of Pambe Serang
[Footnote: Copyright, 1891, by MACMILLAN Co.]
If you consider the circumstances of the case, it was the only
thing that he could do. But Pambe Serang has been hanged by the neck
till he is dead, and Nurkeed is dead also.
Three years ago, when the Elsass-Lothringen steamer Saarbruck was
coaling at Aden and the weather was very hot indeed, Nurkeed, the big
fat Zanzibar stoker who fed the second right furnace thirty feet down
in the hold, got leave to go ashore. He departed a 'Seedee boy,' as
they call the stokers; he returned the full-blooded Sultan of
Zanzibar—His Highness Sayyid Burgash, with a bottle in each hand.
Then he sat on the fore-hatch grating, eating salt fish and onions,
and singing the songs of a far country. The food belonged to Pambe,
the Serang or head man of the lascar sailors. He had just cooked it
for himself, turned to borrow some salt, and when he came back
Nurkeed's dirty black fingers were spading into the rice.
A serang is a person of importance, far above a stoker, though the
stoker draws better pay. He sets the chorus of 'Hya! Hulla! Hee-ah!
Heh!' when the captain's gig is pulled up to the davits; he heaves the
lead too; and sometimes, when all the ship is lazy, he puts on his
whitest muslin and a big red sash, and plays with the passengers'
children on the quarter-deck. Then the passengers give him money, and
he saves it all up for an orgie at Bombay or Calcutta, or Pulu Penang.
'Ho! you fat black barrel, you're eating my food!' said Pambe, in the
Other Lingua Franca that begins where the Levant tongue stops, and
runs from Port Said eastward till east is west, and the sealing-brigs
of the Kurile Islands gossip with the strayed Hakodate junks.
'Son of Eblis, monkey-face, dried shark's liver, pigman, I am the
Sultan Sayyid Burgash, and the commander of all this ship. Take away
your garbage;' and Nurkeed thrust the empty pewter rice-plate into
Pambe beat it into a basin over Nurkeed's woolly head. Nurkeed drew
HIS sheath-knife and stabbed Pambe in the leg. Pambe drew his
sheath-knife; but Nurkeed dropped down into the darkness of the hold
and spat through the grating at Pambe, who was staining the clean
fore-deck with his blood.
Only the white moon saw these things; for the officers were looking
after the coaling, and the passengers were tossing in their close
cabins. 'All right,' said Pambe—and went forward to tie up his
leg—'we will settle the account later on.'
He was a Malay born in India: married once in Burma, where his wife
had a cigar-shop on the Shwe Dagon road; once in Singapore, to a
Chinese girl; and once in Madras, to a Mahomedan woman who sold fowls.
The English sailor cannot, owing to postal and telegraph facilities,
marry as profusely as he used to do; but native sailors can, being
uninfluenced by the barbarous inventions of the Western savage. Pambe
was a good husband when he happened to remember the existence of a
wife; but he was also a very good Malay; and it is not wise to offend
a Malay, because he does not forget anything. Moreover, in Pambe's
case blood had been drawn and food spoiled.
Next morning Nurkeed rose with a blank mind. He was no longer
Sultan of Zanzibar, but a very hot stoker. So he went on deck and
opened his jacket to the morning breeze, till a sheath-knife came like
a flying- fish and stuck into the woodwork of the cook's galley half
an inch from his right armpit. He ran down below before his time,
trying to remember what he could have said to the owner of the weapon.
At noon, when all the ship's lascars were feeding, Nurkeed advanced
into their midst, and, being a placid man with a large regard for his
own skin, he opened negotiations, saying, 'Men of the ship, last night
I was drunk, and this morning I know that I behaved unseemly to some
one or another of you. Who was that man, that I may meet him face to
face and say that I was drunk?'
Pambe measured the distance to Nurkeed's naked breast. If he sprang
at him he might be tripped up, and a blind blow at the chest sometimes
only means a gash on the breast-bone. Ribs are difficult to thrust
between unless the subject be asleep. So he said nothing; nor did the
other lascars. Their faces immediately dropped all expression, as is
the custom of the Oriental when there is killing on the carpet or any
chance of trouble. Nurkeed looked long at the white eyeballs. He was
only an African, and could not read characters. A big sigh—almost a
groan— broke from him, and he went back to the furnaces. The lascars
took up the conversation where he had interrupted it. They talked of
the best methods of cooking rice.
Nurkeed suffered considerably from lack of fresh air during the run
to Bombay. He only came on deck to breathe when all the world was
about; and even then a heavy block once dropped from a derrick within
a foot of his head, and an apparently firm-lashed grating on which he
set his foot, began to turn over with the intention of dropping him on
the cased cargo fifteen feet below; and one insupportable night the
sheath-knife dropped from the fo'c's'le, and this time it drew blood.
So Nurkeed made complaint; and, when the Saarbruck reached Bombay,
fled and buried himself among eight hundred thousand people, and did
not sign articles till the ship had been a month gone from the port.
Pambe waited too; but his Bombay wife grew clamorous, and he was
forced to sign in the Spicheren to Hongkong, because he realised that
all play and no work gives Jack a ragged shirt. In the foggy China
seas he thought a great deal of Nurkeed, and, when Elsass-Lothringen
steamers lay in port with the Spicheren, inquired after him and found
he had gone to England via the Cape, on the Gravelotte. Pambe came to
England on the Worth. The Spicheren met her by the Nore Light. Nurkeed
was going out with the Spicheren to the Calicut coast.
'Want to find a friend, my trap-mouthed coal-scuttle?' said a
gentleman in the mercantile service. 'Nothing easier. Wait at the
Nyanza Docks till he comes. Every one comes to the Nyanza Docks. Wait,
you poor heathen.' The gentleman spoke truth. There are three great
doors in the world where, if you stand long enough, you shall meet any
one you wish. The head of the Suez Canal is one, but there Death comes
also; Charing Cross Station is the second—for inland work; and the
Nyanza Docks is the third. At each of these places are men and women
looking eternally for those who will surely come. So Pambe waited at
the docks. Time was no object to him; and the wives could wait, as he
did from day to day, week to week, and month to month, by the Blue
Diamond funnels, the Red Dot smoke-stacks, the Yellow Streaks, and the
nameless dingy gypsies of the sea that loaded and unloaded, jostled,
whistled, and roared in the everlasting fog. When money failed, a kind
gentleman told Pambe to become a Christian; and Pambe became one with
great speed, getting his religious teachings between ship and ship's
arrival, and six or seven shillings a week for distributing tracts to
mariners. What the faith was Pambe did not in the least care; but he
knew if he said 'Native Ki-lis- ti-an, Sar' to men with long black
coats he might get a few coppers; and the tracts were vendible at a
little public-house that sold shag by the 'dottel,' which is even
smaller weight than the 'half-screw,' which is less than the
half-ounce, and a most profitable retail trade.
But after eight months Pambe fell sick with pneumonia, contracted
from long standing still in slush; and much against his will he was
forced to lie down in his two-and-sixpenny room raging against Fate.
The kind gentleman sat by his bedside, and grieved to find that
Pambe talked in strange tongues, instead of listening to good books,
and almost seemed to become a benighted heathen again—till one day he
was roused from semi-stupor by a voice in the street by the dock-head.
'My friend—he,' whispered Pambe. 'Call now—call Nurkeed. Quick! God
has sent him!'
'He wanted one of his own race,' said the kind gentleman; and,
going out, he called 'Nurkeed!' at the top of his voice. An
excessively coloured man in a rasping white shirt and brand-new slops,
a shining hat, and a breastpin, turned round. Many voyages had taught
Nurkeed how to spend his money and made him a citizen of the world.
'Hi! Yes!' said he, when the situation was explained. 'Command
him— black nigger—when I was in the Saarbruck. Ole Pambe, good ole
Pambe. Dam lascar. Show him up, Sar;' and he followed into the room.
One glance told the stoker what the kind gentleman had overlooked.
Pambe was desperately poor. Nurkeed drove his hands deep into his
pockets, then advanced with clenched fists on the sick, shouting,
'Hya, Pambe. Hya! Hee-ah! Hulla! Heh! Takilo! Takilo! Make fast aft,
Pambe. You know, Pambe. You know me. Dekho, jee! Look! Dam big fat
Pambe beckoned with his left hand. His right was under his pillow.
Nurkeed removed his gorgeous hat and stooped over Pambe till he could
catch a faint whisper. 'How beautiful!' said the kind gentleman. 'How
these Orientals love like children!'
'Spit him out,' said Nurkeed, leaning over Pambe yet more closely.
'Touching the matter of that fish and onions—' said Pambe—and
sent the knife home under the edge of the rib-bone upwards and
There was a thick sick cough, and the body of the African slid
slowly from the bed, his clutching hands letting fall a shower of
silver pieces that ran across the room.
'Now I can die!' said Pambe.
But he did not die. He was nursed back to life with all the skill
that money could buy, for the Law wanted him; and in the end he grew
sufficiently healthy to be hanged in due and proper form.
Pambe did not care particularly; but it was a sad blow to the kind