My Law and Thine
THE Maclises’ old Dutch house, like every other house in old Dutch Paramaribo, stands plumb on the street. At its rear, hidden between high walls, runs their garden; and in that garden the fruits of Eden forever ripen on the bough. Oranges, star-apples, and pommes de cythère, avocados, mangoes, and papaias great and small, maintain an endless parallel of fruit and flower. Their trunks are studded with orchids and vanilla. Beneath their spreading shelter a host of delicate bedded plants burn out a brilliant life at the forced speed of the Equator. And among the whole, planting, weeding, pruning, and gathering, once delved the faithful Sirpal.
Sirpal was a Calcutta man, tall, grizzled, gaunt, and silent. Long ago, in his own calamitous country, word had come of a land where hands so lacked to till the plenteous fields that the lords of that land would pay to bring them thither, offering, too, not only food but wage to boot.
4 Yes,’ said the sahib having the keeping of these matters, ‘it is true. But this Surinam lies very far beyond the seas. The vessel may be nigh two hundred days upon the voyage. And if you sail with her you are no more a free man. In that land you will at once be put under a master. Our great Queen still holds her shield above you always; she keeps her vigilant officer there to protect you, even as she keeps me here to help you now. But for seven years you must serve a master as he bids. In return, he must give you good housing, good care when you are sick, and a shilling a day in minimum wage. When the seven years are ended, you will be brought back to India without a price. Or, if you choose to remain in the land, you may then remain a free man. And the Queen of that country will give you in freehold a piece of good farming ground, in size according to the number of your children, and money and tools to the value of the ticket that would have brought you home.’
At this time a dearth prevailed in India. Sirpal was hungry and like to starve. So he chose. On the ship they handled him well; they gave him clothes to cover his shivering body from the ocean winds; and they gave him food in plenty, in accordance with his ways. So when he and three hundred and odd men, more or less like him, walked down the gang-plank at Paramaribo, the long voyage done, they were fat and sleek and hearty as they had never been before. Ten days or so they camped at the Government Immigration depot, by the broad, brown river, dozing in the clean and decent sleeping sheds, squatting under the palms, or gossiping in circles on the grass while their wrestlers or jugglers amused them by the hour. Their women — too few by far to wive them all — idled comfortably in groups. The children frisked at will. And always the strange liberality of food continued.
Then the lots were apportioned. Sirpal fell to Plantation Marienburg, than which no better fate could be. For a year he remained fat, because, lest in his racial passion for saving he starve himself to uselessness, his rations were supervised. After that he understood that to earn high wage he must be strong. So he starved only in moderation, and saved so much that when, at the end of the seventh year, he bargained to himself a wife, he could hang her neck with rows of golden sovereigns beneath its deep-carved silver torque.
The wedding was already eight months gone. Now Sirpal lived on his own ground, down Bigi Combé way near the little white mosque. His gourdwreathed thatch stood in the midst of his own lettuce and okra, tomatoes and beans, and each morning at dawn he rose with eagerness to till his rich, black earth and to gather such harvest as was ripe to coin. Two hours later, as he stalked, spade on shoulder, to the day’s work in Maclise Sahib’s garden, the witch-eyed Ramia followed on his heels as far as the market cross-road, bearing the produce in the basket on her head.
Market done, Ramia went on to her man, to lay the coppers before him and to sit at his side during the nooning hours. And whenever Nora Maclise, strolling in the garden, came upon those two, squatted silent in the shadow of the bread-fruit tree, she marveled afresh.
Sirpal, gaunt and haggard as an old gray wolf, pondered upon space, unseeing, with deep-sunk, smouldering eyes. His body rose bare from his dingy rags. His bones wore hard upon his dark, tense skin. His thighs, lean as the thighs of a grasshopper, bristled like a tarantula’s with blue-black hair. His face, benign enough at Nora’s word, remained an inscrutable mask — legacy of centuries of a mode of thought, locked and sealed from the occidental mind. Groping always for the key and always baffled, Nora still surmised an habitual contemplation of unmaterial things, and a potentiality of passionate action on the spur of almost abstract ideas.
As a radiant small butterfly to a grim old idol was Ramia to her man. Slender and lithe, with soft, smooth, rounded limbs, she moved in slow and easy grace. Her lovely face lay between the folds of her veil like a flower in its calyx. Her delicate mouth melted from perfect curve to perfect curve of subtile enchantment. Her great eyes held the wisdom, the coquetry, and the weariness of ages. Their slow side glance gleamed beneath the long black lashes like night asleep and aflame. But no one saw save the humming birds and the lizards — and sometimes Nora, who wondered.
Now and again a third joined the noonday pair beneath the bread-fruit tree — old Moti from the neighboring garden. Moti came to smoke and to talk the talk of men. Sirpal received him without cheer, grimly. Yet after the pipe had passed, his tongue was loosened and the hour studded with raw scraps of utterance, rough of sound as a macaw’s mutterings. Rarely, very rarely, old Moti tossed a word to little Ramia; Sirpal never. So she sat apart and played with pebbles or watched the leaves dance and the soft clouds voyage on the blue.
Once Nora gave her a string of Venetian beads. The gift made an epoch. On the instant she thrust it in her breast. But every day thereafter, while the two ancients talked, Ramia drew out her beads and fondled their smoothness or held them up to the sun to watch the life in their hearts.
Sometimes she dressed like the toucans, in shining colors. More often she went fully clad in the coarse cottons of common wear. But, whatever her garb, her arms and wrists, her ankles and toes, bore always much weight of graven silver, her forehead was banded with the heavy metal, curiously wrought, and the perfect oval of her face gleamed between great bell-shaped silver earrings, whose tinkling balls proclaimed each motion of her head. This was Sirpal’s wealth, and it exceedingly became her. But if her beauty gave him joy, or if her youth warmed him, no sign appeared in his impassive mien, and Ramia still sat through all the noonday hours, as silent, as lovely, and as unheeded as the great, fringed passionflowers that swung above her head.
‘Look at that beastly foeloe-weweri !'
Maclise was drinking early coffee in the garden when his eye lighted on the vicious growth of the parasite vine. ‘It’s roping up those lime trees like a nest of snakes! The work is getting ahead of Sirpal. Call me another coolie.’
So Khadenen came.
Khadenen was young. He was lively and able, and fell to with a will. Therefore Maclise liked him. He was gentle and kind, so that garden pets, which ordinarily hate a coolie only one degree less than a negro, endured him. Therefore Nora liked him, too. He was comely; in addition to which he had eyes not blind but seeing. Therefore Ramia liked him, and, as she fingered her beads, her own eyes began to follow Khadenen instead of the leaves and the clouds in the blue.
Ramia’s eyes, age-old in wisdom, infinite in ignorance, had no soul. But they said in their beauty that which is most unsafe to say. And the coolie women are few in the land — too few by far to wive the men.
Now sometimes Khadenen sang at his work, snatches of raucous chanting. And when he sang, from his perch in the boughs, Ramia forgot to finger her beads, and her gaze widened and grew fixed.
‘That gives the impression of stanzas of old verse,’ said Nora, listening. ‘I wish I understood the words.’
‘If you did,’ remarked Maclise, ‘I should have to silence the songster. But that old verse belongs to that old people, and none of us ever really understands either one.’
Then Long Dry Time came. Work slackened in the garden until old Sirpal sufficed, and Khadenen went his way. The place seemed somehow to miss him, but not as it missed Ramia, when, after a while, no Ramia appeared. Weeks passed, but Ramia came no more.
‘She is gone on a visit,’ said Sirpal, with unbroken calm.
It chanced in this season, late one glorious afternoon, that Nora set out alone for a stroll in the cultuur-tuin — the Government Experimental Garden. The great, unpeopled place was full of bird-songs and sweet jungle-breezes. Its lengths of wild bush-land, broken by fields of curious cultivations, brimmed with life and beauty, and its clear white paths of shell made pleasant walking.
At the bamboo clump, in whose heart the wind sings the song of ships’ cordage, Nora had meant to turn; but here the impulse came to cross the Garden to the farther side and take the long way home. The hour was too late, her better judgment knew, but the lure of the night was strong. The rosy lotusflowers in the trenches sprang from dark waters that mirrored a rosy sky. Great scarlet lilies fell from the trees upon her path. The carabao, resting in their pens, lifted slow eyes of wonder on the passing of a friend without a friend’s caress. The slender black-andscarlet butterflies that haunt the last rays of the sun balanced indolently in the air. But by the sisal-hemp plantation the sky was already dead. The towering blossom-spires stood forth like silver mourning-candelabra against a shield of steel. And the big, dim moths came forth.
Then the curious thick odors of the dusk, imperceptible under the sun and lost at night, arose and swarmed until the air turned faint and sick — odors of mould, of decay, of death steeping in the mire. By the great silk-cotton tree night fell, and that uncanny jungle-bird that is not seen by day appeared in the path, as is its spectral wont, running before the belated wayfarer. Running and flying, a soundless shadow, always but a pebble-toss ahead, it still led on into the brightening moonlight.
Then the last stretch, along the wild bush-land, where the bank of the drainage trench that flanks the other side is thickly stayed with trees. The path runs almost a tunnel, between its leafy, over-arching walls. Within, dim night prevailed, broken by moonbeams where the tree-tops thin, and threaded by the paleness of white flowers.
Nora moved quietly, watching the exquisite shadows of fern and leaf and vine playing in the silver spaces, watching the fire-flies dancing in the dark. Good wood-scents filled the air. It was very still; so still that the stir of little creatures in the leaves rose audible, and the murmur of a sleepy bird, resettling on its bough, seemed uttered in the ear. Once a palm-frond, caught in the bight of a swinging liana, eased away with a silky rustle. Once a fish splashed in the trench. All the sweet night breathed a unity of life inexpressibly close and intimate, and Nora drank in with awed delight the palpable sense of brotherhood.
Of a sudden, in the stillness ahead, grew a faint vague hint of foreign sound — of a soft scurrying, more persistent than the breeze in the foliage — of an unshod runner close and closer — of shell that gritted and flew beneath a flying tread — of heavy, gasping breath. Then a cloud of draperies all awhirl, and something fell at Nora’s feet, clasping her knees with two tense arms. In that fierce stricture the whole body shook with the hammering of the heart. Yet on the instant the grip gave way and the figure sank lax to earth with a shuddering whisper of despair.
‘Oh-h ! I had thought it was a man! ’
Stepping back into a patch of moonlight, Nora dragged the woman after her, and bent above her as she lay with hidden face — a coolie, young.
‘What is wrong?’
‘I can — run — no more. He — will kill me — now.’
The words came in dry gasps, choked by the frantic heart.
‘Where is he?’
‘There. — Close behind. — There!’
Nora raised her head and looked. A rod away in the path, clear in the moonlight, attempting no concealment, stood a tall, motionless silhouette,— an East-Indian,—and, in the flicker of a moonbeam a sinister gleam flashed from his cutlass hand.
‘Is he mad?’ asked Nora. ‘Did he come at you from the Asylum way?’
‘No, not mad. Oh!’ with a strangling groan of horror, ‘I had hoped you were a man. He will chop me now.’
Every natural white man’s instinct rose strong in Nora’s breast. This was a call of the race, and her spirit jumped to meet it.
‘He will not chop you,’ she said, with the certainty of conviction. ‘Get up.’
The woman stood, and the light fell upon her face, lovely as an houri’s beneath its silver crown.
‘Ramia!’ cried Nora.
‘Memsahib!’ gasped Ramia.
A rushing sense of personal outrage came with the recognition. Who dared to trouble one’s own little garden girl! The wrath bred by the thought left no place for fear.
‘You will come straight home with me,’ said Nora, seizing the soft, dark arm.
But at this, new agony intervened. ‘No! Oh no, no! I cannot. I dare not go home with the Memsahib!’
In each word terror mounted. There was no time to question or to urge.
‘Well, then, where do your friends live whom you are visiting now? ’ Nora spoke low.
’In the free grounds beyond this trench.’
‘Where is the bridge?’
‘Down here a little. I was—running for it. But — he came too fast.’
Nora turned toward the figure in the moonlight.
’This woman is mine, hear you, mine!’ she called, in the clear, sharp master-tongue, caring little that more should be understood than her own quality.
Then she faced about and, with a hand on the girl’s shoulder, started deliberately for the bridge. Neither spoke on the way. Ramia, spent and trembling, struggled to regain her breath. Nora’s mind was busy with the issue of the hour.
’I will stand on this side while you cross,’ she said, as the other set foot on the narrow plank that led to safety. ‘And I will wait here till you call from the other side that you are with your friends. To-morrow Sirpal shall fetch you home.’
For a time faint cracklings told whither the woman vanished. Then silence of original night, and at last a bird-like cry of rescue.
Relieved and glad, Nora turned away, to her own homing. And now the personal aspect sprang into prominence. As far ahead as eye could pierce, no human shape was visible, yet the would-be murderer might still lurk close in the dark. As she pushed along, the question whether he crouched within instant arm-reach, or crept hard behind, his breath on her shoulder, or hung in the shadows before, waxed keen and ugly. From the violence of the sane she knew her white skin saved her. But if the man were mad, a runaway? Each toad, each little snake that rustled in the leaves suggested a stir of shell by stealthy feet, and again and again Nora whirled on her heel, preferring to meet eye to eye the being stealing up with cutlass swung.
’Yet those there be who say this life is dull,’ said Maclise that night, and filled another pipe.
Next morning they sent for Sirpal. He came at once, rubbing the garden earth from his long, lean arms.
Without remark or sign of feeling he heard the story through, ending with Maclise’s, —
‘And now you may quit work and go find Ramia. You should take better care of her than this.’
’The Sahib is good,’ replied Sirpal. ‘May he live forever in prosperity. The Memsahib is very kind. And of a certainty I will care for Ramia.’ Then with his lowest salaam, he was gone — back to the garden and his banana transplanting.
On the morrow he appeared at the usual hour, wrapt in the usual calm, with assurance of Ramia’s safety. But that afternoon a dark thing happened. Nora was strolling by the water-side when, of a sudden, an unknown cooliewoman glided close, thrusting into her hands something cool and smooth — a string of Venetian beads — Ramia’s beads.
‘What does this mean?’ asked Nora sharply.
‘How should I know?’ replied the stranger. ‘But the words are these: “ I who send this send my all, having naught else. Soon and very soon I die and am no more. But first the Memsahib must know my gratitude.”’
’Where is Ramia?’ Nora’s mind was swept with black alarm. She would have forced the woman to clearer speech, but already she was gone, vanished utterly into the coolie crowd on the river-edge.
On the morrow’s morn no Sirpal appeared, and all that day the garden missed him. That night word came that Moti stood in the courtyard begging speech of the Master. Maclise stepped out upon the stoep. The old man salaamed to earth before him, frail as a wraith in the pale moonlight. Then, standing erect, he spoke slowly, with the mien of one charged with solemn duty.
' I am the messenger of Sirpal the gardener, who is now, by his own act and furtherance, imprisoned in the prison of the Queen, and shall not come forth again. Sirpal says, —
‘“May the Sahib live forever. May his goodness be greatly recompensed. I, Sirpal his servant, bless him. But I shall serve him no more. The matter stands thus: —
‘“In the day that I took Ramia to wife, in the presence of all the company, I performed the rite that is fitting. I passed my cutlass edge across her throat. This is the sign established by the law and custom of my kind. Its meaning is that if the woman give him cause, her husband shall with his own hand take her life in penalty. Ramia betrayed me — going to the young man Khadenen. Therefore my duty was upon me, lest shame be brought upon our law and lesser men make mock of greater matters. But I was slow to my duty and blameworthy, for my mind was fixed on contemplation and I thought not of the woman. Then, in the open market, an accursed one taunted me. That night I sought her. But the hour was not yet, for the Memsahib, from whose hand I might not take her, came between. Last night I took her. With my sharp cutlass I chopped her — chopped her duly in many pieces, and laid them on the trench bank that they might be seen of all men. Then I came forth and sought the police and gave myself to them; that the law of their land may be obeyed on me even as I have obeyed the law that is mine. May the Sahib live forever and ever. Tomorrow young radishes will be ripe in his garden. Salaam, salaam, and thrice salaam. In all things I am satisfied.”’