and weary spirit desired it, and why should the flame of him not go utterly out?
But his mind that could will life or death, still pulsed on. He saw the two whale-boats land on the beach, and the sick, on stretchers or pick-a-back, groaning and wailing, go by in lugubrious procession. He saw the wind making on the clouded horizon, and thought of the sick in the hospital. Here was something waiting his hand to be done, and it was not in his nature to lie down and sleep, or die, when any task remained undone.
The boss-boys were called and given their orders to rope down the hospital with its two additions. He remembered the spare anchor-chain, new and black-painted, that hung under the house suspended from the floor-beams, and ordered it to be used on the hospital as well. Other boys brought the coffin, a grotesque patchwork of packing-cases, and under his directions they laid Hughie Drummond in it. Half a dozen boys carried it down the beach, while he rode on the back of another, his arms around the black’s neck, one hand clutching a prayer-book.
While he read the service, the blacks gazed apprehensively at the dark line on the water, above which rolled and tumbled the racing clouds. The first breath of the wind, faint and silken, tonic with life, fanned through his dry-baked body as he finished reading. Then came the second breath of the wind, an angry gust, as the shovels worked rapidly, filling in the sand. So heavy was the gust that Sheldon, still on his feet, seized hold of his man-horse to escape being blown away. The Jessie was blotted out, and a strange ominous sound arose as multitudinous wavelets struck foaming on the beach. It was like the bubbling of some colossal cauldron. From all about could be heard the dull thudding of falling cocoanuts. The tall, delicate-trunked trees twisted and snapped about like whip-lashes. The air seemed filled with their flying leaves, any one of which, stem-on could brain a man. Then came the rain, a deluge, a straight, horizontal sheet that poured along like a river, defying gravitation. The black, with Sheldon mounted on him, plunged ahead into the thick of it, stooping far forward and low to the ground to avoid being toppled over backward.
“‘He’s sleeping out and far to-night,’” Sheldon quoted, as he thought of the dead man in the sand and the rainwater trickling down upon the cold clay.
So they fought their way back up the beach. The other blacks caught hold of the manhorse and pulled and tugged. There were among them those whose fondest desire was to drag the rider in the sand and spring upon him and mash him into repulsive nothingness. But the automatic pistol in his belt with its rattling, quick-dealing death, and the automatic, death-defying spirit in the man himself, made them refrain and buckle down to the task of hauling him to safety through the storm.
Wet through and exhausted, he was nevertheless surprised at the ease with which he got into a change of clothing. Though he was fearfully weak, he found himself actually feeling better. The disease had spent itself, and the mend had begun.
“Now if I don’t get the fever,” he said aloud, and at the same moment resolved to go to taking quinine as soon as he was strong enough to dare.
He crawled out on the veranda. The rain had ceased, but the wind, which had dwindled to a half-gale, was increasing. A big sea had sprung up, and the mile-long breakers, curling up to the over-fall two hundred yards from shore, were crashing on the beach. The Jessie