The Rhades 4

The director turned with a spreading of the hands. Only a moment’s respite was allowed for this to sink in before he was pressing his advan¬tage. ‘Now ask them all -1 say all of them, if they have not received the premium of 150 piastres. You, you and you,’ said the director, permitting his fingertip to approach to within an inch of the rags, ‘have you or have you not received your premium? If not, you have only to tell me now and I myself will give you the money.’ There was a prestidigitatory flourish and a wad of clean notes appeared in the director’s hand, and were waved under a line of apathetic noses. ‘They have all received the premium,’ Tuon said.
A sunny smile broke easily in the director’s face and the bundle of notes described a last, graceful arc before disappearing into his pocket. ‘What did I tell you? They have all received the premium. A generous advance on their wages. Money to send to their necessitous families. ’ The thing was clearly concluded. The director was afraid that he was being victimised by certain invidious persons he preferred not to name who put themselves to a lot of trouble to spread silly reports about him. There was one way only to deal with that kind of thing and that was to expose it to the light of day, and, foo! – some imaginary object was blown away with a light puff of the director’s breath, and the director’s palms were brushed quickly together in brisk gestures of exorcism. He turned now, awaiting the visitor’s pleasure. Had they seen enough yet? If so .. . The Frenchmen, dour, almost stolid beside this Etruscan mime, were reluc¬tant to be persuaded. Tuon was more depressed than ever. The Rhades had let him down. He drooped in his convict’s garb. The fifty solemn coolies stared at their feet. The director and his men were on good terms with all the world.
Ribo made a last attempt, while the director arched his eyebrows and rolled his eyes in humorous tolerance. ‘Tell them we came to see them because we heard that they were dissatisfied. Now we know that this was not true. They have chosen of their own free will to work for the company. We shall go back and tell their people that they are happy.’ A voice in the rear rank mumbled something and Tuon went towards it. The two strong-arm men, still smiling, although now incredulously, moved forward. Two Mois were blotted out in the towering bulk of each of them. The director was looking at his watch again. Ribo asked what the man had said. ‘He says he was forced to sign,’ Tuon told him. There was no sign of triumph in the colourless voice.
How was he forced to sign? Ribo asked. The big men were making for the dissenter who was looking from side to side, as if for a way of escape. Ribo followed them. ‘Tell him to speak the truth,’ Ribo said, ‘and I promise no harm shall come to him.’ Tuon spoke to the man again. He had the rather womanly good looks one finds so often among the Jarai tribes to the north, and it was hard to believe that he came of the same stock as the Semitic-looking chief of Buon Plum. His legs and arms were covered with scars which showed up a pale, ugly pink against the dark bronze of the skin. He said that he had been kept a prisoner until he agreed to put his thumb-mark on the paper. The two trusties stood over him as he mumbled out this revelation, barrel chests thrust out, grinning down at him. Their attention was only distracted when another voice was heard. A second man had found the courage to tell the administrator that he had been taken and his thumb forced on to the contract. There was a growing murmur as this extraordinary rebellion spread. Others joined in to say that they had only found out at the end of their fifty days’ obligatory service that they had been tricked into putting their thumb- mark on a contract for a year. They were always having to put their thumb-mark on something or other, like receipts for the tools they were given to work with. Tuon was going from man to man up and down the lines. He came back to say that only three of the coolies would stay of their own free will.
But now Ribo was faced with a new problem. It was one thing to badger the company into releasing a few workers who might be held there by force or trickery, but quite another, as it seemed clear would happen, if this were followed up, to attempt to deprive a powerful and wealthy concern like this of the whole of its labour. Ribo knew that, traditionally, administrators were broken for attempts of this kind. The thing was too big. It had got out of control. The genie he had summoned up could not be appeased by a trifling reform. Either the company must be allowed to continue to get its labour by fraud or force – since it was evident that this was the only way it could be got – or it would go out of business. It was as drastic as that. And then, with the company no more, and the untended plantations reverting to the jungle, where would the tyre companies get their rubber, and ultimately the French motorist his tyres? It seems, in fact, since there is no reason to suppose that other rubber plantations in Indo-China are run on Christian principles, that this commodity which is regarded as essential to the conduct of our civilisation is often only to be obtained by turning a blind eye to illegalities and oppression, and that there is little difference in practice between the secret gangsterism of these days and the open slavery offi¬cially abolished in the last century.
There was only one course open to Ribo; to withdraw as gracefully as he could after promising the Rhades that the whole matter would be investigated. The director was not in the slightest degree shaken. He would probably have preferred to avoid this unpleasant incident, because he was affable and expansive by nature, liked to get on with people and did not enjoy scenes. But he knew perfectly well that Ribo could do nothing to him, that is to say, nothing serious, without challenging the purpose of the colony itself. A Resident himself, whose power was far greater than Ribo’s, told me later that all he could do was to put a brake on the activities of the planters. ‘We snap at their heels, like curs – that’s all it amounts to. If it wasn’t for us they’d go into the villages after the labour and bring the men back at the point of the gun.’
And now I knew why Ribo, Doctor Jouin and all the rest of them were so sure that there was no hope for the Mois. They always told you that it was the malaria, although it didn’t make sense that it was only in our time, after all those centuries of resistance to malaria, that it should begin to finish them off. Ribo might succeed, with his model villages, in checking that downhill plunge, in holding the level of the population of Buon Plum or even in setting it on the uphill climb again. But while, beneath the show of solicitude on the part of men of science and low- level officials, the real purpose of the Mo t village as seen from above was to provide forced labour, there could be no real recovery.

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