The beauty of a tune.
The beauty of the hour
When dusk embraces June:
Of all the beauties earthly
The soul of man may clip,
On earth there is no beauty
Like the beauty of a ship.
I met Billy Harman on Circular Wharf, Sydney, so many years ago that I think he must be dead. He is the chief person in the first six stories of this book, which have appeared illustrated in an English, an American and a Canadian magazine, in all of which the illustrator depicted Billy as a young, rather good-looking man. That he was not. Billy, when I met him, was well over forty, big and scrubby-bearded, a shell-back with a touch of the Longshoreman, blue far-seeing eyes, the eyes of a child—and an innocence none the less delightful because streaked with guile.
Only the sea could have produced Billy, and the Islands and the Beaches and the life which the Pacific makes possible for an Ocean Tramp.
BUD AND BILLY
The moon was rising over Papaleete, over the Pacific Ocean and the bay where the anchor lights were spilling their amber on the water, over the palm trees and flame trees and the fragrant town from which, now clear, now sheltered by the sea wind, came the voices of girls singing to the tune of Hawaiian guitars.
Mixed with the breathing of the tepid wind in the trees, the voices of the girls and the tune of the guitars, came the murmur and sigh of the beach, the last note wanted, the last touch, to a scene of absolutely absurd and impossible loveliness, amidst which, by the water’s edge, casting a thirty-foot shadow on the hard white sand, Mr. Harman was walking, blind to the Eden around him.
Billy was on the beach in more senses than one. He was down and out, without friends, without food, without drinks, and almost without tobacco, starving in the midst of plenty, for in Papaleete, if you are a cadger, you may live for ever on the fat of the land, and not only live, but love, drink, smoke, dream under tree shadows and bathe in a sea warm with perpetual summer.
But that was not Billy’s way. This gig, four-square, blue-eyed man out of San Francisco could do anything but cadge. It wasn’t a question of morals, it was more a question of simplicity.
Billy’s morals had mostly been forgotten by Nature, or maybe they had been extracted by San Franciscans and shore-along toughs from Valparaiso up, anyhow and however that may be, the resulting vacuum seemed to have filled itself up with simplicity, not stupidity, just simplicity. The simplicity of a child that allowed him to go into the most desperate and questionable deals in ward politics and doubtful sea practice, wide-eyed, blue-eyed, and reproaching others for their moral lapses with the unchanging formula: “It don’t pay.”
“Crooked dealing don’t pay,” said Mr. Harman after some crooked deal had failed—never before.
Yet somehow, in some extraordinary way, Billy was lovable, there was nothing mean about him, and that was maybe why he couldn’t cadge, and he had behind those blue eyes and that honest-dog looking, tanned face, a power of cool, uncalculating daring that might have landed him anywhere if he had come on a decent jumping-off place.
As he turned back along the beach, the moonlight struck a figure coming towards him. It was Davis. Fate or some strange chance had thrown Davis and Harman together on the same beach at the same time, and though there was a world of difference between their faces, forms, characters and dispositions, they were alike in this—they couldn’t cadge.
Davis was a lean slip of a man with a chin tuft and a terrific past about which he was quite open. Never satisfied or driven by the craze of adventure, he had overrun two or three fortunes and had beached at Papaleete from a B.P. boat which had picked him up from a trading station down somewhere in the Paumotus, and was glad to get rid of him on the terms of a twenty-dollar loan. The captain laughed when Davis had entered the loan in a pocket-book, but it would be returned with interest some time or another if the borrower lived. That was Davis.
The one remarkable thing about this plain-looking man with the chin tuft and the flat cheek-bones was his quietude, nothing hurried or flurried him. That was perhaps the secret behind his shooting. He was more than a good shot with a revolver. He was inevitable.
“That’s done,” said Davis, coming up with the other. “Penhill and Jarvis are highballing it at the club, and their Kanakas are playing hopscotch with the hula-hula girls. What’s the matter with you? Don’t go saying you’ve got cold feet.”
“It’s not my feet,” said Mr. Harman, “but I’ve never run off with a ship before and that’s the fact, it’s not like sinkin’ her or pilin’ her. I’ve done most things, but I’ve never run off with a ship before, that’s a fact. I’ve never——”
“Oh, close up!” said Davis. “Didn’t I tell you that Penhill can’t move against us, once I get his ship out, his feet are cut off. I’m the one man living that he’s afraid of, because I’m the one man living that can put him in quod without hurting myself. This thing isn’t running off with a ship. It’s Providence.”
“How do you get at that?” asked Billy doubtfully.
“Well, look at it,” said Davis. “In he comes with the Araya, sees me, remembers the trick he played me, tries to pal up, gets a snub on the nose, puts it in his pocket, and then goes on the jag, him and Jarvis, leaving his schooner with a parcel of damn fool Kanakas in charge and me layin’ about dangerous. Kanakas, why they’re worse than that! Island boys that’ll take any white man’s bidding s’long as he feeds them with fried bananas. It’s lovely, that’s what it is, lovely——” Linking his arm in that of Harman, he was walking him along the sand towards a boat beached and left almost high and dry by the ebbing tide. To the right lay the lights of the town, and almost on the beach sand the long amber glow of the lit club. Harman, walking between the beauty of Papaleete by night and the glory of the moon upon the sea, showed no sign of haste to reach the boat.
What bothered him was, not so much the turpitude of the business, as the seeming futility and madness of it, for even in those days before wireless talked it was next to impossible to steal a ship and make good. Every port in the world is a compound eye for scrutiny, the character of a ship is inquired into as carefully as her health. Harman knew the whole business. There is a cable from Papaleete to Suva, and from Suva to ’Frisco and beyond, and to-morrow morning Penhill had only to speak and the description of the Araya and the two vanished beachcombers would be in the hands of the San Francisco authorities before noon; before night all American seaboard ports would be closed to the Araya, and by next day at noon, the British Board of Trade would seal Australia and Hong Kong. Chinese ports would be notified in “due course.”
With every bolthole blocked, the Araya might still live free for years pottering among the less-known islands, they might even pile her on some rock and make their escape in the boats, but what would be the use of all that? No, the whole thing would have been futile and ridiculous but for the one thing that made it possible—Penhill. Penhill daren’t prosecute. The schooner was his, and he was the only man who could move, and he was tied. Davis said so. Davis had given details which made the matter clear to Harman, yet still he hesitated.
They had reached the boat. It was the Araya’s, left confidingly on a beach where no man ever stole boats; there were canoes to be had in plenty, but Davis preferred the boat, he had reasons.
Harman, resting his hand on the gunnel, looked about him for a moment at the deserted beach, still undecided.
His dunnage left at the house of a native woman where he had lodged was unprocurable, he owed a bill. As he stood considering this and other matters, from the groves by the beach diffusing itself through the night, came the voice of a native singing a love song, tender, plaintive, old as Papaleete and focussing in itself all the softness and beauty that the active soul of Billy Harman had learnt to hate.
He seized the gunnel of the boat and assisted by Davis, shoved her off.
Out on the moonlit water, the town showed up fairylike, its lights twinkling amidst the moving foliage. Away on Huahine, rising steeply like a wall of velvety blackness to the stars, the lights of tiny villages showed like fireflies come to rest; fronting and beneath all this mystery and loveliness showed the definite amber glow of the club where Penhill and Jarvis were drinking themselves blind. That was Papaleete.
No port authorities, no harbour police, no sign of life but the anchor lights of a brigantine and a bêche-de-mer boat—that also was Papaleete. On board the Araya the anchor watch was snoring; kicked awake and rubbing its eyes, it jumped to the voice of white authority. The returned boat was a certificate that the new white fellow mas’rs were representatives of white fellow mas’r Penhill and Penhill’s character was an antidote to loving inquiries.
“They’re a sprightly lot,” said Harman as the main boom swung to starboard and the great sail filled, tugging at the sheet. “Monkeys to jump an’ no tongues to ask questions.”
“That’s Penhill,” said Davis, “he’s milled them into brute beasts, not that they wanted much milling, but there you are, he done his best and I reckon we’re profiting by it.”
Four days later they had cut Capricorn, discovered the sailing qualities of the Araya, and taken stock of ship and cargo. There was also Penhill’s gold watch and eighteen hundred dollars of ship’s money. Davis calculated it all up and said he reckoned that the account between him and Penhill was clear.
He said he reckoned that Penhill had deserved what he got and Harman concurred.
They sat in judgment on Penhill and brought him in guilty. Harman almost felt virtuous.
“I reckon he’ll learn it don’t pay to run crooked,” said he. “I’ve took notice that them sort of chaps always gets scragged in the end. What’s this you said he did you out of?”
“Seventy dollars, and left me on the beach,” replied Davis.
“Same as we’ve done him,” said Harman. “No, it don’t pay. It don’t pay no-how.”
South at first, then due west they made past St. Felix and heading for Caldera on the Chili coast. But Caldera was not Davis’ objective. Buenodiaz, with its land-locked harbour, its lazy ways, its pretty women and negligent Port authorities, was his idea, and smoking Penhill’s cigars under a blazing sun whilst the Araya snored along through a Reckitts’-blue sea, he expounded matters to Billy Harman.
“Sell her on the hoof,” said Davis, “innards, outwards, hump, tail and all, that’s my idea. There are ten cent mail boats that’ll take us anywhere up or down the coast, Valparaiso for choice, once we’ve got the dollars in our pockets; there’s big things to be done in Chili with a few dollars by fellows that know the ropes.”
Mr. Harman concurred.
“I’ve been done there myself,” said he, “by chaps that hadn’t cents in their pockets, let alone dollars. Skinned alive I was of every buck to my name in a faro joint at Cubra, and me winning all the time. Hadn’t got half-way down the street to my ship with a pocket full of silver dollars when I put my hand in my pocket and found nothing but stones, filled me up they had with pebbles off the beach, playin’ guitars all the time and smokin’ cigarettes and pretendin’ to hasty-manyana.
“Well, I’m not against landin’ this hooker on them, but I tell you, Bud, it’s my experience, before we comes to close grips with them we’ll be wantin’ to fix our skins on with seccotine.”
“You leave them to me,” said Bud Davis.
“I’ve known the insides and outsides of Chinks,” went on the other, “and I’ve had dealin’s with Greeks up Susun way, oyster boat Levantines will take your back teeth whiles you’re tellin’ them you don’t want buyin’ their dud pearls, but these chaps are in their own class. Jim Satan, that’s what they are, and there’s not a ’Frisco Jew sellin’ dollar watches can walk round the brim of their sombreros.”
“You leave them to me,” said Bud, and the Araya snored on.
On and on with a gentle roll over the wind-speckled blue of the endless swell, lifting nothing but ocean, and over ocean vast dawns that turned to torrid noons and died in sunsets like the blaze of burning worlds; till one morning the cry of the Kanaka look-out answered the cry of a great gull flying with them and there before them stood the coast boiling where the sun was breaking above it and stretching to north and south of the sun blaze, solid, remote, in delicately pencilled hills dying from sight in the blue distance. Davis, who knew the coast, altered the helm. They were forty miles or so to the north of their right position, and it was not till afternoon that the harbour of Buenodiaz lay before them with the flame trees showing amidst the flat-topped houses and the blue water lapping the deserted mole. The quay by the mole was deserted and La Plazza, the public square, distinctly to be seen from the sea, lifted slightly as it was by the upward trend of the ground, was empty. Through the glass the houses showed, their green shutters tightly shut and not a soul on the verandas.
It was almost as though some Pelée had erupted and covered the place with the lava of pure desolation clear as glass.
“Taking their siestas,” said Davis. “Keep her as she goes. I know this harbour and it’s all good holding ground, beyond that buoy.”
Harman at the wheel nodded, and Davis went forward to superintend the fellows getting the anchor ready while the Araya, her canvas quivering to the last of the dying breeze, stole in past an old rusty torpedo boat, past a grain ship that seemed dead, on and on, dropping her anchor at least two cable lengths from the mole.
The rattle of the anchor chain made Buenodiaz open one eye. A boat slipped out from the mole. It was the Port Doctor.
Buenodiaz flings its slops into the street and its smells are traditional, but it has a holy horror of imported diseases and its Port Doctor never sleeps—even in siesta time.
With the Doctor came the Customs, smelling of garlic, with whom Davis conversed in the language of the natives, while Harman attended to the liquor and cigars.
The cargo of the Araya was copra and turtle shell. Davis had figured and figured over the business, and reckoned he’d take four thousand dollars for the lot.
“Ain’t like cotton,” said he, “don’t know what it’s worth, but I’ll put it at four thousand and not a cent under, at four thousand we shan’t be losers.”
“Well, I reckon we wouldn’t be losers at four cents,” said Harman, “seein’ how we got it, and how about the hooker?”
“Five thousand,” said Davis, “and that’s not half her worth. Nine thousand the lot and I’ll throw the chronometer in.”
“Have you fixed what to do with the Kanakas?” asked the other. “There’s eight of them and they’ve all mouths.”
“There’s never a Kanaka yet could talk Spanish,” said Davis, “and I don’t propose to learn them, but I’ll give them fifty dollars apiece—maybe—if I make good. But there’s time enough to think of that when we have the dollars.”
It was the second day after their arrival at Buenodiaz, the sun was setting and the sound of the band playing on La Plazza came across the water; mixed with the faint strains of the band came the sounds of a guitar from one of the ships in the anchorage, and in lapses of the breeze from the sea the scent of the town stole to them, a bouquet co-mingled from drains, flowers, garlic, earth and harbour compounds.
Harman was in one of his meditative fits.
“That chap you brought aboard to-day,” said he, “the big one with the whiskers, was he Alonez or was it the little ’un?”
“The big one,” said Davis. “He’s the chap that’ll take the cargo off us and the little one will take the ship—I haven’t said a word of the price, haven’t said I was particularly wanting to sell, but I’ve given them a smell of the toasted cheese, and if I know anything of anything, they’re setting on their hind legs now in some café smoothing their whiskers and making ready to pounce. They’re partners, they own all that block of stores on the Calle San Pedro, and the little one does the shipping business. He’s Portuguese, pure. Pereira’s his name. I’m going up to his house to-night to talk business.”
“Well,” said Harman, “if he’s going to buy, he’s got the specifications, he’s been over her from the truck to the lazarette, and I thought he’d be pullin’ the nails out of her to see what they were like. When are you goin’?”
“Eight,” replied Davis, and at eight o’clock, amidst the usual illuminations and fireworks with which Buenodiaz bedecks herself on most nights, he went, leaving Harman to keep ship. He returned at twelve o’clock and found Harman in his bunk snoring. At breakfast next morning he told of his visit. He had done no business in particular beyond mentioning the outside price that he could take for the Araya should he care to sell her. Mrs. Pereira and her daughter had been there and the girl was a peach.
Harman absorbed this news without interest, merely reminding the other that they weren’t “dealin’ in fruit,” but as two more days added themselves together producing nothing but church processions, brass bands and fireworks, Mr. Harman fell out of tune with himself and the world and the ways of this “dam garlic factory.” Davis was acting strangely, nearly always ashore and never returning till midnight. He said the deal was going through, but that it took time, that they weren’t selling a mustang, that he wouldn’t be hustled and that Harman, if he didn’t like waiting, had better go and stick his head in the harbour.
Harman closed up, but that night he accompanied Davis ashore, and instead of playing roulette at the little gambling shop in La Plazza, he hung around the Pereiras’ house in Assumption Street listening and watching in the moonlight. He heard the tune of a guitar and a girl’s voice singing La Paloma, then came a great silence that lasted an hour and a half, and then came Davis. Hidden in a dark corner, Billy saw that he was not alone. A girl was with him, come out to bid him good-night. She was short, dark and lovely, but the look of adoration on her face as she turned it up for a kiss, left Harman quite cold.
Down by-lanes and cut-throat alleys he made his way running, got to the mole before the other and was rowed off in the same boat. On board he invited the other down below and down below he exploded.
“I ain’t wantin’ to interfere with any man’s diversions,” said Mr. Harman. “I ain’t no prude, women is women, and business is business, do you get what I’m meanin’? I saw you. I ain’t accusin’ you of nuthin’—but bein’ a fool. Us with a stole ship on our backs and Penhill feelin’ for us and you playin’ the goat with Pereira’s daughter. What kind of deal do you expect to make and a woman hangin’ on to it with her teeth. You needn’t go denyin’ of it. I saw you.”
The male and female run through all things, even partnerships, and in the Harman-Davis syndicate it was Harman who wore the skirts. Davis could not get a word in till the other had worked himself free of his indignation and the subject. Then said Davis: “If you’ll shut your beastly head, I’ll maybe be able to stuff some sense into it. What were you talking about, selling the schooner? It’s sold.”
“Well,” said Harman, “that’s news, and what’s the price, may I ask?”
“Five thousand, and five thousand for the trade, ten thousand dollars, the whole sum to be paid on Friday next.”
“Have you a bit of writin’?” asked Harman, who possessed the French peasant’s instincts for stamped paper.
“I’ve got their cheque,” said Davis, “post dated for next Friday, but I’m not bothering about the money, for the ship and cargo, it doesn’t matter a hill of beans to me whether they pay ten thousand dollars or five. I’ve struck a bigger thing than that. What would you say to half a million dollars?”
“I don’t know,” replied the ingenuous Harman. “I only know chaps generally begin to make asses of themselves when they talk about millions of dollars. It’s my opinion no man ever came out of the big end of the horn with the million dollars in his hand he’d gone in to fetch at the little. Most of the million-dollar men I’ve heard of have started as newsies with their toes stickin’ through their boots—but go on, what was you sayin’?”
“I’m saying I’ve a big thing in sight,” replied the exasperated Davis, “and I’d be a lot surer of it if I felt I hadn’t such a fool partner. It’s this, I’m right into the cockles of the heart of that family, and I’ve got the news through my left ear that there’s trouble in Santiago, that Diaz is going to skip and that a million dollars in gold bars are coming down to the coast. Diaz is taking his movables with him, and he’s gutted the Treasury unknown to the chaps that are moving to shoot him out. He’s about sick of the presidency and wants to get away and lead a quiet life.”
“I see,” said Harman. “That’s plain enough, but where do we stand?”
“Well,” said Davis, “there’s a million dollars’ worth of gold bars moving down to the coast here and there’s us just come in. Don’t it look like Providence? Don’t it look like as if there’s going to be a conjunction?”
“It do,” said Mr. Harman meditatively, “but I’m dashed if I see how we’re to conjunct on the evidence you’ve handed in—but you’ve got more up your sleeve—pull it out.”
“It’s not much,” said Davis, “only the girl. She’s going to keep us wise. I told her I might be able to do a deal with Diaz if I knew where and when he was shipping off the boodle, and she’s going to let me know. The Pereiras are all in the business same as furniture-removing chaps, they’re doing the move for Diaz, and he’s using one of their ships. D’you see? See where we come in, nothing to do but watch and wait with the girl for our eyes and ears—then pounce—How? I don’t know, but we’ll do it.”
“That girl,” said Mr. Harman after a moment’s silence, “she seems pretty gone on you.”
“Ain’t you gone on her?”
Davis laughed again. Then he opened a locker and helped himself to a drink.
Harman’s morals, as I have hinted before, were the least conspicuous part of his mental make-up, but he was not without sentiment of a sort. At sing-songs he had been known to sniff over “The Blind Boy,” a favourite song of his, and though his ideal of female beauty leant towards sloe-black eyes and apple-red cheeks (shiny or not didn’t matter), beauty in distress appealed to him.
The cold-blooded blackguardliness of Davis almost shocked him for a moment—making a girl love him like that just to use her as a spy on her family! The upright man in the soul of Billy Harman, the upright man who had never yet managed somehow to get on his feet, humped his back and tried to rise, but he had half a million dollars on top of him. He moved in his chair uneasily, and refilled his pipe. But all he said was: “Tell us about them gold bars.”
Davis told. A peon runner had come in that afternoon with a chit for Pereira saying that the mules, eight in number, bearing the stuff, would reach Buenodiaz by night-time of the following day.
“The stuff will be shipped to-morrow night, then?” said Harman.
“Well, you don’t think they’d go leaving it on the beach,” replied Davis.
“Didn’t you get out of her what ship they were taking it off on?” asked Harman.
“No,” said Davis, “I didn’t, she don’t know herself, but she’s going to find out.”
“Bud,” said Harman, “give us the straight tip, I’m not wantin’ to prod into your ‘amoors,’ but how far have you nobbled her into this business?”
“Well, as you ask me, I’ll tell you,” replied Bud. “She’s fell into it head first, and up to the heels of her boots, given me the whole show and location all but the name of the hooker which she don’t know yet.”
“You mean to say she’s workin’ for you to collar the stuff?”
“But where does she come in?”
“She’s coming with us if we can pull off the deal.”
“Oh, Lord!” said Harman. “A petticut—I knew there must be some fly in the ’intment—it was too good to be true. A million dollars rollin’ round waitin’ to be took and a petticut—I’ve never known one that didn’t mess a job it was wrapped up in.”
“It’s a million to one it don’t come off,” said Davis, removing his boots before turning in, “but there’s just one chance, and that’s her.”
Next morning Mr. Harman did not go ashore. He spent his time fishing over the side, fishing and smoking and dreaming of all sorts of different ways of spending dollars. Now he was rolling round ’Frisco in a carriage, and a boiled shirt with a diamond solitaire in it, calling at the Palatial for drinks. Now he was in the train of quality eastward bound for N’York, smoking a big cigar. He did not delude himself that the deal would come off, but that didn’t matter a bit. The essence of dreams is unreality. There was a chance.
Davis went ashore about eleven o’clock, and did not return till two in the afternoon. When he came back he was a different man. He seemed younger and brighter, and even better dressed, though he had not changed his clothes. Harman, watching him row up to the ship, noticed the difference in him even before he came on board.
He swept him down to the cabin, and before letting him speak, poured out drinks.
“I see it in your mug,” said Harman. “Here, swaller that before handin’ out the news. Cock yourself on the bunk side. Well, what’s the odds now?”
“Twenty to one on,” said Davis, “or a hundred—it’s all the same. It’s as good as done. Bo, we got it.”
“Don’t say!” said Billy.
“Got it, saddle and bridle an’ pedigree and all. She’s given it all in and to-night’s the night.”
“Give us the yarn,” said the other.
“There’s nothing to it; simple as shop-lifting. The stuff will be down at the coast here about dark; it will be taken off soon as it arrives and shipped on board the Douro. She’s lying over there, and I’ll point her out to you when we go up. Then, when the stuff is aboard, she’ll put out, but not till sun up. They don’t like navigating those outlying reefs in the dark, moon or no.”
“Yes,” said Harman.
“Well,” said Davis, “our little game is to wait till the stuff is aboard, row off, take the Douro, and push out with her. You and me and eight Kanakas ought to do it, there’s no guardship, and the fellows on the Douro won’t put up much of a fight. You see, they’re not on the fighting lay; it’s the steal softly business with them, and I reckon they’ll cave at the first shout.”
“Where does the girl come in?” asked Billy, after a moment’s pause.
“There’s a place called Coimbra seven mile south down the coast,” said Davis, fetching a chart from the locker. “Here it is. That point. I’ve only to put out a blue light and she’ll put off in a boat. Pereira’s brother lives down at Coimbra, and she’s going to-night to stay with him. She’ll be on the watch out from one on to sunrise, and she’ll easy get taken out in one of the night fishermen’s boats.”
To all of which Mr. Harman replied, “Damn petticuts!” He was biting his nails. He was no feminist. That is to say, he had an inborn conviction that women tended to spoil shows other than tea parties and such like. Why couldn’t this rotten girl have kept out of the business? What did she want coming along for? Seeing that she was letting down her people for the love of Davis, it seemed pretty evident that she was coming along also for the love of him, but Harman was not in the mood to consider things from the girl’s point of view.
However, there was no use complaining. With the chance of a million dollars for nothing, one must expect a few thorns, so he kept his head closed whilst Davis, taking him on deck, drew a lightning sketch of the plan of campaign.
First they had to shift the Araya’s moorings so as to get closer to the Douro, then they had to put the Kanakas wise, and more especially Taute the cook and leader, then they had just to lay low, wait for midnight, and pounce.
“Righto,” said Mr. Harman, “and if we’re shiftin’ moorin’s, let’s shift now.”
They did, not drawing too noticeably near the Douro, but near enough to keep watch on her. Near enough to count the sun-blisters on her side with a glass. She was of smaller tonnage than the Araya and ketch-rigged. She had never been a beauty, and she wasn’t one now; she had no charms to mellow with age.
Night had fallen on Buenodiaz, and the band on La Plazza had ceased braying. Eleven o’clock was striking. Cathedral and churches tinkling and tankling and clanging the hour; a drunken crew had just put off for the grain ship lying farther out, and silence was falling on the scene, when, whizz-bang, off went the fireworks.
“Damn the place!” cried Harman, whose nerves were on edge. “It’s clangin’ and prayin’ and stinkin’ all day and closes down only to go off in your face—some saint’s day or ’nuther, I expect.”
Davis said nothing. He was watching the blue and pink of bursting rockets and the fiery, fuzzy worms reflecting themselves in the harbour.
They had seen several boats stealthily approaching the Douro. Everything seemed going to time and the wind was steady.
An hour passed during which Buenodiaz, forgetting saints and frivolity, fell asleep, leaving the world to the keeping of the moon.
Convents, churches and cathedral were chiming midnight when the Kanakas, having crowded into the boat of the Araya, Davis and Harman got into the stem sheets and pushed off.
As they drew close, the Douro, with her anchor light burning, showed no sign of life, bow to the sea on a taut anchor chain, she rode the flooding tide, she seemed nodding to them as she pitched gently to the heave of the swell, and as they rubbed up alongside and Harman grasped the rail, he saw that the deck was clear.
“Down below, every man Jack of them,” he whispered back at Davis. “I can hear ’em snoring. Foc’s’le hatch first.”
He led the way to the foc’s’le hatch and closed it gently, turning at a stroke the foc’s’le into a prison. Then they came to the saloon hatch, stood and listened.
Not a sound.
“They’re all in the foc’s’le,” whispered Harman. “Just like Spaniards, ain’t it? No time to waste, we’ve gotta see the stuff’s here; give’s your matches.” He stepped down, followed by the other, reached the saloon, and struck a light.
Yes, the stuff was there, a sight enough to turn a stronger head than Harman’s, boxes and boxes on the floor and on the couch, evidently just brought on board and disposed of in a hurry, and all marked with the magic name: Juan Diaz.
Harman tried to lift one of them. It was not large, yet he could scarcely stir it. Then with eyes aflame and hammering hearts, they made up the companion way, closed the hatch, and, while Davis got the canvas on her, Harman stood by to knock the shackle off the anchor chain.
As town and mole and harbour dropped astern, the Douro close-hauled and steered by Davis, Harman standing by the steersman, saw the helm going over and found they were heading north.
“And how about pickin’ up that girl?” asked Billy, “Coimbra don’t lay this way.”
“Oh, I reckon she’ll wait,” replied Davis.
“You’re givin’ her the good-bye?”
“Seems so,” said Davis.
Hannan chuckled. Then he lit a cigar. If girls chose to fall in love and trust chaps like Davis, it wasn’t his affair.
At sunrise he slipped down to see after some food. Davis heard him hammering down below, and knew that he was sampling the gold, he smiled with the full knowledge that it was there and that Billy couldn’t get away with it, when up from the saloon dashed Billy.
Like a man demented, he rushed forward, opened the foc’s’le hatch and shouted down it to the imprisoned Spaniards.
“Come up, you blighters,” cried Mr. Harman. Then he dived down, found emptiness and returned on deck.
He held on to the rail as he faced Davis.
“Ten thousand dollars’ worth of trade and ship,” said Harman, “that’s what we’ve given them for a stinkin’ ketch and a couple o’ hundred weight of sand. Sand an’ pebbles that’s what’s in them boxes. You and your girls! No, you can’t put back, they’d jug us for stealin’ this bum boat. Take your gruel and swaller it! Why, bless your livin’ innocence, the whole of that garlic factory was in it, it’s my belief, from the Port Doctor up, and they’ll be havin’ fireworks to-night to celebrate.”
Billy paused, spat into the sea.
“No,” said he, turning his remarks to the universe in general. “It don’t pay. Runnin’ crooked don’t pay—nohow.”
What would you do were you to find yourself on a stolen sixty-ton ketch off the middle coast of Chile with a crew of Kanakas, less than ten days’ provisions on board, no money to speak of, and a healthy and lively dread of touching at a Chile port?
That was the exact position of Mr. William Harman and his friend, Bud Davis, one bright morning on board the ketch Douro and thirty miles nor’-west of Buenodiaz—about.
The Douro was heading west-nor’-west, the morning was perfect, the Pacific calm, and Billy, seated on the hatch cover, was expressing the opinion that running straight was the best course to adopt in a world where reefs were frequent and sharks abundant.
“No,” said he, “runnin’ crooked don’t pay, nohow. There ain’t enough softies about to make it pay, ain’t enough mugs about, as I’ve told you more’n once. Happy I was on Papaleete beach and then you comes along that night and says, ‘Let’s take Penhill’s ship,’ says you. ‘There she lays, the Araya, sixty-ton schooner, and he drinkin’ himself blind at the club and he can’t touch us,’ says you, ‘for he’s mortal afraid of what I know about him. It’s as safe as cheeses,’ says you, and off we put and out we took her—safe as cheeses, seein’ Penhill couldn’t touch us, weren’t we?”
“Oh, close up,” said Davis.
“I ain’t rubbin’ it in, I’m just tellin’ you. Nobody couldn’t touch us, and bold we put into Buenodiaz, reckonin’ to sell her on the hoof, cargo and all, and she worth ten thousand dollars if she was worth a bean, and then what happens? Pereira offers to buy her, cargo and all, and while you were dickerin’ with him, his daughter hands you that yarn about the Douro havin’ a million dollars in bar gold on board of her, and what does we do?” Mr. Harman’s voice rose a tone or two. “We leaves ten thousand dollars’ worth of ship and cargo and rows over to this old tub, boards her, lifts the hook, cracks on sail and puts out to find nothin’ in them boxes but sand an’ pebbles—half a ton of beach, that’s what them darned turkey bustards had landed on us in swop for a schooner and cargo worth ten thousand dollars if she was piled, let alone ridin’ at her moorings in Buenodiaz harbour.”
“Well,” said Davis, “you needn’t shout it. You were in it as well as me. I guess we were both fools, but we haven’t come off empty-handed—we’ve got a ship under our feet, though we’re in a bad way, I’ll admit. Can’t you see the game that’s been played on us? This hooker is worth four thousand dollars any day in the week; they’ve let us run off with her, they set her as a trap for us, but they’ll want her back. If we put into any Chile port, we’ll be nabbed and put to work in the salt mines while these blighters will get their ship back.”
“Sure,” said Harman, “but we ain’t goin’ to.”
“How d’ye mean?”
“We ain’t goin’ to put into no Chile port.” Davis sighed, rose, went below and fetched up the top of one of the gold-boxes, then with a stump of pencil he drew a rough map of South America, indicating the appalling coast-line of Chile while the ingenuous Harman looked on open-mouthed and open-eyed.
“There you are,” said the map-maker, “a hundred thousand miles long and nothing but seaboard and there we are—nothing but the Horn to the south and Bolivia to the north, and the Bolivians are hand in fist with the Chilians, and, moreover, there’s sure to be gunboats out to look for us. That’s why I’m holding on west. We’ve got to get to sea and trust in Providence.”
“Well,” said the disgusted Harman, “I reckon if Providence is our stand-by and if it made Chile same’s your map shows her, we’re done for. There ain’t no sense in it; no, sir, there ain’t no sense in a country all foreshore stringed out like that, with scarce room for a bathin’ machine, and them yellow-bellied Bolivians at one end of it and the Horn at the other. It ain’t playin’ it fair on a man, it ain’t more nor less than a trap, that’s what I call it, it ain’t more nor less than——”
“Oh, shut up,” said Davis, “wasting your wind. We’re in it and we’ve got to get out. Now I’ve just given you our position: we’re running near due west into open sea, with only ten days’ grub, nothing to strike but Easter Island and the mail line from ’Frisco to Montevideo. We’ve the chance to pick up grub from a ship; failing that, either we’ll eat the Kanakas or the Kanakas will eat us. I’m not being funny. How do you take it? Shall us hold on or push down to Valparaiso and take our gruel?”
“What did you say those mines were?” asked Harman.
“Those mines the Chile blighters put chaps like us to work in.”
Mr. Harman meditated for a moment. “Well,” said he at last, “I reckon I’ll take my chance on the Kanakas.”
The Douro had nothing about her of any use for navigation but the rudder and the compass in the binnacle and the tell-tale compass fixed in the roof of the saloon. Pereira, when he had baited her as a trap for the unfortunates to run away with, had left nothing of value. He and the beauties working with him reckoned to get her back, no doubt, as Davis had indicated, but they knew that the fox sometimes manages to escape, carrying the trap with him, so they left nothing to grieve about except the hull, sticks, strings, canvas, bunk bedding and a few tin plates and cooking implements.
So she was sailing pretty blind with nothing to smell at but the North Pole, to use Davis’ words as he spat over the side at the leaping blue sea, while Harman, leaning beside him on the rail, concurred.
The one bright spot in the whole position was the seventeen hundred dollars or so of the Araya’s ship money still safe in Davis’ pocket.
It proved its worth some six days later when, close on the San Francisco-Montevideo mail line, they flagged a big freighter and got provisions enough to last them for a month, then, “more feeling than feet under them,” to use Harman’s expression, they pushed along, protected by the gods of Marco Polo, and the early navigators, untrusting in a compass that might be untrustable through blazing days and nights of stars, smoking—they had got tobacco from the freighter—yarning, lazing and putting their faith in luck.
“Anyhow,” said the philosophic Harman, “we ain’t got no dam chronometer to be slippin’ cogs or goin’ wrong, nor no glass to be floppin’ about and frightenin’ a chap’s gizzard out of him with indications of cyclones and such, nor no charts to be thumbin’, nor no sextan’ to be squintin’ at the sun with. I tell you, Bud, I ain’t never felt freer than this. I reckon it’s the same with money. Come to think of it, money’s no catch, when all’s said and done with, what between banks bustin’ and sharks laying for a chap, not to speak of women and sich, and sore heads an’ brown tongues in the morning. Money buys trouble, that’s all I’ve ever seen of it, and it’s the same all through.”
“Well, that wasn’t your song on the beach at Papaleete,” said Davis, “and seems to me you weren’t backward in making a grab for that gold at Buenodiaz.”
“Maybe I wasn’t,” replied the other, and the conversation wilted while on the tepid wind from the dark-blue sea came the sound of the bow wash answered by the lazy creak of block and cordage.
No longer steering west, but northward towards the line, the Douro brought them nights of more velvety darkness and more tremendous stars, seas more impossibly blue, till, one dawn that looked like a flock of red flamingoes escaping across an horizon of boiling gold, Bud, on the look-out, cried “Land!” and the great sun leaping up astern stripped the curtain away with a laugh and showed them coco-nut trees beyond a broken sea, and beyond the coco-nut trees a misty blue stillness incredibly wonderful and beautiful, till, in a flash, vagueness vanishing, a great lagoon blazed out, with the gulls circling above it, gold and rose and marble-flake white.
Before this miracle Harman stood unimpressed.
“We’d have been right into that darned thing in another hour if the sun hadn’t lifted,” said he, “unless maybe the noise of the reef would have fended us off—hark to it!”
They could hear it coming up against the wind, a long, low rumble like the sound of a far-off train, and now, as the Douro drew in, they could see the foam spouting as the flood tide raced through the passage broad before them, and showing the vast harbour of the lagoon.
“The opening seems all right,” said Davis.
“Deep enough to float a battleship,” replied the other, “and no sign of rocks in it. Shove her in.”
The Douro did not require any shoving. Driven by the wind and tide she came through the break like a gull, and as the great lagoon spread before them they could see the whole vast inner beach with one sweep of the eye.
It was an oval-shaped atoll, a pond, maybe, four miles from rim to rim at its broadest part, heavy here and there with groves of palm and jack-fruit trees, and showing a village of grass-roofed houses by the trees on the northern beach, where, on the blinding white sands, canoes were lying, and from which a boat was just putting off.
“They’ve sighted us,” said Davis.
“Seems so,” replied Harman, running forward to superintend the fellows who were getting the anchor ready, while the Douro, shaking the wind out of her sails, lost way, and the hook fell in ten-fathom water, the rumble of the chain coming back in faintest echoes from the painted shore.
The boat drew on. It was manned by Kanakas naked as Noah, and steered by a white man. A huge man with a broad and red and bulbous face, who came on board leg over rail without a word of greeting, gazed around him with a pair of protruding light-blue eyes, and, then, finding his voice, addressed Harman:
“Where the blazes have you blown in from?” asked the stranger.
“Gentlemen,” said Clayton, for Clayton was his name, and they were all down below sampling a bottle of rum wangled by the genius of Harman out of the purser of the freighter, “Gentlemen, I’m not divin’ into your business. A ship in ballast without charts or chronometer, not knowing where she is, and not willin’ to say where she comes from, may be on the square and may be not.”
“We ain’t,” said Harman bluntly.
“That bein’ so,” said Clayton, quite unmoved, “we can deal without circumlocuting round the show, and get to the point, which is this: I’m wantin’ your ship.”
“Spread yourself,” said Davis, “and tip the bottle.”
“I’m willin’ to buy her of you,” said he, “lock, stock, barrel and Kanakas, no questions asked, no questions answered, only terms.”
“What’s your terms?” asked Harman.
Clayton raised his head. The wind had shifted, and, blowing through the open port, it brought with it a faint, awful, subtle, utterly indescribable perfume. Far above the vulgar world of stenches, almost psychic, it floated around them, while Harman spat and Davis considered the stranger attentively and anew.
“Oysters,” said Davis.
“Rotting on the outer beach,” said Clayton. “That’s my meaning and my terms. Gentlemen, if you ain’t plum’ fools, the smell of them oysters will be as a leadin’ light to bring you a fortune as big as my own.”
“Open the can,” said Harman.
“Which I will,” replied the other. “I’m straight’s a gun barrel I am, and I don’t want to beat round no bushes, and it’s just this way, gents. The hull of this lagoon is a virgin oyster patch full of virgin oysters, pearl breedin’ and sound, with no foot-and-mouth disease to them. Oloong-Javal is the Kanaka name of the atoll, and it’s on no charts. No, sir, it’s a sealed lagoon, and I struck it two years ago runnin’ from Sydney to Valparaiso, master of the Sea Hawk, with a Chink crew and a cargo of chow truck, put in here for water, spotted the oyster shop, and kept my head shut. Found orders at Valparaiso to ballast and get on to Callao, but I didn’t go to no Callao. I cut loose, fired the mate as a drunk and incapable, which he was, laid out the ship’s money on diving dresses and a pump, hawked back here, landed the equipment, and started in on the pearling.”
“And the Chinks?” asked Harman.
“Comin’ to them, they curled up and died of eating the lagoon fish in the poisonous season, couldn’t keep them off it—you know what Chinks are—and as for the hooker, why sinkin’ gets rid of a lot of trouble, and I took her outside the reef and drilled her.”
“Well, you are a one,” said Harman, shocked, yet intrigued, and vaguely admiring.
“I don’t say that I’m not,” replied Clayton. “I reckon we’re all in the same boat, and plain speaking is best among gentlemen, but cuttin’ all that, let’s get down to tin-tacks. I’ve been working a year and I haven’t skinned more than a patch of the beds. All the same, I’ve made my pile, and I want to enjoy it, I want to have my fun, and if you’re willing I’ll swap the location and the mining rights for this hooker and her crew. I want to get home, and home’s Kisai Island, up north in the Marshalls—and that’s what’s waitin’ for me and has been waitin’ for me three years.”
He took a photograph from his pocket and handed it to the others. It was the photo of a Kanaka girl under a palm tree on a blazing beach.
“Oh, Lord, a petticut!” said Harman in a doleful voice at this sight of ill omen. “A petticut!”
“There ain’t no petticoat about her,” said Clayton—as indeed there was not—“unless the missionaries have been gettin’ at her with their tomfoolery. Oti is her name, and there she sits waitin’ for me, which if she isn’t and has gone and got spliced, I reckon I’ll bust her husband. Well, gents, which is it to be for you, floatin’ round loose in this cockroach trap or a hundred thousand dollars’ worth of pearls to be took for the working?”
“And how are we to get away supposing we stick here and pearl?” asked Davis.
“That’s not for me to say,” replied Clayton. “Something will blow along most likely and take you off, or you can rig up a canoe and make for the Paumotus. I’m just offerin’ the deal, which many a man would jump at, more especial as this old ketch of yours seems to smell of lost property. I ain’t insinuating. I’m only hintin’.”
Davis swallowed the suggestion without sign of taking offence, then he said: “I’ll step on deck with my friend Harman and have a word with him. I won’t be more’n five minutes.”
On deck, Harman suddenly clapped himself on the head. “We’ve left that ballyhoo alone with the rum-bottle,” said he.
“Never mind,” said Davis, “we’re better dry. Now get your nose down to this business while I turn the handle. First of all we want to get rid of the ship; second, we want pearls, not for personal adornment, so to speak, but for profit; third, I believe the chap’s yarn, and, fourth, I vote we close on his offer. What you say?”
“I’m with you on the pearls,” said Harman, “and I’m ready to close on two conditions, and the first is that the beds haven’t been stripped.”
“We’ll easily prove that,” said Davis. “I’ve done pearling and I know the business.”
“Second is,” continued Harman, “that havin’ hived the stuff, we’ll be able to get away with it.”
“Maybe what more you’ll be wanting is a mail boat to ’Frisco and a brass band to play us off. Isn’t Luck good enough to trust in? And look at the luck that’s brought us here. What you want flying in the face of it for?”
“Well, maybe you’re right,” said the other. “The luck’s all right if it holds; question is, will it? I don’t like that petticut flyin’ up in our face; it’s part of the deal, seems to me, since he’s droppin’ this place mainly to get to her, and I’ve never seen a deal yet that wasn’t crabbed if a woman put as much as the tip of her nose into it. I ain’t superstitious. I’m only sayin’ what I know, and all I’m saying is that it’s rum him talking of——”
“Oh, shut up,” said the other, “you’re worse than any old woman. I’m into this business whether or no, and you can stay out if you want. How’s it to be?”
Harman raised his head and sniffed the air tainted with the oysters rotting on the coral. Then he turned to the cabin hatch. “Come on,” said he, and they went below to close the bargain.
Clayton’s house was grass-thatched like the others and situated close to the groves on the right of the village; it had three rooms and a veranda, and mats and native-made chairs constituted the chief furniture. Beyond the house, farther on the right, was the shed where a few trade goods, mostly boxes of tobacco and rolls of print, were stored.
“That’s all there’s left of the stuff I brought with me,” said he; “it’ll carry you on, and I make you a present of it. The Kanakas aren’t used to high wages. A chap will dive all day for the fun of it and half a stick of tobacco, but you can do most of the diving yourselves and save on the business. There are the diving suits, two of them. Good as when I got them, and the pump’s in the boat there; she’s in that canoe house, it’s a Clarkson, in good order. Say, boys, you’ve no reason to sneeze over this deal. Here’s an island, a living larder, pigs and fowl and taro and fish and fruit for nix, a pearl lagoon not half worked, diving suits and pump and a bit of trade, and all for that frousty old brown boat of yours. Was you ever on your feet before?”
“Well, maybe,” said Davis, “we’ve no call to complain if the beds are all right. Let’s put out and look at them.”
They took the Douro’s boat and rowed out, Clayton steering and piloting them.
The beds ran north, acres of them, and one of the Kanakas Clayton had taken with them dived now and then and brought up a pair of shells as a sample.
Big molluscs they were, weighing maybe eight hundred to the ton, of the white shell like the Tahiti oysters.
Davis, who knew something of the business, reckoned that the shell alone was worth five hundred dollars a ton, but he said nothing as the boat, impelled by the sculls, passed through the crystal water.
Every lagoon would be a pearl lagoon but for the fact that the oyster of all sea creatures is the most difficult to suit with a breeding ground. The tides must not be too swift, the floor must be exactly right.
Javal Lagoon was ideal, a bar of reef delaying the floor current and the coral showing the long coach-whip fucus loved by the pearl-seeker. Davis declared himself satisfied, and they rowed back to inspect the mounds of shell and oysters rotting on the beach which were to be thrown in as part of the goodwill of the business.
That night after supper, Clayton showed his pearls. A few of them. He had four tin cash-boxes, and he opened one and disclosed his treasures lying between layers of cotton-wool. You have seen chocolate creams in boxes—that was the sight that greeted the eyes of Harman and Davis, only the chocolate creams were pearls. Some were the size of marrowfat peas and some were the size of butter beans, very large, but not of very good shape, some were pure white, some gold and some rose.
“Don’t show us no more, or I guess we’ll be robbin’ you,” said Harman.
Next morning the pearl-man began his preparations for departure, the water-casks of the Douro were filled, chickens caught and cooped, a live pig embarked and the groves raided for nuts, bananas and bread-fruit.
“It’s well he’s leavin’ us the trees,” said Harman.
The diving suits were got out and Clayton showed them how they were used, also the trick of filling the net bag with oysters in the swiftest way and without tangling the air-tube. The beds were shallow enough to be worked without diving gear, but a man in a diving dress will raise five times as many pairs of shells as a man without in a given time, Clayton explained this. He left nothing wanting in the way of explanations and advice, and next morning, having filled up with provisions and water, he put out, taking the ebb, the Douro heeling to a five-knot breeze and followed past the break by a clanging escort of gulls.
Then Harman and Davis found themselves alone, all alone, masters of a treasure that would have turned the head of Tiffany, and of a hundred and fifty Kanakas, men, women, and children, a tribe captained and led by one Hoka, a frizzy-headed buck whose only dress and adornment was a gee string and the handle of a china utensil slung round his neck as a pendant.
The rotted oysters on the coral were useless, they had been worked over by Clayton. That was the first surprise, the next was the price of labour. Two sticks of tobacco a day was the price of native labour, not half a stick as reported by Clayton.
Trade tobacco just then worked out at two cents a stick, so the pay was not exorbitant; it was the smallness of the stock in hand that bothered our syndicate. But Hoka was adamant. He did not know ten words of English, but he knew enough to enforce his claims, and the syndicate had to give in.
“I knew there’d be flies in the ’intment somewhere,” said Harman, “but this is a bluebottle. We haven’t tobacco enough to work this lagoon a month, and what’s to happen then?”
“No use bothering a month ahead,” replied Davis. “If worst comes to the worst, we’ll just have to do the diving ourselves. Get into your harness and down with you, to see how it works.”
Harman did, and an appalling rush of bubbles followed his descent, the suit was faulty. Tropical weather does not improve diving suits, and Harman was just got up in time.
“Never again,” said he when his window was unscrewed, and he had done cursing Clayton, Clayton’s belongings, his family, his relatives and his ancestors.
“Stick her on the beach; darn divin’ suits, let’s take to the water natural.”
They did, following the practice of the Kanakas, and at the end of the week, when the shells were rotted out, six days’ takings showed three large pearls perfect in every point and worth maybe fifteen hundred dollars, five small pearls varying in value from ten to forty dollars according to Davis’ calculations, several baroques of small and uncertain value and a spoonful of seeds.
“Call it two thousand dollars,” said Davis, when they had put the takings away in some cotton-wool, left by Clayton, and a small soap-box. “Call it two thousand and we’ve had twenty Kanakas diving for a week at two sticks a day, that makes two hundred and eighty sticks at two cents a stick.”
“Well, it’s cheap enough,” said Harman. “Wonder what the unions would say to us and them chaps that’s always spoutin’ about the wages of the workin’ classes—not that I’m against fair wages. I reckon if that guy Clayton had left us enough tobacco, I wouldn’t mind raisin’ the wage bill to eight dollars a week, but we haven’t got it—haven’t got enough to last a month as it’s runnin’ now.”
He spoke the truth. Less than a month left them cleared out, and the Kanakas struck to a man and ceased to dive, spending their time fishing, lazing in the sun and smoking—but their chief amusement was watching the white men at work.
There is no penitentiary equal to a pearl lagoon, once it seizes you, and no galley slaves under the whip ever worked harder than Harman and Bud Davis, stripped to the skin, brown as cobnuts with sun and water, long-haired, dishevelled, diving like otters, and bringing up not more than a hundred pair of shells a day.
The boat had to be anchored over a certain spot, and as the work went on the anchorage had to be shifted; at the end of the day the oysters had to be brought ashore and laid out on the coral to rot. Then, too tired, almost, to smoke, the Pearl Syndicate would stretch itself under the stars to dream of fortune and the various ways of spending money.
The imaginative Harman had quite definite views on that business—diamonds and dollar Henry Clays, champagne and palatial bars, standing drinks to all and sundry and a high time generally, that was his idea. Davis, darker and more secretive, had higher ambitions roughly formulated in the words, “More money.” Dollars breed dollars, and great wealth was enough for him. He would spend his money on making more, sure in his mind that if he once got his foot again in ’Frisco with a pocketful of money, he would find his way out through the big end of the horn.
And so they went on till at the end of four months, taking stock of their possessions, they found themselves forty thousand dollars up, to use Davis’ words.
Taken by the hands of the Kanakas in the first month and by their own hands in the three succeeding months, they had safely hived forty-seven white and perfect pearls, two golden pearls, one defective, some red pearls not worth more than a shilling a grain, and, king of the collection, a great black pearl pear-shaped and perfect and equal to any Mexican in lustre and value. There were also some baroques of extraordinary shapes and a quantity of seeds.
Of the forty-seven white pearls, four were of very large size. Davis had no scales, but he reckoned that these four and the black were worth all the rest put together.
The general stock-taking brought an end to their luck, and for weeks after the take was a joke, to use Davis’ expression. It is always so in pearling; a man may make a small fortune out of a fishery in a few months, but the take is never consistent, and if he strikes it rich at first, it is ten to one he will have to pay for his luck.
One morning, just as the sun was freeing himself from the reef and the last of the gulls departing for their deep-sea fishing grounds, Harman, who had been to draw water from the well, suddenly dropped the bucket he was carrying, shaded his eyes and gave a shout that brought Davis from the house.
Davis looked to where the other was pointing, and there far off to the north and lit by the newly-risen sun stood a sail.
They had been praying for a ship for the last fortnight, speculating on the chances of anything picking them up before they died of hope deferred and loneliness and a diet of fish and vegetable truck, yet now, before that sail hard on the blue and evidently making towards them, they scarcely felt surprised, and were too troubled to be filled with joy; for it suddenly occurred to them that pearls were pearls—that is to say, wealth in its most liftable form.
“Say, Bud,” cried Harman, “we’ve got to hide them divin’ dresses. If these chaps ain’t on the straight and they sniff pearls, we’ll be robbed sure and shoved in the lagoon. I never thought of that before. We’re sure marks for every tough till we’ve cashed in and banked the money.”
“You aren’t far wrong,” replied Davis, still contemplating the sail. “Yes, she’s making for here, and she’s all a hundred and fifty tons. Inside two hours she’ll be off the reef and we’ve no time to waste.”
Most of the island Kanakas had gone fishing the night before to the other side of the atoll, so there were only a few old women and children about to mark the actions of the Pearl Syndicate.
First they dealt with the boat that held the pump, sinking it by the inner beach in four-fathom water at a point where the trees came down right across the sands.
Then, carrying the diving suits, they dumped them in a fish-pool off the outer beach. Having done this, they divided the pearls, making two parcels of them, and surprisingly small parcels they were considering their value.
“Now,” said Harman, when all was done, “we’re shipwrecked chaps blown ashore, we don’t know nothing about pearls, and we reckon the house and go-down were built by some trader the Kanakas has murdered. How’s that for a yarn to sling them; but what’s the name of our ship?”
“The Mary Ann Smithers,” replied Davis promptly, “from Tampico to ’Frisco, cargo of hides and wool, badly battered off the Horn, old man’s name Sellers, and driven out of our course by the big gale a month ago. There wasn’t any gale a month ago, but it’s a million to one they were a thousand miles off then, so how are they to know?”
“You were second officer,” said Harman.
“No, I was bo’sun; second officers are supposed to be in the know of the navigation and all such. I was just bo’sun, plain Jim Davis.”
“Well, they won’t dispute you’re plain enough,” said Harman. “But you ain’t the cut of a bo’sun, not to my mind, cable length nearer you are to the look of a Methodis’ preacher or a card sharp—no need to get riled—be a bo’sun and be darned, be anythin’ you like. I’m an A.B. hopsacker, British born and—here they are.” The fore canvas of the schooner was just showing at the break.
She came in laying the water behind her as though she had a hundred square miles of harbour to manœuvre in, then the wind shivered out of her canvas and almost on the splash of the anchor a boat was dropped.
Harman and Davis watched it as it came ashore, noted the stroke of the broad-backed Kanaka rowers and the sun helmet of the white man in the stern and his face under the helmet as he stepped clear of the water on to the beach.
Mandelbaum was the name of the newcomer, a dark, small man with a face expressionless as a wedge of ice. He wore glasses.
As he stepped on to the sand he looked about him in seeming astonishment, first at Harman, then at Davis, then at the house, then at the beach.
“Who the devil are you?” asked he.
“Same to yourself,” replied Harman, “we’re derelicks. Hooker bust herself on the reef in a big blow more’n a month ago. Who are you?”
“My name is Mandelbaum,” replied the other.
“Well, come up on the verandy and have a drink,” said the hospitable Harman, “and we can have a clack before goin’ aboard. You the captain of that hooker?”
“I am,” said Mandelbaum.
“Then I reckon you won’t mind givin’ us a lift. We’re not above workin’ for our grub—set down till I get some drinkin’ nuts.”
There was a long seat under the veranda, the house door was at the westward end of the house and the seat ran from the door to the eastern end. It was long enough for, maybe, ten people to sit on comfortably, and the three sat down on the seat. Harman having fetched the nuts, Mandelbaum threw his right leg over his left knee and turning comfortably and in a lazy manner towards the others, said:
“I beg your pardon,” said Harman.
Davis said nothing. His mouth fell open, and before he could shut it Mandelbaum got in again.
“Don’t go to the trouble of trying any monkey tricks, there’s half a dozen fellows with Winchesters on that schooner. Your bluff is called. Where’s Clayton, my partner? He and a year’s taking of pearls ought to be here. I bring the schooner back with more trade goods and he’s gone, and I find you two scowbarkers in his house and serving strangers with your damn drinking nuts.” A venomous tang was coming into the steady voice, and a long slick Navy revolver came out of his left-hand coat pocket into his right hand, with the nozzle resting on his right knee.
“Where’s Clayton, dead—but where, where have you planted him, and where have you cached the pearls?”
“Cached the pearls?” suddenly cried Harman, finding his voice and taking in the whole situation. Then he began to laugh. He laughed as though he were watching Charlie Chaplin or something equally funny. He was. The picture of Clayton stood before him. Clayton making off with his partner’s share of the pearls, and handing the island and the fishing rights to him and Davis in return for the ketch, the picture of Davis and himself working like galley slaves, doing four months’ hard labour for the sake of Mandelbaum, for well he knew Mandelbaum would make them stump up to the last baroque.
Then he sat with his chin on his fists, spitting on the ground, while Davis explained and Harman soliloquised sometimes quite out aloud: “No, it ain’t no use; straight’s the only word in the dictionary. No darn use at all, ain’t enough mugs—and a petticut on top of all——”
“Well, what’s the ‘ultermatum’?” asked Harman, a day later, as he stood by a native canoe on the beach.
“It’s either stick here and work for two dollars a day or get out for the Paumotus,” replied Davis, coming up from a last interview with Mandelbaum. “Which will we do, stick here and work for Mandelbaum for two dollars a day sure money, house, grub and everything found, or put out for the Paumotus in this blessed canoe which his royal highness says we can have in exchange for the ship’s money he’s robbed us of? Which is it to be, the society of Mandelbaum or the Paumotus, which is hell, sharks, tide races, contr’y winds and starvation, maybe?”
“The Paumotus,” said Harman without a moment’s hesitation.
THE WAY OF A MAID WITH A MAN
Have you ever tried to manage a South Sea canoe, a thing not much wider than a skiff, with mast and sail out of all proportion to the beam, yet made possible because of the outrigger?
The outrigger, a long skate-shaped piece of wood, is supposed to stabilize the affair; it is always fixed to port and is connected to the canoe proper in two chief ways, either by a pole fore and aft or by a central bridge of six curved lengths of wood to which the mast stays are fixed; there are subsidiary forms with three outrigger poles, with two outrigger poles and a bridge, but it was in a canoe of the pure bridge type that Bud Davis and William Harman found themselves afloat in the Pacific, making west with an unreliable compass, a dozen and a half drinking nuts, a breaker of water and food for a fortnight.
They had been shot out of a pearl lagoon by the rightful owner and robbed of two double handfuls of pearls which they had collected in his absence. Given the offer of a canoe to go to the devil in or honest work at two dollars a day with board and lodging free, they had chosen the canoe.
They could work; they had worked like beavers for months and months collecting those pearls, but they weren’t going to work for wages.
“No, sir,” said Harman, “I ain’t come down to that yet. Billy Harman’s done signin’ on to be sweated like a gun-mule and hove in the harbour when he’s old bones; the beach is good enough for him if it comes to bed-rock.”
It had certainly come to bed-rock now this glorious morning, two days out and steering into the face of the purple west, the great sun behind them just risen and leaning his chin on the sea line.
Harman was at the steering paddle, Davis forward. They had breakfasted on cold water and bananas, and Billy was explaining to Davis exactly the sort of fools they had been, not in refusing work and good grub and pay, but in having failed to scrag Mandelbaum, the pearl man.
“Oh, shut up,” said Davis, “you’re always going back on things, and you haven’t it in you to scrag a chicken, anyhow; always serving out that parson’s dope about it not paying to run crooked.”
“Nor it don’t,” said the moralist. “There ain’t enough mugs in the world, as I’ve told you more than twice. I don’t say there ain’t enough, but they’re too spread about—now if you could get them all congeriated into one place, I wouldn’t be behind you in waltzing in with a clear conscience an’ takin’ their hides—but there ain’t such a place—— ’Nother thing that queers the pitch is the way sharps let on to be mugs. Look at Clayton.”
“What about Clayton?”
“Well, look at him. In we sails to that pearl shop and there we finds him on the beach. Looked like the king of the mugs, didn’t he, with his big, round face and them blue-gooseberry eyes. ‘Here’s a sealed lagoon for you,’ says he, ‘I’m done with it; got all the pearls I want and am only wishful to get away; take it for nix, I only want your ship in exchange, and we fall to the deal and off he goes.’
“We didn’t know he’d sailed off with all his pardner’s pearls, did we? And when his pardner, Mandelbaum, turns up and collars our takin’s, and kicks us out in this durned canoe after we’d been workin’ months and months, our pitch wasn’t queered—was it? And all by a sharp got up to look like a sucker and be d——d to him. Well, I hopes he’ll fry in blazes if he ain’t drowned before he cashes them pearls. I ain’t given to cursin’, but I could curse a hole in this dished canoe when I thinks of the hand we give him by fallin’ into his trap and the trick he served us by settin’ it.”
“MIND!” yelled Davis.
Harman, in his mental upset, had neglected his steering, and the canoe paying off before the wind nearly flogged the mast out as Davis let go the sheet.
There are two sure ways of capsizing a South Sea canoe—letting the outrigger run under too deep and letting it tip into the air. They nearly upset her both ways before matters were righted, then pursuing again the path of the flying fish, the little canoe retook the wind, tepid and sea-scented and blowing out of the blue north-west.
An hour after sunrise next morning Davis, on the look-out, saw a golden point in the sky away to the south of west. It was the cloud turban of Motul. A moment later Harman saw it too.
“Lord! it’s a high island,” cried he. “I thought there was nuthin’ but low islands in these parts. Where have we been driftin’ to?”
“I don’t know,” replied Davis. “Mind your steering, it’s land, that’s all I want.”
“Oh, I ain’t grumblin’,” said Harman. He got her a point closer to the wind and steered, keeping the far-off speck on the port bow. The breeze freshened and the stays of the mast, fastened to the outrigger grating, twanged while the spray came inboard now and then in dashes from the humps of the swell, yet not a white cap was to be seen in all the vast expanse of water, the great sea running with a heave in the line of Humboldt’s current from south to north, but without a foam gout to break the ruffled blue.
At noon Motul had lost its turban of cloud, but now it stood, a great lumping island moulded out of mountains, scarred with gulleys down which burst forests and rainbow falls, for Motul was green with the recent rains and its perfume met them ten miles across the sea.
There seemed no encircling reef, just a line of reef here and there, beyond which lay topaz and aquamarine sheets of water bathing the feet of the great black cliffs of Motul.
“Ain’t a place I’d choose for a lee shore,” said Billy, “but this canoe don’t draw more than a piedish, and I reckon we can get her in most anywhere across the reefs. Question is where do them cliffs break?”
They kept a bit more to the south, and there sure enough was the big break where the cliffs seem smashed with an axe and where the deep water comes in, piercing the land so that you might anchor a battleship so close that the wild cliff-hanging convolvulus could brush its truck and fighting tops.
“We can’t make it before dark,” said Billy.
“Don’t matter,” said Davis.
It didn’t; although the moon had not risen, the stars lit Motul and the great dark harbour that pierces the land like a sword.
The breeze had almost fallen dead as they came in, nothing but the sea spoke, breaking on the rocks and lipping up the cliffs, where screw pines clung and the great datura trumpets blew in the silver light.
Then as they stole across the water of the harbour, the dying breeze laying glittering fans before them, they saw, right ahead on the shore where the dark cliffs drew away, lights twinkling and dancing like fireflies, lights standing and moveless, lights crawling like glowworms. It was Amaho, the chief village of Motul, and the lights were the lights of the houses, the fish spearers, the lovers and the wayfarers of the chief town of Paradise.
For Motul is Paradise in all things that relate to the senses of sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch, and its people are part of their environment. Here there are no ugly women and few old people, here bathing is perpetual as summer, and summer is never oppressive. Here everything grows that is of any use in the tropics.
The pineapples of Motul are as white inside as sawn deal, yet you can almost eat them with a spoon, and their flavour beats that of the Brazilian pineapple, the English hothouse and the pine of Bourbon; they have fig bananas with a delicate golden stripe unobtainable elsewhere, and passion fruit with a vanilla flavour only to be found at Motul.
Also there are girls.
Harman and his companion, faced with the lights of the town, determined not to land till morning. They dropped their stone killick in six-fathom water, ate the last of their bananas, turned on their sides and fell asleep to be awakened by the dawn, a dawn of many colours standing against the far horizon on a carpet of rose and fire. Then, all of a sudden, tripping across the sea, she pulled up a curtain and the sun hit Amaho, the bay, the beach, and the anchored canoes, including the stranger canoe that had arrived during the night.
“Look,” said Harman, “they’ve spotted us.” He pointed to the beach, where a crowd was gathering, a crowd with faces all turned seaward. Children were running along the sands, calling their elders out of houses to come and look, and now heads of swimmers began to dot the water and girls with flowers in their dark hair came towards the canoe, swimming with the effortless ease of fish; girls, young men, and boys, the whole population of Amaho seemed to have taken to the sea, and with them Davis held converse in broken bêche de mer, while Harman gloomily considered the “skirts.”
I think Harman’s dislike of womenfolk had less to do with misogyny pure and simple than with a feeling, born from experience, that women tend to crab deals and interfere with the progress of prosperity, just as it is coming along to you by devious, not to say crooked paths.
There was nothing in the way of any possible deal looming before them this morning. All the same, the ingenuous Harman did not relax or unbend in the least before this vision of friendly mermaids, one of whom was boldly now grasping the starboard gunnel with a wet hand while another, to port, was engaged in putting a leg over the outrigger.
“They’re a friendly lot,” said Davis over his shoulder to the other. “Ain’t much to be done here as far as I can see, no shell nor turtle, and they’re too lazy to make copra, but it’s a good place to rest in and refit.”
“It’ll be a good place to drown in if that piece don’t get off the outrigger,” said Harman.
“Well, what’s your opinion, shall we shove her in?”
“Aye, shove her in,” said Harman, and, getting up the anchor, they took to the paddles, making for the beach with an escort of swimmers ahead, to port, to starboard and astern.
It was the girl on the outrigger that did the business, a wild-eyed, elfish-looking, yet beautiful individual, divorced from the humdrum civilized scheme of things as Pan or Puck. She only wanted horns and a little fur trimming or a small addition of wings to have done for either.
As it was, she nearly did for Mr. Harman. In some miraculous way an affinity exhibited itself between these two, an attraction drew one towards the other, so that at the end of a week if you had seen Billy anywhere about by himself, sitting on the beach or lying in the shade of the trees, you would ten to one have found Kinie—that was her name—not far off.
She had attached herself like a dog to the man, and Billy after a while, and towards the end of the first week, found himself drifting far from his old moorings.
He and Davis had built themselves a house in forty-eight hours and food was on every hand; they had no cares or worries, no taxes, eternal summer and the best fishing south of California, bathing, boating, yet they were not happy; at least, Davis was not.
Civilization, like savagery, breeds hunters, and your hunter is not happy when he is idle; there was nothing to be shot at here in the way of money, so Davis was not happy. Harman, dead to the beauty around him, might have shared the discontent of the other, only for Kinie. She gave him something to think about.
Drowsing one day under a bread-fruit tree, a squashy fruit like a custard apple fell on his head, and, looking up, he saw Kinie among the leaves looking down at him. Next moment she was gone. Bread-fruit trees don’t grow apples like that; she must have carried it there to drop it on him, a fact which, having bored itself into Mr. Harman’s intelligence, produced a certain complacency. He had been in her thoughts.
An hour or two later, sitting by the edge of the beach, she came and sat near him, dumb and stringing coloured pieces of coral together—anything coloured seemed to fascinate her—and there they sat, saying nothing, but seemingly content till Davis hove in sight and Kinie, gathering up her treasures, scampered off.
“You and that gal seem mighty thick,” said Davis. “Blest if you aren’t a contradiction, always grumbling about petticoats and saying they bring you bad luck, and set you ashore—and look at you.”
“I give you to understand, Bud Davis, I won’t be called no names, not by no man,” replied the other. “It ain’t my fault if the girl comes round and there ain’t no harm in her comin’.”
“Well, you’ve picked the prettiest of the lot, anyhow,” said Davis. “Don’t go telling me, girls are girls and men are men; but we’ll leave it there. It’s no affair of mine. I’m not grumbling.”
On he walked, leaving the outraged Harman on the sands, speechless because unable to explain, unable to explain even to himself the something between himself and the wildly beautiful, charming, yet not-quite-there Kinie.
The fascination he exercised upon her would have been even more difficult to explain. Davis was younger and better-looking. Davis had made advances to her which Harman had never done, yet she avoided Davis, never dropped custard apples on his head or sat by him stringing bits of coral or followed him at a distance through the woods.
Nor did she ever try to steal Davis’ pocket-handkerchief.
Harman possessed a blazing parti-coloured bandana handkerchief. It was silk, and had cost him half a dollar at Mixon’s at the foot of Third Street, which adjoins Long Wharf. It was his main possession. He used it not as handkerchiefs are used, but as an adjunct to conversation as your old French marquis used his snuff-box. Stumped for words or in perplexity, out would come the handkerchief to be mopped across his brow.
Kinie from the first had been fascinated by this handkerchief. She wanted it. One day he lost it, and an hour later she flashed across his vision with it bound around her head. He chased her, recaptured it, reduced her to sulks for twenty-four hours, and a few days later she boldly tried to steal it again. Then she seemed to forget all about it; but do women ever forget?
One morning some two months after they had landed, Davis, coming out of the house, found the beach in turmoil. Girls were shading their eyes towards the sea, and young fellows getting canoes in order for launching, while children raced along the sands screaming the news or stood fascinated like the girls, and, like them, gazing far to sea.
A ship had been sighted, and there she was on the far-rippled blue, the tepid wind blowing her to life and growth, the sun lighting her sails and turning them to a single triangular pearl.
Nothing could be more beautiful than the far ship on the far sea with the near sea all broken to flashing sapphire, the whole picture framed between the verdurous cliffs of the harbour entrance and lit by the entrancing light of morning.
But Davis had no eye for the beauty of the picture, he turned, ran back to the house, and fetched out Harman.
“Fore and aft rig, maybe eighty or a hundred ton, maybe a bit less,” said Harman, “makin’ dead for the beach. Say, Bud, we been fools. Here’s a ship and never a plan to meet her with, nor a story to tell her.”
“Well, what’s the odds?” said Davis. “We’re shipwrecked, or, if you like it better, we skipped from a whaler. What are you bothering about? We’ve nothing to hide, only the Douro, and we’ve got rid of her. You’ve never thought of that, B. H. You’ve always been going on about Clayton getting the better of us by skipping off with those pearls in exchange for the Douro; hasn’t it ever got into your thick head that since we as good as stole the hooker, he did us a good turn by taking her? There’s not a port he could bring her into without being had, and I’ll bet my back teeth he’s jugged by this, him and his pearls.”
“If he is,” said Harman, “I’ll never say a word against the law again.”
Then they hung silent and the ship grew. The wind held steady, then it faded, great smoke-blue spaces showing on the sea; then it freshened, blowing from a new quarter, and the stranger, shifting her helm, payed off on the starboard tack. She showed now to be ketch-rigged.
“I’ve always been agin’ the law,” went on Mr. Harman, “but if the law puts that blighter in chokee, I’ll take the first lawyer I meet by the fist. I will so. I’ll say to him, you’re a man an’ brother, law or no law.”
“Oh hang the law!” cried Davis, whose face had turned purple, and whose eyes were straining at the ship. “Look at her. Can’t you see what she is? She’s the Douro!”
Harman’s hand flew up to shade his eyes. He stood for twenty seconds, then he gave a whoop and made as if to run to the sea edge, where the canoes were preparing to put out.
Davis caught him by the arm and pulled him back.
“Who are you holdin’?” cried Harman. “Let me get at the blighter! Leave me loose or I’ll give you the bashin’ I have in me fist for him. Leave me loose, you——”
But Davis, undaunted and deaf to all protests, drove him steadily back amongst the trees and then made him sit down to hear reason.
“That chap would wipe the deck with you,” said Davis. “There’s more ways of killing a dog than by kicking him. What we’ve got to do is lay low and wait our chance, get him ashore off his ship, and leave the rest to me.”
“Well, if I can get my fists on him, that’s all I want,” said Harman. “I don’t want more than that.”
“I do,” replied the other. “I want those pearls. Now skip down to the house and fetch up all the grub you can find. We’ve got to keep hid till things develop. That’s our strong point: him not knowing we’re here.”
“And do you mean to say the Kanakas won’t tell him?” asked Harman.
“Well, suppose they do, suppose they say there are two white men on the island, how’s he to know it’s us? The Kanakas don’t know our names or where we’ve come from. Now, skip!”
Harman went off, and returned laden. They made their camp under a tree by a spring, covering the food over with bread-fruit leaves to keep the robber crabs from getting at it, then they settled themselves down to watch and listen.
They heard the anchor go down, and Harman, who climbed the tree to a point where a view of the harbour could be glimpsed between the leaves, reported that the Douro was at anchor two cable-lengths from the shore and swinging to the tide, that the canoes were all round her, and that a chap in white was leaning over her rail.
“Looks like Clayton,” said he. “Now he’s left the rail, and they’re swinging out a boat. He’s comin’ ashore. Now he’s in the boat. Yes, that’s him sure enough; know him anywhere by the way he carries himself, crawled over into the boat like a cat, he did. Yes, it’s him; I can see his face now, all but his b’iled gooseberry eyes. Comin’ ashore, are you? Well, I’ll be there to meet you.”
He came swarming down only to be received into the arms of Davis, that is to say, Reason.
“Coming on for night I don’t say no,” said Davis; “we may be able to take the ship and get out with her, but there’s no use in a free fight on the beach in the broad light of day with all his boat crew to back him. I’ve got an idea—it’s coming into my head bit by bit—and it’s this, the crew know us.”
“Well, they ought to, since we captained them once,” said Harman. “But what about it?”
“Just this, you know what Kanakas are. If we can knock Clayton on the head sudden to-night and get off without too much fuss, we’ve only got to step on board and drop the anchor-chain and put out. The Kanakas won’t object. Seeing us come on board again, and taking over the ship, they’ll think it’s all in the day’s work and done by arrangement with Clayton.”
“That ain’t a bad idea if we can do it,” said Harman; “we’ll have to scrag him so that he don’t squeal, and do it without fittin’ him out for a mortuary. I ain’t a particular man, but I’ve an objection to corpses.”
“Oh, rot!” said Davis. “You’ve got to stow that bilge if you want to make out in this business. You’ll be going about next with flowers in your hair like those Kanaka girls. I ain’t going to hit to kill. If I get the chance of hitting at all. I’m going to put him to sleep, that’s all; if he never wakes up the world will be none the wiser nor the worse. Hullo! What’s that?”
It was Kinie, her face showed peeping at them through the branches which her little brown hands were holding back.
“Scat!” cried Harman, shaken out of all other considerations but the thought that she had discovered their whereabouts and might give them away. “Off with you, and back to the village—and if you let a word out of you——”
Before he could finish the branches swayed, and Kinie was gone.
“After her!” cried Davis. “Get hold of her and tell her to spy on the chap, and give us news of what’s going on. Hump yourself!”
Harman, getting on his feet, started off in pursuit, and Davis found himself alone. He could hear the wash of the beach and the far-off voices of the village, and as he sat, putting things together in his mind, the main question that kept recurring was whether Clayton would put out after taking on fruit and water, or whether he would stay.
After that came the question of the pearls. It was six months now since the day he sailed from the atoll, and he was still tinkering about amongst the lesser islands; what had he done with the pearls? He had evidently been to no port of importance where he might have sold them, and if there was reason in anything, there was reason in the supposition that they were on board the Douro.
Davis chuckled to himself at the thought. The thing was so simple. Once Clayton was put out of count nothing could be easier than to row off, seize the ketch and put out with her—the Kanaka crew knew both him and his companion. Davis chuckled at the thought that these same Kanakas had been through the same process before when he and Harman had “nicked” the Araya.
“And I bet you,” he said to himself as he lay listening to the sounds of the beach and village, “I bet you they don’t know they’ve been as good as stolen twice, or that me and Billy aren’t part owners in the show, turning up now and then to take command, and give the other chaps a rest.” He chuckled at the thought, and then Harman came back through the trees, having interviewed Kinie.
The wayward one had shown surprising grip of the situation and readiness to assist. Yes, she would watch the white man with the red face, and find out whether he was taking water on board that day, and if not how long he was likely to stay; promising this she had run off.
“And she’ll do it,” said Harman.
They had some food and smoked and drowsed in the warm, dark hot-house atmosphere of the woods, now silent as death with noon.
Then somewhere about two o’clock the branches parted and the charming, sprite-like face of the girl looked in upon their slumbers.
She had brought news. The big canoe was not taking water that day nor fruit. It might stay many days, also the big man had been bidden to a banquet by the village, and the feast was to take place on the edge of dark. They were preparing the palm toddy now and killing chickens and two pigs. Listen! She held up a finger and they could hear the far-off clucking of chickens being chased only to be choked. The pigs, clubbed senseless, had uttered no complaint.
Then the branches swayed, and she was gone.
“This is good,” said Davis. “That chap is sure to get drunk on the palm toddy, and so we’ll be saved the bother of knocking him out.”
“Seems like Providence, don’t it?” said Mr. Harman. “If you tell me there ain’t such a thing, I tell you that there is—flat. Look at us, brought here and landed as careful as baskets of eggs, and look at Clayton sent after us to be skinned, ain’t that Providence?”
“Oh, close up!” said Davis. “You get arguing when a chap ought to be thinking. Wait till he is skinned before you talk of Providence. We haven’t got the hide yet.”
“No, but we will,” replied the other, settling himself for a snooze.
Towards dark, awakened by Davis, he went off through the trees to prospect.
Then blackness came as if turned on with a switch, blackness that gradually died to starlight as the eyes grew accustomed to the change. Starlight that filled the woods with the eeriest forms made of foliage and shadow, while here and there stars and constellations hung themselves amidst the branches—the Cross in a tamarisk tree and Canopus on the top bough of a screw pine.
To Davis, watching and meditating, suddenly appeared Harman, breathless.
“We’re dished,” cried the latter, “dished lovely! The Douro crowd are ashore down to the ship’s cat, and they’re all stuffin’ themselves and fillin’ up with the drink.”
“Haven’t they left an anchor watch on her?”
“Devil a one!” said Harman. “She’s watching herself. Well, what do you say to that?”
Davis said nothing for a moment.
It was impossible to take the ketch away without the crew. Of course, he and Harman could have taken her out, but he knew better than ever to dream of facing the Pacific in a vessel of that tonnage with only another pair of hands to help him. He had been through the experience years ago; he knew what it was for two men to take on a ten-men’s job. No, the canoe was better than that, infinitely.
“Billy,” said he suddenly, “buck up! We aren’t done. Can’t you see, the chap is so certain sure there’s no one here to harm or meddle with him, he’s let all his crew come ashore? Well, as sure as he’s done that, he’s left the pearls on board.”
Harman fell to the idea at once.
“You mean us to skip in the canoe with them?”
“Yep,” said the other.
Harman considered for a bit in silence, while the sounds of the festival on the beach came on the new-risen wind from the sea.
He had sworn never to enter a canoe again, the prospect was hateful; yet there was one bright spot in it, a spot as big as a sun—Clayton’s face on waking next morning to find the pearls gone!
He sprang to his feet.
“Kim on,” said he, “we’ve gotta get water, grub, and nuts aboard her. The breaker’s lying back of the house. I’ll attend to the water; you can bring this stuff down and c’llect all you can from the houses—b’nanas and such-like. Hump yourself!”
Their canoe lay on the beach to the right of the village; it was fit and seaworthy for the very good reason that the native boys had been using it for sailing and fishing, and when Davis came on to the beach he found Harman stowing the water-breaker, the only figure visible, for the whole village was congregated where the great feast was going on in the break amidst the trees.
They were running no risks. They wanted food for a fortnight, and they took it—took it from the deserted houses and from the trees where the pandanus drupes hung in the starlight and the great banana clusters stood like golden candelabra waiting to be lit.
Then they pushed off, and the harbour took them and the night, against which stood the Douro, swinging to the outgoing tide on a taut anchor-chain.
The ladder was down, and as they came alongside, Harman, who was to commit the burglary, clutched it, sprang on deck, and lowering the anchor-light vanished with it down the cabin companion-way.
Davis, with his hand on the ladder and rocked by the almost imperceptible swell, contemplated the night and the far beach. He could see the glow of the fire amidst the trees, and now, just as the moon rose above the sea-line, sending its silver across the harbour, his keen eye caught a form moving amongst the beached canoes.
A moment later something ruffled the water. A canoe had put off. He saw the flash of a paddle, and for a second the idea that Clayton had sensed danger and was on the pounce crossed his mind, only to be instantly dismissed. It was Kinie. He knew it instinctively and at once. Kinie, who never drank palm toddy and who looked as though her food were mushrooms and moonbeams, had discovered their canoe gone. Very likely had been watching them getting it away and was coming out to prospect.
At that moment the light reappeared on deck, and Harman at the rail.
“Bud,” cried Harman, “she’s bustin’ with trade, cabin full, and I’ll bet the hold’s full to the hatches! That blighter must have been peddlin’ his pearls for trade goods, but I’ve got the balance, a dozen big ’uns. I broke his locker open and there they were. Got ’em in me pocket. Steady the blistered canoe whiles I get in.”
He dropped into the canoe, and they pushed off. Then he sighted Kinie, who was coming up fast, so close now that the water drops showed flashing from her paddle.
“It’s that girl,” said Davis, “confound her! We only wanted this to kibosh us. I swear by the big horn spoon I’ll flatten her out with a paddle if she squeals or gives the show away! I will, b’ gosh!”
But Kinie showed no signs of any desire to give the show away. She manœuvred her canoe so that it came gently beside theirs, stem towards stern, so that her outrigger did not prevent her from clasping their gunnel. Kinie had come to say good-bye. She had watched them provisioning without knowing exactly why they were doing so, then they had put off, and she had recognized that they were leaving for good.
Seeing them hanging on to the ship, she had taken heart and put off herself, and now, patting Harman on the shoulder with her little hand, she was looking at him with the eyes of a dog, while he, slipping one huge arm round her, was patting her back and telling her to be a good girl and to get back to the shore quick.
“Aroya manu, Kinie. We’re off—we’re goin’ away. See you again maybe, soon. There, don’t be holdin’ me. Well, you’re askin’ for it.”
“Oh, close up or you’ll be capsizing the canoe,” cried Davis. “Shove her off—Now paddle for all you’re worth. Mind! the outrigger is lifting.”
The canoes parted and the moonlit waving water came between them like a river, then, driven by tide and paddle, they passed the shadows of the cliffs at the harbour mouth, and Harman, looking back, saw the glow of the festival fire like a topaz beyond the silver-satin of the harbour water, and against the glow the canoe of Kinie making for the shore.
Outside they ran up the sail while astern Motul, with its hills and dark forests, lay like a cloud on the water, visible all night, dwindling to a speck in the dawn, destroyed utterly by the sun as he rose beyond it, flooding the sea with fire.
“Well, here’s another blessed day,” said Harman, as he took his trick with the steering paddle, “and that chap will be wakin’ just now with a palm-toddy head on him to find we’ve done him, but he won’t never know it’s us, worse luck. Anyhow, he’ll have his headache. There ain’t nothin’ to beat a palm-toddy head unless maybe samshu, but, samshu or palm toddy, drink don’t pay, nor Bourbon, nor Champagne—it don’t pay. I’m not sayin’ if a chap could get drunk and stay drunk I wouldn’t be the first to jine in, but it’s the wakin’ up——Oh, d——n petticuts!”
He had put his hand in his pocket for the handkerchief, at that moment flaunting itself on Motul beach around the brows of its proud possessor.
“Mind your steering!” cried Davis. “What ails you? Mind your paddle or we’ll be over.”
“Me handkerchief’s gone,” cried the distracted Harman. “She’s took it. Twice she nicked it from me before, and I ought to ha’ known—she’ll have flung them away, for it’s only the rag she wanted—buzzed them into the harbour most like. They were tied in the corner of it and she’d ha’ thought them stones—ten thousand dollars’ worth of——”
“Pearls!” cried Davis, “you aren’t talking of the pearls!”
Towards sunset, steering into the golden remote and unknown west, the dejected Harman, breaking an all-day silence, perked up a bit and became almost cheerfully philosophic.
“The only good p’int about all this business,” said he, “the one bright p’int——”
“Oh, shut up,” said Davis, “you and your p’ints.”
SUNK WITHOUT TRACE
The mat sail flapped against the mast and then hung loose while the chuckle of bow and outrigger died away. Harman, turning his face to the east, all gone watery with the dawn, leant forward and gave his sleeping companion a prod with the steering paddle.
Cruising in a South Sea island canoe tries the temper as well as the judgment, and two days of this business had considerably shortened the temper of Billy Harman.
For two days and two nights, fed on bananas and island truck, and led by the pointing of an indifferent compass, they had pursued the west, chased by the light of gorgeous dawns, broiled by midday suns, raising nothing but endless horizons and consuming sunsets.
“Wind’s gone!” cried Harman. “Flat calm and looks like stayin’ put.”
Davis roused, supported himself with a hand on the outrigger gratings, and blinked at the dawn; then he yawned, then he began to get command of speech.
“Whach you want digging me in the ribs like that for?” said Davis. “You and your flat calms! Where’s the hurry? Are you afraid it’ll run away? Blest if you aren’t the——”
“No use quarrellin’,” cut in the other; “fightin’s a mug’s game, and words won’t bring no wind. Pass us a drinkin’ nut.”
Davis passed the nut, and then, while the other refreshed himself, leant with his elbow on the grating and his eyes fixed lazily on the east.
Morning bank there was none, nor colour, nothing but a great crystal window showing infinite distance and taking suddenly a reflection of fire and a sill of gold: gold that moved and ran north and south and then leapt boiling across the swell as the sun burst up, hitting Harman in the back and Davis in the face and turning the lingering moon to a grey cinder above the azure of the west and the morning sea.
Away to the south, across the sunlit swell, a ship showed becalmed and painting the water with the reflection of her canvas, and, wonder of wonders, a mile from her and more to the north stood another ship, also held in the grip of the calm, and seeming the duplicate of the first in rig, tonnage, and design.
They were whalers, two of the last of the old whaling fleet, cruising maybe in company or brought together by chance.
Harman was the first to sight them; then Davis turned, and, leaning comfortably on the outrigger gratings, looked.
“Whalemen,” said Harman. “Look at ’em, stump topmasts, tryin’-out works and all! Look at ’em—damned pair of slush tubs!”
Davis said nothing; he spat into the water and continued to look while Harman went on.
“There you are, grumblin’ last night there were no ships about, and them things only waitin’ to show themselves, castin’ the canoe in the teeth o’ Providence, sayin’ you wanted planks under your feet to walk on. Planks, b’gosh! If one of them sight us we’ll be planked! I’ve been there and I know.”
“Oh, they won’t bother about us,” said Davis.
“Oh, won’t they?” said Harman. “Shows what you know of whalemen. If them chaps sighted the twelve ’postles driftin’ in a canoe, let alone us, they’d yank ’em on board and set ’em to work. Hands is what they’re always cravin’ for, and our only chance is they’ll take us for Kanakas, goin’ by the cut of the canoe.”
“Oh, they won’t bother about us,” said Davis; “and if they do, you ain’t a bad imitation of a Kanaka; but it’s cursed luck all the same. Planks, yes, I want the feel of a plank under my foot, and the feel that there isn’t only ten days’ grub and water between us and perdition—curse them!”
“Now you’ve done it!” cried Harman. “Look! They’re comin’!”
Sure enough, as though the last words of Davis had struck life into the far-off vessels, the decks of both ships suddenly boiled with ant-like figures, boats were dropped, and in a flash were making across the sea, two fleets of four boats each, and rowing as if in a race.
But they were not making for the canoe. Due north they headed over the glassy swell, while Davis, standing erect and holding on to the mast, watched with shaded eyes.
“Whales,” said he. “Whales they’re after, not us. Look at them!”
“I can’t see no whales,” said Harman.
“No, but they can,” said Davis. “Look! They’re heading west now, they’re on to them.”
A clap of thunder came over the sea and foam spurted amidst the distant boats. Then two of the boats detached themselves from the rest, skimming through the water without sail or oar, the flash of the foam at their bows clear to be seen.
“They’ve got their fish,” cried Harman. “Look, he’s going round to the north’ard, and here’s the breeze!”
Up from the south-east it was coming, spreading in great waves like fields of barley. The whale-ships had caught it and were trimming their yards in pursuit of the boats, and now, the mat sail of the canoe filling out and cracking against the mast, Harman seized the steering paddle and headed her due north.
“Where are you steering for?” shouted Davis.
“North,” replied the other. “You don’t want to be runnin’ into them ships, do you?”
Davis crawled aft, seized the paddle, and pushed the other forward.
“Cuss the ships!” said he. “They’ve got their own business to attend to, and I’m not going to put her off her course, not for Jim Satan! You don’t mind the ships—they’re busy.”
He was right.
A Swenfoyn gun had put a speedy end to the whale, and as the canoe drew along not half a mile away from the nearest ship it was being hauled alongside her and the tackles were out. But the remainder of the fleet of boats not busy in this work seemed engaged in some affair of their own which was not whale fishing; they were all surging together, oars were being tossed in the air and the far-away sound of shouting came across the water.
“Fightin’!” said Harman, “that’s what they’re at. They’re both claimin’ the fish. I know their monkey tricks. Look at them!”
But Davis was not listening to him, his quick eye had caught something floating ahead; altering the course a point he called to Harman to let go the sheet, then, leaning over, he grabbed the floating mass in both hands, yelling to the other to balance the canoe.
“Get out on the gratings and hold her down,” cried Davis, “our fortune’s made. Fish! No, you fool, it’s ambergris, what comes from whales’ innards, and is worth hundreds of pounds. Lord send they don’t see us!”
“Mind!” yelled Harman.
The gunnel lipped the water despite his weight and the outrigger rose a foot as Davis strove, then with a mighty effort he brought it tumbling on board, the water pouring off it, and there it lay between his feet a huge, knobby, putty-coloured mass, with octopus sucker-prongs sticking in it like tiger claws, and a two-fathom strip of pale green seaweed twined about it as if for ornament. Harman, without a word, crawled back across the outrigger grating and trimmed the sail while Davis, without a word, resumed the steering paddle.
He did not mind about altering his course now; he put her dead before the wind while Harman, half kneeling on the stub of the forward outrigger pole, and with his hand on a stay, reported progress.
“No, they ain’t seen us,” said Harman; “they’re all crowdin’ back on the ships and the fightin’s over. There’s never no good in fightin’, as I said to you this mornin’—not unless you get the other chap’s back to you and belt him on the head sudden. Now if those ballyhoos had quit arguin’ who’d harpooned first and kept their eyes skinned they’d a’ got ambergris instead of sore heads. How much ’s that stuff worth, do you reckon, Bud?”
“Mean to say you don’t know and you been on a whale-ship?”
“Never heard tell of the stuff before nor sighted it,” replied the other. “Whalemen don’t take stock of nothing but blubber—where does it come from, d’ye think?”
“Out of the whale,” said Davis, “and it’s worth twenty dollars an ounce.”
Harman laughed. When Bud had worked upon him sufficiently to make him see the truth he first took a look to make sure the whale-ships were showing only their topsails above the horizon, then he sat down to calculate the amount of their fortune.
Ambergris, though used in the production of scent, has no smell or only the faintest trace of odour when warmed; it is the ugliest stuff in the world, and as valuable as gold. Harman’s bother was that he did not know the weight of the lump. He reckoned, going by comparison with pigs of small ballast, that it might be half a hundred-weight, but the table of weights and measures barred him. He could not tell the number of ounces in a half hundred-weight.
“Well, it don’t much matter,” said he at last. “If you’re not lyin’ and it’s worth twenty dollars an ounce, then it’s worth twenty times its weight in dollars, and that’s good enough for us. Twenty bags of dollars as heavy as that lump of muck is good enough for Billy Harman. Say, it beats Jonah, don’t it? when you look at that stuff, which isn’t more nor less than good dinners by the hundred and bottles of fizz and girls by the raft-load. And to think of an old whale coughin’ it up; makes a chap b’lieve in the Scriptures, don’t it, seein’ what it is and seein’ where it come from, and seein’ how Providence shoved it right into our hands.”
“We haven’t cashed it yet,” said Davis.
“No, but we will,” replied the other. “I feel it in my bones. I’ve got a hunch the luck ain’t runnin’ streaky this time. Somethin’ else is comin’ along; you wait and see.”
He was right. Next morning, an hour after sunrise, a stain of smoke showed on the south-eastern horizon.
Steamers in those days were fewer in the Pacific even than now, but this was a steamer right enough.
“She’s coming dead for us,” said Davis, as the hull showed clear now of smoke. “Brail up the sail and stand by to signal her—what you make her out to be?”
“Mail boat,” said Harman. “Sydney-bound, I’ll bet a dollar. You’ll be hearin’ the passengers linin’ up and cheerin’ when we’re took aboard, and then it’ll be drinks and cigars and the best of good livin’ till we touch Circular Wharf. But I ain’t goin’ in for hard drinks, not till we cash in this ambergris, and not then, only may be a bottle of fizz to wet the luck. No, sir, seein’ Providence has dealt with us handsome, Billy’s goin’ to do likewise with her. Providence don’t hold with the jag, which ain’t more nor less than buyin’ headaches, and di’mond studs for bar tenders and sich. Providence is dead against the drink, and don’t you forget that.”
“Why, you were talking only last night of buying a saloon in ’Frisco,” said Davis.
“That ain’t buyin’ drink,” countered Mr. Harman. “Nor swallerin’ it, which is what I’m arguin’ against——Look at her how she’s liftin’.”
They said no more, watching the oncoming boat, now showing her bridge canvas distinct from her hull. Then suddenly Davis spoke.
“That’s no mail boat,” said Davis, “not big enough, stove-pipe funnel, and look at that canvas. She’s not even a B.P. boat—some old tub carrying copra or trade.”
“Not she,” said Harman. “Steam don’t pay in the copra business, bunkers have to be too big, seein’ there’s no coalin’ stations much in the islands.”
“We’ll soon see,” said Davis, and they did.
The stranger came shearing along, showing up now as a five or six hundred ton squat cargo boat, riding high and evidently in ballast, with a rust-red stove-pipe funnel and a general air of neglect that shouted across the sea.
Then the thud of the engines ceased, a yoop of her siren cut the air like a whiplash, and a string of bunting blew out.
Harman waved his shirt, and as the stranger came gliding on to them he got ready to catch the rope that a fellow was preparing to cast from the bow.
As they came alongside, lifting and falling with the swell, a big red-faced man, leaning over the bridge rail, began shouting directions, whilst Davis, seizing the ladder which had been dropped, climbed on deck, leaving Harman to manage the canoe.
The Oskosh was the name of the hooker, and Billy Schumways was the name of her master and owner. He was the big man on the bridge; seven days out from Arafata Lagoon with a crew of Chinks and a Savage Island bo’sun, makin’ down for Fuanatafi in a hurry. All of which he roared at Davis from the bridge and at Harman from over the bridge side.
“Claw on and kim up,” cried Captain Schumways to the hesitating Harman. “Cut that canoe adrift and come on deck, and don’t be wastin’ my time, or I’ll ring the injins on. What’s that you’re sayin’? Ambergris, what’s ambergris? Ain’t got no time to be muckin’ about—there, bring it if you want to.” He paused whilst Harman, having fastened a rope flung by Davis round the precious ambergris, came on deck guiding it up. Then, when they were both over the rail, Schumways, ringing the engines full speed ahead, came down from the bridge.
“Where’d you get that muck?” asked Captain Schumways, after they’d given their names and a yarn about having been drifted off an island when fishing. “Picked it up, did you? Well, you can shove it in the scupper if you’re set on keepin’ it, and now follow me down and I’ll show you your quarters. I’m sufferin’ for extra help in the engine-room and I reckon you’ve got to work your passage.”
He led the way to the saloon hatch and down to the saloon.
The Oskosh had been a Farsite Enfield boat running from ’Frisco to Seattle. Cargo, Klondyke diggers and, lastly, contraband had reduced her from respectability and cleanliness to her present state. The saloon was a wreck and ruin, the panelling split, the fittings gone, bunks filled with raffle and oddments, the table covered with old oil-cloth showing the marks of coffee cups, and over all a dank throat-catching atmosphere of decay, cockroaches and dirty bunk bedding.
Schumways inhabited the cabin aft. He pointed out two bunks to port and starboard.
“Them’s yours,” said he, “and there’s beddin’ and to spare. You’ll mess here, bein’ whites, and you’ll take your orders from me and Sellers; when you’ve cleared out them bunks and got your beddin’ in come along up and I’ll show you your job.”
He left them and went on deck, and Bud Davis sat down on the edge of a bunk.
“Say, Billy,” said Bud, “how about those passengers lining up and cheering? How about those soft drinks you were talking of?—or would you sooner have a highball?—and we’re to take our orders from him and Sellers. What I’m proposing to do is go up right now, catch him by the hoofs, and dump him over side, scrag Sellers, whoever he is, and take the ship. That’s how I’m feeling.”
“Ain’t no use,” said Harman. “Fightin’s a mug’s game. That chap’s a sure enough tough and we haven’t no guns. Lay low is the word, more especial as this packet is contraband and we’ve only to wait to get ’em by the short hairs. Contraband—look at her, guns or opium, with blackbirdin’ maybe thrown in, that’s all there is to her.”
Davis assented. These two old Pacific hands had an eye from which no ship could hide her character for sea-unworthiness or disrespectability; Schumways matched his ship, and Sellers, when he turned up, would be sure to match Schumways; the crew were Chinks, and the case was plain. Not that it bothered Bud or Billy; their one thought as they worked clearing the bunks and settling the bedding was the ambergris.
Schumways knew nothing of ambergris or its value—that fact was quite plain—but it would never do to leave it lying in the scupper, and Harman having poked his head up through the hatch and found a clear deck, they got it down, stowed it in a spare bunk occupied by a filthy rug, a suit of oilskins and a paraffin tin, covering it with the rug.
Then they came on deck, and the captain of the Oskosh, coming down from the bridge, introduced them to the engine-room and Sellers, a wire-drawn Yankee, six feet two, who introduced them to the engines and the stokehold.
“Chinks are firin’ her now,” said Sellers, “but you’ll hold yourself ready to take a hand at the shovellin’ if wanted. I’ll larn you how to shoot the stuff; that’s a pressure gauge—you’ll get to know it before you’ve done—and that’s an ile can—you’ll get to know her too.” He led the way down a passage four foot broad to a transverse passage eight foot broad, where, under a swinging oil lamp, Chinks, naked to the waist, were firing up. He opened the door of a long blazing tunnel and seized a shovel, the coal came down a chute right on to the floor, and taking a shovelful he demonstrated.
“Stokin’s not shootin’ coal into a fu’nace, it’s knowin’ where to shoot it. Every fu’nace has hungry places: there’s one, that dull patch up there, and there’s the food for it.” A shovelful of coal went flying into the gehenna right on to the dull patch, and, dropping the shovel, he seized an eight-foot bar of steel. “M’r’over, it’s not all shovellin’, it’s rakin’. Here’s your rake and how to use it. Then you’ve got to tend the ashlift, and when you’ve larnt not to stick your head in the fire when she’s pitchin’ hard you’ll be a stoker; ain’t nothin’ to it but the work an’ the will.”
“But see here, cully,” said Mr. Harman. “We ain’t signed on for stokin’ in this packet; engine-room fiddlin’ is stretchin’ a point with A.B.’s, but stokin’s outside the regulations. Clear, and by Board o’ Trade rules——”
“That’s them on board the Oskosh,” said Sellers, producing a revolver, which he exhibited lying flat in the palm of his huge hand as though he were showing a curiosity. “Six rules an’ regulations, soft-nosed—and don’t you forget it, son!”
Through days of blazing azure and nights of phosphorescent seas the Oskosh plugged steadily along on her course. She was square-rigged on the foremast, and used sail-power to assist the engines when the wind held, and always and ever, despite her dirt, her disorder, and the general slovenliness of her handling, she kept a bright eye out for strangers. When Schumways was not on the bridge using the binoculars, they were in the hands of the Savage Island bo’sun—a fact noted by Billy and Bud when those unfortunates had time to note anything in the midst of their multitudinous occupations.
They were not always put to stoking in this horrible ship, where things went anyhow and work was doubled for want of method. They would be oiling in the engine-room under command of Sellers when, maybe, the voice of Schumways would come ordering “them roustabouts” up to handle the sails: sail-handling, greasing, emptying slush tubs, helping in engine-room repairs, “lendin’ a hand in the stoke’old”—it was a mixed meal of work that did not please the appetites of Billy or Bud. Yet they had to swallow it. Kicking was no use. Harman tried it, and was kicked by Sellers, and took the injury and insult without retaliating. Fighting was a mug’s game, but deep in his soul Billy Harman formulated an oath of revenge, swearing that somehow, somewhere, and somewhen he would be even with the Oskoshites to the ultimate limit of their back teeth and the last short hairs of their persons.
He communicated this darkly to his fellow-sufferer, who laughed.
They were seated at breakfast feasting on the leavings of Schumways and Sellers and Davis told him to close up.
“You give me the mullygrubs with your talk,” said Davis. “Whenever you open your fool-mouth something happens wrong way about. This was a passenger packet, wasn’t it, and we were to sit in the saloon bein’ admired by the passengers, weren’t we? And was it Fourth Street or Fifth Street you were goin’ to open that whisky joint? And fighting is a mug’s game, according to you, whereas if we’d wiped the engine-room floor with Sellers first day instead of knuckling down to him we’d have stood on this ship as men, instead of being a hog-driven pair of roustabouts begging for scraps and emptying slush tubs. Too late now; they’ve got the better of us and know our make, which is putty, owing to you. Even with them! Why, I’ll bet twenty dollars to a nickel if you try any of your home-made tricks they’ll be even with us. Talking is all you’re good for—fighting’s a mug’s game!”
“So it is,” replied Mr. Harman. “Fool fightin’s no use; hittin’ out and gettin’ belted’s one thing, but stragety’s another, and that’s what I’m after, and if I don’t get my knife in these chaps’ ribs behind their backs and unknownst to them, you can take me home and bury me—and it won’t be long either!”
He was right.
That very evening they lifted Fuanatafi, their destination, a purple cloud in the sunset glow and a cloud of ebony by night as they lay off and on, listening to the far sound of the breakers till dawn revealed the great island in all its splendour and isolation; for Fuanatafi, like Nauru, has no harbour, just a landing beach to westward where boats can put in, razor-backed reefs keep ships a mile from the shore and make the place pretty useless for trade.
As the light broke full on the island Billy Harman, who had come on deck and was standing with Davis by the lee rail, saw away to southward another island with a peak-like summit, and to westward of that two small islets circled with moving clouds—gulls.
“Why, Lord bless my soul,” said he, “I’ve been here before, six years ago it was, and we took off a raft of turtle-shell for six cases of gin. Christopher Island was the other name they give it, and it’s head centre for all sorts of black doin’s. That island to suthard is Levisca, and it’s been blackbirded till there ain’t scarcely no Kanakas left on it. Now, I wonder what Schumways is landin’ here.”
As if in answer to his question two Chinks came aft carrying a long deal box between them, which they dumped close by the foremast.
The main hatch was open, and they could see more boxes being brought up, six in all, and each one, as it came on deck, was carried forward, the whole being stacked in one pile and covered with a tarpaulin. The engines ceased their dead-slow tramp: then came an order from the bridge and the roar and rasp of the anchor chain filled the morning air, echoing across the water and lifting the reef gulls in clanging spirals.
Schumways dropped down from the bridge and Sellers rose from the engine-room, wiping his hands with a piece of cotton waste; he had put on his coat and wore an old panama on his head ready for shore. Then at an order from Schumways the starboard quarter-boat was lowered, Harman and Davis were ordered into it, and the Captain of the Oskosh and his engineer took their places in the stern sheets.
Nothing could be more lovely than the morning light on the streets of blue water between the reefs or the view of the great island washed by the calm, ponded sea and waiting for the approaching boat, loveliness that left no trace, however, on the minds of Bud and Billy labouring at the oars, or of Schumways and Sellers smoking in the stern.
As they ran the boat’s nose on to the beach, out from the groves to right and left stepped a dozen Kanakas armed with spears. Casting their spears on the sand, they trod on them whilst Sellers and his companion, walking up the beach with hands outstretched, greeted the chief man, bright with palm oil, absolutely naked, and adorned simply with half a willow-pattern soup plate worn as a pendant.
The Kanakas and the two whites seemed old friends, and the whole lot, after a moment’s chatter, disappeared into the groves, leaving Bud and Billy on the beach by the stranded boat.
“They’re off to the village,” said Harman. “Wonder what they’re up to? Bargainin’ most like over them guns.”
“What guns?” asked Davis.
“Them cases we left on deck, them’s guns, or my name’s not Billy Harman. There’s six guns in each of them cases, that’s thirty-six for the lot, and I expect Schumways will be askin’ old Catch-em-alive-o ten pound apiece for them in coin or shell—maybe in bêche-de-mer, for that’s as good as bank notes. That’s three hundred and sixty pounds and the durned things didn’t cost him sixty. I’ll bet——” He turned. Someone came breaking through the trees; it was Sellers.
“Hike off back to the ship and bring them cases,” cried Sellers, “the ones we’ve left on deck. If you can’t bring the whole six, bring four, and you can go back for the other two. Now then, you lazy sweeps, grease yourselves and get goin’.”
“Blast him!” said Davis as they pushed off across the inner lagoon towards the reef break leading to the outer reef channels sparkling blue in the sun.
“No use swearin’,” said Hannan, “it don’t cut no ice—— Bud, I’ve got them.”
“What do you mean?” asked Davis.
“Got ’em all in the fryin’ pan, b’gosh. It’s only jumped into my head this minute. Told you I’d get even with them at last, and now I’ve as good as done it.”
“What’s your plan?” asked Bud.
“You never mind,” replied Billy, “you do as I’m askin’ you and I’ll show you. Lay into your strokes now, and that’s all you have to do at the present minit.”
He seemed delighted with himself as he rowed, chuckling and chortling as though he already had the Oskoshites down and out. Bud, who knew Billy’s mentality from long practice and use, was not so elated. He knew that Harman, amongst his other mental qualities, was likely to go blind of one eye when seeing red or when ambition was at fever heat, and Billy was undoubtedly seeing red. Full of the thirst for revenge at having been made to work, at having been kicked and spoken to with contumely, he was fit for anything just now.
“What is it that’s in your mind, Billy?” asked the other as they drew up to the Oskosh.
“You wait and see,” said Harman; “say nuthin’ and follow my lead prompt and we’ve got them on a split stick.”
The Chinks stood by the ladder as Harman went up it, leaving Davis to mind the boat; then on deck he gave the Kanaka bo’sun his orders, and, while the cases were being got into the boat, stepped below.
He came up in a few minutes and helped with the last case, then, dropping into the boat beside Davis, he pushed off and they began rowing towards the shore.
“Go slow,” said Harman, “and don’t pull hard. The breeze is backin’ into the north and I’ll have the mast up in a minute, then we can run for Levisca. We could row there quick enough, but it’s easier to sail. After we’ve taken on grub and water there we can push farther south.”
“What the blue blazes are you talking of?” said Davis. “You mean running away in this boat?”
“Yep,” replied Harman.
“But, you fool, they’ll up steam and be after us before we’ve got half-way there.”
“Not they,” replied the strategist, “you wait an’ see. You keep your eye on the old Oskosh and you’ll see somethin’ funny in a minute.”
He ceased rowing, so did Davis, and the boat rocked on the swell, then, as he got the mast stepped and the sail shaken out, Davis, whose eyes were fixed on the far-off ship, gave an exclamation of surprise.
“Why, she’s lying awfully low in the water.”
“Yes,” said Harman quite simply. “I’ve opened the sea-cocks.”
“You’ve what?” cried the other.
“Opened the sea-cocks when I went below. The Chinks haven’t twigged yet that she’s sinkin’, she’s goin’ peaceful as a dyin’ Christian. Look”—a column of steam was rising from the funnel of the sinking ship—“they’ve twigged it now, but they don’t know what’s sinkin’ her, and if they did they haven’t enough sense to know what to do. B’sides, it’s too late. Look, they’re gettin’ out the boats; now help me to dump these durned cases and bring the sheet aft.”
Davis did as he was told, then as the boat lay over, making a long board for Levisca, he suddenly leant forward towards Harman, his face injected with blood.
“You’ve done it, haven’t you?” shouted Davis.
“Yes, b’gosh I have,” said Harman complacently, his eyes fixed on the Oskosh sinking by the head and with her stem high in the air.
“Wouldn’t tell me your plans, would you? So full of hitting Schumways you had no thought of anything else, weren’t you? Well, you sainted fool, what about that ambergris?”
“What ambergris? Oh, Lord! the ambergris,” said the wretched Harman, suddenly remembering. “We’ve left it behind!”
“You’ve left it, you mean. What would it have cost to have taken two Chinks down and fetched it up and stowed it in the boat? Not a nickel—and it was worth twenty thousand dollars.”
Harman said nothing. The Oskosh was making her last plunge and the over-loaded boats were making for shore, then his face slowly brightened as the face of Sellers and the face of Schumways rose before him—the two men who had forcibly introduced him to work. “It was worth it,” said he; “if it was five hundred dollars an ounce, it was worth it.”
“What was worth it?” asked Davis.
“Losin’ that ambergris,” replied Mr. Harman.
A DEAL WITH “PLAIN SAILIN’ JIM”
He was the only blot on the scenery, also he was fishing, fishing from a rock washed by water forty feet deep in which the coloured bream passed like jewels through a world of crystal.
Matadore Island clings to its old Spanish name, though it is French, lying west of Vavitu in the great French sea territory born of the League of Nations that stretches now from the Marquesas to Rapa and from Bellinghausen to Gambier.
It is a tiny island, too small for trade, horned with dangerous reefs, but beautiful with the green of Jack-fruit tree and coco palm, the blue of sea and the white of foam and coral.
Gulls make their home on the reefs, laughing gulls and cormorants and great predatory gulls, sailing to seaward in the dawn and clanging home at night after a sweep of hundreds of miles to where the swimmer rocks show white manes, or the Skagways their teeth. The gulls were jeering now as the fisherman hauled in his line, coiled it on the coral and stood up, shading his eyes.
Away over the sparkling blue to s’uth’ard stood something that was either the fin of a sail-fish or the sail of a boat, something sharp and triangular, clear now to the sight and now half gone as the sea-dazzle affected the eyes of the gazer.
He was a tall, thin man, bronzed to the colour of a cobnut, tattooed on the left hand in such a way that he seemed to wear a mitt, and his face as he stood straining his eyes seaward was the face of Uncle Sam, goatee beard and all.
As he watched, the jaws of this individual worked slowly and methodically like the jaws of a cow chewing the cud, then as the boat’s hull showed close in and making for the clear passage through the reefs, he flung up his arms, turned, and came scrambling down over the coral to the salt white beach, towards which the boat was coming now, the sail furled, and oars out and straight for destruction on a rock in the fairway. There were only two men in her.
“Sta’board your helm, you —— fools!” yelled Uncle Sam. “Cayn’t you see the sunk reef before your noses? Sta’board—that’s right.” Then a tone lower: “B——y tailors!”
He rushed out as the boat came barging on to the beach and seized the starboard gunnel, whilst the bow oar, tumbling over, seized the port, and the stern oar, taking to the water, clapped on; then, having dragged her nose well above tide-mark, they turned one to another for speech.
“Well, I’ve been here three months and maybe more,” said the tall man, as they sat on the coral by the beach watching the boat and the strutting gulls and half-a-dozen stray Kanakas who had come down to take a peep at the strangers. “Wrecked?—nuthin’—did a bunk from a hooker that shoved in here for water an’ nuts, and here I’ve stuck, snug as Moses in the bulrushes, nuthin’ to pay for board an’ bunk, no use for a n’umbrella, place crawlin’ with girls, and every pa’m tree a pub, if you know how to make pa’m toddy—name’s Keller, and what might your’n be?”
“Mine’s Harman,” said the bigger and broader of the strangers, “and this is Bud Davis. Reckon we’ve run more’n three hundred miles in that boat, steerin’ by our noses and blind as ballyhoos—and as to where we’ve come from—well, that’s a matter of——”
“Oh, I ain’t askin’ no questions!” cut in the tall man. “It’s nuthin’ to me if you stole your boat or had her give you, or whether you come from Noumea or the Noo Jerusalem. I’m ‘Plain Sailin’ Jim,’ I am, straight with them that’s straight with me, hungerin’ for the sight of a white mug, and fed up with chocolate biscuits. ‘Plain Sailin’ Jim,’ that’s me, and smilin’ I am to welcome gentlemen like yourselves to this virgin home of palm toddy and polygamy.”
“What sort of truck is that?” asked the ingenuous Harman.
But Keller did not hear him, he had risen to chase some Kanaka children away from the boat; then, hitching up his trousers, he led the way through the trees to the grass-thatched village where the little houses stood bowered with yellow cassi and blue-blazing convolvulus, and where at the door of the biggest and newest house his chief wife sat preparing kava in a bowl of stone.
They dined off baked pig, taro, palm salad, and palm toddy in a twilight through which rays from the thatch pierced like golden needles, and as they ate they could see through the door space the village with its tree-ferns and thatched houses, the children playing in the sun, and the men lazing in the shade.
“Ain’t no use for work and ain’t no use for fightin’,” said Keller, referring to the men of the village. “Chawin’ bananas and fishin’ is all they’re good for, bone-lazy lot. I’ll larn them!”
Two or three of his wives served the dinner and prepared the palm toddy; then, after the dishes had been removed, Keller, the toddy mounting to his head, beat another wife who had dared to poke a hole in the wall to peep at the strangers, kicked a dog that got in his way, raised Cain all down the street with a four-foot length of bamboo, and fell like a log dead asleep under the shade of a Jack-fruit tree.
“There ain’t no flies on old man Keller,” said Billy Harman to Bud Davis, as they walked next morning in the sun on the beach. “I tell you I like that chap.”
“Jumping Moses!—and what do you like about him?” asked the astonished Davis.
“Well,” said Harman, “takin’ him by and large, he seems to me a trustable chap—goin’ by what he says. It’s straight out and have done with it when he’s talkin’, same as when he’s kickin’ a Kanaka. I likes him because there ain’t nothin’ hidden about him—look at all them wives of his and he ownin’ up to them without a wink. ‘“Plain Sailin’ Jim,” that’s my name,’ says he, ‘straight with them that’s straight and crooked with them that’s crooked.’ You heard him—and that’s his label or I’m a digger Injin. No, there ain’t no flies on Keller.”
“Yes, I heard him,” said Davis, “and taking him by and large I’d label him the king of the yeggmen, hot from yeggtown. No, sir, you don’t take in Bud Davis with artificial flies and that chap may ‘Plain Sailin’ Jim’ himself to the last holoo of the last trumpet, but he won’t put the hood on chaps that have eyes in their heads, nor noses to sniff a rotten character.”
“There you go,” said Harman, “startin’ out after your own ideas and chasin’ them till they look like a man. Think bad of a chap and he’ll look bad—that’s my motto, and I’m not goin’ to think bad of Keller.”
But Davis had lost interest in Keller. Something out at sea had caught his eye, and taking Harman by the arm, he pointed over the dead calm water.
“Look there,” said he.
Harman, shading his eyes, looked in the direction indicated.
“It ain’t the pa’m toddy, is it?” asked Harman.
“No,” said the other, “it’s a craft of some sort or another; what do you make of her?”
“Nuthin’, she ain’t nacheral—looks like a cross between Noah’s ark an’ a floatin’ hayrick rigged with a double set of masts and a—— Why, Lord bless my soul if she ain’t a junk, a junk and a schooner lashed together, that’s what she is, derelick and driftin’.”
“Sure,” said Davis, his mind jumping at once to the truth. “Call Keller—run and roust him out. Here he comes. Keller, hi, Keller! Ship drifting out beyond the reefs. Look sharp!” He had no need to give directions. Like a vulture scenting a carcass, Keller came swooping, shaded his eyes and stood.
“It’s a junk and schooner,” said Harman.
“Bêche-de-mer boat or opium smuggler,” said Keller, “and they’re both abandoned and driftin’. There’s pickin’s here, boys. After me!” He raced down to the beach, followed by the others, to where the boat was hauled up, they pushed her out and, Keller steering, made through the fairway, past the submerged rock towards the open sea.
Not a breath of wind stirred the swell to break the shimmering reflections of the spars and sails of the locked ships. Stem to stern they lay, the junk spars locked in the rigging of the schooner, the two great eyes painted on the Chinaman’s bows staring straight at the oncoming boat. Round and about the deserted ships fins moved and grey forms glided in the green—sharks. On the smooth water, the letters on the counter repainted the name of the schooner, Haliotis.
Keller gave the order to lay in the oars, and they came duddering along the schooner’s side, Harman standing up. He seized one of the stanchions of the rail and was about to hoist himself on deck when Keller bade him stop.
“A minit,” said Keller, “who’s to tell it’s not a trap. Claw on and listen.”
The cry of a far-off gull on the reefs came, and the creak and grind of the ships’ sides as the swell lifted them. No other sound but the occasional click of the rudder chain as the rudder of the schooner shifted with the heave and fall of the hull.
Then, sure of themselves, with the cry of predatory animals, they tumbled on board, fastened up and scattered, Bud and Billy over the decks of the schooner, Keller, led by some vulturous instinct, on to the junk.
“Here’s a stiff,” shouted Harman as Davis followed him forward towards a bundle lying by the galley. “Lord, ain’t he a stiff? Head split with a hatchet. Here’s two more.” He pointed to a foot protruding from the galley, where lay a Chink and a white man, both very stiff indeed.
Then, turning and quite unconcerned, they came racing aft and down through the companion-way to the little cabin.
Here everything was quiet and trim; on the table under the swinging lamp lay a soap dish and shaving brush and razor. Someone had been shaving himself before the little mirror on the after bulkhead when whatever happened had begun to happen. In the after cabin, presumably the captain’s, the bunk bedding showed just as the sleeper had left it when he turned out. Then they set to and rooted round, the instinct for plunder so strong on them that they forgot Keller, the stiffs, the tragedy and the very place where they were.
They found a gold watch and chain which Harman put in his pocket, and a gold ring and fountain pen which Davis promptly annexed, they found the log, which, being written in Spanish, was useless to them, and the ship’s money, a big chamois leather chinking bag of Australian sovereigns. This glorious find recalled Keller.
“Bud,” said Billy, “this h’ain’t nothing to do with him; hide them, swaller them; here, give me your handkerchief and take half, tie them up tight so’s they won’t chink. I’ll keep my lot in the bag. He won’t guess nothin’, he’ll think the chows have cleared the place—ain’t nothin’ more to take, is there? Then come ’long and have a squint at the lazarette.”
The lazarette was full of food, all sorts of canned things; then, hearing Keller’s voice above, up they came demure as cats out of a dairy to find the long man waving his arms like a windmill. His goatee beard was sticking out like a brush and his eyes flaming.
“Dope!” cried Keller. “Boys, our fortunes is made. Canton opium, blue label tins and worth two thousand dollars if it’s worth a jitney. Kim along down and howk them out.” He led the way on to the junk’s deck and below to the awful interior smelling of opium, joss sticks, stale fish and shark oil; there on the floor in the dismal twilight lay the tins arranged by Keller in a heap.
“I reckon,” said Keller, “the schooner either went for the chows or the chows for the schooner. Maybe they all killed each other, or maybe the chaps that were left took fright seein’ a cruiser or fancyin’ one—reckon that was the way, for there ain’t no boats left, but the dinghy. Well, it’s all a durn sea mystery, and I’ve seen queerer—but there’s the dope, come along and hoist it.”
They brought the tins up and over to the schooner’s deck, got a tarpaulin and tied them up in it, and then, and not till then, took stock of their position. The drift of the current had left the island a good way to the south, but there it lay green, lovely and inviting, the glassy swell pearling round the coral.
Keller, turning from the opium tins to this picture, gazed for a moment, his jaws working in contemplation. Then he turned to the others.
“Boys,” said Keller, “it’s either go back or stick. I’m for sticking, if there’s water and grub enough on board. You see, if we take this dope back ashore, we won’t never be able to realise on it; any ship takin’ us off will say, ‘What’s in that bundle?’ and there won’t be no use sayin’ it’s bibles. Whereas if we can make a port in this hooker we can claim salvage, and leavin’ that alone we can ten to one get rid of the dope.”
“There’s grub enough,” said Davis, “to judge by the lazarette, and there’s pretty sure to be enough water—two minutes will tell, but first, let’s get those stiffs overboard. No use putting sinkers to them, the sharks will finish them before they’ve sunk a fathom.”
Twenty minutes later the decision was come to and the boat got on board.
They had found water and food enough for months, it only wanted a breeze to break the ships apart, and Keller reckoned that the three of them would be able to manage the schooner. Davis was a fair navigator, the charts and compass had not been damaged or removed, and with Matadore for a point of departure they ought to be able to reach the Fijis. So it was settled.
Harman, leaning on the rail when the decision was come to, fancied that he could hear a whisper from the beach of the far-away island, the whisper of the swell breaking on the coral where the wives of Keller were no doubt congregated, abandoned—chucked away for the prospect of a fistful of dollars.
The drift of the current was so strong that before sunset Matadore had all but vanished, washed away in the blue that stretched from infinity to infinity, terrific in its calm.
The Pacific slept, and the slumber of this giant when sleep takes it in deadly earnest is more trying to the imagination than its fury and storm, an effect produced perhaps by the heave of the endless swell flooding up from nowhere passing to nowhere, through space and time.
But the crew of the Haliotis were not imaginative men, and they had other calls upon their consideration. It was at the first meal on board that the junk began to whisper of its presence. Harman had brewed some tea, and they were seated round the table in the saloon when Davis, looking up from his plate to the open skylight, sniffed the air.
“That junk whiffs,” said Davis.
It was enough. Harman for a moment turned his head as though he was straining to listen, and Keller glanced towards the door, then they went on with their food, but the mischief was done and from that on the junk was with them.
It was not so much the badness of the smell as the faintness and the Chinese nature of it that produced the psychological effect—it was a scent, a perfume of which shark liver oil was the vehicle and the occupants joss-sticks, opium and the musk of Chinks. It haunted their sleep that night and was only dispelled when next morning Keller, who had gone on deck, came shouting down the hatch that the wind was coming.
They had taken the sails off the junk the night before, finding a hatchet—it was stained with something that was not red paint—they hacked off the entangling spar, then, the wind coming, fortunately, on the junk’s side, the sails of the Haliotis trembled, the main boom lashed out to port and Davis springing to the wheel turned the spokes.
For a moment the Chinaman seemed to cling to its departing companion, wallowed, slobbered, groaned, and with a last roll dunched in ten feet of the starboard rail, then it drew away as the great sail pressure of the Haliotis heeled the schooner to port.
“We’re free,” shouted Harman.
“Hr—good riddance!” cried Keller, raising his fist as if to strike at the departing one, now well astern, and spitting into the water as if to get the taste of her from his mouth.
Then, as Davis steered and the foam fled astern, the wind, taking the high poop of the junk, slewed her round bow towards them, and showing the great staring, malignant eyes. It was actually as if she had turned to watch them.
“Look at her!” cried Billy, “turnin’ her snout to watch us; she’ll follow us now sure as certain, we won’t have no luck now, we’ll be had somehow or ’nuther, and maybe over that dope! Bud, where was your brains you didn’t think of holin’ and sinkin’ her? Why, if it ain’t anything else we can be had for leavin’ her a-floatin’ derelick and a danger to navigation.”
“Oh, shut up,” said Davis, “you and your derelicts.”
The Haliotis was a schooner of some hundred and twenty tons, and three men can work a schooner of a hundred and twenty tons across big tracts of ocean if they have fine weather, if they have no fear, if they don’t bother to keep a look-out or attend to the hundred and twenty little duties of ordinary ship life. Harman, Bud and Keller filled this bill admirably. The wind changing and blowing from the sou’-east, they ran before it, ran with no man at the wheel, wheel lashed, head sheets taut, mainboom guyed to port, and never a mishap.
They ought to have gone to the bottom, you say; they ought, but they didn’t. The wind changed instead, for the Paumotus, though far to the eastward, still reached them with their disturbing spell breeding unaccountable influence on wind and weather.
Harman had counted up the sovereigns in the chamois leather bag—there were a hundred and twelve. In a private conference with Davis below, Keller taking the deck and the wheel, he settled up with Davis.
“Better split the money now,” said Harman, “hundred and twelve I’ve got, what’s your?”
“Ninety,” said Davis promptly.
Harman was shocked. He’d reckoned that Davis’s share was bigger than his own or he wouldn’t have been so eager to settle up.
“Count ’em,” said he.
Davis produced the knotted handkerchief and counted the contents. There were only ninety unless he had subtracted and hidden some, as seemed probable, for at the rough division when they had split the coins into two supposedly equal shares, Davis’s had seemed the bigger.
Harman, pretty sure of this, felt sore; certain of coming out equal in the deal he had run straight. However, he settled up without a murmur and pocketed the bag in a hurry, hearing Keller’s voice calling for Davis to take the wheel.
Though it was a Spanish ship, to judge by the log, not a single Spanish or French coin was included in the ship’s money, indicating that her trade had been British; papers other than the log there were none; perhaps the skipper had them on his person when the Chinks had killed him and hove him to the sharks—no one could tell, and the Harman syndicate didn’t bother.
They had other things to think of. One morning when all three were on deck, Keller having come up to relieve Harman at the wheel, the latter, who had been turning things over in his mind, gave it as his opinion that the position might be pretty rocky if on striking the Fijis “one of them d——d British brass-bound Port Authority chaps” were to turn rusty on the business. “Suppose we run for Suva,” said he, “and suppose they say we don’t believe your yarn? That’s what’s got into my head. Would anyone believe it? I ask you that, would anyone believe it?”
The others, suddenly struck by this point of view, ruminated for a moment. No. The thing was true enough, but it didn’t sound true. They had lifted the hatch during the calm and found the cargo to be copra. What was a copra schooner doing seized on to a Chinaman, everyone dead and all the rest of it? Stranger happenings had occurred at sea, ships found derelict with not a soul on board, yet in perfect order—but that was no explanation or support for a yarn that seemed too tough for an alligator to swallow.
Then there was the opium—suspicion meant search, and those cans of opium would not help them any; on top of all there was the money in the pockets of Bud and Billy, money that even Keller knew nothing about, but sure to be found on search.
“We ain’t nothing to show,” said Harman. “We should have kept one of them Chinks for evidence.”
“And how’d we have kept him?” said Davis, “put him in your bunk maybe—Why haven’t you more sense?”
“I’ve got it, boys,” said Keller, turning suddenly from the lee rail where he had been leaning. “Suva—nothin’. Opalu’s our port of call, ain’t more than four hundred miles to the north if our reckonin’s right. Big German island where the pearl chaps come for doing business and the Chinks and Malays fr’m as far as Java and beyond there. Rao Laut’s the name the Malays give it. Faked pearls and poached pearls and dope, it’s all the same to them—they’d buy the huffs an’ horns off Satan and sell ’em as goat’s. There’s nothin’ you couldn’t sell them but bibles, and there’s nothin’ you could sell them they can’t pass on through some ring or another. I tell you it’s a place, must have been plum crazy not to have thought of it before.”
“And suppose they ask questions?” said Billy.
“They never ask questions at Rao Laut,” said Keller. “If there happens to be a doctor there, he comes aboard to see you haven’t smallpox. If there isn’t, he doesn’t.”
Keller was right, the big German island was the spot of spots for them. They wanted no seaboard ports, no big island ports where English was talked and questions were sure to be asked. Salving a derelict in the Pacific means months and maybe years waiting for your salvage money, especially if she is a foreigner, that is to say anything that hails from anywhere that is not the British Empire or America. They did not want to wait months or years, their lives were spent in the grip of events, and in even a month it was hard to say where any one of them might be from Hull to Hakodate. No, they did not reckon on salvage money, and they did not want inquiries. They would have piled her on the Bishop, that great rock right in their track and south of Laut, only for the dope. It was impossible to bring those tins into any port in an open boat.
At Laut it would be easy to get the stuff landed in one of the canoes or sampans always plying in the bay—the only question was a buyer, and Keller said he would easily find that.
The first they knew of the island was a perfume of cassi coming through a dawn that having lazily snuffed out a star or two, simply leapt on the sea; a crimson and old gold dawn trailed with a smoke cloud like the fume of joss-sticks, cloud that broke to form flying flamingoes that were shot to pieces by sunrays from a sun bursting up into a world of stainless azure.
The island lay right before them, a high island with broken reefs to east and west and clear water all to the south, where beyond the anchorage and the beach lay the town wherein the four copra traders of Laut carried on their trade and the Japanese and Chinese pearl merchants and the Australian and Californian turtle shell buyers foregathered at the so-called club kept by Hans Reichtbaum.
In the bay were two schooners, a brigantine and some small craft at moorings, and somewhere about nine o’clock the Haliotis, moving like a swan across the breeze-ruffled blue, dropped her anchor in twenty fathoms, a far faint echo from the woods following the rasp of her chain.
That was all the welcome Rao Laut gave her when Reichtbaum, in pyjamas, shading his eyes on the club veranda, watched her swing to her moorings and returned to his breakfast wondering what sort of customers the newcomers would turn out.
It was their second night at Laut, and Bud and Billy leaning on the after rail of the Haliotis were contemplating the lights on shore. A tepid wind from the sea fanned their cheeks and against the wind the island breathed at them like a bouquet.
In two days they had taken the measure of the place and plumbed its resources, and the brain of Keller working swiftly and true to form had rejected all possible avenues for opium trade but one—Reichtbaum.
At the first sight of the German, Keller’s instinct had told him that here was his man.
Keller had no money to spend on drinks at the club, and it was Harman’s torture that, with his pocket bulging with gold, he could not lay out a cent, but Reichtbaum had stood drinks yesterday, scenting business from a few words dropped by Keller.
This evening at sundown Keller had gone alone, taking a single can of opium with him and rowing himself ashore in the dinghy. Bud and Billy were waiting for his return. They saw the lights of the club and the lights of the village winking and blinking, as the intervening foliage stirred in the wind, then on the starlit water they saw a streak like the trail of a water-rat. It was the dinghy.
Keller came on board triumphant and without the tin. Not a word would he say till they were down below, then, taking his seat at the saloon table, he let himself go.
“Look at me,” said he, “sober, ain’t I? Fit to thread a needle or say ‘J’rus’lem artichoke,’ don’t you think? And he fired the stuff at me, rum an’ gum and coloured drinks and fizz at the last, but I wasn’t havin’ any, bisness is bisness, I says, and I ain’t playin’ a lone hand, I’ve pardners to think of, ‘Plain Sailin’ Jim’s’ my name, and if you don’t pay two hundred dollars a tin I’ll plain sail off an’ dump the stuff out.”
“Two hundred dollars!” said the others in admiration. “You had the cheek to ask him that?”
“That’s so,” replied Keller, “and I got it.” He produced notes for two hundred dollars and spread them on the table.
“He opened the stuff and sampled it and planked the money down, and two hundred dollars he’ll pay for every can, and there’s fourteen of them left, that’s three thousand dollars for the lot. We’ve only to take them ashore to get the money. Well now, seems to me since that’s fixed, we have to think what to do with the schooner. We don’t want to sit here in this b’nighted hole twiddlin’ our thumbs and waitin’ to be took off, more especial as I don’t trust Reichtbaum any too much, and it seems to me our plan is to stick to the hooker and take her right to a Dutch port and sell the cargo, copra prices are rangin’ high——”
“Steady on,” suddenly cut in Harman. “Why, you said yourself we couldn’t take her to any port, seein’ we have no papers but what’s made out in Spanish, and no crew.”
“Just so,” said Keller. “It was the crew that was botherin’ me more than the papers, but how about a crew of Kanakas now we have the money to pay for them?”
Davis hit the table with his fist. “By Gosh, there’s something in that,” said he.
“M’r’over,” said Keller, “I can get six chaps for five dollars ahead advance. There’s more’n half a dozen schooner Kanakas kickin’ their heels on the beach waitin’ for a job. I can get them on board to-morrow, and all the fruit and water we want for ten dollars to the chaps that bring it on board. Then, you see, a copra schooner comin’ into a Dutch port manned by Kanakas there won’t be no bother. Dutchmen don’t know Spanish, nor they won’t care, we’re in from the islands, and we’ve left our Spanish chaps sick at Laut—if there’s any questions, which there won’t be.”
“When can we be off?” asked Harman.
“To-morrow afternoon, if we’re slick about gettin’ the water and bananas on board,” said Keller. “Then when we’re all ready for sailin’ we’ll take the dope cans to Reichtbaum and get the money. We won’t do that till last thing, for fear he’d play us some trick or another. I’m none too sure of Germans.”
Next morning at six the work began, Davis and Harman going ashore to hire the Kanakas and see about the water and provisions, Keller remaining on board to clear up the ship and get the fo’c’sle in order.
Boat-loads of fruit were brought off, the newly hired Kanakas helping, enough bananas to feed them for a month, taro, bread-fruit and a dozen fowl in a crate, price three dollars. The water casks were filled, and by four o’clock, with the promise of a steady wind off shore, the Haliotis, with canvas raised, was ready to sail and the crew on board.
Keller had brought up the opium tins in their tarpaulin wrapper.
“Be sure and count over the dollars,” said he to Davis, as the cans were lowered into the dinghy, “and don’t take no drinks from him—if he gets you on the booze, we’re done.”
“Him and his booze,” said Harman, as they shoved off. “Same as if we’re childer——. Lay into it, Bud.”
The nose of the dinghy grounded on the soft sand, some native boys helped to run her up, and getting the cans out, they started up the beach towards the club.
It was a heavy load, but they managed the journey without stopping; Reichtbaum was waiting for them on the veranda and, lending a hand, they brought the treasure through the bar into a private room at the back, a room furnished with native made chairs and tables, a roll-top desk and a portrait of the German Emperor on the wall opposite the window.
“So,” said Reichtbaum, “that is accomplished. And now, gentlemen, what will you have to drink?”
“Highball for me,” said Harman, “if it’s all the same to you. What’s yours, Bud?”
“Same as yours,” said Davis, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, and then these worthies sat whilst Reichtbaum went into the bar and returned with a syphon of soda and a whisky bottle and then went out again and returned with three glasses, and then fishing a cigar-box from a shelf, handed out cigars.
The syphon whizzed and the fumes of tobacco rose.
Two highballs vanished, and nearly half an hour of precious time sped with conversation, ranging from the German Emperor to the morals of the ladies of Laut.
Then Davis turned to reality. “S’pose we get on with this business of the dope,” said he. “Three thousand dollars it was, Mr. Keller was saying—and we ought to be going.”
He rose from his chair.
“To be sure,” said Reichtbaum, rising also. “Three thousand dollars vas agreed. Now for der dope.”
He took a clasp-knife from his pocket, knelt down and cut the rope binding the tarpaulin, rooted it open, put in his hand and produced a tin of bully beef. He flung the tarpaulin wide and tins tumbled out on the floor, canned tomatoes mostly—there was a large stock of them on the Haliotis. Bud and Billy, petrified with amazement as Reichtbaum himself, stood without a word, till Harman found speech.
“Boys, we’re done,” cried Harman. “Fried and dished by Keller.” He turned, made for the door and rushed through the bar on to the veranda.
The Haliotis with swelled sails and steered by “Plain Sailin’ Jim” and his new Kanaka crew was not only at sea, but far at sea; she had dropped her anchor chain most likely directly they had vanished into the club, or maybe even she had taken the anchor in, Keller cynically sure that falling to drinks, they would hear nothing of the winch.
“Well, it might have been worse,” said Bud that night as they sat smoking on the beach. “He’s got the dope and the cargo and the ship and the crew, but we ain’t destitute. We’ve got the sovereigns. But what gets me is the fact that he’ll net all of ten thousand dollars when he’s sold off that copra and the opium, to say nothing of the hull. Maybe twenty thousand. Oh, he’ll do it and strand those poor devils of Kanakas Lord knows where.”
Harman took out the watch belonging to the captain of the Haliotis from his pocket, and looked at it gloomily. Then as a child comforts itself with its toys, he took the chamois leather bag of sovereigns from his pocket and began to count over the coins.
“I’m not botherin’ about that,” said he, “what gets me, is the fac’ that he’s run crooked with us.”
Davis, looking at the coins and remembering the watch and fountain pen, to say nothing of the coins in his own pocket, smiled darkly. He was about to remark that if Keller had run crooked with them, they had run pretty crooked with Keller, but knowing the mentality of his companion, he saved his breath and lit his pipe.
“That’s what gets me,” said Billy, serious as a deacon and evidently brooding over the sins of the other and shovelling the sovereigns back into the bag, “it ain’t the dope he’s diddled us out of, nor the schooner, which I hopes he’ll bust on a rock, him and his Kanakas, it’s the fac’ that he’s took me in, in my opinions. I reckoned that chap was a white man, I’d a trusted that man with my second last dollar and wouldn’t have wanted to tie no string to it, neither. Outspoken and free he was with his conversation and hidin’ and holin’ in his ways—’nough to make a chap bank for the rest of his natural on hearses an’ deaf mutes. That’s how I’m feelin’. No, sir, it ain’t the dope he’s diddled us out of, nor the——”
“Oh, shut up,” said Davis, and turning on his side and lighting his pipe, he led the conversation towards the club, the excellence of its whisky and the morals of the ladies of Laut.
PEARLS OF GREAT PRICE!
Mambaya is a French island.
Fancy a white French gunboat in a blue, blue bay, surf creaming on a new moon beach, and a coloured town tufted with flame trees and gum trees and rocketing palms. Purple mountains in the dazzling azure and a perfume of red earth and roses mixed with the perfume of the sea.
Paumotuan pearl getters haunt Mambaya, brown-skinned men who have been diving half a year or have captured in half a day the wherewithal for a spree, and on the beach when a ship comes in you will find the Chinese pearl buyers waiting for the pearl men, cigar coloured girls with liquid brown eyes, the keeper of the roulette table in Mossena Street and Fouqui, the seller of oranges, pines, bananas and custard fruit.
But Mambaya does not exist entirely on pearls. The island is rich in produce and it is a beauty spot. Great white yachts drop in and anchor, steamers bring tourists, and on this same lovely beach where they used to boil local missionaries in the old days, you can hear the band playing at night in the Place Canrobert, where the two hotels are situated and where at marble-topped tables the tourists are taking their coffee and liqueurs.
From the island of Laut away down south where the bad men live, came one day to the beach of Mambaya two men of the sea, ragged and tanned, with their pockets stuffed with gold and hungering for pleasure—Bud Davis and Billy Harman, no less.
A big Moonbeam copra boat had given them the lift for the sum of four pounds each, paid in bright Australian sovereigns, but she could not supply them with clothes. However, a Jew who came on board as soon as the anchor was dropped, saved them the indignity of being fired off the beach by the French authorities, and, landing in spotless white ducks, they strung for the nearest bar, swallowed two highballs, lit two cigars and came out wiping their mouths with the backs of their hands.
“By golly,” said Billy, “ain’t this prime, Bud? Look at the place, why it’s half as big as ’Frisco, innocent lookin’ as Mary Ann and only sufferin’ to be scooped or painted red.”
They were in the Place Canrobert where the flame trees grow, where the Kanaka children play naked in the sun and the shops expose faked Island headdresses and curios, imitation jewellery from Paris, canned salmon and Paris hats. The natives of Mambaya are well-to-do and spend their money freely; they are paid in dollars, not trade goods, and have a lively fancy and catholic taste.
“If you’re starting on the painting business,” said Bud, “then give me notice and I’ll take myself off to the woods till you’re done, but I’ll warn you this is no place for painters and decorators. It’s a French Island and you’ll end your jag with a month in the cells or road-making.”
“What you wants is a tub and a prayer book,” said the other, taking his seat at a table in front of the Café Continental and calling for lime juice.
“Who was talkin’ of jags, and can’t a chap use a figure of speech without your jumpin’ down his throat? No, sir, scoopin’ is my idea. Here we are with our pockets full and our teeth sharp, and if we don’t pull off a coup in this smilin’ town where the folks are only standin’ about waitin’ to be took in, why we’d better take to knittin’ for a livin’, that’s my opinion.”
A pretty native girl, all chocolate and foulard, passed, trailing her eyes over the pair at the table; she wore bangles on her arms and was carrying a basket of fruit.
“There you are,” said Harman, “if the native ‘Marys’ can dress like that, what price the top folk? I tell you the place is rotten with money only waitin’ to be took. Question is, how?”
Davis did not answer for a moment, he was watching an opulent looking American tourist in white drill who had just left the Island headdress shop across the way. The tourist opened a white umbrella with a green inside and passed away towards the sea.
“No-how,” said Davis, “unless you set to work and open a shop or something, you can’t skin a town like this same as a pearl lagoon. If you want money here, you’ll have to work blame hard for it buying and selling against chaps that are bred to the business better than you—that’s civilisation.”
“Dam civilisation!” said Harman.
“Unless,” continued Davis, “you can fake up some swindle or another——”
“Nothin’——” said Harman, “I’m agin that sort of game as you ought to know, seein’ you know me. No, sir, I don’t want no first class ticket to Noumea. Straight as a gun barrel is what I want to run, but I’ve no objections to putting a few slugs in the gun. It’s just crawlin’ into my head that a syndicate is what we want.”
“And what the devil do you want a syndicate for?” asked Davis.
“Well, it’s this way,” said Billy. “A matter of ten years or so ago in the ’Frisco elections, I was in with Haffernan, Slungshot Haffernan, the chap that was tried for the killin’ of Duffy Stevens at San Leandro which he did, but got off owin’ to an alibi. Well, I’m tellin’ you. My job was fillin’ the ’lectors with gin an’ gettin’ them to the polls before they’d lost the use of their pins and swearin’ false evidence and such on, which wasn’t what a chap would do only in ’lection times.
“Well, a month or so after, Haffernan he got up a syndicate to run a guano island he’d got the location of and which wasn’t there, and I put fifty dollars into it and fifty other mugs did ditto and Haff pouched the coin and turned it over to his wife and went bankrupt or somethin’, anyhow he had the coin and we were left blowin’ our fingers. Now you listen to me. How about that pearl island Mandelbaum kicked us off? We’ve got the location. How about sellin’ it to a syndicate?”
“Where’s your syndicate?”
“I don’t know,” said Billy, “but it seems to me it’s to be found for lookin’ in a place like this where you see chaps like that guy with the white umbrella. I saw his Siamese twin on the beach when we landed with a diamond the size of a decanter stopper in his shirt front and that Jew chap that sold us the clothes told me there’s no end of Americans come here rotten with money, to say nothing of Britishers.”
“Well,” said Davis, “even supposing you get your syndicate, what about Mandelbaum? He’s got a lease of the island and would hoof you and your syndicate into the sea if you showed a nose in the lagoon.”
“He said he had a lease,” replied Harman, “but he never showed a line of writin’ and I believe he was a liar, but I wasn’t proposin’ to go there, only to sell the location; if he hoofs the syndicate into the sea, why, it’s their look-out. If they ain’t fools they’ll hoof him in first, lease or no lease, and collar the pearls he’s been takin’.”
“What I like about you is your consistency,” said Davis.
“What’s that?” asked Harman.
“The way you stick to your guns. You’re always preaching that it’s best to run straight and then you turn up an idea like that. Nice straight sort of business, isn’t it?”
“As straight as a gun barrel,” said Harman enthusiastically. “You can’t be had no how, not by all the lawyers from here to Oskosh. Y’see, if chaps are mugs enough to pay coin down for a location you’re free to take their coin. That’s good United States law. I had it from Lawyer Burstall when we got stung over the Haffernan business. He’s a toughs’ lawyer, long thin chap, not enough fat on him to grease the hinges of a pair of scissors, and cute enough to skin Jim Satan if he got a fair grip of his tail.”
“Maybe,” said Davis, “anyhow before you start in on any of your games, we’ve got to get lodgings. I’m not going to fling my coin away on one of these hotel sharps and we’ve got to get some dunnage to show up with. That Jew chap told me where we could get rooms cheap, last house end of town on right-hand side and with a big tree fern in the garden.”
Living is cheap in Mambaya, where people mostly subsist on coco-nut milk and fried bananas, where you can get a hundred eggs for half a dollar and a chicken for a quarter. If you are an æsthete you can almost live on the scenery alone, on the sun, on the unutterably blue sky that roofs you between the rains. But Billy and his companion had little use for scenery, and after a week of lounging on the beach, wandering about the town and watching the natives surf bathing off Cape Huane, life began to pall on them.
They were not fools enough to drink, and if they had been, the bar of the Café Continental, white-painted, cold, correct, served by a white-coated bar tender who could talk nothing but Bêche-de-mer French, would have choked them off. There was not the ghost of a sign of a syndicate to be developed, nor of trade of any sort to be done.
They visited the roulette shop, where the keeper of the table allowed them to win some forty dollars which they promptly departed with, never to return.
“We’ve skinned the cream off that,” said Davis next morning as they lay smoking and kicking their heels on the sand, “and there’s not another pan of milk about. You see, we’re handicapped not talking French. Like cats in a larder with muzzles on—that’s about the size of it.”
Harman assented. He took from his pocket the bag that held his money, nearly a hundred bright brass-yellow Australian sovereigns. They were on a secluded part of the beach with no one within eye-shot, and he amused himself by counting the coins and stacking them in little piles on the sand.
Then he swept the coins back into the bag and sat up as Davis pointed seaward to where, rounding Cape Huane, came a white-painted steamer, the mail boat for Papeete and beyond.
The whoop of her siren lashed the sleepy air and brought echoes from the woods and a quarter of a minute later a far-off whoop from the echoes in the hills, then down from the town and groves the beach began to stream with people. Kanaka children racing for the sea edge and fruit sellers with their baskets, girls fluttering foulard to the breeze and Kanaka bucks, naked but for a loin-cloth; then came white folk, Aaronson, the Jew, and the keeper of the Hôtel Continental, officials and a stray Chinaman or two.
Neither Bud nor Billy stirred a limb till the rasp of the anchor chain came over the water, then getting up, they strolled down to the water’s edge and stood, hands in pockets, watching the shore boats putting out, boats laden with fruit, and canoes with naked Kanaka children ready to dive for coppers.
Then the ship’s boat came ashore with mails and passengers.
“Ain’t much sign of a syndicate here, neither,” said Harman, as he stood criticising the latter, mostly male tourists of the heavy globe-trotting type and American women with blue veils and guide books. “It’s the old mail-boat crowd that’s been savin’ up for a holiday for the last seven year an’s got so in the habit of savin’, it’s forgot how to spend. I know them. Been on a mail boat once; haven’t you ever been on a mail boat, Bud? Then you don’t know nothin’ about nothin’. Half the crew is stewards and half the officers is dancin’ masters to judge by the side of them, and the blessed cargo is duds like them things landin’ now.”
He turned on his heel and led the way back towards the town.
As they drew along towards it, one of the passengers, a young, smart and natty individual carrying an imitation crocodile-skin handbag, overtook them, and Harman, greatly exercised in his mind by the bag, struck up a conversation.
“Air you goin’ to reside in this town, stranger?” asked Mr. Harman.
“Eight hours,” replied the stranger, “boat starts at eight p.m. Smart’s my name, and smart’s my nature, and not being Methuselah, I find time an object in life. What, may I ask, is the population of this town, air there any opportunities on this island and what’s the condition, in your experience, of the luxury trades—may I ask?”
“Dunno,” said Harman, “ain’t been here long enough to find out.”
“I got landed to prospect,” went on the other, “I’m trading—trading in pearls. O.K. pearls. Wiseman and Philips is our house and our turnover is a million dollars in a year. Yes, sir, one million dollars. From Athabasca to Mexico City the females of forty-two states and two territories cough up one million dollars a year for personal adornment, and Wiseman and Philips does the adorning. I’m travelling the islands now. Well, here’s a hotel—and good day to you, gentlemen.”
He dived into the Continental and Harman and Davis walked on.
“Well,” said the intrigued Harman, “it sorter makes one feel alive, comin’ in touch with chaps like that—notice the bag he was carryin’, looked as if the hide’d been taken off a cow that’d been skeered to death. I’ve seen them sort of bags before on passenger ships, and they always belonged to nobs. That was a sure enough panama he was wearin’, and did you notice the di’mond ring on his finger?”
“He’s a damn fish-scale jewellery drummer,” said Davis, “out to sell dud pearls and save five dollars a week out of his travelling allowance, notice he never offered to stand drinks? The earth’s crawling with the likes of him, selling servant girls everything from dud watches to dummy gramophones.”
But Harman was not listening, the million-dollar turnover, the imitation crocodile skin bag and the sure enough panama hat had seized on his imagination.
It suddenly seemed to him that he had missed his chance, that here was the nucleus of the syndicate he wanted, a sharp, sure-enough American with a big company behind him and lots of money to burn. He said so, and Davis laughed.
“Now get it into your head you won’t do more than waste your time with chaps like those,” said he. “Of course, they’ve got the money, but even if you could get to their offices and deal with them instead of their two-cent drummer, where’d you be? Do you mean to say you’d have any chance with these sharps, trying to sell a dud proposition to them? Why, when they’d took out your back teeth to see if there was any gold in them and stripped you to your pants, you wouldn’t have done with them, you’d be stuck for an atlas of the world, or maybe a piano organ on the instalment plan, givin’ them sixty per cent. on the takings and a mortgage on the monkey. You get me? Sometimes you’re sharp enough, but once your wits get loose, it’s away with you. This chap isn’t any use—forget him.”
But Harman scarcely heard.
If they had turned on their tracks they might have seen Smart, who, after a drink at the bar of the hotel, had started out to visit the shops, more especially those likely to push the sale of O.K. pearls and North Pole diamonds—a side line.
At half-past four that afternoon Harman—Davis having gone fishing—found himself in the Continental bar. The place was empty, and Billy was in the act of paying and taking his departure when in came Smart.
“Hullo,” said Harman. “Have a drink?”
They drank. Highballs first of all, and then, at the suggestion of Billy, who paid for drinks the whole of that afternoon, hopscotches, which are compounded of Bourbon, crushed ice, lemon peel, parfait amour and a crystallised cherry.
At the second hopscotch the tongue of Smart was loosened and his words began to flow.
“Well, I reckon there’s not much to the town,” said Smart, “but it’s an oleograph for scenery and pictooresqueness; with a pier for landing and a bathing beach where all that fishermen’s truck and those canoes are, it would beat a good many places on the islands that don’t think five cents of themselves. I’ve been pushing the name of Wiseman and Philips into the ears of all and sundry that has got ears to hear with, but all such places as these is only seeds by the way. Chicago is our main crop an’ Noo York, after that Pittsburg, and we’re feeling for London, England.
“We’ve agents in Paris and Madrid that aren’t asleep, and Wiseman says before he dies he’ll put a rope of pearls round Mother Earth, and a North Pole di’mond tiara on her old head. Yes, sir. (Third hopscotch.) That’s what Wiseman says in his office and my hearing, and Philips, he helps run the luxury and fake leather sundry department, he said he’d fit her out with O de Nile coloured croc leather boots and a vanity bag of stamped lizard skin if the sales went on jumping as they were going, which was more like Klondike stuffed with the Arabian nights than any sales proposition he had ever heard, seen, dreamt or read of. Sales! (hic) as sure as there’s two cherries in this glass I’m holding, my orders booked in Chicago for pearls ending Christmas Day last was over one hundred thousand dollars. One hundred thousand dollars. But you haven’t seen our projuce.”
He bent, picked up his bag, fumbled in it and produced a box and from the box a gorgeous pearl necklace.
“Feel of those,” said Smart, “weigh them, look at ’em, look at the grading, look at the style, look at the lustre and brilliancy. Could Tiffany beat them for twenty thousand dollars? No, sir, he couldn’t; they leave him way behind.”
The dazzled Harman weighed the rope in his hand and returned it.
“Don’t be showin’ them sort of things in bars,” said he, as the other closed the box with a hiccup and replaced it in the bag, “but now you’ve showed me yours, I’ll show you mine.”
“Pull ’em out,” said the other, picking up his hat, which he had dropped in stooping.
“They ain’t here,” said Harman, “it’s only the knowledge of them I’ve got. Stranger, ’s sure as I’m lightin’ this cigar, I know a lagoon in an island down south where you can dredge up pearls same as them by the fist full.”
“It must be a dam’ funny lagoon,” said the other, with a cynical laugh.
Harman agreed. It was the funniest place he’d ever struck, he told the story of it at length and at large, and how Mandelbaum had kicked him and Davis off the atoll and how it only wanted a few bright chaps to hire a schooner and go down and do the same to Mandelbaum and take his pearls. He assured Smart that he—Harman—was his best friend, and wrote the latitude and longitude of the pearl island down on the back of a glossy business card of the drummer’s, but it did not much matter, as he wrote it all wrong.
Then, all of a sudden, he was out of the bar and walking with Smart among palm trees. Then he was in the native village which lies at the back of the town, and they were drinking kava at the house of old Nadub, the kava seller, who was once a cannibal and boasted of the fact—kava after hopscotches!—and Smart was seated with his arm round the waist of Maiala, Nadub’s daughter, and they were both smoking the same cigar alternately and laughing. Nadub was laughing, the whole world was laughing.
Then Mr. Harman found himself home, trying to explain to Davis that he had sold the pearl location to Smart, who was going to marry Nadub’s daughter, also the beauty of true love, and the fact that he could not unlace his boots.
“A nice object you made of yourself last night,” said Davis next morning, standing by the mat bed where Harman was stretched, a jar of water beside him. “You and that two-cent drummer! What were you up to, anyway?”
Harman took a pull at the jar, put his hand under his pillow and made sure that his money was safe, and then lay back.
“Up to—where?” asked Harman, feebly.
“Where? Why, back in the native town. You left that chap there, and the purser of the mail boat had to beat the place for him and get four roustabouts ashore to frog-march him to the ship.”
“I dunno,” said Harman, “I got along with him in a bar, and we sat havin’ drinks, them drinks they serve at the Continental—Lord, Bud, I never want to see another cherry again, nor sniff another drop of Bourbon. I’m on the water-wagon for good and all. It ain’t worth it; I’m feelin’ worse than a Methodis’ parson. I’m no boozer, but if I do strike the jagg by accident, my proper feelin’s pay me out. It’s not a headache, it’s the feelin’ as if a chapel minister was sittin’ on my chest, and I’d never get him off. Give’s my pants.”
He rose, dressed, and went out. Down on the beach the sea breeze refreshed Mr. Harman, and life began to take a rosier colour. He sat on the sand, and taking the chamois leather bag from his pocket, counted the coins in it.
The fun of the day before had cost him ten pounds!
Ten pounds—fifty dollars—for what? Three or four drinks, it did not seem more, and a tongue like an old brown shoe. He moralised on these matters for a while, and then returning the coins to the bag and the bag to his pocket, he rose up and strolled back through the town, buying a drinking nut from the old woman at the corner of the Place Canrobert and refreshing himself with its contents.
Then he wandered in the groves near the native village, and two hours later, Davis, seated under the trees of the Place Canrobert and reading a San Francisco paper, which the purser of the mail boat had left behind in the bar of the Continental, saw Harman approaching.
Harman had evidently got the chapel minister off his chest, his chin was up, and his eyes bright. He sat down beside the other, laughed, slapped himself on the right knee and expectorated.
“What’s up?” said Davis.
“Nothin’,” said Harman. “Nothin’ I can tell you about at the minute. Say, Bud, ain’t you feelin’ it’s time we took the hook up and pushed? Ain’t nothin’ more to be done here, seems to me, and I’ve got a plan.”
“What’s your plan?” asked Davis.
“Well, it’s more’n a plan. I’ve been thinkin’ quick and come to the conclusion that we’ve got to get out of here, pronto, get me? More’n that, we’ve got to make for Rarotambu, that’s the German island between here and Papeete.”
“Why the deuce d’you want to go there?” asked Davis.
“There’s money waitin’ for us there,” replied Harman, “and I don’t want to touch at no French island.”
Davis put his paper behind him and filled a pipe. He knew that when Harman had one of his mysterious fits on, there was sure to be something behind it, some rotten scheme or another too precious to be disclosed till ripe. But he was willing enough to leave Mambaya and made no objections.
“How are you going to get down to Rarotambu,” he asked, “s’posing we decide to go?”
“I’ve worked out that,” said Harman. “You know that copra schooner that’s been filling up in the bay? She’s off to ’Frisco, touching at Papeete, leavin’ to-night. Wayzegoose, he’s her skipper, I met him ten minutes ago when I was workin’ out my plans, and he’ll turn aside for us and drop us at Rarotambu for two hundred dollars, passage money.”
“Not me,” said Davis. “Him and his old cockroach trap, why, I’d get a passage on the mail boat for a hundred dollars.”
“Maybe,” said Harman, “but I don’t want no mail boats nor no Papeetes, neither. What are you kickin’ at? I’ll pay.”
“Well, I’ll come along if you’re set on it,” said Bud, “but I’m hanged if I see your drift. What’s the hurry, anyhow?”
“Never you mind that,” replied Harman, “there’s hurry enough if you knew. There’s a cable from here to Papeete, ain’t there?”
“Well never you mind the hurry till we’re clear of this place. Put your trust in your Uncle Billy, and he’ll pull you through. You’ve laughed at me before for messin’ deals, said I’d no sort of headpiece to work a traverse by myself, didn’t you? Well, wait and you’ll see, and if it’s not ‘God bless you, Billy, and give us a share of the luck’ when we get to Rarotambu, my name’s not Harman.”
“Maybe,” said Davis, “and maybe not. I’m not likely to forget that ambergris you fooled me out of with your plans, nor the dozen times you’ve let me down one way or another, but I tell you this, Billy Harman, it’s six cuts with a rope’s end over your sternpost I’ll hand you if you yank me out of this place on any wild goose chase.”
“I’ll take ’em,” chuckled Harman. “Joyful, but there ain’t no geese in this proposition, nothin’ but good German money, and when you’re down on your knees thankin’ me, you’ll remember your words.”
“Oh, get on,” said Davis, and taking the newspaper again, he began to read, Harman making over for the Continental and a gin and bitters.
The Manahangi was a schooner of two hundred tons, built in 1874 for the sandal wood trade and looking her age. Wayzegoose fitted his ship. His scarecrow figure appeared at the port rail as the boat containing Billy and Bud came alongside and he dropped the ladder himself for them.
They had scarcely touched the deck when the Kanakas clapped on to the winch, the anchor chain was hove short, the sails set and then, as the anchor came home, the Manahangi, in the gorgeous light of late afternoon, leant over to the breeze, the blue water widened to the shore and the old schooner, ageworn but tight as a cobnut, lifted to the swell of the Pacific.
Harman at the after rail gazed on the island scenery as it fell astern, heaved a sigh of relief and turned to Davis.
“Well, there ain’t no cables can catch us now,” said he. “We’re out and clear with money left in our pockets and twenty thousand dollars to pick up right in front of us like corn before chickens.”
Wayzegoose, having got his ship out, went down below for a drink, leaving the deck to the Kanaka bo’sun and the fellow at the wheel, and finding themselves practically alone, Harman lifted up his voice and chortled.
“I’ll tell you now,” he said, “I’ll tell you, now we’re out—that chap was robbed by the Kanakas. You remember sayin’ that he was shoutin’ he was robbed as they was frog-marchin’ him to the ship—he spoke the truth.”
“Did you rob him, then?” asked Davis suspiciously.
“Now I’ll tell you. Him and me was sittin’ drinkin’ at that bar most of the afternoon when out he pulls pearls from that bag of his, pearls maybe worth thirty thousand dollars.”
“Where the blazes did he get them from?” asked Davis.
“Out of that bag, I’m tellin’ you, and right in front of the Kanaka bar-tender. ‘Put them things away,’ I says, ‘and don’t be showin’ them in bars,’ but not he, he was too full of Bourbon and buck to listen and then when I left him after, in the native town, they must have robbed him. For,” said Mr. Harman, “between you and me and the mizzen mast, them pearls are in my pocket now.
“No, sir, I didn’t pinch them, but that piece Maiala did, as sure as Moses wasn’t Aaron, for this morning I met her carryin’ stuff for old Nadub to make his drinks with and there round her neck was the pearls. Stole.
“I follows her home and with sign langwidge and showin’ the dollars, I made them hand over them pearls, forty dollars I paid for twenty thousand dollars worth of stuff and what do you think of that?”
Billy put his hand in his pocket and produced a handkerchief carefully knotted, and from the handkerchief, a gorgeous pearl necklace.
Davis looked at it, took it in his hands and looked at it again.
“Why you double damned idiot,” cried Davis, “you mean to say you’ve yanked me off in this swill tub because you’ve give forty dollars for a dud necklace, and you’re afraid of the police?—Smart—why that chap’s pearls weren’t worth forty dollars the whole bag full. Ten dollars a hundred-weight’s what the factories charge—I told you he was a dud and his stuff junk—and look at you, look at you!”
“You’ll be takin’ off your shirt next,” said Harman, “you’re talkin’ through the hole in your hat. Them pearls is genuine and if they ain’t, I’ll eat them.”
But Davis, turning over the things, had come upon something that Harman had overlooked, a teeny-weeny docket near the hasp, on which could be made out some figures—
“Four dollars fifty,” said Davis, and Harman looked.
There was no mistaking the figures on the ticket.
“And what was it you gave for them to that girl, thinking they’d been stolen?” asked Davis.
“Damn petticuts!” cried the other, taking in everything all at once.
“Six cuts of a rope’s end it was to be,” said Davis, “but a boat stretcher will do.” He put the trash in his pocket and seized a boat stretcher that was lying on the deck, and Wayzegoose coming on deck and wiping his mouth, saw Harman bent double and meekly receiving six strokes of the birch from Davis without a murmur.
And thinking that what he saw was an optical illusion due to gin, he held off from the bottle for the rest of that cruise.
So Billy did some good in his life for once in a way, even though he managed to do it by accident.
BEATEN ON THE POST
Captain Brent came down to the Karolin as she was lying by Circular Wharf, on some business connected with some gadget or another he was trying to sell on commission. Some patent dodge in connection with a main sheet buffer, I think it was—anyhow, Dolbrush, the owner and master of the Karolin, though an old friend, refused to speculate; the thing to his mind “wasn’t no use to him,” and he said so without offence to the salesman.
Brent really carried on this sort of business more for amusement than profit; he had retired from the sea with enough to live on, and it gave him something to do of a morning, pottering round the wharves, boarding ships and boring master mariners, mostly known to him, with plans and specifications of all sorts of labour and life saving devices—he worked for Harvey and Matheson—which they might use or recommend to owners.
He had been, in his time, the finest schooner captain that ever sailed out of Sydney Harbour, a vast man, weather-beaten and indestructible-looking as the Solander Rock, slow of speech but full of knowledge, and, once started on a story, unstoppable unless by an earthquake. He had been partner with Slane, Buck Slane of the Paramatta business; he was Slane’s Boswell, and start him on any subject he was pretty sure to fetch up on Slane. He and Slane had made three or four fortunes between them and lost them.
Putting the main sheet buffer in his pocket, so to speak, he accepted a cigar, and the conversation moved to other matters till it struck Chinks—Chinks and their ways, clean and unclean, and their extraordinary methods of money-making; sham pearls, faked birds——
“There’s nothing the Almighty’s ever made that a Chink won’t make money out of,” said Dolbrush. “Give ’m a worked-out mine or an old tomato tin and he’ll do something with it—and as for gratitude——”
“I’ll tell you something about that,” cut in Brent. “I’ve been to school with them, there’s nothing about them you can tell me right from Chow coffins to imitation chutney. Why me and Slane hit up against them in our first traverse and that was forty years ago. Sixty-one I was yesterday and I was twenty-one when I fell in with Buck. It don’t seem more than yesterday. We’d put in to ’Frisco Bay and were lying at Long Wharf, foot of Third and Fourth Streets. Buck was Irish, as you’ll remember, a fine strapping chap in those days, with blue eyes and black hair, and we’d come from Liverpool round the Horn and we didn’t want to see the ocean again for a fortnight, I tell you. Buck had skipped from Tralee or somewhere or another, and he had forty pounds in his pocket, maybe he’d got it from robbing a bank or something, I never asked, but there it was, and no sooner was the old hooker tied up than he proposed we’d skip, him and me, and try our luck ashore. I hadn’t a magg, but he said he had enough for both, that was Buck all over, and we skipped, never bothering about our dunnage.
“Buck had an uncle in ’Frisco, well to do and a big man in Ward politics. O’Brien was his name if I remember right, and he was reckoned to be worth over a hundred thousand pounds, so Buck said, but he fixed to let him lie, not being a cadger; and we got a room with a widow woman who kept lodgers in Tallis Street and set out to beat up the town and see the sights. There were sights to be seen in ’Frisco, those days, more especial round the dock sides, and the place was all traps, the crimps were getting from fifty to seventy dollars a head for able seamen, and most of the bars and such places were hand in fist with them, but we steered clear of all that, not being given to drink, and got home early and sober with our money safe and our heads straight.
“We’d come to the conclusion that ’Frisco was a bit too crowded for us, and we fixed to try for the Islands. Those days there was money out there. Why, in those days the guano deposits hadn’t been spotted on Sophia Island, and there it was lying, a fortune shouting to be took; copra was beginning to bud, and blackbirding was having the time of its life; China was eating all the sharks’ fins and bêche de mer she could stuff, and then you had the shell lagoons, shell and pearl. ’Frisco was crazy over them, and we heard yarns of chaps turned millionaires in a night by striking an atoll and ripping the floor out. They were true yarns. In those days the Admiralty charts and the Pacific Directory were years behind the times, and there were islands being struck time and again that had never been heard of before.
“We tried round the wharves for a likely ship, but from Long Wharf to Meiggs’ there was nothing but grain carriers cleaning their bilges and Oregon timber schooners unloading pine.
“One day, Buck, who’d been out up town by himself, came home halooing. ‘Mate,’ says he, ‘our fortunes are made.’ Then he gave his yarn. He’d been poking round by China Town when, coming along a street—Alta Street it was—he saw a bunch of Chinks at a corner, two young chaps and an old father Abraham of a Chink with horn spectacles on him. They were standing on the loaf when Buck sighted them, talking, and then they began quarrelling, and the two young chaps set on father Abraham and began pulling him about and kicking him, till Buck sent them flying and rescued the old chap, who was near done in. Then he helped him home. Fong Yen was his name, and he had a little hole of a bird shop just inside China Town by a Chow restaurant. He was real bad, knocked about by those brutes, and full of gratitude; he offered Buck his pick of the birds, but Buck was no bird fancier. Then says Fong: ‘I’ll give you something better than birds,’ and he goes to a drawer in a lacquer box and hunts about and finds a bit of paper. ‘It was given me by my son,’ says he, ‘to keep. He was killed in the riots down at the docks last month; you have been as good as a son to me, take it, it’s a fortune.’ Then he explained. It was the latitude and longitude of a virgin shell island written down by his son who’d been a sailor on one of the Chinese bêche de mer boats. The boat was wrecked and all hands lost with the exception of this chap, who had kept the secret and had been saving up money to go and skin the island when he was killed. Poor old Fong couldn’t work the thing himself; he had no relations, and to give or sell that paper to any of the China Town lot would simply be getting his throat cut, maybe, to keep his head shut on the matter and get the purchase money back. He was quite straight with Buck on this, and told him he was giving him something that was no use to himself now his son was dead, but if Buck chose to give him a few dollars to buy opium with, he wouldn’t be above taking it. Buck takes out his roll and peels off two ten-dollar bills and promises him a pull out of the profits.
“Buck showed me the paper. There was nothing on it but the latitude and longitude of the place and a spot that looked to me like a blood mark. We got hold of a chart from a ship master we’d chummed in with and found the position north-east of Clermont Tonnerre in the Low Archipelago. I said to Buck, ‘It’s all very well—but how are we going to get there? It’s about as much use to us as to the Chink. S’pose we pull some guy in to put up the dollars for a ship, do you think he won’t want the profits? If I know anything of ’Frisco, he’ll want our skins as well. That old Chink was on the right side of the fence, he knew ’Frisco and knew he hadn’t a dog’s chance of getting a cent out of it.’ Buck hears me out, then he says, ‘Do you suppose,’ he says, ‘that when I paid out good money for this thing I had no idea how to work it, do you suppose I have no man to back me?’
“‘Who’s your man?’ says I.
“‘My uncle,’ says he.
“I’d clean forgot the rich uncle. Then I began to see that Buck wasn’t such a fool as I thought him. I knew the way the Irish stick together, and old Pat O’Brien being one of the biggest bugs in the town I began to see the light, as the parsons say, and Buck asking me to go with him that night and lay for the old chap, I agreed.
“Pat lived on Nobs Hill, and we fixed nine o’clock as the time to call on him, reckoning he’d be in then and maybe in a good humour after his dinner. We easy found the place, for everyone knew Pat, but the size of it put us off, till Buck took courage at last and pushed the bell.
“A darkie in a white shirt front opened and showed us across a big hall into a room all hung with pictures, and there we sat shuffling our feet till the door opened again and in come Pat, a little old, bald-headed chap in slippers with the butt of a cigar stuck up in the corner of his mouth, more like Mr. Jiggs in the comic papers than anyone else I’ve seen.
“He never said a word whilst Buck gave his credentials. Then:
“‘You’re Mary’s son,’ said he. ‘You’ve got her eyes. How long have you been in this town?’
“‘A fortnight,’ says the other.
“‘Why didn’t you call before?’ asks Pat.
“‘Didn’t like to,’ said Buck. ‘I was hard up and I didn’t want to cadge on you.’
“‘Why did you call to-night?’ he asks.
“Buck tells him and shows the paper. Pat ordered in cigars—we weren’t having drinks—then he put on a pair of old spectacles and looks at the paper back and front.
“Buck puts him wise on the business, and when the old man had tumbled to it, he asked Buck right out whether he was crazy to think that a Chink would give away an oyster shell let alone a shell lagoon, but when he heard the facts of the matter, and how Buck had risked being knifed to save Fong being kicked to death, he came round a bit in his opinions.
“‘Maybe I’m wrong,’ he says, ‘and here’s a spot of blood on the paper. You haven’t noticed that, have you? Looks as if the thing had been through the wars. Well, leave it with me for the night to sleep on and call again in the morning, and now let’s talk about the old country.’
“Then the old man sticks the paper in a drawer and begins to put Buck through his paces. Pat hadn’t been in Tralee for forty years, but there wasn’t a street he’d forgotten or a name, and he took Buck through that town by the scruff of his neck, cross-questioning him about the shops and the people and the places, and as he sat there with his old monkey face screwed up and his eyes like steel gimlets boring holes in us, I began to understand how he’d come to be a millionaire; then he got on family matters, and by the end of the talk he’d come to understand that Buck was his nephew all right and we lit, promising to call on him in the morning.
“‘Our fortunes are made,’ says Buck.
“‘Wait a bit,’ says I.
“Next morning we were on the doorstep to the tick and the darkie showed us in.
“‘Well, boys,’ says Pat, coming into the room dressed to go out, with a plug hat stuck on the back of his head and the butt of another cigar in the corner of his mouth. ‘Well, boys,’ says he, ‘you’re up to time and I’m waiting to meet you on this proposition; it’s not that I want to be into it,’ he says, ‘but for the sake of me sister Mary—God rest her soul—I’m going to give you a chance in life. I’m a bit in the shipping way myself, and I’ve got a schooner lying off Tiburon waiting for cargo, and I’ll give you the use of her to run down to the Islands, and,’ says he, ‘if you get the better of that Chink I’ll give you the schooner for keeps.’
“‘What do you mean by getting the better of him?’ asks Buck.
“‘Well,’ says Pat, ‘it’s in my mind, thinking things over, that he’s maybe got the better of you. Maybe I’m wrong—but there it is, and how do you like the proposition?’
“We liked it all right, but he hadn’t finished and goes on:
“‘Whilst you’re on the job,’ he says, ‘you can take a cargo for me down to Malakā to Sanderson, a chap I deal with, and bring back a cargo of copra; you won’t want any cargo space for pearls, and Malakā is on your way there or back.’
“We didn’t mind that and said so.
“I’d told Pat I was pretty well up in navigation, and we all starts out together to look at the schooner, taking the ferry boat over to Tiburon and Pat giving us his ideas as we went.
“Us two would be the afterguard, with five or six Kanakas for crew.
“The Greyhound was the name of the schooner, and she was lying a bit out from the wharf, and Pat has the hellnation of a fight with a waterman as to the fare for rowing us off and back, beats him down from two dollars to one dollar fifty, and asked Buck to pay as he hadn’t any change.
“I was thinking it was easy to see how Pat had become a millionaire till we stepped on the deck of the Greyhound, and then I had no time to think of anything but the dirt. It wasn’t dirt you could sweep off her, it was ground in, if you get me; all the deck-bears and holystones from here to Hoboken wouldn’t have made those decks look respectable; it was like a woman with a bad complexion, even skinning would be no use.
“‘She’s been in the oil business,’ says Pat.
“‘I can smell it,’ says I, and we goes below after prodding the sticks and taking notice of the condition of the standing rigging. Down below it was dirtier, and the smell rose up like a fist and punched us in the nose. I don’t know if you’ve ever been below decks in one of them old Island schooners fitted with Honolulu cockroaches, and the effulgences of generations of buck Kanakas and Chinks, to say nothing of mixed cargoes—sort of dark brown smell—but we weren’t out to grumble, and Pat having showed us over, we all went ashore and put back for ’Frisco, Buck paying the fare.
“We parted from Pat on the landing stage, and next morning the Greyhound was brought over to Long Wharf for her cargo. It took a fortnight getting the stuff aboard and hiring the Kanakas. Pat gave us a diving dress and pump that could be rigged in any boat; he borrowed them, or got them somewhere cheap, and then he gave us his blessing and twenty dollars for ship’s money, and we signed on, me as master, Buck as mate—seeing I was the navigator at a dollar a month, nominal pay—and six Kanakas as hands.
“Day before we started we were sitting in the cabin going over the list of stores when a long, thin chap by name of Gadgett came on board. He was a ship’s chandler and when he found no orders he opened out about Pat, not knowing he was Buck’s uncle, asking us what screws we were getting and didn’t we know the Greyhound was condemned, or ought to be, but that she was certain to be insured for twice her value, and then he lit.
“When he’d gone I said to Buck: ‘Look here,’ I said, ‘I’m not grumbling, but it seems to me your uncle doesn’t stand to lose over this game. He’s got a captain and first officer for nothing. He’s dead certain we’re on a mug’s game, and he’s used our cupidity after pearls so’s to make us work for him, and he not paying us a jitney.’
“‘How do you make that out?’ he asks.
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘look at him. I reckon, without disrespect to you, that if there was an incorporated society of mean men he’d be the President. Did he even pay you back those dollars he borrowed from you? Not he. Well, now, do you think if he had any idea we were going to pull this thing off he wouldn’t have asked for a share? Course he would. He didn’t ask, even on the off chance, for if he had we might have asked for our screws as master and mate. Another thing. It’s on the charter that we can call at Malakā on the way out or back; if he had any idea of us touching this pearl island it’s my opinion he’d have bound us to call there on the way out.’
“‘Why?’ asks Buck.
“‘Because,’ I says, ‘this cargo of stuff we’ve got aboard is a darned sight more perishable than the cargo of copra we’re to bring home; if we strike that island we’ll be there months and months diving and rotting oysters with this stuff lying aboard with the rats and the roaches and weevils working over it. Do you see? If he had the faintest idea we had a million to one chance he’d have bound us to call at Malakā on the out trip. No, he’s just took us for a pair of chump fools and is working us as such.’
“‘Well, if he has I’ll be even with him,’ says Buck.
“‘Another thing,’ I went on, ‘do you remember he said he’d give you the schooner if you got the better of that Chink? Those words jumped out of him that first morning, showing how little he thought of the business. He never repeated them; afraid of putting us off. Buck, I’m not saying anything against your relations, but this old chap gives me the shivers, him with a million of money in the Bank of California and you with nothing, and him using you. It’s not me I’m thinking of, but you, Buck.’
“‘Never mind me,’ says Buck.”
Dolbrush produced drinks and Brent, having refreshed himself and lit a new cigar, proceeded.
“Well, I was telling you—next morning we howked out and by noon that day we were clear of the bar, taking the sea with the Farallones on the starboard beam and all plain sail set. The Greyhound was no tortoise, and for all her dirt she was a dry ship, but that day when we came to tackle the first of the ship’s stores we’d have swapped her for a mud barge and penitentiary rations. Pat must have got the lot as a present, I should think, to take it away. I never did see such junk; it wasn’t what you might call bad, but it was faded, if you get me; not so much stinkin’ as without smell to it—or taste.
“‘All shipowners are bad, and Pat’s a shipowner,’ I says, ‘but there’s no doubt he’s given you a chance in life for the sake of his sister Mary—God rest her soul—the chance of getting ptomaine poisoning if you don’t die first of jaw disease breaking your teeth over this damn bread.’
“‘I’ll be even with him yet,’ says Buck.
“We did some fishing, for we had tackle on board, and that helped us along over the line, and one morning twenty-seven days out from ’Frisco we raised an outlier of the Marqueses. Coming along a week later we raised the spot where pearl island ought to have been—we’d labelled it Pearl Island before sighting it, and that was maybe unlucky—anyhow, there was no island to meet us at noon that day and no sign of one inside or outside the horizon.
“‘That Chink sold you a pup,’ says I to Buck.
“‘Maybe it’s your navigation is at fault,’ says he.
“‘Maybe,’ says I, wishing to let him down gentle, but feeling pretty sure the navigator wasn’t born that could find that island.
“We stood a bit more to the south with a Kanaka in the crosstrees under a reward of ten dollars if he spotted land that day, and towards evening the wind dropped to a dead calm and we lay drifting all that night, the wind coming again at sun up and breezing strong from the south west.
“We put her before it, both of us pretty sick at thinking how Pat was right and how he’d landed us and used us for his purpose. We weren’t mean enough dogs to think of spoiling the cargo or piling the schooner; we just took our gruel, fixing to lay for him with our tongues when we got back, and as for the Chink, well. Buck said he’d skin that Chink if he had to bust up China Town single-handed to do it.
“He was talking like that and it was getting along for eight bells, noon, when the Kanaka look-out signals land, and there it was right ahead, but nothing to be seen only a white thumb-mark in the sky from the mirror blaze of a lagoon.
“Then the heads of cocoanut trees poked up all in a row, and I turns to Buck and we gripped hands.
“‘It’s a hundred and more miles out,’ said I, ‘but I reckon it’s not the island that’s out but me and my navigation; that old Chink was no liar. It’s the Island. Must be, for there’s nothing on the chart for five hundred miles all round here.’
“Well, we’ll see,” said Buck.
“We held on steady, and then the reef began to show, and coming along presently we could hear the boom of it. We couldn’t see a break in it, and getting up close we shifted our helm a bit and came running along the north side, the gulls chasing and shouting at us, the reef foam dashing away only a hundred yards to starboard, and the wind that was filling our sails bending the cocoanut trees.
“I felt like shouting. We could see the lagoon, flat as a looking-glass over beyond the reef that was racing by us; then we came on the break, and putting out a bit we came in close hauled with no tumble at the opening seeing it was slack water.
“It was a fairish big lagoon, maybe four miles by six or so, and since the Almighty put the world together you’d have said we were the first men into it. It had that look. Not a sign of a native house; nothing but gulls. It was fifty-fathom water at the break—made deep by the scouring of the tides; then it shoaled up to twenty and ten, and we dropped the hook in seven-fathom water close on to the northern beach. Not a sign of an oyster. The floor just there was like a coloured carpet with coral, and the water was so clear that every coloured fish that passed had a black fish going along with it—which was its shadow.
“We dropped the boat and pulled off, and we hadn’t got two cable lengths to the west of where the Greyhound was lying when we struck the beds, acres of them.
“I’ve seen the Sooloo fisheries and the Australian, but I reckon the Pearl Island oysters could have given them points as to size. Somewhere about six hundred pairs to the ton they ran, and that’s a big oyster.
“‘Well,’ said Buck, ‘here we are and here we stick. We’ve anchored on top of a fortune and if it takes ten years we’ll hive it.’ That was all very well saying, but we’d got the question of grub to consider, but we soon found we needn’t worry about that; there was fish and turtle and béche de mer and cocoanuts, bread-fruit on the south side and taro, to say nothing of oysters. Having fixed that matter, we set to work. Those Kanakas hadn’t signed on for diving after oysters, but stick a Kanaka in the water and it’s all he wants; besides, we gave them extra pay in the way of stick tobacco, axing open a lot of old Pat’s tobacco cases, sure of being able to pay him out of the pearl money; then we worked like grigs in vinegar, and at the end of the first week’s work we hadn’t found one pearl. The way we did was to put each day’s takings out on the beach in the sun; the sun opened them better than an oyster knife.
“‘Well, this is bright,’ says Buck one day as we were going over the heap. ‘Luck’s clean against us,’ he says, and no sooner had he spoke the words, a whopper of a pearl ’s big as a pistol bullet jumped into his fist out of an oyster he was handling. It wasn’t a big oyster neither. My, that pearl was a beauty; it turned the scale at forty grains I reckon, and it wasn’t the last.
“We were six to seven months on that job, and I never want to strike another pearl lagoon. Me and Slane had at last to do most of the diving, for the Kanakas got sick of it. We looked like Guy Fawkes. When we sailed into that lagoon we were spry young chaps clean-shaved and decently dressed; when it had done with us we were bearded men, men black with the sun and salt water and ragged as Billy be Dam. I tell you we were spectacles. Satan never fixed up such a factory as a pearl lagoon when you have to work it short-handed and on the secret. You can’t stop, not if you only get a pearl in a thousand oysters, you can’t stop. It’s always the one pearl more that does you. It’s like the gambling rooms. Till one day I says to Buck: ‘I’m done.’
“‘I was only waiting for you to say it,’ said Buck. ‘I’ve been done this last week only I wouldn’t give in.’
“We’d got together two hundred and thirty-two pearls and some seeds—the king of the lot was a roseleaf pink pearl; there were two golden pearls that were a perfect match pair, half a dozen blacks, a few yellow that weren’t no use, and the balance white. We’d been looking up prices before we started and got some tips from a man who was in the know, and we reckoned our haul was thirty or forty thousand dollars. You see it was virgin ground, and the things had time to grow to size without being disturbed.
“I ought to have told you the diving dress was no use. Pat had got it from some old junk shop or another, and the pump was as bad, but the water being shallow it didn’t matter much, though if the thing had been in order we’d have got the job through a couple of months earlier.
“We lit from that place never wanting to see an oyster again, and leaving tons of shell on the beach worth, maybe, five to six hundred dollars a ton. We didn’t want it. We laid our course for Malakā and raised it ten days later, a big brute of a copra island with Sanderson in pyjamas on the beach and a schooner loading up in the lagoon. He didn’t want Pat’s cargo, said it was four months overdue, and he had cleared the last of his copra and had enough trade to carry on with. We didn’t mind, seeing our contract was to call there out or back with no time limit specified, and we were mighty glad Pat had been done in the eye, seeing how he’d served us. There was nothing to do but cart the stuff back to ’Frisco, and dropping Malakā, we made a straight run of it, raising the Farallones in twenty-eight days and laying the old hooker off Tiburon without a spar lost or a scratch on her.
“I said to Buck: ‘What are you going to give that Chink? You promised him a suck of the orange, didn’t you?’
“‘I’m going to give him a thousand dollars,’ said Buck, ‘when I’ve cashed the pearls and settled with Pat. I’m a man of my word, and there’s no luck in breaking a promise.’
“I was with him there.
“We landed with the stuff in a handkerchief and made straight for Patrick O’Brien’s business office. We’d cleaned ourselves a bit, but we still looked pretty much scarecrows, but when we’d shown that handkerchief of pearls to the old man he didn’t bother about our looks.
“I told him how, through my bad navigation, we’d missed the island at first, and then struck it by chance.
“‘Well,’ says Pat, ‘you’re the only men in ’Frisco that’s ever got the better of a Chink so far as to get something out of him for nothing, for twenty dollars is nothing against that hatful of pearls. The schooner is yours, Buck, and from what I hear of the cargo you can dump it in the harbour or sell it for junk.’
“Then when we’d cleaned ourselves and got some decent clothes, he took us off to the Palatial and gave us a big dinner. Now that chap was the meanest guy in small things you could find in California, yet he’d lost a cargo and a schooner and instead of cutting up rough he seemed to enjoy it. Buck being his nephew, I suppose he was proud of being done by him and seeing him successful.
“The next day, having cashed in half the pearls. Buck says to me: ‘Come on,’ he says, ‘and we’ll settle up with father Abraham.’
“Off we starts and gets to the place, and there was the bird shop sure enough beside a Chow restaurant, but there was no father Abraham.
“A young Chink was in charge, and when Buck asks for Fong Yen he said there was no such person. Then he seemed to remember, and said that Fong had sold the shop and gone back to China.
“‘Why, that’s him inside there,’ said Buck, and makes a dive into the shop, but there was no one there. Fong must have done a bunk through a back door or something—anyhow he was gone.
“Then all of a sudden there comes up a big master mariner looking man along the street, drops anchor before the bird shop and calls out asking for Ming Lu. The young Chink came out and asks what he wants, saying there was no such person as Ming Lu.
“‘Say, brother,’ says Buck, jumping at the truth, ‘was Ming Lu, by any chance, an old gendarme in spectacles?’
“‘He was,’ says the crab, and then he spun his story. He’d been walking along Alta Street three months ago when he saw three Chinks at a corner, an old boob in spectacles and two young ones. As he came up with them they started quarrelling, pulling the old chap about and kicking him cruel, and Blake, that was the guy’s name, started in like a whole-souled American to save the antiquity from ruin.
“He helped Ming back to his bird shop, and the old chap near drowned him in gratitude, and gave him a chart of a pearl island his son, that had been murdered in a tong dust-up the month before, had discovered when a sailor in one of the Chinese bêche de mer boats, that had been wrecked, with all hands lost but his precious son.
“Blake gave him ten dollars to buy opium with, and being a schooner owner, lost three months hunting for that island which wasn’t there.
“It was the same island that had been wished on us—Buck pulled out his chart and they compared—exactly the same, spot of blood and all. The things must have been lithographed by the dozen and Lord knows how many mugs had fallen to the gratitude trap; which no one but a Chink could ever have invented, if you think over the inwards and outwards of it.
“Then Buck told out loud so that Fong, if he was listening, could hear, how we had fallen on a pearl island, by chance, and how, thinking it was bad navigation that had made us out in our reckonings, he was bringing a thousand dollars to Fong as a present out of the takings according to promise. Then he pulls out his roll and gives the thousand dollars to Blake as a make up. The young Chink ran in at the sight of this, and, as we walked off arm in arm for drinks, I heard sounds from the upper room of that bird shop as if Fong was holdin’ on to something and trying not to be sick.
“Then as we were having drinks the question came up in Buck’s head as to whether he was entitled to that schooner seeing that Fong had managed to get the better of him at the go off. He put it to Blake, and Blake, who was a great chap for backing horses when ashore, says: ‘Go off be damned,’ he says. ‘It’s the finish that matters. You did him on the post,’ he says—and we concluded to leave it at that.”
A CASE IN POINT
There is good fishing to be had round Sydney way, yellow-tail and schnapper and green backed sea bream; jew-fish and mullet and trevalli. You can fish at low tide in the pools or you can fish from a boat, beaching her for the night in one of the coves and camping out under the stars, with the scent of the gums mingling with the scent of the sea, and the song of the waves for lullaby.
Over Dead Man’s Cove and its beach of hard sand the cliff stands bluff and humped like a crouching lion, and there one night the year before last old Captain Brent and I were kicking our heels and smoking after supper and passing in review the day’s work and the tribes of the sea.
Brent was a keen fisherman, and there were few waters he did not know, and few fish he hadn’t taken one time or another. He had always travelled with his eyes open, and his natural history was first hand and his views fresh as originality itself. He said crabs could think, instancing certain hermit crabs that always chose protective-coloured shells, and that not only did sword-fish fight duels—I knew that, for I had seen it myself—but that there were tribal wars carried on in the sea, international struggles so to speak, between the nations of the fishes.
“If fish didn’t kill fish,” said the Captain, “the sea would be solid with mackerel inside two years, to say nothing of herring. Haven’t you ever thought of what keeps them down? It’s the Almighty, of course, but how does He work it? Lots of folk think He works it by making the fish eat the fish just because they are hungry. That’s one of His ways, but another is just war for war’s sake, or for the sake of the grouch one tribe keeps up against another. You see, it’s a bit unfortunate, seeing that if the herring once got above a certain number all the eating in the world wouldn’t stop them from turning the sea solid with herring, so the Almighty has fixed His killing machine with two blades, one that kills for the sake of food and the other for the sake of killing.
“It’s the same with the tribes of men, I reckon, only with them there’s only one blade left, since they don’t kill each other nowadays for the sake of food.
“There’s something in one tribe that makes for war against another tribe. You may boil them but you won’t get it out of them. I’ve seen it. You’d have seen it too if you’d traded among the Islands in the old days, selling Winchesters to the natives to prosecute their wars with, and I’ll give you a case in point.
“I’ve told you how me and Slane pulled off that pearling job, but I never told you what we did with the money. Most chaps would have bust it, we just stuck it in the bank and, after a run to the Yosemite, back we come to ’Frisco on the look out for more larks. We weren’t set on money for the sake of money so much as for the fun of getting it, for I tell you as a mortal truth there’s no hunting to beat the hunting of a dollar, more especial when you’ve got a herd of twenty or thirty thousand of them with their tails up and you after them. We’d had enough of pearling, we had no taste for blackbirding and we were turning copra over in our minds when, sitting having our luncheon one day in Martin’s restaurant, a slab-sided Yank, six foot and over and thin as a Jackstaff, comes along up to us.
“‘You’re Mr. Slane?’ says he.
“‘That’s me,’ says Buck.
“‘I’ve heard tell of you,’ says the chap, ‘and I’ve got a double-barrelled proposition to put before you. May I take a seat at your table? Scudder’s my name, and Martin will tell you I’m a straight man.’
“Down he sits. We’d finished feeding and so had he; the place was pretty empty and no one by to hear, and he begins.
“‘First barrel of the prop,’ he says, ‘is a dodge for killing fish. You know how they fish out in the Islands? Well, they do a good deal of spearin’ and hookin’ and sometimes they poison the fish pools with soap, but the king way is dynamite.’ He pulls a stick of something out of his pocket and goes on. ‘Here’s a stick of dynamite. You can fire it by electricity or you can shove a match on one end and light it and throw the durned thing into the water. It goes bang and a minute after every fish in that vicinity come to the surface stunned dead. That’s so, but the bother is the stuff goes off sometimes premature and the Kanakas are always losing hands and legs and things, which don’t make for its popularity. Being out there last year at Taleka Island I set my invention trap working to hit a device. I’ve always took notice that a man who fills a want fills his pockets, and a patent safety explosive fish killer is a want with a capital “W” right from ’Frisco to Guam. Well, here it is,’ he says, and out of his other pocket he takes the great-grandfather of a Mills bomb, same as the Allies have been pasting the Germans with. It wasn’t bigger than a tangerine orange and rough made, but it had all the essentials. You didn’t pull a pin out, it was just two caps of metal screwed together. The thing was dead as mutton when it was lightly screwed, but screwed tight it exposed its horns and was live as Satan. Just one turn of the wrist tightened it up and then if you flung it against anything, even water, it would go bang. It was a working model, and he showed us the whole thing and the cost of manufacture. His factory was a back bedroom in Polk Street, but he reckoned with a shed and a lathe and a couple of Chink artisans to help he could turn out fifty Scudder Fish Crackers—that’s the name he gave them—a day. He said the Bassingtons had a share in the patent and would give him the material for nothing so as to have the thing tried out. He wanted five hundred dollars to start his factory, then he wanted us to give him an order for two thousand crackers at fifty cents each.
“‘You don’t want no more cargo than that,’ said he, ‘once the Kanakas get the hang of this thing they’ll trade you their back teeth for them; you see it’s new. It’s like millinery. If I could invent a new sort of hat and start a store in Market Street every woman from here to St. Jo would be on it in a cluster. You could scrape them off with a spoon. Kanakas are just the same as women, for two thousand of them crackers you can fill up to your hatches in copra.
“‘Well, now,’ he goes on, ‘on top of that I’ll make you a present of three thousand dollars, if you’ll take the proposition up. Sru, the chief chap at Taleka, wants Winchester rifles and ammunition and he’s got the money in gold coin to pay for them. He wants six thousand dollars’ worth and I can get the lot from Bassingtons for three thousand dollars, boxed and laded on board your ship. The crackers won’t take no room for stowage and the guns and cartridges won’t eat half your cargo space, so you can take some cheap trade goods that’ll give you a deck cargo of turtle shell and bêche de mer. Get me? You make money on the crackers, you make money on the guns and you make a bit out of the shell. It’s a golden goose layin’ eggs at both ends and the middle, and I’ll give you a writing promising to pay the five hundred dollars for the factory in one year with twenty per cent, for the loan.’
“I could see Slane was sniffing at it so I didn’t interfere, and the upshot was we made an appointment with Scudder to meet us next day and take a boat out in the harbour to test a couple of his crackers. We did, and he was no liar, the things went off like guns and dead fish were still coming up when a police boat nailed us and rushed us ashore and we had to pay ten dollars fine for illegal behaviour. That’s what the Yanks called it—anyhow the dead fish settled the business and Slane took up the proposition and put his hand in his pocket and fetched out the money to start the factory and gave Scudder his order for two thousand crackers.
“Slane hadn’t disposed of the Greyhound. We ran her into dock and had the barnacles scraped off her, gave her some new spars and a new mainsail and finished up with a lick of paint. It took six weeks and by that time Scudder had finished his job and had the crackers ready boxed and all and the Bassington company were waiting to deliver the Winchesters and ammunition. We took the old hooker over to Long Wharf for the stowing and the stuff came down in boxes marked eggs and crockery ware.
“They were pretty sharp after gun-runners in those days, but Scudder fixed everything somehow so that none of the cases were opened. We got the cracker boxes on first and then stowed the guns and cartridges over that, and on top of the guns some trade goods, stick tobacco and rolls of print and such, six Chinks we took for a crew and a Kanaka by name of Taute who could speak the patter of most of the Islands, and off we started.
“Taleka is an outlier of the New Hebrides, a long run from ’Frisco, but we never bothered about time in those days. We never bothered about anything much. We hadn’t been out a week when I said one night to Slane, ‘Buck,’ said I, ‘s’pose one of those crackers took it into its head to go off, being screwed too tight?’ ‘If it did,’ said Buck, ‘the whole two thousand would go bang and the cartridges would follow soot; if one of them crackers fructified before its time next minute you’d be sitting on a cloud playing a harp, or helping stoke Gehenna, don’t make any mistake about that.’ We left it so. We never bothered about anything those days as long as the grub was up to time and not spoiled in the cooking.
“We touched at Honolulu and had a look round and then we let out, passing Howland and the Ellices, raising Taleka forty-five days out from ’Frisco.
“It’s a big brute of a high island and away to s’uth’ard of it you can see Mauriri, another big island forty-five or fifty miles away.
“There’s no reef round Taleka, but there are reefs enough to north and west and a big line of rock to s’uth’ard that doesn’t show in calm weather, only now and again when the swell gets too steep and then you’ll see an acre of foam show up all at once. Rotten coast, all but the east side, where a bay runs in between the cliffs and you get a beach of hard sand.
“We dropped anchor in twenty-five fathoms close to the beach. There were canoes on the beach, but not a sign of a native; the cliffs ran up to the sky either side, with the trees growing smaller and smaller, and out from near the top of the cliff to starboard a waterfall came dancing down like the tail of a white horse and that was all; there was no wind scarcely ever there and the water between the cliffs was like a black lake. I tell you that place was enough to give you the jim-jams, more especial when you knew that you were being watched all the time by hundreds of black devils ready to do you in.
“We fired a gun and the echoes blazed out like a big battle going on and then fizzled off among the hills where you’d think chaps were pot-shotting each other. Then the silence went on just as if it hadn’t been broken, and Slane, who’d got a pretty short temper when he was crossed, spat into the harbour and swore at Sru.
“Then he ordered up a case of guns and a box of ammunition, and he and me and Taute rowed ashore with them, beaching the boat and dumping the guns and ammunition on the sand.
“We took the guns out of the case and laid them out side by side same as if they’d been in a shop window, then we opened the ammunition box and exposed the cartridges.
“It was a sight no murder-loving Kanaka could stand and presently out from a valley a bit up beyond the anchorage comes a chap with the biggest belly I’ve ever seen on one man. He had slits in his ears and a tobacco pipe stuck through one of the slits, nothing on him but a gee string and eyes that looked like gimlet holes into hell. I never did see such a chap before or since. It was Sru himself, and he was followed by half a hundred of his tribe, every man armed with an old Snider or a spear, or sometimes both.
“I saw Taute shivering as he looked at Sru, then he bucked up and took heart, seeing that Sru wasn’t armed and was coming for guns, not fighting.
“Then the palaver began, the Kanakas squatting before the gun cases and Slane showing them the Winchesters whilst Taute did the talking. Scudder had been there all right the year before and had measured up Sru and his wants and his paying capacity to a T. He had the gold, brass-yellow Australian sovereigns and British sovereigns got from God knows where, but sovereigns right enough with Victoria’s head on them, for he showed us a fistful, and it was only a question of whether Sru would pay six thousand dollars for our cargo. He wanted to make it four, then he gave in, and we put back in the boat to have the stuff broken out of the hold.
“Knowing the sort of chap Sru was we ought to have made him bring the money on board before a single case was landed, but we were young to the trade and too straight to think another chap crooked, so we didn’t. We let the canoes come alongside and there we hung watching naked Kanakas all shiny with sweat handing overboard the boxes, six guns to a box, to say nothing of the cartridge cases.
“We put off with the last case and then we sat waiting on the beach for our money.
“The Kanakas with the last of the cases turned up into the valley, and when they were gone you couldn’t hear a sound in that place but the noise of the waterfall up among the trees and now and then the sea moving on the beach.
“The water came into that bay as I’ve never seen it come anywhere else. It would be a flat calm, and then, for no reason at all, it would heave up and sigh on the sand and fall quiet again like the bosom of a pious woman in a church.
“There we sat waiting for our money and watching the Greyhound as she swung to her moorings with a Chink fishing over the rail.
“‘What do you think of Sru,’ says Buck at last.
“‘Well, I don’t think he’s a beauty,’ I says, and then talk fizzled out and there we sat waiting for our money and chucking stones in the water.
“I’ve told you there were canoes on the beach when we came in, but after the guns had been brought ashore the canoes had been taken round the bend of the bay, and as we sat there waiting for our money there was no one on that flat beach but our two selves and the Chink who’d helped us to row ashore, the boat was beached close to us and only waiting to be shoved off.
“I says to Buck, ‘Say, Buck,’ I says, ‘suppose old Johnny Sru takes it into his woolly head to stick to the dollars as well as the guns, what are you going to do then?’
“‘Don’t be supposing things,’ says Buck. ‘Sru’s no beauty, maybe, but he’s a gentleman. All savages are gentlemen if you treat them square.’
“‘Where did you get that dope from?’ I asks him.
“‘Oh,’ he says, ‘I don’t know,’ he says, ‘one place or another, but mainly from books.’
“‘Well,’ I says, ‘I’m not much given to book reading, but I hope you’re right, anyway.’
“No sooner were the words out of my mouth than the Chink by the boat gives a yell. I looked up and saw a big rock skipping down hill to meet us. It wasn’t as big as a church, but it seemed to me, looking up, there was many a Methodist chapel smaller; shows you how the eyes magnify things when a chap’s frightened, for it wasn’t more than ten ton all told judging by its size when it hit the target.
“It missed us by six foot and hit the Chink. We couldn’t get him out from under it seeing he was flattened as flat as a sheet of paper and we hadn’t more than got the boat pushed off when down came another and hit the place where we’d been sitting waiting for our money and talking of all savages being gentlemen if you treated them square.
“The chaps above have got the range, but they weren’t wasting ammunition, for as soon as we lit the firing ceased.
“I never did see a chap in a bigger temper than Buck. He went white, and when an Irishman goes white, look out for what’s coming.
“We got aboard and got the boat in, and then we took our seats on the hatch combing and had Taute along for a council of war.
“Taute had chummed up with Sru’s men and a couple of the Marys whilst the unloading was going on, and he’d found out that Sru wanted the guns for an attack on Mauriri, the big island to the s’uth’ard.
“Tiaki was the chief man on Mauriri, and he and Sru had been at it for years, the two islands hitting each other whenever they could, sinking fishing canoes and so on, but never a big battle. They were too evenly matched and knew it. But those Winchesters would make all the difference, so Taute said and we didn’t doubt him.
“Buck, when he’d sucked this in, sits biting his nails. The sun had set by now and the stars were thick overhead and it came to the question of getting out against the breeze and tide or sticking till the morning when the land wind would give us a lift. Taute gave it as his opinion we’d be safe enough for the night. Sru didn’t want our ship, and the Kanakas had got it into their thick heads that when a ship was raided and the crew murdered in those parts, somehow or another, a British cruiser would turn up maybe months later and make trouble, which was the truth. So we let the anchor lie in the mud and we sat down to supper that night as calm as if we weren’t sitting on a hive of hornets that any minute might let out with their stings.
“Middle of supper, Buck hits the table a welt with his fist.
“‘I’ve got the blighter,’ says he.
“‘Who?’ says I.
“‘Sru,’ says he. ‘I’ve got him by the short hairs and if I don’t make him squeal, my name’s not Buck Slane.’
“I didn’t see his meaning, and said so, telling him straight out that we’d better take our gruel and let Sru alone, that we’d been fools to let him have the stuff without the cash brought on to the beach and that we’d only get broken heads by trying to fight him.
“‘I ain’t going to fight him,’ says Buck.
“‘Who is, then?’ says I.
“‘Tiaki,’ says Buck.
“‘That chap over at Mauriri?’ I questions.
“‘The same,’ says him.
“‘But look here,’ I says, ‘how in the nation are you going to ginger him up to fight Sru seeing that he’s been holding off for years and seeing that Sru has got those Winchesters? What would he fight him with?’
“‘Fish crackers,’ says Buck.
“That hit me on the head like an apple. I’d got the durned things so connected with fish in my mind that I’d clean forgot to think that they could be used against humans, more especial by Kanakas used to throwing spears and things all their lives. Then Buck opens up his plan which was simple enough. It would take Tiaki’s men eight or ten hours paddling in their canoes to reach Taleka. If they started at four o’clock in the afternoon they’d make the island by two next morning, then, crawling up that valley they could fall on Sru’s village and bomb it to pieces before daybreak. Bloodthirsty, wasn’t it? But Buck was out for blood, the Irish was raised in him and he didn’t care a cent what happened or what he paid so long as Sru got his gruel.
“‘But look here,’ I said, ‘it’s all very well talking, but Winchesters are Winchesters. Do you propose to start Tiaki on this stunt and not tell him what he’s up against?’
“‘Oh, Lord, no,’ says Buck. ‘Hope I’m a gentleman—besides, that’s what will make him fight. When he knows Sru has got the arms to attack him, he’ll do the attacking first, unless he’s a fool.’
“‘All right,’ says I, and we left it at that.
“We slept on deck that night for fear of an attack, me keeping first watch, but nothing came, and just at daybreak we put out, towing her till we caught the land wind and then cracking on all sail for Mauriri.
“We were making ten knots and all that morning Mauriri bloomed up against us, getting bigger and bigger till the foam on the big half-moon reef that lies to northward showed up. There’s a break in the middle of that reef and good anchorage once you’re through, and we pushed right in, dropping our anchor in twenty-fathom water close to the beach.
“Mauriri is a lot more open-faced than Taleka, and the chief village is close to the beach, not hid up a valley.
“It was a white beach, but near black with Kanakas when we dropped the anchor, and there were canoe houses, but not a canoe put off. The crowd ashore didn’t look unfriendly, but they seemed standing on one foot, so to speak, not knowing how to take us or whether we meant fighting or trade.
“Buck ordered the boat to be lowered and whilst the Chinks were getting it over I got him by the arm and took him to the after rail and tried to punch sense into his head.
“‘Look here,’ I says, ‘what’s the good of revenge? it’s unchristianlike and it’s not business, anyway. Forget Sru and trade those crackers for copra, if they’ve got any here, if they haven’t, put out along for some other island.’
“‘He killed my Chink’ says Buck. ‘Blow copra, I want his blood, and I’m going to have it, if it costs me my last nickel.’
“‘All right, all right,’ I says, ‘come along,’ and off we put with Taute to do the talking and a box of stick tobacco to help Tiaki swallow the crackers.
“It was easy to pick him out from the crowd on the beach, he was over six foot, with the half of an old willow pattern plate on his chest dangling from a necklace of sharks’ teeth, he had an underlip like an apron, one eye gone in some gouging match or another, and he stood two foot in front of the rest as if he wasn’t ashamed of himself.
“Taute started the talk whilst Buck opened the tobacco case, and as I watched Tiaki’s face as the yarn went on, I thought to myself, God help Sru.
“Then, when the palaver was over, Taute showed him one of the crackers we’d brought with us and how it worked, explaining we’d got a cargo of them and how he could do Sru in.
“There was a dog walking on the beach twenty yards off, and Tiaki cocking his eye at it took aim and let fly with the cracker, and there wasn’t any dog left after the thing had burst, only a hole in the sand.
“You could have heard them shouting at Taleka. Those chaps ran about clean bughouse, and Buck, he stood by mighty pleased with himself till all of a sudden Tiaki quiets them and gives an order and the crowd broke and made a run for the canoe houses.
“‘What’s up now?’ says Buck. He wasn’t long waiting to know. Four big war canoes pushed out full of men, and making straight for the Greyhound, and Taute, who was talking to Tiaki turns and tells us we were prisoners. Tiaki, for all his underlip, was no fool, and when Taute had done translating what he had to say to us his meaning leapt up at us like luminous paint.
“You see Tiaki had always been used to look on traders as hard bargainers who’d ask a tooth for a tenpenny nail, and here we were, us two, blowing in and offering him a cargo of ammunition for nothing, so long as he’d go and bomb Sru with it. It seemed too good to be true, and he suspected a trap. Said so, right out. He was going to hold us till the business was over and everything turned out satisfactory.
“I had to swallow twice to keep that news down. A moment before we’d been free men, and there we were now like rats in a barrel, but there was no use kicking, so we sat down on the sand and watched the canoe men swarming over the Greyhound and breaking out the cargo. They didn’t touch the Chinks nor loot the ship, just went for the cracker cases, bringing them off load after load and dumping them on the sand.
“Tiaki has a case opened and takes out a cracker; he’d tumbled to the mechanism, and there he stood with the thing in his hand explaining it to the population, talking away and flinging out his arms towards Taleka, evidently gingering them up for the attack on Sru. Then he gives an order sharp as the crack of a whip, and all the Marys and children and old chaps scattered off back to the village, and over a hundred of the fighting men took their seats on the beach in a big circle, whilst crackers were handed round to them and they examined the hang of the things, each man for himself.
“They were a fine lot, but differently coloured, some as dark as bar-chocolate and some the colour of coffee with milk in it, and as they sat there the women and children and old men came down from the village bringing bundles of mat baskets with them, and down they squatted by the edge of the trees going over the baskets and mending them and putting them in order.
“‘What are they up to?’ says Buck.
“‘Can’t you see?’ says I. ‘They’re going to carry the crackers in those baskets. They mean business right enough. Lord! Buck,’ I says, ‘I wish we were out of this; look at the fix we’re in. If them chaps are beaten by Sru, we’ll be done in as sure as paint—makes me sick, sitting here, and there’s our boat right before us. S’pose we make a dash right now, shove her off and get on board——’
“‘Not a bit of use,’ says Buck. ‘They’d let after us in the canoes before we’d pushed off—we’ve just got to stick and see it out. I’m sorry,’ he says; ‘it’s my fault; you were right, and if I ever get out of this I’ll steer clear of mixing up in other folks’ quarrels. I wouldn’t have done it only for the Chink.’
“‘Oh, it don’t matter,’ I says; ‘we’re in it and there’s no use in kicking.’
“I called Taute, who was standing watching the basket work and jabbering with Tiaki, and asked him for news and what he thought they were going to do with us in case things went wrong. He went to Tiaki and had a jabber, and came back to us looking pretty grey about the gills.
“Tiaki was going to attack Sru right away, starting that night and reaching Taleka next morning early; with the current the big war canoes would do the journey in seven hours. He couldn’t make a night attack because of the difficulty of getting in, but he reckoned to reach the bay just at daybreak. Then came the news that we were to go with them and lead the attack. Tiaki said as we had sold Sru the guns to attack Tiaki, it was only fair that we should lead Tiaki’s men against the guns, besides, he wanted to make sure we weren’t leading him into a trap; besides, he had often noticed white men feared nothing and were splendid fighters. He also said if we failed him facing the guns of Sru we’d have fish crackers flung at our backs.
“You see the way that durn cargo served us; the guns in front of us, the crackers at our back—we couldn’t say anything—couldn’t do anything but curse Scudder and the day we met him, and sit there watching the preparations. Women were bringing down provisions for the canoes, and the baskets were ready and being distributed. They weren’t so much baskets as bags such as the natives use for carting every sort of thing in; each fighting man had one, and then the crackers were handed round about twenty to a man. They’d place them between their legs in the canoes as they paddled; every man had a spear as well, and as they stood there getting on for sundown, each man with his basket of bombs and a spear, I’d have been proud to lead them only I was so frightened.
“Now the funniest thing happened.
“All that crowd of fighting men full up of pride and devilment began shouting and chanting a war song. That was all right as far as it went, but after it was over a chocolate-coloured son of a gun began making a speech, shouting and pointing towards Taleka as if to say what he wouldn’t do to Sru.
“Then a coffee-coloured devil cut in and seemed to carry on the argument.
“Taute said the chocolate men and the coffee grinders were two different races, though joined in the one tribe, and they were arguing which was the bravest.
“Other chaps cut in, and then all of a sudden they began running about, and before you could say ‘knife’ they split, the chocolate men on one side, the coffee crowd on the other, with Tiaki running about half bughouse, trying to keep order, and the row growing bigger all the time till suddenly a coffee man remembered his bag of bombs and fetches out a cracker, gives it a twist, and lets fly at the chocolate man opposite him, sending his head to glory.
“Did you ever see schoolboys snowballing each other? All over the sands they were, one chap chasing another, stooping to pick crackers from their bags and screw them tight and then letting fly, heads and arms and legs being blown away—not that we stopped to watch; we were running for the boat. Next moment we had her off, and we didn’t wait to pick up the anchor when we got aboard; we dropped the chain and shoved, leaving Sru to come over to shovel up the remains, and pleased to think that the Winchesters he’d diddled out of us wouldn’t be much use to him since the crackers had spoiled his target.
“I expect there wasn’t a dozen fighting men on that island left whole and sound, but that’s neither here or there. I was just telling you it as a case in point. There’s something in one tribe that makes for war against another tribe even if they’ve been living happily together for years. It shows clearer in savages than civilised folk, but it’s in both and it’s got to be reckoned with by anyone who wants to do away with war for good and all.”
He tapped his pipe out, and we sat watching the Pacific coming creaming in on the sands and round the rocks, the Pacific, that storm centre or Lake of Peace for the whole world, according to the way men may arrange their tribal differences and call upon intellect to balance instinct.
THE OTHER ONE
Sydney is one of the finest towns in the world and it has the finest harbour, unless you call San Francisco Bay a harbour, it has the most hospitable people and a gaiety and push all its own, also, in the matter of temperature, when it chooses it can beat any other town except maybe Calcutta.
“A hot shop,” said Brent. He was seated at a bar adorned with coloured bottles, and a girl with peroxide of hydrogen tinted hair had just handed him a lemon squash with a hummock of ice in it.
“You aren’t looking yourself, Captain,” said the girl.
“No, my dear, I aren’t,” replied Brent, “not if I look as I feel.” He relapsed into gloom and I offered him a cigarette which he refused.
“I’m going to a funeral,” he explained.
“Sorry,” said I. “Not a near relation, I hope?”
“Well, it might be a relation, by the way I feel, but I’ve none. When a man gets to my age he leaves a lot of things astern.” He sighed, finished the last half of his drink in one mighty gulp, wiped his mouth and got off his chair.
“Walk down with me a bit of the way,” said he.
We left the bar and entered the blaze of the street. It was eleven o’clock in the morning.
“It ought to be raining,” said the Captain as we wended our way along King Street towards the wharves. “Happy is the corpse that the rain rains on, is the old saying, and she’s a corpse if ever there was one, but rain or shine, if there’s happiness for such things as corpses, she’s happy—she’s done her duty.”
“What did she die of?” I asked, by way of making conversation.
“Old age,” replied Brent. He had a black tie on, but his garb was otherwise unchanged, his mourning was chiefly expressed by his voice and manner, and as we drew closer to the whiff of the harbour and the scent of shipping he took off his panama and mopped his bald head now and then with a huge red handkerchief.
That handkerchief was always the signal of worry or perplexity with Brent, and now, right on the wharves and feeling for his state of mind, I halted to say good-bye.
“Wouldn’t you care to see her?” he asked.
“No thanks,” I replied. “I ought to meet a man at twelve and it’s after eleven now—and——”
“He’ll wait,” replied the Captain. “It’s only a step from here and she’s worth seeing. Kim on.”
He took me by the arm and led me along, reluctantly enough, towards some mean-looking buildings, the relics of old days; under the bowsprit of a full rigged ship, over hawsers, and then on to a decayed slip of a wharf beside which an old schooner lay moored.
“That’s her,” said Brent.
On her counter in letters almost vanished stood the word Greyhound.
“The Greyhound,” said I, “is this the old schooner you and Slane owned?”
“The same,” said Brent. “She’s to be towed to the breakers’ yard eight bells—noon, they gave me word so that I might have a last look at her.”
So this was the funeral he was to attend. He mopped his face with the red handkerchief, contemplated the deck beneath him, heaved a sigh and then, “Come down,” said he. “I’ve told Jimmy Scott to leave me something in the cabin.”
He dropped on to the deck and I followed him. There was no watchman to guard the corpse. I looked at the standing rigging all gone to ruin and the sticks that had survived many a gale, the grimy decks that once had been white, then I dropped down to the cabin after Brent.
The ports were open and water shimmers from the harbour water danced on the maple panelling, the upholstery had been eaten by rats or roaches and a faint smell filled the place like the ghost of the odour of corruption, but there was a bottle of whisky on the table, a couple of glasses and a syphon.
“If I hadn’t met you, I’d ’a brought someone else,” said Brent, taking his seat before the funeral refreshments, “but there’s not many I’d have sooner had than you to give her a send off. You remember I told you, Buck had her from Pat O’Brien who didn’t know her qualities, no one did in those days; why, a chap by name of Gadgett come aboard first day we had her and said she ought to be condemned, said she wasn’t seaworthy and that’s many years ago.” He took the cork from the bottle and poured “Many years ago and now I’m having my last drink and smoke here where Buck and me have often sat, and him in the cemetery. Well, here’s to you, Buck—and here’s to her.” We drank and lit up.
“Well, she’s had her day,” said I, trying to say something cheerful. “It’s like a wife that has done her duty——”
The Captain snorted.
“Wives,” said he, “a ship’s all the wife I’ve ever had and I don’t want no other, it’s all the wife a sailor-man wants and if she’s decently found and run, she never lets him down. I told that to Buck once. I told him the Greyhound was his lawful wife and he’d come a mucker if he took another. He wouldn’t believe me, but he found it out. You’ve never seen him. He died only four years ago and he hadn’t lost a tooth, he hadn’t got a grey hair on his head, six foot he stood and he’d only to look at a girl and she’d follow him, but he wasn’t given that way after his marriage.”
“Oh, he got married, did he?” said I. “I always fancied from what you told me of him that he was a single man.—Did she die?”
“I expect she’s dead by this,” said the Captain. “No knowing, but if she ain’t she ought to be. We fell in with her, me and Slane, the year after that dust up with Sru I told you of. We’d lost money on that job, but we’d pulled up over a deal in silver that had come our way through Pat O’Brien and Buck had thirty thousand dollars in the Bank of California, and I’d got near ten in my pocket. I didn’t trust banks. For all that money we lived quiet, not being given to drink, and we were fitting the Greyhound out for a new job, when one night at a sociable we met in with Mrs. Slade. That was the name she gave herself, a fine, fresh-faced young woman, not thirty, with eyes like Cape mulberries, they had that red look in the black of them, and a laundry of her own they said was bringing in five hundred a week profit. She harpooned Buck. Clean through the gizzard. You’ve seen a chicken running about with a woman after it till she catches it and wrings its neck, that was Buck. He was no more good after she’d got the irons into him.
“One night I had it out with him. I said: ‘The Lord Almighty has given you a ship to tend and take care of, she’s been true to you and brought you in the dollars, and look at the way you’re usin’ her, why, we ought to have had her out of dock by this and the cargo half on board her, she over there at Oakland and you foolandering after a widow woman.’
“‘She’s a girl,’ says he.
“‘Well, woman or girl don’t matter,’ I says, ‘you ain’t the age for marrying, nor the sort of chap to make good at the game.’ We went at it hammer and tongs, me trying to pump sense into him like a chap trying to pump up a burst bicycle tyre, but at last, somehow or another, I began to get the better of the business and bring him to reason and by two in the morning I’d brought him to own he was a damn fool and marriage a mug’s game. I went to bed happy, and next day he turned up at noon with a flower in his coat and looking as if he’d gone queer in his head.
“What’s the matter with you?” I says.
“‘I’ve just been married,’ says he.
“That’s the sort of chap a woman had made of him. I’ve heard it said a woman is the making of a chap, it’s true, if she’s a good woman she’ll make a man of a fool, and if she’s bad she’ll make a fool of any man, seems to me. Jinny Slade was bad. I’ve got instincts about things and maybe that’s what made me so down on the business from the first—them mulberry eyes of hers rose my bristles, somehow or another, but now she’d fixed him there was no use talking.
“They took up housekeeping in Francis Street over the laundry, and not wishing to mix up in their hymeneal bliss, I didn’t see much of Buck for a month or more. The Greyhound was out of dock and I brought her over to her moorings at Tiburon, and I’d sit here just as I’m sitting now, time and again, thinking of old times and the fool Buck was making of himself, for we’d lost the cargo a trader had promised us and our business was going to smash.
“One day I was leaning on the rail fishing with a hand line for want of something better to do when a guy comes along in a boat—Newall was his name—he’d known us for a couple of years, casual, and he’d just put off from an Oregon boat that lay anchored a bit out.
“‘How’s Buck?’ says he, resting on his oars.
“‘Buck’s married,’ I says. ‘Married this month and more.’
“‘Well, I wish him luck,’ says Newall, ‘and who’s the lady?’”
I tells him.
“‘Holy Mike,’ he says. ‘Jinny Slade—what made him do it?’
“I told him I didn’t know unless it was the devil, and then I asked what he knew about the party.
“‘Well,’ says Newall, ‘I’m a cautious man and I’m not going to lay myself open to no law court actions for deffination of character. I’m not going to say nothing about the woman except that she oughta been flung into the bay two years ago with a sinker tied to her middle, and then you wouldn’t have saved her first husband which she poisoned as sure as my name’s Dan Newall, no, nor the men she ruined in that gambling joint she run in Caird Street with a loaded r’lette wheel that’d stay put wherever you wanted by the pressin’ of a button under the table, run by a Chink it was with her money.
“‘In with the crimps she was, and if I had a dollar for every sailor-man she’s helped to shanghai I’d buy a fishin’ boat and make my fortune out of catchin’ the crabs that are feedin’ on the corpses of the men that’s drowned themselves because of her.
“‘Laundry,’ he says, ‘a laundry s’big as from here to Porte Costa, with every Chink in California workin’ overtime for a month wouldn’t wash the edges of her repitation—and Buck’s married her; strewth, but he’s got himself up to the eyes. What sort of blinkers were you wearin’ to let him do it?’
“‘I don’t know,’ I says, ‘alligator hide I should think was the sort he was wearing, anyhow. Question is what am I to do now?’
“‘Take a gun and shoot him,’ says Newall, ‘if you want to be kind to him.—Has she got any money out of him?’
“‘I don’t know,’ I says.
“‘Been married to him a month,’ he goes on. ‘She’ll have every jitney by this—well, if you’re set on trying to do somethin’ for him, get the last of his money from him if he’s got any and hide it in a hole for him before she kicks him out plucked naked.’”
Off he rowed, and pulling up my line I left the Greyhound to the Kanaka watchman and took the ferry over to ’Frisco.
The laundry was banging away, the Chinks all hard at work, Mrs. Slade wasn’t home, over at St. Jo for the day, so the forewoman said, but Buck was in and upstairs, and up I went.
They’d got a fine sitting-room on the first floor with plush-covered chairs and brand new old-fashioned looking furniture and a bowl of goldfish in the window and pictures in big gold frames on the walls.
Buck was sitting in an easy chair reading a paper and smoking a cigar.
“Hullo,” he says, “here’s a coincidence, for I was just coming over to Tiburon to see you.”
“Oh, were you?” says I. “Wits jump sometimes and here I am on the same job. How’s the world using you, Buck?”
I tried to be as light-hearted as I could, but it was hard work. Buck had gone off in looks, and it was plain to see things weren’t going easy with him, you can always tell when a chap has something on his mind, and whilst he was getting out drinks I sat putting my thoughts together and only waiting to begin. I’d fixed to do a big grab, and get ten thousand dollars out of him as a loan to hide away for him against the time he got the kick out, plucked naked, as Newall had said.
He pours the whisky.
“Buck,” I says, taking the glass. “I’ve come to ask a favour of you. I want a loan.”
“How much?” asks Buck.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve ten thousand dollars of my own, as you know, and I’ve been offered a big opportunity of making a hundred thousand. Safe as houses. I want ten thousand to put with mine, I wouldn’t ask you to risk yours if I wasn’t risking mine.”
“What’s the spec.?” he asks.
“Can’t tell you that,” I said—“I’m under promise, but you know me and I give you my word of honour your money is as safe as if it was in your pocket—safer.”
“Well, I’d do it if I could,” he says, “you know me and that I’m not lying when I speak, but I can’t, haven’t got it.”
“But, Buck,” I says, “why, only a month ago you had thirty thousand dollars in the bank.”
Buck nods and goes on. “I haven’t got it to put my hand on,” he says. “My wife is keeping it for me. She says what with those New York banks going bust last spring and one thing and another, banks aren’t safe and she wants to invest it, she’s over at St. Jo to-day looking at some property.”
“Where’s she got the money?” I asks.
“In that safe,” says he.
Sure enough there was a big iron safe in the corner of the room half hid by a screen.
Seeing how the land lay, I said no more, and he changed the subject, going back to what he was saying when I first came in, how that he had been coming to see me that afternoon about a matter of business.
He wouldn’t say what the business was, but he wanted my help and he wanted it that night. He also wanted the boat of the Greyhound brought over to Long Wharf.
“Just bring her over yourself,” said he. “No, we don’t want help, just you and me will manage it, and bring the mast and sail and some grub, never mind what I want her for, I’ll tell you later, it’s a paying business, as you’ll find.”
With that I took my leave of him and hiked off back to Tiburon, for the day was getting on and I had none too much time to get things together.
I was bothered and that’s the truth; Buck had gone off, wasn’t the same chap, and by his manner when he asked me to meet him with the boat, I knew it wasn’t pleasure sailing he was after. I near scratched the top off my head thinking what he could be wanting with that boat, but it was beyond me and I gave it up. Taute was the name of the Kanaka, same chap we had with us when we did that gun-running job down at Taleka, and when I got back to the Greyhound I set Taute to work, getting some grub together and a new spar for a mast as the old one was sprung. Then, getting along for evening, I rowed over to Long Wharf. Long Wharf was pretty busy just then, what with wheat ships cleaning up before towing to Berkley for cargo and Oregon timber ships and such. There was a schooner lying there belonging to a chap I knew, so I just tied up to her channel-plates and crossed over on to the wharf where I sits on a bollard kicking my heels and waiting for Buck.
Along he comes just on dark, and without a word he follows me across the deck of the schooner into the boat.
Tell you I felt queer. We’d sailed pretty close to the wind together me and him, gun-running and what not, but this job seemed different, sort of back-door business with the harbour police or the Fish Patrol waiting to lay for us if we hitched up on it anywhere. I’d been used to blue water doings and big things and it got my goat to feel we were after something small and shady. It wasn’t small by any means, but, anyhow, that’s how I felt. But I said nothing, taking the oars and Buck taking his place in the stern sheets. Then we pushed off, Buck steering and making as if he was layin’ a course for Oakland. A few cable lengths out we took the wind and put up the mast, and, Buck taking the sheet, off we set still laying as if we were bound for Oakland. I’d sooner be out anywhere than in the lower bay after dark, what between them dam screeching ferry boats and the motor launches and such. Every monkey in ’Frisco with brass enough seems to have some sort or another of a launch or yacht and to spend his natural trying to run folks down. We were near cut into twice, seeing we had no light, but after a while, getting off the main track and Buck shifting his helm, we got along better.
He was steering now laying straight for Angel Island. We passed Racoon Straits and kept on, the breeze freshening hard and the boat laying over to it. The sky was clear and a big moon was coming over the hills. Wonderful fine the bay is a night like that, with all the lights round showing yellow against the moon and ’Frisco showing up against Oakland.
However, we weren’t out to admire the view and we held on, at least Buck did, till we were near level, as far as I could make out, with Reeds and aiming for Red Rock, the wind holding well. We passed a Stockton boat and an old brig coming down from Benicia or somewhere up there. Then away ahead and coming along square as a haystack I sighted a Chinese junk. Buck let go the sheet and, lighting a lantern he’d brought with us, ran it up.
“What are you doing that for?” I asked him.
“Show you in a minute,” says Buck. “Give us the boat-hook.”
I handed it along and he told me to have the oars handy and then we sat whilst the junk came along at a six-knot clip, boosting the water and the great eyes in the bow of her showing in the moonlight as if they were staring at us, but not a soul to be seen or a light on deck.
She snored along to starboard of us not more than ten yards away, black as thunder against the moon, and she was showing us her stern when something went splash over her side, followed by something else as if two chaps had gone a dive, one after the other.
On top of that and almost at once a Holmes light was thrown over and went floating along, blazing and smoking and showing a man’s head squatting beside it.
“Man overboard,” I says.
“Row,” says Buck.
I turned my head as I rowed and saw the junk going along as if nothing had happened, and then I saw the thing in the water wasn’t a man’s head but a buoy. We closed with the buoy and Buck grabs it with the boat-hook and brings it on board. It had a rope tied to it and he hauls it in, hand over hand, till up came a bundle done round with sacking. He hooks it over the gunnel and into the boat.
“That’s done,” said he.
“It is,” said I.
I didn’t say a word more. We got the sail on her and put her on the starboard tack, heading straight for Angel Island.
Then we shoved through Racoon Straits. It was getting along for morning now and I felt stiff and beat, with no heart in me or tongue to tell Buck what I was thinking of him for dragging me into a business like this, only praying we might get out of it without being overhauled.
We had Tiburon lights to starboard now and a bit to port the riding light of the old Greyhound, when, all of a sudden, we see a light running along towards us and heard the noise of a propeller like a sewing machine in a hurry.
“Police boat,” says Buck.
My heart rose up and got jammed in my throat, and I hadn’t more than swallowed it down when they were alongside of us, and there was Buck sitting in the stern sheets with the bundle under his legs, and a chap in the police boat playing a lantern on him.
Then the chap laughed.
“Oh, it’s only you, Buck,” says he. “What are you out for this time of night?”
“Smuggling opium,” says Buck.
The chap laughed. He was Dennis, well known to us both, and he shut his lantern and gave us the news that he was after some Chink smugglers who had their quarters at Valego and, fearing their shop was to be raided, were due to run some stuff into Tiburon that night according to his information.
“Well, we’ve just come down from San Quenton,” says Buck, “and I didn’t sight anything, only a big junk that passed us, making as if she was going to Oakland—Good luck to you.”
Off they went and five minutes after we were tying up to the Greyhound.
We got the stuff on board, right down here where we are sitting now, and he undoes the sacking and there stood six cans of Canton opium, worth Lord knows what a can.
I got the whisky out and had a big drink before I could get my hind legs under me to go for him.
“Well,” I said, “this is a nice night’s work. S’pose Dennis hadn’t been in that police boat? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Don’t you see you’ve been trading on your good name, for if Dennis hadn’t believed in you, we’d both be in quad now with the shackles on us—And look what you’ve done to the Greyhound.”
“What have I done to her?” he fires.
“Done to her,” I says. “Why, you’ve made her disrespectable, that’s what you’ve done to her.”
“Lord, is this the first shady job she’s been in?” says he. “Why, look at those guns we run—what’s the difference?”
“Guns aren’t dope,” I says, “and whites aren’t Chinks. You’ve been hand in fist with Chinks over this, but there’s no use talking. It’s done.”
I knew it was the wife at the back of him. That was the cause of it all, so I didn’t rub it in any more. I remembered Newall’s words about her and the men she’d done in, and I saw as plain as paint that laundry of hers was only a blind for the Lord knows what. I just had another drink, and then I asked him what he was going to do with the stuff now he had it on board. He said he was going to stick it in the lazarette for a few days till things were quiet and then he’d get it ashore, can by can, and he’d do it all himself and not ask me to help him.
Then we got the stuff into the lazarette and had a snooze, and somewhere about noon next day he goes ashore, leaving me on board.
I couldn’t eat nor sit still, couldn’t do anything but smoke and walk the deck. I reckon when a man’s in trouble there’s nothing better than tobacco, it gives him better advice than all the friends in the world.
There I was with that stuff in the lazarette and who knew what moment some gink or another would give the show away and the police would be aboard. I wasn’t thinking of myself so much as Buck, and after him I was thinking of his wife and wishing I had her aboard to drown her.
But worry as much as I liked, I couldn’t see a way out; the only way was to break him off from her and get him away, for this was only the beginning of things and I knew it would end in perdition for him. She’d managed to get some power over him with those mulberry eyes of hers, and how to loose it was beyond me.
I slept aboard that night and somewhere getting along for morning, I sat up in my bunk with a plan full made in my head. I must have been thinking it out in my sleep, or maybe it was the Almighty put it into my mind, but it was a peach. Question was, could I work it?
First thing I did was to make a dive for the lazarette and get those opium tins out; getting them on deck I dumped them one by one, and every splash I said to myself: “There goes a bit of that damn woman.” It was just before sun up and there was nobody to see.
“Now,” I says to myself, “the old Greyhound’s a clean ship again and Buck will be a clean man before dark if I have to break the laundry up and her on top of it.”
Getting on for breakfast time I sent Taute ashore for some things and did the cooking myself, then, towards noon, I rowed ashore and took the ferry for ’Frisco.
I was as full of nerves as a barber’s cat. It wasn’t what I was going to do that rattled me, but the knowing that if I didn’t pull it off, Buck would be ruined for life.
When I got to the laundry I couldn’t go in. I walked up and down the street saying to myself: “Bill, you’ve gotta do it; no use hanging in irons, you’ve got old Buck to think of. Make yourself think what you’re going to say is true, now or never, in you go, give her the harpoon.”
In I goes. The head woman said they were upstairs, and up I went.
They’d finished their dinner and Buck was smoking a cigar, the woman was still at the table, peeling an apple.
“Buck,” I says, “it’s up, the police are after you. I’ve run all the way to tell you. Dennis has given me word and you’ve still time to save yourself if you’re quick.”
The woman gives a squeal and flings the apple on the table.
“Great Scott!” says Buck.
Then I turns on his wife and gives her the length of my tongue for leading him into the business, and she ups and gives me the lie, saying she had nothing to do with it, winking at him to back her, which the fool did, but so half-hearted you could see he wasn’t telling the truth.
“Well,” I said, “it doesn’t matter, the question is now to get him out of ’Frisco. Dennis has given me three hours to get the Greyhound out with him on board her and save him from the penitentiary. Has he any money?”
“I’ve got his money,” says she. “Buck, stir yourself,” she says. “I’ll pack a bag for you and here’s the notes you give me to keep.” She goes to the safe and unlocks it and takes out a bundle done up in brown paper, and he stuffs it in his pocket, and she packs his bag and off I drags him.
Out in the street I told him to wait a minute, and ran back, and there she was in the room locking the safe.
“I ought to have told you,” said I, “they’re after you too; clear out of ’Frisco, git by the next train or they’ll have you.”
“Who’s give me away?” she cries.
“The Chinks,” says I; and at that she let a yelp out of her, and falls on the sofa in a dead faint. I opened the safe and there I sees a parcel the identical of the one she’d given Buck, and I put it in my pocket after a squint at the contents. Then I put her feet up, and lit out to where Buck was waiting for me in the street, and catching him by the arm I dragged him along down to the wharves where Taute was waiting with the boat. We got over to the Greyhound, and then the three of us set to work to get that schooner out of the bay, a six men’s job, but we done it.
All the time we were handling her and getting across the bar I was thinking hard enough to split my head open. Outside I came to a conclusion.
“Buck,” I said, “you’re free of her now.”
“Who?” says he.
“Your wife,” says I.
Then I told him all I’d done. I thought he’d have knifed me. He was for putting back right away till I played my last card. I was only working on suspicion but I was right.
“Put your hand in your pocket,” I said, “and pull out that bundle of notes your wife gave you. If the tally is right, I’ll go straight back with you and apologise to her.”
He pulls out the parcel and opens it. It was full of bits of newspaper and old washing bills. Then I pulls out the other parcel I’d nicked and there were his notes.
Brent relit his pipe.
“He never saw her again,” said Brent. “When we put back to ’Frisco, the laundry was shut and she gone. He didn’t want to see her either. The old Greyhound was enough for him after his experience of women—and now she’s going too.”
We sat for a while in silence and tobacco smoke, then Brent looked up. The coughing and churning of a tug came through the open skylight and the hot hazy atmosphere of the cabin.
“That’s them,” said Brent.
We came on deck. Then we climbed on to the wharf whilst Scott’s men went aboard, true undertakers’ assistants, callous, jovial, red-faced, gin-breathing. We watched the tow rope passed and the mooring ropes cast off, the tow rope tighten and the bowsprit of the Greyhound turning for the last time from land. We watched the smashed-up water of the harbour streaming like a millrace under the bat-bat-bat of the tug paddles and the stern of the Greyhound with the faded old lettering turned towards a wharf for the last time.
As the vision faded, Brent heaved a deep sigh, thinking maybe of his partner and old times.
“Well,” he said, turning away, “that’s the end of her. What gets me is that the other one may be alive and kicking her heels and enjoying herself—no knowing, it’s those sort that live longest, seems to me.”
IRON LAW, OR THE QUEEN OF UTIALI
If you want to study psychology go to the wilds. The minds of civilised men and women are so covered with embroidery that the true texture is almost hidden; their faces have been used so long for masks that form and expression cannot be relied on. Amongst savages you come sometimes upon the strangest facts bearing upon the structure of mind, facts that lose half their significance in the atmosphere of London, yet which, all the same, are not unconnected with our processes of reasoning and conduct.
I was sitting with Brent in the house of Ibanez, the agent of the Southern Islands Soap Syndicate, an institution that turns cocoanut trees and native labour into soap, mats, margarine, dollars and dividends, beats up the blue Pacific with the propellers of filthy steamboats and has its offices in San Francisco, London and New York. We were sitting, to speak more strictly, in the verandah, the southern night lay before us and a million stars were lighting the sea.
Tahori, a native boy, and one of Ibanez’s servants, had just brought along a big tray with cigars and drinks and placed it on a table by us. I noticed that he wore white cotton gloves. Brent had also noticed the fact.
“What’s wrong with that chap’s hands?” asked Brent.
“Tahori’s?” replied our host. “Nothing—only he must not touch glass.”
“Yes. He only helps occasionally in household work when Mauri is away. I got over the difficulty of his waiting upon me by giving him gloves in case he accidentally touched a tumbler or bottle; even with the gloves on he will not handle anything in the way of glass knowingly; the cook puts the things on that tray, and when he takes it back to the kitchen she will clear it.”
“I thought all that was dying out,” said Brent.
“So it is, but it still hangs about. Tahori is a South Island boy. I don’t know why the tabu about glass came about, makes it awkward for him as a servant.”
“No one knows,” said Brent. “I’ve seen chaps that were under tabu preventing them from eating oysters and others that daren’t touch the skin of a shark or the wood of such and such a tree, no one knows why.”
“What do they suppose would happen to them if they broke the tabu?” I asked.
“They couldn’t,” said Brent.
“No, they couldn’t. I’m talking of the real old Islanders whose minds haven’t been loosened up by missionaries and such, though I’m not so sure it wouldn’t hold good for the present-day ones too, and I’m saying that a chap like that couldn’t break his tabu not if he wanted to, not if his life depended on it; beliefs are pretty strong things, but this is something stronger even than a belief; maybe it’s the mixture of a custom and a belief, and that makes it have such a hold on the mind, but there it is—I’ve seen it.”
“Seen a man unable to break his tabu?”
“Seen the effects, anyhow, same as you might see the wreck of a ship lying on a beach. I doubt if you’d see the same thing these days, though there’s no telling; anyhow, it was away back in the early nineties and I’d just come up from the Tongas to Tahiti, getting a lift in the Mason Gower, she was an old trading schooner the missionaries had collared and turned into a Bible ship, and I lent my hand with the cooking to pay for my passage.
“I’d had a quarrel with Slane and parted from him, taking my share of the money we had in common, and I hadn’t seen him for six months and more. I hadn’t prospered either, losing nearly every buck in a blackbirding venture I ought never to have gone in for.
“I hadn’t more than ten dollars in my belt when I landed at Papeete, but I’d saved my dunnage and had some decent clothes and the luck to fall in with Billy Heffernan at the club. Billy was one of the Sydney boys; he wasn’t more than twenty-five, but he’d seen more of the world than most and lost two fortunes which he’d made with his own hands. That was the sort Billy was, and when I struck him at Papeete he was recovering from his last bust-up and had got the money together for another venture.
“His first fortune had been made over Sing Yang opium, which isn’t opium no more than Sam Shu is honest drink; then he’d done a deal in shell and pulled it off and lost the money in copra, and now he was after precious coral.
“When I met him in the bar I said: ‘Hello, Heff—what are you after down here,’ and he says, ‘Coral.’
“‘Well, you’ll find lots of it,’ says I, thinking he was joking, and then I found it was precious coral he was talking of. You see there’s about a hundred different sorts of coral. Coral’s made by worms. If you go on any reef and knock a chunk off between tide marks you’ll find your chunk has got worms hanging out of it. I’ve done it often in different parts, and I’ve been surprised to find the difference in those worms. Some are a foot long and as thin as a hair, and some are an inch thick and as long as your finger; some are like snails and some are like lobsters and prawns in shape; some are yellow and some blue. Above tide marks you don’t find anything, just solid rock. Well, there’s just as many different sorts of coral as there is worms, and there’s only one sort of precious coral and it’s a pale pink, the colour of a rose leaf, and that’s what Heffernan was after. He’d heard of an island in the Paumotus which isn’t very far from Tahiti, and by all accounts it was a good fishing ground for pink coral, and more than that, it was said the Queen of the place—for it was run by a woman—had a lot of the stuff for sale—Tawela was her name.
“Ships keep clear of the Paumotus on account of the currents that run every which way and the winds that aren’t dependable. Heff had his information from a whaling captain who’d struck the place the year before and had talk with the Kanakas. He was on the beach broken down with drink, and gave the location for twenty dollars. He said he didn’t think they were a dependable lot, but they had the stuff, and if Heffernan didn’t mind taking risks he might make a fortune. Heff asked the old chap why he hadn’t gone in for the business himself, and he answered that he would have done so only he had no trade goods; nothing but whale oil, and the Kanakas didn’t want that, they wanted knives and tobacco and any sort of old guns and print calico and so on. Heft didn’t know where to get any such things as these, and hadn’t the money if he had known, nor a ship to lade them into, but next day, by good luck, came blowing in the Mary Waters, owned and captained by Matt Sellers, a Boston chap who’d come round to the Pacific in a whaler out of Martha’s Vineyard, skipped at the Society Islands not liking the society on board, and risen from roustabout to recruiter and recruiter to captain and owner. He’d brought a mixed cargo from ’Frisco on spec to the Marquesas, couldn’t find a market and had come on to Papeete, couldn’t find a market and came into the club for a drink, fell into the arms, as you may say, of Heffernan, and that did him. He hadn’t been talking half an hour with Heff when he sees clearly that the hand of the Almighty was in the business, and that a sure fortune was waiting for him if he’d only take the trouble to pick it up. His trade goods were just the things wanted to buy the stuff, and he only had to put out for the Paumotus to get it. That was the way Heff mesmerised him. Then they had a talk as to the profits, and Sellers agreed to give Heff twenty-five per cent. commission on the deal.
“I blew into the business, as I was saying, by meeting Heffernan a few days later—day before the Mary Waters was due to sail—and, seeing no chance of doing much in Papeete, I joined in with them at second officer’s pay, but without any duty, only to lend a hand if there should be a dust-up.
“Next day we started, steering a course almost due east. We weren’t long in finding out we’d struck the Paumotus, tide rips everywhere and reefs, then you’d see cocoanut trees growing out of the sea ahead and presently you’d be skimming by a beach of coral not ten feet above the sea level with cocoanut trees blowing in the wind and Kanaka children shouting at you. Very low free board those atoll islands have, and I’ve heard of ships being blown right over the beaches into the lagoons. We passed a big island like that, and then, two days after, we raised Utiali; that was the name of the island the whaler captain had given to Heffernan with the latitude and longitude. It wasn’t down in the South Pacific Directory. They’ve got it there now, but in those days there was no mention of Utiali, though the whaler captains knew it well enough, but a whaler captain would never bother to report an island; if he’d struck the New Jerusalem he wouldn’t have done more than log it as a place where you could take on milk and honey. Whales was all they cared for, and blubber.
“We came along up and found the place answering to all descriptions, lagoon about a mile wide, break to the east, good show of cocoanut trees and deep soundings all to north-east and south, with another island not bigger than the palm of your hand to west running out from a line of reef that joined with the beach of Utiali.
“If the place had been painted blue with the name in red on it, it couldn’t have been plainer.
“We came along to the eastward till we saw the opening, and got through without any bother just on the slack.
“It was a pretty place to look at. I’ve never seen a stretch of water that pleased me more than that lagoon; maybe it was the depth or something to do with the water itself, but it was more forget-me-not colour than sea blue, and where it was green in the shallows or the ship shadow, that green was brighter and different from any green I’ve ever seen.
“Maybe that’s why precious coral grew there, since the water colours were so clear and bright, the coral colours following suit would hit on new ideas, so to speak, but however that may have been, there was no denying the fact that Utiali was a garden, and the native houses on shore seemed the gardeners’ cottages—had that sort of innocent look.
“We dropped the hook close in shore on to a flower bed where you could see the sea anemones and the walking shells as clear as if there wasn’t more than two foot of water over them, and before the schooner had settled to the first drag of the ebb that was beginning to set, canoes began to come off with Kanakas in them.
“They came along paddling under the counter, waving their paddles to us, and then, having gone round us, like as if they were making a tour of inspection, they tied up and came on board, led by a big Kanaka Mary—a beauty to look at, with lovely eyes—Lord, I remember those eyes—who gave herself a bang on the chest with her fist and said ‘Tawela.’ That was how she presented her visiting card.
“We had a Kanaka with us who could talk most of the island tongues, and we put him on to Tawela to extract information from her and it came up in chunks.
“Tawela, by her own accounts, was anxious to trade anything from cocoanuts to her back teeth. She wanted guns and rum, which we hadn’t got, but she said she’d try to make out with tobacco and beads. She said she had plenty of pink coral, and would we come on shore and look at it, also would we come to dinner and she would give us the time of our lives.
“Then she went off ashore, us promising to follow on in an hour or so.
“I was talking to Sellers after she’d left, when Sellers says to me: ‘Look over there, what’s that?’ I looks where he was pointing and I sees something black sticking from the water away out in the lagoon. The tide was ebbing, as I’ve told you, and the thing, whatever it was, had been uncovered by the ebb; it didn’t look like the top of a rock, it didn’t look like anything you could put a name to unless maybe the top of an old stake sticking from the water. ‘Go over and have a look,’ says Sellers, ‘and find what it is.’ I took the boat which had been lowered ready to take us ashore, and me and Heffernan pulls out.
“‘It’s the mast of a ship,’ says Heff, who was steering, and no sooner had he given it its name than I saw plain enough it couldn’t be anything else.
“It was, and as we brought the boat along careful, the ship bloomed up at us, the fish playing round the standing rigging and a big green turtle sinking from sight of us into her shadow.
“She lay as trigg as if she was on the stocks, with scarcely a list and her bow pointing to the break in the reef. Her anchor was in the coral, and you could see the slack of the chain running to her bow. She’d been a brig. The top masts had been hacked off for some reason or another, and pieces of canvas, yards long some of them, showed waving from her foreyard, and it was plain to be seen she’d been sunk with the foresail on her and the canvas had got slashed by fish and the wear of the tides bellying it this way and that till there was nothing left but just them rags.
“I’d never seen a ship murdered before and said so.
“‘Yes,’ says Heffernan, ‘it’s plain enough, she’s been sunk at her moorings; look at the way she’s lying, and look at that anchor chain. Well, I never did think to see a sunk ship at anchor, but I’ve seen it now.’
“‘It’s the chaps ashore that have done this,’ said I.
“‘Sure,’ said Heffernan. ‘Done in the ship and done in the crew. We’ve got to go careful.’
“We put back to the Mary Waters and reported to Sellers.
“‘Skunks!’ said Sellers. ‘Tawela’s Queen Bee of a proper hive. Well, we must be careful, that’s all. Keep our guns handy and give word to the Kanakas to be on the look-out.’
“The Mary Waters had a Kanaka crew as I’ve said, and having given the bo’sun the tip to be on the look-out for squalls, we got rowed ashore, sending the boat back to the schooner.
“Tawela’s house was the first of the line of houses that ran east and west along the beach; it was the biggest, too, and there was only her and her son at the dinner; the rest of the tribe had gone off in the canoes right across the lagoon to the opposite shore to gather shell-fish on the outer beach. Our Kanaka boy that acted as interpreter got this news from Tawela, and it lightened our minds a lot, for if any killing had been meant the tribe wouldn’t have gone off like that.
“It wasn’t a bad dinner, take it all round. Baked pig and oysters, and sweet potatoes and so on, with a palm salad that Tawela never invented herself, that I’ll lay a dollar, and said so.
“‘Oh, she’s probably made the cook of that brig show her how to do things white man style before she murdered him,’ says Sellers.
“‘Damn her,’ says Heffernan, and there those two sat talking away, she listening but not understanding; it was better than a pantomime.
“Then the son gets up and brings in some palm toddy, best I ever struck, and Sellers opens a box of cigars he’d brought with him, and we all lit up, Tawela included.
“I remember, as plain as if it was only ten minutes ago, sitting there looking at the sunlight coming in through the door behind Sellers and striking through the blue smoke of the cigars, and then the next thing I remember is waking up with my hands tied and my feet roped together, lying on my back in a shack with the morning light coming through the cracks in the wall, Heffernan and Sellers beside me.
“It was plain enough what had happened; we’d been doped. I heard Sellers give a groan and called out to him, then Heffernan woke, and there we lay admiring ourselves for the fools we’d been in falling into that mug trap. We’d each landed with a revolver strapped to his belt, but the revolvers were gone.
“We hadn’t been lying there cursing ourselves more than half an hour when, the sun having got over the reef, a chap comes in, catches Sellers by the heels and drags him out just as if he’d been a dead carcase.
“‘Good-bye, boys,’ cries Sellers, as he’s dragged along the ground, and good-bye it was, for a few minutes after we heard him scream.
“He went on screaming for fifteen minutes, maybe more, and I was fifteen years older when he let off and the silence came up again with nothing but the sound of the reef and the jabbering of those cursed Kanakas.
“‘If I had a knife I’d stick it into myself,’ says Heffernan. ‘Lord! what have they been doing to him?’
“I couldn’t answer, more than just by spitting, and there we lay waiting our turn and watching the sun striking fuller on the lagoon through the door space.
“I could see the schooner lying there at anchor, but not a soul could I see on board her; the crew were either down below or had been murdered. As I was looking at her I heard Heffernan give a grunt, then I saw that he was sitting up and that his hands were free. He’d been working away, saying nothing, and he’d managed to get the cocoanut fibre rope free of his wrists; a minute after, he’d got his feet loose, and then he turned to me and it didn’t take more than five minutes to make me a free man like himself.
“That being done we set to work on the back wall of the shack, pulling aside the wattles and tearing out the grass binding till we were free at last and out into the thick growth, which was mostly mammee apple and cassia mixed up with pandanus and cocoanut trees.
“What made us bother to break free from the shack, Lord only knows. There was no use getting free, seeing we were on an atoll and would be hunted down like rats once Tawela and her crowd got wind that we were loose; anyhow, we’d worked like niggers and just as if our lives had depended on it, and now in the bushes we were crawling along on our bellies to put as big a distance as we could between ourselves and that crowd—as if it mattered!
“We worked along, taking the line of bushes towards the reef opening, and all the time to the left of us we could hear the breaking of the swell on the outer beach, whilst to the right of us we could see bits of the lagoon now and then through the branches.
“The strangest feeling I’ve ever felt was being stuck like that between the free sea and that locked-in lagoon.
“Prison on one side, so to say, and an open road on the other.
“Well, there we were, the sun getting higher in the sky, and the Kanakas sure to be beating the bushes after us as soon as they found we’d broke loose, but we didn’t say a word on the matter, only went on crawling till we’d reached the last of the trees and thick stuff. From there the coral ran naked to the break in the reef.
“We hadn’t more than reached so far when the hellnation of a hullabaloo broke out behind us, and we thought they’d found we’d escaped, but that wasn’t so, as we discovered in a minute, for chancing to look towards the opening, we saw the top canvas of a schooner away beyond the northernmost pierhead. We reckoned she was two or three mile off, and, crawling along the coral on our bellies till we’d got a clear view of the sea, there she was, right enough, making for the break, the light wind spilling and filling her canvas. She hadn’t much more than steerage way.
“Then we looked back. We couldn’t see the village because of the trees, but we could see the Mary Waters lying there at anchor out in the lagoon, and canoes all about her and chaps swarming on board of her.
“‘See that,’ said Heffernan, ‘all that hullabaloo wasn’t about us. I doubt if they’ve found we’ve escaped yet.’
“‘What are they doing round the schooner?’ says I.
“‘Lord knows,’ says he, ‘but we’ll soon see.’
“We did. Those devils were used to the game of sinking ships and slaughtering sailor men; they’d most likely got all the trade goods they wanted off the schooner by this, and now we saw them passing a tow rope from the bow to one of the canoes and we heard the noise of the winch picking up the anchor chain.
“‘They’re not going to sink her at her moorings,’ said Heffernan, ‘too shallow. Look, they’re towing her to a deeper part of the lagoon.’
“That was so, and as we watched we saw she was getting deeper in the water even as she was towed; they must have begun the job of sinking her the minute the schooner was sighted, forgetting like fools that the chaps coming up would have been sure to sight her spars, or maybe risking even that rather than have the newcomers see the bloody work that had been done on deck.
“You can sink a ship quicker than clean her sometimes. Well, there it was, and suddenly the old Mary Waters gave a dive, and dipped her bowsprit under. I saw her shiver like a dog, and then the stern went, the main hatch cover blowing off from air pressure as soon as the decks were awash. After that she went like a stone till there was nothing left of her but a case or two floating about and a bit of grating.
“Then we crawled back among the trees and held a council of war, as you might say, but we couldn’t fix on anything to do but lay still and wait our chances. We reckoned the fellows in the schooner were sure to come ashore armed, and we’d have time to warn them before they were set on. Our worst chance was that the Kanakas might find us before the schooner was in or the chaps come ashore, but there was no use bothering about that, and there we lay waiting and listening till the fore canvas of the schooner showed at the break, and in she came riding the full flood, every sail drawing to the wind that was freshening up.
“When I saw her full view I nearly leapt out of my skin. She was the Greyhound. Buck, as I found afterwards, had put into Papeete, heard of our expedition and me being with it, and, the old whaling chap offering to give him our port of destination for two bottles of whisky, closed on the offer and lit after us. He was anxious to pick up with me and make friends, and maybe he was anxious to have a hand in the coral business as well, no knowing; anyhow, here he was bulling along across the lagoon and evidently making to drop his anchor close to the village.
“‘Come on,’ I says to Heffernan, ‘follow me.’ We made back through the thick stuff, taking the track we’d come by, and we hadn’t more’n reached the sight of Tawela’s house through the trees when we heard the anchor chain go.
“I reckon the damn fool Kanakas had been so busy with the sinking of the schooner and then the Greyhound coming in, that they’d forgot to look to see if we were still safely tied up. Anyhow, the whole crowd were down on the beach to meet the boat that was coming off, and making sure of that, I took a peep into Tawela’s house to see if there was any clubs or spears handy for arming ourselves, and there I see Tawela’s son hiding a long knife under some matting. We went in; he was too scared to yell, and shoving him in a corner, we stripped up the matting, and there were our revolvers, a couple of knives and half a dozen short stabbing spears, all bloody with the blood of Sellers.
“We kicked him out before us, and, with the guns in our hands, down we marched to the beach.
“Buck Slane had landed, he and four of his men, and every man with a Winchester.
“Tawela and her crowd were round them, all friendly as pie and wagging their tails, and so busy pretending to be innocent and God-fearing Kanakas they didn’t notice us till we were almost on them; for a moment I thought they were going to show fight, but when they saw the guns in our hands they boiled down.
“I clapped my gun to Tawela’s head, and called Buck to tie her hands behind her—we hadn’t time to say good-day to each other, just that—and Buck, tumbling to the truth of the matter, whips a big pocket handkerchief from his pocket, and one of his men does the binding. As he was binding her he says, ‘Look at her hands,’ and there, sure enough, was blood dried on her hands, the blood of Sellers calling out for revenge.
“Then, whilst the crowd stood quiet, I gave Buck the facts in four words. He made a signal with his arms to the schooner, and off comes another boat with the mate and four more Kanakas, all armed.
“Then Buck took command, and leaving Tawela with a chap and orders to blow her brains out if she so much as sneezed, we drove that whole crowd along the beach right to the break of the lagoon and left them there with four gunmen covering them. Then we came back.
“We searched round and found what was left of Sellers among the bushes, then we set to.
“‘They’re unfortunate heathens,’ says Buck, ‘but they’ve got to be taught,’ and with that he set fire to Tawela’s house with his own hands. We burnt every house, we smashed everything we could smash, and we broke the canoes to flinders, fishing gear and spears and everything went, so there was nothing left of that population but the people.
“That will learn them,’ says Buck. Then he collected his men, and bundling Tawela into a boat with a parcel of pink coral we found in a shack back of her house, we pushed off. Ridley, the mate, was for shooting her—seeing the evidence on her hands—and slinging the body in the lagoon, but Buck said he was going to give her a decent trial when our minds were cool, and there was lots of time, anyway, after we’d put out. Buck, ever since his business with Sru, had been against doing things in a hurry, specially when it came to killing, so she was had on board and given in charge of two of the Kanaka crew. Then we got the hook up and out we put.
“The Kanakas were still herded at the end near the break, and as we passed through, knowing we’d got their Queen on board, they all set up a shout, ‘Tawela, Tawela’ like the crying of sea gulls, and that was the last we heard of them.
“Then, with the ship on her course, and the Kanaka bo’sun in charge of the deck, we got down to the cabin and started our court-martial.
“She deserved hanging, there were no two words about that. And I reckon it was more superstition about killing a woman than humanity, but maybe I’m wrong; anyhow, Buck brought out his idea, which was to take her to Sydney and have her tried there.
“We’d been going at it for an hour or so, when the mate was called on deck and comes back in a minute or two in a tearing rage.
“‘That wild cat,’ says he, ‘has been asking for food and won’t eat bully beef; says anything that comes out of a shell is tabu to her, turtle or oysters or shell fish, and she reckons canned stuff is the same since it’s in a tin shell. I expect she’s had lots of experience in canned stuff seeing all the ships she’s wrecked. What’s to be done with her?’
“‘Give her biscuits,’ says Buck, ‘and there’s lots of bananas on board.’
“Off the mate goes and back he comes to the conference, but we could fix up nothing that night, Buck still holding out for a proper trial at Sydney, and we pointing out that English or American law would be sure to let a woman escape. It stood like that till next morning, when Buck, coming down to breakfast, says: ‘Boys, I’ve got an idea.’
“He’d struck an idea in the night of how to dispose of Tawela. Buck had a fine knowledge of the Kanaka mind, and when he’d explained his idea to us I allowed it was a peach, if what he said was true.
“Have you ever heard tell of the Swatchway—the Scours some call it? It’s an island, or more truly speaking a big lump of reef with half a dozen cocoanut trees on it lying south of the Australs about four hundred and fifty miles from the steamer track between Auckland and Tahiti. It’s got reefs round it all spouting like whales, and ships’ captains give it a big wide berth.
“Well, Buck’s plan was to land Tawela on the Scours; there’s water there according to the Pacific Directory, and Buck said he wasn’t going to maroon her without grub. He’d give her six months’ grub—canned. Bully beef and so on with biscuits in tins. If she starved herself to death in the middle of plenty then it wouldn’t be our fault. He said he’d come back in six months, and if she was alive he’d take her back home, said she was only an ignorant Kanaka and he reckoned six months’ punishment would fill the bill, and if she chose to kill herself, why, then it would be Providence not us that did the business.
“Ridley, at first go off, flew out against this till Buck quieted him, asking who was master of the schooner, and whether he wanted to be logged for insubordination; the course was changed to sou’-sou’-west and two days later we raised the Scours.
“There were six cocoanut trees there, all bearing, so we cut them down and brought the nuts on board, then we landed Tawela and her provisions with a can opener, showing her how to use it. There was a fresh water pond in the coral, so she couldn’t want for water, and there we left her.
“We made for Suva and sold that coral, not getting near the price we thought to, and then we ran a cargo to Auckland.
“I’d noticed for some time Buck wasn’t the man he used to be, and one night it come out. ‘I’ve got something on my mind,’ he says, ‘it’s that dam Kanaka. Can’t help thinking about her. My conscience is clear enough,’ he says, ‘for she deserved her gruel, but I can’t help thinking of her—wonder if she’s dead.’
“‘Oh, it’s ten to one she’s either broke her tabu or some ship has taken her off by this,’ I says to ease him, for I saw that being a good-hearted chap, and imaginative as most Irishmen are, the thing was hitting him as it never hit me.
“Buck shakes his head and falls back into himself and says no more, and time goes on, till one day when we were on the run to Papeete with a mixed cargo, seeing that the chap was making an old man of himself over the business, I says, ‘S’pose we run down to the Scours now instead of on the voyage back as you’d fixed, and see what’s become of that woman?’
“His face lit up, but he pretended to hang off for a while; then he falls in with the idea, and we shifted the helm, raising the place four days later and dropping anchor outside the reefs four months and eight days from the time we’d left it.
“There wasn’t a sign to be seen of anyone on the island, so Buck tells me to take a boat and look; he hadn’t the heart to go himself and said so, plump, and off I put, leaving the boat’s crew with the boat on the beach and tramping across the coral on the look-out for signs.
“I found the canned stuff. There had evidently been a big wind and blown the stuff about, and I found it here and there, but not one empty can could I find or one that had been opened, then, in a dip of the coral I found a skull, the black hair still sticking to it, and a backbone and ribs—the birds make a skeleton of a corpse in no time on a place like that; I reckon I could have found the whole skeleton if I’d hunted, but I didn’t. I put back for the schooner and came on board laughing.
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘she’s done us. You and your talk of Kanakas not breaking their tabu; why, half the tins are opened and empty, and she’s gone, took off by some ship.’
“‘Thank God,’ says Buck.
“That lie of mine lifted the black dog right off his back, and to his dying day he never knew he’d killed that woman as sure as if he’d shot her with a gun. He was as cheerful as a magpie all the rest of that voyage, and so was I. You see I’d heard Sellers screaming whilst those brutes were doing him in and Buck hadn’t.
“That’s all I know about tabu, but it’s first-hand knowledge, personal experience as you might say.”
He ceased, and through the night came the voices of fish spearers from the reef and the far rumble of the surf, and from the back premises the voice of Tahori singing some old song of an Island world whose brilliancy breaks sometimes to reveal the strangest phantoms from the Past.
THE STORY OF BILLY BROKE
Do you know that fiction, without side-tracking interest, can often teach a man what he will never learn in a class-room or from a text-book? It can, and the lesson sticks, because the human mind is so constituted that it will retain and assimilate a moral wrapped up in a story, whereas the moral naked and unadorned would be forgotten in fifteen minutes or rejected at once.
I wonder how many men have been saved from selling old lamps for new by the story of Aladdin!
I, like hosts of other men, am a nervy and imaginative individual, and the devil of the thing is that with us our imagination is our worst enemy, keeps us awake at night counting up our losses instead of our profits, fills us with fantastic fears of the future, and, should any of us ever find ourselves in an incriminating position—which God forbid—would, were we innocent, ten to one make us look or act like criminals.
Here is the story of a man who acted like an ass, a highly moral married man whose imagination betrayed him, the story of Billy Broke of Los Angeles, told me by Brent.
Brent had a little fishing boat he kept at a slip near Circular Wharf and he and I used often to go out fishing in Sydney Harbour. One day we were out late, fishing off Farm Cove, so late that on our return a huge moon was rising, flooding the harbour and city with its light. We left the boat tied up in charge of the wharf keeper and tramped off with our fish. Coming up along Halkin Street we saw something like a bundle of old clothes lying in the moonlight right before us, and when we got to it we found it was a dead Chink.
It was a narrow street of tenement houses and not a soul to be seen. There was a big Labour demonstration on that night, so I suppose the inhabitants were all off demonstrating and that accounted for the desolation of the place.
Brent knelt down to inspect. Then he rose up:
“Stabbed,” said he, “and as dead as mutton.”
“What are we to do?” I asked.
“Well,” said Brent, “we can’t be of any use to him, and we don’t want to be mixed up in the business—come along.”
He took me by the arm and led me off. He was a practical man and right enough, I suppose, we could give no clue, the murderer, whoever he might be, was well away, a thousand to one he was a brother Chink and we knew all the bother there would be over the inquest,—still I felt a qualm, but it was so slight I easily drowned it in a whisky and soda at a bar we stopped at. Then I went home and went to bed and put out the light, and with the darkness the moonlit street showed up before my mind’s eye—and the Chink.
“Suppose,” I thought, “suppose someone saw us leaving that street, suppose by any chance we got connected with the business—what would people say? Might they say we had committed the murder?” Absolute nonsense, but there you are, my imagination had got away with me. I couldn’t sleep, and next morning when I met Brent he asked me what was wrong with me and I told him. He took me out for a sail in the harbour where we spent the day cruising about, and after luncheon Brent tackled me over the stupidity of “fancying things.”
“What’s the use of fancying things?” said Brent, “ain’t there enough troubles in the world without breeding them. Suppose you were had over that Chink, where’s the damage, you didn’t kill him—and you ain’t going to be. Forget it. Lord o’ mercy, I’ve seen more guys fooled by their fancies than I can remember the names of. Did I ever tell you of Billy Broke? Brooke was the real name, only some fool of an English ancestor or another left out one of the o’s, so the poor chap was saddled with a nameplate only fit for a hoodoo. Nature not to be behind in the business, fitted him with a set of nerves and an imagination worse than yours and then turned him out into the cold world to make his living. On top of everything he was pious beyond the ordinary, bashful beyond believing and trusting in every man, which isn’t a quality which makes for success in American business circles.
“He’d gone bankrupt four or five times when the Almighty, thinking maybe it was a shame that one of his creatures should be used like that, married him to a common-sense woman with a bit of money and they started a dry goods store in Los Angeles and would have done well enough only for Billy’s nerves and imagination.
“He wouldn’t speculate a bit in his business for fear of ruining himself, an’ his fear of what was going to happen in the future took all the pep and energy out of him. Worst of it was he would be boss of the show and not leave things to his wife. I’m not meaning anything personal, but chaps with high-geared nerves and X-ray imaginations generally have a pretty good opinion of themselves in private. Billy had, and the result was that he’d near brought the dry goods store to bankruptcy when one day a wholesale firm in ’Frisco began to give trouble over a bill that was owing and Billy determined to go and interview them.
“Mrs. B. wanted to go, but he wouldn’t let her, and the unfortunate woman, knowing the fool he was, got in such a temper, she wouldn’t even pack his grip. The hired girl did the packing. She was Irish and given to mistakes, one of them dreamy, acushla sort of red-headed Irishwomen with her heart on her sleeve and her head in the clouds, regular at attending mass and smashing china and dependable to shove anything that came handy into the pie she was making or the bag she was packing.
“The Irish girl did the packing and Billy with the grip in his hand kissed the back of his wife’s neck, for she wouldn’t give him her lips, and started off for the station. He got to ’Frisco without losing himself and put up at the ‘Paris.’
“Now that day me and Slane were at Long Wharf, ’Frisco, on board the Greyhound ready to put out. We’d got five thousand dollars’ worth of trade under the hatch, and we were bound for Nanuti in the Gilberts, that’s to say right under the Line.
“We were due out next morning at sun up, and that night, under a blazing big moon we were sitting on deck having a smoke and talking things over. Long Wharf was pretty quiet and you couldn’t more’n hear the drunks and such yelling in Third and Fourth Streets. There was a timber schooner outside of us and we could hear a fellow snoring in her cabin and a big clock somewhere striking eleven. The strokes were all equally loud, which showed there was no wind to speak of, and Buck was wondering if we’d get enough in the morning to take us out when along the wharfside comes running a chap, and, seeing us there on deck in the moonlight and the sparks of our cigars, he comes bounding down the gang plank and lands on the deck on his hands and knees without losing grip of a parcel he was carrying.
“‘Save me,’ cries the chap. ‘Get me out of ’Frisco, the police are after me.’ Then he goes limp and Buck bends down and stirs him up.
“‘Drunk,’ says Buck.
“He was, and battered at that. His coat was torn up the back, he was mud all over and his hat was gone, and yet, for all that, he looked to have been respectable. You can’t batter the respectability out of a man in five minutes, not even if you roll him in the gutter and fill him with drink, this chap’s hands were clean where they weren’t dirty, and I could see his nails had been attended to, his pants were muddy and had a tear in them, but they weren’t frayed at the heels and the cloth was good.
“‘What are we going to do with him?’ I asks.
“Buck scratches his head for a minute, then he says:
“‘Get him below.’
“I was none too anxious for extra cargo of that sort, but I knew by Buck’s voice he wasn’t in the humour for arguing, and, fearing that maybe the police might come along and find the chap and hold us up maybe next morning as witnesses of Lord knows what, I grabbed the guy by the heels whilst Buck took the head and between us we slithered him down below and shoved him in a spare bunk, putting his parcel beside him.
“We reckoned that maybe he’d have slept his liquor off before morning, and we could give him a wash up and shove him ashore.
“I got into my own bunk and slept like a dead policeman till Buck dragged me out.
“‘Tug’s along,’ says he, ‘and there’s a good wind, but I can’t wake that blighter. He’s still in the arms of Bacchus and I’m just going to take him along, Bacchus and all.’
“I came on deck and there was a little tinpot tug hauling the timber schooner out so’s to free us, with the dawn breaking over the bay.
“‘But Lord, Buck!’ I says. ‘What are you going to do with him if you take him along, he’s no mascot by the look of him, and no sailor-man neither. What are you going to do with him?’
“‘Save him from the police,’ says he, ‘and from liquor and make a man of him or kill him, he’s no tough, by his face, just a softy that’s got into bad hands maybe, or just run crooked because of the drink. Curse the drink,’ says Buck, ‘I’ve seen its black work in my family and that’s why I’ve always steered clear of it, and if it was only to spite John Barleycorn I’d take a dozen guys like that, let alone one.’
“I didn’t argue. I had my hands full directing the crew, and I had it in my mind that Buck was as keen of cheating the Penitentiary as he was of spiting John Barleycorn. Like most Irishmen he had a mortal hatred of policemen and prisons, and I don’t blame him, neither.
“We were kept on deck till we were clear of the bar and running on a sou’-west course, doing seven knots, with the sea piling up and more wind coming, then I dropped below for a cup of coffee and a bite of food, and looking at the chap in the bunk saw he was still snoring.
“The parcel had dropped out of the bunk owing to the rolling in crossing the bar, and the brown paper covering had got a bit loose and I couldn’t for the life of me help poking round with my finger and loosening it a bit more so’s to have a look at what might be inside. I was thinking it might be banknotes or boodle of some sort, but what I come on was a female’s silk petticoat. I was more shook up than if I’d hit on a rattlesnake, and, calling Buck down, I says to him, ‘Buck, this sleeping beauty of yours has been murdering a female.’ That’s how the business struck me first. Why else should he have been running away with the thing and the police after him?
“Buck takes one squint, then he begins the Sherlock Holmes business, looking for dagger marks and bloodstains, but there weren’t none, the article looked pretty new, with nothing a Sherlock Holmes could lay hold of but the letters J.B. worked in black thread very small on the band of it, and no doubt the initials of the party owning the concern. Buck puts the thing away in a locker and we sits down to breakfast, arguing and talking all the time, the professor of somnology snoring away in his bunk, the schooner getting further to sea and the sea piling bigger behind her, with the wind rising to a tearing gale.
“I was kept on deck all that morning, at the wheel most of the time, for we were running before it and if she’d broached to we’d have gone truck over keel to perdition.
“Buck comes up at eight bells, saying the petticoat man had woke up wanting to know where he was and asking to be taken to Los Angeles. I didn’t bother about the chap, didn’t see him till next morning, when I turned out to find the gale gone into a six-knot breeze and Buck and him sitting at breakfast.
“He’d washed and brushed and looked more like a human being, and he’d given up wantin’ to be taken to Los Angeles and he’d settled down to his gruel.
“We were keen to have his story out of him and know what the crime was, but we had no time for tale-telling with the damage on deck, for we’d lost several spars in the blow, so we just left him to smoke and think over his sins and didn’t tackle him till two days later, when he told us the whole yarn right off, and without winking, so’s that we couldn’t help believing him.
“This is it, as far as I can remember, with nothing left out that matters.
“Billy Broke was his name and he’d left Los Angeles as I’ve told you on a visit to ’Frisco to see a wholesale firm on some business. He put up at the ‘Paris’ and went to his room to change his necktie and brush his hair, and when he opened his grip to fetch out the tie and the hairbrush, he come on a woman’s red silk petticoat rolled up and stuck in anyhow. At first he thought it was his wife’s, but he couldn’t remember ever seeing her in possession of such a garment, she being a woman of quiet tastes and not given to violent colours. Then he thought the thing must have been shoved in for fun by some joking young chaps that had been on the train. The more he considered this, the more he was sure of it, and down he sits to think things over.
“First of all he says to himself that if the thing was shoved in by them guys for fun it must have been stolen, then it came to him that maybe they didn’t put it in for fun but to get rid of it as evidence against them of some crime they’d committed. That made him sweat, but he got a clutch on himself, telling himself it was only in magazine stories things like that happened and that the chances were it belonged to his wife. Then he told himself that no matter who it belonged to or who put it there, he’d got to get rid of it.
“He wouldn’t risk bringing it back home, not much, and he wouldn’t risk keeping it an instant longer in his possession for fear of detectives arriving whilst it was still in his possession, so down he goes to the office and begs, borrows or steals a piece of brown paper and a yard and a half of string and back he comes to his room and wraps the evidence up and ties the string round it.
“‘There,’ says Billy to himself, ‘that’s done. Now the only thing I’ve got to do is take it out and lose it. Just throw it away. Some poor woman will pick it up and grateful she’ll be for it.’
“He comes down and goes out with the parcel under his arm and then he finds himself in the street. He’d thought to drop the parcel in the street casually as he walked along, it seemed the easiest thing in the world to do, but no sooner had he left the hotel with the parcel under his arm than he felt that everyone was watching him. That wasn’t stupidity either. Everyone was watching him. Everyone in every street is watching everyone else, doing it unbeknown to themselves most of the time, but doing it; it’s maybe a habit that has come down to us from the time we were hunters, and our lives depended on our eyes, but it’s there and if you fall down in any street half a dozen people will see you fall who otherwise would never have known of your existence, passing you without seeing you, consciously.
“That truth hit Billy between the eyes. He felt if he were to drop that parcel, not only would some guy see him drop it, but he’d know he’d dropped it purposefully, so he walks along with it under his arm trying to find an empty street, and somehow or another failing, till he comes on a narrow lane, and ‘Here’s my chance,’ says he and dives down it. Half way down, with no one in front or behind, he drops the parcel and walks on, but he couldn’t help turning his head like a fool, and there behind him, just come into the lane, was a man. The parcel was between Billy and the man, and Billy in a flash saw that the man would know he’d dropped it seeing Billy was walking away from it, not towards it. So, having turned his head, he had to complete the business and turn back and pick up the durned thing and walk on with it. He was in Market Street now and beginning to set his teeth. There was a good few people going and coming and they all seemed so busy and full of themselves that Billy took heart, and, walking along close to the houses, dropped the thing again. He didn’t turn his head this time, but just walked on, stopping here and there to look in at the shop windows and feeling he’d done the trick this time. He’d gone a good way and was looking in at a jeweller’s thinking which of the rings he’d buy for his wife if he had the money, when an old chap comes panting up to him with the parcel.
“‘I saw you drop it,’ says the old guy, and I ran after you with it, but you walk so quick I couldn’t catch you.’ Then he has a fit of coughing and Billy sees he’s nearly in rags and hands out a quarter and takes the parcel. Billy was beginning to find out the truth that if you want to lose a thing that’s of no value to you, you can’t, not in a city anyhow, but he was only beginning, else he’d have quitted the business right there and have knuckled under to that petticoat.
“Instead of that what does he do but go on with his peregrinations and his fool attempts to get rid of the thing, he makes it a present to a beggar woman and when she’d seen what was in it, she runs after him saying she’s taking no stolen goods and suggesting a dollar commission for not showing it to the police.
“Then getting along for four in the afternoon, Billy, feeling he’s married to the thing, begins to celebrate his connubial state with drinks. He wasn’t used to the stuff and he goes from saloon to saloon, warming up as he went and making more attempts at divorce till he strikes a bar tender notorious for his married unblessedness, offers the thing as a present for the B.T.’s wife and gets kicked flying into the street when a policeman picks him and his parcel up and starts them off again on their ambulations.
“The drink was working in him now strong—you see, he’d always been an abstemious man and you never know what whisky will do with a guy like that till it’s done with him. Billy cruises into another bar, planks down a quarter, swallows a high ball, gets a clutch on himself and starts on the king of all jags. He wasn’t trying to lose the parcel now. He was proud of it. He remembered in one saloon undoing it and showing the petticoat to an admiring audience. He remembered in another saloon saying the thing was full of bonds and banknotes. Then he was down in the dock area tumbling into gutters and singing songs. Chaps tried to rob him of the thing and he fought them like a wild cat. He’d begun the day with the parcel sticking to him, and he was ending the day by sticking to the parcel and resisting all attempts on it by armed force, so to speak. Then he believed he had a dust up with some Chinks who tried to nab the thing and there seemed to be police mixed up with it, for it ended with him running to escape policemen. Then he couldn’t remember anything more, and we told him how he had come running along the dockside till he struck the Greyhound and came bounding on board, as per invoice.
“That was the yarn Billy spun, and there he sat when he’d finished asking us what he was to do.
“‘Well, I says to him, ‘you’re asking that question a bit too late; to begin with, you should never have trusted yourself alone in ’Frisco with them nerves of yours. Second, you went the wrong way about getting rid of the thing.’
“‘Oh, did I?’ said Billy. ‘And how would you have done—put yourself in my position, and what would you have done to get rid of it?’
“That flummoxed me.
“‘Well,’ I said, ‘to begin with, I wouldn’t have been such an ass as to want to get rid of it.’
“‘S’posing you were,’ said he, ‘and I allow I was an ass to fancy all them things, but supposing you were, will you tell me where I went wrong? Wouldn’t you have done everything I did just as I did it? Of course you would. I tell you I was fixed to that thing by bad luck and I only got rid of it after it had done me in with the drink.’
“‘But you haven’t got rid of it,’ says Buck.
“‘Whach you mean?’ asks Billy, his hair standing on end.
“‘You brought it on board,’ says Buck, and he goes to the locker and takes the parcel out. Billy looked at it, took it in his hands and turned it over.
“‘Then he says: ‘That does me.’ He says no more than that. The life seemed to go out of him for a bit as if the hunch had come on him that it wasn’t no use to fight any more.
“‘I says to Buck: ‘Come on up on deck and leave him with the durned thing,’ and up we went and there we saw a big freighter pounding along and coming up from south’ard, ’Frisco bound and making to pass us close.
“‘There’s his chance,’ says Buck; ‘run down and fetch him up and we’ll flag her to stop, it’s better than taking him off to hell or Timbuctoo, seeing he’s a married man.’
“Down I went and up I brought him. There was a fair sea still running, but nothing to make a bother about, and we could easy have got him off in a boat. But do you think that chap would go, not he; he said he’d sure be drowned if he put off in a boat in that sea, said the thing was out to drown him if it could. Then he went below and got into his bunk with his inamorata, and we let the freighter pass, and that was his last chance of getting to Los Angeles for many a long day.
“I was pretty sick with him, so was Buck. It wasn’t so much because he was afraid of drowning as because he was afraid of being drowned by that rotten parcel, but we weren’t so free of superstitions ourselves as to be too hard on the poor chap, so we didn’t do more than make his life a hell till he was ashamed of himself to the soles of his boots and taking a hand in the working of the ship. We wanted to shy parcel and petticoat overboard, but he wouldn’t let us. We’d shown him the initials on the belt of the thing and he said they were his wife’s and it was plain now that some mistake had been made in packing it among his things by the servant maid he gave us the specification of. He said he reckoned he’d keep it to bring back to her, so she might know his story was true.
“But it was many a day before he was likely to see Los Angeles again and so we told him.
“From the day we passed that freighter till the day we lifted Howland Island, which lies nor’-west of Nanuti, we only sighted three ships hull down and beyond signalling.
“After passing Howland we passed a brig bound for Java and a freighter from Rangoon bound for South American ports—Nothing for anywhere near ’Frisco.
“Billy like a good many landsmen seemed to fancy that ships were all over the sea close as plums in a pudding. He got to know different by the time we reached Nanuti and, more than that, he got to know that every ship wasn’t bound for ’Frisco.
“‘Why,’ he says one day, ‘if I’ve got to wait for a ship back,’ he says, ‘I’m thinking it’s an old man I’ll be before we sight one.’
“‘And you’re thinking right,’ says Buck. ‘You had your chance and you missed it because the sea was a bit rough and your head was stuffed with that blessed petticoat and the idea it was going to drown you. You’ll just have to stick to the old Greyhound till she fetches up again at Long Wharf and that’s God knows when, for we don’t run by time-table.’
“And that was the fact; we touched at Nanuti and discharged cargo and took on copra. Then we came along down by the New Hebrides and shaving New Caledonia put into Sydney and discharged and took a cargo along to Auckland, and then from North Island we took a cargo down for Dunedin. The only way to make money with ships is to know where to go for your cargoes. Buck had some sort of instinct that way and he was backed with friends in the shipping trade, but it wasn’t for eight months from starting that he got the chance of a cargo to ’Frisco, and it wasn’t till two months later that we passed the whistling buoy and saw the tumble of the bar.
“I looked at Billy that morning and I thought to myself that it was worth it to him. He looked twice the man he was when he fetched on board and, more than that, he could handle sails and steer and take an observation as good as me or Buck, besides which Buck had treated him well about payment and he’d have a good few dollars waiting for him when we tied up at the wharf.
“Which was that day. I’d business which kept me running about all the day after and it wasn’t till the day after that Billy took heart and come to me and asked me to go with him to Los Angeles so’s to break him to his wife, so to speak.
“I’d got to like the chap and I agreed. I won’t say that I wasn’t anxious to see how he’d make out when he got back and what Mrs. Billy would say to him, but however that may be, I packed a bag and Billy shouldered his dunnage and off we started by the night train, getting into Los Angeles next morning.
“It wasn’t as big a place in those days as it is now. We left our traps at the station and set off on foot to find Mrs. B., Billy back in his old nervous state and almost afraid to ask questions as to how his wife and the shop had been doing in his absence. The shop was on Pine Tree Avenue, and half way along to it Billy’s nerves got so bad we stopped at a restaurant for some breakfast, fixing it that I should go off after the meal and hunt up Mrs. B. and find out what had become of her. Billy could scarcely eat his food for talking of what might have happened to her, fearing maybe she might have committed suicide or gone bankrupt or starved to death or gone out of her mind at the loss of him. The woman that ran the restaurant served us at table and it came to me sudden to ask her did she know anything of a Mrs. Broke of Pine Tree Avenue who had a dry goods store.
“‘Burstall, you mean?’ said she. ‘She’s married again since Broke ran off and left her. He was a little no good chap and skipped with all the money they had, which wasn’t much, and she got a divorce against him for illegally deserting her or incompatibility of temper or something and ran the store herself and made it pay. Y’ see, he’d been boss of the thing up to that, and near made it bankrupt, but once she took charge, she made it pay. I’ve never seen Broke, I only came to the town six months ago, but I’ve seen Burstall often. He’s a fine man and between them they’re making that store hum.’
“I got Billy on his feet and out of that place and wanted to get him to the station to see about the next train for ’Frisco, but he said he wanted to see things for himself and make sure; so the funeral procession started for Pine Tree Avenue.
“‘That’s the place,’ said Billy, pointing to a big shop with J. Burstall and Co. painted along the front in gold letters. ‘There’s my old home—Well, I wish her happiness.
“That seemed to me a pretty weak thing to do, and I says to him: ‘Ain’t you going to kick Burstall?’
“He didn’t hear me, he was so occupied looking at his old home, till a big fellow in his shirt-sleeves comes out and begins looking at the contents of the shop window to see how they showed.
“Billy goes up to him.
“‘You belong to this store?’ says Billy.
“‘Yep,’ says the chap.
“‘Then will you give Mrs. Broke, I mean Burstall, this parcel,’ says Billy, ‘and ask her to see me about it, there’s been a big mistake.’
“‘No use troubling her,’ says the big chap. ‘I’m Burstall and running this store. What’s this you’ve brought back—we don’t change no goods once bought.’
“‘It’s a petticoat,’ says Billy.
“‘Well, what’s wrong with it?’ asks the other, taking the goods.
“‘What’s wrong with it!’ cries Billy, then he begins to laugh like a crazy man, till I thought Burstall would have gone for the both of us.
“‘Come on, Billy,’ I says, catching him by the arm, then I turns to Burstall: ‘You big stiff,’ I says, for all my bristles were up at the beefy look of the chap and the carried on. ‘You big stiff,’ I says, ‘for two pins,’ I says, ‘I’d kick you from here to Santa Barbara.’
“Burstall drops the parcel to go for me, when along comes a policeman, and explanations begins; Burstall saying how we’d been trying to land him some old goods we’d never bought in his shop and the policeman asking us for our address.
“‘We don’t belong here,’ I says. ‘We’ve come from ’Frisco.’
“‘Well,’ says the bull, ‘if I find you about town trying any more of your dodges by noon to-day. I’ll run you in, sure as my name’s Bill Adams. Pick up your parcel and off with you.’
“I picked the damned thing up and stuffed it in the side pocket of Billy’s coat and led him off, the bull following us two or three blocks to make sure we were moving.
“We found a train was starting at the station, and I got Billy in, all broke down. Getting towards ’Frisco he pulled himself together, he’d been thinking a lot on the journey, and I got the surprise of my life to find him cheerful all of a sudden.
“‘Do you know what I’m thinking?’ says he. ‘I’m thinking this thing is my mascot, and I’ve been trying to get rid of my luck all this time. It got me free of that woman, for we never pulled together proper, it got me in with you and Slane, and you’ve made a man of me. Every time I tried to lose it, bad luck came to me, and look at the luck she’s had since she lost it, married to that brute of a Burstall. It’s my luck I’ve been trying to get rid of, and now I know, I’m going to do big things.’
“I left him at the station, and met him a year later all broke down and half in rags.
“‘Why, Billy.’ I said, ‘what ails you?’
“‘I lost my mascot,’ says he. ‘I was getting on fine and making money hand over fist when a damn landlady pinched it out of my wardrobe, though I never could bring it home to her. It took all the heart out of me and things went wrong all round.’
“I gave him a dollar and never saw him again,” finished Brent, “and I’ve just told you about him to show you what nerves and fancies and such like may bring a man to.—Now as to that dead Chink.”
But I wasn’t bothering any more about the Chink, maybe because of the fresh air of the harbour, maybe because of the awful warning contained in the story of Billy Broke.
THE MAKING OF A MILLIONAIRE
I’ve told you, said Brent, that Slane had an old uncle in San Francisco, Pat O’Brien, worth over two million dollars they said he was and I don’t doubt them. Pat had landed in New York somewhere in the ’fifties or ’sixties without a jitney, then he’d come along to ’Frisco; he hadn’t struck gold, he hadn’t struck oil, nor Luck in any special way as far as we could make out, he’d just become a millionaire, and one day when we were on the trip back to ’Frisco with a full cargo, I said to Buck: “Look here, Buck,” I says, “you and me has been trading together the last ten years. We’re up to every game on the Pacific coast, we aren’t simple sailors no more than a mule is all an ass. Well, we’ve got sixty thousand dollars between us put by, but four years ago we had forty thousand. We make our money hard and earn it slow, seems to me. Look at Pat, he’s none of our natural advantages; the chap can’t more than read and write his name, he’s only one brain and we’ve got two, but look at him, rolling in dollars. How’s it done?”
“Search me,” says Buck. “It’s the way they all do it. Seems to me it’s the start. If you’re American-born you start selling newspapers, if you’re only a blistered alien you land without a cent in your pocket, whereas we’d got a few dollars, but there’s no going back.”
We left it at that and got into ’Frisco next day and went to the lodgings we had in Tallis Street. We’d always lived small considering that we could have cut a bigger dash if we’d chosen, but the fact of the matter is, living big for the likes of us would have meant soaking in bars and all the trimmings that go with that. It’s God’s truth that a plain sailor man who isn’t what the damn fools who run the world call a “gentleman” is clean out of it in the big towns—unless he’s a millionaire. So, not being able to sit on the top of the pyramid, we just sat on the sand waiting for some big strike, and stuck to our rooms in Tallis Street in a house kept by a Mrs. Murphy.
Well, as I was saying, we went to our lodgings, and a couple of days after, old Pat O’Brien, hearing we were back, called on us. Pat, though he was near eighty, was an early bird, and though he was worth two millions he always footed it about the town; he was the spit and image of Mr. Jiggs in the comic papers, and as we were sitting at breakfast in he came with a cigar butt stuck in the corner of his mouth.
“Lord love me,” says Pat. “Nine o’clock and you at breakfast. No,” he says, “I won’t have no coffee, a glass of hot water is all I take till one o’clock in the day, and then I have a porterhouse-steak and a pint of claret, and that’s why I have all my teeth though I’m close on eighty—and how’s the old Greyhound been doing this trip?”
I’ve told you before how Buck got the Greyhound out of Pat at our first go off, and he made it a habit always to call on us when we were in from a trip to ask after her. He didn’t care a dump about her, he just wanted to pick up Island news that might be useful to him in his business—but we never pretended we knew that.
“Doing fine,” says Buck.
Then Pat sits down and borrows a match to light his cigar stump, and in half an hour he’d got to know all he wanted; then, when we’d given him a cigar to get rid of him, off he goes stumping down the stairs, and a minute after, the window being open owing to the hot weather, we heard him talking to Micky Murphy, the landlady’s little boy, who was playing in the street. Couldn’t hear what he was saying at first till a bit of a breeze came in and we heard him say to the child: “So Micky is your name,” he says. “Well, come along, and bring your play toy with you and I’ll buy you some candy.”
I stuck my head out of the window, and there was the old chap and the child hand-in-hand going off down the street towards the candy shop at the corner.
“Well,” I says, “Buck, we’ve misjudged him; he’s got a heart somewhere and he’s not as mean as he advertises himself.”
Buck was as much taken aback as myself. You see, we’d had a lot of dealings with the old man and he’d always forgot his purse if a tram fare was to be paid, and I’ve seen him pick up a match in the street to light his cigar, which he was always letting go out to save tobacco—and there he was going off to buy a child candy.
But that was only the beginning of things, for two days later we had a note from him asking us to dinner.
He had only asked us to dinner once before, years ago, and that was when he was shook out of himself by a deal we’d done over pearls, and it was at a restaurant. This time he was asking us to his house.
“What’s he after?” says Buck, turning the letter over. “Day before yesterday he was giving Micky Murphy candy, and now he’s asking us to dinner. He’ll bust himself with generosity if he doesn’t mind out. Will you go?”
“Sure,” said I, and we went.
Pat was married, as perhaps I haven’t told you, and when the darkie let us in, there was Mrs. Pat waiting to receive us in the big room hung with pictures opening from the hall, and a minute after in come Pat’s daughter Sadie with her hair frizzed out, and when Pat toddled in after, if it wasn’t McMorrows Jiggs family to the life, call me a nigger.
We didn’t feel comfortable by no means, not being used to female society done up in diamonds, but they were anxious to please, though I could see plain enough that behind everything those two women looked on us as plated goods, but Pat kept the ball rolling, chatting away, and at dinner, after the champagne had gone round, the girl suddenly turns to Buck, and, “Tell us about your last voyage, Mr. Slane?” says she.
“Oh,” says Buck, “there’s nothing much to tell; we went to Levua. We’ve been there three trips; there’s several German traders we’re in with and they give us a lot of business. We’re off there again in a month.”
“Is it a long way?” she questions.
“Yes, it’s a good bit of a way,” he answers, “and it would be longer only the Greyhound is no tortoise.”
“How interesting,” she says, “and I suppose you see plenty of other islands on the way there and back. Are they as pretty as people say?”
“Well,” says Buck, “as a matter of fact we stop nowhere but a place we call Palm Island. We put in there for water and fruit; it’s not on the charts and there’s no trade to be done there, but it’s pretty enough.”
He describes the place, and then she tackles him on Levua again, and the manners of the natives, and then Mrs. Pat cuts in and talks of the opera and the theatres and such.
Dinner over, we go to the drawing-room, where the women squall at the piano for a bit, and then we go to Pat’s den for cigars.
I remember Buck, who was livened up a bit with the champagne, asking Pat how to become a millionaire.
“Why,” says Pat, cocking his eye at the other, “you just pick a million up and stick to it. It’s not the picking it up that’s the bother, it’s the sticking to it,” he says. Then we went home thinking that Pat had been joking with us. But he hadn’t.
Levenstein was the name of the chief German trader at Levua. We had big dealings with him amounting to a share in his business, and we were going out this time with a cargo of trade goods and with some agricultural stuff for a man by name of Marks who had started a plantation on the north of the island. Our hands were pretty full, for we were our own stevedores, not trusting the longshore Johnnies over much, and one day, as we were on deck, the both of us, who should come along the wharf but Pat. Pat looked down in the mouth and as if something was troubling him. He gave us good-day and asked us how we were doing, and then he told us his bother. Sadie wasn’t well, the doctors thought she was going into a consumption.
“There’s nothing but trouble in this world,” said Pat. “First I lost my partner six months ago, then I lost a cargo which wasn’t full insured by a mistake of a damn clerk, and now Sadie is took bad. Well, good-day to you, boys, and better luck than is attending me.”
“Now I wonder why he came along the wharf to tell us that,” says Buck. “Blessed if I can make the old man out. His compasses are wrong, he ain’t sailing true; he’s doing things he’s never done before. Maybe he’s breaking up with old age and that’s what’s the matter with him.”
“He seems to have taken a fancy to us anyhow,” I says, “and if he’s breaking up let’s hope he won’t forget you in his will.”
Then we went on with our work, thinking no more about him till two days later up he turns again, comes down to the cabin of the Greyhound, pulls out a big handkerchief, blows his nose and wipes his eyes and starts his batteries.
“Me child’s going to die,” says he. “Oh, it’s the cruel disease as has caught hold of her; it’s only trotting now, but once it begins to gallop Dr. Hennassy says he won’t give her a fortnight. Nothing will save her, he says, but a long sea voyage away from excitement with the good God’s ozone round her. Steamships is no good, and there’s nothing in ’Frisco but Cape Horners and timber ships. Buck, you’re me nephew, and by the same token you had the old Greyhound out of me for next to nothing, though I’m not worryin’ about that. Take her for a trip and I’ll pay the expenses; she can take the old Kanaka mammy with her, that brought her up, to look after her. If it’s ten thousand dollars you can have it, but get her out into God’s good ozone, away off to Honolulu and away round that way for a six months’ trip; fling your cargo in the harbour,” he says, “and I’ll pay, for it’s me house is on fire and me child is burnin’, and what do I care for money where her life is concerned.”
“Sure,” said Buck, “I’d take her jumping, but well you know I’m under contract, and as for throwing the cargo in the harbour, barring what the Port Authorities would say, it’s not mine to throw.”
“Well,” says the old man, “take her along with you, cargo and all; you’ve got an after cabin you don’t use with two bunks in it, that will do for them. You two bunk here in the main cabin, don’t you? Well, there you are, and I’ll pay you a thousand dollars for the trip.”
“Not a cent,” says Buck. “I don’t eat my relations when they’re in trouble. If I take her she goes free—and, sure, how am I to refuse to take her seeing what you say?”
“That’s me brave boy,” says Pat, “the true son of me sister Mary, God rest her soul.”
Then when we’d done some more talk he goes off.
“Well,” I says to Buck, “here’s a nice cargo.”
I’ve told you Buck was married to a woman who had run away from him. He’d never bothered to get divorced from her, fearing if he got amongst lawyers, he’d be sure to be robbed, and feeling that, as he didn’t ever want to get married again, buying a divorce would be like a chap with no heart for music buying a concertina.
“Well,” I says, rubbing it into him, “here’s a nice cargo. I’m no marrying man, and you’re hitched, so what’s the good of her; a thousand dollars won’t pay us for freightage, and if there’s a scratch on her when we get back, there’ll be hell to pay with Pat. S’pose she dies on us?” I says.
“And what would she die of?” asks he.
“Why, what but consumption?” says I.
“Consumption of victuals is all that’s wrong with her,” he says, and then he says no more, but goes on deck leaving me harpooned.
I’d taken in this consumption business as honest coin, and now, by Buck’s manner and words, I saw that Pat had been lying to us.
The skylight was open, and seeing Buck’s shadow across it, I called him down and, “For the love of God,” I says, “don’t tell me that the old man has been stuffing us. What’s his meaning?”
“It’s a family affair,” says Buck, “and I’d sooner leave it at that till we get to the end of it, but if you ask his meaning, why I’ll tell you straight that Pat has only one meaning in everything he does, and that’s robbery. He’s making to best me. I can’t see his game yet or what he is playing for, I can only say the stake’s big or he wouldn’t be pulling the girl into it.”
“But where’s the meaning of it?” I says, “unless he’s sending the girl to queer our pitch with Levenstein, and that wouldn’t be worth his trouble; there’s not enough business doing at Levua to make it worth his while, considering the big deals he’s always after.”
“Well,” says Buck, “I don’t know what’s his game, but I’m going to find out.”
Day before we sailed, down came two trunks and a hat box, and the next day down came the girl herself with the old Kanaka mammy and Pat.
He stood on the wharfside and waved to us as we were tugged out, and Sadie stood and waved back to him. She had a lot of good points that girl, though straight dealing wasn’t one of them, and she didn’t seem to mind, no more than if she was going on a picnic. She took the tumble at the bar as if she was used to it, and she settled to the life of the ship same as a man might have done.
She was always wanting to know things—names of the ropes and all such, and she hadn’t been a week on board before she began to poke her nose into the navigating and charts. She used to cough sometimes at first, but after a while she dropped all that, saying the sea air had taken her cough away.
Now you wouldn’t believe unless you’d been there, the down we took on that piece before a week had gone.
It wasn’t anything she said or anything she did, it was just the way she carried on. She was civil and she gave no more trouble than another might have done, but we weren’t her style, and she made us feel it. Only a woman can make a strong and straight man feel like a worm. It wasn’t even that she despised us for being below her class, she didn’t; she never thought of us, and she made us feel we weren’t men but just things—get me?
“Buck,” I says to him one day, “if you could hollow that piece out, stick her on a pivot and put a lid on her, she’d make an A 1 freezing machine.”
“She would,” said Buck, “and if you were to plate her with gold and set her with diamonds, you couldn’t make a lady out of her.”
“That’s so,” said I, “but all the same she’ll be an A 1 navigator before she’s done with us.”
One evening, somewhere north of Palmyra—we’d been blown a bit south of our course—I was on deck. Buck was below and a Kanaka was at the wheel, and a moon like a frying pan was rising up and lighting the deck so’s you could count the dowels. I’d turned to have a look over the after rail, and when I turned again there was Buck just come on deck and an hour before his time.
He came up and took me by the arm and walked me forward a bit.
“I’ve found it out,” he says.
“What?” I asks.
“Why Pat O’Brien took Mrs. Murphy’s child off to buy it candy,” he says.
I thought he’d gone off his head for the moment.
“I’ve been thinking and thinking ever since we left ’Frisco,” he goes on, “thinking and thinking, and there it was under my nose all the time.”
“What?” I questions.
“The reason of the whole of this business,” says he, “why Pat O’Brien, the brother of my mother Mary—God rest her soul—parted with five cents to buy a kid candy, why he asked us to dinner, why he pretended that freezing mixture down below had consumption, why he shipped her on board the Greyhound, and what it is she’s after. It’s all as plain as day, and there’s more to it than that. Brent, we’re millionaires.”
“Look here,” I says, “like a good chap, will you take your mind off the business and pull yourself together—you’ve been thinking too much over this business; forget it.”
Buck was a queer devil. You never knew how he’d take things. Seeing I thought his head had gone wrong, instead of explaining like a sensible chap, he cut the thing off short.
“Maybe you’re right,” he says. “Maybe I’m crazy, maybe I’m not. I’ll say nothing more. We’ll see.”
I left it at that, not wanting to stir up trouble in his head, and we didn’t talk of the thing again—not for a long time, anyhow.
But a change had come over Buck. He’d got to be as cheerful as a cricket, and I’d see him sometimes at table sitting staring in front of himself as if he was looking at the New Jerusalem, instead of the bird’s-eye panelling of the after bulkhead; then, by his talk I could tell his head was travelling on the same old track; when a man talks of the building price of steam yachts you can tell how his mind is running, same as when he talks of rents on Pacific Avenue and such places. But I said nothing, just kept my head shut and let him talk, and glad I was the morning we raised Levua.
It’s a big island—if you’ve never been down that way—mountainous and with no proper reef only to the west, for east the sea comes smack up to the cliffs—but it’s pretty, what with the trees and all, and there’s a big waterfall comes down on the south from the hills that’s reckoned one of the sights of the island.
Levenstein’s house was on the beach to the west; a run of reef, broken here and there, kept the sea pretty smooth on the beach, and there was ten fathoms close up to the sand. A lot of scouring goes on there with the tides, and the fishings the best I’ve seen anywhere, just in that bit of water.
Old Pat O’Brien hadn’t asked to see a photograph of Levenstein, else maybe he wouldn’t have been so keen on shipping Sadie off on her travels; I’d forgot the fellow’s good looks, but when he boarded us after we’d dropped the hook, I remembered the fact and I saw he’d taken Sadie’s eye.
Levenstein wasn’t unlike Kaiser Bill, only younger and better-looking; he was the sort women like, and he could coo like a damn turtle dove when he was in the mind, but he had the reputation of having whipped a Kanaka to death. I’d just as soon have given a girl’s happiness to that chap as I’d have given a rump steak to a tiger cat trustin’ in it to honour it. No, sir, that build don’t make for happiness, not much, and if Sadie had been my girl when I saw her setting her eyes on him like that, I’d have put the Greyhound to sea again, even if I’d had to shove her over the reef to get out.
But I wasn’t bothering about Sadie’s happiness; I reckoned a little unhappiness mightn’t help to do her much harm by unsticking her glue a bit, and I reckon Buck felt the same, so, having business in the trade room and ashore enough to last us for days, we let things rip and didn’t bother.
Sadie and the old Mammy were given the overseer’s house on shore, and the girl settled down to enjoy herself. She was awfully keen on exploring the island and seeing the natives, and she and the old Kanaka woman would make excursions, taking their grub with them, and having picnics all over the place, and Levenstein would go with her sometimes, and Marks, from the north of the island, would come over sometimes, and it made my blood fair boil to see her carrying on with those two Germans because she thought them gentlemen, and at the same time cold-shouldering us as if we weren’t more than the dirt she walked on.
I said the same to Buck, and Buck he only says: “Leave her to me,” he says, “she’s come out to get what she won’t get, but she’ll get what she little expects if she marries uncle Lev,” says Buck. “Leave her to me,” he says, “I’ll l’arn her before I’ve done with her,” he says. “Damn her!” says he—which wasn’t the language to use about a girl, but then Sadie wasn’t so much a girl as a china figure all prickles, no use to hold or carry and not the ornament you’d care to stick on your chimney-piece if you wanted to be happy in your home.
One day Buck says to me: “Come on over to the north of the island,” he says, “I want to have a talk to Marks.”
“What about?” I asks.
“The beauty of the scenery,” he replies.
Off we started. Germans are some good, they can make roads—if I haven’t told you Levua was a German island, I’ll tell you now. I’m saying Germans can make roads, and if you doubt me, go and see the twelve-mile coral road they’ve made round Nauru or what they’ve done in German New Guinea, and the road to Marks’ plantation was as good as those.
Coming along for late afternoon we hit the place, and found Marks in. Marks was like one of those Dutchmen you see in the comic papers, long china pipe and all, but he was the most level-headed man in the Islands, and I soon found that Buck had come to him for information and not to talk about the beauty of the scenery.
We had drinks and cigars, and presently Buck says to Marks, “Look here,” he says, “you’re a man that knows everything about the West Pacific, s’pose I found an island that wasn’t on the charts and didn’t belong to anybody, which of the blessed nations would make a claim to it; would it be the one whose territory was closest to it?”
Marks leans back in his chair and lights his pipe again, then he says: “If you find an unknown island, it would belong to England or Germany, all depends on where it lies in the West Pacific.”
“How’s that?” says Buck. “Why wouldn’t the French or Dutch have a look in?”
“It’s this way,” says Marks, “Germany in old days wasn’t a sea-going nation much, and so the English and French and Dutch took up nearly all the islands of the Pacific, leaving Germany in the cold till 1865, when she began to want things and show that she could get them. She took a big bite of New Guinea, then she came to an arrangement with England that she and England would take all the lands and islands in the West Pacific no one else had seized and divide them between them. Get me?”
“Yes,” says Buck.
“The line starts from New Guinea,” says Marks, “then goes east, then north to fifteen degrees north latitude, and 173 degrees, 30 seconds east longitude; anything new found west of that would be German, anything to the east, British.”
“Show us the line on a map,” says Buck, and Marks gets up and fetches down a map and draws the line with a pencil.
Buck gives a great sigh and thanks him, and then we started off back home with the rising moon to show us our way and a three hours’ tramp before us.
On the way I tried to get out of him what his meaning was in asking those questions, but he wouldn’t tell.
“You thought I was mad when I tried to tell you first,” he said, “and now you’ll have to wait till I’ve landed the business, but I’ll tell you one thing——”
“What?” I asks.
“Never mind,” he says, “shut heads are best where a word might spoil everything.”
Three weeks at Levua got the cargo out and the cargo in, and the morning came when we were due to start. Sadie and Levenstein had been getting thicker and thicker; she was one of those girls that take the bit between the teeth, and it didn’t knock us down with surprise when, coming on board with her trunks, she said she’d been married that morning to Mr. Levenstein by the native parson and that Levenstein was going to follow her on to ’Frisco by the next boat he could catch.
Did you ever hear of such a tomfool arrangement? For she could just as well have waited till he got to ’Frisco, and then she’d have had time to change her mind; that’s what Buck told her as we put out with Levenstein waving to us from the shore.
Buck rubbed it into her proper, he being a relative and all that, but I doubt if he wasn’t as glad as myself to think of the face Pat would pull when he found his daughter had married herself to a small island trader and a German at that. She took his lip without saying a word, and a day or two after she made inquiries as to when we should reach Palm Island.
“Oh, in a day or two,” says Buck.
Now we weren’t due to touch at that place for fourteen days if the wind held good, and when I got him alone a few minutes later I asked him why he had told her that lie.
“And what would you have had me say?” he asked.
“Why, that we wouldn’t be there for a fortnight,” I answered.
“Well,” said he, “that would have been as big a lie, for we aren’t going to touch there at all. I’ve got extra water casks from that cooper chap at Levua and an extra supply of bananas.”
“What’s your reason?” I asks.
“I’ll tell you when this deal is through,” he answers, and knowing it was useless to ask any more, I didn’t.
A few days later. Buck told us that we’d passed the location of the island and that it wasn’t there; must have sunk in the sea, he said, same as these small islands sometimes do.
When he sprung this on us you might have thought by the way Sadie went on she’d lost a relative; said that she wanted to see it more than the New Jerusalem, owing to Buck’s description of it, and asked couldn’t we poke round and make sure it was gone and that we weren’t being deceived owing to some error of the compass.
Buck says: “All right,” and we spent the better part of two days fooling about pretending to look for that damn island and then we lit for ’Frisco.
No sooner had we got there and landed the cargo, Sadie included, than Buck says to me one morning: “Clutch on here,” he says, “whilst I’m away. I’m going to London.”
“London, Ontario?” I asks.
“No, London, England,” he says.
“And what are you going there for?” I questions.
“To see the Tower,” says he.
Off he goes and in two months he returns.
I was sitting at breakfast when he comes in, having arrived by the early morning train.
Down he sits and has a cup of coffee.
“How’s Pat?” says he.
“You’re even with Pat,” I says. “Levenstein got here a week ago and Pat don’t like his new son-in-law. There’s been the devil to pay.”
“I’m better even with him than that,” says Buck. “Brent, we’re millionaires.”
“Spit yer meaning out,” I says.
“Do you remember,” says he, “my saying to you last time we touched at Palm Island that the place seemed built of a sort of rock I’d never seen before, and my bringing a chunk of it away in my pocket? Well, what do you think that rock is but phosphate of lime.”
“What’s that?” I queries.
“Seagull guano mixed with the lime of coral,” he says, “the finest fertiliser in the world and worth thirteen to fourteen dollars a ton. How many tons would Palm Island weigh, do you think, and it’s most all phosphate of lime?”
I begins to sweat in the palms of my hands, but I says nothing and he goes on:
“Palm Island being a British possession, since an Irishman has discovered it and it lies to eastward of the German British line, I went to London, and I’ve got not only the fishing rights but the mining rights for ninety-nine years. I didn’t say nothing about the mining rights, said I wanted to start a cannery there since the fishing was so good, and an old cockatoo in white whiskers did the rest and dropped the mining rights in gratis like an extra strawberry. Then, coming through N’ York I got a syndicate together that’ll buy the proposition when they’ve inspected it. I’ll take a million or nothing,” says he.
“But, look here,” I says, “how in the nation did it all happen; how did you know?”
“Well,” says he, “it was this way. That chunk of rock I was telling you of, I stuck in my sea chest, and unpacking when I got back I gave it to little Micky Murphy who was in the room pretending to help me. He used it for a play toy.
“Now do you remember Pat O’Brien that morning he left us, talking to Micky outside and taking him off to buy candy? Well, next day Mrs. Murphy said to me that the old gentleman was very free with his money, but she didn’t think he was quite right as he’d offered Micky a dollar for the stone he was playing with. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but later on, you remember that night on board ship, the thing hit me like a belt on the head.
“Micky had told the old chap I’d given him the stone when I came back from that trip and Pat had recognised it for what it was. The only question that bothered him was where I’d picked it up. He knew I traded regular with Levua, and when he found we stopped nowhere but Levua and Palm Island he knew it was at one of those two places. Phosphate of lime was to be found, enough maybe to double his fortune. He sent the girl to prospect, and she’d have done me in only that night I suddenly remembered a chap telling me about the phosphate business and saying the stuff was like rock, striped in places; I’d never thought of it till then, and what made me think of it was that I’d been worrying a lot since I’d left ’Frisco over Pat and all his doings. Seems to me the mind does a lot of thinking we don’t know of.”
“Well,” I says, “when he sent the girl to prospect he didn’t bargain she was going to prospect Levenstein.”
“No,” says Buck, “seems to me we’ve got the double bulge on him.”
But we hadn’t.
Buck got a million for his phosphate rights and gave me a share, and, as much will have more, we flew high and lost every buck in the Eagle Consolidated Gold and Silver Mining Corporation, Inc.
Pat met us the day after the burst and we asked him how the Levensteins were doing.
“Fine,” says he. “He asked me how to become a millionaire last night and I told him it was quite easy, you only had to pick up a million and stick to it, but mind you,” I said, “it’s not the picking it up’s the bother, but the sticking to it. Now look at that Eagle Consolidated business,” I says, “many’s the fine boy has put his money in tripe stock like that, tumbling balmy after working for years like a sensible man. You know the stock I mean,” he finishes. “The Eagle Consolidated Gold and Silver Mining Corporation, Inc.”
“Yes, I know,” says Buck.
We didn’t want to have no last words or let the old boy rub it in any more; we hiked off, Buck and me, resuming our way to the wharf and the same old life we’d always been living but for the three months we’d been million dollar men.
“Pat seemed to have the joke on us,” said Brent, “but looking back on those three months and the worries and dyspepsias and late hours that make a millionaire’s life, I’m not so sure we hadn’t the bulge on him over the whole transaction, specially considering that Levenstein went bust, forged cheques and let him in for forty thousand or so to save the name of the family.
“That’s the last transaction we ever had with Pat,” finished Brent. “He dropped calling on us to tell us how to become millionaires, seeing we’d given instructions to Mrs. Murphy always to tell him we were out.”
The longest answer to a short question I ever heard given was delivered by Captain Tom Bowlby, master mariner, in the back parlour of Jack Rounds’ saloon away back in 1903.
Bowlby still lingers as a memory in Island bars; a large mahogany-coloured man, Bristol born and owned by the Pacific; he had seen sandalwood wane and copra wax, had known Bully Hayes and the ruffian Pease and Colonel Steinberger; and as to the ocean of his fancy, there was scarcely a sounding from the Kermadecs to French Frigate Island he could not have given you.
An illiterate man, maybe, as far as book reading goes, but a full man by reason of experience and knowledge of Life—which is Literature in the raw.
“And so, usin’ a figure of speech, she’d stuck the blister on the wrong chap,” said the Captain finishing a statement.
“I beg your pardon, Cap’,” came a voice through the blue haze of tobacco smoke, “but what was you meanin’ by a figure of speech?”
The Cap’, re-loading his pipe, allowed his eyes to travel from the window and its view of the blue bay and the Chinese shrimp boats to the island headdresses and paddles on the wall and from thence to the speaker.
“What was I meanin’ by a figure of speech?—why, where was you born?” He snorted, lit up, and accepted another drink and seemed to pass the question by, but I saw his trouble. He couldn’t explain, couldn’t give a clear definition off-hand of the term whose meaning he knew quite well. Can you?
“Well, I was just asking to know,” said the voice.
Then, like a strong man armed, his vast experience of men and matters came to the aid of Captain Tom:
“And know you shall,” said he, “if it’s in my power to put you wise. When you gets travelling about in Languige you bumps across big facts. You wouldn’t think words was any use except to talk them, would you? You wouldn’t think you could belt a chap over the head with a couple of words strung together same as with a slung shot, would you? Well, you can. You was askin’ me what a figure of speech is—well, it’s a thing that can kill a man sure as a shot gun, and Jack Bone, a friend of mine, seen it done.
“Ever heard of Logan? He’d be before your time, but he’s well remembered yet down Rapa way, a tall, soft-spoken chap, never drank, blue-eyed chap as gentle as a woman and your own brother till he’d skinned you and tanned your hide and sold it for sixpence. He had offices in Sydney to start with and three or four schooners in the trade, bêche de mer, turtle shell and copra, with side interests in drinkin’ bars and such, till all of a sudden he went bust and had to skip, leaving his partner to blow his brains out, and a wife he wasn’t married to with six children to fend for. What bust him? Lord only knows; it wasn’t his love of straight dealin’ anyhow. Then he came right down on the beach, with his toes through his boots, till he managed to pick a living somehow at Vavao and chummed in with a trader by name of Cartwright, who’d chucked everything owing to a woman and taken to the Islands and a native wife—one of them soft-shelled chaps that can’t stand Luck, nohow, unless it’s with them. Logan got to be sort of partner with Cartwright, who died six months after, and they said Logan had poisoned him to scoop the business. Some said it was the native wife who did the killing, being in love with Logan, who took her on with the goodwill and fixtures. If she did, she got her gruel, for he sold out to a German after he’d been there less than a year, and skipped again. I reckon that chap must have been born with a skippin’ rope in his fist by the way he went through life. They say wickedness don’t prosper; well, in my experience it prospers well enough up to a point; anyhow Logan after he left Vavao didn’t do bad, by all accounts; he struck here and there, pearling in the Paumotus and what not, and laying by money all the time, got half shares in a schooner and bought the other chap out, took her blackbirding in the Solomons, did a bit of opium smuggling, salved a derelict and brought her right into ’Frisco, turned the coin into real estate at San Lorenz, and sold out for double six months after; then he went partners with a chap called Buck Johnstone in a saloon by the water side close on to Rafferty’s landin’ stage, a regular Shanghai and dope shop with ward politics thrown in, and a place in the wrecking ring, and him going about ’Frisco with a half-dollar Henry Clay in his face and a diamond as big as a decanter stopper for a scarf pin.
“He didn’t drink, as I was saying, and that gave him the bulge on the others. He had a bottle of his own behind the bar with coloured water in it, and when asked to have a drink he’d fill up out of it, leaving the others to poison themselves with whisky.
“Then one night James Appleby blew into the bar.
“Appleby was a chap with a fresh red face on him, a Britisher, hailing from Devonshire and just in from the Islands. He’d been supercargo on a schooner trading in the Marshalls or somewhere that’d got piled on a reef by a drunken skipper and sea battered till there wasn’t a stick of her standing and everyone drowned but Appleby and the Kanaka bo’sun. He was keen to tell of his troubles and had a thirst on him, and there he stood lowering the bilge Johnstone passed over to him and trying to interest strangers in his family history and sea doings. Logan was behind the bar with Johnstone, and Logan, listening to the chap clacking with a half-drunk bummer, suddenly pricks his ears. Then he comes round to the front of the bar and listens to his story, and takes him by the arm and walks him out of the place on to the wharf and sits him on a bollard, Appleby clacking away all the time and so full of himself and his story, and so glad to have a chap listening to him, and so mixed up with the whisky that he scarce noticed that he’d left the bar.
“Then, when he’d finished, he seen where he was, and was going back for more drinks, but Logan stopped him.
“‘One moment,’ says Logan, ‘what was that you were saying about pearls to that chap I heard you talking to. Talking about a pearl island, you were, and him sucking it in; don’t you know better than to give shows like that away in bars to promiscuous strangers?’
“‘I didn’t give him the location,’ hiccups the other chap, ‘and I don’t remember mentioning pearls in particular, but they’re there sure enough and gold-tipped shell; say, I’m thirsty, let’s get back for more drinks.’
“Now that chap hadn’t said a word about pearls, but he’d let out in his talk to the bummer that down in the Southern Pacific they’d struck an island not on the charts, and he had the location in his head and wasn’t going to forget it, and more talk like that, till Logan, sober and listening, made sure in his mind that the guy had struck phosphates or pearls, and played his cards according.
“‘One moment,’ says Logan. ‘You’ve landed fresh with that news in your head and you’re in ’Frisco, lettin’ it out in the first bar you drop into—ain’t you got more sense?’
“‘It’s not in my head,’ says the other, ‘it’s in my pocket.’
“‘What are you getting at?’ says Logan.
“‘It’s wrote down,’ says Appleby. ‘Latitude and longitude on my notebook, and the book’s in my pocket. Ain’t you got no understanding? Keeping me here talking till I’m dry as an old boot. Come along back to the bar.’
“Back they went, and Logan calls for two highballs, giving Johnstone the wink, and he takes Appleby into the back parlour and Johnstone served them the highballs with a cough drop in Appleby’s, and two minutes after that guy was blind as Pharaoh on his back on the old couch—doped.
“There was a stairs leading down from that parlour to a landing stage, and when they’d stripped the guy of his pocket-book and loose money, they gave him a row off to a whaler that was due out with the morning tide and got ten dollars for the carcase. Jack Bone was the boatman they always used, and it was Jack Bone told most of the story I’m telling you now.
“Then they comes back and closes up the bar, and sits down to investigate the notebook, and there, sure enough, was the indications, the latitude and longitude, with notes such as ‘big bed to west of the break in the reef,’ and so on.
“‘That does it,’ says Johnstone; ‘we’re made men, sure; this beats ward politics by a mile and a half,’ says he. ‘It’s only a question of a schooner and hands to work her and diving dresses; we don’t want no labour; see here what the blighter says, “native labour sufficient.” Lord love me! what a swab, writing all that down; hadn’t he no memory to carry it in?’
“He’d struck the truth. There’s some chaps never easy unless they’re putting things on paper. I’ve seen chaps keeping diaries, sort of logs, and putting down every time they’d scratched their heads or sneezed, blame fools same as Appleby.
“Well, Logan sits thinking things over, and says he: ‘We’re both in this thing, though it’s my find. Still I’m not grumbling. What’s the shares to be?’
“‘Half shares,’ says Johnstone, prompt. Logan does another think:
“‘Right,’ says he, ‘and we each pays our shot in the fitting out of the expedition.’
“‘I’m agreeable,’ says the other, with a grin on his face, which maybe wouldn’t have been there if he’d known what was going on in Logan’s mind.
“Next morning they starts to work to look for a likely schooner; Johnstone keeping the bar and Logan doing the prospecting. It wasn’t an easy job, for they had to keep things secret. They knew enough of the Law to be afraid of it, and though this island of Appleby’s was uncharted, they weren’t going to lay no claims to it with the Britishers popping up, maybe, or the French or the Yanks with priority claims, and every dam liar from Vancouver to Panama swearing he’d done the discovering of it first. No, their plan was to sneak out and grab what they could, working double shifts and skimming the hull lagoon in one big coop that’d take them maybe a year. Then when they’d got their pearls and stored their shell, they reckoned to bring the pearls back to ’Frisco, where Johnstone had the McGaffery syndicate behind him, who’d help him to dispose of them, and after that he reckoned if things went well, to go back and fetch the shell. Pearl shell runs from three hundred to a thousand dollars a ton depending on quality, and gold-tipped being second quality the stuff would be worth carting.
“Well, Logan had luck and he managed to buy Pat Ginnell’s old schooner, the Heart of Ireland, for two thousand dollars, Pat having struck it rich in the fruit business and disposing of his sea interests; they paid twelve hundred dollars for diving gear and a thousand for trade goods to pay the workers, stick tobacco and all such; then they had to provision her, reckoning the island would give them all the fish and island truck they’d want, and, to cap the business, they had to get a crew that wouldn’t talk, Kanakas or Chinks—they shipped Chinks. Logan knew enough navigating to take her there, and Johnstone was used to the sea, so they were their own afterguard.
“Then one day, when all was ready, Johnstone sold out his interest in the saloon, and the next day, or maybe the day after, out they put.
“I’d forgot to say they took Bone with them. They’d used the chap so much in the outfitting that they thought it was better to take him along than leave him behind to talk, maybe; and they’d no sooner cleared the Gate and left the Farallones behind them than the weather set up its fist against them, and the old Heart with a beam sea showed them how she could roll; she could beat a barrel any day in the week on that game; it was an old saying on the front that she could beat Ginnell when he was drunk, and Bone said the rolling took it out of them so that it was a sick and quarrelling ship right from the start to the line. All but Logan. He never quarrelled with no one, he wasn’t that sort; always smooth spoken and give and take, he held that show together, smilin’ all the time.
“Then ten degrees south of the line and somewhere between the Paumotus and Bolivia they began to keep their eyes skinned for the island, struck the spot given by Appleby and went right over it.
“There wasn’t no island.
“About noon it was on the day they ought to have hit the place, an’ you can picture that flummoxed lot standin’ on the deck of the old Heart; thousands of dollars gone on a schooner and trade and all, and then left.
“The sails were drawing and they were still heading south, and Johnstone up and spoke:
“‘Appleby’s done us,’ says he, ‘and there’s no use in crying over spilt milk. There’s nothing for it but to go back and sell off at a loss. I’m done worse than you, seein’ I’ve sold the saloon. Tell you what, I’ll give you fifteen hundred dollars for your share in the ship and fixin’s; maybe I’ll lose when I come to realise,’ says he, ‘for there’s no knowing what she and the truck will fetch when it comes to auction.’
“He was one of them lightning calculators, and he reckoned to clear a few hundred dollars on the deal.
“Logan was likewise, and he thinks for a moment, and he says, ‘Make it sixteen hundred and I’ll sell you my share in the dam show right out.’
“Done,” says Johnstone.
“The words were scarce out of his mouth when the Chink stuck in the crosstree cries out ‘Ki, hi.’
“The whole bundle of them was in the rigging next minute lookin’ ahead, and then, right to s’uth’ard, there was a white stain on the sky no bigger than a window.
“‘That’s her,’ says he.
“Then they see the pa’m tops like heads of pins, and they came down.
“If that was the island, then Appleby’s position was near fifty miles out, and again, if it was the island, Logan was done, seeing he’d sold his interest in the show to Johnstone. Bone said he didn’t turn a hair, just laughed like the good-natured chap he was, whiles they cracked everything on and raised the place, coming into the lagoon near sundown.
“But Bone had begun to have his suspicions of Logan by the way he took the business, and determined to keep his weather eye lifting.
“It was a big atoll, near a mile broad at its narrowest and running north and south, with the reef break to north just as given in Appleby’s notebook. They ran her to the west a bit when they got in, and dropped anchor near the beach, where there was a Kanaka village with canoe houses and all, and the Kanakas watching them. They didn’t bother about no Kanakas; it was out boat as soon as the killick had took the coral, and hunt for oysters. And there they were, sure enough, a bit more up by the western beach as Appleby had noted in his book, square acres of them, virgin oysters if ever oysters were virgins, and a dead sure fortune.
“The chaps came back and went down below to have a clack, and Johnstone turns generous, which he couldn’t well help, seeing that Logan might turn on him and blow the gaff, and says he: ‘You’ve stood out and sold your share in the venture, but I’m no shyster, and, if you’re willing, you shall have quarter share in the takings and half a share in the shell.’
“‘Right,’ says Logan.
“‘You helping to work the beds,’ said Johnstone.
“‘I’m with you,’ says the other.
“Old Jack Bone, who was listening, cocked his ear at this.
“It seemed to him more than ever that Logan was too much of a Christian angel over the hull of this business. He knew the chap by instinc’ to be a dam thief, or maybe worse, but he said nothing, and then a noise brought them up on deck, and they found the island Kanakas had all put off in canoes with fruit and live chickens and was wanting to trade.
“It was just after sundown, but that didn’t matter to them; they lit up torches and the place was like a regatta round the old Heart.
“Two of the chiefs came aboard and brought their goods with them and squatted on their hams, Johnstone doing the bargaining, and, when the bazaar was over, Johnstone turns to Logan, and says he: ‘Lord love me,’ says he, ‘where did these chaps learn their business instinc’s? Chicago I shud think. Where in the nation will we be when it comes to paying them for the diving work? They’ll clear us out of goods before a month is over, and that knocks the bottom out of the proposition. It’s the Labour problem over again,’ says he, ‘and we’re up against it.’
“‘We are,’ says Logan, ‘sure. These chaps aren’t Kanakas; they’re Rockfellers, virgin ones, maybe, but just as hard shelled. I’ll have to do a think.’
“The Chinks had all congregated down into the fo’c’sle to smoke their opium pipes, and Logan, he lit a cigar and sat down on deck in the light of the moon that had just risen up, and there he sits like an image smoking and thinking whiles the others went below.
“It was a tough proposition.
“The Chinks were no use for diving. They’d been questioned on that subject and risen against it to a man. The island Kanakas were the only labour, and, taking the rate of exchange, the pearls would have had to be as big as turnips to make the game pay.
“But this scamp Logan wasn’t the chap to be bested by Kanakas, and having done his think, he went below and turned in.
“Next morning bright and early he tells Johnstone to get the diving boat out, and he sends Bone ashore in the dinghy with word for the natives to come out and see the fun. Bone could talk their lingo. He’d been potting about forty years in these seas, before he’d taken up the Shanghai job in ’Frisco, and he could talk most all the Island patter. Off he goes, and then the Chinks get the diving boat out, pump and all, and two sets of dresses, and they rowed her off and anchored her convenient to the bed, and they hadn’t more’n got the anchor down when the canoes came out, and Logan, talking to the Kanakas by means of Bone, told them he was going down to walk about on the lagoon floor, dry.
“Then he gets into a dress and has the headpiece screwed on, and down he goes, the Kanakas all hanging their heads over the canoe sides and watching him. They see him walking about and picking up oysters and making a grab at a passing fish’s tail and cutting all sorts of antics, and there he stuck twenty minutes, and they laughing and shouting, till the place sounded more like Coney Island than a lonesome lagoon, God knows where, south of the line.
“Then up he comes, having sent up half a dozen bags full of oysters, and steps out of his diving gear—dry.
“They felt him, to make sure he was dry, and then the row began.
“The chief of the crowd, Maurini by name, wanted to go down and play about, but Logan held off, asked him what he’d give to be let down, and the chap offered half a dozen fowl. Logan closed, and the chap was rigged up and got his instructions from Bone of what he was to do, and how he wasn’t to let the air pipe be tangled, and so on, and how he was to pick up oysters and send them up in the bag nets. Down the chap goes, and gets the hang of the business in two minutes, after he’d done a trip up or two and nearly strangled himself. After that the whole of the other chaps were wild to have a hand in the business, and Logan let them, asking no payment, only the oysters.
“In a week’s time he had all the labour he wanted. Those Kanakas were always ready for the fun, and when any of them tired off there was always green hands to take their places; the work was nothing to them; it was something new, and it never lost colour, not for six months. Then the pumps began to suck and they’d had enough. Wouldn’t go down unless under pay, and didn’t do the work half as well.
“Meanwhile, Logan and Johnstone had built a house ashore and hived half a hat full of pearls, and about this time the feeling came on Bone strong that Logan was going to jump. He didn’t know how, but he was sure in his mind that Logan was going to do Johnstone in for his share, seeing the amount of stuff they’d collected.
“He got Johnstone aside and warned him.
“‘You look out,’ says he, ‘never you be alone with that chap when no one’s looking, for it’s in my mind he’s going to scrag you.’
“‘There ain’t no harm in Logan,’ says he, ‘there’s not the kick of a flea in him; you mind your business,’ says he, ‘and I’ll tend to mine. Whach you want putting suspicions in chaps’ heads for?’ says he.
“‘Well, I’ve said what I’ve said,’ says Bone, ‘and I’m not going to say no more.’
“Then he goes off.
“Meanwhile, those island bucks had got to fitting things together in their minds, and they’d got to connecting pearls with sticks of tobacco and trade goods, and they’d got to recognise Johnstone as boss and owner of the pearls and goods. They’d named Johnstone ‘the fat one’ and they’d labelled Logan ‘the one with teeth,’ and the specifications fitted, for Johnstone weighed all two hundred and fifty, and Logan was a dentist’s sign when the grin was on his face, which was frequent.
“And so things goes on, the Kanakas diving and bringing up shell and the trade goods sinking till soon there was scarcely none left to pay the divers, and level with that was the fac’ that they’d collared enough pearls to satisfy reasonable chaps.
“One day Bone comes back from the diving and there wasn’t any Johnstone.
“He wasn’t in the house nor anywhere in sight, and Logan was sitting mending a bag net by the door.
“‘Where’s Johnstone?’ says Bone.
“‘How the —— do I know?’ says Logan. He was a most civil spoken chap as a rule, and as soon as he’d let that out of his head, Bone didn’t look round no more for Johnstone.
“He sat down and smoked a pipe, and fell to wondering when his turn would come. He had one thing fixed in his head, and that was the fact that if he let on to be suspicious old smiler would do him in. He’d be wanted to help work the schooner back to ’Frisco, and it was quite on the cards if he pretended to know nothing and suspec’ nothing he might get off with his life, but he was in a stew. My hat! that chap was in a stew. Living with a man-eating tiger at his elbow wouldn’t be worse, and that night, when no Johnstone turned up, he could no more sleep than a runnin’ dynamo driven by a ten thousand horse-power injin stoked by Satan.
“Logan said a wave must have taken Johnstone off the outer beach of the reef, or he’d tumbled in and a shark had took him, and Bone agreed.
“Next day, however, when Bone was taking a walk away to the north of the house, he saw a lot of big seagulls among the mammee apple bushes that grew thick just there, and making his way through the thick stuff and driving off the birds, he found old man Johnstone on his face with his head bashed in and etceteras.
“Bone was a man, notwithstandin’ the fact that he’d helped to Shanghai poor sailor chaps, and when he seen Logan’s work he forgot his fright of Logan, and swore he’d be even with him.
“There wasn’t no law on that island, nor anyone to help him to hang old toothy; so he fixed it in his mind to do him in, get him by himself and bash him on the head same as he’d bashed Johnstone.
“But Logan never gave him a chance, and the work went on till all the trade goods were used up and there was no more to pay for the divers.
“‘That’s the end,’ said Logan to Bone, ‘but it doesn’t matter; we’ve pretty well skinned the lagoon, and we’ll push out day after to-morrow when we get water and fruit aboard.’
“‘Where for?’ says Bone.
“‘Sydney,’ says the other; ‘I’m not going back to ’Frisco, and seeing Johnstone is drowned, the show is mine; he’s got no relatives. We’ll make for Sydney, and to make you keep your head shut, I’ll give you the old schooner for keeps; she’ll fetch you a good price in Sydney, more than you’d make in ten dozen years long-shoring in ’Frisco. I only want the pearls.’
“‘All right,’ says Bone, ‘I’ll keep my head shut and help you work her,’ having in his mind to tell the whole story soon as he landed, for he’d given up the notion of killing the other chap, not being able to get him alone. But they never put out for Sydney, and here’s the reason why.
“There was a Kanaka on that island by name of Kiliwakee, a chap with a head all frizzled out like a furze bush. He was a looney, though a good enough workman, and he’d got no end of tobacco and fish scale jewellery and such rubbish from Johnstone for his work, and now that supplies had dried up he was pretty much down in the mouth; he’d got to connect pearls and tobacco in his woolly head, and now the lagoon was skinned and there were no more pearls, he saw there was to be no more tobacco, nor jewellery, nor canned salmon.
“Well, that night there was a big Kanaka pow-wow on the beach; the chaps were sitting in a ring and talking and talking, and Bone, catching sight of them, crawled through the bushes to listen.
“He heard the chief chap talking.
“He couldn’t make out at first what he was jabbering about; then at last he got sense of what he was saying.
“‘There’ll be no more good things,’ says he, ‘sticks of tobacco, nor fish in cans, nor knives, nor print calico to make breeches of, nor nothing, for,’ says he, using a figure of speech, ‘the man with the teeth has killed the fat one and swallowed his pearls.’
“Then the meeting closed and the congressmen took their ways home, all but Kiliwakee, the half-lunatic chap, who sits in the moonlight wagging his fuzzy head, which was his way of thinking.
“Then he fetches a knife out of his loin cloth and looks at it, then he lays on his back and begins to strop it on his heel, same as a chap strops a razor.
“Bone said he’d never seen anything funnier than that chap lying in the moonlight stropping away at that knife. It give him a shiver, too, somehow.
“Well, Kiliwakee sits up again and does another brood, feeling the sharp edge of the knife. Then, with the knife between his teeth, he makes off on all fours like a land crab, for the house.
“Kiliwakee listens at the house door and hears someone snoring inside—Logan, no less; then he crawls through the door, and Bone guessed that looney was after the pearls. If Bone had run he’d have been in time to save Logan, but he didn’t. He just listened. He heard a noise like a yelp. Then, five minutes after, out comes Kiliwakee. He’d done Logan in and cut his stomach open, but he hadn’t found no pearls, not knowing the chief chap had been usin’ a figure of speech.
“Now you know what a figure of speech is, and don’t you forget it, and if you want to know any more about it go and buy a grammar book. Bone—Oh, he never got away with the schooner, nor the boodle neither. A Chile gunboat looked into that lagoon next week and collared the fishin’ rights and produce in the name of Chile, and told Bone to go fight it in the courts if he wanted to put in a claim. Said the place had been charted and claimed by Chile two years before, which was a lie.
“But Bone wasn’t up for fighting. Too much afraid of questions being asked and the doing in of Logan put down to him by the Kanakas.
“So he took a passage in the gunboat to Valdivia. He’d six big pearls stolen from the takings and hid in the lining of his waistcoat, and he sold them for two hundred dollars to a Jew, and that got him back to ’Frisco.
“Thank you, I don’t mind; whisky with a dash, if it’s all the same to you.”
UNDER THE FLAME TREES
I was sitting in front of Thibaud’s Café one evening when I saw Lewishon, whom I had not met for years.
Thibaud’s Café I must tell you first, is situated on Coconut Square, Noumea. Noumea has a bad name, but it is not at all a bad place if you are not a convict, neither is New Caledonia, take it altogether, and that evening, sitting and smoking and listening to the band, and watching the crowd and the dusk taking the flame trees, it seemed to me for a moment that Tragedy had withdrawn, that there was no such place as the Isle Nou out there in the harbour, and that the musicians making the echoes ring to the “Sambre et Meuse” were primarily musicians, not convicts.
Then I saw Lewishon crossing the Square by the Liberty Statue, and attracted his attention. He came and sat by me, and we smoked and talked whilst I tried to realise that it was fifteen years since I had seen him last, and that he hadn’t altered in the least—in the dusk.
“I’ve been living here for years,” said he. “When I saw you last in ’Frisco, I was about to take up a proposition in Oregon. I didn’t, owing to a telegram going wrong. That little fact changed my whole life. I came to the Islands instead and started trading, then I came to live in New Caledonia—I’m married.”
“Oh,” I said, “is that so?”
Something in the tone of those two words, “I’m married,” struck me as strange.
We talked on indifferent subjects, and before we parted I promised to come over and see him next day at his place, a few miles from the town. I did, and I was astonished at what I saw.
New Caledonia, pleasant as the climate may be, is not the place one would live in by choice. At all events it wasn’t in those days when the convicts were still coming there from France. The gangs of prisoners shepherded by warders armed to the teeth, the great barges filled with prisoners that ply every evening when work is over between the harbour quay and the Isle Nou, the military air of the place and the fretting regulations, all these things and more robbed it of its appeal as a residential neighbourhood. Yet the Lewishons lived there, and what astonished me was the evidence of their wealth and the fact that they had no apparent interests at all to bind them to the place.
Mrs. Lewishon was a woman of forty-five or so, yet her beauty had scarcely begun to fade. I was introduced to her by Lewishon on the broad verandah of their house, which stood in the midst of gardens more wonderful than the gardens of La Mortola.
A week or so later, after dining with me in the town, he told me the story of his marriage, one of the strangest stories I ever heard, and this is it, just as he told it:
“The Pacific is the finest place in the world to drop money in. You see it’s so big and full of holes that look like safe investments. I started, after I parted with you, growing cocoanut trees in the Fijis. It takes five years for a cocoanut palm to grow, but when it’s grown it will bring you in an income of eighteen pence or so a year, according as the copra prices range. I planted forty thousand young trees, and at the end of the fourth year a hurricane took the lot. That’s the Pacific. I was down and out, and then I struck luck. That’s the Pacific again. I got to be agent for a big English firm here in Noumea, and in a short time I was friends with everyone from Chardin the governor right down. Chardin was a good sort, but very severe. The former governor had been lax, so the people said, letting rules fall into abeyance like the rule about cropping the convicts’ hair and beards to the same pattern. However that may have been, Chardin had just come as governor, and I had not been here more than a few months when one day a big white yacht from France came and dropped anchor in the harbour, and a day or two after a lady appeared at my office and asked for an interview.
“She had heard of me through a friend, she said, and she sought my assistance in a most difficult matter. In plain English she wanted me to help in the escape of a convict.
“I was aghast. I was about to order her out of the office, when something—something—something, I don’t know what, held my tongue and kept me from rising for a moment, whilst with the cunning, which amounts to magic, of a desperate woman in love, she managed to calm my anger. ‘I understand,’ she said, ‘and I should have been surprised if you had taken the matter calmly, but will you listen to me, and when you have heard me out, tell me if you would not have done what I have done to-day?’
“I could not stop her, and this is what she told me:
“Her name was Madame Armand Duplessis, her maiden name had been Alexandre. She was the only child of Alexandre, the big sugar refiner, and at his death she found herself a handsome young girl with a fortune of about twenty million francs and nothing between her and the rogues of the world but an old maiden aunt given to piety and guileless as a rabbit. However, she managed to escape the sharks and married an excellent man, a Captain in the Cavalry and attached to St. Cyr. He died shortly after the marriage, and the young widow, left desolate and without a child to console her, took up living again with her aunt, or rather the aunt came to live with her in the big house she occupied on the Avenue de la Grande Armée.
“About six months after she met Duplessis. I don’t know how she met him, she didn’t say, but anyhow he wasn’t quite in the same circle as herself. He was a clerk in La Fontaine’s Bank, and only drawing a few thousand francs a year, but he was handsome and attractive and young, and the upshot of it was they got married.
“She did not know anything of his past history and he had no family in evidence, nothing to stand on at all but his position at the bank; but she did not mind, she was in love and she took him on trust and they got married. A few months after marriage a change came over Duplessis; he had always been given rather to melancholy, but now an acute depression of spirits came on him for no reason apparently; he could not sleep, his appetite failed, and the doctors, fearing consumption, ordered him a sea voyage. When he heard this prescription he laughed in such a strange way that Madame Duplessis, who had been full of anxiety as to his bodily condition, became for a moment apprehensive as to this mental state. However, she said nothing, keeping her fears hidden and busying herself in preparations for the voyage.
“It chanced that just at that moment a friend had a yacht to dispose of, an eight hundred ton auxiliary-engined schooner, La Gaudriole. It was going cheap, and Madame Duplessis, who was a good business woman, bought it, reckoning to sell it again when the voyage was over.
“A month later they left Marseilles.
“They visited Greece and the Islands; then, having touched at Alexandria, they passed through the Canal, came down the Red Sea and crossed the Indian Ocean. They touched at Ceylon, and whilst there Madame Duplessis suggested that instead of going to Madras, as they had intended, they should go into the Pacific by way of the Straits of Malacca. Duplessis opposed this suggestion at first, then he fell in with it. More than that, he became enthusiastic about it. A weight seemed suddenly to have been lifted from his mind, his eyes grew bright and the melancholy that all the breezes of the Indian Ocean had not blown away suddenly vanished.
“Two days later they left Ceylon, came through the Straits of Malacca and by way of the Arafura Sea and Torres Straits into the Pacific. The Captain of the yacht had suggested the Santa Cruz islands as their first stopping place, but one night Duplessis took his wife aside and asked her would she mind their making for New Caledonia instead. Then he gave his reason.
“He said to her: ‘When you married me I told you I had no family; that was not quite the truth. I have a brother. He is a convict serving sentence in Noumea. I did not tell you because the thing was painful to me as death.’
“You can fancy her feelings, struck by a bombshell like that, but she says nothing and he goes on telling her the yarn he ought to have told her before they were married.
“This brother, Charles Duplessis, had been rather a wild young scamp; he lived in the Rue du Mont Thabor, a little street behind the Rue St. Honoré in Paris, and he made his money on the Stock Exchange. Then he got into terrible trouble. He was accused of a forgery committed by another man, but could not prove his innocence. Armand was certain of his innocence but could do nothing, and Charles was convicted and sent to New Caledonia.
“Well, Madame Duplessis sat swallowing that fact, and when he’d done speaking, she sat swallowing some more as if her throat was dry. Then she says to Armand:
“‘Your brother is innocent, then,’ she says.
“‘As innocent as yourself,’ he answers her, ‘and it is the knowledge of all this that has caused my illness and depression.
“‘Before I was married I was forgetting it all, but married to the woman I love, rich, happy, with enviable surroundings, Charles came and knocked at my door, saying: “Remember me in your happiness.”’
“‘But can we do nothing for him?’ asked Madame Duplessis.
“‘Nothing,’ replied Armand, ‘unless we can help him to escape.’
“Then he went on to tell her how he had not wanted to come on this long voyage at first, feeling that there was some fate in the business, and that it would surely bring him somehow or another to Noumea; then, how the idea had come to him at Ceylon that he might be able to help Charles to escape.
“She asked him had he any plan, and he replied that he had not and that it was impossible to make any plan till he reached Noumea and studied the place and its possibilities.
“Well, there was the position the woman found herself in, and a nice position it was. Think of it, married only a short time and now condemned to help a prisoner to escape from New Caledonia, for, though she could easily have refused, she felt compelled to the business both for the sake of her husband and the sake of his brother, an innocent man wrongfully convicted.
“She agreed to help in the attempt like the high spirited woman she was, and a few days later they raised the New Caledonia reef and the Noumea lighthouse that marks the entrance to the harbour.
“Madame Duplessis had a big acquaintance in Paris, especially among the political and military people, and no sooner had the yacht berthed than the Governor and chief people who knew her name, began to show their attentions, tumbling over themselves with invitations to dinners and parties.
“That, again, was a nice position for her, having to accept the hospitality of the people she had come to betray, so to speak, but she had to do it: it was the only way to help her husband along in his scheme, and leaving the yacht, she took up her residence in a house she rented on the sea road; you may have seen it, a big white place with green verandahs, and there she and her husband spent their time whilst the yacht was being overhauled.
“They gave dinners and parties and went to picnics; they regularly laid themselves out to please, and then, one night, Armand came to his wife and said that he had been studying all means of escape from Noumea, and he had found only one. He would not say what it was, and she was content not to poke into the business, leaving him to do the plotting and planning till the time came when she could help.
“Armand said that before he could do anything in the affair he must first have an interview with Charles. They were hand in glove with the Governor, and it was easy enough to ask to see a prisoner, but the bother was the name of Duplessis, for Charles had been convicted and exported under that name. The Governor had never noticed Charles, and the name of Duplessis was in the prison books and forgotten. It would mean raking the whole business up and claiming connection with a convict, still it had to be done.
“Next day Armand called at the Governor’s house and had an interview. He told the Governor that a relation named Charles Duplessis was amongst the convicts and that he very much wanted to have an interview with him.
“Now the laws at that time were very strict, and the Governor, though pretty lax in some things as I’ve said, found himself up against a stiff proposition, and that proposition was how to tell Armand there was nothing doing.
“‘I am sorry,’ said the Governor, ‘but what you ask is impossible, Monsieur Duplessis; a year ago it would have been easy enough, but since the escape of Benonini and that Englishman Travers, the orders from Paris have forbidden visitors: any message you would like me to send to your relation shall be sent, but an interview—no.’
“Then Armand played his ace of trumps. He confessed, swearing the Governor to secrecy, that Charles was his brother; he said that Charles had in his possession a family secret that it was vital to obtain. He talked and talked, and the upshot was that the Governor gave in.
“Charles would be brought by two warders to the house on the Sea Road after dark on the following day, the interview was to take place in a room with a single door and single window. One warder was to guard the door on the outside, the other would stand below the window. The whole interview was not to last longer than half an hour.
“Next evening after dark steps sounded on the path up to the house with the green verandahs. Madame Duplessis had retired to her room; she had dismissed the servants for the evening, and Armand himself opened the door. One of those little ten-cent whale oil lamps was the only light in the passage, but it was enough for Armand to see the forms of the warders and another form, that of his brother.
“The warders, unlike the Governor, weren’t particular about trifles; they didn’t bother about guarding doors and windows, sure of being able to pot anyone who made an attempt to leave the house, they sat on the fence in the moonlight counting the money Armand had given them, ten napoleons apiece.
“Half an hour passed, during which Madame Duplessis heard voices in argument from the room below, and then she heard the hall door open as Charles went out. Charles shaded his eyes against the moon, saw the warders approaching him from the fence, and walked off with them back to the prison he had come from.
“Then Madame Duplessis, hearing the front door close, came from her room, and found her husband in the passage.
“He seemed overcome by the interview with his brother.
“She asked him had he made plans for Charles’ escape, and he answered: ‘No.’ Then he went on to say that escape was impossible. They had talked the whole thing over and had come to that decision. She stood there in the hall listening to him, wondering dimly what had happened, for only a few hours before he had been full of plans and energy and now this interview seemed to have crushed all the life out of him.
“Then she said: ‘If that is so there is no use in our remaining any longer at Noumea.’ He agreed with her and went off to his room, leaving her there wondering more than ever what could have happened to throw everything out of gear in that way.
“She was a high-spirited woman and she had thought little of the danger of the business; pitying Charles, she did not mind risking her liberty to set him free, and the thought that her husband had funked the business came to her suddenly as she stood there, like a stab in the heart.
“She went off to her room and went to bed, but she could not sleep for thinking, and the more she thought the clearer it seemed to her that her husband brought up to scratch had got cold feet as the Yankees say, and had backed out of the show, leaving Charles to his fate.
“She was more sure next morning, for he kept away from her, had breakfast early and went off into the town shopping. But the shock of her life came to her at dinner time, for when he turned up for the meal, it was plain to be seen he had been drinking more than was good for him—trying to drown the recollections of his own weakness, it seemed to her.
“She had never seen him under the influence before, and she was shocked at the change it made in him. She left the table.
“Afterwards she was sorry that she did that, for it was like the blow of an axe between them. Next morning he would scarcely speak to her, and the day after they were due to leave for France.
“They were due out at midday, and at eleven Duplessis, who had lingered in the town to make some purchases, had not come on board. He did not turn up till half an hour after the time they were due to sail, and when he did it was plain to be seen that all his purchases had been made in cafés.
“He was flushed, and laughing and joking with the boatman who brought him off, and his wife, seeing his condition, went below and left the deck to him—a nice position for a woman on board a yacht like that with all the sailors looking on, to say nothing of the captain and officers. However, there was nothing to be done, and she had to make the best of it, which she did by avoiding her husband as much as she could right from that on, for the chap had gone clean off the handle; it was as if his failure to be man enough to rescue his brother had pulled a linch-pin out of one of his wheels, and the drink which he flew to for consolation finished the business.
“They stopped at Colombo and he went ashore, and they were three days getting him back, and when he came he looked like a sack of meal in the stern sheets of the pinnace. They stopped at Port Said and he got ashore again without any money, but that was nothing, for a chap coming off a yacht like that gets all the tick he wants for anything in Port Said. He was a week there, and was only got away by the captain of the yacht knocking seven bells out of him with his fists, and then handing the carcase to two quartermasters to take on board ship.
“They stopped nowhere else till they reached Marseilles, and there they found Madame Duplessis’ lawyer waiting for them, having been notified by cable from Port Said.
“A doctor was had in and he straightened Armand up with strychnine and bromide, and they brushed his hair and shaved him and stuck him in a chair for a family conference, consisting of Madame Duplessis, the old maiden aunt, Armand and the lawyer.
“Armand had no fight in him; he looked mighty sorry for himself, but offered no explanations or excuses, beyond saying that the drink had got into his head. Madame Duplessis, on the other hand, was out for scalps—Do you wonder? Fancy that voyage all the way back with a husband worse than drunk. When I say worse than drunk, I mean that this chap wasn’t content to take his booze and carry on as a decent man would have done. No, sir. He embroidered on the business without the slightest thought of his wife. An ordinary man full up with liquor and with a wife towing round would have tried to have hidden his condition as far as he could, but this blighter carried on regardless, and, when the whisky was in, wasn’t to hold or bind.
“Of course she recognised that something in his brain had given way, and she took into account that he was plainly trying to drown the recollection of his cowardice in not helping Charles to escape; all the same she was out for scalps and said so.
“She said she would live with him no more, that she had been a fool to marry a man whom she had only known for a few months and of whose family she knew nothing. She said she would give him an allowance of a thousand francs a month if he would sheer off and get out of her sight and never let her see him again.
“He sat listening to all this without a sign of shame, and when she’d finished he flattened her out by calmly asking for fifteen hundred a month instead of a thousand. Never said he was sorry; just asked for a bigger allowance as if he was talking to a business man he was doing a deal with instead of a wife he had injured and outraged. Even the old lawyer was sick, and it takes a lot to sicken a French lawyer. I can tell you that.
“What does she do? She says: ‘I’ll allow you two thousand a month on the condition I never see your face or hear from you again. If you show yourself before me,’ she says, ‘or write to me, I’ll stop the allowance—if you try to move the law to make us live together, I’ll turn all my money into gold coin and throw it in the sea and myself after it, you beast,’ she says.
“And he says: ‘All right, all right, don’t fly away with things,’ he says. ‘Give me my allowance and you’ll never see me again.’
“Then he signs a paper to that effect, and she leaves him at Marseilles and goes back to Paris to take up her life as if she had never been married.
“Back in Paris she felt as if she’d been through a nightmare. You see she’d loved the chap, that was the bother. And the rum part of the thing was she couldn’t unlove him. That’s to say she couldn’t forget him. She couldn’t forget the man he’d been. Seemed to her as if some frightful accident had turned his nature and that it wasn’t altogether his fault, and she guessed that it wasn’t only his funking his duty that had changed him, but that Charles, away out there in New Caledonia, was haunting him.
“Then, after a while, being a rich woman, she managed, unknown to anyone, to get news of what he was doing and how he was carrying on, and what she found out didn’t comfort her any. He was up in Montmartre with another woman and going to pieces fast, what with living all his time in cafés and drinking and so on. She reckoned she wouldn’t be paying his allowance long, and she was right.
“One day an old woman turned up at her house asking her to come at once to where he was living as he was mortally ill and couldn’t hold out more than a few hours.
“She didn’t think twice, but came, taking a cab and being landed in a little old back street at the door of a house that stood between a thieves’ café and a rag shop.
“Up the stairs she went, following the old woman, and into a room where his royal highness was lying with a jug of whisky on the floor beside him and a hectic blush on his cheeks.
“‘I’m dying,’ he says, ‘and I want to tell you something you ought to know. I was sent to New Caledonia,’ he says, ‘for a robbery committed by another man.’
“She thought he was raving, but she says, ‘Go on.’
“‘Armand and I were twins,’ he says, ‘as like as two peas. Armand could do nothing. He stayed in Paris whilst poor Charles, that’s me, went making roads on Noumea. Then you married him.’
“‘But you are Armand,’ she cries, ‘you are my husband, or am I mad?’
“‘Not a bit,’ says he, ‘I’m Charles, his twin brother.’
“Then she recollected how from the first she thought Armand had changed. She sat down on the side of the bed because her limbs were giving, and he goes on.
“‘A year ago, you and him came in a big yacht to Noumea, and the Governor sent me one night to have a talk with him. When we were alone, he told me how his heart had been burning a hole in him for years, how he had married a rich woman—that’s you—and how, when he was happy and rich his heart had burned him worse, so that the doctors not knowing what was wrong with him had ordered him a sea voyage.’ Then Charles goes on to tell how Armand had come to the conclusion that even if he helped Charles to escape, this likeness between them would lead surely to the giving away of the whole show, make trouble among the crew of the yacht, and so on—besides the fact that it was next to impossible for a man to escape from Noumea in the ordinary way, but said Armand, ‘We can change places, and no one will know. Strip and change here and now,’ he says; ‘the guards are outside. I’ll take your place and go to prison, and you’ll be free. I’ve got a scissors here and two snips will make our hair the same, and by good luck we are both clean shaven. You’ve done half your sentence of ten years, and I’ll do the other half,’ he says; ‘the only bargain I’ll make is that you’ll respect my wife and live apart from her, and, after a while, you’ll break the news to her, and, maybe, when I’m free in five years she’ll forgive me.’
“Charles finishes up by excusing himself for the drink, saying if she’d served five years without the chance of a decent wet all that time, she’d maybe have done as he’d done.
“He died an hour after, and there was that woman left with lots to think about. First of all her husband wasn’t the drunkard that had disgraced her, but he was a convict serving his time and serving it wrongfully for a robbery he had not committed and for the sake of his brother.
“The thundering great fact stood up like a shot tower before her that Armand wasn’t the drunkard that had disgraced her in two ports and before a ship’s company, wasn’t the swine that took her allowance and asked for more. That he was a saint, if ever a man was a saint.
“She rushed home, telegraphed to Marseilles and re-commissioned the Gaudriole, that was still lying at the wharves. A week later she sailed again for Noumea.
“On the voyage, she plotted and planned. She had determined to save him from the four years or so of the remains of his sentence at all costs and hazards, and when the yacht put in here she had a plan fixed on, but it was kiboshed by the fact that the Governor, as I have said, was changed. However, she took up residence for awhile in the town, people she had known before called on her, and she gave out that her husband was dead.
“You can fancy how a rich widow was run after by all and sundry, myself included, not that I had any idea about her money. I only cared for herself. She knew this as women know such things by instinct, and one day when she was alone with me and I was going to tell her my mind about her, she dropped a bombshell on my head by telling me her whole story, capped by the fact that she had come to help her husband to escape. She asked for my help. I’m a queer chap in some ways. I told her I loved her enough to ruin myself for her by risking everything to give her husband back to her, and between us we worked out a plan that was a pippin.
“It would have freed Armand, only that we found on inquiring about him that he had already escaped—he was dead. Died of fever two months before she came.
“I heard once of a Japanese child that said her doll was alive because she loved it so much, adding that if you loved anything enough it lived. Well, in my experience, if you love anything enough you can make it love you.
“That woman stayed on in Noumea, and I made her love me at last. I married her, you know her, she is my wife. She loves Armand still, as a memory, and for the sake of his memory we live here. It’s as good a place to live in as anywhere else, especially now that they have settled to send no more convicts from France.”
THE ABBOTT MYSTERY
A man may live all his days without finding his true vocation, and it is often accident that reveals it to him. Herschel might have ended his days a music master only for chance, and Du Maurier towards the finish of his life found that he had been all his life a novelist without knowing it.
Some years ago my friend John Sargenson found on the beach near Dover an old red satin shoe that had been washed ashore tied to a bundle of papers. I have told the story elsewhere and how, brooding over these things, and by powers of analysis and synthesis rarely linked in one brain, he solved the riddle and brought a murderer to justice.
He didn’t continue in the business. He is a very rich man, and God’s beautiful world offers him better objects of pursuit than the crook and criminal; all the same, a year after the shoe business, accident brought him again in touch with a problem. He took the thing up, followed it to its solution and now he wishes he hadn’t. This is the story as he told me it.
I don’t know what it is about travelling that palls on one so much if one is travelling alone, maybe it’s the fact that the perfectly friendly people one meets are dead strangers to one, for all their conversation and close propinquity; a sea and land journey round the world is, in this respect, nothing more than a magnified bus ride, passengers getting in and out, talking together and so forth, but dead to one another once the destination is reached.
It was at Rangoon that this great fact hit me, and incidentally laid the keel of the yarn I promised to tell you. I was suddenly fed up with boats, trains, hotels and strangers, homesick down to the heels of my boots, and wanting some place of my own to hide in; anything, even a shack in the jungle. It was the queerest feeling, and one day when it was gripping me hard, I fell in talk in the hotel bar with an old saltwater chap by name of Boston, who owned boats on the Irawadi and a couple of deep-sea schooners. I told him what was in my mind and he understood. He took me by the arm and led me off down to the river, and pointing out a schooner tied up to the wharf:
“There you are,” said he, “that’s what you want; she’s in ballast and ready for sea. She’s mine. Buy her, or rent her. She’s a hundred and ten tons and nothing can break her, best sea boat in these waters; she’ll take you to Europe safer than the mails, and I’ll get you a skipper and crew inside the week.”
An hour after I had closed, and the Itang—that was her name—was mine. I’d found a home. A week later I was off, slipping down the Irawadi with the land breeze into the Gulf of Martaban, bound for Europe?—oh Lord, no! I was homesick no longer; Europe might have gone off the map as far as I was concerned, for the Pacific was calling me.
We sailed south down by the Andamans and through the Straits of Malacca, past Java and Flores, into the Banda Sea, tinkered about amongst the islands and then came through Torres Straits; it was May and the south-east monsoon was blowing—you can’t get through that place when the north-west is on, because of the fogs—then steering north by the Louisiades, we passed the Solomons, touched at several of the Carolines and pushed on till we were about half-way between the Ladrones and Wake Island just under 20° North.
That’s where the happening took place.
One blazing hot morning just as I was turning out of my bunk Mallinson, the skipper, came down to report a boat sighted drifting and derelict away ahead on the port bow.
I came up in my pyjamas, and there she was, sure enough, a ship’s boat, with no sign of life and evidently no dead bodies in her, for she was riding high and dancing to the sea like a walnut-shell, but stuck up in the bow of her there was something like a bit of white board fixed to a spar of some sort.
Through the glass Mallinson made out something on the board that he said was writing. I couldn’t; it looked like black lines to me, but he was right.
We closed up with her, dropped a boat, and I put off with Hogg the mate, the Itang keeping to windward on the off-chance of infection. Mallinson had it in his head that the notice on the board might be a warning of smallpox or plague, or something like that, and he’d once been had badly by picking up a plague boat off the Maldives. But it wasn’t.
The notice had nothing to do with disease or infection, and I’ll give you a hundred guesses as to what some old ship master, maybe dying and half crazy with the loss of his ship, and a secret on his conscience had written up for some passing ship to read.
This was it:
“The heir of William Abbott will be found at
11 Churles Street, Shanghai.”
I don’t mind saying that no sailor man has ever struck anything at sea stranger than that. You must remember where we were: a thousand miles of blue ocean all around and that piece of writing staring us in the face; the affairs of William Abbott and his heir, whoever they might be, contrasted with God’s immensities—an advertisement, almost, you might say, written on that desolation.
It struck me clean between the eyes, it was like meeting a man in a top hat in the middle of the Sahara desert. We closed up with the boat; she was clean swept of everything down to the bailer, no ship’s name on her, and worth maybe a hundred dollars; so we towed her to the Itang and got her on board, notice and all.
It was lashed to a boat-hook, which was lashed to the forward thwart, and we cut it loose and brought it down to the cabin, where we hung it up as a trophy.
After the word “Shanghai” there was the indication of a letter that looked like “L,” faint as if the paint had run out or the fellow who was writing had given up the job, dying maybe, before he could finish it; the board itself was an old piece of white enamelled stuff, torn evidently from some part of a ship’s make-up, the whole thing was roughly done, but the chap, whoever he was, had some education, for there was a punctuation mark after the word “Street.”
We stuck it up on the after bulkhead, and there it hung, giving us food for talk every meal time, and on and off for days. Mallinson said it was the work of some chap who had died and left no will, he was a bit of a sea lawyer and he held that if William Abbott was a sailor and it could be proved he was lost at sea and if some relation of his was to be found at 11 Churles Street, Shanghai, the Law, under the circumstance, would regard the thing as a will.
This seemed to me rubbish, but it gave us something to argue about, and so it went on till the thing dropped from our talk as we raised our latitude, looking in at Los Jardines and then steering for Formosa.
I’d determined to have a look at Japan, so we left Formosa, steering north, and then one day, it was off the Riu Kiu islands, the helm went over and we steered for Shanghai.
The fact of the matter was that beastly board had obsessed me. Though we had ceased talking of it, I hadn’t ceased thinking of it. You know the way a problem gets hold of me. Lying in my bunk at night, I worked that riddle backwards and forwards, and up and down. If William Abbott had written it, what had become of him? Why wasn’t his corpse in the boat? What was the use of writing it? As a legal document, it was useless. The whole thing was a tangle, but one fact stood out, it was a message. Well, to whom? Not to the seagulls or the world at large, but to the first person who should pick it up, and the message was:
“The heir of William Abbott lives at such and such an address.” That was quite plain. Also it was evident that the writer meant that the finder of the message should make use of it by bringing it to or sending it to 11 Churles Street.
Whether some man at the address given could benefit by the message or not was another matter—evidently it was in the mind of the writer that he could.
You see how reasoning had brought me to a point where conscience was awakened. I began to say to myself: “It’s your duty to take that message; here you are a well-to-do idler bound for no port in particular, but just following your own pleasure, you are going to Japan for no earthly reason, just for a whim, Shanghai lies almost on your way and your duty is to stop there,” but I didn’t want to go to Shanghai, I had nothing against the place or the Chinese—I just didn’t want to go; however, that didn’t matter, conscience had taken the wheel and I went.
We got to the river before noon one day and picked up a pilot. You don’t know Shanghai? Well, you’re saved the knowledge of the shoals and buoys and lightships and the currents, and the five-mile-long anchorage, to say nothing of the freighters going up and down and the junks out of control. I cursed William Abbott and his heirs before we were berthed, and then, leaving Mallinson in charge, I went ashore to hunt for my man.
I knew Lockhart, the silk man, and found him out, and he made me stop with him at his place all the time I was there, which was only three days.
It’s an interesting place, Shanghai, but the thing that intrigued me most was the fact that there was no Churles Street. Thinking the Johnnie who wrote the notice might have meant Charles Street, I asked for that; there was no such place in the European quarter. The European quarter lies east of the Chinese town. There was no such place in the Chinese town, there was the street of a Thousand Delights and the street of the Seven Dead Dogs, and the street of the Lanterns, and so forth, but they were no use, so, feeling that I was done and shaking the dried mud of Shanghai off my shoes, we put out for Nagasaki.
I sent the notice board flying over the after rail as we dropped the land and dismissed the matter from my mind—from my conscious mind. My subliminal mind had it still in hand, and two days after landing at Nagasaki it asked me this question: “Could that faintly written ‘L’ have been the first letter of the word ‘lost’?”
I went straight to the shipping office and, looking over the list of overdue ships, I found a notice that the steamship Shanghai, bound from London to Canton was eight weeks overdue. You can imagine how the hound in me woke to life and wagged its tail at that discovery. I sat down and wrote out on a sheet of paper the message, amended into this: “The heir of William Abbott lives at 11 Churles Street. Shanghai lost.” If the writer had possessed the time and paint and space he might have given the full strange history of the case and how the boat had been drifted off and about the seas with that message.
Maybe the chap had jumped to the sharks, driven by hunger or thirst as many a man has done, maybe he had painted his message on that bit of board before leaving some slowly sinking ship and taken it in the boat—no knowing, the fact remained, and seemed clear enough, that some desperate urgency of soul had made him, in face of death and with a steady hand, take a paint brush and write that screed on the bare chance of someone picking it up.
You know my make-up and how, having gone so far on an inquiry of this sort, I was bound to go on. It’s different now. I’ll never touch a thing like that again, but that day I stripped for action, determining to see the business through and find out every bit of meaning there was to it.
I started by sending a cable to the Board of Trade, London Docks. Next day at noon I had an answer which read: “Shanghai sixteen hundred tons, Master’s name Richard Abbott.”
That name Abbott coming over the wires all the way from murky London, in answer, you might say, to the name Abbott written on that board away in the blue Pacific, gave me a thrill such as I have never felt before. I knew now the writer of the message, and at the same time I knew that it was not his own money that he was bothering about simply because he wasn’t William Abbott. I knew that it was highly probable that he was a close relation of William Abbott, brother maybe, or son; that might be placed among the high probabilities owing to the similarity of name and intimate knowledge of family affairs. Just so, and I could go a step further; it was pretty certain that Richard Abbott, the master of the Shanghai, was the sole possessor of the knowledge he had given to the world, and, from the urge that drove him in the face of death to tell what he knew, it was possible that the thing weighed on his mind, possible, in fact, that he had kept the thing hidden.
In other words, that he was trying to remedy an injustice committed either by himself or someone else.
I wrote all these probabilities and possibilities down on a sheet of paper, with an account of the finding of the message, sealed the lot up in an envelope and gave it in charge of the manager of the bank I dealt with in Nagasaki, so that in the case of death or accident the heir of William Abbott might have some chance of coming to his due. Then I proceeded to enjoy myself in Japan, determined to think no more of the matter till I got back to London.
I spent a month in Japan, sold the old Itang for more than I had given for her and paid off captain and crew.
I made up my mind that the Churles Street referred to in the message lay in London. London was the home town evidently of the master of the Shanghai, and he would refer to Churles Street—perhaps a well-known place in the dock quarter—just as one might speak of Cromwell Road or Regent Street.
On getting in to Southampton, the first thing I did at the hotel was to consult a Kelly’s directory, and sure enough, there was Churles Street, E.C., the only street of that name, a short street of twenty houses or so with the name J. Robertson against No. 11. The street opened off the West India Dock Road, and two days later, when I had disposed of my private business in London, I took a walk in the East End. The Dock Road is a fascinating place if you are in good health and spirits, and if the day is fine, but there is no fascination about Churles Street, a gloomy, evil looking cul-de-sac, not rowdy, but quiet with the quietude of vice reduced to misery and crouching in a corner.
It was a horrible place.
A thin woman nursing a baby was standing at the door of No. 11. I asked her was anyone of the name of Abbott living there and she glanced me up and down.
“Have you come from his brother?” asked she.
“Yes,” I said, “I’ve come from Captain Richard Abbott.”
She led the way into the passage, opened a door, and showed me into a room where a man, fully dressed, was lying on a bed smoking a pipe and reading a sporting paper.
A typical lounger and ne’er-do-well, unshaved, and with his collar and tie on the chair beside him, this chap gave me pause, I can assure you.
“Well,” he said to the woman, “what’s he want?”
“You’re his brother?” I said.
“Yes,” he replied, “I’m his brother, and who might you be?”
“Met him abroad,” I replied, “and he asked me to call in and see how you were doing.” I was clean cut off from the business I had in mind, some instinct told me to halt right there and show nothing that was in my hand. The man repulsed me.
“Well, you see how I am doing,” replied he, “hasn’t he sent me anything but his kind inquiries?”
“Yes,” I said, “he asked me to give you a sovereign from him.”
I brought out the money and he took it and laid it on the chair by the collar and tie, then he filled his pipe again and we talked. I had taken a chair which the woman had dusted. I talked but I could get nothing much out of him, to ask questions I would have had to explain, and to explain might have meant bringing this unshaven waster on top of me to help him to prosecute his claims. If I did anything further in the matter, I would do it through an agent, but upon my word I felt I had paid any debt I might owe to the master of the Shanghai by the trouble I had taken already and the sovereign I had handed over in his name.
As we talked a pretty little girl of ten or twelve ran into the room; she was dirty and neglected, and as she stood at the end of the bed with her great eyes fixed on me, I could have kicked the loafer lying there, his pipe in his mouth and his sporting paper by his side.
It seemed that he had four children altogether, and as I took my leave and the woman showed me out, I put another sovereign into her hand for the children.
There I was in the West India Dock Road again feeling that I could have kicked myself. It was not so much the trouble I had taken over the business that worried me as the wind up. I’d put into Shanghai, sent cables from Japan, altered my plans, spent no end of money to bring news to that rotten chap, news of a fortune that if secured would certainly be burst on racing and drink.
I said to myself that this came of mixing in other folks’ business and I took an oath never to do it again—I didn’t know I was only at the beginning of things.
Murchison was the agent I determined to employ to finish up the affair. Murchison is less a detective than an inquiry agent, his game is to find out facts relative to people, he lives in Old Serjeants’ Inn, and knowing him to be secrecy itself and not caring to employ my lawyer, I determined to go to him next day and place the matter in his hands, telling him to do what he could with the business, but to keep my name out of it. He need mention nothing about the finding of the message, but he could give it as coming from some unknown source—the message was the main thing, anyhow.
I called at his office next morning. Murchison is a thin old chap, dry as a stick. I told him the whole story and it made no more impression on him than if I’d been telling it to a pump. He made a note or two, and when I had finished, he told me in effect that he wasn’t a District Messenger, but an inquiry agent, and that I had better take the thing to my lawyer. He seemed put out; I had evidently raised his tracking instincts by my story and ended simply by asking him to take a message.
I apologised, told him the truth, that my lawyer was an old-fashioned family solicitor, gone in years, touchy as Lucifer, the last man in London to set hinting of possible fortunes to beggars in slums. “If you won’t do it yourself,” I finished, “tell me of a man who will.”
“I can tell you of plenty,” he replied, “but if you take my advice you will let me make an inquiry into the business before you move further in the matter; there’s more in it than meets the eye and you may be doing injury to other parties by stirring up the mud, for this man you tell me of seems mud.”
“A jolly good name for him,” said I. “Well, go ahead and make your inquiries; it’s only a few pounds more thrown after the rest, and it will be interesting to hear the result.” Then I left him.
A month later I got a letter asking me to call upon him, and I went.
When I took my seat he sent the clerk for the Abbott documents, and the clerk brought a sheaf of all sorts of papers, laid them on the table and went out. Murchison put on his glasses, took a glance through the papers and started his yarn.
Beautifully concise it was, and I’ll give you it almost in his own words.
William Abbott, of Sydney, N.S.W., was a wool broker who came to England in the year 1906 and died worth some hundred and fifty thousand pounds. He had three sons, John, Alexander and Richard.
The Will was simple and direct. Murchison laid a copy of it before me, taken by permission of Abbott’s lawyer’s, whom he had found, and it ran something like this.
“Owing to the conduct of my eldest son, John Abbott, I hereby revoke my Will of June 7th, 1902, by which I bequeathed him the whole of my property, with the exception of the sum of twenty thousand pounds to be equally divided between my sons Alexander and Richard. I hereby bequeath the whole of my property to my son Alexander Abbott. Signed: William Abbott, July 10th, 1904. Witnesses: John Brooke, Jane Summers.”
“Well,” said Murchison, as I handed the paper back, “that signature is a forgery; the body of the document is written as if by a clerk in almost print character, but though I have never seen the handwriting of William Abbott, I will bet my reputation that the signature is forged.”
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Because the signatures of the witnesses are forged; they have both been written by the same hand. The signature ‘William Abbott’ has evidently been carefully copied from an original, there is a constraint about it that tells me that, but the witnesses’ signatures, where the forger had nothing to copy and had to invent imaginary names, simply shout. The fool never thought of that; leaving the point of similarity aside, the woman’s signature is as masculine as a Grenadier. The body of the document, though almost in print, is also the work of the forger.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” said he, “handwriting with me is not only a science which I have studied for fifty years; it is something that has developed in me an instinct. Now to go on. Alexander Abbott lives in a big house down in Kent. Richard, at the time of his father’s death, was a captain in the Black Bird Line, evidently working for his bread. A year after his father’s death he bought the steamer Shanghai, paying a large sum for it spot cash. He was an unmarried man, and when ashore occupied a flat in Bayswater. Alexander is a widower with one daughter.—That’s all. The case is complete.”
“How do you read it?” I asked. The old chap fetched a snuff box out of a drawer in the desk, took a pinch and put the box back without offering it.
“I read it,” he said, “in this way. John, the eldest son, was a bad lot; the father may have intended to disinherit him, and make a second will; anyhow, he didn’t; put it off as men do. When the father died, Alexander boldly did the trick. Richard may have been party to the business, at first—who knows? Anyhow, it seems that he was later on, since he was able to plank that big sum down for the ship, and since he was left nothing in the will, and since, as you say, he put up that notice you took off the boat and which told the truth.”
I said nothing for a while, thinking this thing over. I was sure Murchison was right.
This thing would have been weighing in the sailor’s mind for years; from what I could make out at Churles Street he had evidently been making John some sort of allowance; one could fancy the long watches of the night, the pacing of the deck under the stars, and the mind of the sailor always teased by the fact that he was party to this business, a forgery that had kept a brother, however bad, out of his inheritance. Then the last frantic attempt to put things right in the face of death, the agonised thought that to write the thing on paper was useless, paper that would be washed away by the rain or blown away by the wind.
“Well,” said I to Murchison, “it seems plain enough, and now, on the face of it, what would you advise me to do?”
“If I were in your place,” said he, “I would do nothing. You say this elder brother is a scamp; Alexander, on the other hand, is a rogue; if you mix yourself up in the business you may have trouble. Why should you worry yourself about a bad lot of strangers?—turn it down.”
That seemed sensible enough, but you see Murchison knew only the bare facts of the case; he had not seen that notice board tossing about in the desolation of the Pacific.
I left him without having made up my mind as to what I should do, half determined to do nothing.
The bother was that the facts Murchison had put before me gave a new complexion to the whole business, a new urgency to that message which I had not delivered. I felt as if the captain of the Shanghai had suddenly come to my elbow, him and his uneasy conscience craving to be put at rest. Just so, but on the other hand there was John Abbott, and I can’t tell you the grue that chap had given me. It wasn’t that he was a boozer, or a waster; he was bad; bad right through and rotten. There is a sixth sense, it has to do with morals and the difference between good and evil; it told me this chap was evil, and the thought of helping to hand him a fortune made my soul revolt.
Still, there you are, I didn’t make the chap, and the fact remained that in doing nothing I was holding him out of his rights.
All that evening the thing worried me and most of that night. Next morning I couldn’t stand it any longer. I took the train for Oakslot in Kent. I had determined to go straight to Alexander Abbott, beard him, tell him of the notice I had found and see what he had to say. The idea came to me that he might make restitution in some way without handing all the fortune over to John—anyhow, it would be doing something, and I determined to use all my knowledge and power if necessary.
Ever been to Oakslot? It is the quaintest and quietest place, and it wasn’t till I got out of the train and found myself on the platform that the terrible nature of the business I was on took me by the arm.
I had no difficulty in finding Alexander Abbott’s residence; the Waterings was the name it went by, an old Georgian house set in a small park; one of those small, rook-haunted, sleepy, sunlit pleasaunces found only in England and best in Sussex or Kent.
I was shown into the drawing-room by an old manservant, who took my card, on which I had pencilled: “From Captain Richard Abbott.”
A few moments passed and the door opened and a girl came in, a girl of sixteen or so, pretty as a picture and charming as a rose; one of those sweet, whole, fresh, candid creatures, almost sexless as yet, but made to love and be loved.
I stood before her. I was Tragedy, but she only saw a man. She told me her father was unwell but would see me. Would I follow her?
She led me to a library, and there, seated by the window which gave upon the sunlit park, sat the criminal, a man of forty or so, a man with seemingly a good and kindly face, a man I would have trusted on sight. He was evidently far gone in consumption, this forger of documents, and it was pretty evident that anxiety had helped in the business; a weight on the conscience is a big handicap if one is trying to fight disease.
I sat down near him and started right in; the quicker you get a surgical operation over the better, and so he seemed to think, for when I told him of the finding of the notice and went on to say that it might be necessary to inquire into the will and that I had reason to believe there was something wrong about it, he saw I knew nearly everything and stopped me right off.
“Everything is wrong about it,” said he, “and thank God that this matter has fallen into the hands of a straight and honest man like you—you will understand. This thing has tormented me for years, but when you have heard what I have to say you will know I did wrong only to do right. There is no greater scoundrel in this world than my brother John Abbott; a terrible thing to say but the truth. My father had made a will leaving him everything. He placed that will in the hands of James Anderson of Sydney, our lawyer. Anderson knew John’s character better than my father and was averse from the business, but he could do nothing. My father was a very headstrong man and blind to John’s doings, which the scamp somehow managed to partly conceal from him. He thought John was sowing his wild oats and that he would be all the better for it. John could do no wrong in his eyes, but a few days before his death he had a terrible awakening with a forged bill of exchange—forgery seems to run in the family. It cost him five thousand pounds to stifle the matter, and the day after the business was settled my father died; slipped coming downstairs, fell, and broke his back.
“I was there and he died in my arms, and his last words were: ‘Get that will from Anderson and destroy it.’ He had no power to write a new will, no strength even to write his signature, and when he was dead there was I with those words ringing in my ears.
“I knew my father intended to revoke his first will, would have done it that day; maybe, ought to have done it days ago, but his mind was in a turmoil and he was a strong, hearty man with never a thought of death. Well, there I was, not only with that knowledge but the knowledge that if the property fell to John it would be the end of the family’s good name; that beast was only possible when he was kept short of money—then there was the lower consideration of my own position, penniless and at John’s mercy.
“I made a will and put my father’s name to it, sure that Anderson would make no trouble, sure that John would not inquire into it, for the forgery of the bill of exchange had drawn his teeth, and the fact of that forgery would account to him for the change in the disposition of the property.
“I dated the will, it is true, some years back, and in the time my father lived in Sydney. I did that because I had to forge the names of the two witnesses; had I dated it recently someone might ask who are these witnesses? As it was there was no one to put that question to, for I was not in Sydney at the time indicated in the will—they might have been hotel servants—anyone.
“I left myself the whole property, not from greed but simply because my brother Richard was at sea. I knew his temperament and character, and it was possible that, had I made him part heir, he would have revolted and disclosed all—for I had determined to tell him everything.
“I placed the forged will among my father’s papers; it was proved and there was no trouble. Anderson, whose clients are largely wool brokers and Australian merchants, has a branch office in London; they were my father’s solicitors in England as well as Australia, and the whole thing went through their hands. They had all the less reason to cast any suspicious eye on the document in as much as they had dealt with the forgery of the bill of exchange.
“Then Richard came back from sea and I told him all. He was horrified, yet he saw that what I had done had been simply to carry out my father’s wish. It was impossible to destroy the old will as he had directed, or possible only in one way—by the creation of a new will.
“After a while he cooled on the matter and even accepted a large sum for the purchase of a ship, the Shanghai, now lost. But the thing weighed on his mind as it has on mine, only more so. He was of a different temperament. He did not dread detection, with him it was entirely a matter of conscience: he felt he had defrauded John by being partner to the business, and accepting that sum of money. He seemed to think in his sailor way it would bring him bad luck; no doubt when the end came and he lost his ship he had that in mind, and lest the bad luck might follow him into the next world wrote that notice you found. I have only a few more months to live—now tell me, was I right or wrong in doing what I did?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I am not your judge, but all I can say is this: from what I know of the business, I will move no further in the matter, if for no other reason than that, should John Abbott get word of the business, your daughter would be rendered penniless after your death.”
“Absolutely,” said he.
I asked him was John receiving an allowance, and he said yes. He was receiving two pounds a week for life.
Then I left him and took the train for London, and from that day to this I have heard nothing of any of the lot of them. I expect he’s dead and his daughter an heiress—I don’t know, but I’ll never touch a thing like that again. Even still I’m bothered to know if I was right or wrong in holding my hand and tongue. What would you have done in similar circumstances?