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No. 154 by Alexander Montgomery

 

THE fat Dutch sentry challenged. A mere matter of form--for it was a number that approached, and a number cannot give a countersign. Nevertheless "154"--huge red figures on a blue cotton blouse--had the outward semblance of a big-boned man, well-featured and not old, but wild-beast-eyed and toil-oppressed. The soldierlevelled at the number's head; the number nodded and stood fast. "I came for that!" it said, and the sentry, gaping, dropped his rifle to the "ready." His orders were explicit. "You will fire instantly upon any convict coming, unaccompanied by an official, within 20 metres of your post."

But here was a convict within bayonet-thrust. Jan Ruycker had already broken the regulations; but still, perplexed by want of precedent, he hesitated to erase for ever this audacious number at its, own request. For compromise he lowered his bayonet to the "charge."

"Yes--that way, if you will!" the convict said indifferently. "And here." He laid a gaunt forefinger on the upper angle of the "4" that made the units of his only designation on Padak Island. But the sentry had known him by another; in Ruycker's brain the precision of the action condensed like magic a misty recollection. He dropped, together, his jaw and his rifle-butt. "My God!" he said--"Dr. Van Kloon!"

On the sodden sand the two men stood, secluded by the blinding rain that shut out all save here and there the ghostly shadow of a coco-palm, and, down at the end of the sandspit, the jetty fading into the dreary mist that hung upon the sullen sea.

Through the white wetness came a four-oared boat, the rowers cooped--like monstrous blue-red parrots--in an iron cage that stopped a few feet short of stem and stern. In the bows a green-coated warder nursed his rifle. A superior official--his verdure relieved by silver-lace--sat aft and steered.

The two men facing each other beside the sentry-box saw nothing of the boat--heard nothing--till the hollow thump of footsteps on the jetty made them start--the soldier to "attention"--the convict like a bullock to the whip. Habit, this, with both; but the soldier's plight, if thus caught convict--parleying, was no whit better than the convict's own, and the sudden realization of the fact spurred Ruycker's jog-trot wits into unwonted gallop. He snatched at the convict's coarse blue sleeve. "Behind the box!" he gasped.

The other shook his shoulders. "What use?" he said. "The new sentry will put a bullet through me, if you won't."

"It's not the relief, I tell you--it's the Civil-Controller."

With a spring the convict was behind the box, all but his head.

"Zevenbergen?" he asked, with a savage gladness in his face.

"Ay! curse him! he's always on the prowl. Keep close!" and Ruycker faced about and challenged.

The new-comer answered, and came up till he towered close above the sentry, for Civil-Controller Zevenbergen was a very tall man, whose jolly red face gave a a most emphatic lie to his disposition. "All well?" he asked, flinging back his long green overcoat, and appearing to look everywhere but at the sentry.

"All well, sir!"

"You lie, you Walloon scoundrel. I see it in your mutton face!"

Now Private Jan Ruycker was no Walloon. He was as good a Hollander as Zevenbergen, and thus--when from behind the sentry-box a heavy blue something hurled itself suddenly forth upon the green official--the soldier's anger held his hand for a moment. But that moment was enough! The convict's iron-bound shoe had caught the fallen Controller tremendously twice beneath the fat red jaw, and to all appearance it was hanging for ever.

With a contented laugh the convict sat down upon the wet sand. He had finished his tyrant!--what mattered the rest? But the soldier's stimulated mind embraced the situation in a flash. To linger here was death--and, in any case, he was weary of a lot but little better than a convict's. He dragged the apathetic killer to his feet.

"Rouse up!" he said. "The boat's below--let us get away from hell!"

"From hell!" the other echoed, and was half-way to the jetty before a sudden recollection pulled him up. "There are warders in her," he whispered. "Armed!"

The cold light of desperation came into the soldier's eyes as he changed the cartridge in his wet rifle. "There's only one," he answered, "and"--a slap on the breech said the rest.

Van Kloon thrust him backwards. "Not so. No murder. That"--and he pointed--"was an execution! Leave this to me."

Beside the shell-encrusted piles the cage-boat rose and fell, fended off through the bars by the four dejected wretches who watched with envious eyes the glow of the warder's cheroot. Malays and murderers all--there wasn't one of them who wouldn't cheerfully have slit the officer's windpipe for the sake of that little roll of tobacco--the knowledge of which fact but gave the weed a keener zest to the hard-eyed man who peered through the pallid mist for the coming of his chief.

At last, upon the jetty, a form just shaped itself from out the veil of vapour--stopped at that--waved above its head a shadowy gun. This was curious!--and as the warder stood up in the boat to look, a long blue arm swooped swiftly over the outer gunwale, caught him by the ankle, and flung him heavily over between boat and jetty. When he got his head up again he found himself looking up the barrel of his own rifle, and had no difficulty in understanding that for him the jetty was much healthier than the boat. Upon the steps the soldier passed him with a curse; there was a jabbering of the caged convicts; a word or two from Van Kloon; then straight out into the mist went the boat as fast as oars could drive her.


A certain five numbers, having levanted, became for the nonce men again, with names and histories--to be looked up in the prison records; and long did old Van der Eyde twist his white moustaches over an entry which set forth, in substance, that Julius Van Kloon, chemist and native of Rotterdam, had on a certain date been sentenced at Batavia to ten years' imprisonment for supplying, contrary to law, certain poisons to an insurgent Javani chief.

The Military Controller turned round to his secretary. "That was the Sidi business, wasn't it? Poisoned the water for our troops, the old villain did! But there's something in the matter that puts me in mind of the valuable colleague I am about, alas! to lose."

The ancient warrior's face belied his tone, and the secretary ventured on a decorous smile. "The connection is this, Excellency: Van Kloon was convicted wholly on the evidence of his partner, one Zevenbergen."

Colonel Van der Eyde banged his fist on the desk. "That's it!--our esteemed Civil-Controller's son! I remember there was a notion at the time that Zevenbergen had a hand in it himself!"

The secretary looked discreetly to the doors and windows. He knew--who better?--that prison officers are ex-officio eavesdroppers, and the Civil-Controller might recover, after all. Then, with bated breath, "There are those who still say, Excellency, that the job was wholly Zevenbergen's, and that his father knows it."

The colonel, with a mighty military oath, declared that he fully believed it, and that if the Government wanted to catch that poor devil of a Van Kloon, the Government might do it--for he, Van der Eyde, was essentially be-devilled if he'd try!


The Javanese of Moodan were not yet "protected." So little, indeed, were they in love with the paternal Hollander, that when into one of their coast villages there crawled a wretched creature in a tattered uniform, the people would have krissed him on the spot, but that close behind him staggered other starvelings in another livery they recognized. Prison-men had reached the Moodan coast before--bitter enemies of the Dutchman and all his works--and this soldier, doubtless, was of their mind. So it was welcome, instead of murder!


When at last in the Batavian papers it was announced that the Moodanese had gone under, it was mentioned with much flourishing of trumpets that in the midst of this ferocious people two hardy Hollanders had dwelt for years. "Our gallant troops," quoth editorial rigmarole, "were thunder-struck to receive, in the heart of hostile territory, a welcome from these adventurous pioneers!"

The "pioneers"--a runaway convict and a deserter--kept their own counsel.

 
 
 

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