Percival Christopher Wren.

Driftwood Spars The Stories of a Man, a Boy, a Woman, and Certain Other People Who Strangely Met Upon the Sea of Life online

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teeth, and licked huge blue-black lips. He leaned over and awakened the
Leading Gentleman. Then he pointed to the Victim. Both watched the
horizon where, beyond distant Bombay and China, the sun was appearing,
rising with the rapidity of the minute hand of a big clock. Neither
looked to the West.

The child knew that when the sun had risen clear of the sea, he might
look upon it for a minute or two - and no more. A puff of wind fanned his
cheek; the sail filled and drew. The boat moved through the water and
the one-eyed gentleman, arising and treading upon the out-lying tracts
of the sleepers, stumbled to the rudder, which was tied with
coconut-fibre to an upright stake. The breeze strengthened and there was
a ripple of water at the bows. Was he saved?

The one-eyed person looked more disappointed than pleased, and observed
to the Leading Gentleman: "We cannot live to Aden, though the wind hold.
We must eat," and he regarded the figure of Moussa Isa critically,
appraisingly, with mingled favour and disfavour. His expressive
countenance seemed to say, "He is food - but he is poor food".

Nevertheless an unmistakable look of relief overspread his face as the
Leading Gentleman replied with conviction, "We must eat...." and added,
"This is but a dawn-breeze and will not take us half a mile".

"Then let us eat forthwith," said the one-eyed man, and he fairly beamed
upon Moussa Isa, doubtless with the said light of which his body was
full, in consequence of his singleness of vision. The whole party was by
this time awake and Moussa Isa the cynosure of neighbouring eyes. The
Leading Gentleman drew his beautiful knife from its tawdry sheath and
gave it a last loving strop on his horny palm.

Willing hands dragged the head of Moussa Isa across the beam and willing
bodies sat upon him, that he might not waste time, and something more
precious, by thoughtless wriggling, delaying breakfast. The Leading
Gentleman crawled to an advantageous position, and having bowed in
prayer, sawed away industriously.

Moussa Isa wished to shriek to him that he was a fool and a bungler;
that throats were not to be cut in that fashion, with hackings and
sawing at the gullet. Knew the clumsy fumbler nothing of big
blood-vessels?... but he could not speak.

"_That_ is not the way," said the benevolent-looking old Arab. "Stab,
man, stab under the ear - don't cut ... not there, anyhow."

The Leading Gentleman tried the other side of the double-edged blade,
continuing obstinately, and Moussa Isa contrived a strange sound which
died away on a curious bubbling note and he grew faint.

Suddenly the one-eyed individual at the rudder screamed aloud, and
disturbed the Leading Gentleman's earnest endeavour to prevent waste.
Not from sensibility did the one-eyed scream, nor on account of his
growing conviction that the Leading Gentleman was getting more than his
share, but because, as all realized upon looking up, a great ship was
bearing down upon them from the West.

So intent had all been upon the preparation of breakfast that the
steamer was almost audible when seen.

Good! Here came water, rice, bread, sugar, flour, and perhaps meat, for
poor castaways, and probably money - from kindly lady-passengers, this
last, for the ship was obviously a liner. The wretched Moussa Isa's
carcase was now superfluous - nay dangerous, and must be disposed of at
once, for Europeans are most kittle cattle. They will exterminate your
tribe with machine-guns, gin, small-pox, and still nastier things, but
they are fearfully shocked at a bit of killing on the part of others.
They call it murder. And though they will well-nigh depopulate a country
themselves, they will wax highly indignant if any of the survivors do a
little slaying, even if they kill but a miserable slave, like this
Somali dog.

Heave him overboard.

No. Ships carry the "far-eye," the magic instrument that makes the
distant near, that brings things from miles away to within a few yards.
Doubtless telescopes were on them already. Keep in a close group round
the body, smuggle it under the palm-mats and make believe to have been
trying to kindle a fire in an old kerosine-oil tin.... Signals of
distress appeared and Moussa Isa disappeared. The great steamer
approached, slowed down, and came to a standstill beside the boat of the
starving castaways. From her cliff-like side the passengers, crowding
the rails of her many decks, looked down with interest upon a
prehistoric craft in which lay a number of poor emaciated blacks and
Arabs, clad for the most part in scanty cotton rags. These poor
creatures feebly extended skinny hands and feebly raised quavering
voices, as they begged for water and a little rice, only water and a
little rice in the name of Allah the Merciful, the Compassionate. Their
tins, lotahs and goat-skins were filled, bags of rice, bread and flour
were lowered to them; a box of sugar and a packet of biscuit were added;
and a gentle little rain of coins fell as though from Heaven.

Kodaks clicked, clergymen beamed, ladies said, "How sweetly
picturesque - poor dears"; the Captain murmured, "Damnedest scoundrels
unhung - but can't leave 'em to starve"; the "poor dears" smiled largely
and ate wolfishly; Moussa Isa bled, and the great steamer resumed her

"Pat" Brighte (she was Cleopatra Diamond Brighte who married Colonel
Dearman of the Gungapur Volunteer Bines) found she had got a splendid
snap-shot when her films were developed at Gungapur. A little later she
got another when the look-out saw, and a boat picked up, a man who was
lying in a little dug-out or _toni_. When able to speak, he told the
_serang_[44] of the lascars that he was the sole survivor of a
bunder-boat which had turned turtle and sunk. He understood nothing but
Hindustani.... Miss Brighte pitied the poor wretch but thought he looked
rather horrid....

[44] Native boatswain.

The hearts of the castaways were filled with contentment as their
stomachs were filled with food, and so busily did they devote themselves
to eating, drinking, and sleeping that they forgot all about Moussa Isa
beneath the palm-mats.

When they chanced upon him he was just alive, and his wound was closed.
The attitude in which he had been dumped down upon the cargo (the
ostensible and upper strata thereof, consisting of hides and salt, with
a hint of ostrich-feathers, coffee, frankincense and myrrh) had favoured
his chance of recovery, for, thanks to a friendly bundle, his head was
pressed forward to his chest and the lips of the gaping wound in his
throat were shut.

Moussa Isa was tougher than an Indian chicken.

Near Aden his proprietors were captured by an officious and
unsympathetic police (Moussa was sent to what he dreamed to be Heaven
and later perceived to be a hospital) and while they went to jail, a
number of bristly-haired Teutonic gentlemen at the Freidrichstrasse,
Arab gentlemen at Muscat, and Afghan gentlemen at Cabul, were made to
exercise the virtue of patience. So the would-be murderers of John Robin
Ross-Ellison Ilderim Dost Mahommed unintentionally saved him from jail,
but never received his acknowledgments....

Discharged from the hospital, Moussa became his own master, a gentleman
at large, and, for a time, prospered in the coal-trade.

He steered a coal-lighter that journeyed between the shore and the

One day he received a blow, a curse, and an insult, from the _maccudam_
or foreman of the gang that worked in the boat which he steered. Neither
blows nor curses were of any particular account to Moussa, but this man
Sulemani, a nondescript creature of no particular race, and only a man
in the sense that he was not a woman nor a quadruped, had called him
"_Hubshi_" Woolly One. Had called Moussa Isa of the Somal a _Hubshi_, as
though he had been a common black nigger. And, of course, it was
intentional, for even this eater of dogs and swine and lizards knew the
great noble, civilized and cultured Somal, Galla, Afar and Abyssinian
people from niggers. Even an English hide-and-head-buying tripper and
_soi-disant_ big-game hunter knew a Zulu from a Hottentot, a Masai from
a Wazarambo, and a Somali from a Nigger!

The only question was as to _how_ the scoundrel should be killed, for
he was large and strong, and never far from a shovel, crow-bar,
boat-hook or some weapon. Not much hope of being able to fasten on his
throat like a young leopard on a dibatag, kudu or impala buck.

As Moussa sat behind him at the tiller, he would regard the villain's
neck with interest, his fat neck, just below and behind the big ear.

If he only had a knife - such as the beauty that once cut his throat - or
even a scrap of iron or of really hard pointed wood, honour could be
satisfied and a stain removed from the scutcheon of Moussa Isa of the
Somal race, insulted.

One lucky night he got his next scar, the fine one that ornamented his
cheek-bone, and a really serviceable weapon of offence against the
offender Sulemani.

On this auspicious night, a festive English sailor flung a bottle at
him, in merry sport, as he passed beneath the verandah of the temple of
Venus and Bacchus in which the sailor sprawled. It struck him in the
face, broke against his cheek-bone, and provided him with a new scar and
a serviceable weapon, a dagger, convenient to handle and deadly to slay.
The bottle-neck was a perfect hilt and the long tapering needle-pointed
spire of glass projecting from it was a perfect blade - rightly used, of
course. Only a fool would attempt a heart-stab with such a dagger, as it
would shatter on the ribs, leaving the fool to pay for his folly. But
the neck-stab - for the big blood-vessels - oho! And Moussa Isa licked
his chops just as he had seen the black-maned lion do in his own
fatherland; just as did the lion from whom the fair Sheikh had saved

Toward the sailor, Moussa felt no resentment for the assault that had
laid him bleeding in the gutter. Had he called him "_Hubshi_" it would
have been a different matter - perhaps very different for the sailor.
Moussa Isa regarded curses, cruelties, blows, wounds, attempts at
murder, as mere natural manifestations of the attitude of their
originators, and part of the inevitable scheme of things. Insults to his
personal and racial Pride were in another category altogether.

Yes - the bottle must have been thus usefully broken by the hand of the
Supreme Deity himself, prompted by Moussa's own particular and private
_kismet_, to provide Moussa with the means of doing his duty by himself
and his race, in the matter of the dog who had likened a long-haired,
ringletty-haired aquiline-nosed, thin-lipped son of the Somals to a
Woolly One - a black beast of the jungle!

Our young friend had never heard of the historical glass-bladed daggers
of the _bravos_ of Venice, but he saw at a glance, as he rose to his
feet and stared at the bottle, that he could do his business (and that
of the foreman) with the fortunately - shaped fragment, and eke leave the
point of the weapon in the wound for future complications if the blow
failed of immediate fatal effect.

He bided his time....

One black night Moussa Isa sat on the stern of his barge holding to a
rope beneath the high wall of the side of the P. & O. liner, _Persia_,
in shadow and darkness undispelled by the flickering flare of a brazier
of burning fuel, designed to illuminate the path of panting, sweating,
coal-laden coolies up and down narrow bending planks, laid from the
lighter to the gloomy hole in the ship's side.

The hot, still air was thick with coal-dust and the harmless necessary
howls of the hundreds of sons of Ham, toiling at high pressure.

In the centre of a vast, silent circle of mysterious lamp-spangled sea
and shore, and of star-spangled sky, this spot was Inferno, an offence
to the brooding still immensity.

And suddenly Moussa Isa was dimly conscious of his enemy, of him who had
insulted the great Somal race and Moussa Isa. On the broad edge of the
big barge Sulemani stood, before, and a foot below him, in the darkness,
yelling directions, threats, promises and encouragement to his gang. If
only there had been a moon or light by which he could see to strike!
Suddenly the edge of a beam of yellow light from a port-hole struck upon
Sulemani's neck, illuminating it below and behind his ear. Mrs. "Pat"
Dearman, homeward bound, had just entered her cabin and switched on the
electric light. (When last she passed Aden she had been Miss Cleopatra
Diamond Brighte, bound for Gungapur and the bungalow of her brother.)

It was Mrs. Pat Dearman's habit to read a portion of the Scriptures
nightly, ere retiring to rest, for she was a Good Woman and considered
the practice to be not only a mark of, but essential to, goodness.

Doubtless the Powers of Evil smiled sardonically when they noted that
the light which she evoked for her pious exercise lit the hand of Moussa
Isa to murder, providing opportunity. Moussa Isa weighed chances and
considered. He did not want to bungle it and lose his revenge and his
life too. Would he be seen if he struck now? The light fell on the very
spot for the true infallible death-stroke. Should he strike now, here,
in the midst of the yelling mob?

Rising silently, Moussa drew his dagger of glass from beneath his only
garment, aimed at the patch of light upon the fat neck, and struck.
Sulemani lurched, collapsed, and fell between the lighter and the ship
without an audible sound in that dim pandemonium.

Even as the "dagger" touched flesh, the light was quenched, Mrs. Pat
Dearman having realized that the stuffy, hot cabin was positively
uninhabitable until the port-hole could be opened, after coaling
operations were completed.

Moussa Isa reseated himself, grabbed the rope again, and with clear
conscience, duty done, calmly awaited that which might follow.

Nothing followed. None had seen the deed, consummated in unrelieved
gloom; the light had failed most timely....

The next person who mortally affronted Moussa Isa, committing the
unpardonable sin, was a grievously fat, foolish Indian Mohammedan youth
whose father supported four wives, five sons, six daughters and himself
in idleness and an Aden shop.

It was a remarkably idle and unobtrusive shop and yet money flowed into
it without stint, mysteriously and unostentatiously, the conduits of its
flow being certain modest and retiring Arab visitors in long brown or
white _haiks_, with check cotton head-dresses girt with ropes of
camel-hair, who collogued with the honest tradesman and departed as
silently and unobtrusively as they came....

One of them, strangely enough, ejaculated "_Himmel_" and
"_Donnerwetter_" as often as "_Bismillah_" and "_Inshallah_" when he

The very fat son of this secretive house in an evil hour one
inauspicious evening took it upon him to revile and abuse his father's
servant, one Moussa Isa, an African boy, as he performed divers domestic
duties in the exiguous "compound" of the dwelling-place and refused to
do the fat youth's behest ere completing them.

"Haste thee at once to the bazaar, thou dog," screamed the fat youth.

"Later on," replied Moussa Isa, using the words that express the general
attitude of the East.

"Now, dog. Now, Hubshi, or I will beat thee."

"I will kill _you_," replied Moussa Isa, and again bided his time.

"Hubshi, Hubshi, Hubshi," goaded the misguided fat one.

His Kismet led the youth, some weeks later, to lay him down and sleep in
the shade of the house upon some broad flagstones. Here Moussa found him
and regretted the loss of his glass-dagger, - last seen in the neck of a
foreman of coal-coolies toppling into the dark void between a barge and
a ship, - but remembered a big heavy stone used to facilitate the scaling
of the compound wall.

Staggering with it to the spot where the fat youth lay slumbering
peacefully, Moussa Isa, in the sight of all men (who happened to be
looking), dashed it upon his fez-adorned head, and established the
hitherto disputable fact that the fat youth had brains.

To the Magistrate, Moussa Isa offered neither excuse nor prayer.
Explanation he vouchsafed in the words: -

"He called _me_, Moussa Isa of the Somali, a _Hubshi!_"

Being of tender years and of insignificant stature he was condemned to
flogging and seven years in a Reformatory School. He was too juvenile
for the Aden Jail. The Reformatory School nearest to Aden is at Duri in
India, and thither, in spite of earnest prayers that he might go to hard
labour in Aden Jail like a man and a Somali, was Moussa Isa duly
transported and therein incarcerated.

At the Duri Reformatory School, Moussa Isa was profoundly miserable,
most unhappy, and deeply depressed by a sense of the very cruellest

For here they simply did not know the difference between a Somal and a
woolly-haired dog of a negro. They honestly did not know that there was
a difference. To them, a clicking Bushman was as a Nubian, an
earth-eating Kattia as a Kabyle, a face-cicatrized, tooth-sharpened
cannibal of the Aruwimi as a Danakil, - a _Hubshi_ as a Somal. They
simply did not know. To them all Africans were _Hubshis_ (just as to an
English M.P. all the three or four hundred millions of Indians are
Bengali babus). They meant no insult; they knew no better. All Africans
were black niggers and every soul in the place, from Brahmin to
Untouchable, looked down upon the African, the Black Man, the Nigger,
the Cannibal, the _Hubshi_, sent from Africa to defile their Reformatory
and destroy their caste.

Here, the proud self-respecting Moussa, jealous champion of the honour
of his, to him, high and noble race, found himself a god-send to the
Out-castes, the Untouchables, the Depressed Classes, Mangs, Mahars, and
Sudras, - they whose touch, nay the touch of whose very shadow, is
defilement! For, at last, they, too, had some one to look down upon, to
despise, to insult. After being the recipients-of-contempt as naturally
and ordainedly as they were breathers-of-air, they at last could apply a
salve, and pass on to another the utter contempt and loathing which they
themselves received and accepted from the Brahmins and all those of
Caste. They had found one lower than themselves. _Moussa Isa of the
Somali_ was the out-cast of out-casts, the pariah of pariahs, prohibited
from touching the untouchables, one of a class depressed below the
depressed classes - in short a _Hubshi!_

Even a broad-nosed, foreheadless, blubber - lipped aborigine from the
hill-jungles objected to his presence!

In the small, self-contained, self-supporting world of the Reformatory,
it was Moussa Isa against the World. And against the World he stood up.

It had to learn the difference between a Somali and a _Hubshi_ at any
cost - the cost of Moussa's life included.

What added to the sorrow of the situation was the realization of how
charming and desirable a retreat the place was in itself, - apart from
its ignorant and stupid inhabitants.

Expecting a kind of torture-house wherein he would be starved, sweated,
thrashed by brutal _kourbash_-wielding overseers, he found the most
palatial and comfortable of clubs, a place of perfect peace, safety,
and ease, where one was kindly treated by those in authority,
sumptuously fed, luxuriously lodged, and provided with pleasant
occupation, attractive amusements and reasonable leisure.

He had always heard and believed that the English were mad, and now he
knew it.

As a punishment for murder he had got a birching that merely tickled
him, and a free ticket to seven years' board, lodging, clothing,
lighting, medical care, instruction and diversion!


Were it not for the presence of the insolent, ignorant, untravelled,
inexperienced, soft-living, lily-livered dogs of inhabitants, the place
was the Earthly Paradise. They were the crocodile in the ointment.

A young Brahmin, son of a well-paid Government servant, and incarcerated
for forgery and theft, was his most annoying persecutor. He was at great
pains to expectorate and murmur "_Hubshi_" in accents of abhorrent
contempt, whenever Moussa Isa chanced between the wind and his nobility.

The first time, Moussa replied with pitying magnanimity and all
reasonableness: -

"I am not a _Hubshi_, but a Somali, which is quite different - even as a
lion is different from a jackal or a man from an ape".

To which the Brahmin replied but: -

"_Hubshi_," and pointed out that there was danger of Moussa Isa's shadow
touching him, if Moussa were not careful.

"I must kill you if you call me _Hubshi_, understanding that I am of the
Somals," said Moussa Isa.

"_Hubshi_," would the Brahmin reply and loudly bewail his evil Luck
which had put him in the power of the accursed Feringhi Government - a
Government that compelled a Brahmin to breathe the same air as a filthy
negro dog, a Woolly One of Africa, barely human and most untouchable, a
living Contamination ... and Moussa cast about for a weapon.

His first opportunity arose when he found the Brahmin, who was in the
book-binding and compositor department, working one day in the same
gardening-gang with himself.

He had but a watering-can by way of offensive weapon, but good play can
be made with a big iron watering-can wielded in the right spirit and the
right hand.

Master Brahmin was feebly tapping the earth with a kind of single-headed
pick, and watching him, Moussa Isa saw that, in a quarter of an hour or
so, he might plausibly and legitimately pass within a yard or two of
this his enemy, as he went to and fro between the water-tap and the
strip of flower-border that he was sprinkling.... Would they hang him if
he killed the Brahmin, or would they feebly flog him again and give him
a longer sentence (that he be supported, fed, lodged, clothed and cared
for) than the present seven years?

There was no foretelling what the mad English would do. Sometimes they
acquitted a criminal and gave him money and education, and sometimes
they sent him to far distant islands in the South and there housed and
fed him free, for life; and sometimes they killed him at the end of a

Doubtless Allah smote the English mad to prevent them from stealing the
whole world.... If they were not mad they would do so and enslave all
other races - except their conquerors, the Dervishes, of course.... It
was like the lying hypocrites to call the Great Mullah "the Mad Mullah"
knowing themselves to be mad, and being afraid of their victorious enemy
who had driven them out of Somaliland to the coast forts....

Oh, if they would only treat him, Moussa Isa, as an adult, and send him
to the Aden Jail to hard labour. There folk knew a Somali from a
_Hubshi_; a gentleman of Afar and Galla stock, of Arab blood, Moslem
tenets, and Caucasian descent, from a common nigger, a low black
Ethiopian, an eater of men and insects, a worshipper of idols and

In Aden, men knew a Somali from a _Hubshi_ as surely as they knew an
Emir from a mere Englishman.

Here, in benighted, ignorant, savage India, the Dark Continent indeed,
men knew not what a Somali was, likened him to a Negro, ranked him lower
than a Hindu even - called him a _Hubshi_ in insolent ignorance. If only
the beautiful Reformatory were in Berbera, and tenanted by Africans.

Better Aden Jail a thousand times than Duri Reformatory.

What a splendid joke if the dog of a Brahmin who persistently insulted
him - even after he had been shown his error and ignorance - should be the
unwitting means of his return to Aden - where a Somali gentleman is
recognized. There is no harm about a Jail as such. Far from it. A jail
is a wise man's paradise provided by fools. You have excellent and
plentiful food, a roof against the sun, unfailing water supply,
clothing, interesting occupation, and safety - protection from your
enemies. No man harries you, you are not chained, you are not tortured;
you have all that heart can desire. Freedom?... What _is_ Freedom?
Freedom to die of thirst in the desert? Freedom to be disembowelled by
the Great Mullah? Freedom to be sold as a slave into Arabia or Persia?
Freedom to be the unfed, unpaid, well-beaten property of gun-runners in
the Gulf, or of Arab _safari_ ruffians and "black-ivory" men? Freedom to
be left to the hyaena when you broke down on the march? Freedom to die
of starvation when you fell sick and could not carry coal? Thanks.

If the mad English provided beautiful refuges, and made the commission
of certain crimes the requisite qualification for admission, let wise
men qualify.

Take this Reformatory - where else could a little Somali boy get such
safety, peace, food, and sumptuous luxury; everything the heart could

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Online LibraryPercival Christopher WrenDriftwood Spars The Stories of a Man, a Boy, a Woman, and Certain Other People Who Strangely Met Upon the Sea of Life → online text (page 5 of 19)