Chapter VII.

26 Apr

Lea, sitting beside Thav in a rattan chair on the veranda of the manor house, sensed the tension in her new friend.

“My brother has given me and the staff little time for preparing everything. The reception invitations have already been sent. So, tomorrow evening you and your father will meet the planter families who are our neighbors.”

Lea smiled calmly. “Have all these efforts put a strain on you, Thav?”

The latter’s blue eyes became suddenly distant and abstracted.

“It isn’t that. I am used to carrying out my brother’s plans for entertaining a lot of people here.” She hesitated for a bare moment. “Perhaps what happened when we were in the drosky is the thing that is weighing on my nerves. It was so unexpected. Why should a dacoit be making threats against us? Our workers are treated the same as those of all the other planters. I realize that Khaph is at times apt to lose his patience with the tribers who work for us. He insists that they are naturally lazy and only do what is told when compelled by threat of force. This causes him to go too far with physical punishment, I admit that. But the danger always is that these people will rebel and turn to crime, like Yod Teth has. My brother says that the brigand is eager to acquire new recruits to his band. That is the reason our workers are given such strict treatment. It is the only way to keep them under control. The situation is a very serious one.”

Thav seems to be equivocating between contrary ideas, Lea told herself. There are the arguments of her brother that she falls back on and repeats. The justifications for the brutality of the overseer are his. But the evidence of her own eyes is of the cruel inhumanity toward the Varzeans. Which way will the balance finally fall in the mind of Thav? she wondered. What will her eventual judgment turn out to be?

There was no immediate answer to such questions about the young woman.

“I sympathize with you, my friend,” gently admitted the house guest. “We have no similar native problem in my country. For several generations now, the Tochians have been occupying and settling into this part of the tropical forest. Whenever a process like that occurs, with two totally different cultures meeting, troubles of many sorts are sure to arise. It will take a lot of patience and wisdom to resolve them. Future days will be full of great difficulties. Even I can see that.

The other woman grimaced. “Our planters are a close-minded, stubborn group. Perhaps it is a fear of what the Varzeans are capable of, the damage and ruin they could cause, that makes them the way they are. It is a difficult riddle to solve. How will all of us live together in the future? That is the problem.

“I wish there was a clear answer or solution,” she added in a low voice.

Lea, stretching out her right arm, placed a hand on Thav’s.

“You have a kind heart, my friend,” she trustingly murmured. “It will be your best guide in the days to come.”

Mem Samekh sat behind his dark teak desk, his face reddening to a burning peak. He looked at his overseer, thinking over and over what he had just learned. His mind was troubled with fears that never left.

“You put those three into the hoosgow?”

“As soon as they were finished working. They are awaiting punishment there, sir.”

The planter thought for a few moments.

Once he made up his mind, he lumbered to his feet.

“I must take care of this myself, Khaph. The duty is mine to carry out.”

The overseer watched his employer move to the office door and open it. There was going to be something unprecedented: the Master himself administering physical punishment on disobedient native workers. It was to be direct application of a planter’s power and authority, simple physical assault.

Following Mem, he moved a step behind him toward the plantation stables.

Into the cement building went the two men.

Several horses, as if sensing the raw fury inside their owner, became still and quiet, their ears pointed upright.

Mem went to the end of the central aisle, into the equipment storage space. He bent down and opened an unlocked floor chest made of striped zebrawood.

Khaph moved closer, crouching over to see what instrument of pain was about to be chosen. He knew which he himself would choose: a heavy rattan cane.

But all at once the Master raised a special horse whip used to break in young geldings. Khaph watched him move his hand along the leathery cords of spicebush and cinchona bark, as if caressing the cruel lashing weapon.

Mem, raising himself, closed the lid of the long chest.

“This is what befits these three shirkers,” he stated evenly. “Like dumb beasts, they shall feel the pain of a whipping where the marks will be visible.”

“Visible?” said a confused Khaph.

The planter looked at him with a sadistic smile on his lips.

“Not just chest and back, but hands and even face. It is going to be a thorough job. None of them will be able to hide the stigma I’m about to place on their bronze skin. It will brand them for their crimes. They will serve as examples of the fate of any triber who turns disobedient or rebellious. Hard punishment has always been an effective teacher for us in the past.”

Breathless, Khaph followed him out of the stable. Every horse they passed was aware of what Mem Samekh carried in his hand. The animals were plainly fearful of the object. It foretold of approaching terror and pain.

Within less than a minute, the offenders were removed from the lock-up and ordered to lie down prone in a flat, bare area in back of the stable.

None of the horses inside dared neigh or whine as they listened to the brutal lashing that followed. Their instinctual defenses told them to remain quiet.

The Master went from one target to the next, giving each of them the treatment just laid on the prior subject of punishment. His energy or emotion never flagged.

First came the front torso. Then, an order to turn over. Three backs were violently thrashed with the whipcord. Blood was soon flowing in a flood out of the deep wounds made. The pain involved for the victims grew more intense.

“Faces to the sky,” shouted Mem, by now in a frenzy of demoniac hatred.

One-by-one, the Varzeans did as they were told.

Khaph set his eyes into the nearby forest, so that he would not have to see what the landowner did to the three upward-looking faces. Even he found it an uneasy sight to observe.

At last, the mad delirium of whipping ended.

Samekh, perspiring in streams of sweat, turned to his superior.

“When they can get up again, take these savages back to the housgow and keep them there without food or water until I tell you something else.”

“Yes, Master,” mumbled the overseer with amazement.

As Mem started for the stable, he caught sight of a diminutive figure staring at the scene from around the corner of the cement building.

Whipcord in hand, clothes drenched, his steps grew faster.

Thav must have heard the sounds of what was going on, although there had been no cries of pain or moans from the three men on the ground. A deathlike silence held them in its grasp.

The punisher avoided her piercing blue gaze, entering the stable through a narrow doorway to one side.

Best not to discuss anything with her now, he decided.

I’ll do it tomorrow, before the evening soiree.

Resh accompanied his best friend, Chak Dara, to the River Landing to board the ship returning to Tochian City.

The pair continued conversing about the crisis concerning the Vazean tribers. This was a subject neither one of the was able to ignore or forget.

As the steamer moved slowly into the dock reserved for it, Resh frowned and made quiet recommendations to Chak.

“We must continue meeting with each other, because it helps both of us to keep up our spirits about the future. And you must send me copies of all that you write about these problems for the capital press. It is important that both of us are well-informed concerning what is happening both here on the ground and in Tochian City.”

“Yes, I agree with you,” nodded Chak. “I can sense that anger is rising among the tribers of your area, Resh. Their desperation is continually deepening. There is growing fear of the planters and what they might do against the native people. This could end in bloody catastrophe.

“Conditions may very soon spiral out of control. We must keep our eyes open to what may be beginning soon.”

Resh, all of a sudden, seemed to fall into a thoughtful state of abstraction and meditation.

“It is curious to me that Tochians such as you and I, Chak, have become defenders and protectors of the so-called backward natives of Tochsylvania.

“I have never spent time studying or analyzing what attracts people like us to the side of the helpless and defenseless. It is a strange, unexplainable phenomenon. I have thought about the question, but it remains something of a mystery without a definite answer to it.

“The solution may not turn out to be a flattering or exemplary one, though, so I had better not waste much of my time worrying what it is that draws people like you and me to the side of those suffering from injustice.

“Perhaps, though, it is best that we don’t know too much about what motivates us to work and fight for change.”

Resh suddenly gave a little smile. “I am glad that you will be returning here next weekend, Chak. We will continue our discussions on the situation at that time.”

The two friends shook hands. Chak then turned around and headed for the bridge leading aboard the river steamer.

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