Jack London.

Adventure online

. (page 1 of 17)
Online LibraryJack LondonAdventure → online text (page 1 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Transcribed from the 1911 Thomas Nelson and Sons edition by David Price,
email [email protected]


"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."



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 _beche-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

"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 fat-head 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

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 trade-
gin. 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 mid-afternoon, 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

"One fella schooner long way little bit," he announced. "One fella

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

"Maybe _Jessie_, maybe other fella schooner," came the faltering

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 house-boy 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

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'd_ {1} 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 grass-thatched 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

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, heavy-featured and defiant, his arms bound with cocoanut
sennit, the dry blood still on his body from the struggle with his

"Me savvee you good fella, Seelee," Sheldon said, as the chief gulped
down a quarter-tumbler 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

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 safety-pins,
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
Marys {3} 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

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.

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryJack LondonAdventure → online text (page 1 of 17)