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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAdventure - Chapter I - SOMETHING TO BE DONE
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Adventure - Chapter I - SOMETHING TO BE DONE Post by :debrown Category :Long Stories Author :Jack London Date :March 2011 Read :2780

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Adventure - Chapter I - SOMETHING TO BE DONE

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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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'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.

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