Life's Handicap, by Rudyard Kipling

The Limitations of Pambe Serang

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’s hand.

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 lazy lascar!’

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 forwards.

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 gentleman.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38