Copyright
Jack London.

A son of the sun online

. (page 1 of 14)
Online LibraryJack LondonA son of the sun → online text (page 1 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by David Widger





A SON OF THE SUN

BY JACK LONDON


1912



CONTENTS

I. A Son of the Sun

II. The Proud Goat of Aloysius Pankburn

III. The Devils of Fuatino

IV. The Jokers of New Gibbon

V. A Little Account With Swithin Hall

VI. A Goboto Night

VII. The Feathers of the Sun

VIII. The Peabls of Parlay




A SON OF THE SUN




Chapter One - A SON OF THE SUN




I

The _Willi-Waw_ lay in the passage between the shore-reef and the
outer-reef. From the latter came the low murmur of a lazy surf, but the
sheltered stretch of water, not more than a hundred yards across to the
white beach of pounded coral sand, was of glass-like smoothness. Narrow
as was the passage, and anchored as she was in the shoalest place that
gave room to swing, the _Willi-Waw's_ chain rode up-and-down a clean
hundred feet. Its course could be traced over the bottom of living
coral. Like some monstrous snake, the rusty chain's slack wandered
over the ocean floor, crossing and recrossing itself several times and
fetching up finally at the idle anchor. Big rock-cod, dun and mottled,
played warily in and out of the coral. Other fish, grotesque of form and
colour, were brazenly indifferent, even when a big fish-shark drifted
sluggishly along and sent the rock-cod scuttling for their favourite
crevices.

On deck, for'ard, a dozen blacks pottered clumsily at scraping the teak
rail. They were as inexpert at their work as so many monkeys. In fact
they looked very much like monkeys of some enlarged and prehistoric
type. Their eyes had in them the querulous plaintiveness of the monkey,
their faces were even less symmetrical than the monkey's, and, hairless
of body, they were far more ungarmented than any monkey, for clothes
they had none. Decorated they were as no monkey ever was. In holes in
their ears they carried short clay pipes, rings of turtle shell, huge
plugs of wood, rusty wire nails, and empty rifle cartridges. The calibre
of a Winchester rifle was the smallest hole an ear bore; some of the
largest holes were inches in diameter, and any single ear averaged from
three to half a dozen holes. Spikes and bodkins of polished bone or
petrified shell were thrust through their noses. On the chest of one
hung a white doorknob, on the chest of another the handle of a china
cup, on the chest of a third the brass cogwheel of an alarm clock. They
chattered in queer, falsetto voices, and, combined, did no more work
than a single white sailor.

Aft, under an awning, were two white men. Each was clad in a six-penny
undershirt and wrapped about the loins with a strip of cloth. Belted
about the middle of each was a revolver and tobacco pouch. The sweat
stood out on their skin in myriads of globules. Here and there the
globules coalesced in tiny streams that dripped to the heated deck and
almost immediately evaporated. The lean, dark-eyed man wiped his fingers
wet with a stinging stream from his forehead and flung it from him with
a weary curse. Wearily, and without hope, he gazed seaward across the
outer-reef, and at the tops of the palms along the beach.

"Eight o'clock, an' hell don't get hot till noon," he complained. "Wisht
to God for a breeze. Ain't we never goin' to get away?"

The other man, a slender German of five and twenty, with the massive
forehead of a scholar and the tumble-home chin of a degenerate, did not
trouble to reply. He was busy emptying powdered quinine into a cigarette
paper. Rolling what was approximately fifty grains of the drug into a
tight wad, he tossed it into his mouth and gulped it down without the
aid of water.

"Wisht I had some whiskey," the first man panted, after a fifteen-minute
interval of silence.

Another equal period elapsed ere the German enounced, relevant of
nothing:

"I'm rotten with fever. I'm going to quit you, Griffiths, when we get to
Sydney. No more tropics for me. I ought to known better when I signed on
with you."

"You ain't been much of a mate," Griffiths replied, too hot himself to
speak heatedly. "When the beach at Guvutu heard I'd shipped you, they
all laughed. 'What? Jacobsen?' they said. 'You can't hide a square
face of trade gin or sulphuric acid that he won't smell out!' You've
certainly lived up to your reputation. I ain't had a drink for a
fortnight, what of your snoopin' my supply."

"If the fever was as rotten in you as me, you'd understand," the mate
whimpered.

"I ain't kickin'," Griffiths answered. "I only wisht God'd send me a
drink, or a breeze of wind, or something. I'm ripe for my next chill
to-morrow."

The mate proffered him the quinine. Rolling a fifty-grain dose, he
popped the wad into his mouth and swallowed it dry.

"God! God!" he moaned. "I dream of a land somewheres where they ain't no
quinine. Damned stuff of hell! I've scoffed tons of it in my time."

Again he quested seaward for signs of wind. The usual trade-wind clouds
were absent, and the sun, still low in its climb to meridian, turned all
the sky to heated brass. One seemed to see as well as feel this heat,
and Griffiths sought vain relief by gazing shoreward. The white beach
was a searing ache to his eyeballs. The palm trees, absolutely still,
outlined flatly against the unrefreshing green of the packed jungle,
seemed so much cardboard scenery. The little black boys, playing
naked in the dazzle of sand and sun, were an affront and a hurt to the
sun-sick man. He felt a sort of relief when one, running, tripped and
fell on all-fours in the tepid sea-water.

An exclamation from the blacks for'ard sent both men glancing seaward.
Around the near point of land, a quarter of a mile away and skirting the
reef, a long black canoe paddled into sight.

"Gooma boys from the next bight," was the mate's verdict.

One of the blacks came aft, treading the hot deck with the unconcern of
one whose bare feet felt no heat. This, too, was a hurt to Griffiths,
and he closed his eyes. But the next moment they were open wide.

"White fella marster stop along Gooma boy," the black said.

Both men were on their feet and gazing at the canoe. Aft could be seen
the unmistakable sombrero of a white man. Quick alarm showed itself on
the face of the mate.

"It's Grief," he said.

Griffiths satisfied himself by a long look, then ripped out a wrathful
oath.

"What's he doing up here?" he demanded of the mate, of the aching sea
and sky, of the merciless blaze of sun, and of the whole superheated and
implacable universe with which his fate was entangled.

The mate began to chuckle.

"I told you you couldn't get away with it," he said.

But Griffiths was not listening.

"With all his money, coming around like a rent collector," he chanted
his outrage, almost in an ecstasy of anger. "He's loaded with money,
he's stuffed with money, he's busting with money. I know for a fact he
sold his Yringa plantations for three hundred thousand pounds. Bell
told me so himself last time we were drunk at Guvutu. Worth millions and
millions, and Shylocking me for what he wouldn't light his pipe with."
He whirled on the mate. "Of course you told me so. Go on and say it, and
keep on saying it. Now just what was it you did tell me so?"

"I told you you didn't know him, if you thought you could clear the
Solomons without paying him. That man Grief is a devil, but he's
straight. I know. I told you he'd throw a thousand quid away for the fun
of it, and for sixpence fight like a shark for a rusty tin, I tell you I
know. Didn't he give his _Balakula_ to the Queensland Mission when they
lost their _Evening Star_ on San Cristobal? - and the _Balakula_ worth
three thousand pounds if she was worth a penny? And didn't he beat up
Strothers till he lay abed a fortnight, all because of a difference of
two pound ten in the account, and because Strothers got fresh and tried
to make the gouge go through?"

"God strike me blind!" Griffiths cried in im-potency of rage.

The mate went on with his exposition.

"I tell you only a straight man can buck a straight man like him, and
the man's never hit the Solomons that could do it. Men like you and me
can't buck him. We're too rotten, too rotten all the way through. You've
got plenty more than twelve hundred quid below. Pay him, and get it over
with."

But Griffiths gritted his teeth and drew his thin lips tightly across
them.

"I'll buck him," he muttered - more to himself and the brazen ball of sun
than to the mate. He turned and half started to go below, then turned
back again. "Look here, Jacob-sen. He won't be here for quarter of an
hour. Are you with me? Will you stand by me?"

"Of course I'll stand by you. I've drunk all your whiskey, haven't I?
What are you going to do?"

"I'm not going to kill him if I can help it. But I'm not going to pay.
Take that flat."

Jacobsen shrugged his shoulders in calm acquiescence to fate, and
Griffiths stepped to the companionway and went below.




II

Jacobsen watched the canoe across the low reef as it came abreast and
passed on to the entrance of the passage. Griffiths, with ink-marks on
right thumb and forefinger, returned on deck Fifteen minutes later the
canoe came alongside. The man with the sombrero stood up.

"Hello, Griffiths!" he said. "Hello, Jacobsen!" With his hand on the
rail he turned to his dusky crew. "You fella boy stop along canoe
altogether."

As he swung over the rail and stepped on deck a hint of catlike
litheness showed in the apparently heavy body. Like the other two, he
was scantily clad. The cheap undershirt and white loin-cloth did not
serve to hide the well put up body. Heavy muscled he was, but he was
not lumped and hummocked by muscles. They were softly rounded, and, when
they did move, slid softly and silkily under the smooth, tanned skin.
Ardent suns had likewise tanned his face till it was swarthy as a
Spaniard's. The yellow mustache appeared incongruous in the midst of
such swarthiness, while the clear blue of the eyes produced a feeling of
shock on the beholder. It was difficult to realize that the skin of this
man had once been fair.

"Where did you blow in from?" Griffiths asked, as they shook hands. "I
thought you were over in the Santa Cruz."

"I was," the newcomer answered. "But we made a quick passage. The
_Wonder's_ just around in the bight at Gooma, waiting for wind. Some
of the bushmen reported a ketch here, and I just dropped around to see.
Well, how goes it?"

"Nothing much. Copra sheds mostly empty, and not half a dozen tons of
ivory nuts. The women all got rotten with fever and quit, and the men
can't chase them back into the swamps. They're a sick crowd. I'd ask you
to have a drink, but the mate finished off my last bottle. I wisht to
God for a breeze of wind."

Grief, glancing with keen carelessness from one to the other, laughed.

"I'm glad the calm held," he said. "It enabled me to get around to see
you. My supercargo dug up that little note of yours, and I brought it
along."

The mate edged politely away, leaving his skipper to face his trouble.

"I'm sorry, Grief, damned sorry," Griffiths said, "but I ain't got it.
You'll have to give me a little more time."

Grief leaned up against the companionway, surprise and pain depicted on
his face.

"It does beat hell," he communed, "how men learn to lie in the Solomons.
The truth's not in them. Now take Captain Jensen. I'd sworn by his
truthfulness. Why, he told me only five days ago - do you want to know
what he told me?"

Griffiths licked his lips.

"Go on."

"Why, he told me that you'd sold out - sold out everything, cleaned up,
and was pulling out for the New Hebrides."

"He's a damned liar!" Griffiths cried hotly.

Grief nodded.

"I should say so. He even had the nerve to tell me that he'd bought two
of your stations from you - Mauri and Kahula. Said he paid you seventeen
hundred gold sovereigns, lock, stock and barrel, good will, trade-goods,
credit, and copra."

Griffiths's eyes narrowed and glinted. The action was involuntary, and
Grief noted it with a lazy sweep of his eyes.

"And Parsons, your trader at Hickimavi, told me that the Fulcrum Company
had bought that station from you. Now what did he want to lie for?"

Griffiths, overwrought by sun and sickness, exploded. All his bitterness
of spirit rose up in his face and twisted his mouth into a snarl.

"Look here, Grief, what's the good of playing with me that way? You
know, and I know you know. Let it go at that. I _have_ sold out, and I
_am_ getting away. And what are you going to do about it?"

Grief shrugged his shoulders, and no hint of resolve shadowed itself in
his own face. His expression was as of one in a quandary.

"There's no law here," Griffiths pressed home his advantage. "Tulagi is
a hundred and fifty miles away. I've got my clearance papers, and I'm
on my own boat. There's nothing to stop me from sailing. You've got no
right to stop me just because I owe you a little money. And by God! you
can't stop me. Put that in your pipe."

The look of pained surprise on Grief's face deepened.

"You mean you're going to cheat me out of that twelve hundred,
Griffiths?"

"That's just about the size of it, old man. And calling hard names won't
help any. There's the wind coming. You'd better get overside before I
pull out, or I'll tow your canoe under."

"Really, Griffiths, you sound almost right. I can't stop you." Grief
fumbled in the pouch that hung on his revolver-belt and pulled out a
crumpled official-looking paper. "But maybe this will stop you. And it's
something for _your_ pipe. Smoke up."

"What is it?"

"An admiralty warrant. Running to the New Hebrides won't save you. It
can be served anywhere."

Griffiths hesitated and swallowed, when he had finished glancing at the
document. With knit brows he pondered this new phase of the situation.
Then, abruptly, as he looked up, his face relaxed into all frankness.

"You were cleverer than I thought, old man," he said. "You've got me
hip and thigh. I ought to have known better than to try and beat you.
Jacobsen told me I couldn't, and I wouldn't listen to him. But he was
right, and so are you. I've got the money below. Come on down and we'll
settle."

He started to go down, then stepped aside to let his visitor precede
him, at the same time glancing seaward to where the dark flaw of wind
was quickening the water.

"Heave short," he told the mate. "Get up sail and stand ready to break
out."

As Grief sat down on the edge of the mate's bunk, close against and
facing the tiny table, he noticed the butt of a revolver just projecting
from under the pillow. On the table, which hung on hinges from the
for'ard bulkhead, were pen and ink, also a battered log-book.

"Oh, I don't mind being caught in a dirty trick," Griffiths was saying
defiantly. "I've been in the tropics too long. I'm a sick man, a damn
sick man. And the whiskey, and the sun, and the fever have made me sick
in morals, too. Nothing's too mean and low for me now, and I can
understand why the niggers eat each other, and take heads, and such
things. I could do it myself. So I call trying to do you out of that
small account a pretty mild trick. Wisht I could offer you a drink."

Grief made no reply, and the other busied himself in attempting to
unlock a large and much-dented cash-box. From on deck came falsetto
cries and the creak and rattle of blocks as the black crew swung up
mainsail and driver. Grief watched a large cockroach crawling over the
greasy paintwork. Griffiths, with an oath of irritation, carried the
cash-box to the companion-steps for better light. Here, on his feet, and
bending over the box, his back to his visitor, his hands shot out to
the rifle that stood beside the steps, and at the same moment he whirled
about.

"Now don't you move a muscle," he commanded.

Grief smiled, elevated his eyebrows quizzically, and obeyed. His left
hand rested on the bunk beside him; his right hand lay on the table.

His revolver hung on his right hip in plain sight. But in his mind was
recollection of the other revolver under the pillow.

"Huh!" Griffiths sneered. "You've got everybody in the Solomons
hypnotized, but let me tell you you ain't got me. Now I'm going to throw
you off my vessel, along with your admiralty warrant, but first you've
got to do something. Lift up that log-book."

The other glanced curiously at the log-book, but did not move.

"I tell you I'm a sick man, Grief; and I'd as soon shoot you as smash a
cockroach. Lift up that log-book, I say."

Sick he did look, his lean face working nervously with the rage that
possessed him. Grief lifted the book and set it aside. Beneath lay a
written sheet of tablet paper.

"Read it," Griffiths commanded. "Read it aloud."

Grief obeyed; but while he read, the fingers of his left hand began an
infinitely slow and patient crawl toward the butt of the weapon under
the pillow.

"On board the ketch Willi-Waw, Bombi Bight, Island of Anna, Solomon
Islands," he read. "Know all men by these presents that I do hereby sign
off and release in full, for due value received, all debts whatsoever
owing to me by Harrison J. Griffiths, who has this day paid to me twelve
hundred pounds sterling."

"With that receipt in my hands," Griffiths grinned, "your admiralty
warrant's not worth the paper it's written on. Sign it."

"It won't do any good, Griffiths," Grief said. "A document signed under
compulsion won't hold before the law."

"In that case, what objection have you to signing it then?"

"Oh, none at all, only that I might save you heaps of trouble by not
signing it."

Grief's fingers had gained the revolver, and, while he talked, with his
right hand he played with the pen and with his left began slowly and
imperceptibly drawing the weapon to his side. As his hand finally closed
upon it, second finger on trigger and forefinger laid past the cylinder
and along the barrel, he wondered what luck he would have at left-handed
snap-shooting.

"Don't consider me," Griffiths gibed. "And just remember Jacobsen will
testify that he saw me pay the money over. Now sign, sign in full, at
the bottom, David Grief, and date it."

From on deck came the jar of sheet-blocks and the rat-tat-tat of
the reef-points against the canvas. In the cabin they could feel the
_Willi-Waw_ heel, swing into the wind, and right. David Grief still
hesitated. From for'ard came the jerking rattle of headsail halyards
through the sheaves. The little vessel heeled, and through the cabin
walls came the gurgle and wash of water.

"Get a move on!" Griffiths cried. "The anchor's out."

The muzzle of the rifle, four feet away, was bearing directly on him,
when Grief resolved to act. The rifle wavered as Griffiths kept his
balance in the uncertain puffs of the first of the wind. Grief took
advantage of the wavering, made as if to sign the paper, and at the same
instant, like a cat, exploded into swift and intricate action. As he
ducked low and leaped forward with his body, his left hand flashed from
under the screen of the table, and so accurately-timed was the single
stiff pull on the self-cocking trigger that the cartridge discharged as
the muzzle came forward. Not a whit behind was Griffiths. The muzzle
of his weapon dropped to meet the ducking body, and, shot at snap
direction, rifle and revolver went off simultaneously.

Grief felt the sting and sear of a bullet across the skin of his
shoulder, and knew that his own shot had missed. His forward rush
carried him to Griffiths before another shot could be fired, both of
whose arms, still holding the rifle, he locked with a low tackle about
the body. He shoved the revolver muzzle, still in his left hand, deep
into the other's abdomen. Under the press of his anger and the sting of
his abraded skin, Grief's finger was lifting the hammer, when the wave
of anger passed and he recollected himself. Down the companion-way came
indignant cries from the Gooma boys in his canoe.

Everything was happening in seconds. There was apparently no pause in
his actions as he gathered Griffiths in his arms and carried him up the
steep steps in a sweeping rush. Out into the blinding glare of sunshine
he came. A black stood grinning at the wheel, and the _Willi-Waw_,
heeled over from the wind, was foaming along. Rapidly dropping astern
was his Gooma canoe. Grief turned his head. From amidships, revolver in
hand, the mate was springing toward him. With two jumps, still holding
the helpless Griffiths, Grief leaped to the rail and overboard.

Both men were grappled together as they went down; but Grief, with
a quick updraw of his knees to the other's chest, broke the grip and
forced him down. With both feet on Griffiths's shoulder, he forced him
still deeper, at the same time driving himself to the surface. Scarcely
had his head broken into the sunshine when two splashes of water, in
quick succession and within a foot of his face, advertised that Jacobsen
knew how to handle a revolver. There was a chance for no third shot, for
Grief, filling his lungs with air, sank down. Under water he struck
out, nor did he come up till he saw the canoe and the bubbling paddles
overhead. As he climbed aboard, the _Wlli-Waw_ went into the wind to
come about.

"Washee-washee!" Grief cried to his boys. "You fella make-um beach quick
fella time!"

In all shamelessness, he turned his back on the battle and ran for
cover. The _Willi-Waw_, compelled to deaden way in order to pick up its
captain, gave Grief his chance for a lead. The canoe struck the beach
full-tilt, with every paddle driving, and they leaped out and ran across
the sand for the trees. But before they gained the shelter, three times
the sand kicked into puffs ahead of them. Then they dove into the green
safety of the jungle.

Grief watched the _Willi-Waw_ haul up close, go out the passage, then
slack its sheets as it headed south with the wind abeam. As it went out
of sight past the point he could see the topsail being broken out. One
of the Gooma boys, a black, nearly fifty years of age, hideously marred
and scarred by skin diseases and old wounds, looked up into his face and
grinned.

"My word," the boy commented, "that fella skipper too much cross along
you."

Grief laughed, and led the way back across the sand to the canoe.




III

How many millions David Grief was worth no man in the Solomons knew, for
his holdings and ventures were everywhere in the great South Pacific.
From Samoa to New Guinea and even to the north of the Line his
plantations were scattered. He possessed pearling concessions in the
Paumotus. Though his name did not appear, he was in truth the German
company that traded in the French Marquesas. His trading stations were
in strings in all the groups, and his vessels that operated them were
many. He owned atolls so remote and tiny that his smallest schooners and
ketches visited the solitary agents but once a year.

In Sydney, on Castlereagh Street, his offices occupied three floors.
But he was rarely in those offices. He preferred always to be on the go
amongst the islands, nosing out new investments, inspecting and shaking
up old ones, and rubbing shoulders with fun and adventure in a thousand
strange guises. He bought the wreck of the great steamship _Gavonne_
for a song, and in salving it achieved the impossible and cleaned up a
quarter of a million. In the Louisiades he planted the first commercial
rubber, and in Bora-Bora he ripped out the South Sea cotton and put the
jolly islanders at the work of planting cacao. It was he who took the
deserted island of Lallu-Ka, colonized it with Polynesians from the
Ontong-Java Atoll, and planted four thousand acres to cocoanuts. And it
was he who reconciled the warring chief-stocks of Tahiti and swung the
great deal of the phosphate island of Hikihu.

His own vessels recruited his contract labour. They brought Santa
Cruz boys to the New Hebrides, New Hebrides boys to the Banks, and the
head-hunting cannibals of Malaita to the plantations of New Georgia.
From Tonga to the Gilberts and on to the far Louisiades his recruiters
combed the islands for labour. His keels plowed all ocean stretches. He
owned three steamers on regular island runs, though he rarely elected to
travel in them, preferring the wilder and more primitive way of wind and
sail.

At least forty years of age, he looked no more than thirty. Yet
beachcombers remembered his advent among the islands a score of years
before, at which time the yellow mustache was already budding silkily on
his lip. Unlike other white men in the tropics, he was there because he
liked it. His protective skin pigmentation was excellent. He had


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

Online LibraryJack LondonA son of the sun → online text (page 1 of 14)