The Rhades 3

But Tuon grumbled in a most un-evolved manner. I was beginning to see him in a loincloth again. He was tactless enough to tell Ribo that the men were being kept by force on the plantation, and the villagers had told him that not only could they not carry on with the orchard and the vegetable garden, they would have to reduce the area of their rice-field if these men were not released. Ribo said that we would go to the plantation and look into the matter for ourselves.
Two days later, when on our way back to Ban Methuot, the investiga¬tory visit was paid. The plantation was one of a number in the country supplying rubber to manufacturers of motor-car tyres. It continues to prosper because of its location, where it is temporarily out of reach of the Viet-Minh, although the administrative buildings were burned down in an attack in 1946. Most of its competitors in the south have been put out of business by the desertion of their labour, or by their too-close proxim¬ity to the fighting zones.
There was something feudal in the spaciousness of these great Romanic buildings of the plantation, a contemptuous patrician setting of extremes of grandeur and wretchedness. Crouching peons squatted in their rags at the foot of splendid stairways and humped bales of rubber in its various stages beneath colonnaded arches. The colonus was fetched from some central domestic lair, emerging to meet us through the kitchens. It was difficult to place his origin with any certainty although he was undoubt¬edly a European. He looked younger than he was and moved fussily in a perpetual effort to use up some of his too great store of vitality. He was dressed like a townsman, wore a talisman against the evil-eye on his wrist-strap, and a religious medal, which he sometimes fumbled with, suspended from a fine, gold chain round his neck. I imagine that he lived in patriarchal intimacy with his family and his servants. He was probably abstemious, experienced intense, narrow loyalties, and was quite implac¬able. He smiled a great deal.
We were shown into a huge room, which the director probably disliked, and seated round a most elaborate cocktail cabinet. With the technique of a cabaret tart the director poured out large shots of whisky for us, serving himself with what was probably a little coloured water. Two henchmen came in and sat down; enormous, pink-faced fellows who mopped their faces, and, in imitation of their chief, smiled inces¬santly. They were like the pictures one has seen of trusties in an American penitentiary, and there was something about their inarticulate and rather sinister good humour that provided a perfect foil for the dapper geniality of the director.
Ribo asked if that month’s renewal contracts had been prepared for the men who would be working another year. The director said they had. Good, Ribo said, in that case they could now be signed in his presence. The Italian said they had been signed already. How was that? Ribo asked, when he had made it most clear that he wanted to be present at the signing. The director was charming, repentant, conciliatory. How really extraordinary! He had quite misunderstood. Still there would be plenty of future occasions. Monsieur the administrator must realise perfectly well that all he wanted was to cooperate. This was just a little more convincing than the patently insincere regrets of the receptionist in a high-class hotel. The director bathed us in his smile. Very well, said Ribo, coolly, we would go and talk to the signatories, now.
The director was delighted. With a flood of protestations he asked that it should be remembered that he never demanded better than to be given the chance to show any of his good friends round. The whole of the plantation was wide open to them at any time. He had nothing to hide. He turned to his trusties for moral support, and they grinned back gleefully at him. There you are, the director seemed to say, by his look. He waved the bottle of whisky at us. He was never happier than in company. And now we were here he was going to take the opportunity to show us over his model establishment, the fine, up-to-date workers’ huts, the infirmary… After that he insisted that we come back to dinner.
It was a good two hours before Ribo, battling against the tide, got what he had come for. We were taken into a yard where about fifty Mot’s were lined up awaiting us. These were the coolies whose contracts had been due for renewal, and of them only three had refused to sign and were being sent back to their villages. They were as miserable-looking a collection of human scarecrows as one could have seen anywhere, and suddenly I realised that in the villages I had never seen a poverty-stricken Mot. Ribo checked their names off against a list he had, while the director, as if to forestall the possibility of any criticism, launched an offensive of his own. Calling Tuon, he told him to ask this ragged assemblage if they were satisfied with the treatment they had received. There was no reply to the question and the director seemed much surprised. Ribo now took a hand. ‘Tell them to speak up,’ he said. ‘If they are dissatisfied with their contracts, let them say so. There is absolutely nothing to be afraid of.’ The two bodyguards looked on cheerfully with folded arms. The director went up to one of the dejected figures and prodded him cautiously with his finger. ‘Ask this man if he is satisfied.’ Tuon spoke to him and, with averted eyes, the man mumbled a reply. ‘Well,’ said the director confidently, ‘and what does he say?’ ‘He says that he is satisfied,’ Tuon told him.

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