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Ch. 8: 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

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

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

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

Rudyard Kipling