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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesAdventure - Chapter VII - A HARD-BITTEN GANG
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Adventure - Chapter VII - A HARD-BITTEN GANG Post by :dog8me Category :Long Stories Author :Jack London Date :March 2011 Read :2106

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Adventure - Chapter VII - A HARD-BITTEN GANG

Joan took hold of the household with no uncertain grip,
revolutionizing things till Sheldon hardly recognized the place.
For the first time the bungalow was clean and orderly. No longer
the house-boys loafed and did as little as they could; while the
cook complained that "head belong him walk about too much," from
the strenuous course in cookery which she put him through. Nor did
Sheldon escape being roundly lectured for his laziness in eating
nothing but tinned provisions. She called him a muddler and a
slouch, and other invidious names, for his slackness and his
disregard of healthful food.

She sent her whale-boat down the coast twenty miles for limes and
oranges, and wanted to know scathingly why said fruits had not long
since been planted at Berande, while he was beneath contempt
because there was no kitchen garden. Mummy apples, which he had
regarded as weeds, under her guidance appeared as appetizing
breakfast fruit, and, at dinner, were metamorphosed into puddings
that elicited his unqualified admiration. Bananas, foraged from
the bush, were served, cooked and raw, a dozen different ways, each
one of which he declared was better than any other. She or her
sailors dynamited fish daily, while the Balesuna natives were paid
tobacco for bringing in oysters from the mangrove swamps. Her
achievements with cocoanuts were a revelation. She taught the cook
how to make yeast from the milk, that, in turn, raised light and
airy bread. From the tip-top heart of the tree she concocted a
delicious salad. From the milk and the meat of the nut she made
various sauces and dressings, sweet and sour, that were served,
according to preparation, with dishes that ranged from fish to
pudding. She taught Sheldon the superiority of cocoanut cream over
condensed cream, for use in coffee. From the old and sprouting
nuts she took the solid, spongy centres and turned them into
salads. Her forte seemed to be salads, and she astonished him with
the deliciousness of a salad made from young bamboo shoots. Wild
tomatoes, which had gone to seed or been remorselessly hoed out
from the beginning of Berande, were foraged for salads, soups, and
sauces. The chickens, which had always gone into the bush and
hidden their eggs, were given laying-bins, and Joan went out
herself to shoot wild duck and wild pigeons for the table.

"Not that I like to do this sort of work," she explained, in
reference to the cookery; "but because I can't get away from Dad's
training."

Among other things, she burned the pestilential hospital,
quarrelled with Sheldon over the dead, and, in anger, set her own
men to work building a new, and what she called a decent, hospital.
She robbed the windows of their lawn and muslin curtains, replacing
them with gaudy calico from the trade-store, and made herself
several gowns. When she wrote out a list of goods and clothing for
herself, to be sent down to Sydney by the first steamer, Sheldon
wondered how long she had made up her mind to stay.

She was certainly unlike any woman he had ever known or dreamed of.
So far as he was concerned she was not a woman at all. She neither
languished nor blandished. No feminine lures were wasted on him.
He might have been her brother, or she his brother, for all sex had
to do with the strange situation. Any mere polite gallantry on his
part was ignored or snubbed, and he had very early given up
offering his hand to her in getting into a boat or climbing over a
log, and he had to acknowledge to himself that she was eminently
fitted to take care of herself. Despite his warnings about
crocodiles and sharks, she persisted in swimming in deep water off
the beach; nor could he persuade her, when she was in the boat, to
let one of the sailors throw the dynamite when shooting fish. She
argued that she was at least a little bit more intelligent than
they, and that, therefore, there was less liability of an accident
if she did the shooting. She was to him the most masculine and at
the same time the most feminine woman he had ever met.

A source of continual trouble between them was the disagreement
over methods of handling the black boys. She ruled by stern
kindness, rarely rewarding, never punishing, and he had to confess
that her own sailors worshipped her, while the house-boys were her
slaves, and did three times as much work for her as he had ever got
out of them. She quickly saw the unrest of the contract labourers,
and was not blind to the danger, always imminent, that both she and
Sheldon ran. Neither of them ever ventured out without a revolver,
and the sailors who stood the night watches by Joan's grass house
were armed with rifles. But Joan insisted that this reign of
terror had been caused by the reign of fear practised by the white
men. She had been brought up with the gentle Hawaiians, who never
were ill-treated nor roughly handled, and she generalized that the
Solomon Islanders, under kind treatment, would grow gentle.

One evening a terrific uproar arose in the barracks, and Sheldon,
aided by Joan's sailors, succeeded in rescuing two women whom the
blacks were beating to death. To save them from the vengeance of
the blacks, they were guarded in the cook-house for the night.
They were the two women who did the cooking for the labourers, and
their offence had consisted of one of them taking a bath in the big
cauldron in which the potatoes were boiled. The blacks were not
outraged from the standpoint of cleanliness; they often took baths
in the cauldrons themselves. The trouble lay in that the bather
had been a low, degraded, wretched female; for to the Solomon
Islander all females are low, degraded, and wretched.

Next morning, Joan and Sheldon, at breakfast, were aroused by a
swelling murmur of angry voices. The first rule of Berande had
been broken. The compound had been entered without permission or
command, and all the two hundred labourers, with the exception of
the boss-boys, were guilty of the offence. They crowded up,
threatening and shouting, close under the front veranda. Sheldon
leaned over the veranda railing, looking down upon them, while Joan
stood slightly back. When the uproar was stilled, two brothers
stood forth. They were large men, splendidly muscled, and with
faces unusually ferocious, even for Solomon Islanders. One was
Carin-Jama, otherwise The Silent; and the other was Bellin-Jama,
The Boaster. Both had served on the Queensland plantations in the
old days, and they were known as evil characters wherever white men
met and gammed.

"We fella boy we want 'm them dam two black fella Mary," said
Bellin-Jama.

"What you do along black fella Mary?" Sheldon asked.

"Kill 'm," said Bellin-Jama.

"What name you fella boy talk along me?" Sheldon demanded, with a
show of rising anger. "Big bell he ring. You no belong along
here. You belong along field. Bime by, big fella bell he ring,
you stop along kai-kai, you come talk along me about two fella
Mary. Now all you boy get along out of here."

The gang waited to see what Bellin-Jama would do, and Bellin-Jama
stood still.

"Me no go," he said.

"You watch out, Bellin-Jama," Sheldon said sharply, "or I send you
along Tulagi one big fella lashing. My word, you catch 'm strong
fella."

Bellin-Jama glared up belligerently.

"You want 'm fight," he said, putting up his fists in approved,
returned-Queenslander style.

Now, in the Solomons, where whites are few and blacks are many, and
where the whites do the ruling, such an offer to fight is the
deadliest insult. Blacks are not supposed to dare so highly as to
offer to fight a white man. At the best, all they can look for is
to be beaten by the white man.

A murmur of admiration at Bellin-Jama's bravery went up from the
listening blacks. But Bellin-Jama's voice was still ringing in the
air, and the murmuring was just beginning, when Sheldon cleared the
rail, leaping straight downward. From the top of the railing to
the ground it was fifteen feet, and Bellin-Jama was directly
beneath. Sheldon's flying body struck him and crushed him to
earth. No blows were needed to be struck. The black had been
knocked helpless. Joan, startled by the unexpected leap, saw
Carin-Jama, The Silent, reach out and seize Sheldon by the throat
as he was half-way to his feet, while the five-score blacks surged
forward for the killing. Her revolver was out, and Carin-Jama let
go his grip, reeling backward with a bullet in his shoulder. In
that fleeting instant of action she had thought to shoot him in the
arm, which, at that short distance, might reasonably have been
achieved. But the wave of savages leaping forward had changed her
shot to the shoulder. It was a moment when not the slightest
chance could be taken.

The instant his throat was released, Sheldon struck out with his
fist, and Carin-Jama joined his brother on the ground. The mutiny
was quelled, and five minutes more saw the brothers being carried
to the hospital, and the mutineers, marshalled by the gang-bosses,
on the way to the fields.

When Sheldon came up on the veranda, he found Joan collapsed on the
steamer-chair and in tears. The sight unnerved him as the row just
over could not possibly have done. A woman in tears was to him an
embarrassing situation; and when that woman was Joan Lackland, from
whom he had grown to expect anything unexpected, he was really
frightened. He glanced down at her helplessly, and moistened his
lips.

"I want to thank you," he began. "There isn't a doubt but what you
saved my life, and I must say--"

She abruptly removed her hands, showing a wrathful and tear-stained
face.

"You brute! You coward!" she cried. "You have made me shoot a
man, and I never shot a man in my life before."

"It's only a flesh-wound, and he isn't going to die," Sheldon
managed to interpolate.

"What of that? I shot him just the same. There was no need for
you to jump down there that way. It was brutal and cowardly."

"Oh, now I say--" he began soothingly.

"Go away. Don't you see I hate you! hate you! Oh, won't you go
away!"

Sheldon was white with anger.

"Then why in the name of common sense did you shoot?" he demanded.

"Be-be-because you were a white man," she sobbed. "And Dad would
never have left any white man in the lurch. But it was your fault.
You had no right to get yourself in such a position. Besides, it
wasn't necessary."

"I am afraid I don't understand," he said shortly, turning away.
"We will talk it over later on."

"Look how I get on with the boys," she said, while he paused in the
doorway, stiffly polite, to listen. "There's those two sick boys I
am nursing. They will do anything for me when they get well, and I
won't have to keep them in fear of their life all the time. It is
not necessary, I tell you, all this harshness and brutality. What
if they are cannibals? They are human beings, just like you and
me, and they are amenable to reason. That is what distinguishes
all of us from the lower animals."

He nodded and went out.

"I suppose I've been unforgivably foolish," was her greeting, when
he returned several hours later from a round of the plantation.
"I've been to the hospital, and the man is getting along all right.
It is not a serious hurt."

Sheldon felt unaccountably pleased and happy at the changed aspect
of her mood.

"You see, you don't understand the situation," he began. "In the
first place, the blacks have to be ruled sternly. Kindness is all
very well, but you can't rule them by kindness only. I accept all
that you say about the Hawaiians and the Tahitians. You say that
they can be handled that way, and I believe you. I have had no
experience with them. But you have had no experience with the
blacks, and I ask you to believe me. They are different from your
natives. You are used to Polynesians. These boys are Melanesians.
They're blacks. They're niggers--look at their kinky hair. And
they're a whole lot lower than the African niggers. Really, you
know, there is a vast difference."

"They possess no gratitude, no sympathy, no kindliness. If you are
kind to them, they think you are a fool. If you are gentle with
them they think you are afraid. And when they think you are
afraid, watch out, for they will get you. Just to show you, let me
state the one invariable process in a black man's brain when, on
his native heath, he encounters a stranger. His first thought is
one of fear. Will the stranger kill him? His next thought, seeing
that he is not killed, is: Can he kill the stranger? There was
Packard, a Colonial trader, some twelve miles down the coast. He
boasted that he ruled by kindness and never struck a blow. The
result was that he did not rule at all. He used to come down in
his whale-boat to visit Hughie and me. When his boat's crew
decided to go home, he had to cut his visit short to accompany
them. I remember one Sunday afternoon when Packard had accepted
our invitation to stop to dinner. The soup was just served, when
Hughie saw a nigger peering in through the door. He went out to
him, for it was a violation of Berande custom. Any nigger has to
send in word by the house-boys, and to keep outside the compound.
This man, who was one of Packard's boat's-crew, was on the veranda.
And he knew better, too. 'What name?' said Hughie. 'You tell 'm
white man close up we fella boat's-crew go along. He no come now,
we fella boy no wait. We go.' And just then Hughie fetched him a
clout that knocked him clean down the stairs and off the veranda."

"But it was needlessly cruel," Joan objected. "You wouldn't treat
a white man that way."

"And that's just the point. He wasn't a white man. He was a low
black nigger, and he was deliberately insulting, not alone his own
white master, but every white master in the Solomons. He insulted
me. He insulted Hughie. He insulted Berande."

"Of course, according to your lights, to your formula of the rule
of the strong--"

"Yes," Sheldon interrupted, "but it was according to the formula of
the rule of the weak that Packard ruled. And what was the result?
I am still alive. Packard is dead. He was unswervingly kind and
gentle to his boys, and his boys waited till one day he was down
with fever. His head is over on Malaita now. They carried away
two whale-boats as well, filled with the loot of the store. Then
there was Captain Mackenzie of the ketch Minota. He believed in
kindness. He also contended that better confidence was established
by carrying no weapons. On his second trip to Malaita, recruiting,
he ran into Bina, which is near Langa Langa. The rifles with which
the boat's-crew should have been armed, were locked up in his
cabin. When the whale-boat went ashore after recruits, he paraded
around the deck without even a revolver on him. He was tomahawked.
His head remains in Malaita. It was suicide. So was Packard's
finish suicide."

"I grant that precaution is necessary in dealing with them," Joan
agreed; "but I believe that more satisfactory results can be
obtained by treating them with discreet kindness and gentleness."

"And there I agree with YOU, but you must understand one thing.
Berande, bar none, is by far the worst plantation in the Solomons
so far as the labour is concerned. And how it came to be so proves
your point. The previous owners of Berande were not discreetly
kind. They were a pair of unadulterated brutes. One was a down-
east Yankee, as I believe they are called, and the other was a
guzzling German. They were slave-drivers. To begin with, they
bought their labour from Johnny Be-blowed, the most notorious
recruiter in the Solomons. He is working out a ten years' sentence
in Fiji now, for the wanton killing of a black boy. During his
last days here he had made himself so obnoxious that the natives on
Malaita would have nothing to do with him. The only way he could
get recruits was by hurrying to the spot whenever a murder or
series of murders occurred. The murderers were usually only too
willing to sign on and get away to escape vengeance. Down here
they call such escapes, 'pier-head jumps.' There is suddenly a
roar from the beach, and a nigger runs down to the water pursued by
clouds of spears and arrows. Of course, Johnny Be-blowed's whale-
boat is lying ready to pick him up. In his last days Johnny got
nothing but pier-head jumps.

"And the first owners of Berande bought his recruits--a hard-bitten
gang of murderers. They were all five-year boys. You see, the
recruiter has the advantage over a boy when he makes a pier-head
jump. He could sign him on for ten years did the law permit.
Well, that's the gang of murderers we've got on our hands now. Of
course some are dead, some have been killed, and there are others
serving sentences at Tulagi. Very little clearing did those first
owners do, and less planting. It was war all the time. They had
one manager killed. One of the partners had his shoulder slashed
nearly off by a cane-knife. The other was speared on two different
occasions. Both were bullies, wherefore there was a streak of
cowardice in them, and in the end they had to give up. They were
chased away--literally chased away--by their own niggers. And
along came poor Hughie and me, two new chums, to take hold of that
hard-bitten gang. We did not know the situation, and we had bought
Berande, and there was nothing to do but hang on and muddle through
somehow.

"At first we made the mistake of indiscreet kindness. We tried to
rule by persuasion and fair treatment. The niggers concluded that
we were afraid. I blush to think of what fools we were in those
first days. We were imposed on, and threatened and insulted; and
we put up with it, hoping our square-dealing would soon mend
things. Instead of which everything went from bad to worse. Then
came the day when Hughie reprimanded one of the boys and was nearly
killed by the gang. The only thing that saved him was the number
on top of him, which enabled me to reach the spot in time.

"Then began the rule of the strong hand. It was either that or
quit, and we had sunk about all our money into the venture, and we
could not quit. And besides, our pride was involved. We had
started out to do something, and we were so made that we just had
to go on with it. It has been a hard fight, for we were, and are
to this day, considered the worst plantation in the Solomons from
the standpoint of labour. Do you know, we have been unable to get
white men in. We've offered the managership to half a dozen. I
won't say they were afraid, for they were not. But they did not
consider it healthy--at least that is the way it was put by the
last one who declined our offer. So Hughie and I did the managing
ourselves."

"And when he died you were prepared to go on all alone!" Joan
cried, with shining eyes.

"I thought I'd muddle through. And now, Miss Lackland, please be
charitable when I seem harsh, and remember that the situation is
unparalleled down here. We've got a bad crowd, and we're making
them work. You've been over the plantation and you ought to know.
And I assure you that there are no better three-and-four-years-old
trees on any other plantation in the Solomons. We have worked
steadily to change matters for the better. We've been slowly
getting in new labour. That is why we bought the Jessie. We
wanted to select our own labour. In another year the time will be
up for most of the original gang. You see, they were recruited
during the first year of Berande, and their contracts expire on
different months. Naturally, they have contaminated the new boys
to a certain extent; but that can soon be remedied, and then
Berande will be a respectable plantation."

Joan nodded but remained silent. She was too occupied in glimpsing
the vision of the one lone white man as she had first seen him,
helpless from fever, a collapsed wraith in a steamer-chair, who, up
to the last heart-beat, by some strange alchemy of race, was
pledged to mastery.

"It is a pity," she said. "But the white man has to rule, I
suppose."

"I don't like it," Sheldon assured her. "To save my life I can't
imagine how I ever came here. But here I am, and I can't run
away."

"Blind destiny of race," she said, faintly smiling. "We whites
have been land robbers and sea robbers from remotest time. It is
in our blood, I guess, and we can't get away from it."

"I never thought about it so abstractly," he confessed. "I've been
too busy puzzling over why I came here."

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