“I avoided a vast artificial hole somebody had been digging on the slope,
the purpose of which I found it impossible to divine. It wasn’t a quarry or
a sandpit, anyhow. It was just a hole. It might have been connected with the
philanthropic desire of giving the criminals something to do. I don’t know.
Then I nearly fell into a very narrow ravine, almost no more than a scar in
the hillside. I discovered that a lot of imported drainage-pipes for the
settlement had been tumbled in there. There wasn’t one that was not broken.
It was a wanton smash-up. At last I got under the trees. My purpose was to
stroll into the shade for a moment; but no sooner within than it seemed to
me I had stepped into the gloomy circle of some Inferno. The rapids were
near, and an uninterrupted, uniform, headlong, rushing noise filled the
mournful stillness of the grove, where not a breath stirred, not a leaf
moved, with a mysterious sound—as though the tearing pace of the launched
earth had suddenly become audible.
“I stepped around a large hole someone had dug in the hillside for no
apparent reason. It wasn’t a quarry or anything like that. It was just a
hole. It was probably dug to give the so-called criminals something to do. I
don’t know. Then I almost fell into a deep trench alongside the hill. It was
full of broken water pipes. At last I got under the trees. I wanted to
stroll in the shade for a moment, but stepping under the leaves made me feel
like I was stepping into a dark hell. Nothing moved, but the sound of the
rushing rapids was all around me. It sounded as though the earth was tearing
“Black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees leaning against the
trunks, clinging to the earth, half coming out, half effaced within the dim
light, in all the attitudes of pain, abandonment, and despair. Another mine
on the cliff went off, followed by a slight shudder of the soil under my
feet. The work was going on. The work! And this was the place where some of
the helpers had withdrawn to die.
“Black shapes sprawled around me, all clearly suffering. The ground shook
from another explosion on the hill. The work was going on. The work! And
this was where some of the workers had come to die.
“They were dying slowly—it was very clear. They were not enemies, they
were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now—nothing but black shadows
of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought
from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts,
lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened,
became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest. These
moribund shapes were free as air—and nearly as thin. I began to distinguish
the gleam of the eyes under the trees. Then, glancing down, I saw a face
near my hand. The black bones reclined at full length with one shoulder
against the tree, and slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up
at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of
the orbs, which died out slowly. The man seemed young—almost a boy—but you
know with them it’s hard to tell. I found nothing else to do but to offer
him one of my good Swede’s ship’s biscuits I had in my pocket. The fingers
closed slowly on it and held—there was no other movement and no other
glance. He had tied a bit of white worsted round his neck—Why? Where did he
get it? Was it a badge—an ornament—a charm—a propitiatory act? Was there any
idea at all connected with it? It looked startling round his black neck,
this bit of white thread from beyond the seas.
“They were dying slowly. They were not enemies or criminals. They weren’t
even human anymore. They were shadows of disease and starvation lying in the
gloomy green shade. They had been brought from across the coast through
legal contract and against their will. They were put in unfamiliar
surroundings and given strange food, and they got sick and died. They were
as free as the air and just as thin. I saw someone’s eyes staring at me from
the shadows, and I saw a face looking up at me from the ground. The eyes
glowed for a second and started to go out. He seemed young, but it was hard
to tell for sure. I gave him one of the biscuits from the Swede that I had
in my pocket. He gripped it with his fingers and then stopped moving. He had
a bit of white cloth tied around his neck. Why? Where did he get it? Was it
a badge of some kind? A decoration? A charm? Did it have any purpose at all?
It looked so strange around his black neck.