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
"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
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
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
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