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  ― 253 ―

The Sleeping Sickness of LuI the Kanaka

“PLEASE, Mr. Wilton,” said my overseer, appearing suddenly at the door of the dining-room one sunny morning at seven o'clock, “there's worse news than ever.”

“Well, Elgar,” I answered, without excitement, carrying a piece of well-buttered toast to my mouth, “what's up now?”

“Wopobra is down! I missed him at his breakfast, and on going to his hut found him lying asleep on his bunk, with his face to the wall; and there he'll lie till he dies and rots, if we'll let him.”

I rose, pushing back my chair so hurriedly that it toppled over, and taking a quick turn up and down the room, thought bitterly of the aspect of success in store for the sugar industry over whose interests I was paid to watch. Only last month I had to send three Kanakas into the township suffering with leprosy, and now the Kanakas were dying at the rate of eight for the past three weeks. One, the first, died of dengue fever. There was no mistake about that; but


  ― 254 ―
his successor had no sign of fever nor illness of any sort. He just made up his mind to die, turned his face to the wall, and in two days was dead. So with a third “boy,” then a fourth, another, and another, until I was fairly puzzled. Johnny, a stalwart, broad-shouldered, and healthy “boy,” took to his bunk one fine morning, and neither the pokes of Elgar nor the curses of the black overseer of his gang had the slightest effect in rousing him. He, too, pegged out, and had been buried last night.

Elgar's news worried me horribly. Wopobra was one of the most reliable and honest workers on the plantation—a heavy, knock-kneed “Tanna” boy, with the laughing mouth, perfect teeth, and wondering eyes of his countrymen. He had been fifteen years on the place, and now superintended the cane-cutting of a large gang of new “boys.”

Presently I took my hat down from the peg on the door, left my scarcely-opened egg, swallowed the contents of my coffee cup, and followed Elgar down the yard and across the space to the boys' huts. We soon reached the one of which we were in search, and lifting up the heavy bag hanging across the door, I entered.

Wopobra was, as Elgar had said, lying absolutely motionless, with a blanket over his shoulder, and his face hidden next the wall. The outlines of his high hip, clumsy feet, and one sprawling hand, with the delicate and filbert-nailed fingers peculiar to his race, gave me the impression of a man—to use a common term—“throwing up the sponge.” For all the sign of life he gave he might have been already dead. I crossed over and gave his curly head a pull. “Well, Wopobra,


  ― 255 ―
what sort of game you call this, eh?” A moan was the only answer. “Here, get up,” I said, giving him a more vigorous pull, “get up and do your work. What for you skulk, you lazy hound? Get up,” and yet a third pull.

I might as well have tugged at a corpse.

“Perhaps he's dead,” Elgar suggested, and I bent over his face.

“Dead, not he—shamming more likely,” and with Elgar's help I caught him by the shoulders and got him into a sitting position.

“You lazy dog,” I said angrily, “lift yourself up,” hoping to arouse him by rough words, calm ones having had not the faintest effect with the other boys now dead.

He opened his eyes and looked into my face so dully and stupidly, that I felt half a pang at the mode of treatment I had adopted, but I determined to give it yet a few more minutes' trial, for, truth to tell, I was in despair about these easy-dying chaps. Shaking, kicking, swearing, proved not of any avail however; directly it was over he fell back in an inert heap, and so we left him.

On our way to the mill I called at the hut of the native doctor of the herd. Lui was inside—his work hours did not commence until nine, as he was not overstrong, and so was allowed the easy billet of throwing the stacks of cane upon the feeders. “Go down to Wopobra—he plenty ill,” I said. “Suppose you make him well, I give you £1, Lui.”

Lui spread out his hands and rolled his eyes. “No good, boss,” he droned dolefully, “He die soon—he feel him gwine to die—he no try live now.” As he


  ― 256 ―
spoke a thought flashed through my mind, and I retraced my steps to Wopobra's bedside.

It was too late; the poor wretch was dead!

That night I sat hour after hour in my squatter chair on the moonlit verandah, and smoked pipe after pipe as I endeavoured to arrive at some satisfactory solution of these extraordinary deaths.

First and foremost I came to the conclusion that a great deal of it had to do with the Kanakas' well-known habit of “caving in.” Any planter who employs boys (and who does not?) will tell you that sometimes if his fingers ache, one of these men will lie down and die; a fit of biliousness, a short bout of toothache, and he will neither eat nor be comforted. If the fit takes him, he quietly dies.

Secondly, I concluded that if some drastic measure could dispel the lethargy through which the lazy fellow found so comfortable an egress from the world, a cure might possibly be effected. Plan after plan occurred to and was rejected by me, until at last I hit upon one that I thought might suit my purpose. Just as the glorious Queensland morning light was glimmering rosily over the cane tops—my usual hour for rising, I went in and tumbled on the bed, boots and all, for a short rest before breakfast.

That morning passed without any unusual incident. Wopobra was buried at sunrise, and towards evening his comrades gathered together, after they had knocked off work, to watch the burning of his hut and its contents. I turned to leave when this was done. “Where is Lui?” I asked. I required him to take a turn at rolling my tennis lawn, but I could not distinguish his face among the crowd.




  ― 257 ―

“Here, Sammy,” and I beckoned to a mate of his. “Go and find Lui, and help him to roll the lawn.”

Sammy tramped off to find him, and I walked slowly up to the house, thinking no more of the matter.

After perhaps the lapse of half an hour, the house-keeper's knock woke me out of a nodding doze, and she informed me that Sammy would like to speak to me. I went out slipperless to the back verandah steps. “Well, Sammy?”

“Please, boss, Lui plenty sick!”

“What!” I almost yelled; “say it again, you black devil; what!

“Lui, he die soon,” Sammy said stolidly. “Lui, he plenty sick!”

“Oh, indeed!” and I laughed sarcastically. “We'll soon see to that. Sick is he? He'll be sick before I've finished with him.”

My patience, never my strongest point, had at last given way, and I went inside and laced up my boots with a grim determination in my heart to knock the die out of my friend Lui. I took down a heavy stockwhip from its nail on the verandah; and so great was my indignation, and so unmeasured my haste, that in hurrying from the house I slipped down the last eight steps and nearly broke my neck. At boiling point I hastened past the mill and the clumps of huts, grasping yet tighter the coiled stockwhip in my hand, until I reached Lui's abode. Then my whip sprang out as if by magic. I whirled it round my head with a resounding crack. “Here, Lui,” I yelled, “come out of that.”

No answer—a silence like the grave.

“Lui, you black devil”; and I made his walls shake


  ― 258 ―
where the whip whistled about them. “Come here, I say, or I'll hide the liver out of you.”

A rustle inside and Lui appeared, but sunk in a heap at the door, even as his hand parted the bags. “Me welly bad, boss,” he whined; “me soon die!”

“Die, be damned,” I said grimly.” “I'll die you.” I squeezed behind him and planted in the middle of his bent back a kick that sent him well out in the front of the house. Then I prodded him with the butt end of the whip. “Get up and RUN, Lui,” I said insinuatingly. “I'LL make you well—run—run—RUN, you ebony hell-cat, RUN.” Each word I emphasised with a flick from the whip-end. Soon he dimly realised the necessity for rising and immediate flight, and he crept to his hands and knees and turned on me so pitiful a gaze, with his mouth working and his frame shaking, that I almost faltered in my purpose —ALMOST, not quite.

“You pig-dog—hell-beast,” I shrieked, “GET UP AND RUN,” and I brought the whip heavily round his flanks. As it curled above my head for a second blow, he did run; my God! HOW HE RAN! The cracker of my whip just tickled his moleskin clad calf, and he was off like a deer. Down one of the paths between the cane he flew, and I followed. I couldn't get at him in the cane, there the whip was useless to me, but soon he reached the end of that short patch and ran into the bullock-yard, screaming like a badly-pithed ox.

Ah, ha! I had him now.

He attempted time after time to clamber up the slabs and over the fence, but I flicked a bit of his skin


  ― 259 ―
every time, so savagely that he could not reach the top, and fell headlong to the ground.

Round and round that bullock-yard I lashed him —lashed his Crimean shirt to ribbons—lashed great weals upon his chest and shoulders and across his arms, until at length my arm refused further service, and fell helpless at my side. His shrieks for mercy stopped, and he stood for an instant silent and at bay, with fiery, hunted eyes and labouring chest. The veins in his throat stood out like cables, and his hands clenched and unclenched themselves in an agony of feeling. Then, when he realised that the whip had fallen he rushed over and feel on his knees before me.

“Boss, boss,” he groaned harshly and brokenly, and a flood of tears poured from his bloodshot eyes; “Boss, boss, I will no die! I will no die.”

I just leant against the rails and looked at him—too exhausted to speak. I noticed his exquisitely-shaped hands, hands over which a painter would have raved; how he wrung them, how he sobbed, cringing in the dirt before me like a cruelly chastised child.

After some moments I put out my hand and let it sink into the mass of curls running over his head.

“You get well, Lui,” I panted, “or I'm damned if I don't do it again.”

Slowly and with effort I passed the whip from my stiff and blistered fingers into my left hand, and leaving Lui abjectly grovelling in the dust of the yard, I went on my way to the house.

THERE WERE NO MORE DEATHS.

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