In a valley deep in the highlands of New Guinea lives a small colony of Europeans. One of them is Kurt Sonderfield, a doctor with a shady past who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.N'Daria is a hauntingly beautiful native girl whom Sonderfield has trained in the art of seduction. Kumo is a young sorcerer who has fallen under Sonderfield's sway. Only two dare oppose Sonderfield: the old French missionary Père Louis, and Gerda, the wife Sonderfield has betrayed. As the passions and power plays of the Europeans collide with ancient highland magic, the beat of the kundu drums thunders through the valley, bringing the story to an explosive climax.
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It was four in the afternoon. The sun was westering along the green valley. The first streamers of cloud were creeping along the northern barrier, whose peaks heaved themselves up, cobalt against the peach tints of the sky.
It was still summer in Capricorn. Down on the coast, in Lae and Madang and Wewak, they sweltered and swore and whistled for the cool night winds. Up here, in the Highland valleys, five thousand feet above the sea, the warmth was waning, and, when darkness came, it would be cold.
On the broad stoop of his bungalow, thatched with Nipa palm and framed with bamboo, Kurt Sonderfeld stood looking out across the valley where the young coffee was growing under the rows of shade trees, towards the huts of the Chimbu village and the formal avenue of the dancing park.
He was restless, though few would have guessed it. The quality of containment, which was so much of his nature, the capacity for control, so long and painfully developed, were armour enough against betrayal.
But even had they guessed, they would have been hard put to name a cause. He had a wife whose brooding Slavic beauty was a legend from Madang to Mount Hagen. His coffee was healthy. His past was safely buried. The Administration approved him. He was master in his own valley, fifty miles from the scrutiny of the District Commissioner at Goroka.
Yet he was restless. His fine cigar tasted sour. He found no pleasure in the prospect that began with the green lawns of his bungalow and swept away to the foot of the purple mountains, whose brown people served him as they served few other white men, with awe and with alacrity.
Tonight, of all nights, he needed privacy. Tonight, of all nights, it would be denied him. Within an hour his guests would arrive. They would sit on his veranda and drink his whisky and eat his food and talk, volubly, emphatically, as lonely men do, far into the darkness, while the kundus throbbed and the chants of the villagers drifted up on the breeze.
Zum Teufel! Let them come!
He tossed his cigar away and watched it smoulder on the black earth of the garden.
He was a tall man, broad-barrelled, square-shouldered, straight as a pine tree. His deep forehead rose, dome-like, to the line of his red, cropped hair, and a brown scar ran clean along the line of his jaw from the earlobe to the cleft of his blunt chin. His mouth was tight as a trap.
For a long moment he stood there, moving his hand along the shining bamboo rail as if smoothing out his own ruffled temper. Then his mouth relaxed and he stepped off the veranda and strode down the gravelled path towards a small bamboo hut on the fringe of the plantation.
This was his laboratory, compact and efficient as he was himself. Here he was no longer Kurt Sonderfeld, migrant by necessity, medico by grace and favour, lessee planter under the Trustee Administration. Here he was Kurt Sonderfeld, Doctor of Medicine — Freiburg and Bonn, Honorary Adviser on Malarial Control in the Eastern Highlands, contributor to learned journals, correspondent of learned societies in Europe and the United States. He grinned sourly as the ripples stirred in the pools of memory. So many of his colleagues had found their past a handicap in a new country. Kurt Sonderfeld had turned his own dubious history to handsome profit.
He pushed open the door of the hut and walked in.
There was a girl sitting at the long bench under the window. She had a microscope in front of her and a pad of notes at her elbow. As Sonderfeld entered, she looked up and her mouth parted in a wide grin.
She had a broad nose and the full, thrusting lips of the mountain people. Her skin was brown as bush honey and her hair was crisped in tight ringlets close to her skull. Yet she was beautiful — beautiful with youth and health. Her skin glowed warmly and her round breasts were firm and challenging under the gaudy, pink print dress.
Sonderfeld towered over her, smiling in cynical approval.
"Well? What do you find, N'Daria?"
His voice was deep, and one had to listen carefully to catch the telltale intonation of the Continental.
She answered him in mission English, husky and precise.
"These are the eggs we took from the lower pond."
"I expected it."
"So now we have the fever in the valley?"
"Not yet. But when the boys come back from the coast they will bring the fever with them. These fellows —"
He tapped the barrel of the microscope. "These fellows will carry it to the rest of the tribe."
The girl said nothing. She was watching him, lips parted, eyes wide, head tilted back, so that he could see the hollow of her throat and the slow downward curving of her breasts.
Sonderfeld watched her with satisfaction and amusement. This was his own creation. This he had wrought meticulously, patiently, as a man might make a delicate instrument, calculating each movement and function, balancing it against the next until he could say with mathematical certainty: "This is mine. Use it so ... and it will work thus and thus."
She had come from Père Louis' Mission School as house help to Gerda. But with N'Daria the veneer of the Mission was thin and cracked before it was fully dry. Underneath was the primitive, full of the old fears, the old superstitions, the old violent passions. But he had tamed her — tamed her with subtlety and severity and rare gentleness. And as he tamed, he taught, so that she could work with him accurately, scrupulously, as he worked himself.
Now she was ready. But the work he had in mind for her was ten thousand years away from the bright instruments of the laboratory.
Still smiling, he laid the tip of his finger on her neck, pressing it gently into the hollow behind her ear. She shivered at his touch but did not draw away. Slowly, deliberately, he drew his finger down and across her throat so that his nail raised a thin weal under the honey-coloured skin. She trembled. Moisture formed at the corners of her mouth and split on her dark lips. Her eyes were flecked and lit with sudden desire.
"Do you care?" said Sonderfeld softly. "Do you care if the whole village dies of the fever?"
Her answer was a throaty whisper. "No."
"Do you care if Kumo dies?"
He withdrew his hand and she bent forward as if to renew the touch. Her whole body was alive with passion.
Sonderfeld grinned and shook his head.
"Not now, N'Daria."
"Perhaps ... if you do well tonight. Get dressed now. Then come and show yourself to me."
Submissive, but heavy with dissatisfaction, she got up and walked to the screen door at the end of the hut. Sonderfeld watched her go, and when the door closed behind her, he chuckled and bent over the microscope.
The small nodules of the mosquito larvae were monstrous under the powerful lens. N'Daria was right. They were anopheles, carrier of malaria. Now that the valley was open to traffic from Goroka and from the coast, it would be immune no longer. The pack boys coming over the mountains would bring the disease; the patrol officers and the police boys, the research men from the Department of Agriculture. Then it would break out in the villages and the children would sicken and die, and those who survived would have swollen spleens as big as pineapples, like the pitiful scarecrows on the Sepik Delta — unless Kurt Sonderfeld did something about it.
He would do it, of course, because order was necessary to his nature and to his plans. And because disease was a disorder repugnant to him, he would stamp it out — tomorrow.
Tonight there were other matters. Tonight, if N'Daria did her part, the kundus would thunder the march of the conqueror and the chant would ring like a paean of victory. For a long time he sat, absorbed in his own thoughts, then the door creaked and he turned sharply.
N'Daria was standing before him.
Bark cloth was wound about her loins and her pubic apron was of dyed and plaited grass. From navel to diaphragm, her belly was bound with a belt of plaited cane. Her upthrust breasts were bare, ropes of red and blue beads hung down in the hollow between them. Her septum was pierced with a curved sliver of pearl shell, and her fuzzy head was crowned with a casque of iridescent beetles, surmounted by the scarlet feathers of the bird of paradise. Her naked skin was shiny with tree oil....
Sonderfeld stared at her with admiration. He felt the slow, dangerous itch creep into his loins. He fought against it, angrily. The girl was his to take at any time — but not tonight. He saw her grin at his discomfort and cursed himself for a fool.
"Come here, N'Daria!"
She came to him, slowly, rolling her hips. She stood before him, head tilted back, and he smelt the oil and the heat of her body.
Perhaps, in spite of himself, the big man would take her now. Again she was disappointed.
Her eyes pleaded with him. He laughed at her frustration.
"Tomorrow, N'Daria — tomorrow. Now, show me!"
She plunged her fingers between the broad cane belt and her skin and brought out a small tampon of cotton wool.
"Good. Put it back!"
She replaced the cotton wool and waited, slack and submissive.
"Now tell me."
"Tonight I am to bring you —"
"No. Tell me from the beginning."
She took a deep breath and began again, her husky voice piecing out the directions slowly in the alien tongue.
"Tonight, in the village, the unmarried ones make kunande. We sit and sing and roll our faces together. Kumo will be there and we will make kunande together. Then we will go to my sister's house. We will eat and drink and Kumo and I will carry-leg. He will play with me and I will play with him. Then, when he is full of desire, we will go into the bushes and he will take me."
"Can you be sure of that?"
Her plumed head went up proudly.
"I am sure. Kumo desires me. I always please him."
"See that you please him tonight. What then?"
"When he takes me ..." said N'Daria with slow relish, "... when he takes me, he make spittle on my mouth. I will draw blood from his breast and from his shoulders. ... Then he will leave me."
"And when he leaves you?"
"I will come back to you and I will bring with me the blood and the spittle and the seed of Kumo — and you will hold his life in your hands."
"So!" The word came out, a long, sighing breath of relief. The tension in him relaxed. His irritation drained away and power flowed back to him in long, smooth waves. He laid his hand on the brown shoulder and stroked it gently, caressingly.
"What you do for me tonight, N'Daria, you do for yourself. Remember that."
"I remember. And tomorrow ...?"
He smiled and brushed her breast with his fingertips.
"Tomorrow, N'Daria, as you say. Go, now."
She was halfway to the door when he called her back.
"Tonight, when you return, I shall be at the house with the visitors. Light the lamp and hang it near the window. I will see it and will come when I can."
He took her to the door and stood watching her as she walked down the track to the village. She was like a bird, he thought, a small bright bird, with scarlet feathers, fluttering under the tangket trees.
He closed the door of the laboratory and walked swiftly, purposefully, back to the house.
The canvas chairs were set on the stoop. There were glasses and a bucket of ice and jugs of frosted rainwater on the cane table, and Wee Georgie, with tender care, was cutting the seal of a new bottle of Scotch.
He looked up as Sonderfeld mounted the steps, and his bloated face was distorted into a smile that displayed his gapped and rotten teeth. His voice was a piping cockney, incongruous in so large a man.
"'Arf a minute, boss, and we're all set for the party. Care for a pipeopener?"
"In a moment."
Sonderfeld surveyed him with weary distaste. Wee Georgie was one of his less successful enterprises. He was a head shorter than Sonderfeld, but his stumpy body was monstrous. His tousled head was set on two rolls of blubber, his breasts were pendulous as a woman's and his belly was an obscene barrel scarcely covered by his shirt. His trouser belt slipped under it like string round a rubber ball. His bowlegs were knotted with blue veins and discoloured by ulcer scars. His misshapen feet were thrust into canvas shoes slit at both sides for comfort. When he laughed, which was often, he quaked like a jelly and his eyes were lost in the folds of his purple face. When he moved — which was as little as possible — he wheezed like a broken-winded nag.
"For God's sake, man, why don't you tidy your hair?" snapped Sonderfeld.
"I try', boss. Strike me dead, if I don't. Me girl tries, too, but it won't lie down. Not unless I douse it with oil. And you wouldn't want me stinking of pig fat while I serve the drinks. Now would you? Besides, me shirt's clean, isn't it — and me pants?"
"We should be thankful for so little, I suppose. Pour me a drink. A strong one."
He sat down in the nearest chair and watched Wee Georgie with sardonic amusement. The fellow's hands were trembling. He moistened his lips continually as he sniffed the liquor. It was one of Sonderfeld's small pleasures to calculate how long it would be before Wee Georgie would ask for a drink.
Wee Georgie was a survival from the prehistory of the Territory. His origins were misted with legend. He had been deckhand on the copra-luggers, prospector, recruiter, water-front pimp, and a dozen other things, mercifully buried when the Japanese destroyed the records. Sonderfeld had picked him off the beach in Lae, cured him of clap, stones in the kidney and a score of minor ailments, and brought him up to the valley as foreman to the boy labour and contact man with the tribes. He had settled down in squalid comfort with a pair of village girls, and Sonderfeld thought he would die in twelve months of cirrhosis of the liver.
But by some miracle he managed to survive, and Sonderfeld had made much profit from his alcoholic Caliban. Wee Georgie was a slovenly old reprobate, but he "thought kanaka" and he had no scruples. With care and caution and a judicious ration of liquor, he, too, had served the master-pian.
"There's your drink, boss."
"Er — Ah — What about a small one for the help — eh, boss?"
Sonderfeld grinned and looked at his watch.
"Thirty seconds! You're doing well, my friend. You may have a drink." "Thanks, boss — thanks."
He wheezed and chuckled and shuffled to the table to pour a stiff noggin.
"Mud in yer eye and pretty girls in yer bed!"
"Prosit!" said Kurt Sonderfeld absently.
Wee Georgie tossed his drink off with a practiced gulp. His master drank slowly, savouring the spirit, feeling the slow warmth gather like warm coals in his belly. Drinking, for Sonderfeld, was a princely pleasure and he took it like a prince, with leisure and deliberation.
"Lansing's arrived, boss."
"Mr. Lansing to you, Georgie."
"Mr. Lansing, then. He came about half an hour ago."
"Where is he now?"
Sonderfeld put the question with studious indifference; but Wee Georgie's little eyes were lit with malicious humour.
"Out back. Looking at the flowers with Mrs. Sonderfeld."
"The poor fellow has few pleasures," said Sonderfeld smoothly. "Who are we to deny him this one?"
Wee Georgie spat contemptuously over the railing.
"Few pleasures is right! What does he do down there in the village? Lives like a kanaka, he does. Eats their food. Sits round the cook fires. Never even touches the girls. What's the point in that, for Gawd's sake?"
"He's an anthropologist."
"Yup, I know. But what does he do?"
Sonderfeld stared into the golden liquor. His tone was velvet.
"He studies, Georgie. He studies the language, the beliefs, the manners, the customs and the mating habits of the indigenous population. He is paid, I understand, by grant from an American foundation which finances such worthy enterprises."
"Paid? For what? Gawdstrewth! I could tell 'em twice as much as Lansing'll ever know — and for half the price."
"I know. I know," said Sonderfeld gently. "But Lansing leaves out the dirty words."
"You're not very fond of Lansing, are you, boss?"
The whisky caught him full in the face. As he gasped and whimpered and rubbed his eyes, Sonderfeld jerked him upright by the hair and smacked him, full on the mouth. Then he chided him gently, without anger, as one admonishes a child.
"You will remember, Georgie, that you are a servant in this house. You will attend to my guests and mind your own business. You will remember that you are filth — alive by my skill and favour. You will have no more to drink this evening. Now clean yourself up and pour me a drink. Père Louis will be here any minute."
Wee Georgie backed away, a cowed, repulsive animal. Sonderfeld wiped his hands on a silk handkerchief and waited calmly for the arrival of his second guest.
Excerpted from "Kundu"
Copyright © 1957 The Morris West Collection.
Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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