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Live Man Gardiner by Alexander Montgomery

 

"BOSH!" shouted a sudden voice out of the shadows.

The two traders started. It was hours since their compotator had fallen ingloriously to the first bottle of "De Kuyper," and they were by this time well downstairs in the second.

Fleming half-filled a tumbler and took it over to the hammock. "You're supposed to've been killed in the first act, old cock! But, since you've come to life again, just get this down your neck, and explain! What's bosh?"

The gin went down, and Daddy Murchison sat up. "Help me out!" he said, and the ginger-headed giant half-lifted him to the floor. The old man up-ended again the gin-case that had gone down with him, and sat blinking disreputably at the lamp for a minute before he said--"I heard you chaps blatherskitin' about cannibalism. No such thing in Borneo! You settled that all right, didn't you?"

Gardiner foresaw contradiction. "No, Daddy!--no. We want your opinion first, you know!"

"Shows your sense, too! Three years in the 'Pelago, I heard you say you were. And Bullocky Fleming, here--he thinks he knows a lump because he's been about twice as long! But I've been thirty-five years amongst the islands, young man; and I say there's cannibalism--plenty of it--among the Dyaks of the south-east!"

"Bullocky" grinned down at him through the smoke. "Cocksure little animal it is!" he said. "But the question is--what proof have you th' ever was any mancatin' hereaway? That's the talk!"

The old man got up--wild-eyed with sudden horror.

"Proof, man? Why, I've--" He broke off, took a gulp of gin, and sat down again, shaking.

The others--smiling no longer--said not a word. There was some ugly reality behind this!

Daddy Murchison smote his ancient fist upon the table. "I'll tell 'em!" he muttered. "By God! I must tell somebody before I die!" He forced a mirthless smile, and lit his pipe. "Oh, you needn't look like that, Bullocky! No more cranky than yourself; though I've a lot more reason to be!"

Puff, puff, for half a minute--then, with the suddenness of a man keeping himself to the scratch--

"There was a chap used to make the round trip with trade--Singapore across to Landak, down to Banjermassin, and away round again by the east coast, up to Shanghai, with trepang and birds' nests and things. 'Bout thirty years ago, it was; before the Dutchies had squared things up much; and, you bet, it was risky work. How Blinker Johnson--that was the name he went by--managed to escape the pumpaks, I dunno; unless 'twas because he was such an infernally bad lot himself. Runaway mate of an American barque he was; put a bullet through his skipper somewhere up among the Carolines. I was knockin' about. Banjermassin, dead broke, and when Blinker told me he wanted a hand I thought I might as well try my luck up in Chow-land.

"Never got there! I wasn't over-holy then--ain't now, for that matter!--but such a God-forgotten set of wretches as Blinker's crew never came together in one bottom? Good-sized lump of a brig, she was--but manned three times over. Half-a-dozen whites--the rest all sorts and colours, and every man of 'em a bigger scoundrel than the next! Before we commenced our northing I was full of it. In fact, my life wasn't worth a button among 'em, after they guessed what I thought of 'em; and when Blinker plugged a Sunda-man for droppin' a marlin'spike from the main-t'-gallan'-yard, I swore to myself that--sink or swim--I wouldn't round Cape Kamiungun with him.

"A couple of days after that I got a chance. We anchored in the mouth of a middling big river. I forget its name, but there was a Dyak place just above that was a good mark for swallows' nests--the kind the Chinkies eat, you know. I got away all right. Chanced the sharks, I did, and swam ashore in the darkness. Blinker kicked up a devil of a splash, but the Dyaks kept me snug, and he had to make sail without me.

"Well, the Dyaks round there ain't a bad sort, if you don't rub 'em the wrong way. The Orang-Kaya took a great fancy to me, and nothing 'd do him, after a bit, but I must go with 'em on a raid against a village about 20 miles up-river. Same old game, it was--came down on 'em just before day, fired the roofs, and dropped 'em as they bolted. The poor devils didn't have a show, and our fellows got nearly a couple of hundred heads, besides a big haul of women and kids. Half-a-dozen young-men prisoners they had, too, but I didn't know much about Dyaks then, and I saw nothing strange in that.

"When we got back there was a big spread. All the usual stinkin' cookery the Dyaks are so gone upon, and a lot more that I could see was special for the occasion. Plenty of tuak, too, and the women, as usual, eggin' on the men to drink, till three-parts of 'em tumbled off their perches. The chief was a hard old case, though, and when another gorge came on, some time towards morning, he tackled it like a wolf. Peckish, myself, I was; and sober, for I couldn't stomach the darned rot-gut of tuak then as I can now. Reg'lar demon to stuff himself, the Orang was; and, d'ye know, it gave me a queer kind of a shiver to see the look of him into a big brass pot that four young women put down before him. Some kind of a stew, it smelt like, and a lot of 'em gathered round while the old boy fished out a piece and scoffed it. Then he looked at me and said something, and all the others looked, too, and started laughing.

"The Orang called me over and asked if I would like some. 'Yes,' I said, for I understood some of their lingo; and then they all guffawed again. I couldn't make it out; but there couldn't be much harm in the stuff or the old man wouldn't have smacked his lips over it. I took the piece he offered me--about the size of a mutton-chop, it was--and then, seeing how they were all watching me, I thought I'd ask what it was, at all events. The old villain showed all his sharkified teeth. 'Orang!' says he. Well, he was the Orang himself--the Orang-Kaya; so I supposed it was some special dish of his own, and that he wanted to do me honour. But orang-kaya means 'rich man,' and as I said the words over to myself, it all came clear to me in a flash. 'Orang--man!' I pitched the horror away and made for the door as if Satan was after me!"

For half a minute the old man sat silent--recalling the scene; then he reached out his hand--steady now, as was the eye beneath the bushy white brow. Gardiner pushed him the bottle. Fleming got and up cut himself a pipeful, before--like a man who half-dreaded the answer--he asked--"So you got away all right, Daddy?"

Daddy slowly relighted his own pipe, and eclipsed himself with vapour.

"No, Fleming, lad--not that turn! I was collared at the door and brought back to the chief. His face was like the devil's in a picture, with his eyes like a cornered cobra's, and his lips curled clean away from his black, crocodile teeth. He had his parang in his hand, and he lifted it to make a slash at me. I thought I was a goner, and no mistake, but he didn't strike. He says something to one of the women, and she fishes out another chunk of dreadfulness, and holds it out to me. I looked at the chief, and he jabbered something I didn't quite understand. But I understood that he meant business--I had seen that parang at work before! 'Twas"--Daddy put down his pipe and groaned--"'Twas--cannibal--or--dead-un--that's what it was!"

Fleming knocked over the bottle as he jumped to his feet again.

"Good God! old man, you don't mean to say--"

Gardiner sat still. "Of course he does! It's clear it wasn't dead-un, so it must have been--"

"Cannibal!" screeched the old man--smashed his pipe on the table, and rushed out into the glimmering dawn.


"Mad?" asked Fleming.

Said Gardiner--"Queer, to begin with--and queerer for the liquor. But that was no madman's yarn!"

The big man shuddered right through his six-feet-three. "Faugh! to think we've been drinking with a man-eater!"

"Rubbish! Drinking with a man who preferred his life to his prejudices, that's all. I don't envy him the fix; but if it had been mine--"

"You'd have done the same?"

"Bet your pretty little boots I would!"

"Bullocky" doubled his historic fist. "You're a better-educated man than me, Mr. William Gardiner--by a jugful! Seen a lot more, too, in some ways. But, by gum! if I thought you meant what you said--"

"You'd get plugged, old man--that's all! Lay a finger on me, Mr. Bullocky Fleming, and I'll blow a hole in you 'fore you can take it off again!"

The giant gasped. "Thought you was a man, Gardiner!"

"Man? Exac'ly! Nine-stone man! Very reason I don't intend to be knocked about by eighteen stone of bull-beef and stupidity! See?"

The Mandhar trader saw. He, too, had a "gun" at his belt, but he wasn't in it at that game with the Californian.

"Don't be an ass, Fleming, as well as a bullock! Man that comes for me gen'lly gets left! Take another 'wheel-greaser' and we'll have a look for poor old Fly-by-night. If he's not exac'ly mad, he's not overpoweringly sane, either, and I don't like the way he skedaddled. Hello--what's this?"

"This" was a scribbled scrap of paper, presented by a Dyak boy with the awe due to the mysterious soundless words of white men.

"Dear Gardiner,--Don't bother about me. I've felt for a long time as if I must let out this horror. Don't think I'm mad! The thing's true enough; so true that, now it's out, I'm going to do what I should have done long ago."

"Make away with himself, eh?" Fleming said, when Gardiner handed him the scrawl. "Best thing he can do, too!"

"Bigger fool than I took him for! Come on, and we'll have a look for him! No use asking young yellowskin anything; primed with his answer!"


The sun had hardly hove his deep-red disc clear of the cold blue jungle line beyond the woolly-misted river--yet all the village was astir with men who ran to swell a throng about the Orang's house--though few had ventured to join the little group upon the platform.

The crowd fell back, right and left, from the ladder-foot as the white men came. Gardiner wondered at the shamefaced greeting of the few whose eyes met his. "What is it, brothers?" he called out, in Dyak, but only the Orang answered from above.

"Come up, white brother; he is here!"

"Corpse, I suppose!" and Gardiner scrambled up.

Murchison wasn't quite a corpse. His eyes had recognition in them, and he faintly moved a hand. Gardiner stooped--lifted the sarong that lay over the old man's chest--dropped it suddenly, and faced fiercely round upon the Orang.

"Who?" he said.

The Orang pointed down to the dying man. "Hear, first, his words. The time is very short."

The bloodless lips were moving feebly. Gardiner lay down upon the bamboos to bring his ear to the old man's mouth.

"It was Eki, the smith; but I forced him to do it. Spat on him, I did, and then he wouldn't; so I struck him in the face, and then--"

"He gave you a slash that would have killed a buffalo! S'pose you know it's a finisher?"

"Yes! They've stopped the bleedin' a bit, but I know it's a case with me--as I meant it to be! New thing in sui--"

Death took the last syllable.


For the killing of Roderick--commonly known as "Daddy"--Murchison, Eki, the smith, was arraigned before a court that combined less "frill" with more expedition than any other upon record.

Gardiner at top of the table in his store; Fleming on his right hand; on his left, Musman, the Orang-Kaya. At bottom, the accused, disarmed and bound; behind him a crowd of gaping Dyaks and a Malay or two from a prahu in the river.

Facts clear enough. Eki was rolling a cigar; white man walked up and "made spittle" in his face. Eki dropped cigar and took hold of parang. Then white man struck, and Eki cut him down.

Mr. Justice Fleming would acquit the prisoner. "It was a devil of a thing to be 'landed' on the nose without warning!"

Mr. Justice Musman concurred. It was evident the white man wanted to be killed. "The prisoner had merely obliged him!"

Chief-Justice Gardiner opined that this was all d--d rubbish! A Dyak had killed a white man! There was severe provocation; but this Court wasn't going to establish the precedent that a Dyak might kill a white man upon any provocation! He found prisoner guilty, sentenced him to be shot, and then and there--before anybody could lift a finger--did shoot him!

The petrifaction of amazement rested for a moment on the assemblage--then the Orang headed a stampede for the door, and in half a minute only Gardiner and Fleming were left with the corpse. "Bullocky," too, got up to go, but at the door he turned.

"Gardiner," he said--"you can shoot me, if you like!--but I say you're not a man--you're a devil!"

The little man laughed. "Don't want to shoot you, Bullocky!--not worth it! Get away home to Mandhar, and peddle cocoanuts--it's about all you're fit for! As for me, I'm no devil--I'm only Live-man Gardiner!"

 
 
 

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