Harold Bindloss.

For Jacinta

скачать книгу бесплатно

"Those parrots must be – silly things," he said. "What d' they want to live here for when they can fly?"

Austin, who decided that there was some reason in the query, strolled round the house, and came upon Jefferson sitting with his back to it and the box of dynamite on the deck in front of him. He looked gaunter and more haggard than ever in the daylight, but he was busy pinching down a copper cap upon a strip of snaky fuse, which he proceeded to carefully embed in a roll of semi-plastic material that looked very like a candle made of yellow wax.

"What are you doing?" asked Austin.

"Nipping on a couple of detonators," said Jefferson. "Stand clear of the one on the deck. They're lined with mercury fulminate, and you want to take your shoes off when you come near that. Giant powder's innocent by comparison. I mean to try a stick or two of this consignment."

"What are you going to try it on?" asked Austin, who stepped back a pace or two expeditiously.

Jefferson looked up with a little grim smile. "On the house of the headman of the village where Funnel-paint lives," he said. "If we can get in a good morning's work, we'll go up and remonstrate with him this afternoon. You might take that stick of powder and fuse and wrap it up in something."

Austin picked up the yellow roll, and then held it as far as he conveniently could from him, while Jefferson laughed.

"I guess you needn't worry. You could pound it with a hammer, or put it in the fire, and it wouldn't show fight – that is, ninety-nine times out of the hundred," he said. "Still, there might be considerable trouble on the other one. The sure way to stir it up is to pat a shred of it with a piece of wood, though the man who tries it is scarcely likely to see what it does."

Austin got rid of the dynamite as speedily as he could, and when he came back one of the Spaniards was laying out breakfast on the deck. It was not a sumptuous meal, consisting, as it did, of coffee, a can of meat that Austin fancied was tainted, ship's bread, which is biscuit, and a pale fluid that had presumably been butter; but he did not feel hungry, and Jefferson ate little. In the meanwhile a blaze of light beat through the mists which melted under it, and flaming yellow creek and dingy mangroves sprang suddenly into being as by the unrolling of a transformation scene. Their pale stems dripped slime, and just there their foliage was blotched and spotted as with smears of flour. It gave them a diseased appearance, and Austin, who felt he loathed the sight of them already, remembered that where the mangrove grows the white man not infrequently dies. He was almost glad when breakfast was over and Jefferson rose.

"I want to be quite clear," he said. "You're going to see this thing out with me on a quarter share?"

"I am," said Austin. "Anyway, I'll do what I can, though I'm afraid I haven't given the question of the share much consideration."

Jefferson looked at him intently.

"Well," he said, "I've worried a good deal about my three-quarters. That's what I came for, and if we float her off you'll get yours, just as sure as you'll earn it – hard. It's a big thing you're going into, and you'll find it calling on all the grit that's in you. We're on results here, and, now you understand that, we'll start in."

He went to the forward winch, and Austin, obeying his directions, descended to the hold with a vague recognition of the fact that there was a change in Jefferson. As coaling clerk in Grand Canary, Austin had found him a quiet and somewhat reserved man, who conducted himself in everything, at least, as conventionally as most of his English friends in that island. Now it was as though he had sloughed off the veneer so that the primitive man beneath it appeared, which is a thing that not infrequently happens in such places as the swamps he was toiling in. His voice, even, was different. It was harsh, with a suggestion of command; and the fierce, resolute nature of the man became revealed in it and the penetrating glance of his steady eyes.

Austin, however, discovered that he had very little time to think of Jefferson. The Spaniards were on results, too, and when the chain sling came rattling down the strenuous toil began. The hold was dim and shadowy, as well as insufferably hot, and filled with nauseating smells. The tiers of barrels slanted so that one could scarcely stand on them, but when somebody gave Austin a handspike he took his place with the rest, and set about prizing loose the puncheons so that they could get a sling round them or the hoisting-crabs on the stave-ends. Now and then the crabs slipped, or tore through the oil-soaked wood when the great barrel swung up into the sunlight, and it came crashing down; while each time they made an opening, the rest slipped down, grinding upon each other, and squeezed it up again. Those on the lower side were water-borne, but the others were only held in place by those beneath them on the incline, and the men could not keep the untouched tiers intact as they would have done had the Cumbria been floating level.

For the first half hour, Austin, who had never undertaken manual toil before, felt that his task was beyond the strength of such a man as he. One can no more acquire facility in labour without some training than he can in an art or craft, and again and again his untaught muscles failed to obey the prompting of his will. Then the heavy puncheon generally rolled back and bruised him, or the slipping handspike left its mark upon his skin. It was probably fortunate that the Canarios were cheerful, deft-handed sailormen, courteous, too, and considerate in their own fashion, for that half hour was, in some respects, a bitter one. During it the man of taste and leisure had his comparative uselessness impressed upon him, for, while he gasped, and the dew of effort dripped from him, it was not alone the slackness of his soft muscles that became apparent, but his inferiority in quickness, and the intrepidity which on occasion risks crushed foot and hand or a broken limb. The men who surpassed him were also benighted aliens, but he remembered afterwards that there was not one among them who flung a jibe at him.

Then it became a trifle easier. His nerves steadied, and the fits of gasping became less frequent as he warmed to the work. It was, as Jefferson had mentioned, a big thing they had undertaken, a thing worth doing, even apart from what they might gain by it, and it occurred to him that somebody must toil brutally before anything of that kind in brought to its accomplishment. By and by the strain and stress of it, the swift flitting of half-naked figures, the upward lurch of the dripping puncheons, and the clanging of the winch commenced to fire his blood. There was, after all, a good deal of the primitive in him, and he had the capacity for finding delight in bodily toil which still lurks here and there in a cultured Englishman, and presently he flung his oil-stained jacket away. Then, in a momentary pause, his shirt was discarded, too, and he knotted his suspenders about his waist. When he fell in between the grinding puncheons one of them removed most of the light singlet from him, and he clambered out with a Berserker fit upon him. He had found his manhood, and vaguely recognised that the curse laid on man in Eden might be a privilege. Something had awakened in him he had not felt before, though he had run the Estremedura's lancha through the spouting surf, and had never been accounted a laggard in the strenuous English games.

The chain slings came down faster and faster, while the hammerings of the winch rang insistently through their rattle. At any cost to the men below it must not be kept waiting. The blaze of brightness beneath the hatch became dazzling, and Austin felt his shoulders scorched as he passed through it. The iron deck above them shed down an intolerable heat, and still the olive-faced Canarios swayed, and splashed, and heaved amidst the barrels. Now and then a man said "Car-rai!" or in incongruous juxtaposition, "Ave Maria!" ejaculating it in gasps, but there was a puncheon ready when the sling came clashing down, and Jefferson's voice rang encouragingly through the din.

"Oh, hump yourselves! Send her up!" he said. "Vamos! Adelante! Dern your skins! More bareel!"

Bill grinned at Austin in one momentary stoppage. "The boss is himself again," he said. "He's shoving her along. We've got to make the time for our little trip this afternoon. Oh, howling – is that how you slew a puncheon? You'll manslaughter one of us next time. Cut her as she rolls."

Austin gasped with astonishment as well as relief when the winch stopped at last. The first half hour had appeared interminable, the other hours had fled, for he saw by the distance the glare of light had moved across the hold that the sun was overhead. Then he essayed to straighten himself, and when he had with some difficulty accomplished it went up the ladder with the rest. When he went out on deck Jefferson was sitting upon the drum of the winch, and smiled curiously as he scrutinised him. Austin, whose torn singlet fell away from him clitted with yellow oil, was almost naked to the waist, as well as very wet from the knees downwards. One of his canvas shoes had burst, and his hands were bleeding. He stood still, dazzled by the change of light, and blinked at his comrade.

"Well," said Jefferson, reflectively, "I have seen men who looked smarter, but I guess you'll do. In fact, I'm beginning to feel sure of you."

"Thanks!" said Austin. "I suppose in one respect that's a compliment. Still, I almost think, or, at least, I did when I first went down there, that if I'd known what was in front of me I'd have stayed in Grand Canary."

Jefferson nodded with a curious little smile. "I wonder," he said, reflectively, "if you ever felt like that before?"

Austin considered a moment.

"I'm not going to make any admissions. You probably have?" he said.

"Quite often," and Jefferson laughed. "It's a thing that happens to most of us now and then. There are times when the contract looks very big and the man feels very small. In fact, it's sometimes hard to look straight at it and not back down. Still, in the case of this one, it has to be done."

"I suppose so!" said Austin, and then turned round. "Well, what is it, Bill?"

"Here's your shirt an' jacket," said the man. "If you don't want your skin to come off, you'd better put them on."

Austin, who thanked him, did so, and then fumbled in the pocket for a cigarette. The one he found was torn and crushed, but he contrived to light it, and flung himself down in the shadow of the rail. Jefferson, who watched him, grinned.

"You're getting your grip," he said. "Not long ago you'd have slung that thing into the creek. The man left the sir out, too. Perhaps you noticed it?"

"I did. Still, no doubt, after watching my efforts in the hold, he felt himself warranted. I didn't expect to find things quite the same here as they are at the Catalina."

Jefferson laughed softly. "They're not. This is a blame risky co-operative venture, and when I made it so I put down a big stake on human nature. We're all on results, and partners in the thing. There's no respect in this ship. I don't want it. Why should any man touch his hat to me? Oh, I know we use the fist and handspike on American ships – when it's necessary – and I skipped round the Sachem's deck-house once with the cold steel an inch or two behind me; but that's not the point at all. I want a hundred cents' worth for my dollar from every man, and I'm going to get it, but I'm boss because I can drive a winch and break out cargo better than any of the rest of them. At least, that's one big reason."

Austin would have grinned at this not very long ago. Jefferson expressed himself crudely, but Austin was disposed to be less critical after that morning's labour, and was commencing to realise that his comrade had, in fact, placed a heavy stake upon the reliability of seafaring humanity. A taint of suspicious distrust or petty treachery would, he felt, be sufficient to ruin the venture, for there was one pistol in the ship to enforce authority, and a dozen men, who might defy it, with wicked knives. It was also evident that the full dollars' worth would be demanded from every one of them. Still, Austin smiled.

"I scarcely think that's the American skipper's usual point of view, though, of course, it's a commendable one," he said. "After all, one has to admit that there is, perhaps, some foundation for the equality notion in a democratic country, but from what I know of yours, while you seem willing to act upon it in regard to Scandinavians, Teutons, Poles, and Englishmen, you make Indians and niggers an exception."

"Exactly! They were made different, and they stop outside. I was crowding her a little this morning to save time, because I mean to remonstrate with one of them this afternoon. This ship's mine; I bought her with good money, and there may be a balance out that's to be settled with blood as well. Am I to sit down while the black scum take her from me?"

"I really think that the longer one looks at this contract the bigger it gets," said Austin, reflectively.

Jefferson glanced at the dingy forest, flaming creek, and the Cumbria's slanted deck with a little glow in his eyes.

"Well," he said, "that's what gets hold of me. To worry a big contract through, is – life – to some kinds of men."

"Perhaps it is, but it was easier painting little pictures. Still, you see, when you marry Miss Gascoyne you'll have to go round with your shirt, and, perhaps, a frock coat on, and let up on this kind of thing. In fact, what you are doing isn't at all what the folks she is acquainted with would expect from a man with ?20,000 in England."

Jefferson laughed, though there was a certain grimness in his face. "Well," he said, "there is a good deal to be done everywhere, and different ways of playing the game. A frock coat wouldn't stop a man making a show at one of them, although at first he mightn't find it comfortable. Life's much the same thing everywhere when you mean to take part in it and hustle. Any way, I've talked enough, and Wall-eye's coming along with the comida."

They ate the meal in silence. Austin was glad to rest, and sitting drowsily content in the shadow, he began to realise the boundless optimism and something of the adaptability of his companion. Jefferson had made an excellent coaling clerk at Las Palmas, though he knew nothing about the business, which demands a good deal of discretion, when he came there. He had also passed muster with Mrs. Hatherly and Muriel Gascoyne as what they no doubt called a gentleman, which was a manifestly harder thing, and here in Africa he was a ragged and fever-worn leader of primitive men, but clearly a successful one. It seemed to Austin that if he eventually aspired to become a local influence in any part of sheltered England he would also in all probability show up equally well.


They were not long over the meal, and when Austin thrust his plate aside, Jefferson, who had waited at least five minutes for him, rose with a little twinkle, which seemed to express whimsical resignation, in his eyes.

"And now there's something I'd rather leave alone to be done," he said. "The launch is ready, and we'll go up and remonstrate with those niggers. It's a little rough upon a man who is fond of a quiet life."

"One would scarcely have fancied that quietness had any great attraction for you," said Austin. "Still, you probably know what pleases you better than I do."

Jefferson laughed. "There are folks who seem to like being kicked, but it's a sensation that doesn't appeal to everybody."

"You have a case of dynamite, too. Now, I had once an air-gun sent me, a good many years ago, and I remember how I burned to go out and destroy the neighbours' cats with it."

The American's face grew a trifle grim, and he looked at him with half-closed eyes. "Well," he said, "I suppose that feeling's there, but in a sense you're wrong. It isn't the only one. We put up a big bluff in coming here at all, and it's nerve, and nothing else, that will have to keep us where we are. There are no police or patrolmen in this country to fall back upon, and you have to face the cold truth, which is this: If one of those niggers clinched with you or me, he would mop the deck with us in about two minutes. It's not a nice thing to admit, but there it is."

Austin looked thoughtful, as, indeed, he was, for Jefferson, who, it seemed, could look an unpleasant fact in the face, had gone straight to the bottom of the question, as he usually did. The white man's domination, it had to be admitted, largely depended upon his command of machine guns and magazine rifles, but they had none of these on board the Cumbria. They were no match for the negro as a muscular animal, and there was only left them what Jefferson called bluff, which apparently consisted of equal parts of hardihood and arrogance. Still, there are respects in which it is difficult to distinguish between it and genuine courage, and it was certainly apt to prove futile in that land without the latter. Austin realised that since there was nothing else available, they must do what they could with it, though this was far from pleasing him. He had a dislike for anything which savoured of assertive impudence.

They went up the creek in the little, clanking launch, eight limp and perspiring white men, with knives and iron bars, under a scorching sun that burned through their oil-stained garments. They slid through strips of shadow where the belts of mire they skirted bubbled with the emanations the heat sucked up from them, and slid across lake-like reaches where the yellow water was dazzling to look upon. All the time, endless ranks of mangroves crawled past them, and there was no sound but the presumptuous clanking of the engine to break the deep silence of the watery forest. The whole land seemed comatose with heat, and all that had its being in it probably was so, for it is at night that nature awakens in the swamps of the fever belt. Man alone was stirring, and the puny noise of his activity jarred for a few moments on the great stillness and then sank into it again.

Austin sat huddled in the launch's stern-sheets with his senses dulled by the heat and glare, though the desolation of mire and mangroves reacted on him. He knew, as he sometimes admitted, a little about a good many things which were of no use to him, and he remembered then that the vast quadrilateral of Northern Africa west of Egypt had absorbed several civilisations long before the Portuguese saw its southern shores. They had vanished, and left no mark on it, and it was plain that in the great swamp belt, at least, the black man still lived very much as he had done when the first mangroves crept out into the sea. It is a primitive country, where man knows only the law of the jungle, and Jefferson, who grasped that fact, was apparently ready to act upon it in the usual primitive fashion.

There was, at first, no sign of life when the launch came into sight of a little village hemmed in by the swamps. It had its attractiveness in that country, for the clustering huts stood, half buried in foliage, beneath towering cottonwoods, with a glaring strip of sand in front of them. There were bananas, and, as Jefferson recognised, lime trees in between. Still, by the time they approached the beach men came floundering hastily out of the huts, and Austin was not greatly consoled by the sight of them. They were big men, and wore very little to conceal their splendid muscles. Some of them also carried long canoe paddles, and one or two had wicked, corkscrew-headed spears. Austin wondered, a little uneasily, whether they only speared fish with them, and looked round to see what effect their appearance had upon his companions.

It was apparently not a great one. Jefferson was quietly grim; Tom, the donkey-man, scornfully cheerful; while there was a little portentous glint in the Canarios' eyes. Austin fancied he was the only one who had the slightest doubt that anything their leader did would not be altogether warranted. This, however, was comprehensible, for he was aware that while the American's attitude towards the coloured people is, perhaps, not altogether what it should be, the Western pioneer never quite equalled the Iberian in his plan of subjugation. The Spaniard, at least, did not send out Indian agents, or dole out rations of very inferior beef.

They landed without molestation, and straightened themselves to make what show they could, though there was nothing very imposing about any of the party. The climate had melted the stiffness out of them, and their garments, which were stained with oil, and rent by working cargo, clung about their limbs soaked with perspiration. They looked, Austin fancied, more like shipwrecked seamen than anything else. In fact, he felt almost ashamed of himself, and that it was the negroes' own fault if they did not unceremoniously fling them back into the creek. Still, he realised that they were men who probably held their lives in their hands, and had what appeared to be a singularly difficult task in front of them. They were there to make it clear to the headman that it would be wise of him to leave them alone, and Austin was quite willing to supplement Jeffersons' efforts in this, though he was by no means sure how it was to be accomplished. The negroes, so far as he could see, were regarding them with a kind of derisive toleration.

скачать книгу бесплатно

страницы: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26