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Title: Hell's Hatches
Author: Freeman, Lewis Ransome
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Hell's Hatches" ***

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                             HELL'S HATCHES



                              NEW FICTION


    THE CURTAIN
        _By Alexander Macfarlan_

    THE SYRENS
        _By Dot Allan_

    OLD MAN'S YOUTH
        _By William de Morgan_

    THE PURPLE HEIGHTS
        _By M. C. Oemler_

    HAGAR'S HOARD
        _By George Kibbe Turner_

    THE VILLA OF THE PEACOCK
        _By Richard Dehan_

    IN CHANCERY
        _By John Galsworthy_

    SNOW OVER ELDEN
        _By Thomas Moult_

    EUDOCIA
        _By Eden Phillpotts_

                        LONDON: WILLIAM HEINEMANN
                        21, Bedford Street, W.C. 2



                             HELL'S HATCHES


                                   BY
                            LEWIS R. FREEMAN
             Author of "In the Tracks of the Trades," etc.


                          [Illustration: 1921]

                       LONDON: WILLIAM HEINEMANN



                                CONTENTS


    CHAPTER                                                     PAGE

          I A REPUTATION QUESTIONED                                1

         II HARD-BIT DERELICTS                                    10

        III THE GIRL HERSELF                                      25

         IV "SLANT" ALLEN RETIRES AGAIN                           38

          V A SHIP OF DEATH                                       50

         VI COMPULSORY VOLUNTEERING                               65

        VII RONA COMES ABOARD                                     80

       VIII I LEAVE THE ISLAND                                    93

         IX A GRIM TALE OF THE SEA                               106

          X ART AND SUSPENSE                                     124

         XI A HERO'S HOMECOMING                                  142

        XII A BAD MAN'S PLEA                                     180

       XIII THE SCENE OF THE FINAL DRAMA                         193

        XIV HELL'S HATCHES OFF                                   206

         XV THE FACE                                             220

        XVI A SUDDEN VISITOR                                     231

       XVII DOWN THE FLUME                                       255

      XVIII THE MASTERPIECE                                      268

        XIX AFTER ALL                                            282



                             HELL'S HATCHES


                               CHAPTER I

                        A REPUTATION QUESTIONED


"Slant" Allen and I, between us, had been monopolizing a good share of
the feature space in the Queensland and New South Wales papers for a
week or more--he as "the Hero-Ticket-of-Leave-Man" and I as "the gifted
Franco-American painter whose brilliant South Sea marines have taken the
Australian art world by storm"--and now that it was definitely reported
that he had left Brisbane on his way to connect with the reception the
boyhood home from which he had been shipped in disgrace five years
before had prepared for him, I knew it was but a matter of hours before
he would be doing me the honour of a call.

He simply _had_ to see me, I figured; that was all there was to it: for
with Bell and the girl dead (that much seemed certain, both from the
newspaper accounts of the affair and from what I had been able to pick
up in the few minutes I had been ashore during the stop of my southbound
packet at Townsville) I was the only living person who knew _he_ was not
the hero of the astonishing _Cora Andrews_ affair, the audacious daring
and almost sublime courage characterizing which had touched the
imagination of the whole world; that, far from having _volunteered_ to
navigate a shipload of plague-stricken blacks through some hundreds of
miles of the worst reef-beset--and likewise the most ill-charted--waters
of the Seven Seas on the off chance of saving the lives of perhaps one
in ten of them, he had been brought off and forced to mount the gangway
of that ill-fated schooner at the point of a knife in the hands of a
slender slip of a Kanaka girl.

To be sure, two or three of the blacks who were hanging over the rail at
the end of that accursed afternoon may have been among the survivors
(for it could have been only the strongest of them that had been able to
fight their way up to the air when Bell chopped open the hatches they
had been battened under ever since the _Cora's_ officers had succumbed
who knows how many hours before); but, even so, their rolling, bloodshot
eyes could have fixed on nothing to have led them to believe that the
greasy shawl of Chinese embroidery the girl appeared to have thrown
affectionately over the shoulder of the belated passenger in the leaking
outrigger concealed the diminutive Malay _kris_ whose point she was
pressing into the fleshy part of his neck above the jugular.

No, there could be no doubt that I was all that stood between "Slant"
Allen, "Ticket-of-Leavester," beachcomber, black-birder, pearl-pirate
and (more or less incidentally to all of the foregoing) murderer, and
the Hon. Hartley Allen, second son of the late James Allen, Bart.,
racing man, polo player and once the greatest gentleman jockey on the
Australian turf. Pardon for the comparative peccadilloes--a "pulled"
horse or two, a money fraud in connection with a "sweep," and the rather
rough treatment of a chorus girl, who had foolishly asked for "time to
consider" his proposal that she come to him _at once_ from the
Queensland stockman who was only just finishing refurnishing her George
Street flat--which, cumulatively, had been responsible for his being
packed off to "The Islands," was already assured, and it looked as
though more was to come--that his "spectacular and self-sacrificing
heroism" was going to wipe out the unpleasant memories that had barred
him from sporting and social circles even before the law stepped in. A
sporting writer in that morning's _Herald_ had speculated as to whether
or not he would be seen again riding "Number 1" for the unbeaten
"Boomerang" Four, with whom he had qualified for his handicap of "8,"
still standing as the highest ever given an Australian polo player; and
the racing column of the latest _Bulletin_ had devoted a good part of
its restricted space to a discussion of the possibility that the weight
he had put on in his years of "easy life in 'The Islands'" might force
him to confine his riding to steeplechases. Of the record which had made
the name of "Slant" Allen a byword for all that was desperate and
devilish from Port Moresby to Papeete, from Yap to Suva, little seemed
to be known and nothing at all was said. But then, that old
beach-combers' maxim to the effect that "What a man does in 'The
Islands' don't figure in St. Peter's 'dope sheet,'" was one from which
even I myself had been wont to extract no little solace.

With nothing but my fever-wracked and absinthe-soaked (I may as well
confess at the outset that I was "in the grip of the green" at this
time) anatomy standing between, on the one hand, and Allen more
despicable than even I, who was fairly familiar with the lurid swath he
had cut across Polynesia, had ever dreamed he could be, and, on the
other hand, an Allen who might easily become more the idol of sporting
(which is, of course, the real) Australia than he had ever been at the
zenith of his meteoric career as a turfman and athlete, it was plain
enough that he would not--nay, could not--ignore for long my presence in
a city that was standing on tiptoe to acclaim him as a native son whose
deed had done it honour in the eyes of the world. It was something like
that the _Telegraph_ had it, I believe.

Where a word from me (and Allen would know that my friendship for Bell,
to say nothing of the girl, would impel me to speak it in my own good
time) would dash him from the heights to depths which even he had not
yet sounded--there were degrees of treachery which "The Islands"
themselves would not stand for--it was only to be expected that a man of
his stamp would make some well-thought-out move calculated to impose
both immediate and eventual silence upon me. If we were still "north of
twenty-two" I would have had no doubt what form that "move" would take,
and even here in the heart of the Antipodean metropolis--well, that I
was leaving no unnecessary loop-holes of attack open was attested by the
fact that I was awaiting his coming wearing a roomy old shooting jacket,
in the wide pockets of which a man's fingers could work both freely and
unobtrusively. I had shot away a good half-dozen patch pockets from that
old jacket in practising "unostentatious self-defence," and when a man
gets to a point where he can spatter a sea-slug at five paces from his
hip he really hasn't a great deal to fear from the frontal attack of
anyone--or anything--that hunts by daylight.

Yes, though I hardly expected to have to shoot Allen, at least on this
first showdown, I was quite prepared to do so if he gave me any excuse
at all for it; indeed, I may as well admit that I was going to be
disappointed if he did not furnish me such an excuse. There need be
nothing on my conscience, that was sure, for, if the fellow had had his
deserts according to civilized law, he would have been put out of the
way something like twenty times already. I had heard him make that boast
himself one night in Kai, just before he went under Jackson's table as a
consequence of trying to toss off three-fingers of "Three Star" for
every man he claimed to have killed. Moreover, I had a sort of a feeling
that old Bell would have liked to have seen his score evened up that
way, for he, more than almost anyone I could recall, had marvelled at
what he called the tricks I had tucked away in my "starboard trigger
pocket." But--I may as well own it--my principal reason for hoping for a
decisive showdown straightaway was that I felt sure I could see my way
through an affair of that kind, even with so cool and resourceful a hand
as I knew Allen to be. As an absinthe drinker, what I dreaded was to
have the crisis postponed, knowing all the while that during only about
from four to six hours of the twenty-four would I be fit in mind or body
to oppose a child, let alone a man who, for five years and among as
desperate a lot of cut-throats as the South Pacific had ever known, had
lived up to his boast that he drew the line at no act under heaven to
gain his end.

It had struck me as just a bit providential that Allen almost certainly
would be coming to see me in the early afternoon--the very time at
which, physically and mentally, I would be best prepared for him. It
varies somewhat with different addicts of the drug, but with me the
"hour of strength"--the interval of the swinging back of the pendulum,
when all the faculties are as much above normal as they have been below
it during the preceding interval of depression--was mid-afternoon. From
about ten in the morning I was just about my natural self--just about at
the turn of the tide between weakness and strength--for three or four
hours; but from about three to five, when the renewed cravings began to
stir and it had long been my custom to pour my first thin trickle of
green into the cracked ice, I was preternaturally alive in hand and
brain. The rigorous restriction of my painting to these brief hours of
physical and spiritual exaltation must share with my colours the credit
for the fact that I had already done work that was to win me a niche
distinctively my own as a painter of tropical marines. How much
absinthe--or the reaction from absinthe--had to do with my earlier
successes was conclusively proven by the way my work at first fell off
when those colourful years I was later to spend with the incomparable
Huntley Rivers in the Samoas and Marquesas began to bring me back
manhood of mind and body and to rid me--I trust for good and all--of the
curse saddled upon me in my student days in Paris. But that is neither
here nor there as regards the present story.

I had ascertained that Allen's train was to arrive from Brisbane at ten
in the morning, and that he was to be taken directly from the station to
the Town Hall to receive the "Freedom of the City." Then, out of
consideration for the fact "that the hero" (as the _Herald_ had it) was
"still far from recovered from the terrible hardships he had endured as
a consequence of his unparalleled self-sacrifice," the remainder of the
day was to be left at his disposal to rest in. The further program--in
which His Excellency the Governor-General himself was to take
part--would be arranged only after the personal desires of the "modest
hero" had been consulted.

A 'phone to the gallery where my Exhibition was on--or an inquiry of
almost anyone connected with the show at the Town Hall, for that
matter--would apprise Allen that I was staying at the _Australia_, and
there I knew he would come direct the moment he could shake himself free
from his entertainers. Someone was to take him off to lunch, to be sure,
but--especially as it was reported that he was already dieting to get
back to riding weight--I felt sure this would not detain him long. "It
will be about three," I told myself, and left word at the office that
any man asking for me around that hour should be brought straight to my
rooms without further question. I also 'phoned Lady X---- and begged off
from showing her and a party of friends from Government House my
pictures at four, as I had promised a couple of days previously. Being
borne off to the inevitable and interminable Australian afternoon
teas--or to anything else I could not easily shake myself free from very
shortly after five--was one of the worst ordeals incident to the spell
of lionizing that had set in for me from the day of my arrival in
Sydney. What did I care for Sydney, anyhow? Paris was my goal--gay,
cynical, heartless Paris, who took or rejected what her lovers laid at
her feet only as it stirred, or failed to stir, her jaded pulses, asking
not how it was made or what it had cost. Paris! To bring that languid
beauty fawning to my own feet for a day--even for an hour, my
hour--_that_ would be something worth living--or dying--for. For many
years I had been telling myself that (between three and five in the
afternoon, of course) and now--quite aside from my nocturnal flights
there on the wings of the "Green Lady"--it seemed that the end so long
striven for was almost in sight.

I lunched lightly--a planked red snapper and a couple of alligator
pears--in my room, and toward two o'clock (to be well on the safe side)
slipped into the old hunting jacket I have mentioned, and was ready;
just that--ready. My nerves were absolutely steady. The hand holding the
palette knife with which (to kill the passing minutes) I began daubing
pigments upon a rough rectangle of blotched canvas on an easel in the
embrasure of the windows, might have adjusted the hair-spring of my
wrist-watch, and the beat of my heart was slow and strong and steady
like the throb of the engines of a liner in mid-ocean. If either hand or
nerve inclined more one way than the other, it was toward relaxation
rather than tenseness. Tenseness--with a man who has himself in hand--is
for the moment of action, not for the interval of waiting which precedes
it. My whole feeling was that of complete _adequacy;_ but then, the
sensation was no new one to me--at that time of day.

Exhausting the gobs of variegated colour on my palette, I went to a
table in the bathroom and started chipping the delicately tinted linings
from the contents of a packing case of assorted sea shells, confining my
attentions for the moment to a species of bivalve whose refulgent inner
surface had caught and held the lambent liquid gold of sunshine that had
filtered through five fathoms of limpid sea-water to reach the coral
caverns where it had grown. Powdering the coruscant scalings in a
mortar, I screened them from time to time, carefully noting the
gradations of colour--ranging from soft fawn to scintillant saffron--as
the more indurated particles stood out the longer against the friction
of the pestle. At this time, I might explain, I was in the tentative
stage of my experimentation to evolve and perfect a greater variety of
media than had hitherto been available with which to express in colour
the interminable moods of sea and sky and sunshine. The value of my
contribution to art--not yet complete after five years--will have to be
judged when I pass it on to my contemporaries and posterity. Of the part
these colours played in my later and more permanent success (to
differentiate it from the spectacular but transient spell of fame upon
the threshold of which I stood at the moment of which I write), I can
only say that had I been confined to the pigments with which my
predecessors had been forced to express themselves, I should never have
risen above the rating of a second or third class dauber of sea-scapes.



                               CHAPTER II

                           HARD-BIT DERELICTS


With Allen and his coming in the back of my brain, it was only natural
that my thoughts, as I ground and sifted and sorted the golden powders,
should turn to Kai and the train of events leading up to the ghastly
tragedy of the _Cora Andrews_, so distorted a version of which had gone
abroad as a consequence of the fact that Allen was alive and Bell was
dead, and that I, so far, had not told what I knew of the circumstances
under which the one and the other had been induced to board the stricken
"black-birder."

It must have been, I reflected, its comparative remoteness from all of
even the least-sailed of the South Pacific trade routes that was
responsible for making Kai Atoll, a barely perceptible smudge on the
chart of the Louisiades, the unofficial rendezvous for the most
picturesque lot of cut-throats, blackguards and beachcombers that "The
Islands" had known since the days of "Bully" Hayes and his care-free
contemporaries. Like had attracted like after the original nucleus
gathered, safety had come with numbers, and at the time of my arrival no
man whose misdeeds had not made him important enough to send a gunboat
after needed to depart from that secure haven except of his own free
will.

Among a score of hard-bit derelicts whose grinning or scowling phizzes
flashed up in memory at the thought of that sun-baked loop of coral,
with its rag-tag of wind-whipped coco palms and its crescent of zinc and
thatch-roofed shacks, only three--or four including myself--occupied my
mind for the moment. Allen--reckless daredevil that he was--had come to
Kai from somewhere in the Solomons for the very good and sufficient
reason that it was the only island south of the Line at the time where
his welcome would not have been either too hot or too cold to suit his
fastidious taste. Bell had come, in a stove-in whaleboat, because Kai
was the nearest settlement to the point where he put the _Flying
Scud_--the trading schooner that was his last command, if we except the
_Cora Andrews_--aground on Tuka-tuva Reef. The girl, who arrived with
Bell in the whaleboat, came because he brought her. The tide-rips of Kai
passage and the Devil's own toboggan were all the same to Rona--at this
stage of the game, at least--so long as the big, quiet, masterful Yankee
was bumping-the-bumps with her. And even afterwards--but let that
transpire.

I, Roger Whitney, artist, formerly of New York and Paris, and, latterly,
man-about-the French-colonies, with no fixed abode, had been landed at
Kai by a French gunboat from the Noumea station. I packed myself off
from that accursed hole because the suicide of a couple of officers in
whose company I had been drinking absinthe at the _Cercle Militaire_ for
some weeks had reminded me altogether too poignantly of what I might, in
the ordinary course of things, expect to be doing myself before long. A
change of scene and, if possible, a modification of habits was the only
hope. I would never have had the initiative to tackle even the first had
not the feeling persisted that I was on the verge of doing something
worth while with my painting. I went to Kai because the archipelago
thereabouts was reputed to have the most gorgeous sky and water
colouring in Polynesia.

Neither the promised beauties nor the reputed badness of Kai stirred me
greatly in anticipation. With a bitter smile I told myself that every
night I was seeing sights more lovely than anything my eyes were likely
to rest on short of Paradise, while the Chamber of Horrors in which I
awoke every morning was a veritable annex to the Inferno itself. No, it
was out of the question that Kai could unfold in realities, whether to
delight or shock, things to outdo those that were already mine in dreams
that had themselves become more real than realities. Well, it turned out
that I was only half right, or wrong, whichever way you want to put it.
While, on the one hand, I found the bluff, open badness of Kai rather
more refreshing than shocking; on the other hand, it was hardly more
than a week before I was ready to swear that not the most ethereal houri
that ever laid her cool green hand upon my fevered brow was of a class
to run one-two-three with a flame-quivering slip of a nymph whom I had
surprised at her bath in a beryline pool inside the windward reef. I
began to pull myself together from that hour. Rona, the very sight of
whom threw most men out of hand, had quite the opposite effect upon me.
I knew she was not for me, and the thought that the world actually held
such loveliness in the form of flesh and blood had a sort of reassurance
about it, like the knowledge that one has an ample income from
government bonds.

Because I had landed from the _Zelee_, and also, perhaps on account of
my rig-out (especially the brimless Algerian sun-helmet), the "beach" of
Kai put me down at once as a "We-we," and, therefore, a creature quite
apart. The only Frenchmen on the island were a couple of escapes from
the convict settlement of New Caledonia, and because neither of them
could ride or shoot or fight with their fists, they had no standing with
the predominant Australian "push," most of whom were more or less handy
at all three. It was, indeed, the fact that, in spite of all my years in
Paris and the French colonies had done to make a physical wreck of me, I
still retained something of the quickness of eye and hand and foot which
had conspired to make my Harvard record as an all-round-athlete one that
only two or three men have equalled even down to the present day, that
gave me such easy sledding in making my way with the "best people" of
Kai.

It took just three minutes--the length of the first round of the
"friendly bout" I fought with "Heifer" Halligan, ex-welter-weight
champion of Victoria, at Jackson's pub one afternoon--to change Kai's
openly expressed contempt for me to something very near respect. I
thoroughly appreciated the attitude of that breezy lot of sport-loving
rascals toward a Frenchified Yankee artist, especially one that did not
appear to be a fugitive from justice, and so took the first opportunity
to win a standing with them which would at least incline them to let me
go my own way when I wanted to. Notwithstanding my wretched condition, I
outpointed my chunky opponent a good three to one in that opening round;
indeed, the "Heifer's" excuse for the foul which put me to sleep in the
Second was that both his "bloomin' peepers" were so nearly swelled shut
he couldn't see "stryght." But it was my swelling groin and battered
hands, rather than "Heifer's" bruised optics, that came in for first
attention from deft-fingered Doc Wyndham--once of Guy's, on his own
admission. The next day I was waited upon by a delegation sent from
"Jackson's Sporting Club" to urge me to put myself in training for a
go-to-the-finish with "Shark-mouth" Kelly of Suva, the Fiji open champ.
My speed would dazzle a cow-footed dolt like "Shark-mouth" was, they
said, and he would be easy picking for me. They further urged that we
could clean up all the loose money west of the "Hundred and
Eightieth"--what odds would Fiji not give in backing a fourteen-stone
stoker against an artist that only weighed ten stone and looked half
dished with the "green" besides? Moreover, I could keep the whole purse
for myself; all they wanted out of it was the sport. God bless the
scalawags, it was more than half true, that last.

The funny thing about it was that the project actually tempted me at the
time, principally, I think, because there seemed a chance that the hard
exercise of training--the very thing, indeed, that helped work the
miracle a few years later--might effect me at least a temporary
separation, if not a permanent divorce, from the "Green Lady." I was
still temporizing with "delegations" when the _Cora Andrews_ dropped her
hook in Kai Lagoon and gave us something else to think about.

If the little cunning I had left with my fists won me the respect of the
"beach," it remained for my proficiency with the revolver--something
which I had never allowed myself to grow rusty in--to give me real
prestige. My father had been only less famous as a pistol shot than as a
builder of steel bridges, and from my birth it had been his dream that I
should carry on the tradition in both lines. If it had broken the old
boy's heart when I turned my back on engineering for art--insisting on
going from Harvard to Beaux Arts instead of to Boston "Tec" as he had
planned--he at least had nothing to complain of on the score of my
aptitude for the revolver. He admitted that I had bred true in hand and
eye, even on the day that he called my "art tomfoolery" a throwback from
my French grandmother. I have always thought that the one circumstance
which prevented the Governor from cutting me off in his will when he
finally had definite proofs of the depths to which I had sunk in Paris,
was the fact that, on my last visit to the old home on the Hudson, I had
beaten him, shot for shot, with his own pistols, and at his favourite
distance.

They were rather free with their gun play during my first fortnight at
Kai, each little affair having been followed by one or two more or less
ceremonious burials in the coral-walled cemetery on the south lip of the
windward passage. It was merely as a precautionary measure--on the off
chance that they should be tempted to draw me into something of the kind
at a time when I might not be quite on edge for it--that I took early
opportunity to uncover a trifle of what I had crooked in my
trigger-finger. A casually winged gull or two, and a few plugged pennies
(not a miss at the latter, luckily, even when they tried to spin them
edge on to my line of fire) effected all that was necessary. After that,
though they were continually sending for me to come down to Jackson's
and shoot the wire off champagne corks (fizz, loot of some kind, was the
freest flowing drink on the island at the time), or perform some other
equally useful and spectacular gun stunt, not the roughest of the gang
but took the most meticulous care not to press his invitation the
instant it sank home to him that my mood of the moment wasn't of a kind
calculated to blend smoothly with the free and easy spirit of a
beach-combers' carousal.

It was hardly to be expected that they would ever quite understand why a
man who could "blot out a cove's blinker as easy wiv his fist as wiv his
gun" (as I was told that "Reefer" Ogiston, penal absentee and pearler,
put it one day) and who "'peared mo' than comfitabl' heeled fo' coin,"
should be "light an' looney enuf tu go roun' smearin' smashed barnculs
on sail cloth"; and yet it was on that very score--or at least to their
quick comprehension of what I was driving at in my pictures--that the
"beach" of Kai rendered me a priceless service. Almost from the outset
they began to "twig" my marines, to feel the living atmosphere I was
striving to paint into them. They were all men who had lived by the sea,
on the sea; yes, and not a few of them had worked under the sea. Well,
when I began to see those deep-set, wrinkle-clutched eyes squint to a
focus of concentration, and, presently, the quick heave of a hairy chest
as the message of the canvas flashed home, I knew that I was on the
right track. Nothing less than that would have given me the courage to
go on working, as I had set myself to do, on a steadily decreasing
allowance of absinthe, a certain supply of which, of course, I had
brought with me from Noumea.

So much for me and my relations to Kai at the time of which I am
writing. Now as to Bell....

"Who is that tall, square-jawed chap who looks as though he was not
quite sober?" I had asked a day or two after I landed.

"Yank--calls himself Bell," Jackson replied laconically; adding that he
was "not quite sober" when he tried to take a cross-cut over Tuka-tuva
Reef with the _Flying Scud_, that he was "not quite sober" when he hit
the beach in a busted whaleboat, that he had been "not quite sober" all
the time since, and that there was no doubt that he would still be "not
quite sober" when the time came for him to leave the island, whether he
went out with the tide in an outrigger canoe or shuffled off up the
Golden Stairs. "Allus been pickled and allus goin' to be pickled,"
Jackson continued; then, qualifyingly: "Course I don't know he was
pickled when he kum int' the world, but I'm willin' to lay any odds that
he'll be pickled when he shuffles out of it."

Just about all of which was, or proved to be, "stryght dope."

After quoting this terse summing of Jackson's, it may sound a little
strange when I say that Bell was a gentleman--not _had been_, understand
(that could have been said with some truth about a dozen or more of us
at Kai), but _was_ a gentleman. Though undeniably never "quite sober,"
the fact remained that no one on the island had ever seen him "quite
drunk." And no matter how much liquor he had stowed "under hatches," no
one could say that it interfered either with his trim or his navigation.
His even rolling gait was always the same, whether it was the glow of
his eye-opening plunge at dawn that lighted his face, or the flush of
twelve hours of steady tippling that darkened it at twilight. Nor was he
ever known to omit that gravely courteous, almost "old-fashioned," bow
which, with the flicker of smile that was more of his eyes than his
mouth, was the invariable greeting he bestowed upon friend and stranger
alike. The mellow drawl of his "It's suah goin' to be a fine mawnin',"
had made it easier for me to weather dawns that--in my inflamed
imagination--menaced monstrously in jagged lines like a cubist's
nightmare. If drink had any effect on his speech, it was to incline him
to reserve rather than garrulity. His temper appeared to be under quite
as perfect control as his legs. Even when he broke "Red" Logan's jaw
with a swift short-arm jolt the time that sanguine Lochinvar tried to
nip Rona off his arm as they passed on the beach in the twilight, they
said that Bell hardly raised his voice as he "guessed that'd hold the
varmit fo' a while." And when, a few days later, Doc Wyndham told him
with a grin that "Red" wouldn't be screwing a diving helmet on his block
for some weeks to come, it was said there was real regret in the
Yankee's voice as he hoped that the injury wouldn't be "pumanant."

Yes, before I had been a week at Kai I felt that there was a little
addition I could safely make to Jackson's comprehensive estimate. I knew
that Bell had been born a gentleman, and--whatever lapses there may have
been, or might be--I knew he was going to die a gentleman. And that also
(had I put it on record) would have proved pretty nearly "stryght dope."

What stumped me at first was trying to reconcile the remarkable control
Bell maintained over all his faculties in spite of his hard drinking
with the fact (apparently fully authenticated) that he had run
aground--through drunkenness--every ship he had ever commanded,
beginning with a U. S. gunboat. He cleared up that matter for me himself
one afternoon, however, by casually observing--at the moment he chanced
to be watching me trying to transfer to canvas the riot of opalescence
between the _lapis lazuli_ of the barely submerged reef and the deep
indigo where a hundred fathoms of brine threw back the reflection of the
sinister core of cumulo-nimbus in the heart of a menacing squall--that
the sea had always acted as a tremendous stimulant to him, especially
when he trod a deck.

"If I could just have managed to cut out the whisky at sea, all would
have been smooth sailin'," he said in his deep rich Southern drawl. "On
land--heah ... anywheah--kawn jooce is lak food to me; mah body convuts
it into ene'gy just lak an engine does coal. But with a schoonah kickin'
undah me--we'ell, I guess theah's just one kick too many, something lak
mixin' drinks p'raps. It suah elevates me good an' plenty ... and when I
come down theah's natchaly some crash. My ship an' I gen'aly strike
bottom at about the same time. But, s'elp me Gawd" (a tensing _timbre_
in his voice) "on mah next command--"

It was the one sure sign that Bell was beginning to feel the kick of his
"kawn jooce" when he spoke of his "next command." Unless that kick was
beginning to carry a pretty weighty jolt behind it he knew just as well
as everyone else on the beach did that he would never get his Master's
Certificate back again, and that even if he did there was no house from
Honolulu to Hobart that would trust a ship to a man who had already
beached a half-dozen.

Kai was glib to the last detail--rig, tonnage, cargo, insurance, owner
and the like--respecting the several merchant craft Bell had piled up in
the course of his downward career; but the extent of local "dope" in the
matter of the gunboat episode was to the effect that it happened "up
Manila-way," and that "that was the bally smash that started him goin'."

Personally, I took little stock in the naval part of the yarn--that is,
at first. Then, one morning--it was the day after the tail of a typhoon
had sucked up the end of Ah Yung's laundry shack and left everyone on
the beach short of clothes--Bell came out in a suit of immaculate
_starched_ whites. It was the cut of the jacket and the way he wore it
that drew and held my puzzled gaze; that its shoulders were "drilled"
for epaulettes and that its thin pearl buttons barely held in
buttonholes that had been worked for something thicker and wider I did
not notice till later. Steady-eyed, lean-jawed, square-shouldered,
ready-poised--not even a flapping Payta _sombrero_ could quite disguise,
nor five years of heavy tippling quite obliterate, the marks of type.
Then I understood why it was that Bell, all but down and out though he
might be, was, and would remain to the last, a gentleman. There are
things the Navy puts into a man that not even a court-martial can take
away.

The only allusion Bell ever made to his remoter past was drawn from him
a few days later, when--he was watching me paint again--I chanced to
mention that I had spent a fortnight in the Philippines on my way south
from Saigon to Australia. Glancing up at the sound of his sharp intake
of breath, I saw his jaw set over the questions that leapt to the tip of
his tongue, to relax gradually as a faraway look came into his wide-set
grey eyes and a wistful smile of reminiscence parted his lips.

"Did you heah the band play on the Luneta in the evenin'?" he asked
eagerly, "while the _spiggoties_ in their _calesas_ wuh racin' round the
circle, an' the kiddies an' theyah nusses wuh rompin' on the grass, an'
the big red sun was goin' down behind Mariveles beyond the bay? An' did
you know the Ahmy an' Navy Club--not the new one ... the ol' one ovah
cross the moat inside the wall?"

"Put up there all my time in Manila," I replied. "A very comfy old
hangout, especially considering what the hotels were."

"An'--did you--" (he gulped once or twice as though the question came
hard) "did you evah heah them speak at the Club of a chap called Blake
... Lootenant-Commandah Blake? He was a son of Captain Blake, who helped
Sampson polish off Cervera, an' a gran'son of Adm'al Blake. Ol' naval
fam'ly."

"You mean the man who pulled off that coup when Wood was cleaning up the
crater of Bud Dajo? Some kind of a bluff on his own with one of the
little old gunboats Dewey captured after the Battle of Manila Bay,
wasn't it? Scared some Jolo Dato into giving up a bunch of our men he
already had lined up against a wall to _bolo_, didn't he? Of course, I
remember perfectly now. General X----" (mentioning the Military Governor
of Mindanao by name) "told me the yarn himself the night I dined with
him in Zamboanga. He said no one but an old poker shark would ever have
thought of the stunt, much less had the nerve to bluff it out.
Incidentally he mentioned that the chap was the best poker player in the
Navy, as he was also the speediest baseball pitcher ever graduated from
Annapolis; that he had been missed almost as much for the one as the
other since he dropped out of sight several years before. Some
difficulty about--"

"Tryin' to push Corregidor out of the entrance to Manila Bay with the
nose of his gunboat," Bell cut in harshly, the hell in his soul glowing
through his eyes as the glare of the coal-bed welters beyond a stoker's
lifted furnace flap. That, and a single sob sucked through his
contracted throat as the vacuum in his chest called for air, were the
only outward signs of the intensest spasm of throttled emotion I ever
saw assail a human being. Then the square jaw tightened, the cords of
the muscular neck drew taut, and what would have been another body and
soul racking sob was noiselessly absorbed in the buffer of a flexed
diaphragm. The fires of agony behind the eyes paled and died down like
an expiring coal. The corrugations of the brow smoothed out as a
smile--half amused, half wistful--relaxed the set lips. The old
controlled Bell (I shall continue to call him so) was in the saddle
again.

"So they still remembah mah ball-playin'," he drawled musingly, his left
hand digits gently massaging the bulbous swelling remaining after some
red-hot drive had telescoped the middle finger of his right. "Ye'es, of
co'se they'd miss mah wing in the Ahmy-Navy game at Ca'nival time. But
mah pokah--we'ell I reckon a few of 'em did find mah pokah hand about as
bafflin' as mah baseball ahm. But it was straight deliv'ry, tho'--both
of 'em. An' they wouldn't be callin' me a fo'-flushah, etha. No, you
didn't heah any of 'em say that, I'm right suah."

A smile more whimsical than bitter twitched his lips twice or thrice in
the minute or two he stood alone with his thoughts. "So I've sort o'
dropped out o' sight to 'em?" he said finally. "We'ell, I guess that was
about the best thing to happen for all consuned. But, just the same, if
you evah go back Manila-way I won't be mindin' it if you tell 'em that,
tho' the ol' wing's tuhn'd to glass from long lack o' limberin', an'
tho' I don't play pokah down heah fo' feah o' bein' knifed fo' mah luck,
I'm still hittin' true to fohm in mah own lil' game of alterin' the sea
map with the noses of ships. I reckon they'll know the reason why."

There was another interval of silence, but, unlike the other, not
charged, electric. Bell's blow-off through the safety-valve of frank
speech had taken the peak off the pent-up pressure within, and when he
spoke again it was merely to quote what the Governor of North Carolina
had said about its having been a long time between drinks. "Great thust
aggravateh, the Sou'east Trade." Would I mind--ahem--hiking home with
him and lubricating my tonsils with a drop of "J. Walkah"? That was
simply his delicate way of pretending to ignore my slavery to absinthe,
a habit which not even the most whisky-saturated sot of an Anglo-Saxon
can ever quite forgive one of his race for falling a victim to. I
wouldn't? "We'ell, _hasta manyanah_."

With a crunch of coral clinkers under his feet and a stave of "Carry Me
Back to Ol' Virginny" on his lips, Bell, disdaining the smooth path by
the beach, swung off through the pandanus scrub on what he called a
"bee-line for home"! He had a weakness for taking "short-cuts" on land
as well as at sea. Never again--not even in the moment of his great
decision--did he lift for me or any other man the "furnace flap" of iron
reserve that masked the fires of his innermost soul.

Their saving "sense of sport," which was the golden vein in the rough
iron of the "beach push" of Kai, made it inevitable that they should
have a substantial sense of respect for a man of Bell's stamp, and this
might easily have ripened to an active popularity had not the American's
quiet but inflexible reserve prevented their knowing him better. They
suspected that he was no novice in handling the big Colt's that was
flopping on his hip when he landed, they knew that there was a weighty
punch behind his long arm, and they were frankly outspoken in their
admiration of the manner in which he stowed and carried his booze. But
what had impressed them more than anything else was the way in which he
had taken the devil out of a vicious imp of a Solomon Island pony on the
beach one morning. "Hellish hard-handed," "Slant" Allen had said, as his
steel-blue eyes narrowed down to slits in the intensity of his interest
and admiration; "but a seat like he was screwed to the brute's backbone.
Old cross-country rider--hundred to one on it. Man in a million in a
steeplechase on a horse strong enough to carry the weight. Gawd, what a
seat!"

All in all, indeed, there was only one thing the "beach" held against
Bell, and that was Rona, or rather his possession of her. There was
nothing personal in this, of course. They merely regarded the big
American in the same light they had always regarded a man with a chest
of pearls or anything else of value that their simple, direct natures
made them yearn for the possession of. There was this difference,
however. Where the "push" of Kai would have combined to a man to get
away with a box of pearls or a cargo of shell, the annexing of a woman
was essentially a lone-hand game, and--well, Bell was hardly the kind of
a "one-man job" any of them cared to tackle. I feel practically certain
that, but for the disturbance of the even tenor of Kai's way incident to
the _Cora Andrews_ affair, his "rights" in Rona would never have been
challenged.



                              CHAPTER III

                            THE GIRL HERSELF


As for the girl herself, words fail me in trying to picture her, just as
my brush and pencil (save perhaps for that one rough memory sketch, done
at white heat while still gripped in the exaltation that first glimpse
of her splashing inside the reef had thrown me into) have always failed.
This is, I fancy, because, unbelievably beautiful though she was, there
was still so much of her appeal that was of the spirit rather than the
flesh--something intangible which had to be sensed rather than seen. She
was compact of contradictions, physical as well as mental. So slender as
almost to suggest fragility at a first glance, there was still not a
straight line, nor an angle, nor a hint of boniness, from the arch of
her instep to the tips of her ears. Again, pixie-like as she was in the
dainty perfection of her modelling, there was yet a fairly feral
suggestion of suppleness and strength underrunning the soft fluency of
contour. The strength was there, too, held in reserve in the flexible
frame like the power of a coiled spring. I saw her unleash it one
morning when, impatient of the slowness of a clumsy Fijian who was
launching a very sizable dugout for her, she yanked him aside by the
hair of his fuzzy head and did the job herself. I can still see the run
of muscles under the olive-silk skin of arm and ankle, and the bent-bow
arch of her slender back, as she gave a last push to the cranky
outrigger. Indeed, my mind is full of pictures like that--paddling,
swimming, leaning hard against the buffets of a passing squall, with a
lock of wet hair streaking across her glowing face and her drenched
garments clinging to her lithe limbs; and yet, as I have said, the
buoyant, flaming spirit of her always escaped my brush and pencil as it
now eludes portrayal by my pen.

But the most baffling, as it was also the most fascinating, of Rona's
contradictions was the combination she presented of inward intensity and
outward calm. The fire of her was, perhaps, the first thing one was
conscious of. Even I, with my blood thinned and cooled with the ice of
absinthe, could never watch her movements without a quickening of my
jaded pulses; to the sanguine combers of Kai the sight of her (whether
the rippling undulations of arms and shoulders as she drove a canoe
through the water, or the hawk-like immobility of her as she poised on a
pinnacle of reef waiting for a chance to cast her little Dyak purse-net)
was palpably maddening.

So much for the flaming appeal of the girl in action, or suspended
action, which was, of course, about the only way in which she was ever
revealed to the "beach." Now picture the same creature (as Bell--and
occasionally myself, his only intimate friend on the island--so often
saw her) seated cross-legged on a mat, her sloe-eyes, set slightly
slant, fixed dreamily on nothingness, like a sort of reincarnated
girl-Buddha. The sight of her thus never failed to awaken in my nostrils
the smell of smouldering _yakka_ sticks, and to set my ears ringing with
the throb of temple bells.

To my hyper-sophisticated (I will not say degenerate) senses this
Oriental side of the girl made a subtle appeal that was like an
enchantment. The passion to paint her--always burning within me when I
saw her in action--never assailed me when she fell into one of those
contemplative calms. Rather the peace of her soothed me like an opiate
and made me content to sit and dream myself. It was the one thing (until
I got the habit by the throat years afterward) that ever held my nerves
steady when the "absinthe hour" drew near at the end of the afternoon.
As long as Rona would continue to "sit Buddha" I had myself completely
in hand, even till well on after sunset. But if she moved, or spoke, or
even showed by her eyes that she was following Bell's words (it was
he--less sensitive to this phase of her than I--who did most of the
talking at these times), the spell was broken. The haste of my bolt for
home was almost indecent. I have sometimes thought that a few months
alone with Rona at this time might have effected very near to a complete
cure in me--by a sort of involuntary mental therapeutic treatment on her
part, I mean. But perhaps the other side of her--the "unreposeful"
one--might have complicated the case.

Both the fire and the repose of Rona--the passion and the peace of
her--were reflected in the olive oval of her face, the one by the full,
sensuous lips and the sensitive nostrils, and the other by the smooth,
low brow. The low-lidded blue-black eyes were "debatable territory," now
in the hands of one, now the other. So, too, that infallible "gauge of
temperament," whose dial is the pucker between the eyebrows. With Rona,
this "passion-pressure index" was a corrugated knot of intensity or an
olive blank according as to whether her inner fires were flaming or
banked.

Bell knew little of the girl's origin and said less. "Rona's _trousseau_
consisted of huh peacock sca'f an' this heah baby _bolo_," he said in
his slow drawl one afternoon when he had borrowed the exquisite little
dagger to show me how the Jolo _juramentado_ executed his favourite
belly-ripping stroke; "an' I reckon they'll comprise 'bout the sum total
of huh mo'nin' at mah fun'ral." That, and "I guess Rona knows no mo'
'bout mah past reco'd than I do 'bout huhs," was all I recollect his
ever having said on the subject. He was content to let it rest at that.

It was old Jackson who told me that he had seen the girl at
Ponape, where she had been brought by an "owl-eyed" (referring to
horn-spectacles rather than to the almond orbs themselves, I took it)
"chink" when he came back to the Carolines after buying bird-of-paradise
skins down New Guinea-way. She was dressed "Java-style" at the time, and
was said to have been picked up at Ternate or Ambon in the Moluccas.
Although the wily old Celestial kept the girl practically under lock and
key from the first, customers of his shop occasionally glimpsed her, and
she them, it would seem. Among these was the Yankee skipper of the
trading schooner, _Flying Scud_. The coming together of those two must
have been like the touching off of a _ku-kui_-nut torch, Jackson opined,
adding that he supposed I "twigged that thar was no snuffin' uv
_ku-kui_, onst aflar."

Just how the sequel eventuated no one in Ponape save the old Chinaman
knew, and he never told. With only half her copra discharged, the _Scud_
was heard getting under way at midnight, shortly after which the
silhouette of her, close-reefed, was observed to blot out the moon three
or four times as she beat out of that "hell's craw" of a passage in the
teeth of a rising sou'wester. The girl was never seen in the Carolines
again. Neither was Bell nor the _Scud_, for that matter, as it was but a
few days later that he attempted his disastrous short-cut across
Tuka-tuva Reef.

The next morning the Chinaman waited on his customers with his neck
heavily, obscuringly swathed in bandages. He kept these on for a
fortnight or more, and when they were finally dispensed with replaced
his loose shirt with a close-buttoned jacket having an unusually
high-cut neck. Even the latter, however, could not entirely conceal a
number of parallel red cicatrices which, beginning on his fat jowls, ran
down, slightly converging, onto his puffy yellow throat. Jackson felt
sure that the point where those red furrows came to a focus must have
been "fairish messed up."

On the beach of Ponape opinion was fairly divided as to whether the big,
close-mouthed Yank had "strong-armed" the Chinaman and carried off the
girl bodily, perhaps against her will, or whether she had made the
get-away unaided, going off to the _Scud_ on her own. In Jackson's mind
there were no doubts.

"I see them welts wi' my own peepers," he said, "an' they wan't the
marks uv a man. They wuz _scratches_. That lanky Yank don't scratch ...
'e _wallops_. But that gal--s'y, did y'u ever tyke a squint at 'er
taloons? Them's the ans'er. She kum to 'im; an' she's stickin' lika
oktypus."

Again I must credit old "Jack" with handing me pretty near to the
"stryght dope."

Yes, I had indeed noticed Rona's wonderful fingernails; likewise the
astonishing amount of care she lavished on them. One could not have
helped noticing them. A quarter to half an inch long, meticulously
manicured, and stained a maroon-brown (rather darker than the rich _sang
du boeuf_ of _henna_), she was always polishing them--those of one hand
on the palm of the other--even when "sitting Buddha" with dreaming
half-closed eyes. I inferred the habit of letting them grow was acquired
in the course of her association with the Chinese. She cut them just
short of where they would begin to curl and be a nuisance. A fraction of
an inch longer, and they would have been as useless as the tusks of an
old boar that had curved back more than a half circle. As they were....

One man's guess was as good as another's in the matter of Rona's racial
origin. Kai, though agreeing that she came from "somewhere Java-side,"
always spoke of her as a Kanaka, just as they did of all the rest of the
"beach" women who were not palpably Jap, Chinese or white. I doubt very
much, however, that she had a drop of real Polynesian blood in her
veins. Flaring with temperament though she was, there was still nothing
about her of the happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care sensuousness of the
Caroline or Samoan, the only women of the Islands to whom she bore even
the faintest resemblance in face or figure. If she had come from
Marquesas-way--but no, not even an admixture of old Spanish pirate blood
would have accounted for either the spirit or the body of Rona.

The girl's practice of wearing her _sulu_ (Kai used the Fijian name for
the inevitable South Sea waist-cloth which the Samoans call _lava-lava_
and the Tahitians _pareo_) Malay-fashion--looped over the breasts and
secured by a hitch under the left arm--indicated that her outdoor life
at least had been spent somewhere in the Insulinde Archipelago. Her very
considerable English vocabulary, however, and especially her fluency in
"pidgin," could hardly have been acquired save through some years of
residence in the Straits Settlements or the Federated Malay States. I
was inclined to favour Singapore, especially as she had once let slip
something about a fling at _fan-tan_ at Johore. But even had she been
born in that amazing island melting pot, her unmistakably Hindu cast of
features and mould of figure were hardly accounted for. The Madrassi
Tamils of the Straits were coolies, and Rona radiated _caste_ from her
slender pink-tipped toes to her crown of indigo-black hair coils.

In my own mind I harboured the theory that the girl was a "by-product"
of the harem of one of the innumerable petty Sultanates of Malaysia,
among which I knew were to be found girls of all the tribes and races of
the Moslem world. In no other way could I account for the flaming spirit
and the physical perfection of her. Not even descent from that strange
Hindu remnant of the lovely island of Lombok, just east of Java (a
theory which I had also turned over in my mind), quite satisfied on both
these scores. As to what sort of a centrifugal impulse might have
operated to spin her forth to the clutches of the currents of the
outside world, I had not speculated very deeply. But--well, I knew
something of the strange currencies in which Malaysian potentates paid
their debts to Singapore rug and jewel merchants!

In spite of the increasing warmth of Bell's friendship for me, my way to
Rona's confidence proved far from easy sledding. This was partly because
I had got in bad at the outset by starting to sketch that capricious
lady at her reef-side bath in the face of her very outspoken disapproval
of anything so unseemly, and partly because she was slow in making up
her mind that I did not necessarily classify with the predatory males
against whom her whole life had unquestionably been an unrelieved
defence. Obsessed by the desire to paint her, I had not improved my
standing with the girl by asking Bell (after she had refused me
pointblank) to intercede to get her to sit for me. Indeed, that _faux
pas_ on my part seemed to have put an end for good to any chance I might
have had of getting her to pose. Rona was openly indignant that I should
have presumed to regard her own decision as other than final in the
matter, while Bell, though perfectly good-natured about it, was no less
decided in his disapproval.

"No, sah, I'm not fo' it in the least, ol' man," he drawled decisively.
"Lil' Rona's 'bout the neahest thing to a true, lovin' an' lawful wife I
evah had, awh evah will have, fo' that mattah. So you must see that it
doan quite jibe with mah sense o' what is right an' propah unda the
ci'cumstances fo' me to aid an' abet a proceduah that might culminate in
huh appeahin' on the wall o' somun's bathroom as a spo'tin nymph awh a
wallowin' mumaid. Nothin' doin', ol' man; not with mah blessin'."

That ended it, of course. From then on I had to content myself with the
hopeless "sketches from memory," in not the best of which was I able to
catch more than a suggestion of what I sought. I could not have failed
more utterly had I set myself to do a "character portrait" of the "Green
Lady" herself.

But on the personal side it was not long before I began to make an
appreciable gain of ground with Rona. First she ceased avoiding me when
I dropped in for a mid-afternoon yarn with Bell; then she began to
assume a sort of "benevolent tolerance" by coming and sitting on the mat
as we talked; finally she started taking an active interest in the
conversation, coming out of her Buddha-like trances every now and then
to cut in with some trenchant comment in fluent _bêche-de-mer_ jargon,
or perhaps a shrewd question phrased in carefully chosen and enunciated
English.

At last, one memorable afternoon, she came (quite on her own initiative,
he assured me) with Bell to call at the little thatch-roofed,
woven-walled hut I was calling home at the time, wearing in honour of
the occasion her most treasured possession, the "peacock" shawl. It was
this astonishingly fine piece of Cantonese embroidery which Bell had
mentioned as having made up, with the little Malay _kris_, the sum total
of the dower Rona had brought him. It was the first time I had had a
chance to examine it at close quarters and I saw at a glance that,
however it had come into her possession, it had once been a priceless
thing, a real work of art, a treasure fit for the _trousseau_ of a
princess.

The body of the shawl was amber-coloured silk of so close a weave that
it would have shed water as it stopped light. A rubber blanket would not
have thrown a blacker shadow when held against the sun. Yet so sheer and
fine was the fabric that a twist of it streamed from one hand to the
other as brandy pours out of a flask. The peacock itself, done in a
thousand tints and shades of delicate floss, was all of life-size in
body and something more than that in tail. Stitching and matching,
stitching and matching--you could almost _see_ the artist growing old
before your eyes as you thought of the years he must have bent above his
glacially-growing masterpiece.

With this rainbow-bright rectangle of shimmering silks worn folded over
the shoulders in the ordinary way the peacock must have been
considerably telescoped and distorted. It was doubtless for this reason
that Rona always wore it Malay-fashion, as the Javanese women wear their
_sarongs_. This displayed the jewel-gay bird in all his pride, the
bright breast swelling over Rona's own and the coruscant cascade of tail
(you could almost hear the rustle of it) falling about her limbs like
the feather mantle of an early Hawaiian queen.

I have said that this shawl _had been_ a priceless thing. As a matter of
fact it still was such. So lovingly had it been cared for, not only by
Rona but by the many owners it may well have had before her (for Canton
had done no such work as this for half a century at least), that not a
corner was frayed, not a one of its countless thousands of stitches
started. In texture it was scarcely less perfect than the day it was
finished. The only thing wrong with it was that the colours were a good
deal dulled, not by age (for the old Cantonese dyes are as deathless of
hue as ancient Phoenician glass), but by grease. This had happened, I
suspected, largely during Rona's stewardship, for the _tiare_-scented
coco oil she used so freely as a hair-perfume often found its way to her
arms and shoulders--and so to the shawl. All the latter needed to
restore it to its pristine freshness and refulgency was a good
"dry-cleaning."

"Even Rona does not dream of the brilliance of colour under that
grease," I said to myself. "Oh, for a can of naphtha!" Then the fact
that my benzine would do the same trick flashed into my mind. I was all
but out of it, I reflected, with replenishment uncertain; but I could at
least contrive to spare enough to make a start with. Pouring a teacupful
of the pungent solvent out of the scant pint I found still on hand, I
saturated a clean rag with it and, without a word of explanation to the
girl, walked up to her and started washing the bird's face and hackle.
For an instant she stiffened angrily, evidently under the impression
that my solicitude for the embroidery was only a thinly veiled excuse
for chucking her under the chin. (Indeed, she confessed to me later
that "gentlemen" could always be counted on to employ such indirect
methods of approach, and that she found them rather more difficult to
combat than the straight cave-man stuff of the less sophisticated
beach-comber). But as the first glad flash of brightening colour caught
the corner of a suspiciously-lowered eye, the innocence--even the
laudability--of my purpose shot home to her quick mind. With a twirl of
thumbs and a twist of shoulders, she came out of the shawl as a golden
moth spurns its cocoon, and, leaving it in my hand, darted over to a peg
and purloined an old smoking-jacket to take its place.

"Bath heem good, Whitnee," she chirruped, giving her slipping _sulu_ a
hitch with one hand as she thrust the other into an arm of the jacket.
"Makee heem first-chop clean. He too much dirtee long time."

That she lapsed thus into "pidgin" was a sure sign of the girl's
ecstatic excitement. Usually her English--especially when she had time
to ponder and polish it in advance, as when she put questions--was much
better than that.

Sopping gently to avoid pulling the delicate stitches, I managed to
"bath heem good" from his saucy crest, down over the royal purple
hackle, and well out upon his comparatively sober-coloured breast before
my benzine came to an end. A slightly more vigorous dabbing beyond the
embroidery line "alchemized" a patch of clouded amber to a halo of
lucent gold, against which the bird's haughtily-held head stood out like
the profile of a martyred saint on an old stained-glass window. Thus far
would the precious contents of that teacup go, and no farther.

Rona was in raptures. What though there was a blotchy high- (or rather
low-) water mark where the dabbing had ceased near the base of the
erupting splash of tail-feathers, what though the magic liquid had come
off second best in its bout with an indurated gob of egg-yolk drooling
across one wing, what though the worst of our Augean labours--the
cleansing of the mighty green tail--had yet to be tackled--just look at
the glory already wrought!

Crooning with pleasure, the girl stroked and petted the renovated
iridescence of the lordly neck--until I called her attention to the fact
that the still unevaporated benzine was dissolving her finger-nail
stain. It was an ill-advised remark on my part, for it turned her
attention to the still unreclaimed tail and set her begging for "just
nuff fo' one-piecee featha, Whitnee; he need it vehry ba-ad."

She had her way, of course, and would have finished my benzine then and
there had not Bell come to my rescue. Laughing and muttering something
about "thustiness" (not drinking whisky myself, I had none in stock), he
took Rona by the arm and started off on the homeward path. Strutting and
preening she went, the very reincarnation of the royal bird upon her
bosom, the very living, breathing spirit of "peacock-iness."

She might just as well have finished the job--or rather the benzine--at
once, though, for she got it all in the end. Every day or two--sometimes
with Bell, sometimes alone--she began paying calls. Always she was in
gala dress and always, after more or less "finessive" preliminaries, she
made the same plea.

"Just one mo' featha, Whitnee," she would coo ingratiatingly, putting a
long-nailed finger-tip on the "eye" of the particular quill next in line
for renovation. "Ple-ese, Whitnee.... 'Peakie' has been one veh-ry good
fella bird too-dayee. Pu-retty ple'ese, Whitnee."

Of course that always got me, and incidentally the benzine--as long as
it lasted. I had remarked to Bell once or twice how his soft Southern
drawl was beginning to creep into Rona's English, and how fetching a
combination it made with her "pidgin-_bêche-de-mer_" blend. Getting wind
of this, the sly minx played the card to the limit. That "one mo' fetha,
Whitnee," had me fated, and she knew it. I was completely out of benzine
for three weeks, and at a time when I was in especial need of it in
connection with my experiments in colour-mixing; but Rona's friendship
was cheap at the price. When I finally got hold of a five-gallon can of
naphtha from Suva (sent up to Bougainville by Burns, Phillip packet,
where one of Jackson's cutters picked it up), the dry-cleaning the two
of us gave old "Peakie" was the best fun I'd had since I used to scrub
my Newfoundland pup as a kid.



                               CHAPTER IV

                      "SLANT" ALLEN RETIRES AGAIN


Although "Slant" Allen had "retired" to Kai on three or four occasions
previous to my arrival, his latest sojourn--the one which ended with his
enforced departure on the _Cora Andrews_--began about a month after I
took up my residence there. Two questions which Jackson asked of the man
who told him "Slant" had landed on the beach the night before have
always struck me as especially illuminative. One was: "Did 'e fetch a
'awse?" and the other--even more laconic--was: "Gin, Kanak, Jap or
Chinee this croose?"

And equally illuminative was his comment when told that Allen had come
across in a catamaran, bringing neither girl nor horse. "Then 'e musta
sloped in a 'ell uv a rush," said the old trader with finality.

Kai was frankly disappointed that "Slant" had come without his "stable,"
for the "beach race meets" which had made his name a byword throughout
the Islands were always productive (it was universally agreed) of no end
of sport and excitement. Allen, it was claimed, had transported ponies
about the South Seas by every known craft that plied their waters, from
a steam packet to a Papuan head-hunting canoe. Once, in Fiji, he had
even swum a horse across the flooded Rewa in order to get it to Suva in
time to run for the "Roku's Cup." Of course he won out. "Slant" always
did that--by hook or by crook--whether with a horse or a woman. Thus
Kai, in discussing Allen's advent.

It was characteristic of that hard-hit bunch of "gentlemen and
sportsmen" (a phrase often on the lips of the post-prandial speakers at
their "race-banquets") that they should hasten to tell me that Allen had
once owned a Melbourne Cup winner--"came jolly near riding the gelding
himself, too"--while the fact that he had killed more of his
fellow-creatures than any man of twice his age in the South Seas was
only a matter of casual mention. You had to credit the frank minded and
mouthed rascals for running true to form in that touch of naïveté,
though. To them the Melbourne Cup was the greatest thing in the world
beyond any possible comparison: a human life was just about the least.
But they were quite as careless about their own lives as of those of
others, and that alone always raised them in my eyes far above the
pettiness of lesser if more conventionally moral men.

Although there was not a horse on the island at the time of Allen's
arrival, within a week he had wangled it somehow to have a bunch of
Solomon ponies brought over from Malaite, and at the end of a fortnight
had pulled off the first Kai "Grand National." "Slant" called it that,
he said, because, like the great Liverpool classic from which he
borrowed the name, it was to be a steeplechase. The half-wild little
beasts were brought over on the deck of a trading schooner, travelling
in such restricted quarters in the waist that they had to be thrown and
held down to let the foreboom go over every time she was put about.

A bit stiff in the knees but uncurbed of spirit, the vicious quartette
clambered out on the beach, shook off the water soaked up during their
swim from the schooner, laid back their ears and stood ready to fight
all-comers with tooth and hoof. As a consequence, naturally, the
preliminaries of the "Grand National" were more in the character of
broncho-busting contests than speed trials, and it was in one of these
that the mighty Bell had won the plaudits and the respect of the "beach"
by breaking the spirit of a wild-eyed lump of a cayuse which had just
managed to give the momentarily overconfident "Slant" a nasty spill.

The "Grand National" was run round the curve of the beach, with two
"water-jumps," the "stonewall" of the quay, and three hurdles in the
form of old dugout canoes to be negotiated. Bell declined to accept a
mount, and, in any event, his weight would have told prohibitively
against him in competition with any one of at least a dozen lighter men,
all of whom had had more or less actual racing experience.

Allen was the only one to go the full route at the first running of the
"National," all three of his rivals falling out at the water-jumps. When
one of the defeated riders limped in and started to attribute "Slant's"
win to the fact that he had picked the best-broken if not the speediest
mount, that imperturbable sportsman cheerfully agreed to ride the race
over mounted on any one of the ponies the judges cared to designate.
Again he had a walkaway. It was all a matter of sheer horse-mastership;
the speed of the beast had little to do with it.

Finally, just to prove that the running was all on the square, "Slant"
rode the race on each of the two remaining ponies, one of which had
strained a tendon and rasped most of the hide off one side of him in
trying to jump _through_ the coral blocks of the quay instead of over
them. We gave the laughing centaur a great ovation when he brought even
the cripple--dripping blood and sweat it was, but still responsive to
the magic of the hand that imposed its will at the pressure of a bridle
rein--under the wire a half-breach-length winner.

And still more wildly we cheered him when "Quill" Partington--a
broken-down and broken-out (from jail, I mean) newspaper writer, late of
Melbourne and formerly of Calcutta and London--chivvied up an ancient
tortoise that Jackson used to keep around his shop as a pet, and,
mounting "Slant" on the ridge of its shell, offered to back the pair at
catch-weights against anything on the island. "Quill," a most engaging
character, was the poet and minstrel of Kai. He did not, however, figure
in the _Cora Andrews_ affair, save that he later wrote some rather
spirited verses in celebration of it, or rather of what little he knew
of it.

If the feeling in Kai had been one of disappointment when it was first
reported Allen had landed without a horse, that awakened by the still
more astonishing intelligence that he did not have a girl with him was
somewhat different--rather more akin to apprehension, it seemed to me.
"Slant" was no more of a laggard on the love-path than the race-track,
and the gay gossip of his amazing _amours_ was sipped with the tea of
effete Apia and Papeete with scarcely less gusto than when it sauced the
salt-horse of the pearling fleets of Port Darwin and Thursday Island.
The lightning of his love was likely to strike anywhere, you were told,
sometimes in the most unexpected places. There was that vixen of a
_gin_--a straight Australian aboriginal black--whom he had risked his
life for in cutting across a corner of the "Never-Never" when he ran
away with her, only to have her turn and knife him later in Deli out of
jealousy of a half-caste Portugee Timorese who had caught his fickle
fancy. And--to take the other extreme--there was that little
golden-haired doll of a niece of the Governor of Fiji, who fell heels
over head in love with "Slant" after seeing him play polo in Suva, and
who, when they packed her off for home to break up the disgraceful
affair, made what was described as a really sincere attempt to go over
the rail of the Auckland-bound Union packet. Then there was "Slant's"
affair with that notorious pearl-pirate "Squid" Saunders' girl--the one
the missionaries adopted and tried to reclaim, and who promised for a
while to be such a credit to their teaching--with its ghastly sequel.
And so it went.

It was said that "Slant" boasted of having a son (he never kept track of
girls, he said) and a saddle in every group west of the "hundred and
eightieth." I daresay this was true, though those who put it _island_
instead of group doubtless exaggerated. I had landed at several islands
myself where I had been unable to borrow a saddle.

Most of the little unpleasantnesses that disturbed the _dolce far
niente_ atmosphere of Kai had their roots in the fact that the male
population of the island was always a good jump ahead of the female,
that there were not, in short, enough girls to go round. Under these
conditions the advent of so notorious a "feminist" as Allen could not
but be provocative of a certain anxiety, especially on the part of those
who were (to use Jackson's terse if inelegant expression) "'arborin'
'igh-class 'ens."

"Don't you coves make no mistake," Jackson was quoted as saying;
"'Slant' 'll be tykin' a myte stryght aw'y. Only question is 'oo's myte
'e's goin' to tyke. If it was any bloke but that squar'-jawed Yank w'at
'ad 'is grapplin' 'ooks slung into the plumage uv that perky peacock
pullet, I'd 'ave no doubt w'at bird 'Slant' ud be baggin' an' draggin'
'ome to broil. But--layin' low as 'e is fer a bit--I'm thinkin' it ain't
_that_ presarve 'e'll be gunnin' in just yet aw'ile."

"Stryght dope" again from old "Jack." Allen had his own reasons for not
wishing his presence in Kai to be called too forcibly to the attention
of the authorities in the British Solomons, where his latest escapade
(something to do with the forcible recruiting of blacks) came pretty
near the line where they were likely to ask for a gunboat from the
Sydney station to aid in bringing him to book. Allen was by no means
inadept of his fellow men, and he must have known that a showdown with a
man of Bell's stamp--even though he had the best of it and copped the
most desirable thing he ever set eyes on for his very own--could hardly
fail to prove a clash that men would like to talk about, the inspiration
of a tale that would shudder itself from Yap to Tasmania in delirious
beach-comber jargon, setting tongues wagging about him at a time when
publicity was quite the last thing that he wanted.

Pipped as he was by the pullet's pulchritude (his own expression--he
admitted as much to Jackson offhand) the cool-headed if hot-blooded
Allen evidently decided to ride a waiting race for at least the first
half or three-quarters, and so have something to draw on for the
straightaway. "Easy starter but a hell of a finisher," was the popular
appraisal of "Slant's" way of winning with a horse, and it was but
natural that he should pin his faith to similar tactics where a woman
was in the running. There's a lot in common between the two, and it is
rarely indeed that a man who has a way with the one comes a cropper with
the other.

It has occurred to me, too, that a very wholesome respect for Bell as a
man may have had a good deal to do with Allen's failure to force the
running at the start in the matter of Rona. The steel of his own hard
purposefulness could not have but struck sparks on the flint beneath the
American's mask of suave reserve at their first meeting, and the
Australian was far too intelligent not to sense that in Bell's Jovian
spirit there was a force more compelling than anything in his own.
Moreover, at riding, fighting and shooting--all that carried much weight
when they judged a man in the Islands--Allen must have known that if the
balance inclined either way, it was in the American's favour.

It may well have been the sheer rugged, manly forcefulness of Bell that
gave Allen pause, at least in those early weeks before the Australian's
infatuation for the girl became an obsession in which his reason had no
part. For years he had been taking life and property out of downright
contempt for his victims. "I'm the better man, and therefore the more
deserving," was sufficient excuse in his own mind for his most
high-handed outrages. But in Bell--for almost the first time perhaps--he
had met a man who had an "edge" on him--even his soaring ego could not
prevent his recognizing that. This must have been plain to him even when
he measured the Yankee with the yardstick of his own primitive code.
Yes, I really think that Allen, in his innermost mind, rated Bell as a
man who, like himself, had a "right" to the best of everything. I am
even convinced that, for a while at least, he even tried to respect
Bell's right to Rona.

But do not let me leave the impression that there was one iota of
physical fear of Bell in this attitude of Allen's. From what I had seen,
and was to see, of the cool-eyed Antipodean that was unthinkable, even
though he knew that the powerful ex-athlete could come pretty near to
staving in his ribs with a single punch, and though he may have
suspected that the Yankee was the deadlier man on the draw. I honestly
believe that "Slant" Allen had no fear in his heart of anyone or
anything under heaven. At that time, I mean; what came to him later is
another matter.

"Slant" ran true to Jackson's "dope sheet" in the matter of "tykin' a
myte," though, but it was done quite decently and in order--that is, as
such things go in the Islands. He put up with "Quill" Partington (an old
pal) for a fortnight, and then, when "Quill's" lyric spirit led him to
run over to Malaite in search of a queer native banjo that someone had
told him the bush niggers of the interior of that island made, strings
and all, from the wild boar, "Slant" simply stayed on to "look after the
pigs and chickens" (as he told them at Jackson's) and, incidentally,
Mary Regan. Mary came from Norfolk Island, and claimed lineal descent
from the mutineers of the "Bounty." Certainly she looked the part--of a
descendant of mutineers, I mean. She had specialized in unhappy love
affairs, and showed it. She had a thin, bony, angular frame, a voice
like the wail of a cracked fog-horn, and a temper "calid enough for
cooking purposes," as "Quill" described it. "Quill," who had developed a
taste for curries and hot seasonings while living in India, claimed that
the reason he had put up with Mary for so long was because of the saving
she enabled him to effect in _paprika_.

How "Slant"--straight meat-eating and unpampered of palate as he
was--hit it off with the mercurial Mary no one seemed to know. At any
rate, I feel sure that he found her "condimental" disposition useful as
a counter-irritant against the rising fever of his passion for Rona,
something which, though he kept it under astonishingly good outward
control, had been burning with increasing heat from the very first time
he saw her. He confessed that to me later. Curbed passion, like wounded
pride, if it cannot find outward expression, bites inward. With all his
despicable record well in mind, I still cannot help thinking with a
certain admiration of the game bluff the rascal put up during those six
or eight weeks that the enchantment of Rona worked within him, of the
gay, devil-may-care smile that so successfully masked the writhings of
his racked spirit. First and last, there was something about the
fellow--I think it must have been his flaming courage--that attracted me
strongly in spite of all that I knew, and all that I came to hold,
against him.

Since Kai held no regular intercourse with any of the surrounding
islands, the news that the plague--a pernicious form of bubonic--had
broken out and was making terrible ravages among both the bush and
saltwater niggers of the Solomons was received with no especial interest
on the beach, save perhaps by those who were wont now and then to take a
flyer in "black ivory." The labour-recruiting trade--itself almost the
only medium through which the pest had been spread--was hard hit of
course; indeed, had there been anything like adequate control of the
pernicious traffic at this time, it would have been suspended entirely
until all of the islands from which blacks were being taken, or to which
they were being returned, were able to present something approximating
clean bills of health.

Since this was not done, however, the only check on the movement of
blacks--infected or otherwise--was the possible reluctance of the
masters of ships engaged in the trade to take the risk of carrying them.
And since the average black-birding skipper lived as a matter of course
with a gun in one hand, his life in the other, and the devil's tow-line
between his teeth, it was hardly to be expected that a little thing like
the spectre of the "Black Death" looming up on the windward horizon was
going to make him reef much canvas. The "Black Death" in another form
would ambush him sooner or later anyhow. With niggers waiting to settle
accounts with him in every bay it was only a matter of time at the best.
Why worry about a few cases of a disease that might not kill him even if
he did get it? Heave in and get under way! That was about the way the
black-birder looked at it, and he went right on scattering infected
niggers around the South Seas like a cook stirring raisins into a
pudding.

But in the secluded and peaceful haven of Kai lagoon they reckoned that
they had little to fear from the epidemic whatever happened elsewhere.
Let the plague and the heathen rage for all they cared. They were their
own quarantine officers, and, until the "Black Death" ceased to stalk in
the neighbouring islands, "No Visitors" was the order of the day. All
very simple and efficient--in theory. Covered every possible
contingency--just about.

I had spent several colourful days once--getting about from island to
island in the New Hebrides--with red-haired old Mike Grogan on the _Cora
Andrews_, and had heard from that hard-fisted giant's own lips something
of the grim balances checked against his life in practically every
black-birding island of Melanesia. A black's home bay holds a
labour-recruiting skipper responsible for the man's safe return at the
end of his contract time, and if he does not come back they figure that
the only fair way to even up the score is by killing the captain of the
ship which took him away. Grogan calculated that he would have to be
killed something like one hundred and forty times to make a clean sheet
of all the accounts thus reckoned against him. He took a sort of grim
pleasure in running over the items of the various tallies, but always
ended with: "B'gorra, the devils'll be gittin' me yit!" He was convinced
that it would be a "cutting-out" party that would do for him in the end,
and I have no doubt that he fought over in his mind that final bloody
showdown every night he stood the "graveyard" watch alone. A sudden
volley from the bush, his whaleboat caught in a swarming rush of blacks,
his crew disabled or deserting, and himself alone battling it out
single-handed with the niggers at the last.... It was something like
that he expected for a grand finale, and all the "fighting Irish" in him
yearned for it as a sunflower turns to the setting sun.

"An' it ain't as if I won't be givin' the spalpeens a run for their
money, me bhoy," he had cried one afternoon, clapping me on the shoulder
where I swayed with him to the plungings of the _Cora_ in a nasty
cross-swell. "An', b'gorra, it's a way to die after a man's own
heart--shootin' an' clubbin' into a mob o' niggers out under God's own
sky!"

Full as my mind was of other things on that accursed day of which I am
about to write, I could not help but think of these words when they told
me at Jackson's that old Mike's fighting spirit had passed on a windless
midnight, and while Mike himself was jack-knifed over the _Cora's_
wheel, spitting blood and curses, and imploring the devil to quit tying
knots in his tortured guts with a red-hot pitchfork.

What little we heard of how things came to go wrong with the _Cora_ in
the first place fell from the blackening lips of her "Agent" (as the
recruiter is called), who managed to reach the beach of Kai in a
whaleboat, and who did not go into a delirium until a half-hour before
he died that evening. She was packed to the hatches with "return" boys
from Samoa. Although the plague had been claiming a very heavy toll
among the Melanesian blacks of the coco plantations of Upolou, Grogan
decided to take a chance at making the Solomons with a load which, on
account of the risk, was offered him at double rates. They would have
made it all right, the Agent thought, had not the southerly gale which
blew them a long way out of their course been followed by many days of
calms and alternating winds. Grogan's softness in trying to doctor the
first case of plague--instead of following the customary practice, cruel
but effective, of shooting the infected black (doomed anyhow) and
throwing the body to the sharks--was probably responsible for the
ghastly sequel. The blacks fell sick by dozens, until at last the
Skipper--doubtless already in the first throes of the disease
himself--ordered every living man except the surviving members of the
crew driven below and battened under hatch. Grogan died that night and
the mate the following morning.

The only white man remaining was the Agent, and he, obsessed with a
life-long horror of being buried at sea, steered the best course he
could for the nearest island. The _Cora_, luckily heading into the
treacherous reef-beset passage at the turn of the tide, dropped her hook
in Kai lagoon in the first flush of the dawning of the next day.



                               CHAPTER V

                            A SHIP OF DEATH


With a good many days of my life to which I cannot look back without
a blush of shame, I write deliberately when I say that the one
ushered in by the raucous grind of the _Cora Andrews'_ chain running
through its hawse-pipe as she let go anchor a couple of cables'
lengths off Kai beach, stands alone in the horror and the painfulness
of its memories. It is characteristic of all but the most degraded of
beach-combers--doubtless their general contempt of life has much to do
with it--that "once in a while" they "can finish in style"; that, on a
showdown, they are usually there with the goods. I had always felt sure
that, in a pinch, I could force myself to come through in the same
way--the thought had gilded many a slough of despond for me. Well, this
day, I had my chance and funked it--funked it clean, as a yellow dog
slinks from a fight with its tail between its legs, as an underbred
hunter refuses a jump. Oh yes, I had an excuse. "Seeing green" is next
thing to "seeing yellow." Almost anyone knows that. But I had thought
that there was enough red blood left in me to make it possible for me to
take the bit in my teeth and finish like a thoroughbred at the last. But
there was not. That was the thought which had made the ghastly tragedy
even more tragical to me, which made a mockery of the triumph which I
might otherwise have felt when, first Australia and then Europe,
acclaimed me as the greatest marine painter of the decade.

For several days previous to the coming of the _Cora Andrews_ I had
been slipping up pretty badly on my "absinthe reform" program. It was
largely the fault, I think, of a positively infernal spell of weather.
The ozone-laden trade winds, falling light after a spell of low
barometer, had finally failed altogether. Kai was lapped in sluggish
moisture-saturated airs that clung like a wet blanket. The Gargantuan
popcorn-like piles of the trade clouds were replaced by strata of
miasmic mists which awakened all the latent fevers in a man's body and
mind. The sea, slatily slick of surface, heaved in oily, indolent
smoothness, sliding over the reef without sound or foam. The brooding,
ominous sullenness was all-pervading, oppressive with sinister
suggestion.

Everyone on the island was drinking heavily, and mostly alone. No tipsy
choruses boomed out from under the sounding-board of Jackson's
sheet-iron roof. Even "Slant" Allen failed to appear for his wild
end-of-the-afternoon dashes up and down the beach. Rona dropped in
languidly one afternoon to say that Bell was tilting the bottle more
frequently than she had ever known him to do before, and that for three
days he had missed his early morning plunge from the reef.

"Too much walkee with Jo'nnee Walkah, Whitnee," she punned in a feeble
flicker of pleasantry. "I veh-ry much worree along Bel-la."

She needn't have worried, though. _He_, at least, had the stuff in him
for a proper finish.

It was only to be expected that I should seek solace in a time like this
by snuggling closer than ever into the enfolding arms of the "Green
Lady." That fickle jade was at her best--and her worst. Never had she
winged me to loftier pinnacles of sensuous delight; never had she
dropped me to profounder depths of horror and despond. The night before
the _Cora_ came marked a new "high"; also a new "low." I dropped like a
plummet straight from a pea-green grotto full of lilies of the valley,
maiden's hair ferns and ambrosia-breathed houri to the fire-scorched
cliffs ringing the mouth of the Bottomless Pit. I knew that Pit of old.
Most of the early hours of my mornings for the last five years had been
spent in trying to keep from being pushed into it.

But this time, though, it looked as if they were going to get away with
it. Failing to break my grip (I always managed to hang on somehow), they
had tried new tactics. They were pushing in the side of the Pit itself
so as to carry me with it. I felt the relentless creeping of the ledge
on which I struggled to maintain precarious footing. If I could only
push back into the rock ... through it ... out to the air! Nothing could
stand against the mighty heave I gave with my shoulders. The cliff
parted with a great rip-roar of rending, and I reeled back, back,
straight through--the pandanus siding of my hut. An instant before a
nigger had knocked off the shackle of the _Cora's_ anchor chain. The
unchecked run of forty-odd fathoms of rusty iron links through a
hawse-pipe is very like in sound to the rending of a rocky cliff--that
is, to a man in an absinthe nightmare.

That violent awakening did not bring me straight back to normal by any
means. You never come out of the "green horrors" that way, unless, of
course, you fall into water, or set fire to the house, or do something
else that calls for instant action. You usually come out by gradual
stages, each successive one marked by a shade more of the earth-earthy
than the last.

In this instance my fall only changed the spirit of my nightmare. I was
by no means out of the woods, either. I had backed away from the Mouth
of the Pit all right, but what brought that Ship of Death--black and
sinister she was against the bloody redness of the infernal
sunrise--unless it was to take me there again? I _knew_ that it was a
real ship. I _knew_ those black things festooned along its rails were
real dead men. I _knew_ that the horrible reek which presently came
pouring in over the oily water to penetrate my contracted nostrils was
the real smell of rotting flesh. I _knew_ that I was looking out at Kai
lagoon, and from the door of my own hut. I _knew_ these things, just as
I _knew_ it was real blood I saw and tasted when I bit my finger to
prove that I knew them.

But it was still as in a dream that I became aware of an erratically
rowed whaleboat pulling away from the Death Ship and making for the
beach. It was with an agreeable sense of relief that I noted that it was
apparently heading for the quay rather than in my direction. Drawing
near, it sheered away from the weed-slippery landing and went full-tilt
for the beach. A man--a big man, bare of legs and of chest, wearing only
a red _sulu_--ran down to meet it. It seemed no more than a perfectly
natural development of the ghastly pantomime that the big man should
raise a revolver and shoot one of the black rowers when the latter
jumped over the gunwale of the whaleboat and started to bolt up the
beach. I saw the flash from the revolver, saw the fugitive crumple and
fall, and the sharp report, impacting on the side of my sheet-iron
rain-water tank, slammed against my ear-drums with a shattering "whang."

That close-at-hand shot had the effect of shocking me back a notch or
two more nearer normal; but, nerve-shattered as I always was at the end
of a night, it was something very akin to the abject terror that gripped
me as I backed away from the Brink of the Pit which now impelled me to
"back away" from the new menace. Seizing my painting things from sheer
force of habit, I slunk off through the long early morning shadows of
the coco palm boles, not to stop until I came out upon the broken coral
of the steep-shelving leeward beach of the island. It was as far as I
could go without swimming.

Here Laku, my Tonga boy, found me toward noon. The coffee from the flask
he brought was the first thing to pass my lips since I had poured my
last drink the night before. It steadied me somewhat, but my nerves
still refused to react. The shock of the morning had been too much for
them. I realized that Kai had a mighty knotty problem on its hands with
that shipload of dead and dying niggers in the lagoon (Laku had told me
it was the _Cora_, and something of what the trouble was), and it took a
lot of screwing before I got my courage up to a point where I could
force my reluctant feet to carry me back to shoulder my share of the
responsibilities.

I was still streaking and dabbing at my canvas at three o'clock, and it
must have been nearly an hour later before I packed up and started back
toward the village. I burned that bizarre rectangle of colour-slashed
canvas on the very first occasion (which was not until a day or two
later) that I had a chance to stand off and look at it objectively.
There was revealed in it too much of the utter unmanliness which marked
my conduct on this most shameful day of my life to make it a pleasant
thing to have around. For me to have kept it would have been like a
man's framing and hanging the excoriation of the judge who had sentenced
him for some despicable crime.

What had transpired in the village up to the moment of my return at the
end of the afternoon I must set down as I learned of it later.
Everything considered, it seems to me that Kai--with one or two notable
exceptions--behaved very creditably in an extremely trying emergency.
Awakened when the _Cora's_ anchor was let go, a number of men had run
out to the beach, from where their glasses quickly gave them a pretty
good idea of the state of affairs aboard the luckless black-birder. Then
they got together at Jackson's--the lot of them in their pajamas or
_sulus_, just as they had tumbled out of their sleeping mats--to decide
what was to be done. The majority at first seemed inclined to stand by
their predetermined plan of shooting the first, and every man from a
plague-infested ship that tried to land on the beach. But at this
juncture Doc Wyndham, calling their attention to the fact that a
whaleboat had already put away from the _Cora_, suggested that they wait
and learn just how things stood before starting off gunning.

"I'm with you as far as shooting any nigger that tries to break
quarantine goes," he said, "but I'm dam'd if I'll stand by and see
anyone take a pot shot at Mike Grogan, or any other sick white man, for
that matter. Old Mike nursed me through a spell of 'black-water' once at
Port Darwin, and if he is in that boat I dope it it's up to me to tote
him home to my shack and do what I can for him. If he can't clamber out
I'm going to wade in and carry him back to the beach, so you'll have to
shoot the two of us if you shoot at all. But I don't think you will. I'm
not asking any of you chaps to have anything to do with the stunt. You
needn't touch him. I'll take him home and swear not to budge from there
till the thing's over one way or the other. After that I'll put myself
in a ten-day quarantine. Moreover, I won't be expecting attention from
any white man or nigger on the island in case the luck goes against me
and I catch the pest myself. It's my own little game and I won't stand
for any interfering in it."

That was the gist of Doc Wyndham's remarks as Jackson outlined them to
me the next day. They met with hearty assent from all of the dozen or
more present, except on the score of letting the Doc have the job all to
himself. He turned down every one of the volunteer nurses, however,
saying it was his own kettle of fish and that he'd have to stew it in
his own way. He even insisted on meeting the boat alone, urging that
there was no use in multiplying the points of possible "plague contact."

So it must have been the distinguished surgeon from Guy's that I saw
shoot the bolting black that morning. Had I continued to watch, instead
of bolting myself at that juncture, I would have seen him wade out, lift
a man tenderly from the stern-sheets of the whaleboat, and start
carrying the limp body up the beach to where a spreading bread-fruit
tree shaded the door of the sheet-iron shack which he was wont
humorously to refer to as his "professional, social and domestic
headquarters for Melanesia." Following that, I would have seen a bunch
of motley-clad figures prance down and start menacing the irresolute
boat-pullers with flourished revolvers, forcing the frightened blacks to
back off and begin splashing their wobbly way out to the _Cora_.

Wyndham's conduct all through struck me as rather fine, especially for a
man who was a convict of three continents and two hemispheres.
Disappointed in finding his friend Grogan in the whaleboat, on learning
that the latter and his mate were already dead, Doc just as cheerfully
set about paying to the Agent the debt he felt he owed to old Mike.
Before entering his house, he called to his girl--a saucy little Samoan
named Melita, who had gone right on sleeping through all the
racket--ordering her to make a hurried departure by the back door and
not to return until he sent for her. The Doc was never a man to let
sentiment interfere with business, Jackson opined.

Making the doomed man as comfortable as possible in his own canvas
folding bed, Wyndham deferred giving an opiate until he had gained such
information as he could of how things were on the _Cora_. Then, after
communicating (from a safe distance) what he had learned to a delegation
from executive headquarters at Jackson's, he nailed a red _sulu_ to his
front door as a danger signal and disappeared behind the bars of his
self-imposed quarantine.

I may as well state here that Wyndham--thanks, doubtless, to the
precautions which he, as a medical man, would have known how to
take--side-stepped the plague completely, quite as completely, indeed,
as he sidestepped the Thursday Island customs authorities a year or so
later, when a half season's shipment of pearls from Makua Reef, Limited,
disappeared as into thin air.

Of the information Wyndham gleaned from the Agent before giving the
latter a shot of morphine to relieve his agony and mercifully hasten the
inevitable end, the most important as affecting Kai's action was that
something over a hundred blacks had been battened down in the schooner's
forecastle and 'midships hold for seventy-two hours, with nothing but a
couple of stubby wind-sails feeding them air. The dead had all been
cleared out before this was done, but there were a lot of bad cases
among the living who were driven or thrown down the hatches. By the
stench, the Agent knew that some of these had already died; but that
many still had life in their bodies he judged by the unabated vigour of
the howling.

The most reassuring news passed on by the dying man was that Ranga-Ro,
Grogan's gigantic Malay Bo'sun, had remained in charge of the _Cora_,
and that he appeared to have the black crew (only three or four of them,
luckily, had succumbed to the plague so far) well in hand. That
brightened the outlook a good deal, for what Kai had feared above all
else was a general breakout and stampede, which might inundate the
island with plague-infected niggers, crazy beyond all possibility of
control.

Ranga, who claimed to have had at one time or another every tropical
disease on record, was--or believed himself to be--a plague immune. He
was not in the least worried over the responsibilities that had fallen
on him, and could be counted upon, the Agent thought, to see the game
through. The only trouble was that he couldn't navigate, so that if the
_Cora_ was going to be taken to a port where any real relief could be
obtained, she would have to have at least one competent white officer.
Would Kai furnish that officer? was the question up before the meeting
called at Jackson's to decide what should be done with the ill-fated
black-birder.

This was rather a larger assemblage than the one which had gathered at
dawn, called up by the rattle of the _Cora's_ anchor-chain. The latter
was mostly made up of the "inside push," "Jackson's Own," as they were
sometimes alluded to, and that they were a dead game bunch of sports was
attested by the way in which they had volunteered in a body to nurse for
Doc Wyndham. The later and more representative meeting was hardly up to
the earlier one on the score of quality. There were a few out-and-out
rotters on the island, and about the worst of these was a typical
Wooloofooloo larrikin from Sydney, whose name I have forgotten. As foul
of tongue as of face, he was as sneaking and cowardly as a wild Malaite
pup reared in a black-birder's galley. He it was who, with a smirk on
his tattoo-defiled face, got up and suggested that the simplest way out
of the difficulty was to "blow up an' burn the bloomin' 'ooker w'ere she
lies. Cook the bloody niggers to a frizzle, pleg an' all." Give him a
few sticks of dynamite and he'd pull off the bally job himself.

The leering wretch, in his eagerness, pushed right out in front of
gaunt-framed old Jackson, who was "presiding." "Wi'out battin' a
blinker," as he told me later, that old Kalgoorlie outlaw took the
proper and necessary action. His straight-from-the-hip kick doubled the
miscreant up, breathless, speechless, upon the floor--the only floor of
sawed boards in all Kai. He rather favoured that method when he had to
throw a man out, Jackson explained, on account of the convenient parcel
it made of him when lifted by the back of his belt.

When Jackson called the meeting to order again and explained what word
Wyndham had sent as to the lay of things on the _Cora_, "Froggy"
Frontein, one of the escapes from Noumea, his Gallic soul aflame, popped
up and volunteered to sail her to any non-French port in the Pacific.
That brought a cheer for "Froggy," but the enthusiasm died down a bit
when it transpired that the only ships the gallant ex-counterfeiter had
ever boarded in his life were the steamer which deported him from
Marseilles and the cutter in which he--buried under copra in its
hold--had escaped from New Caledonia.

More competent volunteers were not lacking, however, and several of
these were trying to urge their respective claims at once when "Slant"
Allen's magnetic glance drew the eye of the chairman and he was given
the floor.

Calling several of the more insistent of the volunteers by name, "Slant"
asked if it had occurred to them that the nearest port which had
quarantine facilities equal to handling more than a dozen cases of
infectious disease was in Australia--probably Townsville, but possibly
Brisbane. They admitted that they hadn't thought that far ahead.

"In that case," Allen cut in with, "it may be in order for me to point
out that there's not a one of the whole mob of you young hopefuls that
wouldn't be pinched and clapped in the brig just as soon as they saw
your face and recollected what it was you sloped for in the first
place."

That shot made some impression, though "Crimp" Hanley seemed to think he
had countered not uneffectively when he asked: "Who in hell thinks he's
going to last long enough to get her there?"

What "Slant" had got up to say, he went on without deigning to engage
the logical "Crimp" in argument, was that there was one first-class
sailor in Kai against whom nothing was booked in Australia, a man,
moreover, who had been known to be looking for a command for a number of
months. He referred to Captain Bell, who, he regretted to say, had not
been summoned to their meeting. If it was agreeable to those present, he
would be glad to wait upon Captain Bell and acquaint him with the facts
in connection with the emergency which confronted them all. In the event
that Captain Bell should see fit to assert his claim to this place of
honour, as he had no doubt would be the case, he--"Slant"--was in favour
of giving that claim precedence over all others, both because of Captain
Bell's well-known ability as a navigator (his late slip, they would all
admit, was due to circumstances quite beyond his control), and because
he was the only competent man available who would not have to step out
of the frying pan into the fire on making port in Australia. What was
more, in case Captain Bell felt that he needed a mate for a voyage which
could not but be beset with much danger and many difficulties,
he--"Slant"--wished to take the occasion to put in his claim for that
berth. He had been in bad in Sydney, he had to admit, but it was nothing
very serious, and he felt assured that, in a pinch, there were certain
influences which could be counted upon to get him clear. No fear that he
would not be seen in the Islands again in due course.

Considering what "Slant" was really driving at, you'll have to admit
that this was put with consummate adroitness. The meeting voted by
acclamation to allow him to carry out his suggestion, adjourning in the
meantime to await developments. It was significant, in the light of what
transpired later, that Allen flatly refused the offer of Jackson and two
or three others to go along to Bell's with him and "make a delegation of
it."

No suspicion was aroused by the fact that Allen, on the way to Bell's
shack, stopped in at his own for five or ten minutes. Indeed, nothing
that he did at any time awakened anybody's suspicions--among the beach
push, I mean.

When "Slant" came out of Bell's at the end of half an hour, he was
accompanied by the American, the latter apparently leaning heavily on
the Australian's shoulder. This occasioned little surprise, as Bell, who
had hardly been seen for the last three days, was believed to have been
drinking heavily. Instead of returning round the curve of the beach to
report at Jackson's, as it had been assumed he would, "Slant" led the
way to a little dugout canoe lying in the shade of the coco palms in
front of Bell's and started pulling it down to the water's edge. When it
was seen that the slender Australian was doing most of the tugging,
while the big American seemed to be blundering about to small purpose,
it was remarked at Jackson's that Bell, for the first time since he hit
the beach of Kai, appeared to have stowed enough booze to submerge his
"Plimsol" and affect his trim. At the same time it was admitted that the
Yankee was a wonderful "weight-carrier"--nothing like him ever seen in
the Islands. It was thus that they mixed nautical and racing idiom at
Jackson's Sporting Club.

When the little canoe was finally launched, Bell, helped by Allen,
stumbled forward and slithered down in the bow. The Australian plied his
paddle from the stern. It was remarked that the dugout's progress was
very slow, but "Slant's" leisurely paddling was attributed to the care
he had to take on account of the trim Bell's lopsided sprawl gave the
cranky craft.

By the time the canoe slid in alongside the _Cora_, Bell appeared to
have collapsed completely. Lifting carefully by the shoulders, Allen was
seen to raise the inert body in the bow enough for a hulking yellow
giant--easily recognizable as the lusty Ranga-Ro--to throw a mighty arm
around its waist. Then, with his other arm looped round a stanchion, he
swung his burden high above the rail and into the arms of two of the
black crew. Thereafter nothing was seen of the _Cora's_ new skipper for
an hour or more.

"Doosed smart loadin'," was Jackson's laconic comment on the teamwork
Allen and Ranga had displayed in hoisting Bell's husky frame out of a
wobbling canoe and up over the _Cora's_ four feet of freeboard topped by
five strands of "nigger wire."

Allen did not go aboard, but continued to lie alongside for ten or
fifteen minutes, evidently giving extended orders to the Malay bos'n.
Immediately the canoe pushed off, great activity was observable among
the crew, who were evidently rushing preparations for getting under way
before the ebb began to race through the passage.

The rate at which Allen paddled back to the beach was in marked contrast
to his leisurely progress on the way out. Grounding the canoe on the
beach near where it had been launched, he made directly for the door of
Bell's house and bolted inside. Reappearing almost immediately, he came
on along the beach at a more deliberate gait.

At Jackson's he told them that Bell had jumped at the chance of taking
the _Cora_ to Townsville.... Said it might be the means of getting his
master's certificate back in case he pulled it off all right. But
he--"Slant"--couldn't allow a white man to tackle a job like that alone.
He had only landed to pick up his kit and a few things Bell wanted. He
was going to get back aboard the _Cora_ before they began to shorten in.
It was going to be a ticklish job, fetching the passage from where she
lay in those fluky airs.

Leaving Jackson's, Allen went to his own (or rather "Quill"
Partington's) house, where, according to what I heard from Mary Regan a
couple of days later, he took several drinks but did not do anything
toward throwing his things together. A half-hour later he was seen
hurrying along the beach to Bell's again, and when he came out from
there it was in the company of a girl--plainly the "Peacock." Paddled by
a third party, who came upon the scene at this juncture, these two went
off to the schooner, boarding her just as she filled away on the first
tack of the almost dead beat to the entrance of the narrow seaward
passage. For all they knew on the beach, Allen was carrying out his
program (with the little incidental of Rona--doubtless taken along at
the last moment by way of a surprise for Bell--thrown in), just as he
had outlined it to them. They were not hurt by his failure to say
good-bye. They were not strong for the gentler amenities in the Islands,
anyhow.



                               CHAPTER VI

                        COMPULSORY VOLUNTEERING


As a matter of fact, however, there had been a very considerable slip-up
in "Slant's" carefully doped slate. That was plain from a number of
little things which sunk into even my absinthe-addled brain in the few
minutes I spent in his and Rona's company while paddling them off to the
_Cora_. How staggering a slip-up it must have been for him I was not
able to figure until I got my nerves under control the following day.

I was still far from pulled together when I came back to the village
after my day of hiding (for that's what it amounted to) on the other
side of the island. With my head twanging like an overstrung banjo, I
was feverishly anxious to get home and seek relief in the only thing I
knew would relax the tension of my breaking nerves. I had told Laku to
"putem littl' fella pickaninny in rock-a-bye belonga him" just as soon
as he got back to the shack. This was a long-standing joke between us,
and I knew that he would interpret aright this _bêche-de-mer_ order to
"put the baby in its cradle" as a strict injunction to lay a certain
long green bottle in a little basket of porous coco husk, which,
dampened and hung in a draught, answered the purpose of a crude
refrigerator. The vision of the slender green trickle I should shortly
pour from the dewy fresh lip of that bottle was drawing me on as the
thought of the oasis with its fountain draws the thirsting desert
traveller.

Between horrors fancied and real--from my struggle at the mouth of the
Bottomless Pit to the coming of the Ship of Death--my nerves had
suffered a number of trying shocks since the dawning of that accursed
day; but the one that came nearest to bowling me over I had still to
receive. I had _known_ there was a Bottomless Pit; I had _known_ there
was a Death Ship; I had _known_ they were shooting niggers on the beach.
As each of these horrors was projected upon my vision in turn I had
accepted their reality as a matter of course. Didn't I see them with my
own eyes? Didn't I continue to see them after I had bitten my finger?
But _Rona, with her arm and her peacock shawl thrown over "Slant"
Allen's shoulder, coming out of Bell's house_.... No, that wouldn't
do.... That was one thing they couldn't put over on me. My eyes must be
playing tricks on my brain. I must be in even worse shape than I
thought. Never before had my fancy conjured up a thing so utterly,
impossibly absurd. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, I pulled up and started
kicking the shin of one foot with the toe of the other. That was another
little trick I had of proving whether or not I saw what I "saw."

At the clink of the broken coral under my shuffling feet the girl turned
her head in my direction, but, far from releasing "Slant's" neck from
her embrace, she only drew the lanky Australian closer with her right
arm, while with her left she beckoned me imperiously.

"Whitnee, come alonga this side, washy-washy!" Her thin clear voice cut
the air like the swish of a rapier.

It was, strangely enough, the fact that she lapsed into the vulgarest of
_bêche-de-mer_, rather than the eagerness of her gesture, that drove
home to my wandering wits the fact that Rona was confronted with
difficulties, that she needed help. Verging on nervous and physical
collapse as I was (and as I knew I would continue to be until I had
gulped my first steadying draught from the cool green bottle), the
realization that something concrete was demanded brought me instantly
out of the half-trance in which I had walked since dawn. Still a sorry
enough specimen, I was at least sufficiently in hand not to need any
more finger-bitings or shin-kickings to know the difference between what
seemed real and what was really real. Letting my easel go one way and my
paint box the other, I hastened forward in answer to Rona's summons.

"Katchem washy-washy one piecee boat," Rona began as I came up, her
heaving breast, flushed face and flashing eyes revealing the emotion
that held her in its grip.

"Man-man; my word, what name this fella thing you do?" I interrupted
between breaths, blurting mixed _pidgin_ and _bêche-de-mer_ English of a
brand to match the vile blend the girl had discharged at me.

"I too much cross this fella 'Slan','" she started to explain. "Him too
much--"

"You'd think she was cross with me, Whitney, if you could see the way
she's sticking me in the neck with her hat pin," Allen cut in, the
half-sheepish, half-amused grin he had worn from the first broadening as
he spoke.

That was the first "straight" English to be spoken, and the words had
the effect of reminding Rona that she had been speaking nothing but low
jargon from the outset. For weeks she had been taking the greatest pains
to avoid both of the weird volapuks in all her chats with me. Pulling
herself together with an effort, she strove again to be a purist.

"'Scuse me, Whit-nee," she chirruped, paying "Slant" for his sally with
a prod that made him duck like a prize-fighter avoiding a straight-arm
punch; "'scuse me, but I'm veh-ry mad. This bloody boundah he put
_kor-klee_ in Bel-la's drink. He take Bel-la to schoonah. Now we all go
off to schoonah. If Bel-la he dead, then I keel this boundah, 'Slan'.'
You will do us the paddl'?--ple-ese, Whit-nee."

There was a deal more that I would fain have been enlightened about, but
my brain was clear enough now to understand the urgent necessity of
getting off to the _Cora_ without delay. A drugged man (or a poisoned
one--it was not until later that I learned how that strange essence of
the wild Papuan fig might be expected to act) on a plague-infested
black-birder looked like just about the last word in hopelessness; but
(I told myself) if there was anything I could do for my friend, it was
up to me to try to do it. Rona seemed to have some sort of plan in her
head, though just what she was taking Allen along for I didn't quite
twig at the moment.

The funny part of it was that the Australian didn't seem particularly
averse from going off to the schooner. Indeed, it was he who cut in to
call Rona's attention to the fact that they were rushing preparations on
the _Cora_ for getting under way, adding: "If you don't want to be left
at the post I might suggest you whip up a bit." Even as he spoke the
throbbing wail of a chantey came to our ears across the water, and I
could just make out the blur of motion on the forecastle where a knot of
niggers was circling round the capstan.

"Washy-washy! Quick! quick! Whit-nee," implored Rona, leading the way,
with Allen's head still in the crook of her arm, to the canoe; "we must
make the great hur-ee."

Luckily, the dugout, although Allen had left it pulled well up on the
beach when he landed, was half awash through the rising of the tide, now
just about to ebb. I launched it without difficulty. Still with her
knife at "Slant's" neck, Rona made him enter ahead of her and crouch in
the bottom of the canoe, well forward, while she seated herself on the
sinnet-wrapped thwart immediately behind his hunched shoulders. When the
unabashed rascal coolly leaned back and started to make himself
comfortable with an arm thrown over her knee, the girl stiffened with a
start of repulsion. It was more than a prick she gave him this time, for
I saw the sudden swell of his jaw muscles wipe out the lines of his grin
as his teeth set over a repressed oath.

Pushing off, I slid gingerly along the port weatherboard until the canoe
heeled just enough to bring a gaping hole in the starboard bow clear of
the water that started to pour through it, and began to paddle
cautiously inside the outrigger, the only place I could get at from
where I sat. Our progress was, of course, slow as to speed and wobbly as
to direction. Even at that, a good deal of water kept slopping in, and I
couldn't blame Allen, who was sitting in it, for asking Rona if she
minded if he baled a bit with his sun-helmet.

Her only reply was another prod with the needlepointed _kris_. (I knew
it was the little Jolo dagger, for I had seen it as she adjusted her
shawl on sitting down). "Hur-ee, Whit-nee," she urged, quiveringly
tense, and continued to keep her flaming gaze riveted on the schooner,
where the latter, foot by foot, was moving up on her shortening chain.

About halfway out Rona gave a start and a glad little cry. "I see
Bel-la," she laughed. "He stand up by wheel. By jingo, he look--he look
like he lick his weight in wile cats!"

That had been the big Southerner's favourite expression when, glowing
with the reaction from his deep, eye-opening dive from the reef, he
would come prancing back to his door of a morning. The sight of his bare
muscular torso, white as marble against the dingy folds of the
half-hoisted mainsail, must have called up in the girl's mind the
picture of Bell breezing in from his bath, and brought the tersely
quaint phrase to her lips. As a matter of fact, there was no saying at
that distance _how_ Bell looked; but it was good to see him on his feet,
at any rate. Probably Rona had been mistaken about the poisoning.

"I told you he was all right," Allen remarked drily, shifting a few
inches to get clear of the water that was beginning to swish about his
knees. "He was drunk--dead drunk; that's all. He began to buck up an
hour ago. Looked through my glass and saw them dousing him with water.
First thing he did was to take a drink (plenty of it aboard)--saw him
tilt the bottle. Then he must have made them open up the hatches.
There's more than the crew lining the rail there for'ard; besides--you
don't think the slop-chute from the galley spills out the bait that's
drawing those black fins, do you? I won't need to tell you they don't
belong to chambered nautili out for an afternoon sail. There's a
man-eating shark under every one of them. Can I lend you my binoculars?"

He started to slip the strap of the powerful racing glasses over his
neck, but desisted when Rona refused to clear the way by lifting the
point of her dagger. Save for maintaining that one important little
point of contact, she ignored him completely, and "Slant" seemed rather
to resent the latter more than the former.

"Well, if you don't want to use it, I suppose you won't mind if I have a
bit of a look-see," he went on in half-assumed petulance. Rona replied
with the usual prod, but interposed no further objection when he raised
and began focussing the glasses.

"Clubbing niggers on the fo'c'sl'," he commented presently, as signs of
commotion were visible forward. "Skipper don't want 'em too thick on
deck while he's getting under way, most likely."

Then, a minute later: "Looks like you'll need an ice-breaker to clear a
passage through those sharks, Whitney; or perhaps we can walk across
their backs from the edge of the jam. Seem to be thick enough to give
good solid footing."

And again, shortly: "Chain almost straight-up-and-down, Whitney. Mudhook
going to break out in a couple of minutes. Can't accelerate that 'long,
long pull' of yours, can you? Looks as if they weren't planning to wait
for us."

It was a gruesome passage, that last hundred yards. The sharks were
hardly as thick as Allen's picturesque hyperbole might have led one to
believe, but there were undoubtedly more than a score of triangular
dorsals slashing about in swift circles. But the sharks, for the most
part, gave us a good berth. It was the things that _didn't_ get out of
the way that came near to flooring me at the last--black, bloated
bodies, floating face down, like logs awash, till the canoe struck them,
then to roll shudderingly over and sweep you with the sightless gaze of
their wide, staring eyes as you fended with the paddle. Rona, her
flashing glances running back and forth over the schooner (following
Bell, who appeared to be lending a hand now and then on sheet or
halyard), seemed not to see the floating horrors around us. Allen's
steely eyes met the corpses stare for stare, and looked them down. But
upon me the horrors which passed the others by descended with full
force. How I kept going is more than I can guess. But I did it. At last
the loom of the _Cora's_ blistered starboard quarter cut off the seaward
view, and I steadied the dugout in close to the upper line of her
weed-foul copper sheathing.

Apparently no notice whatever had been taken of us up to this time.
Short-handed as he was, Bell was doubtless too busy to keep a lookout,
while to the few niggers watching us through the wire the sight of a
dugout carrying "two fella white marsters and one fella Mary" was of
indifferent interest. All they cared about was getting away from the
Death Ship, and they didn't need to be told that this "pickaninny boat"
hadn't come to help forward their desires in that direction. Besides,
the guard walking up and down behind them with a Lee-Enfield over his
black shoulder had undoubtedly given them to understand that the first
one to start over the side would be shot.

It must have been the guard who reported us finally. Burning with
impatience, Rona was just prodding up Allen and ordering him to clamber
aboard and tell "Mistah Bell" she wanted to speak to him, when I heard
the shout of "'Vast heavin'!" ring out, and presently a familiar tousled
head was poked over the top of the barbed wire. (I should explain,
perhaps, that three or four strands of "nigger wire" are run all the way
round the rail of every labour-recruiting ship. This is done with a
double purpose--to make it difficult for the blacks aboard to bolt,
should the spirit move them, and to serve as a partial protection while
at anchor against the always imminent attacks of the treacherous shore
natives.)

There was a look in Bell's face I had never seen there before. The old
familiar furrows of dissipation showed deep around the mouth, but if he
had been drinking heavily, there was nothing to indicate it. What struck
me at once was his air of determination--I might almost say exaltation.
His head was held high, his shoulders were thrown back, and he might
have been treading the deck of a battle-ship as he swung up to the rail.
Everything about him betokened the man who has taken a great resolve,
and means to see it through if it kills him.

Although I had heard no word of it up to that moment, I understood at
once that Bell had taken command of the schooner, that he was going to
try to sail her to some port where the plague-stricken blacks could be
given medical attention and kept under control. It was like Bell to take
on a job like that, I said to myself; but he would do it as a matter of
course. It would never occur to him that there was any alternative, just
as with an order in the Navy. There must be something more to account
for that air of high resolve.... I couldn't help thinking that, and I
was right. He let out what it was shortly.

"It's right nice of you to come off to say good-bye, honey--and of you,
too, Whitney," Bell called down genially; "but, as we'ah not quite what
you'd call fixed fo' cawlahs, you'd bettah do it from wheah you a'. You,
Mistah Allen, if you have fin'ly made up youah mind in the mattah of
signin' up for the voyage, I reckon we can find accommodation fo' you.
But fust, let me say that if you've got any mo' of that dope you put in
my whisky stowed about youah puson, you'd best scuppah it befo' you
climb abo'd. I doan quite twig what you did it fo', unless it was to
dodge out of goin' yo'self, afta you had promised to help me see the job
through. But now, seein' you've come off of youah own free will, I
reckon I can fo'get that lil' slip, providin' it ain't repeated."

Although Rona could hardly have known the exact meaning of "free will,"
she caught the drift of Bell's remarks readily enough. "This rotten
boundah" (bounder was the worst name she knew to call a man in "pure"
English) "not come himself," the girl cut in shrilly, speaking for the
first time. "I fetch him. See!" and she threw back the folds of the
peacock shawl to reveal the bright wavy blade of her little _kris_
boring into the hollow between Allen's right shoulder-blade and the
corded column of his sinewy neck.

"From the reef I see you an' this fella 'Slan''" (Allen's shoulder
quivered under her designative prod) "go off to schoonah in boat," Rona
went on, avoiding as well as she could in her excitement the jargons she
knew Bell disliked so much. "Bime-by I see 'Slan'' come back--you stop
schoonah. When I go home I smell'em _kor-klee_. You no sabe _kor-klee_,
Bel-la. I sabe him too much long time. I smell _kor-klee_ in one
glass--not in othah. Pu-retty soon this boundah 'Slan'' come house. He
say: 'Bel-la go off in schoonah. Now I stop with you all time!' Then I
sabe what for _kor-klee_ veh-ry queeck. So I katch'em this fella by neck
an' fetch'm off schoonah. I say myself: 'If Bel-la dead, I keel this
boundah; if Bel-la not dead, _he_ keel him.' Heah he is, Bel-la--you fix
him pu-lenty. Then we go home-side."

"So that's what upset the appl'-ca't?" There was nothing of the wrath of
the jealous male in Bell's deep, chesty laugh. "Well, I'm not blamin'
Mistah Allen fo' fallin' in love with you, honey. No propah man could
quite help doin' that, as I see it. Just the same, I can't quite approve
of his way of goin' about it, no' the occasion he took fo' it, eethah.
So you brought him off fo' me to execute, honey. That's right rich.
Youah a brick, you shuah a'. But I won't be killin' him, honey--no,
hahdly that. I'm just goin' to sign him on as Fust Mate of the _Cora
Andrews_, just as he 'lowed he do at the beginnin'. Of co'se I won't be
goin' home with you, honey. Doan you see I'm in command of this heah
ship?"

A sudden shiver shook Rona's tense frame at those last words. Half
rising, she started to speak, but Bell cut her short with lifted hand
and went on himself.

"Mistah Allen," he said, addressing himself now to the huddled figure in
the bottom of the canoe; "I said I was goin' to sign you on an' take you
with me. Let me qualify those wuds just a trifle. I'll pumit you to go
if you'll agree in advance to my tums. I might explain that theah's two
dif'rent views in the mattah of the best way of avoidin' catchin' the
pleg. One is, that you must keep strictly soba--straight teetotal; the
otha--diametrically opposed to the fust--is that you must keep dead
drunk--pif'ucated. Now I reckon that it's goin' to take at least one
white man to sail this hookah all the way to Australyuh; that is to say,
at least one white man must steah cleah of the pleg fo' the entahprise
to be crowned with success. But as theah ain't no suah data as to which
is the safe an' sutin way to 'complish this, I figa theah's nothin' else
to do but sta't with two white men, and let one of 'em try the fust
purscripshun an' the otha the second.

"Now (tho' I must admit it's a bit high-handed on my pa't) I've already
picked the one I'm goin' to take; so, if you elect to sign on, Mistah
Allen, you'll have to take the otha. Theah's a dozen cases of whisky
abo'd--not Jawny Wakah, to be suah, but still fayah to middlin' cawn
jooce--an' I had to toss off a tumblah o' two of it as an antidote fo'
that dream-provokin' dope you wished onto me. But"--Bell's head was up
and his shoulders back again--"_that's the last_." His square jaw
snapped shut on the words like a sprung wolf-trap. Now I understood.
_That_ was his Great Resolve.

Bell paused, and in the waiting silence I became aware for the first
time of the low rumble of groaning from the bowels of the ship.

"So you'll see, Mistah Allen"--the corners of his mouth relaxed into a
smile as Bell resumed--"that since the Skippah's plumped to try the
'soba man' preventative, theah's nothin' left for the Mate to do but to
fight off the pleg by the 'drunk man' method. Theah'll only be two of
us, you see, an' it's theahfo' up to us to hedge ouah bets an' play
safe. But you won't be havin' to go if you ain't hankerin' after it. I'm
not (in spite of what the way you've been 'shanghaied' by--by Miss Rona
might lead you to think) runnin' a press-gang. It's entiahly up to you
as to whethah o' not you want to sail as the drunken Mate of the soba
Skippah of a black-birdah full of pleg-rotten niggahs. You see, Mistah
Allen"--the whimsical grin broadened--"you see I'm not tryin' to luah
you on by paintin' the picture any brightah than it is. 'Drunk Mate of a
soba Skippah'--do you get that?"

Allen made no reply, that is, not directly. Raising his hand to fend the
expected prod from Rona, he wriggled halfway round and started to speak
to me, where, in the stern, I still paddled the canoe gently against the
turning tide and held it close alongside the schooner. For an instant I
was puzzled with the look on the side-face he presented, but almost at
once saw the reason for it. For the first time in my recollection the
thin upper lip was uncurled by its mocking smile. By that, I thought I
could gauge something of the extent of his slip-up. Yet--if I could have
read the man's mind--I would have known that it was something even
deeper than the wreck of personal hopes that had sobered "Slant" Allen.
What it was I learned later.

"Whitney," he began, the words coming huskily from the dryness of his
throat; "I don't dope a man's chances for finishing inside the distance
flag in this little Handicap of Captain Bell's as better than a hundred
to one. That's long odds to be on the short end of when a man's life is
his stake. I don't give a damn about my life. Anyone will tell you that.
I've thrown it into the pool on worse than a hundred-to-one shot a good
many times before this. But--well, I'd rather appreciate it if--if you
could see fit to make a point of not telling my friends on the beach
that--that I had any help in--in volunteering--volunteering to lend
Captain Bell a hand in getting this hooker on her way."

Rona, sensing that her responsibilities, so far as Allen was concerned,
were at an end, raised the _kris_ from his neck and thrust it into the
knot of her _sulu_. The Australian lifted himself lightly to his feet
and looked Bell straight between the eyes. "Lead me to your whisky," he
said in a steadied voice.... "By Gawd, I need it!"

Poising an instant on the middle of a forward thwart of the canoe, he
sprang to the rail, clambered smartly to the top strand of the barbed
wire, and swung lightly down to the deck on the main backstay.

It was at this juncture that I went through the feeble motions of trying
to act the part of a man myself. I pointed out to Bell that I had
knocked about on yachts a good deal, and, while I couldn't claim to be
much of a hand with niggers, was probably as good a navigator as Allen
was. I also said something about three men standing a better chance than
two of pulling off the job, and even added, half jocularly, that I was
about ready to go to Australia anyway, as I had had word that an
exhibition of my pictures was due to open in Sydney in a fortnight. I
only hope my words didn't sound as hollow to Bell as they did to me--for
they were the last ones I was ever to speak to him.

Bell's gentlemanliness--nay, rather, his gentleness--came home to me
more in what he refrained from saying in his reply than in what he said.
He did _not_ say that he had no absinthe aboard, and that, as a
consequence, I would be only more useless and undependable than if he
had. He did _not_ say that his hands would be full enough looking after
crazy niggers without having a crazy white man to keep an eye on. He
even refrained from recalling to my mind a story I had told him of a
French official in New Caledonia whose absinthe supply had run out while
he was at an isolated post, and who, unable to stand the deprivation to
the end of the three-days' run in to Noumea in a trading cutter, had
taken a header over the side almost in sight of port--and relief.

All he _did_ say was: "Nonsense, ol' man.... Quite out of the
question.... Nothin' doin'." Then, as though to soften the curtness of
his refusal: "'Twouldn't be propa, Whitney, to set a man that can slap
colour on canvas like you can to herdin' sick niggas. Besides, I'm
countin' on you to stick 'roun' Kai an' be a sort o' fatha an' motha' to
Rona while I'm gone. Youah the only man on the island I'd ca'ah to trust
with that job."

There was nothing more to be said after that, I told myself; nothing
more to be done. I gave up limply and relapsed into wondering how long
it would take me to paddle Rona ashore and traverse the quarter of a
mile of coral clinkers between the place where she would land and the
long green bottle cooling in its breeze-swept swing beneath my coco leaf
jalousies.



                              CHAPTER VII

                           RONA COMES ABOARD


Well, I still think I was right on the score of the futility of further
words. Nothing more that I could have _said_ would have changed the
situation; but was there nothing more that I could have _done_? Rona
answered that question, so far as she herself was concerned, then and
there, though hardly in a way that I had the wit or the will to profit
by.

Bell's answer to the girl's anxious appeal that she be allowed to join
him had been no less brusque and decided than that he had made to mine.
"Sorry, honey. No 'commodations fo' ladies this voyage. You wun't
intended to nu'se niggas, anyhow. Can't be done, honey." Then, to me:
"Time to be shovin' off now, Whitney. Tide's already on the tu'n. Right
sorry to have to hurry you-all this way." Not a word of farewell....
Navy training would not down.

"Bel-la, leesten to me!" There was more threat than entreaty in Rona's
voice now. Beyond doubt, he had never crossed her before. That she was
hurt and angry showed in every line of her tense figure, as she balanced
precariously with her left foot on the outrigger and her right on the
port weatherboard. "Bel-la, by crackee, I say I go with you! If you let
me come on schoona, all good. If you say no, by crackee, I--I sweem! I
sweem afta you. You know I good sweema, Bel-la."

Swim! I knew the girl well enough to know it was not a bluff, and Bell
must have known even better. I had heard him speak many a time of her
absolute lack of fear. Also, although at that moment his imagination was
not quickened (as mine was) by the drunken roll a black cadaver under
the counter gave as a questing nose pushed into it from below, he must
have known what shrift a swimmer would have in those shark-infested
waters.

Bell's mouth twitched at her words (I could just see his head and
shoulders where he conned ship with a foot on the starboard rail and a
hand in the shrouds of the mainmast), but he made no reply. Doubtless he
counted on my doing what I could to fish her out before anything
happened. Sweeping his eye fore and aft, he noted how the turning tide
had swung the schooner so that she headed directly away from the
passage, with the fluky puffs of the freshening trade wind coming over
her port quarter. Then, cautioning the men standing by at the fore and
main sheets to "take in sma't" as she gathered way, he bellowed the
order to "Heave away!"

The ululant surge of the _bêche-de-mer_ anchor chantey floated aft as
the blacks resumed their rhythmic tramp around the capstan.

    "_What name you b'longa?
    What name you b'longa?
        You Mary come catch'm ride.
    What name you b'longa?
    Come hear my songa--
        I take you to Sydney-side._"

I have often wondered if the frank invitation in the swinging lines
might not have been the inspiration of Rona's astonishing action.

The obligato of the incoming chain grinding through the hawse-pipe had
accompanied the chantey for only a stave or two, when Allen's clear,
ringing voice (he had not needed to be told where a mate belonged when a
ship was getting under way) announced from the forecastle: "Anchor
broken out, sir!"

"Walk lively! Get catted 'fore she hits the passage!" Bell roared back,
anxious lest the great length of chain still out would make trouble
where the lagoon shoaled at its seaward entrance. A moment later he came
aft and relieved the man at the wheel, ordering the latter to stand by
to keep the mainsheet from fouling the nigger wire. It was the gigantic
Malay, Ranga-Ro, bulking mightily against the purpling eastern twilight
sky, who responded with a deep-rumbling "Ay, ay, su!" and sprang to the
starboard rail to clear the sagging lines running back from the
unstable-minded main boom. Then the amazing thing befell.

As the schooner gathered way and began gliding ahead under the impulse
of the half-filled mainsail, Rona had crouched as though for a spring at
the towing whaleboat. The painter of the latter, however, made fast on
the port side of the taffrail, brought the yawning double-ender too far
away for anything but a creature with wings to bridge the gap. Seeing it
was impossible to jump to the whaleboat, she straightened up again,
swaying undulantly as the dugout bobbed about in the gently heaving wake
of the schooner.

"Bel-la, I come!" There was more of anger than despair in that
steel-clear cry; more indignation than resignation in the hair-trigger
poise of the reed-slender figure. The instant that she hesitated on the
chance that this final threat might soften Bell's resolve was all that
prevented what at best could not have been other than a nasty mess for
the both of us. There was no possible chance for me to intercept her
before she jumped, and, once in the water, I knew she was quite equal to
upsetting the canoe rather than be dragged back into it. As for help
from the schooner--Bell had determined upon his course, and his eyes,
like his mind, were directed ahead, not astern.

It was Ranga-Ro (deftly fending the slack of the mainsheet from the
nigger wire), not Bell, who turned at the sound of Rona's cry. Whether
or not he had glimpsed her during the previous ten minutes, I am not
sure; but for the girl (whose eyes had been on Bell from first to last),
I was certain that the big Malay had not impinged upon her vision
before. Recognition of his racial characteristics must have been
instantaneous. They were written for even an ethnic novice to read in
the giant's straight black hair, high cheek bones, wide mouth, with its
betel nut-stained teeth, and the light golden yellow skin clothing the
monstrously muscled limbs. The peculiar twist of the loosely-looped
_sarong_ and a wisp of rolled leaf behind an ear would have located him
even more definitely; but to Rona the fact that there was an indubitable
Malay staring into her eyes from the nearest rail of the receding
schooner, made the incidental of his being a Moluccan--a Spice Island
man--of little moment. She was used to handling big golden-yellow
men.... They had proved a deal more manageable than a certain white man
she could mention.

I heard, without understanding, the swift run of her tripplingly-tongued
Malay, and only the sibilant hiss of "_Lekas! Lekas!_" at the end told
me that what she had ordered done was to be done "quickly! quickly!" Her
next order--to me--was no less insistent. "Paddl' catch'n schoona,
Whit-nee! Paddl' lak hell!"

The girl's imperious mood brooked no delay. My work was cut out clear
for me, and, everything considered, I am not at all sure that the yellow
man--on the score of zeal, at least--outdid the white man in carrying
out the orders he had received. Slipping back to the stern to even up
the down-by-the-head trim Rona's presence in the bow gave the cranky
dugout, I plied the stubby paddle with all the strength and skill at my
command. The crazy craft rode higher now with Allen out of it, but even
so the speed with which I drove it threw a wave inches above the hole in
the crumbling bow. The up-curling water poured through in a steady
stream. My race, I saw, was against that rising flood in the bottom of
the canoe quite as much as against the schooner.

There were only eight or ten yards to make up on the still slowly moving
_Cora_, and, barring swamping or a collision with a shark or a floating
nigger, I felt that I could do it easily. But what to do when we had
caught her up? Ah, there was where the yellow man was to come in. Ranga
was just as busily carrying out his orders as was I. "Clear away the
nigger wire and stand by to pick me up," had plainly been the drift of
that swift stream of Malay Rona had directed at him. Superbly disdainful
of the sharp barbs that were slashing his bare palms to ribbons, he
forced the whole savage entanglement down to the deck with no more
apparent effort than a child would have used in collapsing a
string-strung "cat's-cradle." Rove through steel stanchions set at close
intervals along the rail, the wire could not be torn entirely clear. So
the direct and simple-minded Ranga did the next best thing--gave a
mighty heave and brought three or four of the nearest stanchions down to
the deck in the tangle of wire they had supported.

An order from Bell at this juncture would probably have stopped this
wholesale destruction of his protective entanglement; or perhaps I
should say _possibly_ rather than probably. One cannot be sure just how
strong a force Rona had lashed into action. It has since occurred to me
that the man must have been gripped with something very closely akin to
the madness of _amok_ to handle that wire with his naked hands as he
did. It may be that the only one from whom he would have brooked
interference was the one who had fired that savage train of
energy--Rona. These points were not to be put to the test, however. From
first to last Bell--although, from the wrecking of the wire almost under
his very eyes, he must have known what was going on--never looked back.

What with the settling of the half-swamped canoe and the accelerating
speed of the schooner, it was touch-and-go at the end. I had gained by
feet at first; then by inches; and finally, with but a couple of yards
more needed to bring the bow up even with the schooner's counter, I
realized that I was no better than holding my own. It was the last ounce
of reserve in my aching frame that I called upon for that final spurt.
Rona must have sensed that I was going my limit, for she said no word
... only crouched, tense as a waiting wild-cat, for the moment of her
spring.

For the first few seconds the gap closed quickly as the canoe gathered
increased headway from the impulse of my wildly driven paddle; then more
slowly and more slowly, until, again, I was no better than holding even.
Another foot, and the jump would be safe. Bending low to make the most
of my expiring strength, my eyes wandered from the goal for an instant.
It was a shuddering gasp of consternation from the bow that brought them
back again. The swooning mainsail, filled by the freshening puffs, was
beginning to make its pull felt in earnest. The gap had widened. Instead
of gaining a foot I had lost two. That dished me completely. "No good,
Rona--I'm--all in," I groaned, and slid limply down into the bottom of
the canoe, where the water now lapped level with the thwarts.

Half fainting though I was, the picture of that super-simian spring of
Rona's is indelibly etched upon my memory. Save for that one quick gasp,
she made no sound. The jump was an impossible one ... sheerly
impossible. And yet-- Only a swift gathering of muscles--very like the
final quivering hunch of an ape that leaps from tree to tree--heralded
action. Then, with a back-kick that forced the already half-submerged
bow right under, she flashed up to her full height and launched her body
into the air.

It was a good jump,--a wonderful one, indeed, considering the unstable
take-off--but of course she missed the rail--and by feet. That didn't
surprise me.... I had seen it was inevitable. But what I had _not_
reckoned upon was the astonishing length of Ranga's mighty left arm.
Standing by with a bight of the mainsheet gripped in his right hand to
keep from overbalancing, he had sprung to the top of the rail as Rona
jumped, leaning out at all of an angle of forty-five degrees, probably
more. It was into the solidly pliant muscles of his great corded left
wrist, extended to the full reach of the arm, that Rona clawed with the
last half inch of her out-stretched fingers--clawed and _held_. I say
_clawed into_, not clutched or seized. The girl's hold on Ranga's wrist
was not that of an acrobat grabbing over the bar for which he has jumped
(her leap was short by an inch at least of giving her a chance to do
that), but rather that of a flung cat clawing into the limb or the trunk
of a tree. With less strength of fingers or length of nails her hands
would merely have brushed the outstretched arm and missed a hold.

Under the impact of that flying hundred and twenty pounds (in spite of
her slenderness, Rona must have weighed quite that) of bone and muscle,
striking, as it did, just where the greatest leverage would be exerted,
Ranga was all but swung round and thrown from his footing. The
hastily-seized mainsheet was hardly a scientifically-run guy for the
leaning tower of his stressed frame, nor did the wreck of the barbed
wire entanglement writhing over the rail offer the solidest of
foundations. Back and forth he swayed, like the half unstepped mast of a
grounded sloop; then steadied, quiveringly, up to his original tense
slant.

The acrobatic miracle wrought by Ranga in swinging Rona's precariously
hanging form inboard was the most perfect feat of strength and balance I
ever saw, or ever expect to see. It looked as sheerly impossible as the
jump had looked--and was accomplished scarcely less quickly. The drawing
up of the extended left arm (what a marvellous rippling and bunching of
golden muscles that was!) brought the girl's pendant form close in
against the corrugated bulge of the giant's chest, reducing the terrific
leverage by a good half. A similar doubling up of the right, with a
sudden tug on the mainsheet at the end of it, did the rest. For an
instant the great rangy rack of corded muscles balanced erect in the
midst of the wire-tangle festooned over the rail; then jumped lightly
down beyond and deposited its burden on the deck.

Hardly ten seconds could have elapsed from the instant of Rona's jump to
the one in which Ranga plumped her down beside Bell at the wheel. The
gap between the canoe and the schooner had widened to hardly twenty
yards. I could see both the Malay and the girl quite distinctly as, with
the latter still looped in the crook of his fingernail-torn left arm, he
poised for a moment on the rail. Neither appeared to have turned a hair.
Neither seemed in the least flustered ... might have been in the habit
of doing that sort of thing every day for all the excitement they showed
about it.

The first thing Ranga did, as the dropped mainsheet gave him a free
hand, was to reach to the knot of his _sarong_ and satisfy himself that
the little bamboo flute tucked in there had ridden out the storm. And
Rona--her first move was to gather up and stow an amber-streaming corner
of the peacock shawl, which was threatening to catch in an uprearing
strand of the nigger wire. Those two funny little incidentals complete
my recollections of that breathless quarter-minute. Whether Rona, or
Bell, or anyone else on the schooner waved good-bye in my direction I do
not recall. Ranga was taking in the slack of the mainsheet when I looked
again, and Bell, peering up at the flapping headsails, was grinding away
at the wheel. Two or three shots rang out following a commotion
forward--probably fired to check a fresh up-surge of the blacks from
below.

As Bell brought her round in a wide circle, the _Cora's_ sails were
flattened in and she began to beat up toward the entrance of the passage
in a series of short tacks. As she headed in past the quay, I heard a
burst of cheers roll up from a knot of humanity blurring the beach in
front of Jackson's. It was just a big, full-throated general whoop, that
first one, but it was quickly followed by a number of other volleys of
"huroars" that seemed to carry suggestions of control and leadership.
The last of these was a hearty "three-times-three," topped off with a
"tiger." "Cheering the parting heroes by name," I muttered to myself,
and wondered who that last rousing "tiger" was meant to speed. I was
still speculating when the sharp whish of a heeling dorsal, as a
sheering shark avoided the submerged outrigger by a hair, awakened me to
a rude realization of the fact that the swift tropic night had all but
fallen and that I was drifting out with the tide in a holed and barely
floating dugout.

Of all the ebbings of the tide of courage that my sorrily spent life had
known, and had still to know, those next few minutes--with the _Cora_
dissolving into the swimming dusk as she beat out through the passage,
the weirdly green wakes of the sharks lacing the oily-black water with
welts of phosphorescence as they assembled for their ghastly banquet,
and my swamped canoe teetering in balance between positive and negative
buoyancy--registered low-water mark. I have never heard of a despairing
absinthe slave trying to break his bonds at the end of the day. It is
invariably at the end of the night that he makes his break for
liberty--at the beginning of the day he has not the courage to face. But
it was the shame of the yellow in me, rather than the green, that held
empire now. Rona had brooked no refusal of her demand to be taken on the
_Cora_. Why had I? She had been ready to swim for it. Why should not I?
Surely the sea, better than anything else, would wash that yellow stain
from my honour and leave it white at the last. I didn't even have to
screw my nerve up to the point of jumping over. Listing heavily to
starboard as the half-capsized dugout was, one little inch edged to the
right, and not even the leverage of the outrigger could keep it from
overturning. Just the inclination of my shoulders would do the trick....
I would not even have to take the initiative to the extent of edging
along. Surely--

With a quick gasp, I slid sharply to one side--but it was to the
left--the outrigger side. The great starshaped welter of green
luminescence, where a half-dozen wallowing man-eaters nuzzled into a
bobbing witch-fire-streaked shape of unreflecting opacity, proved too
much for my last unbroken filament of nerve--all that I needed to make
my honour white. I had always dreaded sharks, and it was my horror of
them now that checked the worthiest impulse that had stirred me that
day. The momentarily eclipsed image of the cooling green bottle took
shape again before my eyes, and, after that, there was nothing to do but
make the best fight I could to reach it.

Proceeding with infinite caution to avoid the upset which I now feared
above everything in the world, I crawled forward along the outrigger
side and stopped the hole in the bow with my folded drill jacket, as a
necessary preliminary to beginning to bail out with my waterproof
sun-helmet. But before I turned to on what could have hardly proved
other than a hopeless task, the sound of oars and voices reached my
ears, and presently the bow of a hard-pulled whaleboat came pushing up
out of the darkness. It was old Jackson whose strong arm reached out and
dragged me in over the gunwale. When they got back their breaths lost in
cheering the departing schooner, he explained, after depositing my limp
form in the stern sheets, Doc Wyndham bawled over to them from
"Quarantine" that some cove had been left behind in a foundered canoe.
Jackson himself reckoned that the Doc was beginning to go off his nut
and see things; but as several of the others seemed to have hazy
recollections of something of the same kind, it was thought best to put
off and investigate.

"'Ow'd you 'appen to miss c'nections?" Jackson asked sympathetically. "I
spotted you paddlin' the canoe off, an' we was so sure the Skipper 'ad
signed you on that we give a speshul w'oop in your 'onour. 'W'at's the
matter wiv W'itney?' I bellered ('member the night you learned us that
one?--time the looted fizz from the _Levuka_ was on tap); an' the boys
cum back wiv: ''E's all right!--you bet!--Ev'ry time!'"

"That wasn't the big 'three-times-three' at the end, was it, Jack?" I
asked, my face burning with shame at the thought.

"Well, no; 'ardly that un," was the half-apologetic reply. "That
ripsnorter was in 'onour uv 'Slant' Allen. Long time pal uv all uv us,
'e is. Slash-bangin' finisher, li'l ol' 'Slant.'... Trust 'im allus to
be on 'and w'en they're liftin' 'ell's 'atches."

I knew then that I wasn't going to be tumbling over myself to tell
"Slant's" friends on the beach that his volunteering to go with the
_Cora_ had been just a shade less voluntary than they reckoned. _He_ had
not pulled up dead at his first hurdle as I had, anyhow. No, until I
knew more of what had transpired earlier in the day, I was not going to
give the man away; and not to his old friends in any case. I would do at
least that much homage to his nerve.

Seeing how dead beat I was, Jackson waved back the crowd at the quay and
headed me straight for home. He knew what I needed, and I was as
grateful for the bluff old outlaw's unspoken sympathy as I was for the
help of his sustaining arm. With rare delicacy, he avoided being a
witness to my assault on the green bottle by leaving me at the door.
Like all the rest of those rough, red-blooded roysterers of Kai, Jackson
felt that habitual absinthe drinking was degenerate, almost immoral....
All right for a "Froggy," of course, but not for a proper white man....
A thing that a real self-respecting beach-comber would never allow
himself to be guilty of. The fact (which could not be concealed for
long) that I was known to be addicted to the habit had taken even more
living down than my painting, especially when they learned I was
straight Yankee and not a "_We-we_."

I drank hungrily at first--gulping glass after glass of the cool green
liquid,--but stopped just as soon as I found my nerves were steadied and
before the first stage of "elevation" was entered upon. (A seasoned
drinker takes some time to reach the latter.) Unspeakably tired
physically, I dropped off to sleep almost as soon as the absinthe
relaxed the tension on my nerves. My rest was dreamless and
untroubled--or comparatively so.



                              CHAPTER VIII

                           I LEAVE THE ISLAND


Rolling out of bed at the end of twelve straight hours of sleep, I found
the Trades blowing fresh and strong again, and the air--after the
soddenness of the past week--almost bracing. A plunge from the reef and
a piping hot breakfast of fried clams and duck eggs--my first solid food
in over thirty-six hours--bucked me up astonishingly. For almost the
first time since I came to the island, I was out before ten o'clock--and
well in hand, too. I had to be.... There was much that it was up to me
to learn--and perhaps to act upon.

That which I most desired to get some line upon was what Allen had been
driving at in drugging Bell, or even, possibly, trying to poison him.
What was _kor-klee_? (of which Rona appeared to be so terrified), and
how did it act? were questions which I wanted especially to find the
answers to. Was it a drug with a delayed action, following a preliminary
stupefaction of comparative mildness? If so--no, there was nothing that
could be done for Bell in that case; but, as a friend of his, I might do
what I could to square the account later on. There was no lack of
confidence _that_ morning. The reaction (which had eluded me completely
the day before) was strong upon me, and I felt quite equal to any
situation that might arise. I still blushed with shame at the thought of
the contemptible figure I had cut from dawn to darkness of the day
previous, but I was ready to make such atonement as was humanly
possible. It was merely one of my "high" moods coming three or four
hours ahead of time. I could have slung my colours with telling effect
that morning, if there had been a chance for me to get at canvas.

From one and another at Jackson's I gathered a fairly connected account
of what had happened during the hours I was away on the leeward side of
the island. The salient incidents of this I have already set down. None
of them knew much of anything about _kor-klee_, but all agreed that Doc
Wyndham would be sure to be an authority upon it. I dropped the subject
for the moment, as I did not care to be pressed for an explanation of
why I sought the information. The next day I slipped quietly over and
had a long-distance interview with the learned Wyndham.

The Doc had buried the _Cora's_ recruiting agent the night the schooner
sailed, doing everything except the digging of the grave with his own
hands. He had then returned home and shut himself in for his ten days of
solitary quarantine. Solitary is hardly the word, though. Wyndham was
far from being alone. Unlike Bell, he was a "spree drinker" rather than
a speedy tippler. It was his habit (as he put it himself) to accumulate
aridity during five or six months of the most rigorous teetotalism, and
then blow up the dam and make the desert blossom like the rose under the
stimulus of a generous flood. The breaking up of the Monsoon and the
culmination of Doc Wyndham's biennial sprees were bracketed together in
the Islands' list of seasonal disturbances.

The desert was hardly due for its wetting at this time, but Wyndham,
shaken by his unsuccessful fight to save the Agent's life, was loath to
face the ordeal of the confinement ahead of him without company. So (as
he explained after he had halted me a dozen paces from his door with a
revolver flourished from the window) he called in the only dead sure
plague-immune he knew--his old friend John Barleycorn--and raised the
floodgates. The last thing he had impressed upon his brain before
putting Barleycorn in charge was that he must rigidly confine his desert
reclamation project to his own wastes. On no account was he to leave his
own house, and, on no account, was anyone to be allowed to enter it.
"Strict quarantine's the word," he had repeated to himself many times
before he started drinking, and "Strict quarantine's the word" was the
greeting--and the warning--I heard when I stepped into the shadow of the
big breadfruit tree in front of his door.

Solemn as an owl, Wyndham had been catching purple shrimps (or something
of the kind) with a butterfly net and putting them under his microscope
for examination. The big brass instrument was set upon a table pulled up
to the window, while the shrimps were being harvested from the bosky
depths of a patch of elephant-eared taro just outside. It was his
favourite hunting and fishing preserve, that taro patch, the Doc had
confided to me once, and the rarity and variety of the specimens
captured there were rather remarkable. I don't remember many of them,
but a sea-cow and a sabre-tooth tiger were among the commonest he had
made slides of. Everything went under the microscope, of course. His
captures were small in size during the first few days, starting with
mere animalculae, but bulked steadily bigger as the desert blossomed to
a jungle. It required a microscope with a great latitude of adjustment
to handle such a wide range of subjects--but his was a most excellent
instrument ... most excellent. Thus the Doc.

Pretending to ignore my approach completely, Wyndham continued squinting
through the eye-piece of his microscope until I crunched over the
dead-line he had established. Then he flourished the revolver, barked
out his quarantine formula, and asked what I wanted. "When I replied
that I had come to inquire respecting the effects of a drug called
_kor-klee_, his manner changed instantly. By some queer psychological
process quite beyond me to fathom, he started at once speaking French,
or rather what he thought was French. It was a weird jargon he had
picked up in the Marquesas, where he had spent a year in research work
when he first came to the Islands, and where (it was said) only his
passion for collecting pearls--other people's--had prevented his winning
to international fame for his all-but-successful efforts to isolate the
bacteria responsible for the dread _fe-fe_ or _elephantiasis_.

"_Kor-klee--mais oui, mon ami. Je comprend him fella kor-klee too much.
Parfaitement. C'est la liqueur essential de la ficus--ficus--nom d'un
chien--ficus what-dyucalum. C'est la aphrodisique le plus exquite, le
plus fort, en tout le monde. Prenez vous comme ca--whouf!_"--and he made
a great pretence of inhaling the contents of his shrimp net to show how
the drug was administered for that particular purpose.

"_Encore--quand--quand eat'm like kai-kai!_" he floundered on learnedly;
"_quand eat'm kor-klee il fait--mak'm mort--dead--tres vite_."

Here he interrupted himself to ask for which purpose it was I intended
to use the stuff.

"Neither," I denied stoutly. "I was merely asking out of curiosity."

"_Parle that talkee a la marines_," he scoffed. "_Le meme chose talkee
parle_ 'Slant' Allen. _Je voudrais connoce ou--ou in hell you fella
catch'm kor-klee._ I'd like to get my fist on some of the blooming
elixir myself," he trailed off into English.

Save for that one lapse, Wyndham, in spite of my reiterated appeals
that he speak straight English, rattled on in his impossible
Franco-_bêche-de-mer_ from first to last. That which I have tried to
render does it scant justice. Most of it was quite unintelligible. At
the end of a rather trying half-hour (though it would have been amusing
enough had I been less anxious for information that might throw light on
the mystery I had set myself to unravel), about all that I had been able
to gather was that _kor-klee_ was the name given in the Dutch Indies to
several preparations made from the latex of the wild fig of New Guinea.
A crude infusion of it was employed by the Papuans in stupefying fish in
their rivers. More elaborated extracts were distilled for their narcotic
and other properties. One of these, vapourized and inhaled, was much
prized by the Rajahs of Malaysia as a quickener of the languid pulse, a
restorer of youth. Another--the most powerful extract of all--was a
deadly poison--very neat and incisive in its action.

I also understood Wyndham to say that the use of the drug in any form
acted as a great exciter of the cravings for alcohol and narcotics on
the part of those addicted to these habits. "If that's the case," I said
to myself as I turned home, "God pity poor old Bell's teetotal
resolutions! It would have been hard enough without anything further in
the way of a 'thust aggravata.' I'm afraid he'll be having to exchange
rôles with 'Slant' after all--to let the latter be the 'soba Mate of a
drunken Skippa.'" Now that I had a chance to think about it, I didn't
have any great faith in Bell's ability to refrain from drink for any
length of time--certainly for not more than a day or two at the outside.
He'd probably see the thing through, I admitted, but not as a "soba
Skippa."

Turning over all I had picked up at the end of a couple of days, I felt
that I could come pretty near to reconstructing in my mind those scenes
of the drama of which there had been no witnesses save the actors
themselves. Allen's infatuation for the girl had undoubtedly got the
better of him the instant the turn of events suggested a plan which
promised to give him undisputed possession of her. To this end he had
plotted to get Bell off on a voyage from which there was no more than a
negligible chance of his ever returning, while he himself remained
behind to enjoy the spoils.

Considering that Allen's plan was evolved upon little more than a
moment's notice, there could be no question that it was laid with
consummate cleverness and carried out without a hitch--save, of course,
for that final fatal slip-up which undid all the rest. To make sure of
Bell and disarm his suspicions, Allen had assured the American that he
himself would also go on the _Cora_. That he had tried to poison Bell, I
had my doubts. I had not learned enough of how the drug acted to make my
speculations on that point of much use. At any rate, with Bell
unconscious on the schooner, it had clearly been the Australian's plan
to return to the beach and remain there until she sailed, at the turn of
the tide. That the _Cora_ should get under way at that time had already
been arranged between the unsuspecting Ranga and himself. The pretence
that he had missed the schooner while engaged in getting his own and
Bell's kits together would save his face with his friends on the beach.
This latter consideration, it appears, was something the rascal never
lost sight of. In the improbable event that Bell ever returned--but that
bridge need not be crossed until it was in sight.

Allen's cropper at the last jump was directly due to his cool assumption
(natural enough, considering his success with South Sea ladies
generally) that the girl, once Bell was out of the way, would fall into
his lap like a ripe mango. That, and his long-curbed passion for her,
led him to rush in search of Rona the moment he landed from his first
visit to the schooner, and, missing her then, to return before the
_Cora_ had got her anchor up. The consequences of his finding her in on
this latter occasion I had seen something of myself. How that slip of a
girl got the drop on the most notorious bad man in the Islands I could
only conjecture. Probably, with Allen, it was the old story--prudence
going out of one door as passion entered at the other. I didn't reckon
that Rona had ever read the story of Delilah; yet I felt pretty
confident that the point of that little Joloano _kris_ had found its way
to the pulse of "Slant's" jugular some time after the girl's arm had
gone round his neck in what he thought--for a second or two at
least--was a warm embrace. Rona's uncanny faculty for getting away with
everything she went after--from having her peacock shawl dry-cleaned to
boarding a schooner which was all of "two jumps" beyond her reach--had
greatly impressed me. And well it might have....

Even allowing that Allen had not tried to poison Bell outright, the fact
remained that he had played the worst kind of a low-down trick on the
American in treacherously attempting to railroad the latter out of the
way and deprive the girl of his protection. That much was plain, and it
was dead against the shifty Australian. In "Slant's" favour was the game
manner in which he had stood the gaff at the last, when Bell left the
way wide open for him to return ashore without even going over the side
of the plague-infested schooner. He had not hesitated an instant in
staking his life in what he had very fairly characterized as the short
end of a hundred-to-one shot. There must be redeeming qualities in a man
who could do that, no matter how shot through with infamy his past
record had been. It occurred to me as just possible that Bell's
magnanimity had struck a responsive chord in Allen's sense of
sportsmanship--that the latter was going to play whatever remained of
that grim game on the square. If the _Cora_ was lost, or if Allen and
Bell and the girl all died of the plague (one or both of which
contingencies seemed practically inevitable), the whole slate would be
wiped clean anyhow. If not--if the _Cora_ won through with any of those
three surviving--some hint of what had transpired on the voyage would
certainly be obtainable at Townsville, or whatever port the schooner
succeeded in making. In any event, I told myself, it was up to me to get
on to Australia at the earliest possible moment.

The fact that my Exhibition would be sure to have opened in Sydney by
the time I reached Australia, really had nothing to do with my decision.
In spite of the bluff I had tried to put over on Bell, I had had no
intention of leaving Kai for a number of months to come. Nor, even after
I began getting ready to go, did I attempt to ignore the fact that there
might be duties for me to carry out in Townsville, the performance of
which would be more likely than not to interfere seriously with my
freedom of action for a good deal longer than the art world of Sydney
would be inclined to pay homage to my marines.

No, my coming show had nothing to do with my resolve to hurry south,
although, naturally, I fully intended to take it in if things shaped so
as to make it possible. Since my daubs had been making good with the
connoisseurs of Kai--men who knew at first hand the things I was trying
to paint,--I had little fear that the more sophisticated critics of
civilization would not fall for them. I hadn't any worry on that score.
I knew I had been doing good work. But--well, an artist who isn't
interested in the way his work will react on his fellow-beings is
lacking in a very important stimulus to success.

Kai manifested its usual sympathetic interest in my preparations for
departure, but, with characteristic delicacy, asked no questions. Well
off the steamer routes, and with only the most infrequent comings and
goings of pearling and trading craft, the problem of reaching Australia
with any dispatch seemed, at first, a hopeless one. For a while it
looked like the best I could do would be to accept "Slim" Patton's
kindly offer to run me over in his pearling sloop to Thursday Island,
where I could count on getting a south-bound China-Australia liner
inside of a fortnight. As Patton was known to be in bad for several
little things at Thursday Island, his offer did more credit to his heart
than to his head, and I was a good deal relieved when Jackson figured
out a plan that promised to make it possible for me to reach my goal by
another route. After thumbing a greasy sheet of Burns, Phillip sailings
for the best part of an afternoon, the old outlaw suddenly announced he
had found reason to believe that, with luck, a cutter getting away from
Kai that night could intercept the Solomon-Australia packet at Samarai,
off the easternmost tip of New Guinea. To be sure that the thing was
done properly, he would take one of his own cutters and sail her
himself. As my impedimenta consisted of little beyond a few changes of
drills and ducks, my painting kit, and a case of absinthe, and as
Jackson used neither paint nor absinthe and wore a flowered _sulu_ in
place of ducks and drills, we had little difficulty in getting away on
schedule.

Jackson's carefully tabulated calculations--you can do that kind of
thing in those latitudes when the southeast Trades are blowing steady
and you know your boat--were only wrong by an hour. That is to say, we
would have missed the _Utupua_ by something like that had we pushed
right in to Samarai. Old "Jack," however, sighting a bituminous smear
trailing off above the tufted tops of the coco palms that line the inner
passage, promptly shook out all his reefs, hauled up four or five
points, and headed away on a course calculated to converge with that of
the outgoing steamer a couple of miles to seaward. It was only after an
abrupt greening of the tourmaline depths of the passage we had been
threading suggested a sudden shoaling that it occurred to him to unroll
and study his chart.

"Five 'undred fathom--three 'undred fifty fathom," he read laboriously
as his tarry forefinger cruised along the tiny rows of dots and figures
indicating soundings. "Three 'undred fathom--two 'undred fifty
fathom--_one_ bloody fathom! By Gawd, W'itney, we're 'igh an' dry
already! This bally chart says they's only one fathom uv water on this
kerblasted coral patch, an' the cutter draws two feet mor'n that."

But he never luffed her, never altered her course a fraction of a point.
"More she 'eels the less she draws," he muttered philosophically,
sitting down on the weather rail of the cockpit and starting to whittle
at the end of a stick of tobacco with his clasp-knife. "Save a lot of
wig-waggin' if we do pile up," he continued presently, rolling the
shaved-off blackjack between his palms. "Ol' 'Choppy' Tancred never giv'
the go-by to even a nigger dugout he could len' a han' to." Then he
lighted his pipe, whoofed two or three whirling jets of blue smoke to
leeward as he brought it to a proper draw, and settled comfortably back
in puffing contentment. Ten minutes later he unrolled the chart again,
produced a greasy stub of pencil from the band of his _koui_-leaf hat,
and wrote with great care the letters "P.D." across the dotted expanse
where curving lines of figure "1s," like the graphic representation of
telegraph lines on a bird's-eye map, indicated six feet of water where
the eight-feet-draught cutter had just crossed without a bump.

"As I figger it," Jackson observed drily, rolling up the chart and
tossing it down the companionway as a thing whose usefulness was
ended,--"as I figger it, a bloke's only manifestin' proper conserv'tism
w'en 'e marks as 'Position Doubtful' a reef that ain't tangibl' enuf to
stop 'im w'en 'e 'its it." Then, presently, between puffs, as he
stretched himself and sidled along to take the wheel as the cutter began
to close the slowing steamer: "Wonder 'oo the bally cove'll be 'oo bumps
a mis-charted reef w'en 'e thinks 'e's got four 'undred fathom uv brine
'tween his keel an' the bottom uv the Pacific." The notorious inaccuracy
of the South Sea charts is a continual source of amusement or
wrath--according to whether a misplaced shoal or passage has spelt
comedy or tragedy to him--for the man who sails their reef-beset waters.

It was Captain Tancred himself who came tumbling down from the
_Utupua's_ bridge to greet me as I clambered up the Jacob's ladder
thrown over from the forecastle head. Hearing of him often before, this
was the first time I ever set eyes on one of the best-loved characters
in the South Pacific. He was a red-faced, blue-eyed, sandy-haired Scot,
with a heart as big as his fist, and as soft as his voice was rough.
Square himself as his own broad shoulders, and strictly law-abiding
personally, he was credited with an amiable weakness for befriending
every man who had run afoul of the statutes. I had heard them yarn by
the hour at Kai of the way he had smuggled this one out of Australia,
and that one into New Guinea; of how he had all but bumped South Head
while standing-off-and-on in a "Southerly Buster" one night, on the off
chance of picking up a jail-breaker, whose only claim upon Tancred had
been that the latter had once before performed a similar service for the
reprobate when he had forced his way out of the jug in Suva. Several of
the push at Jackson's claimed actually to owe their lives to the bluff
old Scot; many of them their liberty. "Choppy" Tancred--so called from
his sun-washed red-brown mutton-chop side whiskers--was the nearest
thing to a patron saint Kai ever had--that is, until the Rev. Horatio
Loveworth hove up on their skyline some years later and converted the
lot of them (just about) with the knuckles of his brawny fists.

The last thing Jackson had said, as he steadied the ladder for me to
swarm up the _Utupua's_ side, was to the effect that I ought to consider
myself dead lucky to be stacking up with "Choppy" Tancred; "or,
leastways," he qualified, "you would be if you was in any kind uv a mess
'e could fish you out uv."

"Don't give up hope, Jack," I chaffed back, clawing round a projecting
ventilator; "I may land in a mess yet."

"Then don't be forgettin' ther'll allus be a refooge for the errin' on
the banks an' brays uv Kai Lagoon," he sang back, taking in the
mainsheet as the cutter came up to the wind; "an' that 'Choppy'
Tancred'll be the cove to give you a first leg-up on the way back
there."

Except for his very evident disappointment over the fact that I
disclaimed any need of his help in getting ashore in Australia, Captain
Tancred seemed not in the least put out over being stopped and boarded
so high-handedly. He had carried many queer birds in his time, so that a
man eccentric enough to take a case of drinkables with him on the
_return_ trip from the Islands didn't worry him as much as it might have
some others. He was also kindly charitable about my "exclusiveness" of
evenings (when all normal beings expand and grow sociable at sea), and
even good-naturedly tolerant of my weakness for having breakfast in my
cabin. I made it up to him to the best of my ability in my "quickened"
hours of the afternoon, and we became good friends.... Really good
friends. I felt that I could count upon him in a pinch.

The grounding of the company's Port Moresby steamer somewhere along the
Barrier Reef was responsible for the fact that the _Utupua_, this
voyage, had been ordered to pick up freight at both Cooktown and Cairns,
instead of proceeding direct to Townsville on her regular schedule. This
set her back two days, and brought us into the offing at Townsville
twenty-four hours after--instead of twenty-four hours before--a
sun-blistered, foul-smelling labour-recruiting schooner, with a dead
Captain and a score or more of dying niggers, was brought to anchor off
the Quarantine Station by the Mate, who, immediately the hook was let
go, collapsed on the deck and went to sleep. The empty hulk of the _Cora
Andrews_, swinging lazily to the turning tide, was one of the first
things to catch my eye as the _Utupua_ steamed in and tied up to her
buoy.



                               CHAPTER IX

                         A GRIM TALE OF THE SEA


I have often tried to figure just what effect on the succeeding train of
events my earlier arrival in Townsville might have had. I have never
come to any very definite conclusions in that connection. There were two
or three things that were pretty well bound to happen, and if they
hadn't come about one way, there is little doubt that they would have
done so in another. Had I been there when the _Cora_ arrived, it is
probable that I would have learned definitely at once (instead of
somewhat tardily) that Bell had _not_ died of the plague. Certainly, on
learning that fact, my impulse would have been to try to force Allen to
an immediate showdown--to insist on his proving that the dope he had put
in the American's whisky at Kai had not been the direct cause of the
latter's death. Such a showdown would have been impossible to bring
about at the time, however: for one reason, because Allen had been put
into quarantine immediately, and, for another, because, completely
played out by thirty-six hours at the wheel without relief, he had sunk
into a sleep from which he had not rallied for over two days. Similar
considerations would have prevented my seeing Rona. Besides being in
quarantine she was in a state of raving delirium, which would have made
it impossible for her to convey coherent information. Even Ranga,
unaffected in mind and body though he was, I would hardly have been
permitted to talk with when he landed, any more than I was two days
later. No, everything considered, I fail to see where my earlier arrival
would have made much difference in what happened. It must have been
slated anyhow, I think--just bound to come off however the incidentals
shaped.

Still askance at what he rated as my temerity in making an open landing
in Townsville, Captain Tancred had somewhat reluctantly granted my
request for a boat to take me ashore as soon as the quarantine officials
were through with the ship. I couldn't, of course, go off in the
quarantine launch, but one of the doctors lingered a few minutes to tell
me what he knew of the _Cora_. Although her captain had died twenty-four
hours before the schooner anchored, his remains had not been buried at
sea. This, it appeared, had been largely due to the protests of some
sort of a Kanaka girl the Skipper had had with him. According to the
Bo'sun's statement (fine upstanding fellow that looked like some kind of
a Java man), she had gone plumb off her chump. Tried to knife the Mate
first, and then plumped down by the Skipper's remains and threatened to
stick the first man to touch it. The Mate, endeavouring to humour her,
had not insisted on the burial--a reprehensible weakness on his part....
Common prudence demanded that the dead on a plague ship should be
scuppered as soon as the breath was out of their bodies. That is, with a
white man; with a nigger it did no harm to anticipate that event by an
hour or so--as long as you were sure the fellow was going to whiff out
anyway.

The funny part of it was, though (the Doctor went on), that the Skipper
had not died of the plague at all. They had not, it was true, made any
post-mortem in the rush of things; but it was certain, nevertheless,
that his body had not displayed even the preliminary evidences of
infection--no swelling of the glands of the groin or under the arms.
Magnificent physical specimen the chap was, but plainly a man who had
punished an ocean of booze in his day. And yet--confound it all!--there
was no evidence that the fellow had drunk himself to death, either. Now
if it had been the Mate--_he_ was exuding alcohol from every
pore--absolutely reeking with it. Almost made a man drunk to breathe the
air down to leeward of him. Seemed to have been on one glorious spree
all the way from--somewhere up Solomon-way, he thought it was. Harried
the niggers like a fiend, according to the Bo'sun. Clubbed three or four
of them to death for not stepping lively enough to his orders. Lucky
thing the Skipper had scuppered all but one of the guns the first day
out. But not all the booze he had soaked up had effected the nerve of
the Mate. Kept his head and his legs to the last, finishing up with a
straight twenty-four-hour trick at the wheel. Said none of the crew knew
the Barrier Reef as well as he did. Had one nigger holding a parasol
over him, another playing a concertina, another waiting handy with a
bottle of whisky, and a fourth standing by to block any rushes from the
Kanaka girl with her knife. Funny thing it never occurred to him to have
her disarmed and tied up, or shut up. Grabbed the bottle of whisky and
started to brain the Bo'sun with it every time the latter tried to push
in and relieve him at the wheel.

A chap of terrible determination and iron nerves, that Mate was,
observed the Doctor. But no wonder.... Think who he was! Allen! The
Honourable Hartley Allen! The great Allen! Son of old Sir Jim Allen!
Melbourne Cup winner! Best horseman in all Australia! Crooked as they
make 'em--but how he could ride! Sent off to the Islands four or five
years back for raising some sort of hell. His old Ticket-of-Leave had
given him away when they came to strip him for a bath. No possible
mistake about it. One of the doctors at the Quarantine Station had set a
broken collar-bone for him once after he had fallen in a steeplechase at
Coolgardie. Found the marks of the old compound fracture still humping
up on the clavicle--the left one....

It was not without difficulty that I brought the excited young medico
round to speaking of Bell again. The astounding fact that he himself,
with his own hands, had actually helped to put the great and only
Hartley Allen to bed, was proving almost too much for him. It was
certainly not less than three separate times that he assured me that it
was his own silk pajamas that were encasing the limbs of the resurrected
hero. He switched subjects reluctantly, rising to go to his waiting
launch.

"Nothing in the world the matter with the big fellow--not even too much
drink," he said as he began shuffling his health sheets together. "He
must have passed away from the sheer mental strain of the stunt he had
tackled. Intense nervous strain--that was the one thing written all over
the man. Face was starting to bloat a bit from the heat by the time I
saw it first; but, even so, it still showed the lines of the most
terrible mental suffering. Seemed to have gone out fighting hard to pull
himself together--shoulders hunched up, finger-nails clenched deep into
palms, lower lip bitten clean through."

"May not those--those things you mention have been caused by physical
rather than mental agony?" I asked, speaking very slowly to hide the
agitation aroused by this significant intelligence. "Isn't that about
the way a man would repress his feelings if he was racked with--with
stomach cramps--if he had eaten something that disagreed with him?"

"Possibly so," admitted the Doctor, with the air of a man weighing
an idea that had not occurred to him before; "but somehow that
wasn't the suggestion they carried to me--nor to any of us. Fact is,
though, we didn't give the matter very much attention. That chap was
dead--finished,--while the other white man and the girl--to say nothing
of forty or fifty niggers--were alive. Then, with the excitement of
finding we had the great Hartley Allen on our hands--and, on top of
that, having the girl run _amuck_ and give us the slip complete,--there
was enough else to think about. The only--"

"The girl gave you the slip?" I interrupted. "How was that? You didn't
mention it before."

"Bolted and drowned herself in the creek," he replied; "or at least
there's every reason to believe she drowned herself, though they haven't
found her body yet. She wasn't going to leave the Skipper, even when we
started to take his body away for burial.... And of course we couldn't
allow her to leave the Station until her period of quarantine was over.
Had to take her away from the body by main force. She fought the whole
lot of us with tooth and nail and a wicked little curly-bladed dagger.
Stood us all off, too, and looked like getting ready to use the knife on
herself when the big Malay (who chanced to be there, but had taken no
part in the shindy up to that moment) stepped in, caught her wrist and
took the nasty little toy away from her.

"The big yellow man seemed to have rather a quieting effect on the girl.
Blind mad as she was, she didn't try to stick him. It seemed to steady
her a good deal when he talked to her in her own lingo. She was panting
like a cat coming out of a fit when we left her, but was quite over her
raving--wasn't even sobbing aloud. She was coming out of her
hysteria--getting rational again. Her eyes, though still wild and almost
throwing off sparks of anger, were quite free of the crazy look. It
looked like our trouble with her was about over, but, to be on the safe
side, we locked her up in one of the 'mad' rooms. That was the last
anyone has seen of her alive--or any other way, for that matter.

"You wouldn't have believed the thing possible!" he ejaculated
feelingly, turning back from the door and slapping the table
resoundingly with his portfolio. "That room was made to confine
dangerous lunatics in, and it had fulfilled its purpose, too--up to
night before last. To make it perfectly secure, it had been constructed
without windows--nothing but a two-by-two hole up against the
twelve-foot-high ceiling admitted light and air. There were no beds or
chairs to be broken up when the occupant had tantrums.... Just sleeping
mats, a sheet, a blanket and a mosquito net. No more. Even the wash
basin was brought in and taken out by the attendant.

"In locking the girl in, no precautions were omitted except that of
strapping her in a strait-jacket, and we had never resorted to that save
in violent cases. The window--or rather air-hole--was so high and so
small that it had never been considered worth while to put bars on it.
But as it was the only conceivable way she could have got out (the
attendant is absolutely trustworthy, and the key was not in his hands
more than a minute or two anyway), we would have been forced to conclude
that the girl had reached it with wings--had not we found the lower four
or five feet of wall marked with the prints of the toes and balls of the
bare feet which had apparently been violently projected against it. That
led us to get a ladder and light and examine about the window more
closely. For a foot or more below it the wall was splashed with blood
and slightly scratched, where lacerated fingers had clawed at the narrow
ledge.

"It did not take us long to figure that, taking the whole length of the
room to get going in, the girl had flung herself up the wall something
in the way that a terrier will run six or eight feet up the side of a
house for a ball or handkerchief fastened there. That's the only way we
could account for the toe-prints on the wall, though it is quite
possible that, after failing to pull off the trick in that fashion--it's
a stunt that looks dead hopeless for anything but a monkey,--she managed
it with a straight spring, high enough to get her fingers over the
ledge. Even from there, not one woman in a million could pull herself
up. But we had already remarked on the extreme wiriness of the girl (a
regular human ape she was for agility), and so found it a bit easier to
accept the evidence of our eyes. In some way or another she had managed
it.

"The air-hole opened out under the eaves of the sheet-iron roof," the
Doctor went on, forgetting his waiting launch in the interest of the
story, and seating himself again at the table. "It must have taken some
jolly snaky wriggling to crawl through the hole, out over the eaves and
on top of the roof; but she did it, else she could never have jumped
across the big banyan, where we found some twigs broken at the point she
hit, and some wisps of silk floss. The other side of that banyan--a
hundred feet from the wall of the hospital--spreads until it comes to
about fifteen feet from the station wall. The wall is ten feet high, has
broken glass on the top of it, with three or four strands of barbed wire
above that.

"Swinging to the ground by a pendent air-root on the side she had landed
in, the girl crossed under the tree--the marks of her bare feet showing
plainly in the soft earth--and used a similar ladder with which to mount
on the other side. To be sure of clearing the barbed wire, she had
climbed to a firm perch fully twenty-five feet from the ground, and made
her final jump from there. Luckily for her, the cane field on the other
side of the wall had been flooded but a day or two before--though I
don't doubt she would have jumped just the same if it had been to a
cobblestone pavement.

"We found the deep prints of her feet, knees and hands where she had
sprawled on striking. Her tracks down to the edge of a sprouting row of
seed-cane, and the marks where she had crawled up out of a deep
irrigating ditch to the road, were all we had to indicate the direction
she had taken. As she had seemed plumb daft about the dead Skipper, we
figured that she had probably broken out with the idea of going to his
grave, and perhaps making an end of herself there. If that was it, she
failed. There were no signs whatever of her having been near the fresh
mound we had tucked the big fellow away under. It was some distance away
from the Station, and, in the night, it isn't likely she would have met
anyone to ask the way of. The only grave she found was her own, and not
a very restful one at that, I'm afraid.

"We had noticed that she seemed to set great store by a big yellow shawl
she wore--rather a fine old piece of Oriental work it looked, with a
dragon or some other kind of wild animal embroidered on it. Well, when
we found that lying on the bank of Ross Creek, just a bit inland of the
town, we felt so sure that it marked the jumping-off place for her in
more ways than one. For that reason, what search has been pressed since
has been in the form of shooting alligators, and seeing if one of them
appears to have enjoyed anything extra-special in the way of tucker
lately."

An impatient toot from his launch carried the Doctor to the door again,
where he paused long enough to assure me for the third or fourth time
that it would be most unlikely that permission would be granted me to
see the Mate or the Boatswain of the _Cora_ until their spell of
quarantine was over. If I was really anxious about it, he would gladly
put in a word for me with the Chief. I would have to show good reason
for my request, of course. Perhaps, if it chanced that I was able to
shed any light on how the schooner came to get into such a mess--I cut
him short by saying that I might call at the Quarantine Station when I
came ashore a little later. What I knew about the sailing of the _Cora_
from Kai happened to be the one thing I didn't care to confide to
anyone--just yet. Asking the Mate to order my boat to stand by for me a
few minutes longer, I went to my cabin to be alone while I turned the
fresh developments over in my mind.

I had been prepared to await the coming of the _Cora_ indefinitely. In
fact, what I expected above anything else was that the final news would
be a report that she had been found piled up on any one of a thousand
reefs that spread their coral claws all the way from the Louisiades to
the Great Barrier. And in case she did get through, I was quite prepared
to learn that both of the white men and the girl had succumbed to the
plague. But to be told that, after the schooner had avoided disaster,
and all three of them the plague, that the two upon whom my interest and
affection had centred were gone--dead,--was just a bit staggering. It
was now up to me to determine upon a definite course of action, and,
since it was now out of the question attempting to follow my first
impulse of going to Allen at once and forcing a showdown, I wanted time
to think.

What the Doctor had told me of the way Bell appeared to have died had
instantly reawakened my suspicions of Allen. Had the _kor-klee_, working
with a recurrent effect, finally proved fatal? Or had Allen, perhaps,
administered a second and stronger dose? He would have had a hundred
opportunities to do that had he desired to. Rona's attacks on the Mate,
indicating the deadliest hatred, seemed to prove that her first
suspicions of him had not weakened during the voyage--more likely,
indeed, had hardened to a certainty. The belief I had been entertaining
that Allen had made up his mind to play the game out on the square was
not very deeply grounded.

My sense of personal loss in the passing of Bell and Rona was not a
thing I cared to let myself dwell upon for the moment. There was no
question that the news of Rona's death had shocked me even more than
that of Bell's. Not that there was anything more between us than I have
already told. I had never let myself think of her in terms of physical
possession, though the sheer animal attraction of the girl was beyond
anything I had ever experienced in a woman. But her appeal to the
artistic side of me had been stronger even than that. Just as the thrill
I felt at the first sight of her bathing in the pink-lipped bowl of the
reef had made the very world itself seem more wonderful and beautiful,
so now the depression that filled me on realizing that I was never again
to have sight of her made the world seem emptier and drearier.

Another thing: there was no denying that Bell, splendid fellow that he
was, had shot his bolt. A real come-back with him was too much to
expect. The most that could have been hoped for was that he would
"finish in style," and that I was assured he had done, no matter in what
agony of soul and body his brave spirit had taken flight. But Rona's
bolt was still unsped. The girl had hardly begun to finger Life's
bowstring. It was almost as hard to think of the flaming, soaring spirit
of her as quenched, as it was to believe that the matchless perfection,
the supple gracefulness of her body--_shooting alligators to see if any
of them had been enjoying anything extra-special in tucker lately_! I
could not pursue that line of thought any further. I agreed with the
Doctor that the fact that the girl had parted with her beloved shawl
indicated that she had reached a jumping-off place--a point where she
had no further use for it. I could not picture her--living--without its
amber-bright flame streaming about her limbs. The wonder was that she
had not kept it for a shroud. As I came out upon the deck to go to my
boat, the intermittent crack of rifle shots along the shore told me that
the "search" had not been abandoned.

Beyond deciding to go ashore and see if anything further could be
learned, I had made no plans. It seemed that about the best I could do
would be to wait in Townsville until Allen and Ranga were out of
quarantine, and then let things shape as they would; but always assuming
that, in case the former could not satisfy me he was innocent of Bell's
death, I should do what I could to settle the reckoning with him. That
would be my atonement--to Bell and to myself--for my sorry failure to
"measure up" the day the _Cora Andrews_ came to Kai Lagoon.

Captain Tancred, who had never quite settled it in his own mind how a
man who openly admitted he had been living in the Kai colony for months
would not have to be smuggled ashore on the quiet if he expected to
avoid arrest in Australia, met me at the gangway.

"Best to leave the luggage aboard, lad," he began genially; "then
that'll be ain less thing ye'll hae to bother wi' if ye're haen' to cut
an' run for it. If ye're not back ag'in by the time I'm gettin' awa',
than I'll be sendin' it in for ye on the Company's launch. But ye'd best
be hangin' on wi' me a bittie, an' tak' me to see them pictur's ye've
been tellin' me aboot in Sydney toon."

My pictures! The Exhibition had slipped my mind completely, driven out
by the news of the _Cora_ and the anxieties that had followed in its
train. I had told Captain Tancred something of my coming show, but had
hardly convinced him. He was far too considerate to say outright that he
didn't believe me, but my Kai origin could not be ignored. If I was to
have an exhibition of paintings in Sydney, then why was I stopping off
in Townsville? On that point--since I didn't want to go into the _Cora_
affair with anyone until I knew how things were going to shape--I had
hardly been able to reassure the old sceptic. I might be an artist all
right enough--I don't think he had any serious doubts on that
score,--but I must also be some kind of a crook. He was plainly
convinced in his own mind that I was trying to slip into Australia on
the quiet, and was rather hurt because I would not take him into my
confidence and let him help me.

But why not take in the Exhibition? In nine days, with any luck in
connections, I could go to Sydney and back, with a day or two to spare.
Even if the trip ran over that time, it was not likely that the man I
wanted to see would be getting away immediately.... And, in any event, I
would know how to find him, whether in Australia or the Islands.
Further, it could not but have a salutary effect on my nerves to get
quite beyond the attraction I felt that Quarantine Station would have
for me if I lingered within physical reach of it. Nothing but absinthe,
and more absinthe, and then more absinthe, could be depended upon to
relieve my nerves once they were fully wrought up, as I knew they must
be if I remained in Townsville in enforced inaction, fretting my heart
out with impatience. And too much absinthe would mean only one
thing--that I would begin the day on which I was to meet "Slant" Allen
for a final showdown in a condition of mind and body precisely similar
to that in which I had entered upon another day of accursed memory--and,
doubtless, with equally shameful consequences to myself.

These thoughts flashed through my mind in a fraction of the time I have
taken to set them down. My reply to Captain Tancred followed close upon
his suggestion that I leave my luggage aboard.

"I think I'll be going through to Sydney with you, Captain--or at least
as far as Brisbane," I said, motioning to the steward to bring up the
bags he had already stowed in the waiting boat. "I know no one whose
opinion on my daubs I'd rather have than yours. But I'll pay my little
visit ashore here just the same, counting on you to get my kit landed in
the unlikely event of my not being aboard again when you get under way
this afternoon."

I was not long in coming to the conclusion that there was nothing new to
be learned ashore, that is, with respect to what had happened on the
_Cora_ in the course of her voyage from Kai. This was not because the
story was not on everyone's lips.... Quite to the contrary, indeed, the
town was agog with the dramatic suddenness of the arrival of the plague
ship and its astonishing sequel. But as no one had been allowed to see
any of the survivors, such accounts as were current were only those
which had been passed out by the quarantine people, and about all the
latter knew I felt that I had already gathered that morning from the
Doctor on the _Utupua_. Bell's name was not mentioned, and not a man I
talked with knew that the dead white man had been the Skipper.

For Townsville--for all of Australia--the overwhelming appeal of the
event was in the fact that a black-birding schooner had been brought
into port by an ex-Ticket-of-Leavester, who had _volunteered_ to risk
his life in an attempt to save those of half a hundred plague-stricken
niggers. That one circumstance in itself was wonderful enough, but when,
on top of it, the announcement was made that the hero was none other
than the former idol of sporting Australia, the Hon. Hartley Allen,
popular imagination was stirred as rarely ever before. What man in all
the Antipodes had not envied Allen, the supremely successful owner,
rider and sportsman? What woman had not been intrigued by the romantic
dash of him? What boy had not dreamed of growing up in his image?

Townsville, delirious with the dramatic appeal of this splendid act on
the part of a man who had tasted the wine of adulation as he had drunk
the dregs of infamy, was but a microcosm of Sydney and Melbourne,
Brisbane and Adelaide, to all of which the news had been flashed by
wire. Every town and hamlet, from Cairns to Hobart, from Perth to
Woolongong, were dispatching telegrams of congratulation to a man who
was still muttering in his drunken sleep behind the walls of the
Townsville Quarantine Station. Sydney was competing with Brisbane for
the honour of being the first to bestow the "Freedom of the City" upon
the man both of them had had some share in transporting. A special from
Sydney to the local sheet, hinted darkly of what might happen to the
misguided official who attempted to revive any of the old charges
against the man "whose sublime courage had emblazoned his name upon the
tablets of undying fame.... A hand that is raised today against the Hon.
Hartley Allen is a hand that is raised against the noblest traditions of
Australia."

I had to elbow through half of a densely packed block to read that last
on the bulletin in front of the _Trumpet's_ office. The mob cheered
wildly as the message was chalked up on the blackboard--cheered the
stirring sentiment and growled ominously at the suggestion that any hand
would dare to be raised against the Hon. Hartley Allen and the noblest
traditions of Australia. As I elbowed my way out again, I wondered just
what the Charters Towers miner, who had manifested his exuberant
approval by slapping me on the back, would have thought--nay, what he
would have done--had he known that the hand fingering the guard of the
revolver in the right side-pocket of my shooting jacket (I had brought
the useful little weapon on the off chance that it might be needed) was
rather more likely than not to be raised against at least one of those
cherished institutions he was so anxious to uphold.

I began to perceive that the line between dealing out retributive
justice to a blackguard of a murderer and assassinating a national hero
in cold blood might easily become too hairlike in its tenuousness for a
red-eyed Australian jury to admit the existence of it. For it was
nothing less than a national hero that "Slant" Allen was becoming, even
before he roused from the heavy sleep which had held him ever since he
collapsed over the wheel as the _Cora_ came to anchor. That
circumstance, I told myself, complicated my task beyond measure, though
I couldn't, of course, allow it to make any difference in my program in
the event Allen wasn't able to satisfy me that he was guiltless of the
murder of my friend. But if things should transpire which might make
Allen anxious to put _me_ out of the way--if he, not I were the
attacking party--that would simplify things greatly. I began to ponder
that felicitous possibility.

Would not the fact that I was the only living man (Ranga, whatever he
had seen or heard, would hardly need to be reckoned with as a witness)
who knew the actual facts about the way he had "volunteered" to join the
_Cora_ at Kai awaken a desire in Allen's lawless breast to seal my mouth
for good and all, now that he had so much to lose by the truth's coming
out? The feeling that such would be the case--that the dizzily mounting
fortunes of the ex-beach-comber would ultimately impel him to seek me
out for an understanding--grew on me more and more as I turned the
situation over in my mind, until at last it became a certainty, against
which I felt justified in preparing as a boxer trains for a definitely
scheduled prize fight.

I did not reckon it worth while to call at the Quarantine Station, which
was some distance from the town and not easy to reach. I did, however,
just before I put off to the ship, meet the young doctor with whom I had
talked in the morning. The only thing which he was able to add to what
he had already told me was in connection with the question I had raised
respecting the cause of Bell's death. To be certain that he had been
correct in stating that the latter had not died of plague, he had made a
special inquiry. In response to this he had been shown a slide made from
a smear they had taken of the late Skipper's blood. The bacteriologist
had seen to that immediately the body was landed. It showed no traces
whatever of plague bacilli. I could be quite assured on that point. The
Chief was unwilling to hazard an opinion as to what the real cause of
the man's death might have been. He seemed rather to regret that he had
failed to order a post-mortem. Allen was still sleeping heavily, but
would be right as a trivet beyond a doubt as soon as he woke up and gave
them a chance to sweat some of the alcohol out of his hide. Pulse steady
as a church.... Temperature a shade sub-normal. Marvellous
constitution.... Wonderful fellow altogether. Any word of the girl? No,
nothing. Ten pounds reward had been offered for the recovery of her
body, or any recognizable part of it. Search was still going on, and he
pointed across to the opposite foreshore, where a couple of spindling
Hindu coolies--evidently sugar plantation contract hands--were earnestly
engaged in performing "_hari-kiri_" upon a plethoric 'gator they had
just bagged and towed to the beach.

The Doctor was already beginning to look ahead. Did I fancy Allen would
be able to wangle it so as to get an entry in for the Melbourne Cup in
the short time that remained before that classic was run? Entries closed
some time ago, of course. He'd have to square it with the stewards some
way. They might make a special exception, seeing who Allen was, and what
he had just done. Any horse with his colours would carry a barrel of
money, just out of sentiment if nothing else. Did I think he would
wangle an entry?

"No," I replied, stepping down into my boat. "No, I'm afraid the chances
are all against it." My mind had been torn with doubt over a number of
things that day.... It was a relief to be asked to express an opinion on
a matter respecting which I had no doubt.... Not a shred of it.

Captain Tancred welcomed me back to the _Utupua_ with a significant
grin. "So ye didna find the outlook ashore to yer likin' lad?" he boomed
boisterously, thumping me on the back. "Weel, dinna ye mind, since ye
wasna nabbed. I'll be findin' a wa' to slip ye aff in Sydney sae they
wan't be puttin' nose to yer trail till ye're clean awa'." The look on
the old boy's face was a study when, a few days later, after the tugs
had nosed his ship into her berth at the Circular Quay, I stalked
brazenly off down the gangway, with no more regard for the two Bobbies
guarding the dock gate than they had for me. He had exacted two promises
from me before he let me go: one, that I was to take him to see my
pictures, and the other, that I would not fail to let him know if there
ever came a time when he could be of Service to me.... "Real sarvice,
lad; you'll be twiggin' wha' I mean." I gave both promises freely, just
as I kept them later--yes, both of them.

As I had trunks, with all the common accessories of civilization, stored
at the _Australia_, my transformation from a beach-comber to a fairly
correct imitation of a comfortably heeled artist was the matter of but a
few hours. My appearance at the Exhibition could not have been better
timed. The affair had been extremely well handled from the first. I had
been sending pictures to Sydney from all parts of the South Seas for the
last eighteen months, packing them up as completed and getting them off
whenever opportunity offered. Two or three had been lost, but, on the
whole, I reckoned the plan safer than trying to take them round with me
in one lot, at the risk of losing the bunch.



                               CHAPTER X

                            ART AND SUSPENSE


Nothing had been further from my mind than an Australian exhibition. I
cared little for the provincial approbation of the Antipodes, and I was
hardly ready for Paris--not quite yet. It was only at the reiterated
requests of friends (two of them were young Australian artists I had
known in my student days in Paris), to whom I was under real obligations
for their kindness in receiving and storing my pictures as they dribbled
into Sydney, that I finally gave consent to a public showing. In doing
this, I had stipulated particularly that they were to take all the
troubles and responsibilities of the affair, and that under no
circumstances was I to be expected to appear in person--unless, of
course, it suited my convenience and inclination at the time.

As I have said, the affair had been most intelligently handled from the
first. There had not been enough of my canvases comfortably to fill the
wing of the big New South Wales Government Museum and Art Gallery which
was available for exhibitions, but my friends, rather than pull the show
off at a less pretentious and worse lighted gallery, had added enough of
their own pictures to relieve the coldness of otherwise blank walls.
These were also South Sea marines--it was a straight seascape show
throughout,--but more or less conventional in inspiration and execution.
Benchley might have been painting marine backgrounds for an aquarium, so
faithfully did he labour to reproduce every detail of jutting coral
branches and floating seaweed. Crafts, on the other hand, had fallen
early under the influence of Turner, and persisted in bulling the yellow
ochre market by drenching his Great Barrier Reef seascapes with such a
flood of golden light as was never seen save at the head of the Adriatic
and now and then on the coasts of Tripoli and Algeria.

I would hardly characterize my own work as a compromise between these
two extremes.... It was _not_ that, though I _was_ less of a slave to
form than Benchley, and by no means so emancipated from it as Crafts.
Rather, I should say, I was striving, independent of either classic or
contemporary influence, to paint such depth, warmth and atmosphere into
my tropical seascapes as would make them convey an _intenser_ suggestion
of reality. I did not expect water spaniels to pay me the subtle
compliment of trying to gambol in my breakers, nor children to try to
launch their toy sailboats in my lagoons.... Benchley's "colour
photograph" effects were more likely to attain to those distinctions
than my comparatively impressionistic sketches. What I was striving for
was an effect that would compel some such comment as old Jackson had
made the first time he stood off and conned my "Swells and
Shells"--"Gawd bly'me, that's _it_! That water's wetter 'n a swept deck,
an', s'elp me Mike, but I c'n bloomin' near sniff them bloody clams!"

Very naturally, then, since the sea was what I was painting, the
impressions of anyone who didn't know the sea as intimately as did my
beach-combing cronies of Kai wasn't going to worry me much. The opinions
of men who knew less about the subject of my pictures, and more about
how pictures in general were painted, didn't strike me as anything that
counted very seriously. Nevertheless when, at Brisbane on the voyage
south, I got the Sydney papers with the account of the opening of the
show, it was a good deal of a satisfaction to find that my work appeared
to have got over with the art critics. These had, of course (since they
were denied Jackson's facility of expression), to confine themselves to
the jargon of their kind. It was plain, however, that they had been
favourably impressed, and were doing the best they could with their
comparatively restricted vocabularies. Mere city dwellers, too, most of
them, one had to allow for their limited capacity of appreciation for
something--the sea--which they knew only from other pictures. But even
allowing for that, it was reassuring to find that they were coming
across so whole-heartedly. Such capsules of praise as they had in stock
were scattered with lavish hands for whoso would to swallow. "The soul
of the sea palpitates through every canvas," said the _Herald_; "you
leave the gallery with the tang of blown brine fresh in your nostrils,"
said the _Telegraph_; "Australia is honoured with having the first
chance to see this brilliantly distinctive work," said the illustrated
_Australasian_, and promised four full pages of reproductions of the
"gems of the collection" in its next issue. The young lady (I judged she
was young) who was on the job for the Melbourne _Age_ gushed
breathlessly for a column and a half. This was a sample: "In
'Mother-of-Pearl' he has woven with a warp of sunbeams and a woof of
rainbow--a shimmering brocade of exultantly sentient brightness!"
Capsules of praise, every one of these; but they were from the top shelf
beyond a doubt, and the fact that they had been reached for indicated
that at least something of my message had dribbled over the frames.

The _Bulletin_ had done rather better than the others in commissioning
for the occasion an "art critic" who (as transpired in the course of his
half-page article) had sailed his own sixty-footer to Auckland and back.
He, at least, had met the sea on more intimate terms than was possible
through Sunday mixed-bathing at Coogee and Manley (with occasional
ferryboat passages, about the limit the others had gone, I reckoned).
Said he, in speaking of "The Seventh Son of a Seventh Son": "The beat of
the eternal sea was behind every slash of the brush with which this
Franco-American wizard of light and colour painted that rolling mountain
of water. I felt my fingers involuntarily clutching at the spokes of the
wheel to bring her up to meet the menace of that curling crest. I forgot
where I was ... I almost felt the heave of a deck beneath my feet...."

I rather liked that, I must confess; though perhaps it didn't give me
quite the double-barrelled thrill of "Heifer" Halligan's comment when I
sent for him to pass judgment on that same picture before the paint of
my finishing touches upon it was dry. A month before, as I have already
mentioned, I had given the "Heifer" a pretty severe pummelling with the
four-ounce gloves, and, like the good sport he was, to show that there
was no hard feeling on the score of his battered optics, he had
volunteered to sail me in his sloop to Tuka-tuva (the reef on which Bell
lost the _Flying Scud_, it may be recalled) so that I could make some
close-range studies of hard-running waves at the point of breaking. And,
just to show that there was no hard feeling on _my_ part over the wallop
below my belt with which the "Heifer" had finally brought the bout to a
close, I accepted. The studies had been made--just a few slashes on
oil-cloth with a rather useful waterproof paint I had mixed specially
for "sloppy" stunts like that--with my shivering anatomy lashed to the
_Wet-Eyed Susy's_ bowsprit, while the "Heifer" tacked back and forth
just beyond the line where the pull of the shoaling reef, dragging at
their bases, let the green-black tops of the combers tumble over in a
thunderous roar. As he was really taking a good deal of a chance of
losing his handy little pearler, if nothing else, it was only right that
the "Heifer's" request for a first look-see at the completed picture
should have the call.

He studied it in silence for a minute or two, legs wide apart and his
bullet head cocked judicially to one side. Then his fine teeth were
bared in a broad grin and he vented a throaty chuckle of amused
admiration. Said he: "Mister Whitney, that hulkin' ol' lalapalooser
there looks like he has all the kick behint him of that bally wallop on
the solar plexus you floored me with the other day." Not even the Sydney
_Bulletin's dilletante_ yachtsman could do quite as well as that--from
my standpoint, at least. But of course I had a weakness for the Kai
viewpoint.

The Exhibition had been opened early in the week--the usual affair of
the kind, "Under the Patronage and in the Presence of His Excellency,
the Governor General and Lady X----," and a long list of specially
invited guests. Amiable old Lord X---- had made one of the happy little
speeches for which he was famous. Then they had all had tea and a look
at the pictures. This inevitable formal session out of the way, the show
was opened to the general public. Under the stimulus of the
astonishingly enthusiastic press, the public had come through beyond all
expectations. For the next three days the crush at the gallery was, as
the _Bulletin_ had it, like a "bargain day rush at _Morden's_." On
Friday, it was advertised, Sir Joseph Preston, R.A., a very
distinguished English artist visiting in Australia, had consented to
speak at the Exhibition on "The Painter with the New Method and the New
Message." This was the day of my arrival in Sydney. It did not occur to
me at first just who the subject of the discourse was to be. When it
finally came home to me, I began speeding up my transformation process
at once. By dint of rushed valeting and dressing, I just managed to
reach the gallery as Sir Joseph was getting under way.

I won't endeavour to set down his speech, not even in outline. It was
highly complimentary from first to last--and not even condescending,
which was as surprising as pleasing when one considered how lofty an
eminence Sir Joseph occupied in the art world. One thing I was just a
bit disappointed about, though, was that the speaker seemed to assume
that the pictures on exhibition represented my ultimate expression, the
best I could do, or could be expected to do; whereas I knew that I had
hardly got my foot well planted on the first rung of the ladder. I
regretted without resenting this. I hadn't painted my hopes and
ambitions into the pictures, so how was Sir Joseph Preston, more than
anybody else, to see what I was driving at? I rather wanted to tell him
about it, though. I hadn't talked with an artist of the old boy's
calibre since I was in Paris, and not often there.

I was just screwing up my nerve to push in and introduce myself, when
Benchley pounced upon me with a joyous whoop and did the thing as a
matter of course. Totally oblivious of the widening circle of wondering
cackle that arose as the news of my unexpected, and not undramatic,
appearance spread outward through the jam, I held forth to the beaming
Royal Academician on the things that had been passing through my mind.
The great man fired as though he had been of tow and my words--my
ideas--were a torch laid to the inflammable mass of him.

"Magnificent! Perfectly ripping!" he exclaimed with enthusiasm; "but
what a shame I didn't know that ten minutes ago so that I could have
told them! By Jove, I'll tell them now! Better yet--jolly good idea;
_you_ tell them. Just the things you've been telling me."

Benchley, Crafts and my other sponsors descended upon me like a pack of
hounds at those words, and the first thing I knew I had been hustled up
onto their little dais, and Sir Joseph was introducing me as "a
gentleman who can make a few pertinent additions to my late remarks."

I hadn't been called upon for a speech since I won the middle-weight
boxing championship of Harvard in my Junior year, and speaking was by no
means my long suit even in those days. I bucked up and went through it
now though, just as I did on that first occasion. It's no very difficult
thing to get away with when you know what you want to say--and have the
crowd with you. I spoke briefly, but very earnestly--very much to the
point, too, I think. When the crowd had quieted down a bit, tea was
served. The next morning, when I read the papers in bed, it was to
discover that I had become a fully fledged--or perhaps maned is the
proper word--lion.

In one of those same papers there was an interesting item of news about
another lion. The special representative the _Herald_ had rushed to
Townsville immediately the news of the _Cora Andrews_ affair had been
received, wired that the Hon. Hartley Allen, replying from the
Quarantine Station to a note the correspondent had addressed him there,
announced definitely that it was his intention to pay a visit to his old
home town of Sydney. He would leave by the first steamer sailing after
the doctors had certified him free of the danger of plague infection.

That was good news. The best I could have hoped for. It confirmed my
growing belief that I was not going to have to do much, if any, seeking
in order to meet my man. And it was a hundred to one that the doctor
with whom I had talked on the _Utupua_ had told Allen of the
conversation as soon as the latter came out of his long sleep, I was
even inclined to the opinion that his decision to go south as soon as he
could had been influenced by a desire to find out once and for all what
attitude I was going to take toward him. This was all to the good. There
was no need of my hurrying back to Townsville now. I could stay in
Sydney and enjoy my triumph while watching that of the Hon. Hartley
Allen develop. With a lighter heart than I had known since the rumble of
the _Cora's_ anchor chain awakened me on that day of hateful memory in
Kai, I tumbled out of bed, took a cold bath, and went down to the
dining-room for breakfast--the greatest burst of early matutinal energy
I had shown in years.

The avidity of the interest of the public in the Hon. Hartley Allen
increased day by day as the time approached for the hero to come south.
All of the important papers had special men on the job in Townsville,
and every scrap of news bearing the least relation to the man of the
hour was instantly put on the wires and rushed into print. Save for that
one announcement that he intended visiting Sydney, Allen himself gave
out nothing. The correspondents had to confine themselves to reports of
his continued improvement in health, as passed out to them by the
doctors, and to speculation--columns of it--as to what effect Allen's
return might be expected to have upon racing. His elder brother--Sir
James, who was now in England--had allowed Hartley's stable to run down
a good deal after the latter had been shipped off to the Islands. There
were a few good horses left after the best of the string had been sold
to pay off debts, and these would form a nucleus which could not fail to
develop quickly into a factor to be reckoned with in the meets of next
season. There was no limit to the discussion of this phase of the
affair, Melbourne and Sydney racing experts devoting even more space to
it than the special men in Townsville.

Of the story of the _Cora Andrews_ there was nothing new whatever being
brought out. If Allen was telling the doctors at the Quarantine Station
anything, it must have been in confidence, for these professed to have
learned nothing further every time the correspondents pressed them for
details. The schooner herself, it was reported, had broken from her
mooring during a gale and been driven upon the beach of Cleveland Bay,
some miles from the town. A hole had been stove in her bow and it would
be impossible to get her off before considerable repairs were carried
out. As she had not been disinfected since the removal of the plague
victims, there would probably be some delay about the repairs,
especially as the question of her ownership was in doubt. She had
belonged to the man who sailed her in the labour-recruiting trade, and
he was dead. So was the Skipper who had taken her over in the
Louisiades. It looked like the Hon. Hartley Allen had the most valid
claim to her, but that was a matter to be adjusted by the courts in any
event. In the meantime, the schooner, as she was lying in fairly quiet
water, was probably safe until the next gale. Thus the papers.

When Allen finally came out of quarantine it transpired that he would
have a wait of three days on his hands before there was a steamer
departing for the south. The delay was unavoidable, although an
enthusiastic Sydney paper had suggested that the Admiral commanding the
Australian Naval Station should detach a gunboat to bring the hero home.
Allen, it appeared, had actually tried to avoid meeting the newspaper
men, and consented to do so finally only on the condition that he would
not be expected to give out anything in the way of an interview in
respect to his past, present or future. As they had no alternative in
the matter, the correspondents accepted the ultimatum, but only--as most
of them confessed--in the hope of getting it modified when action was
joined. They were doomed to disappointment.

Allen received them on the veranda of a house that had been put at his
disposal by a prominent local shipping man--a detached bungalow in the
grounds of the latter's home on the outskirts of the town. They reported
him looking rather soft--a good two stone heavier than his former riding
weight. He was heavily browned from the tropical sun, showed a tinge of
yellow--doubtless from malaria and _dengue_,--and his face was deeply
lined about the eyes and mouth. He looked to have aged rather more than
the five years of his absence: but life in the Islands was hardly the
rest cure most Australians fancied it. No, not by a long shot.

Except for his refusal to tell anything whatever of the story of how he
had brought the plague ship through the Great Barrier Reef, Allen had
been very courteous and agreeable to the pressmen. They all agreed that
he was in good fettle--quite full of beans. Indeed, it was Allen who did
all of the interviewing. Persistently refusing to answer any questions
about himself, he was avid of interest concerning all that had happened
in the racing world during his absence. What were the real facts behind
the breakdown of the Colchester filly after she had won the Victoria
National so handily? Who was that colt _Ballarat Boy_ out of?--the one
that had upset all the dope in the spring meet at Adelaide. Were Tod
Sloan and Skeets Martin still piling up wins in England? What was the
secret of their success? Was there any chance of these or any other of
the Yank jockeys coming to Australia?

Answering such questions as these for an hour was the way that bunch of
high-salaried feature writers interviewed the Hon. Hartley Allen. And
when, as one of them put it in somewhat mixed simile, they were "pumped
dry as a last year's dope sheet," the hero announced that the interview
was over.

Disappointed in their endeavours to pry any pearls from the oyster
into which Allen (for reasons best known to himself) had metamorphosed
himself, the correspondents made the best of a bad job by playing up
the modesty of the man they had been sent a thousand miles or so to
interview. Modest was an adjective that--in the light of what most of
them knew of Allen's past--it hadn't occurred to any of them to use
before. Now, however, they made up for lost time. The modest hero did
this, or the modest hero said that.... There was modesty in the way he
stroked his chin, in the shrug of his shoulders, in the way he crossed
and uncrossed his legs when sitting. His habit of looking sideways
when speaking was rated as a sign of modesty; so was the trick of
stroking his cheroot between thumb and forefinger as he smoked.
_Modest_--_hero_--those words became permanently wedded in my mind
during the week that I was reading leaders written with them for an
inspiration, the report of sermons preached with them as a text. I
cannot hear the one of them to this day without thinking of the other.
_Modest hero!_ In the estimation of the public "Slant" Allen, whom I had
always thought of as the most egotistic man I had ever known, remained
that to the--until public estimation ceased to interest him.

There was one little item of news telegraphed from Townsville which I
read with a good deal of grim amusement. The day before his departure
Allen was given some kind of a send-off in the Town Hall. As he was
riding down the main street on his way to this affair, a man ducked
under the rope holding the crowd back at the curb, rushed at the open
carriage and aimed a blow at the breast of the hero with a knife. No
whit perturbed, the latter had coolly deflected the thrust by striking
up the assailant's elbow with his left hand. Then, seizing the ruffian's
wrist with his right hand, he had brought it sharply down on the edge of
the carriage door, shattering the bones and causing the knife to fall
from the relaxed fingers to the pavement. Infuriated by the dastardly
attack, the crowd had set upon the would-be assassin, who was only saved
from being mauled to death through the interference of none other than
Allen himself.

The correspondents were much impressed, not only by the behaviour of the
generous-hearted hero in intervening to save the life of the man who had
just tried to take his own, but also--and especially--by a curious
little circumstance in connection therewith. It was observed, in short,
that, while Allen had defended his own body most effectually with his
bare hands, as soon as he saw that the man who had attacked him was on
the verge of being killed by a bloody-minded mob, quite beyond police
control, he whipped out a revolver and used the menace of it to clear a
space around the trampled body of his late assailant. The correspondents
all thought that was rather fine; indeed, I was inclined to think so
myself.

Allen had flatly refused to lodge a complaint against the man who had
tried so desperately to knife him, and even declined to help the police
in their attempt to identify the fellow. "Just an old Island affair, the
big-hearted hero had explained with a careless laugh, as he turned on
his way to receive the Golden Key symbolizing the Freedom of the Queen
City of Northern Queensland." That was the way the _Herald_ man had it.

At the Police Station the prisoner was recognized at once as a man named
Saunders, who had been convicted of a series of bullion robberies in the
Kalgoorlie gold fields of Western Australia some years previously.
Because of his diabolical practice of throwing red pepper and vitriol to
blind his victims, he had gained the sobriquet of "The Squid." He had
escaped after serving but eighteen months of his twenty-five-year
sentence and made his way across the "Never-Never" to Port Darwin, where
all trace of him was lost for the time. He was supposed to have slipped
away to the Islands. This was confirmed a few months later, when a
boatload of out-bound placer miners were held up and robbed of the
fruits of their season's work in the Fly gold fields of New Guinea. Even
if one of them, who had once been in Western Australia, had not
identified Saunders, the fact that a jar of sulphuric acid had been
thrown into the midst of the miners would have connected "The Squid"
with the crime beyond a doubt. Australia had but fragmentary record of
his later crimes, but he was known to have been mixed up in a number of
pearl robberies in and about Thursday Island. He had continued to
practise his vitriol-throwing trick (varying it occasionally with a
fiendishly original stunt with some native concoction), and was still
known as "The Squid." How long he had been lying low in Australia, or
why he ventured there, he refused to tell; neither would he offer any
explanation of his savage attack upon the hero of the hour. All he had
said in the latter connection was: "'Slant' 'll twig why I took a flyer
at returning the pig-sticker to him--it was his onct."

I understood at once that the root of "The Squid's" grudge against Allen
struck back to that affair of the old pearl pirate's missionary-reared
daughter--a copper-haired, ivory-browed Amazon of a girl who had become
one of the most consummate sirens in the pearleries after a three-months
trip with "Slant" to Singapore had broken her in. Amazing story the
whole thing, from its beginning with the girl's mother--a teacher in the
Gospel Propaganda Society's school at Thursday Island who had fallen
afoul of one of "The Squid's" tentacles long before his conviction--to
its ghastly finish, when the girl herself settled her accumulated
account against all mankind with the body and soul of one--a hot-headed
lump of a young missionary just out from London.

According to the version current in Kai, Allen had not been greatly to
blame in the affair with the temperamental rack of bones and red braids
that the girl was when she burst upon the Islands from the Auckland
convent; but "The Squid" evidently felt that the man who had set the
snowball (not a very apt metaphor, for I never heard the girl compared
to anything so frigid) rolling was the one to settle with. I had heard
of three or four rather ingeniously thought-out attempts he had made to
square the account, all of which, however, had failed as a consequence
of Allen's quickness of wit and hand in sudden emergency. The knife
figuring in the Townsville attack, it occurred to me, was probably the
one the resourceful "Slant" had put through "The Squid's" shoulder at
twenty paces a fraction of a second before the latter had delivered a
flask of red pepper from his upraised hand.

I also thought I understood why Allen had bluntly refused to make any
explanation of the attack. A veritable Turk in his relations with women,
that Island Lothario had also the Turk's dislike for discussing his
women in public. When sober, Allen rarely if ever boasted about
anything. When very drunk, he would occasionally toot a horn anent his
racing wins; and once, when he was all but swamped--awash to the rails
with "Three Star"--I had heard him give a maudlin monologue on men he
had put away. But I--and no one else, so far as I knew--had ever heard
him talk of the girls he had bagged, though the Lord knows there had
been enough of them. (The nearest he ever came to it was in that little
joke of his I have mentioned--the one about having "a son and a saddle
in every island group in the South Pacific,"--and that was only a sort
of delicate implication.) His close-mouthedness about women was one of a
number of little things I couldn't help but liking in the rascal.

Since Allen and Saunders would not talk, and since the knife that
figured in the affair--a heavy dirk, with a shark's hide handle and the
mark of a Lisbon cutlerer on the blade--could not talk, the ever-baffled
Townsville correspondents had been able to gather practically nothing
about what their journalistic noses told them was a red-hot human
interest story. Blocked on that trail, they devoted a lot of space to a
discussion of the interesting revelation of the hero's Island nickname.
More or less ingenious theories as to "Why 'Slant'?" filled the columns
of the papers for a number of days. None of them was within a mile of
the mark. One of the correspondents fancied the name had been given
Allen because of his "aquilinity, his wiry slenderness, so that he clove
the air like a slant of sunbeams as he rode." Another writer was sure
the name was suggested by the hero's peculiar crouching seat--the slant
of his back as he urged on his mount. They were quite incapable of going
beyond Allen's physical characteristics, or of visualizing him save on
horseback.

That added another little item to the list of things I could have
enlightened the press and the public on about "Slant" Allen, and, in
this particular instance, I wouldn't have minded passing on the facts at
once. Indeed, I made rather a hit at a Government House luncheon one day
by telling how the nearing hero (he was expected to be landing at
Brisbane on the morrow) had qualified for his queer nickname. Jackson,
who was responsible for the title, had confided to me how he came to
bestow it. There was no story behind it, as some of the papers had
hinted. Old "Jack," after having known Allen pretty intimately for a
couple of years, came to the conclusion one day that the lanky
Sydney-sider was the first man he ever met who persistently and
consistently kept him guessing. Given a situation, and the foxy old
highwayman had discovered that he could usually tell in advance how any
given man would be likely to meet it. It was after he had guessed wrong
about Allen some dozens of times, without once guessing right, that
Jackson made up his mind that there was no forecasting the "slant of his
course from the slant of the breeze." And because something in the
mellifluous sound of the word struck pleasantly on the trader's ear, he
began applying the name to the man who had inspired it. "No re'l reason
for it," he explained; "but it sure do seem to fit 'im like a new copper
bottom does a schooner."

The Governor General's Aide-de-camp, who was something of a follower of
the ponies, confirmed Jackson's opinion and the fitness of the
sobriquet. Said the gaily uniformed "Galloper": "The great secret of
Allen's astonishing success as a point-to-point rider was his amazing
faculty for bringing off the unexpected. Once, at Launceston, I saw him
win on a hundred-to-one shot (how he happened to be riding the skate I
don't know) by deliberately bolting the course and putting his mount
full tilt through a thorn thicket. He was in tenth place, with a mile to
go when he did it, and he won the race by a dozen lengths--his own and
the waler's hide in tatters.

"Another unexpected win of Allen's," he continued with the wry grin of a
man who speaks of dearly bought experience, "was that 'Totalisator' coup
of his at Adelaide. His pals got in on the 'Tote' somehow, and--" A
warning cough from Lord X---- checked the loquacious "Galloper's" tongue
in mid-flight, and, with reddening gill, he faded away with: "Sorry,
sir, but I forgot it isn't quite--quite the thing to remember that
little chapter of Hartley Allen's past. Quite right, really. My mistake.
Dead sorry, sir...."

There was no doubt that Allen was going to have a clean-scored slate to
begin writing anew on. I was thinking of that, and "Why 'Slant'?", as I
walked back to the hotel an hour later. "No forecasting the slant of his
course from the slant of the breeze!"... "Faculty for bringing off the
unexpected." I hoped that he wasn't going to disappoint me in the matter
of bringing things to a showdown on his arrival in Sydney. But no.... My
every instinct told me that he would not side-step that. So I made all
preparations properly to receive "Slant" Allen, and, on the day of his
triumphant home-coming, was waiting for him in my room at the
_Australia_, as I have already told.



                               CHAPTER XI

                          A HERO'S HOMECOMING


It was two o'clock when I began powdering and screening the yellow-hued
inner lining of my sea shells. Subconsciously, I must have set three in
my mind as the time my caller would come, for it was not until that hour
that I ceased my absorbingly interesting labours and looked at my watch.
So far as I can recall, I felt no concern one way or the other. I simply
noted that the hour had gone by without bringing my expected visitor,
and went back to my work.

As a matter of fact, having just made a most gratifying discovery, I was
rather glad that the interruption had not come. I had isolated a new and
wonderful colour--a dark coppery gold that I had yearned for every time
I saw sunlight filtering through brine onto the gently undulating leaves
of reef-rooted kelp. Now I had it; and it was not an accident--I could
do it again. By standing on edge a fragment of one of the big bivalves I
was experimenting with, I discovered that a sharp blow with the side of
my pestle caused the thinnest of chips to fly from its enamel-like
lining. These, glassily translucent as they fell, when reduced in the
mortar gave a warm, almost glowing powder of exactly the hue I sought.
Now if I could only devise a way of mixing it effectively....

So well were my innermost faculties set to respond to that expected
knock, that, when it came, not even the mazes of exultant speculation in
which my discovery had set my brain--my outward wits--to wandering,
prevented instant ganglionic reaction. I didn't have to think. That had
all been done an hour before, and the necessary orders given. At the
alarm, these had only to be carried out as prearranged. My legs and arms
simply obeyed the directions that had been registered for them in some
convenient little nerve-knots strung along my spinal column. That
carried me, stepping softly, out of the bathroom, through the bedroom,
and past the middle of the sitting-room, well beyond the direct line of
vision of anyone opening the door from the hall. It was a position from
which I must see anyone coming in before he was able to locate me. The
rest of the order--carried out simultaneously--had to do with laying the
pestle lightly on the bathroom table and thrusting the hand that had
been wielding it deep into the right-hand pocket of my old shooting
jacket.

In the second or two that it had taken me to reach the middle of the
sitting-room from the bathroom, my wits had relinquished their rainbow
dreams and were back on their workaday job. They it was which, now the
limit of ganglionic action had been reached, stepped in and took
command. It was not from nervousness that I swallowed once and flashed
my tongue across my lips before speaking. I only wanted to be sure my
voice was as firm as I knew the resolution directing it to be. Speaking
sharply, but in a tone not above the ordinary, I said: "Come in, Allen!"

Among the several little surprises in store for me in the course of the
next few minutes, not the least came when the man on the other side of
the door coughed and cleared his throat as his hand began to turn the
knob. I was just telling myself that such palpable symptoms of
nervousness were very unlike "Slant" Allen to display, when the door
swung inwards and "Slant" Allen stepped into the room. Allen, but not
the Allen I had known. Absolutely nerved to readiness as I was, the
contrast of this flushed, slightly embarrassed, almost diffident young
chap and the ruthless, cold-blooded badman I had made every
preparation--physical and mental--to meet came nigh to taking me aback.
It was like clambering up out of a companionway, all set for a hurricane
sweeping the deck--and finding it calm. For an instant my jaw must have
come near to sagging in the amazement that swept over me. I pulled
myself together quickly, though, and if Allen noticed my momentary
lapse, he gave no sign of it.

He was the first to speak. "So you were expecting me?" he said, but not
as though greatly surprised.

"Ra-_ther_," I replied with emphasis. "Look at this!" and I pulled out
the revolver from my right-hand pocket, released the hair-trigger
adjustment, slid the safety-catch, and laid it on the table by the
window. I would not have been guilty of such an obvious act of bravado
had not my preternaturally acute senses told me that, so far as Allen
was concerned at least, there was not going to be any occasion to use
the weapon. That feeling persisted even when, as Allen turned slightly
in the act of closing the door, I noticed a very perceptible bulge where
the flimsy corner of his pongee coat swept his lean right flank. The
instant he entered the room I knew that, whatever motives had brought
him there, the intention of trying to kill me was not among them.
Scarcely less strong were my doubts that I would be able to establish
any valid grounds for killing him. My old sneaking liking for certain
things about the debonair rascal was not dead.

He grinned appreciatively at the sight of the gun, and then, with a
perfunctory "You don't mind, do you?" stepped over and picked it up. I
watched him without misgivings, my mind still busy adjusting itself to
the new aspect.

"Was that the toy you used the day you put a bullet hole through the
crown of my new hundred-dollar Payta hat?" he asked, fingering the
exquisitely turned barrel admiringly. "My own fault, of course. I egged
you on by expressing some doubts of your ability to do it from your
jacket pocket. This looks like ..."

"Same gun--same jacket--new pocket," I cut in laconically; adding: "I
was prepared to repeat the operation just now--with about half a finger
less elevation on the muzzle."

It was the real old Allen grin that opened out as the significance of
those concluding words sunk home. Not the mocking smirk which had curled
his lips so much of the time, but a good, broad, healthy grin that
betokened genuine inward enjoyment. The fellow--I had remarked it
before--had a really keen and inclusive sense of humour--even inclusive
enough to permit his hearty participation in a laugh that was on
himself. But that irritating sneer (which had died on his lips as a full
realization of Bell's bigness in giving him his choice of going on the
_Cora_ or remaining at Kai came to him)--that sneer, with the amused
contempt for all the world it connoted, did not reappear. Indeed, I am
not sure that I ever saw it again. Had there been some inward change in
the man to dry up the fount of contempt from which that ironic smirk
rose to his lips? I wasn't clear on that point yet: but certainly he had
been profoundly shaken--deeply stirred.

Save for that expansive grin of real amusement, Allen made no comment on
my implication that I had been waiting to send a bullet--a few inches
below the crown of his hat. "Sweetest balanced little piece of light
artillery I ever trained," he remarked inconsequentially, holding the
revolver at arm's length and squinting along the sights to where his
reversed image menaced back from the depths of a full-length mirror. He
really admired the little gun--I could see that by the way his fist
closed on the checked vulcanite grip, by the caressing touch of his
forefinger on the locked trigger.

"Made to order by the S. and W. people for my father," I explained,
trying to fall in with his mood as far as I could. If he had come to
talk about revolvers--well, who in Australia knew more about them than I
did? I continued:

"There's two or three of the Governor's own little gadgets on it, and
one or two I had added myself. The one that I like best is that
safety-catch.... Stranger can't release it till he's been shown how. You
never can tell who may be picking up a gun that's left lying around, you
know. You'll have to admit it would be doubly painful for a man to be
plunked with his own revolver."

I couldn't for the life of me have refrained from that last little
sally, and Allen seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. His broadened grin
showed an extra tooth or two at each end as he relaxed his extended arm.
"I haven't the least intention of trying to impose that indignity on
you," he laughed. "Besides, you needn't fear that the significance of
that sag in your left-hand pocket has been lost on me. Had me covered
from there all the time, didn't you?"

"As a matter of fact, I had," I replied, beginning to grin myself; "but
this confounded sawed-off _Mauser_ automatic has an upkick that makes
anything like delicate work quite out of the question. I could wing you
with it from there, no doubt; but the job wouldn't be a pretty
one--nothing that I could take any pride in."

I laid the stubby automatic on the table where the other weapon had
been, saying that I always did hate the drag of a gun in my pocket.
Then, letting my glance wander to the bulge on Allen's right hip, I
added pointedly: "... especially when I can't see any immediate use
ahead for it."

Either missing the point of that gentle hint, or else ignoring it
completely, Allen went on playing with the little S. & W. Breaking it
gently with practised hand, he studied with bent head the smooth, easy
action of the automatic ejector. Just a bit more of a bend, and the six
cartridges slid noiselessly forth and fell into his hand. He commenced
shoving them back, one by one. It was the last, or the next to the last,
of the greasy cylinders that slipped from his fingers, struck the floor
and rolled under the table. I remarked with admiration the magnificent
swell of the flexed saddle muscles as the thin _pongee_ tightened over
the bent thighs; the narrow hips, the lean, powerful back, the--

"Good God!"

The voice, hoarse with awe and surprise, was mine; but my own mother
would hardly have recognized it. For an instant my quaking knees almost
let me collapse to the floor; then my faltering inward control stiffened
and clapped the brakes on my skidding nerves. By the time Allen,
startled by my sudden exclamation, straightened up from his scramble
after the still unretrieved cartridge, I had myself fully in hand again.
I could not be sure whether his flush and quick breathing were from
surprise or the stooping posture in which he had been.

"Did you speak, Whitney?" he asked, after running his eyes over the room
and assuring himself that no one had entered. I held his eyes with my
own till I was sure my voice was steadied. When I spoke, it was
deliberately and evenly. "So Rona came back," I said.

The train of lightning mental processes by which I had arrived at that
astonishing conclusion had not much of an edge on Allen's quick
comprehension of what had started that train going. For only the
briefest instant his eyes were blank with surprise. Then, with a look of
complete understanding, he clapped a hand to the side of his neck and
began smoothing straight the limp collar of his soft silk shirt. The
ghost of what would have been a sheepish grin flickered up and died
away, and to his face came something of that half-embarrassed,
half-eager look that had sat upon it when he entered the room, as he
said: "Yes, Rona has come back. That was one of the things I came to see
you about. She--we--the both of us have a bit of a favour to ask of
you."

Quite the master of myself now (and of the situation, too, I thought), I
came back banteringly with: "If it's that red, white and blue neck of
yours you want tied up, I have one of B. and W.'s little First Aid
cases in my bag...."

It was the shockingly torn and bruised neck that had been revealed when
Allen's collar had slipped back as he stooped to recover the rolling
cartridge that set my swift train of thought going. This must have been
something of the order of it, but electrically rapid of action:
Lacerated neck--old Chinaman at Ponape whose neck was scratched when
Rona ran away from him--Rona a specialist in neck-scratching--probably
scratched Allen's neck (Question--Was it done in the course of one of
the attacks she was known to have made upon him on the _Cora_?)--Could
not have been done on the _Cora_, as they had left her over two weeks
ago and these half-healed scratches were not over five or six days
old.--Hence, Rona had scratched Allen's neck inside of the last week,
and, therefore, could not have drowned herself in Ross Creek a
fortnight ago. Conclusion--Rona has come back.

It had taken not over a second or two for my quickened mind to run that
devious course, and Allen's must have covered a good part of it in even
less time. The wits of the both of us were keenly on edge. There could
not but have been a fine display of sparks had he been in his wonted
aggressive mood. But he had not come for fighting, physical or mental,
it seemed. He had come to ask a favour--"for the both of us."

"_For the both of us!_" The significance lurking in those words had
eluded me for a moment in the sudden adjustment my mind was called upon
to make in coming to a realization of the fact that Rona--the lissome
lovely Rona--was not dead--that the bright flame of her was unquenched
after all. But: "_a favour for the both of us!_" A sudden chill checked
and throttled the thrill that had started to flood my being. "_A favour
for both of us!_" "So--Bell dead--'Slant' Allen takes the girl in the
end!" I said to myself. Then, the echo of Kai's estimate of Allen's
track strategy: "An easy starter but a hell of a finisher, 'Slant'.
Don't worry about what he's doing when the starting flag drops; watch
him head into the stretch." "... _head into the stretch_," I repeated to
myself. "Then what about the finish? Is he already under the wire?"

These thoughts, like the train preceding them, must have flashed through
my mind very quickly, for it was Allen's voice replying to my badinage
about First Aid for his lacerated neck that brought me out of them.

"The neck's doing very well, thank you," he was saying, "considering
that its windpipe was closed for all of sixty seconds, and that most of
the hide was clawed off from it all the way round."

That was really very interesting intelligence, but my mind, deep in
another channel, was quite incapable of compassing the significance of
it for the moment.

"So you've landed the girl after all," I said woodenly, cursing
myself inwardly for the gallery play that had left both guns beyond
my reach. For of course he had deliberately put Bell out of the
running--shouldered him in the stretch.... Reviving suspicions brought
also a realization of what it was up to me to do, now that there was no
longer doubt....

"That depends very largely upon you." Allen's quick reply cut short
further conjecture.

"Depends upon me?" I interrupted incredulously. "What do you mean by
that? Oh, I see. Now that you've put Bell out of the way, perhaps you
think that I, as his closest friend, ought to--to distribute his estate,
so to speak. If that is the way you figure it, let me tell you that all
the distributing you can count on me for will take the form of spraying
lead over your worthless hide. You won't mind handing me one of those
guns, will you? I don't mind which."

It would have been sheer madness--straight suicide,--that outburst,
had Allen been moved by the least desire to get me out of his way. I
have never been quite able to make up my mind as to whether it was
my instinctive feeling that he had no such desire that prompted me
to take more leeway than prudence--nay, the commonest motive of
self-preservation--would have dictated; or whether I simply lost my
head--let my feelings get away with me. It may well have been the
latter, for shocks had been crowding pretty thick, and it was hardly to
be expected that the gears of my self-control wouldn't slip a cog now
and then under the strain.

Allen's brows drew together in a black scowl for a brief space, and his
eyes contracted and grew hard as steel. Then, slowly, the scowl smoothed
out, leaving only a deep flush behind it. It was not replaced by his
former look of anxious embarrassment, however. Rather his expression was
one of a serious, controlled determination.

"That matter of my putting Captain Bell out of the way, as you choose to
phrase it," he said sharply, "is one of the things I called to talk with
you about. Since you've stated so plainly what you intend to do about
it--assuming it's a fact,--perhaps it would be in order to take it up
before--before the other matter. As for these pistols.... Since they're
yours, help yourself to both of them." Stepping back from the table,
well out of reach of the guns, he added: "But I'd rather appreciate it
if you could see your way to refraining from using them until I'm
through with what I've got to say; after that ..." (he gave his
shoulders an indifferent shrug) "it's up to you. Do what you think best
with them. I don't want them--neither one of them."

"Of course not," I sneered. "Quite naturally, you'd prefer to use your
own. Quite right, too. Get it out of your hip-pocket while you've got a
chance. That's a new chum's way of carrying a gun, anyhow. I'm just a
bit surprised to see a practised killer like Mister 'Slant' Allen
resorting to it. No chance in the world to make an even break of it with
a man with a gun in his side-pocket. Tail of your coat's always getting
mixed up with your fingers just when you want to use them."

Allen had braced himself after my first taunt came so near to getting
him going, and this second one--galling as it must have been--hardly
moved him. Only the faintest flutter of a corrugation between the brows
told that another scowl had been repressed. The half-surprised tap he
gave to the bulge on his hip--a gesture that would most certainly have
drawn a shot from me had I had a gun in hand--suggested that he really
had forgotten that there was anything there. I am positive that I could
have grabbed a revolver from the table and beaten him to it on the draw.
A move so naïve on the part of an old gunman convinced me, even before
he had spoken a word, that I had let my feelings send me off at
half-cock.

"I haven't a pistol in my hip-pocket," he said evenly. "Never did carry
one there, and wouldn't be likely to begin it if I was going gunning for
a specialist like you. You'll have to take my word for that. Yes, and
since I'm going to ask you to take my word--my unsupported word--for a
number of other things, it may be in order to try to make you believe
that my word, when I give it to you straight, isn't quite--that it isn't
on just the same plane with the rest of my doings."

I was just a bit surprised that he didn't take out whatever it was that
created that bulge in his hip-pocket, but hardly reckoned it worth while
mentioning. I was fully assured that, far from seeking trouble, it was
the one thing he had steadfastly resolved to avoid. That was enough for
the moment. He was also about to speak of the one thing I was interested
in above all others--the doping of Bell. There was every reason why I
should encourage him to speak of that. The matter of Rona would come up
in due course. He evidently had something to say about her also.

"Sit down," I said, and extended my cigarette case.

He declined my fat gold-tipped Egyptians, heavily salted with _kief_
(another accursed habit I had picked up in Paris), and lighted a slender
Sumatra cheroot from his own case. It was not as a move of precaution (I
was through with all pretence of that now) that I set the big lounging
chair I shoved up for him so that he would sit facing the light. I
merely wanted to watch his face. Yet even that was not necessary to
satisfy me of his sincerity, at least for the moment. His every tone and
gesture was sufficient proof of that.

"In the matter of the value of my word...." Allen was losing no time in
getting to the point. "In the time you have spent mooching about the
Islands, Whitney, you have doubtless heard me referred to by a good many
hard names, such as pirate, murderer, thief, blackguard, jail-bird,
crook, and so on without end. You've heard all of these, haven't you?"

"All, and many others," I assented readily. His frankness rather
appealed to me just then.

"Quite right. Yet I dare say you didn't happen to hear the name of liar
included among the number. If you did, it was used by some cove who had
a grudge against me, and didn't care whether he stuck to facts or not. I
don't mean that I haven't put over a lot of crooked deals in my time,
nor that I haven't come out with a gratuitous falsehood now and then
when it suited my purpose. I don't claim to be a George Washington. But
I do mean just this: that when I have deliberately assured a man that a
thing was, or was not so, I was giving him the dead straight of it to
the best of my knowledge. And that's the way I'm speaking when I tell
you that I haven't a revolver on me, and that that dope I slipped into
Bell's whisky at Kai had nothing to do with his playing out on the
voyage. As for the reason of that ..."

Allen frowned slightly and ceased speaking for a few seconds. When he
resumed it was not to take up the thread where he had dropped it.

"I don't know whether you'll have difficulty in believing it or not,
Whitney," he went on after a half-dozen puffs at his slow-burning
cheroot; "but this is the first time since I was packed out of Australia
five years ago that I've tried to explain to anyone anything I've said
or done--tried to make out a case for myself. That was simply because I
didn't give a damn whether anyone approved of it or not. The reason I am
doing it now--well, there are two reasons."

He puffed quietly for a few moments again, as though gathering his
thoughts. Then he continued: "The first reason is that I owe it to you
for the consideration you showed in the matter of not telling them at
Kai what an ass I'd made of myself. That was dead white, Whitney. I've
got to give it you for that. No one but a thoroughbred could have held
his tongue for five minutes about a thing like that, especially seeing
you were under no obligations of any kind whatever to me. And, for all I
can learn, you've held your tongue for a month. How do I know? Well, I
know about Kai (the only ones I care much about anyway) through a letter
Jackson got off to me from Samarai--after he'd delivered you over to old
'Choppy' Tancred to bring south. Got it the night before I left
Townsville. It wasn't much of a literary effort, but he managed to say a
few things that--things that I knew he wouldn't have said if you had
given them the facts--all the facts about my departure in the _Cora_. As
for Australia.... If you had been dishing up any inside dope in this
nest of old women and busybodies, no fear that it wouldn't have come to
me before this. I know them. Their tongues will waft gossip from
Melbourne to Port Darwin quicker'n the telegraph. My word, don't I know
them!"

Quickened puffs registered the bitterness of unpleasant memories as
Allen fell silent for a brief interval. "I'm not fool enough to believe
that you kept quiet here out of any regard for me," he went on
presently. "That wouldn't be it, for you haven't any. I don't blame you.
As a matter of fact, I don't seriously care what Australia thinks
anyway. I'm through with them here for good and all. But the Islands are
different. The rest of my life, such as it is, is going to be lived
there, and the only men I have ever had any great respect for are living
there now. So, whatever reason there was behind it, Whitney, I'm deeply
grateful to you for not showing me up in Kai. It was dead white of
you.--I say it again. I've thought of it a good many times since I got
Jack's scrawl, and it was the first thing I intended to speak to you
about today. Only, my slate got a bit upset. That little gun of yours
deflected my thoughts, and then--but you saw how I got forced off on
another tack.

"The other reason" (Allen hurried on as though anxious to avoid hearing
any observations I might feel impelled to make on what he had just said)
"why I am going to the trouble of trying to clear up your suspicions in
the matter of Bell's death is because, if I don't, there will be no hope
of your granting the request I have come to make of you--and I can't run
any chances of failure with that.

"I didn't want to kill Bell, but--well, it seems that I was equal to
playing a damn dirty trick to get him out of the way. I won't need to
tell you why. I hate to drag the girl into it, but it can't be helped.
She must have bewitched me, I'm afraid. Not intentionally. Quite to the
contrary, she never gave me a look. I admired Bell--in spite of his
rather standoffish way with me--as much as any man I ever met. That was
the only reason I held myself in about the girl as long as I did. I
don't know just what would have happened if the schooner hadn't come.
Chances are, since I was getting pretty near the limit of my
self-control, I would have blown off some other way.

"The opportunity which I saw to get rid of Bell in the schooner was too
great a temptation to be resisted. So far as getting him clean away with
the _Cora_ was concerned, I have only my own hot-headedness to blame for
failing. I was simply asking for trouble when I went prancing down to
take over the girl before the schooner even had her hook broken out; and
I found it. No more than I deserved, though."

Allen paused while the old humorous grin spread over his face for a
moment. Then: "I trust you won't mind if I don't go into details about
how I came to put my head into the noose," he said, still grinning. "It
wasn't very edifying, you know--from my standpoint, I mean.

"But it would have made no difference even if Bell had got away, while
the girl and I remained behind on the island. She wouldn't have had
anything to do with me anyway--at any rate, not while she had any reason
to hope that Bell was still alive,--and probably she would have knifed
me at the first chance for the part I had in getting him away. She would
have found the chance, too, let me tell you. That girl creates her own
opportunities--there's no holding her once she takes the bit in her
teeth. What she wants to do, that thing she does. And what she wants a
man to do for her, that thing _he_ does. She'll put through what she's
after if she has to go through hell for it--and no minding whom she
takes with her."

The queer unnerved look on Allen's face drew my first interruption. "So
it's come to that?" was all I said.

"Yes, it's come to that," he assented, the seriousness of his eyes
belying the whimsical smile on his lips. "But I'll be returning to that
presently.

"About that dope I gave Bell," he went on--"it was absolutely harmless.
I bought the stuff in Macassar a few months ago, more out of curiosity
than anything else. The old Sultan at Ternate had told me about it, and
I was just a bit interested in its effects. It was pretty concentrated,
though not a hundredth of the strength of the essence from the same
plant that Rona took it for--the deadly poison, which has the same
pungent smell. It was a considerable overdose of the stuff I took one
night that put me on to the fact that, after a short spell of rather
pleasant mental stimulation, it would drug a man to sleep for an hour or
two. Hardly any after-effects at all, except a deuce of a thirst for
liquor for a few days. I had talked about it with Doc Wyndham two or
three times, and am perfectly certain of what I tell you.

"It was the only stuff I could lay hands on that promised to do the
trick. You see, I was afraid that if Bell wasn't drugged, he would
become suspicious when I failed to return to the schooner, and come to
look for me--perhaps even chuck up the stunt entirely. If he hadn't been
pretty drunk (much the furthest along I ever saw him--probably on
account of the beastly heat--you remember it?) he must have sniffed the
half-dozen drops I put in his half-emptied glass of whisky while he was
conning that old chart he had on the wall. It was a light dose (I've
taken twice that much myself), and though he went under jolly fast--due
to his being so far gone with whisky, probably--he was up and taking
command of the schooner inside of an hour. And you'll remember how he
was going right on ahead getting under way to catch the tide, even
though I hadn't returned. The best nerves I ever saw in a man, bar none,
that chap had. Will of iron and eyes for nothing but the thing he set
out to do. There was a lot in common between him and the girl on that
score. No wonder they were so strong for each other."

Allen fell silent again, stroking his cheroot between thumb and
forefinger--the habit the correspondents had characterized as a sign of
modesty. "I hope you won't insist on my telling any more about the
voyage than I have to in connection with Bell's death," he said at last.
"I hate to speak of it at all. The thing is almost as much of a
nightmare in memory as it was in fact. You saw how things were on the
schooner when we got away. Well, just picture them getting worse and
worse day by day for--how long was it?--something over a week, I
believe, but it seemed a lifetime. The whisky I kept bracing up with
made it a lot easier for me to stand--kept me from going crazy and
jumping overboard, as so many of the niggers did. But Bell--he didn't
have the whisky--wouldn't have it. Yes, he kept up that mad joke of his
about being a 'soba skippa' to the end. That was what killed him--just
that, and nothing else. It was beyond a being of flesh and blood to do
what he set himself out to do--and live. He tried to (my God, how he
tried!)--and died.

"I never felt such pity for any living thing, unless it was old Recoil,
my first steeplechaser, when he lived for twenty-four hours after
staving in his chest against a stone wall. I was hardly more than a kid
then. I lay in the straw of his box all that time with his battered,
bleeding frame, and swore I'd kill the first man that tried to shoot
him. Then I pulled myself together and did the humane job myself. But I
couldn't shoot Bell, and he wouldn't shoot himself. That would have been
the easy way out (since he had steeled his will against taking another
drink), but he wouldn't follow that short-cut either. Said he was--how
did he put it?--'goin' to ride the wata wagon all the way to po't, an'
then fall off good and plenty.' Some Yankee expression about keeping
strict teetotal, wasn't it?

"It got to me worse than the crazy niggers--watching the agony of his
mind and body contorting the muscles of his face, as he tried to hide
what he was going through. The girl was a good deal of help to him for
the first day or two, and he admitted that he was glad she had decided
to join his 'li'l' pa'ty at the last minnit.' But even she failed to
create a diversion as his cravings for whisky became more and more
intense, and he seemed to try to avoid her as much as he could toward
the last--probably because he couldn't hide his suffering from her. I
saw that it was killing him--that he would never last out the voyage on
the course he was heading,--and tried hard to make him see that it was
only reasonable to allow himself at least enough whisky to ease off the
tension on his breaking nerves. But he wouldn't listen to it.

"'I gave it out official,' he said, 'that I was goin' to keep soba on my
next ship, if I eva got one. An' soba's the wo'd.' To put an end to the
matter, he turned his back on me and went for'ard among the niggers.

"After that I tried to explain to Rona (I had managed to get on speaking
terms with her as soon as she became satisfied that Bell had not been
poisoned) how things stood, in the hope that she would fall in with a
plan I had for giving him small doses of whisky with the coffee he had
taken to drinking with increasing frequency as the craving for liquor
grew on him. She flew into a temper at once, however. Said that, far
from helping me to give him whisky on the quiet, she would taste every
cup of coffee after it was poured for him in the galley, and then take
it to him herself. She ended by saying that if I tried that trick she
would knife me with her own hands: in fact, rather regretted that she
hadn't done it when she had a chance at Kai. I couldn't for the life of
me see why the girl should take that attitude, when it was so plain that
whisky was the only thing that would pull Bell through; but take it she
did, and that was the end of it, at least as far as co-operation from
her was concerned, I mean. That simply left it up to me to watch my
chances and do the best I could on my own.

"Bell had insisted on standing watch-and-watch with me from the first,
usually, in his own watch, taking the wheel himself, probably because it
gave him something to occupy his mind--and his hands. (He was beginning
to tear the skin of the palms of his hands from clenching and
unclenching his fingers.) What broke him finally was discovering that he
was no longer fit for a trick at the wheel. His eyes went bad rapidly
under the strain, and it was not long before he could not distinguish
the readings on the compass card. He told me about it at once, but was
confident he could manage to hold a course by the stars. This went on
all right as long as it was clear. But one night, when it was squally
and overcast, he lost the 'Cross' (which had been giving him a shifting
but fairly approximate bearing), and fell back on trying to keep her a
couple of points off the wind. This would have done all right if the
Trade had held from the southeast. But it hauled up to east in a squall,
and Bell, following it around by the 'feel' of it on his face, had the
schooner all but onto the Baluka Reef and shoal at daybreak. I let him
extricate himself to save his feelings; but he knew that both the Bo'sun
and I had twigged what had happened, and why, and it must have been the
realization of the fact that he had become quite useless in navigating
the ship that hastened the final collapse.

"He came on the following night for his watch--the 'graveyard,' from
midnight to four in the morning,--but made no objection when I stuck on
at the helm. We were closing the tangle of the Barrier Reef by then, you
see, and it wouldn't have done to trust the wheel to a nigger. In fact,
when I went on at eight the previous evening, it was practically the
beginning of the thirty-six-hour trick at the wheel that ended when we
anchored off Townsville.

"When Bell let me stay on at the wheel at midnight, he showed the first
voluntary signs of giving in, not in the matter of closing his lips to
whisky--nothing could affect his decision on that score,--but to the
other alternative. I mean that he gave up hope of holding on till he had
brought his ship to port--gave up hope of living to the end of the
voyage. Up to that time he had always tried to pass the whole thing off
as a sort of a joke, running on with patter like that about the 'wata
wagon.' But he dropped all that from the moment I refused to give way to
him at the wheel.

"'Youah quite right, Allen,' he said in a weary sort of voice, and went
over and sat down on the rail of the cockpit. His voice was hollower
still when he spoke again, maybe ten minutes later. 'Allen,' he croaked,
'I've got a hunch I'm not up to pullin' my weight in this heah schoona
any longa. I'm all in--no mo'n so much ballast. Just a dead drag.'

"I didn't reply to that. I was too much awed--yes, awed--even to urge
him again to take the drink I knew would be the saving of his
mind--perhaps his life. He didn't speak again till after I roused him to
prevent the main boom giving him a crack on the head as I put her about.
(We were working through a nasty patch of broken coral--the outskirts of
the Barrier--but scant seaway and fluky airs.) As he settled back on the
weather rail of the cockpit he said, speaking very slow as though hard
put to control his voice: 'Allen, I make it about two hundred miles to
Townsville by youah noon position. Say thirty-six to forty hours'
sailin', with the wind holdin' up. Do you reckon you an' Ranga--good
man, Ranga--do you reckon you an' he ah up to pullin' it off alone?
I'm--damn it all, I'm seem' hell-west-an'-crooked just as we hit the
dirty navigatin' Allen, take my wud fo' it, this soba skippa stunt ain't
all it's cracked up to be--not by a long shot. I'd rather ha' had the
plague by a damn sight, Allen.'

"He wouldn't mention the other alternative--whisky--even then, and I
simply didn't have the nerve to take advantage of the opening and
suggest it to him outright. But I did what I thought was the best thing
under the circumstances--waited for a stretch of open sailing, gave the
wheel to a nigger, fished up a convenient bottle of whisky, and set it
down just behind him against the cockpit rail. I didn't speak even
then--just pressed his shoulder, tilted the neck of the bottle against
his hand where it clutched the rail, and went back to the wheel.

"I had the feeling (and I still have) that I was doing the decent and
humane thing, just as I did when I put old Recoil out of his misery;
though the cases aren't quite parallel of course. But I knew it would
force a crisis one way or the other, and that was what, in all
sincerity, I thought was the kindest thing to do. If Bell drank (though
it well might be that he would go on drinking until he fell in a
stupor), it would surely save his life. What if he did get dead drunk?
He wouldn't be any more useless in navigating the schooner than he was
already. On the other hand, if he still refused to drink, the heightened
temptation of the handy bottle would increase the tension and hasten the
collapse of mind and body, which was now but a matter of a few hours at
the outside. I think you'll agree with me, Whitney, that I did the
kindest thing possible under the circumstances."

"I wouldn't venture an opinion on that offhand," I temporized; "but, in
any event, it's the thing I would undoubtedly have done myself had I
been in your place. There's no question in my mind on that point at
least."

"I'm glad to hear you say that," he said warmly; "especially as there
was one person--a rather important person to me--who didn't approve of
my action.

"Bell's only acknowledgment of what I had done," Allen went on, "was a
sort of disjointed muttering. 'Many thanks, ol' man. Nothin' doin'. Good
intentions. Soba skippa to the fareyewell!' (I think that was the word).
He shoved the bottle along out of easy reach, but didn't even make a
bluff at throwing it over the side. I have an idea that the reason for
his restraint on that score was due to the fact that he remembered I had
told him that the supply was running low (I had been putting an awful
crimp in it), and didn't want to deprive me of it. He was quite
considerate enough to think of that sort of a thing, even with his
senses toppling, as they must have been from the beginning of the watch.

"It was a moonless night, and heavily overcast, so that I could just
make out the blur of Bell's head and shoulders against the deckhouse
where he sat hunched up on the port rail of the cockpit. But there was a
crack opening up in the beastly binnacle, and through it an inch-wide
welt of light slashed diagonally across his tortured face. One eye, the
side of his nose and half of his mouth were sharply lighted up. The rest
was a shadowy blank. The vivid gash of light, like a magnet, kept
drawing my gaze away from the compass. That one eye, wide and staring,
never blinked in the bright beam. The nostril, distending and
contracting jerkily, was red, like that of a horse that has been
galloped to the point of death. The teeth looked to be clenched through
the lower lip, and blood was trickling over the lighted streak of
clean-shaven chin. Not all his sufferings had made him miss his morning
shave. Almost like a rite with him, that was."

"Holdover from his Naval life," I suggested hastily, fearful less he
should be tempted to digress upon irrelevant details.

"I don't know just when it was that the end came," Allen resumed. "I was
expecting every moment that he would jump up and begin his restless
pacings, as he had done on previous nights. But at six bells his
position was still unchanged, and to blot out that beastly slash of
light across his drawn face I threw a piece of canvas over the top and
back of the binnacle, so that the beam from the crack was cut off. Just
as the morning watch was called a nasty bit of a squall was threatening
to bore in and give us a raking, though it finally passed astern of us
and spun off down to leeward. My hands were full for some minutes
preparing against the imminent onslaught, and it was not until the
menace was past and I had taken over the wheel from Ranga (who had
relieved me when I went for'ard to have a squint ahead for myself), that
it struck me that Bell had been paying no attention whatever to all that
had been going on--didn't appear to have shifted at all, in fact.

"I was just going to call to him to suggest that he go below and turn in
for a spell, when the nigger on the lookout in the bows sung out
'breaka--dead ahead!' It was a near thing, but I managed to sheer off
and avoid grounding on a patch of barely submerged coral, just becoming
visible in the shimmer of the false dawn. As I knew that the main wall
of the Great Barrier must be close at hand to lee, I was chary of
letting her fall off very far in that direction. I had just ordered a
man to stand-by to heave the lead at the first sign of shoaling water on
the starboard bow, when the tail of my eye caught a glimpse of Rona
stepping out on deck from the cabin companion way. (We had sulphured out
the Agent's cabin and made it fairly comfortable for her use. It was out
of the question her sleeping on deck, on account of the incessant
squalls.) She headed straight for Bell, who was still hunched up on the
weather rail of the cockpit, the outlines of his face just beginning to
show in the ashy light of early morning.

"As her hand touched his shoulder she let out a shrill squeal and
plumped down on her knees beside him. In doing this she must have bumped
the whisky bottle, which had been rolling back and forth on the deck
with the lurches of the schooner. It was with more of a hiss than a
scream that she grabbed it up and flung it straight for my head. Oh, I
should hardly say _straight_," Allen corrected himself, "for Rona
evidently can't throw any better than the run of her white sisters. The
bottle smashed against the wheel, deluged the cockpit with broken glass
and one of my last half-dozen quarts of whisky. If I had not been pretty
sure that Bell was already dead, the fact that the smell of the old
familiar juice welling up from the deck didn't bring a twitch to his
nostrils would have been enough to drive it home to me.

"Without waiting to observe the effects of her throw, Rona launched
herself right on after the bottle--only a shade better aimed. Unluckily,
the cross-cut she took to my throat carried her right over the
wheel--and at the very instant that the appearance of a second line of
foam down to leeward confirmed my fears about our desperately scant
working room. The instinctive lifting of my right arm to block the
girl's grab at my face came near to bringing disaster. I fended the
clutch from my throat all right, but the weight of her body falling
across the wheel tore the spoke from my left hand and threw the schooner
up into the wind.

"Ranga's quick presence of mind was all that saved the situation.
Jumping into the cockpit regardless of the broken glass cutting his bare
feet, he grabbed the girl about the waist, disentangled her flying arms
and legs from the wheel, and smothered her struggles against his side. I
threw the wheel back an instant before she jibed, and then, for two or
three seconds, things hung in the balance. Finally, very slowly, she
filled away on the port tack again, and the immediate danger was over.
Had the schooner gone about, nothing could have saved her from running
onto the reef. There was not enough room left in which to wear her
round.

"Bell must have given up the fight along toward the end of the
'graveyard' watch. I heard him muttering off and on for a while, but the
last coherent words that came to my ears were, not unfitly: 'Nothin'
doin'. Soba skippa to a fareyewell.'

"That rub with the reef was the nearest squeak we had--though I can't
say that I remember much about the navigation that took us through the
Barrier and on to Townsville. Drunken man's luck doubtless. I was sure
drunk, and no mistake, though both my legs and my head were grinding
right along to the finish--only ceased functioning when there was
nothing more to do.

"The girl--when Ranga let her go again--went back and settled down by
Bell's body. Wouldn't let anyone come near it. Only left it on the two
or three further occasions that she took to fly at my throat when she
thought I wasn't looking. I didn't want to lock her up (it was inviting
the plague to force her to stay 'tween decks for too long), but managed
to get around the difficulty finally by having one of the crew stand-by
to push in and absorb the impact whenever she made a break in my
direction. She gave up trying after that. Seemed to loathe the touch of
a nigger. But with Ranga it was different. She grew quiet as soon as he
picked her up--something like a kid with its nurse.

"The big fellow was wonderful, by the way. Always doing the right thing
without waiting for an order, always cool and quiet, always
good-natured. Spent his spare time sitting on the taffrail and peeping
to the sea-gulls on a queer little Malay flute he always carried in his
belt--some kind of hollow stem, full of little wooden balls that gave a
weird sort of ripple to the notes. First and last, Ranga was the man to
whom the bulk of the credit was due for taking the schooner through. I
still feel a bit guilty that I didn't divide the whisky with him. But
perhaps it was best to stow it where I did.... You never know how a
yellow man or a black man will react to the stuff. It's hard enough
guessing with a white man sometimes."

Allen smiled whimsically as he lighted a fresh cheroot. He was through
with the worst of the story and seemed a good deal relieved. It was
plain enough that he spoke the truth when he said that the memory of it
was still a nightmare, and that he hated to have to speak of it. He said
a few words more in explanation of why he had not buried Bell at sea,
which appeared to have been mainly because he was afraid the girl would
have followed the body over the side. He had no misgivings about keeping
it aboard, he said, as he was quite certain that it carried no plague
infection. He mentioned incidentally, that they had found a lot of stick
brimstone among the stores, and that the thorough smudging they gave the
after quarters with this was probably responsible for the fact that the
plague had not reappeared there. It had been impossible to devise a way
to disinfect the big 'midships hold where the labour recruits were
housed, on account of the more or less crazy condition of all of the
niggers.

Allen looked at his watch, but went on with his story as though in no
particular hurry. "You're doubtless impatient to hear about the girl's
turning up again," he said. "You've already heard of the rather
remarkable escape she made from the Quarantine Station--Butler, one of
the doctors, mentioned that he told you about it on your steamer. At the
Station it was the theory that the girl had broken out so that she could
kill herself on Bell's grave--that she was more or less off her head
anyhow. That was a mistake, though a natural one. She had just one thing
in view when she clambered out of the mad cell and over the wall: that
was to lie low until I came out and then, watching her chance, try to
make a better job of polishing me off than she had done on the schooner.
She realized that they were on their guard against her at the Station,
and that she might be kept under restraint indefinitely, or at least
until I was out and gone beyond her reach.

"Her mind was working well enough to make her reckon that that Chinese
shawl (which everyone would have noted) was the one garment she had that
could not fail to be recognized. So--it must have been something of a
wrench for her--she left it on the bank of Ross Creek and went to seek a
hiding place.

"Luck was with her in the search. Locating the native quarter after
wandering for a while, she circulated around until she came upon the
signs--in Hindustani, I fancy--in front of the shack of an old East
Indian drug seller and money changer. How she got around him I don't
know; but at any rate she persuaded him to keep her there until I was
out of quarantine. She even contrived to get the old rascal to spy out
the refuge I had flown to--a bungalow just out of town, where I figured
I would be a bit quieter than at the hotel. Then she took a hand in the
game herself.

"It was on the second night after I came out, and I had turned in early.
I had taken no precautions of any kind against attack. Never have
bothered much with that kind of thing. The doors and windows were wide
open. I had a servant--a Chino,--but he was sleeping in his own hut in
the rear of the grounds.

"It was the window she came in by, though she could just as well have
used the door. I was more than half awake (hadn't been sleeping very
well any of the time since my two-day snooze after landing from the
schooner), lying on my back under the mosquito net, with no covers over
me. It was probably her intention to slip up quietly and get her hands
under the net before disturbing me. She had no knife, by the way. They
had taken that little Malay dagger away after she had tried to stick me
at the Quarantine Station. As she would have had no difficulty in
raising another through old Ratu Lal had she wanted it, I take it that
she felt confident enough of doing the job with her hands. No idle dream
that, either; you know something of the strength of them.

"I sat up in bed in a dazed sort of way as her shadow darkened the
window. (There was a bit of a moon, shining on that side of the house.)
It must have been my movement under the netting that made her change her
plan. Very naturally, she counted on my shooting first and asking
questions afterwards. It was the rational and proper thing to do, and it
is probably what I would have done had my pistol been handy. But, not
dreaming of an attack (this was the day before old 'Squid' Saunders
turned up and took a jab at me), my gun was in my coat pocket. I have
always carried it there--when I had a coat on--ever since I saw your
little exhibition of pocket gunnery at Kai," he added with a humorous
smile.

"As I was saying, the stir I made under the mosquito net forced the girl
to speed up her schedule a bit. You saw the jump she made the time she
caught up the schooner at Kai. Well, it must have been about that same
kind of a spring over again. She never touched the floor between the low
window ledge and my bed. Landed right on my chest, bringing down the net
under her weight, and went to my throat with an instinct as sure as that
of a fighting bulldog. She was choking me right through the net before I
really knew what had happened.

"Of course, taking it for granted that she was dead, I didn't have the
ghost of an idea it was Rona who was sprawling on my chest and shutting
off my wind with steel fingers that seemed closing in to meet at the
base of my brain. I didn't even know that it was a woman. In fact, the
deadly pressure of that grip argued all the other way--that I was being
throttled by a man, and a deucedly powerful one at that. If I did any
speculating at all, I probably figured it as some kind of a thieving
stunt. But a man fighting for his life--and that is precisely what I was
doing--doesn't waste much time in conjecture. My immediate problem was a
simple one. If that grip wasn't broken inside of a minute, it might stay
there forever as far as my shaking it off was concerned. I had been
choked before, and also done a bit of choking on my own account; so I
knew to within a few seconds how long it is before the head of a man
whose wind is shut off begins to reel.

"Still quite the master of myself, I tried on, very deliberately, the
best thing I knew for breaking a strangle grip--that simple little
_jujutsu_ trick of thrusting your arms between those of the man choking
you, and then throwing back your shoulders and expanding your chest.
Stiffening the chest muscles, I mean--of course you can't expand it with
air while your windpipe is closed. That never fails if you are both on
your feet, and will sometimes work even when you are on your back. Here
the tangle of the net blocked the up-thrust of my arms, and I failed to
get enough leverage to break the hold on my neck.

"Then I tried my next best bet--that of turning over and over and sort
of unwinding the grip on your throat. I was a shade less confident now.
Time was getting short. I did some jolly active wriggling in trying to
work along far enough to roll over the side of the bed, but again it was
the net that defeated my effort. I was getting a good deal peeved with
that bally canopy; and yet, in the end, it was the very thing that got
me clear.

"Nine times out of ten a man being held down and choked by another
man--that is, if the choker knows his job--has no chance of doubling up
in a ball and kicking his assailant off by straightening out his legs.
If the man choking you flattens his body closely enough against yours,
you simply haven't the room to start doubling your knees. My assailant
knew his business right enough, but the folds of the net (some of the
corners of which were still clinging to its frame), prevented his
flattening in close to my legs. The sag of the woven bamboo bed springs
also gave me a few inches of leeway.

"There was nothing deliberate or confident in the jerk with which I
began drawing my knees up against my chest. I had already failed twice
with what I rated as decidedly better bets than that one, and the time
limit was nearly up. My head was already beginning to swim. It was neck
or nothing this heat. The sheer desperation of my effort won out for it.
The push of my knees against the chest of the incubus did not lift it
quite enough to break its hold, but it did enable me to squirm my right
foot up and get it firmly planted in the pit of the creature's stomach.
Then, with all the strength left in me, I straightened out in a terrific
kicking push.

"In reverse, the flight of the muscular body that had been holding me
down must have been fully equal to that opening jump from the window.
Indeed, I am almost sure that it hit the further wall before it did the
floor. The hold on my neck was the only point of contact that did not
break readily, and there the result was--as you saw a moment ago. As
those steel-claw fingers would not give an inch, they simply ripped out
through the flesh. I can consider myself dead lucky that they didn't
hook onto my windpipe or jugular. Both of them would have come right
along with all the flesh and hide those unrelaxing talons took with
them.

"It didn't occur to me for a few moments that I might have knocked out
my assailant, and I was a good deal surprised when he neither returned
to the attack nor made any break to escape. The laboured gasping in the
darkness on the other side of the room quickly told me the reason,
however. I had knocked the wind out of him with my mighty kick. I knew
that spasmodic gasping for air meant that I wasn't going to be greatly
troubled for a minute or two at least, so took my time about fumbling
for my automatic and lighting the lamp.

"A bit dazzled by the light for a moment, I took the lanky yellow figure
huddled up against the wall to be a Hindu coolie. The thin legs and arms
were like those of the East Indian indentured labourers of the sugar
plantations, and the two or three yards of white cloth trailing off
along the floor suggested a Madrassi waist and shoulder rag.
Presently--for that one rumpled wrapping was all she had worn--I saw
that it was a woman; and then--but as a matter of fact I think that the
girl spoke before I recognized her face.

"'"Slant,"' she piped out in that bird-like chirrup of hers; '"Slant," I
guess I make a meestake. 'Scuse me, ple-ese, "Slant."'

"Could you beat that for cheek? Trying to tear a man's throat out one
minute, and asking him to 'ple-ese 'scuse' her for it the next. And what
do you think of a man who would tumble for it, especially after the way
she had made me jump through and roll over at Kai? But that's Rona; yes,
and that's me. I tumbled, and--I may as well admit it--I am still
tumbling.

"Having the girl turn up like that--after I had been thinking of her as
dead for a week or two--didn't give me quite the shock it would have if
that voice had come out of the darkness without my seeing her first. It
was a deuce of a surprise even as it was; but, when all is said and
done, a pleasant one, in spite of the rather startling way she chose
to--to re-materialize. I was glad to find that she was alive, whether it
meant anything more to me than that or not.

"We didn't talk much that night--there wasn't much talk left in either
of us as a matter of fact. Rona continued to croak and hiccup, while my
own swollen vocal chords smothered every other word I tried to get past
them. I managed to assure Rona that I quite understood her feelings
against me (though I didn't entirely, and don't yet), and begged her to
give me a chance to explain the way Bell had come to his finish. She
admitted that she had begun to believe that she might have been hasty in
her decision and action, and said she would be glad to hear what I had
to say. She told me where she was in hiding and asked me to come there
in the morning; also to do what I could to square her with the
quarantine authorities for breaking out of the Station ahead of time,
and on no account to let anything happen to old Ratu Lal for giving her
refuge. She seemed to take it as a matter of course that I would do
these things. You'd have thought I was some sort of a _mayordomo_ taking
orders.

"It was not very late and, luckily, the bungalow (which Ralston had
occupied himself at times) had a telephone. I ordered a closed carriage
sent out, and also got the Quarantine Station and arranged for one of
the doctors--Butler, the chap you talked with on the steamer--to come to
the landing and wait for me to pick him up. They had been very decent to
me at the Station, and I wanted to avoid having to explain things to a
strange doctor.

"Rona tied my neck up for me--very handily, too--and when the carriage
came I bundled her in and gave the driver the direction which carried
him along the edge of the 'foreign quarter.' I dropped her at a corner
not far from Ratu Lal's joint, promising to look in on her early the
next morning. Butler was waiting for me at the landing when I got there,
and I told him about Rona's coming to life, and its sequel, as we drove
back to the bungalow. After he had dressed my neck I told him what I
wanted him to try to do for me and sent him back to the landing, where
his boat had hung on for him.

"Rona was looking a bit white about the gills when I called the next
morning, and complained that her stomach 'got mad' every time she sent
food down to it. I told her that she still had the best of me, as I
didn't expect to be able to get any food down to my stomach for a couple
of days yet. That seemed rather to buck her up, and she had a good laugh
over it. Then we got down to business, and had an hour's yarn in the
drug-scented quiet of old Ratu Lal's back room.

"As my Malay is fairly good, we talked without difficulty. I told her
more or less what I have just told you about Bell and why I had given
him the whisky. She said, rather grudgingly, that she thought she could
understand why I had done as I did. Then I said a few things
about--well, about my personal feelings toward her. Finally, I asked her
point-blank if she would go back to the Islands with me. Told her she
could live anywhere she wanted, and in any way that she wanted. I didn't
say that I was willing to marry her, because (since, if she has any
religion at all, it's Hindu or Mohammedan) I felt that would make no
difference to her one way or the other.

"Am I really willing to marry her?" (It was the lift of my eyebrows that
suggested the query to Allen, for I did not speak.) "Well, yes, I think
I am, if she made that a condition. But I don't think the question is
one likely to arise.

"The girl took in the whole thing without giving away by word or look
how it impressed her. When I had finished, she coolly suggested that I
run along and square matters up with the quarantine people about her and
Ratu Lal. She added that she would be obliged if I'd look up her Chinese
shawl for her. She also started to speak about her dagger, but changed
her mind and said to let that go for the present. As for what I'd been
telling her.... Well, perhaps if I could see my way to dropping in again
toward evening she might have an answer for me. High and haughty as a
Sultana, she was, sitting cross-legged on a mat and pulling away at one
of Ratu Lal's big 'hubble-bubbles.'

"I went to the Quarantine Station straightaway, and, in spite of the red
tape tangling up a thing of that kind, managed to get them to agree to
discharging the girl without anything more than a perfunctory call from
a doctor to certify her free of plague. That done, the rest was easy. I
told the story--omitting, of course, the girl's attack upon me--at the
Police Station, and they agreed not to arrest Ratu Lal as long as the
quarantine authorities were satisfied and lodged no complaint against
him. They said they were only too glad of a chance to do me a favour.
Then I got them to let me have the shawl, and begged them to keep the
news of the girl's turning up quiet as long as they could.

"'Squid' Saunders's little diversion that afternoon gave the pressmen
something else to take up their minds, and the matter of the missing
girl was forgotten, at least for the remainder of my time in Townsville.
The fact that she did not drown herself must have leaked out since, but
they probably haven't been enough interested in it--now that the hunt
has followed me here--to wire it south.

"When I broke away from the official reception committee and dropped in
on Rona at the end of the afternoon--impatient enough, I can tell
you--she gave no sign that the matter I had come for an answer about was
in her mind at all. She grabbed the Chinese shawl out of my hand with a
yelp of delight, but almost dissolved in tears when she saw how the
embroidery had been smudged and ruffled in her scrambles over trees and
walls and ditches the night she escaped from the Quarantine Station. You
may remember that it was a big peacock that was embroidered on the
shawl--pretty nearly life-size--rather a fine piece of work, it always
struck me. Well, ignoring me entirely, she spread that old peacock out
over her breast--something in the way she used to display it when she
wore the shawl in Kai--and began chirping and crooning and muttering to
it like a dove to its nestlings. She would nuzzle into the plumage,
smoothing the ruffled feathers with her lips, just like she was the old
peacock preening himself. Every little bit of torn floss she would try
to put back where it came from.

"Stiff with funk, I sat quiet until she had gone all over the moulting
old bird, but when she started in working down from his crest again, I
thought it was time to remind her of my presence. I had never sat around
waiting on anybody like that before, Whitney; even my old nurse couldn't
make me do it. So I cut in and told her that I had arranged things at
the Quarantine Station--that she wouldn't need to go there again; also
that old Ratu Lal need not worry any longer about a visit from the
Police. Incidentally, I mentioned that I was making him a present of ten
pounds to show my appreciation of his consideration in not claiming the
reward offered for her.

"She took no notice of anything I said. Just went on crooning and
preening and stroking down the ruffled feathers, giving a little sob
every now and then as she came to a place where they were badly mussed
up. Then I went off on another tack, saying that I knew of a shop in the
town that carried Chinese embroideries, and suggesting it was possible a
skilled needle-worker might be found there competent to undertake the
restoration of the bird's damaged plumage. She deigned to cock up an ear
to listen to that, but her only reply was a disconsolate shake of the
head, as though anything like proper restoration was a matter beyond all
hope.

"That quieted me for a while, but after twirling my thumbs through ten
or fifteen minutes more nuzzling and crooning, my patience gave out. I
jumped up to the accompaniment of a good lively string of oaths, and
asked her point-blank if she had made up her mind about the matter we
had been speaking of in the morning. She broke into a ripple of smiles
at that, and cooed sweetly: 'Ye-es, I think 'bout that plenty, "Slant."'
Then she slipped into voluble Malay and laid down a perfectly simple and
direct proposal, on the fulfilment of the conditions of which she was
willing to return to the Islands with me. It was not what I had
expected,--not what anyone would have dreamed of expecting under the
circumstances; yet ridiculously easy of fulfilment in the event a
certain third party fell in with the idea. That third party is you,
Whitney. That's the main thing I have come to see you about. Everything
is up to you now. Perhaps that will make it easier for you to understand
why I rattled on for an hour or more in the hope of putting myself right
with you about Bell. I've never tried to justify myself with any living
man before, and probably will never do it again. But it had to be done
this time, Whitney, and I hope I've been successful."

My nod might have meant almost anything, but I was not unwilling that
Allen should interpret it in his favour. As a matter of fact, he had
convinced me wholly that--after the abortive attempt at drugging in
Kai--he had played straight with Bell. As for Rona--well, if he was also
ready to play straight with her (and he had just about convinced me on
that point, too), what was it to me? If she could forget Bell so easily,
it was her own affair. If Allen were trying to carry her off against her
will--that would be a different matter of course. But he was not.
Plainly it was the girl herself who held the whip hand. The whole thing
was a bit obscure yet, but what Allen had still to say might do
something to clear it up. Without committing myself by more than that
one nod, I waited for him to go on.



                              CHAPTER XII

                            A BAD MAN'S PLEA


The expression of nervous anxiety I had noticed several times since he
came was on Allen's face again as he started to speak. "It's a queer
enough proposition," he began. "You see, it's like ..." He hesitated,
stopped, got up and walked to the window, where he stood for a few
moments, frowning and biting the end of his cheroot. Suddenly he turned
to me with: "Whitney, what do you say to a bit of a turn in the fresh
air? I've been talking more than I'm used to, and this stuffy room of
yours is getting on my nerves. We might walk out through the gardens to
the Domain. I can tell you all that I have to tell out there."

I did not need to look at my watch to know that it was getting on toward
five o'clock. Only the absorbing interest of Allen's narrative had
prevented my becoming conscious of that fact before. My own nerves were
less under control now, and the inevitable end-of-the-afternoon
restlessness was surging strong upon me. But I was anxious to hear Allen
out, and no reason occurred to me why it should not be in the open air.
If there was any decision to be arrived at, that could be made on the
morrow, or whenever I felt up to it.

"Right-o, Allen," I cried; "I'll be glad to get out myself. I shall want
to be back in about half an hour though."

I was grateful for his restraint in not greeting that last with an
indulgent smile, for I knew that he fully understood what it was that
focussed my interest upon five o'clock. It was very evident that the man
had retained all the finer instincts of a gentleman, little opportunity
that he had had to exercise them in the last five years.

I got my hat and stick, and, feeling sure I would have no use for them,
put both the revolver and the automatic pistol into the drawer of the
table upon which they had been lying. I was rather glad of the chance to
show Allen that I had confidence in him to that extent anyhow.

Anxious to avoid recognition, Allen pulled on a pair of dark spectacles
and drew the brim of his Panama low down over his forehead. Turning out
of crowded Pitt Street, he removed the spectacles, and as we passed the
entrance of the Botanical Gardens took off his hat and fanned his brow
with it as he walked. He had not spoken so far, but with the deep breath
he inhaled as he felt the springy turf underfoot his restraint passed
from him.

"It's a great relief to get clear of those damn walls and pavements," he
said fervently, opening his coat to let the cool breath from the Bay
strike his chest. "I can't get used to them again. I've been free of
them too long now. But I'm finished with them for good, I hope." Then,
as we came out upon a broad path: "Bear away to the left, if you don't
mind. I want to take a squint at that bunch of palms as we pass."

As we came abreast of a big bed packed with a riot of dense tropical
growths, he pulled up and appeared to be searching for something. "Ah,
there she is!" he ejaculated presently, and pushed in close to a queer
little dwarf palm, which straggled drunkenly on a half-dozen spindling
legs set something like those of a camera tripod. Pulling up the stamped
metal marker, he gave it a quick glance and then handed it to me with a
grin. "The fruits of my first and only dip into botanical research," he
remarked. "What do you think of it?"

"_Pandanus Bensoni Allensis_," I read in large letters, and below:
"Habitat: Portuguese Timor. Very rare. The only other catalogued
specimen is in the Royal Dutch Gardens at Buitenzorg, Java."

"So that _Allensis_ stands for you, does it?" I said, not a little
impressed, as I handed him back the metal disc. Then added: "And racing
and polo cups weren't the only objects you collected."

"The merest accident," he replied. "I had always liked plants and
flowers, ever since my nurse used to wheel me down this very walk in my
pram. I suppose that gave me an interest in the tropical growths of the
Islands, after they packed me off there. I thought this little fellow
looked a bit on the unusual when I chanced upon it one morning in a low
valley back of Deli; so I dug it up and shipped it to Sydney direct on
the China Line steamer, which touches in there. It turned out to be a
real find. Benson of Kew Gardens, the great authority on tropical palms,
described it, and tacked my name on as the discoverer. The old cove's
letter contained the only kind words addressed to me from the outside
world in the last five years. And now look at them ..."

I had come to expect that note of bitterness in Allen's voice every time
he spoke of the past, and especially of his "transportation" to the
Islands. He evidently thought that he had been badly treated; too badly
for even the present wave of frantic adulation to make atonement. He was
through with it for good. Several little things he had let drop
indicated that.

The incident of the palm was interesting in throwing an illuminative
crosslight on the gentler human side of a man who had generally been
rated as without either gentleness or humanity. So, also, was the very
evident appeal to Allen's sense of natural beauty made by the matchless
panorama of the Bay as it unfolded to us from the far end of the point.

We had skirted the Naval anchorage of Farm Cove, picked our way along
the path below the ledges where benighted "sundowners" were wont to boil
their "billys" and spread their "blueys" in the shallow wave-worn caves,
and climbed up through the gums to the rocky lookout on the outermost
tip of the sharply-jutting point. The clocks in the town behind us began
chiming the quarters heralding the hour of five, and presently, on the
first of the heavier strokes, the flotilla of trans-bay ferry-boats slid
from their slips at the inner curve of the horseshoe of the Circular
Quay and "fanned" out on their divergent courses to points on the
opposite side of Port Jackson.

"That sight has never failed to quicken my pulses from the time I used
to wait and watch for it as a kid down to today," Allen said with almost
a thrill in his voice. "It is the one picture that has remained clearest
in my mind all these years I've been--shut out from it. Did you ever
read Henry Lawson's lines to 'Sydney-Side,' written from somewhere in
the West, I believe? Something like this they go:

    "'Oh, there never dawned a morning in the long and lonely days,
        But I thought I saw the ferries streaming out across the bays--
    And as fresh and fair in fancy did the picture rise again
    As the sunrise flushed the city from Woollahra to Balmain:

    "'And the sunny water frothing round the liners black and red,
        And the coastal schooners working by the loom of Bradley's Head;
    And the whistles and the sirens that re-echo far and wide
        All the light and life and beauty that belong to Sydney-Side.'"

"A sentimentalist, too," I muttered to myself, the surprise of that
revelation checking for a few moments the rising tide of my
absinthe-hunger.

Allen led the way back to where a flat ledge of rock made a rough
natural seat. "'Lady Macquarie's Chair,'" he explained, motioning me to
sit down. "Named from the wife of a former Governor who was supposed to
slip away out here and enjoy the view. The Domain runs right back behind
the Government House, you know. I always used to mooch along out here
for a look-see every time I got a chance, partly for the fine prospect
of the Bay and partly for the comprehensive visualization it permitted
of what I might call 'The Rise and Fall of the House of Allen.'

"Haven't you an expression in the States to the effect that it's 'three
generations from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves'? Well, here in
Australia we put the same natural law of evolution in the form of a
conundrum and answer. It goes: 'How long does it take for an arrow to
become a boomerang?' The answer varies, but for the 'House of Allen' it
is: 'Four generations.'

"The arrow, you understand, is the 'Broad Arrow' that marked the
transported convicts, while the boomerang merely suggests something that
rises, circles and returns to the point of departure. Well, from this
place where we sit I can trace the full circle of the 'arrow-cum
boomerang-cum arrow' of the Allen quiver. Look! I'll show you. Follow me
closely.

"Over there," he said, pointing seaward and easterly, "are the Heads, in
through which sailed the brig bearing Jim (alias 'Crab') Allen, convict,
with a few hundred more of the scum of London, to the shores of
Australia. That is, I've always liked to fancy my distinguished
progenitor sailed in through the Heads, though it's quite possible that
the brig beat around into Botany Bay direct. Now" (he pointed westerly
to where the Paramatta wound out of sight between green hills) "at the
end of that deep cove over there is the slaughter house where the
convict's son, James Allen, dealt in hides and hoofs and horns and laid
the foundation of the family fortune, the fortune that wasn't seriously
dented when the convict's grandson gave a hundred thousand pounds to a
drought-relief fund and drew down a Baronetcy. That big red-brick pile
among the trees on Darling Point" (Allen was pointing east again) "is
the mansion of the late Sir James Allen, Bart., and now owned by his
eldest son, the New South Wales Agent in London. Old Sir James' second
son, Hartley, was born in the south wing of that unsightly heap of red
bricks.

"And here" (this time he turned and pointed south where a sharp
dagger-blade of inlet plunged deep into the heart of Sydney's lowest
slums) "is Wooloomooloo, where young Hartley Allen, descending from the
soft refinements of Darling Point, found his level, organized his own
'push' of rock-throwing, head-smashing larrikins and completed the
social circle. The cycle of metamorphosis had begun its round. I was the
throwback, Whitney. Old 'Crab' Allen, the transported convict of
Houndsditch, lived again in young Hartley Allen, whom most people
thought of as a racing man and polo player, but who had all the natural
qualifications of an out-and-out crook.

"I can trace all of my little moral obliquities, Whitney, back to old
'Crab,' and, everything considered, I think he would rate me as rather a
credit to his name, whatever contempt he might have had for my
comparatively law-abiding father and grandfather, to say nothing of my
pillar-of-the-state elder brother. 'Crab' was transported as a
consequence of his persistent disregard of his fellow townsmen's rights
to their lives, wives and silver plate. I--well, I never did care much
for silver plate."

All this would have been intensely interesting to me an hour earlier,
but now the fervour of my longing for my "_solitude à trois_" (as I was
wont to call my séance with the long green bottle and the glass of
cracked ice) was getting beyond control. The flowing lines of the
reaches of cove and inlet glowing in the slanting light of the declining
sun were becoming jerky and jagged and intershot with dazzling little
spurts of light like one thinks he sees after receiving a crack on the
head. The evening breeze lapped clammily about my chest and I fumbled
clumsily with the buttons of my coat, trying to shut out the chill.

"I ought to have been back at the hotel before this," I mumbled, getting
to my feet. "You had something more to tell me, hadn't you? You can do
it as we walk back. I've got to be going now."

By this time I wasn't in a state to observe things very carefully.
Undoubtedly (as I've thought it over since) Allen had been stalling to
gain time and screw his nerve up to advancing the plan he had in mind.
This being so, it must have jarred him a bit to have me call the turn so
suddenly. I don't remember whether his face showed consternation or not.
The one thing I recall was the quick movement of his hand to that hump
on his right hip.

I did not recoil an inch. I am sure of that, for I felt no apprehension.
I was beyond apprehension--save over delay. But Allen's hand came back
empty. "I'll tell you at once," he said brokenly. "But please sit down.
Don't go just yet. We'll have to come to a decision straightaway." Then,
seeing I was turning to go: "It's just this: Rona wants you to paint her
picture--on the schooner--the _Cora_. Wants a picture done of the whole
layout--ship, Bell, her, me, Ranga, niggers, everything. Says she'll
pose for it on the schooner. Says I must pose too. Seems to be bitten
with the idea of perpetuating the event for posterity, or something of
the kind. Crazy scheme, but she's set her heart on it. Says when it's
done, if she likes it, she may go back to the Islands with me. Nothing
certain for me, but it's a chance and I've got to make the most of it.
Will you do it, Whitney? She says you've always wanted to paint her
picture, and now she's all for it. You won't turn it down, Whitney?"

The incongruity of "Slant" Allen in the rôle of a plaintive pleader
struck me with scarcely less astonishment than his strange and
unexpected request. I was, however, totally unfit to cogitate upon
either just then.

"I'll think it over and let you know tomorrow," I said dully. "Got to go
now."

"It has to be decided here and now, once and for all," Allen answered
firmly. "Here!--" This time there was no hesitation in the movement of
his hand to the hip-pocket hump. When it came back it was holding a fat
stubby flask--one of the thermos type, just coming into general use at
that time.

"I know what's calling you away, Whitney," he said steadily, unscrewing
the top of the flask and pouring into it a bright green liquid with a
familiar smell and sparkle. "On the off chance that we might be detained
beyond the hour when you're used to depending upon it, I had this cooled
at the Marble Bar--old hangout of mine--and brought it along with me.
Don't use the stuff myself, but I know the hooks it throws into a man
who does use it. Drink hearty!"

He handed me both the brimming screw-top and the flask itself. The
contents of the former might have been drugged heavily enough to kill a
horse for all I cared. It was absinthe beyond a doubt, and cold enough
to frost the outside of the little nickled cup that held it. I gulped it
down hungrily; replenished and repeated. The third cup I drank less
greedily, letting my eyes rove slowly where the jerkily jagged zigzags
of hill and headland and foreshore were smoothing into a softer fluency
of contour. Sipping the fourth cup, I unbuttoned my coat to give more
intimacy to the caress of the milk-warm evening breeze.

"Not bad stuff, Allen," I breathed at last. "Very good of you to think
of it. What was it you wanted me to do just now?" Five minutes later I
had promised to meet "Slant" Allen at the railway station in time to
catch the nine-thirty train for Brisbane, en route Townsville.

It appeared that Rona's ultimatum had stipulated that Allen was to be
back in Townsville with me, ready to begin arranging for the picture,
inside of ten days. The only northbound boat, the _Waga Tiri_, which
would arrive within the limit, had already left Sydney but could be
overtaken at Brisbane by entraining at once. Allen had booked sleepers
for the express and wired for cabins on the steamer before he called on
me at the _Australia_. There was nothing left to do but throw together
what things I wanted and get to the station.

It was rather a wrench, checking myself after getting all poised for
flight with the "Green Lady," but not so hard as it would have been had
I really "got off the ground." The contents of Allen's flask were hardly
more than a strong bracer. Once I got back to the hotel and into my
packing, it was easy going, especially as my enthusiasm was mounting for
the work ahead. To have Rona for a model at last! And for such a
picture!

The dramatic appeal of the thing grew on me with every passing minute.
It was not, to be sure, quite the kind of a work I was best prepared to
do. With my ambition to become a marine painter, I had gone in more for
colour than for anatomy and drawing; but I was still confident that I
could make good with anything that gripped my imagination strongly. And
"The Saving of the Black-birder" (I had already given it a tentative
name) fairly took me by the throat. I would not fail with it. Nay, more,
I would triumph. Perhaps--why not?--Paris! Yes, "The Black-birder"
should open a short-cut to my goal. The rails beneath the wheels of the
speeding Brisbane Express were clicking _black-bir-der_--_black-bir-der_
when I dropped off to sleep that night somewhere along toward the
Queensland boundary.

That the morrow should bring some reaction from this fine frenzy was
inevitable, but it was a comparatively slight one. That Allen had
deliberately planned to draw me away and take advantage of my weakness
for absinthe to gain my intervention in his favour was evident enough.
Indeed, the consummate manner in which he turned the trick argued an
almost pathological intimacy with the reaction of the insidiously subtle
essence of wormwood upon the human brain. But I did not hold this
heavily against him. It was plain that he had only done it to play safe
in a matter respecting which he did not dare to take any unnecessary
chances of failure. I could not but admit to myself that I would
probably have fallen in with the plan ultimately in any event. There was
no disloyalty to my friend in making him (as I intended to do) the
central figure in a picture that I hoped would become famous in two
hemispheres. On the contrary, what greater tribute was there I could pay
to his memory? If Rona cared to flaunt that memory by going off to the
Islands with Allen, it was her own kettle of fish. Besides, she had not
gone yet; didn't even appear to have committed herself definitely in the
matter.

To minimize explanations and the possibility of complications, Allen and
I had agreed to defer wiring our Sydney friends of our departure until
after we were aboard the _Waga Tiri_ in Moreton Bay. His message to the
Chairman of the Reception Committee, and mine to Benchley at my
Exposition, went ashore on the tender that brought us off, and the
steamer was under way before they could have been put upon the wires. It
was not until the next northbound boat brought the Sydney papers to
Townsville that we learned what a wave of surprise and speculation had
been started by our joint hegira.

In the course of the voyage Allen told me some few further details of
developments in Townsville. Before his departure he had managed to
induce Rona, for her own comfort, to move her headquarters from Ratu
Lal's joint to the Medical Mission of the London Bible Society. The head
surgeon of the Mission he characterized as "a good old sport" he had
knocked up against in the Straits and the Dutch Indies. He was just like
an ordinary missionary to look at, but redeemed in "Slant's" eyes by a
real love of horses, and even--very much on the quiet--a shrewd interest
in racing. "It's in his blood. He can't help it," Allen explained
laconically but comprehensively.

Explicit instructions had been left at the Mission that Rona was not to
be worried about her spiritual future. She was to be just a "straight
boarder" until Allen's return. She was well provided with money, as he
had seen to having everything Bell had with him at the time of his death
deposited to her account at a local bank. This had included eighty gold
sovereigns, found in a money-belt around Bell's waist, and some hundreds
of Chilean silver _pesos_ he had brought off to the _Cora_ in a canvas
sack.

Ranga had been put up at the Sailors' Home. There had been a flat
refusal to receive him at first, on account of his colour, but this was
promptly withdrawn when it was found the request came from Allen, whom
the town was going pretty strong on delighting to honour just at that
juncture. Allen, who seemed very fond of the big fellow, also saw that
the latter was comfortably provided with money.

Allen did not speak again of the proposed picture until the steamer was
nosing up to her buoy in Cleveland Bay. Then, after inquiring if I had
everything I needed to go ahead with, he intimated that he would
probably find Rona fretting to get things under way. "She seemed to have
some wild sort of an idea," he said, "that the whole thing would be done
on the schooner--that we all might move out there, bag and baggage, and
make it our head-quarters until the picture was completed. She even
wanted me to go out to that plague-rotten wreck with her and look the
ground over before I left. I had no time for it, of course, and am jolly
glad I didn't. Can't see what the good of it would have been anyhow. I
was hoping I had seen the last of the damned hulk, though I suppose I
can stick it for an hour or two in a pinch. I fail to see what she's
driving at, but whatever it is you may as well make up your mind that
she will have her way about it."

I assured him that the picture would probably be mostly studio work as
far as he was concerned, though I myself might want to sketch a few
details on the schooner. It might save time, however, I suggested, if
the whole lot of us went aboard before I began work so I could figure
out a tentative grouping and get a general idea of the composition. Then
I could make notes and sketches of whatever parts of the schooner would
be included, and be ready to work on the individual figures as soon as I
rigged up a studio.



                              CHAPTER XIII

                      THE SCENE OF THE FINAL DRAMA


We spent the night at the hotel and went together to call on Rona at the
Mission the following morning. The change in the girl was startling, far
too great to be accounted for by the baggy Mother Hubbard that had
replaced the close-clinging _sarongs_ and _sulus_ in which I had grown
accustomed to seeing her at Kai. Her face was thinner and the former
peach-like bloom of her cheeks had given way to a dusky sallowness. The
curve of her lips had flattened--and hardened; hard, too, was the fixed
stare of her great sloe eyes. To a stranger the pucker of concentration
between her eyebrows might almost have suggested sullenness. The lines
about her eyes and mouth, which spoke to me of suffering, might have
seemed to another as stamped there by hate. She was still beautiful, but
in a new way. It was a wild, fluttered sort of loveliness that haunted
rather than allured. The woman before me could never "sit Buddha," I
told myself; those dreamy spells of repose had not punctuated her
present life with intervals of Oriental peacefulness.

Decidedly reserved in her manner toward Allen, Rona tried to be warm in
her greeting to me, but quickly showed signs of restraint and
embarrassment. She became even more ill at ease when "Slant," after
genial old Dr. Oakes invited him out to see a new saddle horse that had
just arrived from Singapore, excused himself and left us alone. She
sheered off so sharply from my first mention of the name of Bell, and
became so palpably nervous at a couple of attempts I made to lead round
to him by degrees, that I gave up trying to induce her to speak of him
out of sheer pity. Even my inquiry after the health of "Peeky" of the
embroidered shawl drew only a weary little smile and a sad shake of her
riotous tumble of blue-black hair.

She was ready enough to talk about the picture, though even in that
connection I was at once conscious of a lack of real enthusiasm on her
part. She seemed anxious to get it started, however, and said she
supposed we would be going to live on the schooner in a day or two. She
even confessed to having worried a good deal for fear the _Cora_ would
be broken up by a storm before the picture was made. When I told her
that we would not need to live on the schooner, and perhaps would not
have to make more than one or two short visits to it, she appeared a
good deal put out for a few moments. She scowled angrily and started to
speak; then thought better of it, bit her lip and held her tongue. She
appeared a bit mollified when I said we would make our first visit, to
plan the picture, just as soon as the quarantine people would disinfect
the schooner for us. (That this had not been done yet I had already
learned through 'phoning to the Station the night before.) She observed
impatiently that she thought disinfection was a needless precaution, and
I had to explain that it was not a matter of precaution at all on our
part; that it was against the law for anyone to board a ship that had
carried plague until it was disinfected, and that if we tried it on the
_Cora_ the whole lot of us would probably be clapped in jail and
quarantined afterwards.

She softened a little as I got up to go, and her "Next time I show you
'Peekie,' Whit-nee--'Peekie' is a ver-ee sick bird," sounded almost like
old times. The hand she gave me was hot and dry but unshaking, and the
almost cutting grip of it tense with nervous force. I noticed that her
finger nails, though trimmed closer than of old and no longer stained,
were still of unusual length.

I found Allen, his face flushed with enthusiasm, putting the doctor's
new colt up and down the sward before the Mission chapel in sharp bursts
of terrific speed. The animal, Oakes explained to me, had been given to
him by a petty Rajah of the Federated Malay States as a token of his
appreciation of the doctor's success in removing a troublesome appendix
from a favourite dancing girl some months previously. It was a chunky
bay gelding, only his small head, full neck and a certain trimness of
hock bearing out Oakes' claim that he was out of a Mameluke imported
direct from Bassorah by the Sultan of Johore. For the rest he favoured
his Timor dam, and looked built for endurance and handiness rather than
speed. The instant Allen was on his back, however, his sure instinct
told him that the powerful little beast had swiftness as well as staying
powers, and he was already itching to put his judgment to the test. A
week later, having quietly entered him in the race of the day--the
Planters' Handicap--at the Townsville midsummer meet, he rode the
gelding himself and gave the local betting public the worst jolt in
North Queensland track annals by winning at two-hundred-to-one. Every
pound that the wily Allen cleaned up on the race went to build the good
Doctor Oakes, shortly transferred to Fiji, the largest and best equipped
Medical Mission in all of Polynesia. The full story of what the winning
of that race meant to the game old missionary with the sporting blood
has yet to be written.

My plan of visiting the _Cora_ to make a preliminary study of the
"Black-birder" met with an unexpected check. The quarantine people had
readily consented to give the schooner a rough disinfection, one that
would make it quite safe for us to board her as long as we kept clear of
the holds, which would require more drastic treatment. Before the
formaldehyde squad got away, however, several cases of smallpox were
reported in the native quarter, and all the available disinfecting
apparatus was called upon for use there. It would be at least a week or
ten days, we were told, before an outfit would be free for the _Cora_.

Personally, I didn't mind the delay in the least; for one reason,
because Rona's strange mood had quenched my initial surge of ardour for
the picture, and, for another, because I had still to find a suitable
place in which to work. Allen seemed to be worrying very little over the
forced wait. "I've laid my bets to win or lose, and I'll be there to
cash in after the finish," he said philosophically. He spent most of the
time in the saddle, getting out mornings at daybreak to give the
"Missionary Colt" (as he called the Oakes gelding) workouts on the
quiet. As far as I could observe, he saw very little of Rona.

It was the girl who really chafed under the inaction of waiting. Two or
three times she sent for me to urge that we disregard the quarantine
regulations and go off to the schooner. Allen mentioned that she had
also begged him to take her out for a look-see at the _Cora_ on the
quiet. How she spent her time I did not know. Oakes told me that she
went out for long walks every day, sometimes going toward the hills and
sometimes along the shore. I found freshly picked tiger-lilies on Bell's
grave the day I visited it, and it occurred to me that the gathering of
these might have furnished the motive for the solitary walks. But if she
was still devoted to Bell's memory, why wouldn't she speak of him?--and
why the plan to go off to the Islands with Allen? The girl's conduct was
quite beyond my understanding. That was one thing I was sure of, at
least.

Meanwhile I went ahead looking for a place I could turn into a studio.
It had been Allen's idea that the suburban bungalow he occupied after
coming out of quarantine would be suitable, but I was compelled to veto
it on account of the poor light--a consequence of the dense tropical
growth surrounding it. The same difficulty--light--ruled out a number of
other attractive places that were offered me, and I was about to close
with a rather squalid little shack near the beach as a last resort, when
Allen got wind of a temporarily vacant house on a big sugar estate, some
miles from town.

This little gem of a hillside bungalow had been built by the sugar
people for a sub-overseer of the plantation, who had gone to Melbourne
to meet and marry a girl from home. As the lucky chap had been given a
three-months holiday for a honeymoon in New Zealand, the local manager
of the sugar company decided that there could be no objection to my
occupying the nest in the interim; in fact, he was sure his directors
would be highly honoured to have their property used by so distinguished
an artist, and for so laudable a purpose. He hoped I would not hesitate
to call upon him for help at any time. He would see to it that the
servants already hired against the return of Borton and his bride
reported at once, and that Borton's trap and saddle horses were placed
at my immediate disposal.

I was greatly pleased with my find for a number of reasons besides the
fact that it had a large and well-lighted living-room that could be made
all I could ask to work in. Not the least of these was its location.
Several hundred feet above the sea, its wide verandas caught cool
currents of the Trade wind that the sultry lower levels never knew.
Infinitely refreshing, too--both in fact and in suggestion,--I found the
splendid stream which circled close under the rear wall, forming, where
a mossy ledge reared a natural dam, a deep, clear pool to which I could
jump from my bedroom window. The revitalizing effect of an early morning
plunge, I had found by long experience, was beyond comparison the best
antidote against the insidious absinthe poisoning paralyzing body and
brain at the end of the night.

A couple of hundred yards further down the stream took a swift run
through a verdant tunnel of fern fronds and overhanging palm leaves,
before it leaped in a fine compact spout of green and white over the
verge of a creeper-clad cliff, to a lucent hyacinth-lined basin thirty
feet below. From there, quieter of mood and mind after its hillside
gambols, it meandered by pleasant reaches across a broad belt of
shimmering sugar cane, beyond which it disappeared in tangled growth of
primeval bush. By dark ways and devious, broadening and deepening in the
lower levels, it finally lost itself in the mangrove swamp that fringed
the sea fifteen miles to the northward.

I mention this stream particularly because of the part it was destined
to play in the final act of the drama of the _Cora Andrews_. For a
similar reason it may be in order to say a few words about the great
flume, which took off from the stream at the pool below the waterfall
and led down to the big central sugar mill on the shore of the first
deeply indented bay north of Townsville. It was built, following the
successful Hawaiian practice, for the purpose of floating the cut cane
from the fields to the mill, a method which, wherever the natural
conditions were suited to it, had proved both cheaper and more
expeditious than the old system of transporting the succulent stalks by
tramway and bullock carts.

The flume itself was built of imported Oregon pine planks, and was
carried on a trestle of rough-hewn blue-gum and _jarra_ trunks. In
section, the box of the flume was about four feet wide by three feet
deep. The water it carried--about a quarter of the normal flow of the
stream that fed it--varied in depth according to its velocity. The
latter, of course, depended upon the grade of the flume, this varying
from two or three per cent. in the broad upper valley to all of fifteen
per cent. in a couple of short steep pitches near the coast.

I was interested in this flume from the first time I saw it. In the
course of a visit to Hawaii some years previously, I had found no end of
sport in what was called "sugar-fluming"--riding from the mountainside
plantations down to the mills seated on a water-propelled bundle of
sugar-cane. On my inquiring of the local manager if the highly diverting
stunt was practicable here, he had answered with a most emphatic
negative. "You could go down the flume all right," he said, "but the
volume of water is so great that you could not stop yourself by holding
to the sides even where the grades are the slightest. On the sharp
inclines, where the flume runs down to the mill, a team of bullocks
couldn't hold you back. Only one man ever tried the feat deliberately,
and we were picking fragments of him out of the _bagasse_ for a month.
Also spoiled a lot of sugar--everything from the juice in the vats to
the unfinished article in the centrifugals had to be thrown away. Same
thing has had to be done on the several occasions coolies have fallen
into the flume while at work. Jolly costly accidents for the company. I
hope that you're not contemplating...."

I hastened to assure him that, after what he had told me, I most
certainly had ceased any contemplations I might have allowed myself to
indulge in up to then. Still I couldn't help picturing in my mind what
sport could be got out of the thing if only some sort of buffer were
rigged up at the lower end. That prompted me, a day or two after I was
settled in the bungalow and while time was still hanging on my hands, to
put my horse down the bridle-path along the flume when I went out for a
ride in the cool of the afternoon. After that I lost all interest in
"sugar-fluming" as a sport. It was just conceivable that a man of great
strength and agility might stop himself by gripping the sides of the
flume at several points in the first five or six miles, but from where
the sharp descent to the coast began I was inclined to agree with the
manager's statement, that the drag of a man's body in the pull of the
racing stream would take a team of bullocks off their feet.

I dismounted and leaned over the edge of the flume where it ran through
a narrow cut in the rock at the brow of the great basaltic cliff that
followed the curve of the beach of the bay. This was the upper end of
the first of the two sharp drops and the water, which was running within
a foot of the top of the flume a hundred yards above, and here flattened
down to a scant six inches in the bottom, grey-green and solid like a
great endless belt of flying steel. The butt of my riding-whip was all
but jerked from my hand as I touched it lightly to the speeding water,
and a curving fan of spray was projected up into my face and over the
sides. The evidence of such a solidity of kick in running water seemed
almost beyond belief, until I recalled having heard how a jet escaping
from the pressure pipe of a hydro-electric plant somewhere in the
American West had penetrated a man's body, cleanly, like an arrow.

My desire to ride the flume died then and there, though even yet I
couldn't help regretting that there wasn't a level stretch above the
jump-off, where a man could check his headway and crawl out. It would
have been rattling good sport down to there, but beyond--sheer suicide.
There was, it is true, a couple of hundred yards of perhaps five per
cent. grade between the first steep pitch over the edge of the cliff,
and a second one, even steeper, that seemed to run almost directly upon
the roaring, churning mass of cane-crushing machinery that began at the
upper end of the big mill. Even there the water was lightning-swift,
however, so that a man, once over the edge of the first pitch, looked to
be less than a thousand-to-one shot in bringing up before going on into
the second. And that would have been--how was it the manager put
it?--more "spoiled sugar"--another "jolly costly accident for the
company."

The bridle-path I had been following continued on along the flume to the
mill, but, desiring to strike the main highway to Townsville as quickly
as possible, I put my sure-footed little Timor mare down what appeared
to be an abandoned road graded into the face of the cliff. When I
finally came out in the rear of what was plainly the remains of an
ancient water-driven cane-crushing mill, I realized that the old grade
by which I had descended must have been the bullock-cart road from the
plantation. The mill was a picturesque old ruin, with its mossy
water-wheel, crumbling roof and sprawling pier, and I made mental note
of the lovely little cove as a place well worth returning to with
paintbox and easel when opportunity offered.

Returning through the town, I had the good luck to be hailed from the
sidewalk by my bluff old friend, Captain "Choppy" Tancred. He was
southbound with the _Utupua_ again, he said, but she was going to go to
drydock immediately on arrival in Sydney and he was going to command the
_Mambare_--a new steamer just turned out on the Clyde for the
company--and start north the following day. It was hard luck missing his
week at home with the wife and nippers at Manley, but his promotion to a
ship on the Singapore run was some consolation. He would be back in
Townsville again in a little over a week, and, as he had a lot of sugar
to load for the Straits, hoped to have the time for a good yarn with me.
It must have been more from habit than anything else (for the old boy
should have read enough about me in the papers by this time to be
convinced that I was not a fugitive from justice), that he repeated his
injunction that I must not fail to let him know if there was ever
anything he could do for me--"ye'll ken wha' I mean, lad." And, equally
from habit, I assured him that I "kenned wha'," and would not fail to
call upon him in my extremity.

As I had nothing but what I had brought with me on the steamer to move,
and as the house was practically ready for occupancy, I was comfortably
settled in my hillside bungalow at the end of the third day after our
arrival from the south. A Chinese cook and house-boy, a Hindu groom, a
couple of New Hebridean blacks as roustabouts, and Ranga as general
factotum, gave me a very tidy and self-contained establishment. Ranga I
had taken to at once. He was quick-minded and quick-handed, extremely
good-natured, and ready to do anything at any time of the day or night.
I resolved to keep him with me indefinitely as a personal servant--that
is, if it fell in with his own inclinations after he had given me a fair
trial.

I made a number of rather successful studies of Ranga by way of getting
my hand in again, and that suggested that it might be profitable to put
in the days of waiting by trying what could be done along the same lines
with the others who were to figure in the picture. Allen, although busy
with his secret training of the Oakes colt (all unknown even to the good
missionary, by the way, who thought that "Slant" was merely borrowing
the gelding for his morning ride), found time to come up and give me
several sittings. It was easy to see that he hated the whole thing, and
was only going through with it as a part of the bargain with Rona. The
latter, after promising me faithfully to come, was reported missing on
all of the three occasions I sent the trap for her. As her whim was at
the bottom of the whole mad plan, I was not a little mystified at the
girl's action. Also, as it was she whom I was most anxious to do full
justice to in the picture, I was a good deal annoyed. Allen had no
explanation or excuse to offer for her, saying the girl had him pocketed
at every turn anyhow, but volunteered to try and round her up for me
himself as soon as the Planters' Handicap was out of the way, and he had
a bit more time on his hands. For all of his light way of speaking, I
knew that he was as hard hit as ever, and had thrown himself into the
training of the "Missionary Colt" only to give him something else to
think about.

Two unostentatious acts of kindness on the part of Allen in the course
of the week which followed added fresh refulgency to his halo of
popularity. Townsville had gone madder than ever about him following his
sudden and unexpected return from the south, and the same appeared to be
true of the rest of the country. In all sincerity, he had tried to do
both of the things I have referred to strictly on the quiet, and that
they became public was only a consequence of the zeal of the fresh army
of "war correspondents" that had been rushed north again to camp upon
the hero's trail.

One of Allen's little kindnesses was an appeal, in his own name, to the
Governor of Western Australia to have dismissed the proceedings that had
been instituted to bring "Squid" Saunders back to be locked up for the
twenty-three and a half years which still remained to be served of his
original twenty-five-year sentence. This appeal was accompanied by a
promise to send the ex-convict, immediately he was released, back to the
Islands at Allen's expense.

Doubtless the momentary magic of Allen's name had something to do with
the Westralian Governor's complaisance. In any event, "Squid" Saunders
was out of jail and off as a first-class passenger on one of the Solomon
Island boats inside of a week. Allen, the correspondents were not long
in learning, had bought the ticket, footed all of the very sizable
telegraph bills, and given the purser of the steamer a hundred pounds in
gold to be handed to "Squid" when he was disembarked at Bougainville.
The correspondents, long baulked of any real "Allen stuff," went to that
story like hungry hounds.

But scarcely was the "Squid" Saunders story onto the wires before it was
followed by the news of Allen's astonishing win of the Planters'
Handicap with the rank outsider, Yusuf, at two-hundred-to-one. That win
was spectacular enough in itself, but when, on the heels of it, was
flashed the word that not only the thousand-guinea purse hung up for the
race, but approximately twenty-five hundred pounds paid to Allen by the
"tote" as well, had been donated to the owner of Yusuf to forward the
realization of his long-cherished dream--the erection of a modern
medical mission in Fiji--the climax was capped. Australia echoed anew
with acclaim of the "philanthropist hero" (it was now), and press and
pulpit moralized and maundered afresh on the Hon. Hartley Allen's
goodness of heart and greatness of soul. The clamour of the people of
the country to see their idol in the flesh fused the Townsville wires
from every direction. It was all very well that the incomparable heroism
of the saving of the _Cora Andrews_ should be perpetuated upon canvas,
but why should the pushful American artist drag the hero off before his
own people had a chance to do him homage? Let the artist rise to the
occasion with a display of that famous "Yankee hustle" they had heard so
much about and get the job over "right quick." It was the man himself
they wanted; let the picture wait if it couldn't be finished
straightaway!



                              CHAPTER XIV

                           HELL'S HATCHES OFF


That may give some hint of the state of mind of Australians when,
waiting on the tip-toe of expectancy for word of the next dashing act of
their hero, they received a message of quite another tenor. It was the
Sydney _Herald_ man who sent the message that swept the country like the
blast of a hurricane. He wired just the bare facts and no more. His
imagination, even his reasoning faculties, as he confessed in a later
dispatch, were numbed for the moment, temporarily paralyzed by the
staggering shock of the horror he had looked upon.

"The Hon. Hartley Allen was found at an early hour this morning" (ran
the telegram) "bound, gagged and lashed to the wheel of the schooner
_Cora Andrews_, which has been aground for some time at a lonely spot on
the beach of Cleveland Bay, several miles north of Townsville. Allen,
who was taken to the General Hospital as soon as he was brought back to
town, is a raving maniac and not expected to live out the day. From
information in the hands of the police, there is no doubt that the
worse-than-assassin was the ex-convict, 'Squid' Saunders, recently
released from jail and deported to the Solomons through Allen's generous
efforts on his behalf. He is known to have escaped from his northbound
steamer at Cairns, stolen a fishing sloop, and is believed to have
headed back to Townsville to carry out the dastardly act his disordered
brain has evidently nursed for years. As the police seem likely to yield
to the popular pressure to employ bloodhounds in running down the
fugitive, his capture is probably the matter of but a few hours."

It was a fairly sane, reasonable-reading dispatch, that. None but a man
who had felt his blood turn to ice-water at the sight the _Herald_ man
had looked upon that morning could appreciate how much credit he
deserved for stating the facts so coherently. For myself, at the moment
the launch brought us back from the _Cora_ and put us ashore at the
landing, I would have been incapable of writing my own name correctly.
There was only one thing I could do--nay, would have had to try to do if
the world had been disintegrating beneath my feet--and I did it. That is
why so much of the next thirty-six hours is a blank in my mind.

                   *       *       *       *       *

It was on a Saturday that Allen had made his spectacular killing in
winning the Planters' Handicap, and on Sunday afternoon, to escape the
importunities of Townsville generally and the correspondents in
particular, he had ridden up to pay me a visit at my hillside bungalow.
I had missed the race (through another appointment for a sitting with
Rona, which, like the others, she had failed to keep), and so took the
occasion to get some account of it at first-hand from Allen. He was in
high spirits over his success, but rather inclined to be put out with
the impulsive Oakes for breaking down in church that morning and
proclaiming to all and sundry the real source of the thirty-five hundred
and odd pounds that had fallen at his feet like manna from the skies.
What had come nearest to flooring Melanesia's leading bad man, I think,
was that the missionary had publicly announced his intention of naming
the new medical mission at Suva after the donor!

Allen also, somewhat to my surprise, was not averse to speaking of the
"Squid" Saunders episode. "The only redeeming thing about the old
ruffian," he observed, "is his affection for that girl of his--the
red-haired one, I mean--the black-and-tans don't signify. Rather a
remarkable girl, that one, Whitney. She was one of the kind that must
either soar to the high places or wallow in the low ones, and I've been
sorrier than I can tell that I was slated to--well, not to start her
winging for the heights exactly. I really wasn't a lot to blame in the
matter, but--that isn't either here or there. Old 'Squid' _thinks_ I
was, and will go on thinking so till his dying day--or mine. I tried to
get the old reprobate to call it quits when I shipped him off the other
day. Do you think he would? No fear. Not the 'Squid.' Indeed,
considering the bother I had wangling him out of serving that Kalgoorlie
sentence of his, he was rather nasty. He asked me if I was trying to buy
him off for fear he'd get me in the end. There wasn't much I could say
to that under the circumstances, so I just let him go. Now the purser of
the _Nawarika_ wires me from Cooktown to say that the 'Squid' slipped
ashore at Cairns and failed to show up again before sailing time. Purser
says he still has the hundred quid I gave him to slip Saunders when they
put him off in the Solomons. I have turned the wire over to the police,
but have asked them to sit tight unless Saunders shows up in this
section again. I hate to drag the old fire-eater into a new mess,
especially after all the trouble I had getting him out of the old one.
So I hope he won't be fool enough to come mooching south again. Don't
suppose he will, but--I'll be keeping an eye lifting just the same
against the loom of a vitriol bomb on the weather skyline."

Allen tapped his coat significantly at those last words, and that
reminded him that there were two or three little things about
"pocket-gunnery" he wanted me to coach him up on. Nailing a foot-square
of discarded canvas to the swelling bole of a bottle tree down by the
stream, we put in a half-hour of "by-and-large" practice at it. Allen,
thanks to his natural gift for judging distance and angle, proved a very
apt pupil.

By way of return for his gunnery lesson, "Slant" volunteered to show me
a few tricks of knife-throwing, in which he was reputed to have no equal
in the Islands. "I'm about as much of a walking arsenal as you were the
time you waited for me at the _Australia_, Whitney," he said with a
grin, as he produced a broad-bladed dagger from a sheath slung
unobtrusively on his right hip. "This knife, by the way," he went on,
tilting it lightly across his forefinger, "is balanced especially for
throwing. They are made in Lisbon, mostly for export to Brazil I
understand, where they seem to go in for that kind of stunt a good bit.
I bought it from the skipper of a Portuguese gunboat at Deli, who also
taught me the principles of chucking it. First and last, I've had a lot
of sport out of practising with it, and have an idea I would have an
even break with the _Capitano_ himself when my hand's in. I was very
grateful to old 'Squid' for handing it back to me the other day. I only
hope he won't be forcing me to pass it on to him again."

Allen's skill with the wicked-bladed _facon_ was decidedly impressive.
If anything, he was a shade more accurate in planting the point of it
than I was with a bullet from my pocket. Little luck as I had in
throwing it, I was quite as fascinated with the appearance and "feel" of
the formidable weapon as Allen had been with my target revolver in
Sydney. "I trust you won't have to part with it again, to Saunders or
anyone else," I said as I handed it back to him.

Before he mounted for his ride back to town, I mentioned to Allen that
Rona had left me in the lurch again the day before, and intimated that,
unless she began to show more interest in the picture, I would have to
consider packing up and going back to Sydney. As a matter of fact, the
girl's perversity had already been responsible for effectually dampening
down my first flush of enthusiasm, and I began seriously to doubt my
ability to make a success of the picture when the way was clear to work
at it. Allen begged me not to be discouraged, and assured me again that
he would look up Rona himself on the morrow and see if he couldn't get
some line on what she was sulking about. He also said he would see if
the quarantine people couldn't be prodded along to get at the job of
disinfecting the _Cora_.

Rona still failed to show up on the following day, and in the evening I
was unable to get 'phone connection with Allen's bungalow in an
endeavour to learn if he had seen her. Dr. Butler, whom I got on the
wire at the Quarantine Station, said that Allen had rung them up that
morning, urging them to get a move on with the _Cora_. They had told him
that they were planning to send a squad off before the end of the week.
As word had just come to them, however, that men were seen climbing over
the schooner that afternoon, they had decided to clean up the job in the
morning. As long as the ship remained in her present condition, he said,
she would continue a possible spreader of disease. She should have been
attended to before. If I cared to go off with them, he added, he would
pick me up at the landing at eight o'clock. I thanked him and told him I
would be glad of the chance to look things over before going to work.

I drove down early in the morning, taking Ranga with me on the chance
that Allen and Rona might care to go off and plan a tentative grouping.
A black boy cutting weeds with a sickle in front of Allen's bungalow
told me that "white marster stop townside" for the night and had not yet
returned. At the Mission I found Oakes a good deal perturbed. The day
before, he said, Allen had called just after lunch, talked with Rona a
few minutes, and then borrowed Yusuf and gone off for a ride. He had not
returned at dusk, but during the night the horse, dangling a broken
bridle rein, had come galloping back to his stable. The missionary was
fearful the rider had been thrown and stunned, and had been lying all
night on the road. He had sent out boys to search soon after daylight.
He was not sanguine of an early report from them, as Allen on his rides
always avoided the metalled main highways to save his horse's feet. No,
Yusuf's knees showed no signs of his having stumbled. He was as
sure-footed as a goat and as gentle as a kitten. Not in the least given
to shying or bolting. Besides, the colt wasn't foaled that could unseat
Hartley Allen. Of course, he must have struck his head against a
low-hanging limb in galloping some bush path, but that was unlikely.
Hartley had his wits too much on the alert to be caught like that. He
was beginning to be just a bit suspicious of foul play. Had I heard that
"Squid" Saunders had left his steamer at Cairns and was believed to have
sailed south in a stolen fishing-boat? He was just about to call up the
Police Station and tell them of Allen's disappearance when I came.

Rona had been off on one of her long walks the previous afternoon, Oakes
said in answer to my inquiry, and was not yet up. He had spoken with her
through her window, just after Yusuf came back, in the hope that she
might be able to give him some hint of the road Allen had taken. The
latter had not mentioned where he was going, she said. She herself had
been "away inland"--Oakes had encountered her on his weekly round
through the plantation villages. She was a tireless walker, and very
restless--altogether a strange character. I did not disturb the girl, as
I reckoned there was no use in taking her off to the schooner until
Allen was along to talk our plans over.

It would have seemed that this word of Allen's disappearance, taken in
conjunction with the fact that men had been seen on the wreck of the
_Cora_ the previous day, might have given me just a shade of preparation
for what I saw as I followed Butler and the _Herald_ man over the
schooner's side an hour later. But it was not so, probably because my
mental faculties were at their dullest at so (for me) unwontedly early
an hour. If the news had come to me in the afternoon, possibly I would
have traced some connection between the two events, and so have been at
least slightly braced and stiffened for the coming shock. As it was, I
bumped into it all unset, and the staggering impact of it came near to
bowling me over.

It had been Dr. Butler's theory, propounded as the launch put away from
the landing, that the figures descried on the _Cora_ the afternoon
before were those of blacks or coolies, attracted to the hulk by the
hope of loot. As a matter of fact, he said, they would doubtless have
made quite a haul, as nothing but the ship's papers had been taken
ashore on the day of her arrival. Considerable "trade" and all of the
personal effects of her former officers had been left for removal after
disinfection.

As we came out into the bay the coast to the northward began to open up,
and presently the wreck of the _Cora_, heeled sharply to port with the
foremast over the bows, became visible against the deep green of the
mangroves a couple of miles distant. Butler studied the hulk closely
through his glasses as we closed it.

"Looks as though I had another guess coming," he remarked finally,
lowering the binoculars with a puzzled air. "Someone aboard her now.
Seems to be jiggering the wheel. Can't be a pirate stunt, can it?
Wouldn't be possible to drop a petrol engine into her, block up the hole
and get off to the Islands on the quiet? But of course not. That's a
drydock job--'count of the propeller and shaft."

At a quarter of a mile he raised his glasses again. "Chap at the wheel's
the only man in sight," he reported. "He don't seem to have spotted us
yet. Must be deaf, not to hear the explosions of our exhaust. Ah,
perhaps that accounts for it! He's an old cove--big shock of white hair.
'Bout time he was getting his helmet on, though, with this sun beginning
to bore into the back of his neck. Ahoy, there!..."

But there was no reply. The lone white-haired figure was still jiggering
at the wheel when the launch, nosing in cautiously in the up-boil of
reversed propellers, slid past the _Cora's_ stern and the loom of her
counter cut it off from our view.

A moss-shiny Jacob's Ladder hung over the starboard side amidships,
where a section of the "nigger-wire" had been cut away, doubtless when
the labour-recruits were disembarked. Butler climbed up first, then the
_Herald_ man (who had come off on the Doctor's invitation to see the
ship made famous by the great exploit of the Hon. Hartley Allen), and
then myself. Butler lingered at the ladder for a few moments, giving
orders to his men about bringing the disinfecting paraphernalia aboard;
so it was given to the newspaper man to be the first to go aft and
discover that the moving, gibbering white-haired wretch lashed to the
wheel of the schooner represented the sum total of the mental and
physical remnants of the man whose doings he had been detailed to
chronicle.

The horrified reporter uttered no sound--simply froze and stood rooted
to the deck in amazed consternation. It was as though the basilisk stare
of the maniac's eyes had turned the flesh and blood of his rangy frame
to stone. When he stirred finally, it was to tip-toe softly back two or
three paces to where I, in turn, had frozen in my tracks. It was his
hand on my shoulder and his white face thrust close to mine that broke
my own trance. Then the both of us must have retreated another step or
two, until we bumped into Butler, similarly petrified with horror.

I am almost certain that not one of the three of us made any outcry, or
even uttered a word, so paralyzing was the effect of the apparition at
the wheel. The first sound I definitely recall as breaking in upon those
muffled mowings from the cockpit was a booming gasp as Ranga's mighty
chest sucked in a lungful of air, and then the big Malay's quiet "'Scuse
me, Tuan," as he started to shove past between me and the deckhouse.

The yellow giant had seen too many men, white and black, lose their
minds and their lives on that reeking old schooner to let the snapping
of one more brain, or the parting of one more life-line, ruffle unduly
his solid Oriental composure. He had been fond of Allen, however, and I
could see that he was shaken, though not, like the rest of us, unnerved.
There was a rumble of concern and anxiety even in that respectful
"'Scuse me, Tuan," as he started to push past the blockade the cowering
forms of three lesser men had made in the narrow passage.

Ranga's steadiness was good for the rest of us. Butler checked the Malay
with upraised hand and, muttering something about his duty as a doctor,
started aft, the _Herald_ man and I pushing in his wake. If it had been
possible for the fear-distorted features of the wreck of "Slant" Allen
to express extremer terror, that heightened degree was registered when
Butler extended his opened clasp-knife to begin severing the lashings. I
have no wish to attempt to describe that hell-haunted face. Indeed,
there will be scant need of my doing so, for there can be few readers of
this record who are not already familiar with its tortured lineaments.
It seared itself into my brain with a white heat of intensity that left
no room for any other image. At the moment it seemed as though it must
be blazoned there as long as my body was quick with the spark of life,
or at least until my reason recoiled at the horror of it and tottered
from its throne. A little later, when the dread face itself had been
hidden from my sight, a light seemed suddenly to flash out in the
distance, and in groping toward it I found relief.

The ghastly shadow of the Hon. Hartley Allen was standing wedged in
between the wheel and the binnacle-stand, his wrists lashed to the
spokes of the former and a maze of tangled line binding his knees to the
latter. The lashing was a length cut from the taffrail-log-line, another
piece of which had been used to secure a gag of wadded oakum. The only
wound visible (save for the wrists chafed through to the white cords of
their tendons in his desperate tuggings to tear free) was a
half-inch-wide incision on the right inner side of the neck, evidently
made by the point of a knife pressed in close to the swell of the
jugular vein. As this cut was hardly more than a deep prick, it seemed
probable that the knife had been used, not to inflict injury, but rather
to compel the victim to remain quiet while he was being secured.

As the wrist lashings fell away, Allen lurched savagely forward with a
throaty "g-rrr" and did his best to claw Butler's throat with his
fingers. His strength was spent by his night-long struggles, however,
and Ranga easily smothered the attack in the crook of his interposed
arm. The removal of the gag did not, as might have been expected from
the way the chest had been labouring, release a frantic scream. The
passages of the throat, although the neck revealed no evidences of
having been choked--recently, that is,--appeared to be swollen almost
shut. The windpipe would carry air to the lungs, but every effort to
expel it violently seemed to clap a sort of automatic muffler on the
vocal chords.

Allen collapsed limply into Ranga's arms when his leg lashings had been
cut, but he would not swoon. The dread of the damned continued to stream
from his staring and unbelievably dilated eyes; those hoarse heavings of
throat-throttled shrieks continued to issue from his gaping mouth; every
time a hand or foot was freed, he continued to strike or kick with it to
the limit of his pitifully drained strength.

Butler said that the only hope of saving the man's mind, and probably
his life as well, was to rush him to the hospital and put him under an
opiate as quickly as possible. Ranga picked up the tortured body
carefully, as he might have handled a struggling kitten, and passed it
down to the launch. Butler had the forethought to have us all sprayed
with the disinfectant before we went over the side, so as to minimize
the chances of our carrying off any plague germs.

Just as the launch was about to shove off, Ranga begged the coxswain to
hold on for a moment, and went clambering back up the latter. He ran
aft, picked up something from the deck, and came back tucking his little
Malay flute into the waistband of his dungarees. He had dropped it in
the cockpit, he explained.

About all I can recall of the run back to the landing was the
interminable number of times the _Herald_ man insisted on telling us
that he had been talking to Hartley Allen all the while the latter had
been shifting into his jockey togs for the Planters' Handicap, and of
how Butler, each time, replied: "And he slept in my pajamas all the time
he was in quarantine." Possibly I said equally trivial things; but I
don't recall them. I was conscious of a great pity for the plight of the
man for whom I had come to have a genuine liking, and a dull sort of
wonder as to how the tragedy might have happened and who was responsible
for it. But the haunting horror of that fear-stricken face hung like a
curtain in front of my mind, dimming or blanking everything behind it.

At Butler's suggestion, he--with Ranga to help--took a carriage at the
landing and drove direct to the hospital with Allen, while the _Herald_
man and I went in my trap to the Police Station to report to the Chief.
The latter had recently come to his present job from Charters Towers,
where he had made something of a name for himself by breaking up a gang
of outlaws who had long been doing pretty much as they pleased in that
rough and ready bonanza town. He was a chap of great determination,
energy and courage, but of little subtlety--rather the type of a
Western American sheriff than a city police chief. I had met him at the
Club two or three times, and liked him for his steady eye and open
straightforwardness.

The Chief was a little impatient at the _Herald_ man's repetitions of
the togs-shifting episode, and possibly also of my own wooden silence;
but he got to the salient facts readily, and was no less forward with
his deductions therefrom.

"'Squid' Saunders beyond a doubt," he pronounced decisively. "His sloop
was sighted twice between here and Cairns, the last time only fifty
miles to the north'ard. He could have landed night before last easy. Any
of the lagoons running back into the Caradarra Swamp would hide his
sloop. That would have given him all day yesterday to scout for Allen.
Why the schooner I don't quite twig. But the 'Squid' was always adding
devilish little embroideries to his jobs, and leaving a man to rot on a
plague ship has all of his ear-marks. Never mind, I've had two launches
patrolling the north coast for him since yesterday morning. He must have
landed before they got there. But they'll nab him if he pulls out with
the sloop again, and if he doesn't, _I'll_ nab him. I hate to do it with
a white man, but I'm going to put Rawdon's 'nigger-chasers' on his
trail. I've got 'Squid's' old suit of clothes--the one he threw away
when Allen bought him a new outfit--stowed away here, and I fancy a
sniff of it will be enough to put them on the scent with. If I don't
miss my guess, Mr. 'Squid' Saunders will be enjoying our bed and board
again before another twenty-four hours has gone by."

The Chief dropped his professional manner for a few moments as we arose
to go. "Allen was a good friend of yours, Mr. Whitney," he said, laying
a kindly grip on my shoulder. "I don't wonder that you're a bit dazed by
the thing. Rather puts a damper on the picture, I'm afraid. Going up the
hill now, are you? Good--a bit of a rest will steady you no end. Ring up
this evening and we'll give you the news. It won't be long before we
have our man."

The _Herald_ man, with the Chief's approval, rushed off to the telegraph
office to dispatch his wire. I drove round to the hospital to pick up
Ranga and inquire for news of Allen. Butler came down to see me in the
reception-room and reported that it had taken an astonishing quantity of
morphine to have any effect upon the patient, but that he was at last
beginning to grow quieter. His heart action was very irregular and there
was no saying yet what turn things might take. He asked me to let Ranga
remain at the hospital for a day or two. They were short of orderlies as
a consequence of the smallpox epidemic, and the big Malay was a very
useful attendant on account of his strength, quietness and good sense.
As they were trying to avoid the necessity of putting Allen in a
strait-jacket, they wanted someone in the room able to handle him if he
became violent again on coming out from his opiate. I told him to keep
Ranga as long as he was needed.



                               CHAPTER XV

                                THE FACE


The Chief of Police's allusion to the picture had started a nebulous
idea in my head, but it took it several hours to crystallize. Driving
alone up the hill, my mind gravitated dully to the matter of the
identity of the perpetrator of the unspeakable outrage. I found myself
speculating as to whether or not the Chief of Police, had he known of
Rona's previous attacks upon Allen, would have been as ready as he was
to attribute the guilt to "Squid" Saunders. And would he--had he known
of them--been able to trace any connection between Rona's repeated
attempts to induce Allen to go off to the schooner with her and the fact
that the crime had been committed there? And didn't it look just a
little as though Rona's whole strange plan for having a picture painted
was only a subterfuge to open the way for a carefully plotted revenge?
And yet, if she had done all this, she surely must have had--or thought
she had--a good reason for doing it. But had not Oakes established a
clear alibi for the girl when he met her "away inland" the same
afternoon men had been reported to have been seen on the schooner?
Probably, but not certainly. Oakes himself had said that she was "a
great walker" and "very restless."

It was conceivable that the girl might have doubled back and waylaid
Allen on the road. Or perhaps she had met him by appointment. He had
admitted that he was becoming increasingly subject to her will. But how
could she have induced him to go off to the schooner, and how had they
gone? No boat had been sighted along the beach (we had looked for one
through Butler's glasses on our return to the landing), and none was
reported missing from the harbour. The Chief had inquired on that latter
point while we were with him at the Station.

And how had Rona, or anyone else for that matter, been able to get the
better of such a man as Allen, fully armed and on the alert as I knew
him to have been, and noted for his resourcefulness in emergency? That
train of thought reminded me that we had found no arms on Allen when we
released him. His right coat-pocket was empty, and so was the
knife-sheath on his right hip. But his pocketbook, containing a
considerable amount in notes, had not been taken.... It was all too much
for my tired brain, which, ready enough to suggest questions, was quite
incapable of grappling with them. When I drove into the home clearing I
was wondering whether the broken glass I had noticed in the bottom of
the cockpit was that from the whisky bottle Allen had told me Rona had
thrown at him the morning Bell gave up the fight.

I was horribly tired, both in mind and body, and hoped that, with a
glass or two of absinthe to relax my nerves, I might be able to sleep at
least through the heat of the noonday. Shifting into my pajamas,--after
telling Suey, my China boy, that I would not want lunch and not to
disturb me until I sent for him,--I crawled under the mosquito-net and
tried to drop off. But it was no use. No sooner would I begin to doze
than the expiring images of my thoughts would shuffle up and sharpen
with a steel-clicking suddenness into the dread likeness of The Face,
with its dilated eyes boring me to the spine.

At the end of a couple of hours of fevered tossing, I gave it up, threw
off my pajamas, stepped to the low back-window ledge and took a header
into the cool green pool below. The Face dissolved as the thrill of the
refreshing embrace of the water ran through my blood, but only to return
when, after donning a fresh suit of drills, I began a restless pacing of
the floor of the big living-room--my studio. Always it flashed a pace or
two ahead of me, floating backward as I advanced upon it and swinging
with me at the end of the room. I could not wheel swiftly enough to lose
it, and it made no difference whether my eyes were opened or closed. I
tried it both ways.

It was in the course of an experimental lap I was trying with my hands
over my eyes that I bumped into the big rectangle of canvas I had
prepared in advance against the day I should be ready to start work on
"The Saving of the Black-birder." Ten seconds later I was pawing over my
colours with feverish haste. The idea swimming in my head had
crystallized. It was, in effect: _Put The Face on canvas and it will
cease to haunt and harrow your mind_. That sounded reasonable. Certainly
The Face couldn't be in two places at once, and if I once got it
anchored to the canvas I could cover it up when I wanted to get away
from it. It would all depend upon how faithfully I did my work,
something told me. If the face on the canvas was a replica of the other
to a hair, to a line, to the fear in the hell-haunted eyes, then the
phantom face would enter into it and become subject to my control. If
not--then I would never know sleep nor peace while I continued to live.

No artist can ever have approached a task under empire of the flaming
intensity I threw into this one. I was painting to save my reason,
perhaps my life. That is not a figure of speech. I mean it quite
literally, for I am convinced to this day that I stumbled upon the only
path that would have led me clear of complete mental and physical
collapse.

There was a rather remarkable coincidence in connection with the way I
started to work. Nothing told me that those first nervous slashes of my
brush signalized the beginning of a picture the fame of which was
destined to reach the outposts of the civilized world before the year
was out. All thought of "The Black-birder" was erased from my mind. I
had no idea of a picture in my head. I was not even beginning to work
upon a figure. I was only conscious that I was going to put all I had
into the task of reproducing--recreating, if that were possible--with
coloured pigments a phantom of my brain--a face--The Face.

I had no thought, I say, of beginning a picture. I sketched nothing in,
not even the outline of the haunting shadow I was going to try to
capture. A very few minutes after I began squeezing out colours onto my
palette I was smearing them upon a patch of the big six-feet-by-ten
expanse of woven cotton in front of me. The coincidence I have mentioned
became apparent some weeks later, when I discovered that, of all the
sixty square feet of canvas before me, the something less than one
square foot upon which I concentrated my paint and energies for the next
thirty hours chanced to be in exactly the place it _had_ to be for the
result of my effort to assume its proper place in a somewhat intricate
composition. I will tell of that in due course.

Save for the strain of the terrible tension under which I worked, the
task to which I had set myself proved absolutely the simplest I ever
attempted. It seemed that I could not go wrong. It was not like painting
a face from memory, nor yet like painting one from a model. It was more
like colouring a photograph, for the image, terrible as life, was right
there on the canvas at the end of my arm. At first, as I tried to
visualize it at shorter range than the five or six feet at which it had
been floating, it was a bit hazy; but presently my intense concentration
of mind had its reward. The dreadful phantom drew nearer, increased in
detail, and finally sharpened into clear focus at the tip of my brush.
After that I became just a meticulously faithful retoucher, working in a
trance.

It was toward the middle of the afternoon when Suey came in to ask if I
was going to be home for dinner. He was becoming used to my queer ways,
and, when I failed to take any notice of his reiterated query, came over
and touched me on the shoulder. I "came out" with a start, but gathered
my wits quickly. I told Suey that I should probably be working steadily
for the next day or two and would want nothing to eat until I was
finished. If he would bring me a bowl of cracked ice every hour and see
that no one was allowed in to bother me, it would be all I should want
of him. He replied with a laconic "Can do," and backed out toward the
kitchen as though I had asked for curry-and-rice for dinner, or ordered
something else equally rational and matter-of-fact.

I settled back into my spell of tranced concentration with scarcely an
effort, working swiftly and surely, with never a pause. The "drawing"
was all done for me, and even in the matter of colours there was no
hesitation. Exactly the proper shade or tint drew my brush like a
magnet; and always it was applied with telling effect.

The sunset shadows of the western hills were driving their black wedges
across the satiny sheen of the light-flickering levels of the waving
sugar-cane when I became aware that a sound I had been conscious of for
some time had suddenly changed and intensified. If my mind had tried to
catalogue the clear notes that had been floating in through the north
window, it was probably to credit them to a certain bell-bird friend of
mine who was in the habit of ringing his vesper chimes from a leafy
chapel in the big bottle tree toward the end of the afternoon. But there
was nothing bird-like in the quick staccato of eager yelps that had been
responsible for bringing me, with ears and interest a-cock, out of my
trance. "Dogs closing in for a kill," I muttered to myself, realizing
that it had been the distant baying of hounds on a hot scent that I had
confused with the more imminent chiming of my Austral bell-ringing
neighbour. The sounds came from a long way off--probably from somewhere
in the dense bush beyond the farther borders of the cane fields. It was
a northerly hauling of the wind that brought them down to me so clearly.
The air had been charged and electric all day, and the breaking up of
the trade wind indicated that a hurricane was mustering its forces
somewhere up among the Islands. I had not looked at the barometer on the
veranda, but knew that it must be registering a considerable fall.

The crack of a single shot drifted down the wind as the yelping reached
its climax. Then all was quiet in the distance, with only an occasional
cackling guffaw of a "laughing jackass" ripping across the silence that
brooded nearer at hand. I didn't know what there was to hunt in that
particular neck of Queensland, but thought it might be kangaroos or
dingoes. It wasn't of enough interest to waste time in speculating upon
it, just then in any event.

Daylight had given way to twilight, and twilight to moonlight, before I
stopped work again, this time to respond to an insistent ringing of the
telephone bell. Oakes' deep voice came excitedly over the wire. "I
thought you would be interested to know that Rawdon's dogs tracked down
'Squid' Saunders this afternoon," it said. "He has just been brought in.
Bullet through his shoulder, but not a serious wound. The report went
around that he had confessed to the attack on Hartley Allen, and the
town went wild. Only the Chief's nerve prevented a lynching, and there
may be trouble yet. Never saw the people so excited." In response to my
inquiry about Allen, Oakes said that he had been drugged to sleep early
in the afternoon, and that there was no use trying to forecast what turn
things would take until he came out.

"That clears Rona, at any rate," was my thought as I drained a glass of
iced absinthe and picked up my brush again. I found it just a shade
harder materializing The Face than it had been at first, but managed it
at the end of a minute or two of close concentration. Save for an
occasional pause for a sip of absinthe, I worked steadily on through the
night.

                   *       *       *       *       *

To make clear what transpired the following day, it will be well to set
down at this point a few things which I only learned in a conversation
with the Chief of Police after the last act of the drama was played to a
finish and the curtain rung down. Contrary to the understanding of Dr.
Oakes, and all the rest of the people of Townsville with the exception
of the Chief of Police and a couple of his assistants, "Squid" Saunders
had _not_ confessed. From what he _had_ said in the presence of all his
captors, however, it was easy to see how the story had originated. He
admitted quite freely to Rawdon, after the latter had called off his
dogs and was lending a hand to plug up the puncture in "Squid's"
shoulder, that his one purpose in returning had been to settle his
account with "Slant" Allen. He also said that he would rather be strung
up straightaway than to be sent back to West Australia and begin, at
sixty, serving out a twenty-odd-year sentence.

That was about all Saunders said at the time of his capture, but later,
after expressing himself to the Chief of Police to similar effect, he
went a little further. He averred frankly that curiosity had always been
one of his most pronounced characteristics, and, while he entertained
only the kindliest feelings for whoever it was that had been responsible
for tying up "Slant" Allen and leaving him alone to meditate upon his
past, he couldn't help wondering about the identity of a man able to
pull off such a cleverly thought-out and executed piece of business.
Might he not suggest to the Chief that the latter try to find some
trifle that this bright-minded and quick-handed cove had left behind on
the schooner, and see if those sharp-nosed--yes, and sharp-teethed--dogs
of his couldn't be put on the owner's trail. They appeared a very likely
lot of hounds, especially that big black-and-tan brute with a chewed
ear, who had broken away from the ruck and fastened his teeth in the
"Squid's" calf.

This all struck the straightforward, open-minded Chief as entirely
reasonable. It was only fair to Saunders, too, and since saving him from
the mob that afternoon the Chief had come to take a sort of proprietary
interest in his prisoner. Going off to the schooner in the morning he
found a small fragment of red rag in the cockpit, which, though it was
greasy and dirty, did not show signs of exposure to the weather, and
must, therefore, have been left comparatively recently. It was a
six-by-eight-inch piece of flowered red calico, of the kind used by the
natives of all parts of the South Seas for waist-cloths. Even if he
wasn't able to locate the particular _sulu_ from which it was torn, the
Chief reckoned that it would give the dogs something to go by.

Rawdon's "nigger-chasers" were of a foxhound-bloodhound cross that the
old ex-bushranger had bred especially for the purpose of chivvying down
runaway blacks from the sugar plantations. The swart sextette displayed
a very encouraging interest in the greasy rag the Chief brought them to
sniff; so much so, indeed, that they were far from drained of enthusiasm
at the end of a bootless day's nosing up and down the coast for tracks
that gave back the same ingratiating aroma. It looked quite good enough
to warrant going on with the game the following morning, Rawdon
pronounced, as he started back on foot for his kennels on the southwest
outskirts of town. (The old chap had some kind of a theory about its
being destructive to a hound's keeness to tote him around on wheels:
also, he had stumbled upon many trails where he least expected them,
even in the town.)

Rawdon was striding a couple of blocks ahead of his two helpers when,
crossing the town end of the main westerly highway to the hills, the dog
he was holding in leash--the big black-and-tan with the chewed ear, by
far his keenest-nosed hound--broke away and set off up the side of the
road in full cry. As there was no hope of trying to overtake him on
foot, Rawdon waited for the other dogs to come up and catch the scent,
cautioning his men to hold them well in leash and not to hurry until he
rejoined them. Then he ran back a quarter of a mile to the Police
Station to summon the Chief and get a horse.

This was about seven o'clock in the evening of Wednesday, the day after
we had found Hartley Allen bound to the wheel of the _Cora Andrews_.

                   *       *       *       *       *

At the moment the big black-and-tan hound tore his leash out of Rawdon's
hand and started to burn up the footpath beside the westerly hill road,
I had been streaking a small patch of canvas with coloured pigments for
something like thirty hours in a desperate endeavour to drive a phantom
out of my brain. I was near to the end of my labours and--I could sense
it already--close to victory. I had made a hard fight for it and I
deserved to win. Using absinthe sparingly--as a fuel and a food rather
than as a stimulant--and drawing upon my nerves for everything the drug
would not provide, I had kept going steadily and was finishing strong.

There had been but one interruption since the night before. Early in the
forenoon Captain "Choppy" Tancred had called up to say that he had
brought his new command to anchor in the harbour the previous evening,
and that, as he had a good twenty-four hours' loading to do, he hoped
that we could find time to foregather for a bit of a yarn in the course
of the day. Would I come down and have lunch with him at the hotel, or
would he drive up to me? He would rather prefer the former, as the
barometer was down and he ought to remain where he could get off to his
ship in a hurry if it came on to blow. I made the best excuse my
wandering wits could frame, and hung up. The old boy's voluble protests
were still clicking in the receiver as I returned it to its hook.

I had a hard time materializing my "model" again after that break, and
it was fifteen or twenty minutes before I was sure enough of it to
resume work. For a while, in the back of my brain, there was a flutter
of apprehension that old "Choppy" would take it into his head to come up
anyhow, and I was desperately afraid that I might not be able to
"connect" again after another interruption--that I would fail to focus
The Face at the one moment of all when I most needed it. There would
have been comfort in that thought twenty-four hours earlier, but by now
a desire to finish the portrait for its own sake seemed to have entered
into me.

But my fears were groundless. "Choppy" was properly rebuffed, and had no
intention of poking in where he "wasna weelcom'." (He told me so himself
later.) There was no further interruption, save the negligible one of
Suey and the cracked ice, sharp on every hour. As the sunset faded and
the twilight flooded the valley with luminous purple mist, I was
finished--or nearly finished. The Face was all but complete on the
canvas now, and all but erased from my brain. It had taken an intense
effort of concentration to hold it while I put the last touch on that
writhen lip, as it curled back in a snarl from the bared teeth. But I
did it. And now--just a stroke in that whorl of iris to accentuate the
abnormal dilation, to fix the horror in that ghastly stare! Slowly the
image sharpened in my brain. Again the fear-haunted eyes held my own.
Now! I was just darting my delicately poised brush forward when the
sound of voices from the veranda arrested the colour-daubed tip a hair
short of the blurring eye its touch would have made a hopeless smudge.
"Maskey--no can do!" came in Suey's brusque _pidgin_; and then,
following a sudden scuffle and the sharp click of the latch, a familiar
chirrup floated to my ears. "Let me in, Whit-nee! Hur-ree, ple-ese,
Whit-nee!" was what it said.



                              CHAPTER XVI

                            A SUDDEN VISITOR


As a rider reins in his stumbling horse, so did I rein in my stumbling
nerves. It was now or never, I told myself. If those final touches were
not given before I stirred from my tracks, they would never be given. I
closed my eyes and my ears--not with my hands but by a sheer effort of
will--and then, inch by inch, as though I were dragging it by the
throat, brought the phantom prototype back and forced it to merge with
the face on the canvas. The tip of my brush flashed twice, thrice. Then
I relaxed the tentacles of my will, and as the phantom face, receding,
blurred to blankness, it left behind, where a wisp of green-smeared
camel's hair had touched the canvas, an expression of hell-haunted
terror streaming from the unnaturally dilated eyes of the _completed_
picture-face.

I was breathing heavily, like a coolie who throws down his back-breaking
burden at the end of a hard climb, when I tossed aside my brush and
palette, but no wretch of a human pack-mule ever knew the depth of
relief that was mine. A carrier could only experience the physical
satisfaction of feeling his back was freed of a load: mine was the
spiritual ecstasy of knocking off the shackles that had threatened to
bind my soul. And now I was free to rush to the arms of the "Green
Lady"! No more need of rationing my absinthe. I spilled the remaining
contents of the bottle at my elbow in the bowl of half-melted cracked
ice, and wolfed it greedily over the tilted brim.

"Ple-ese, Whit-nee, I have the great hur-ree." Again came the
click-clack of the imprisoned latch and the thud of a knee or shoulder
against the door.

"One moment, Rona!" Steadied and alert, I set down the emptied bowl,
threw a hastily-snatched couch-cover over the canvas so that the space
upon which I had worked was hidden, and stepped to the door. Already I
felt the exaltation and relief of having banished the dread phantom. And
the picture face on the canvas--how easy it was to blot out! The hanging
corner of an old steamer-rug....

Rona pushed in eagerly as I swung back the door, Suey relaxing his
restraining grip and backing away noiselessly at my reassuring nod. All
the old verve showed in the girl's high-flung head and flashing eye.
Sullenness, depression, sadness alike were gone, replaced by an air of
eagerness, of suppressed excitement. She was still wearing the baggy
_holakau_ the lady missionaries had wished upon her, but with it--looped
over her breasts and under her shoulders _sarong_-fashion--was the
peacock shawl, outlining softly the lithe curves of shoulder and hip and
flowing clingingly in folds of amber and scintillant opalescence below
her knees.

"Whit-nee, I come to make the good-bye," she gushed cooingly, catching
her breath. "Tonight I take boat go Seengapo. Whit-nee, I come here to
tell you I ver-ree sor-ree I make you troubl' 'bout the pick-yur. I
tella you lie, Whit-nee. I cannot--make--the pick-yur. Bel-la, he say--"

At that instant a strange thing happened. Two or three times since she
entered the room, Rona's eyes, as though drawn there irresistibly, had
wandered from mine to what could have appeared to her no more than a
corner of plaid rug hanging over a broad blank of tightly stretched
canvas. She had done this again as she started to speak, and it was a
slight widening of her eyes that caused me to turn and follow her
glance. The hastily-flung rug was slowly slipping back off the easel.
The fringed corner hanging down in front was rising. Possibly a draught
from the open door had started the movement, or perhaps the swishing
blows a wind-lashed tree was dealing the side of the house. Whatever was
the cause, the effect was that of an invisible hand slowly drawing up a
curtain.

Rona's tongue framed the sentence that was in her mind, but the
words came brokenly as her puzzled wonderment increased. As her
double-syllabled rendition of Bell's name fell from her lips the
accelerating slide of the curtain quickened to a run, and, with a flirt
of green fringe, the masking corner disappeared over the top of the
frame. The Face--"Slant" Allen's hell-haunted face, tortured and
terrible--glared out at her from the broad white field of the canvas.

There was sheer amazement in the down-drop of the girl's lean jaw and a
suggestion of terror in the gasp with which she filled her deflated
lungs. But the piercing "_ey-yu_" with which that air was forced out
again was a battle-cry. Fortunately, I was standing a couple of paces
nearer the canvas than was she; but even with that handicap in my favour
it was a near squeak. I caught the gleam of a flashing blade and a quick
grab sunk my crooked fingers deep into the flesh of a thrusting arm.
Hurling the arrested figure back toward the door, I stooped and picked
up a knife--that beautifully balanced Portuguese throwing-knife that
Allen and I had been flinging at the swelling bole of the big
bottle-tree the previous Sunday. To this day I do not know whether Rona
thought she was attacking a reincarnation or a ghost, or was only bent
on destroying an uncannily life-like portrait that awakened savage
memories.

I swished the fallen rug from under the easel and rehung it--evenly this
time--before turning to confront Rona, where she was readjusting--with
raised elbows and twinkling thumbs--the hitch of the peacock shawl in
the opposite corner of the room. She had scrambled to her feet again,
but gave no sign of returning to the attack. Her eyes were snapping with
anger and excitement, but I did not have the feeling that she
entertained any especial personal resentment against me for the rough
handling I had given her.

"So it was you after all," I said slowly, fingering the tapering blade
of the tell-tale knife.

Her lips moved as though in reply, but if she said anything coherent it
was drowned in the roar of a sudden gust of wind that buffetted the
bungalow at that moment. I turned to the girl again after closing the
north windows. Her eyes were fixed on vacancy now, and her head, with
the clean-cut chin slightly elevated, was turned sideways in an attitude
of listening. As the banging of the trees died down my own duller
tympana registered a new vibration--and yet not quite new--something
that I had heard very recently. Ah, now I had it! The baying of a hound,
very near and very eager. A red-hot scent beyond doubt, I told myself.
But why were Rawdon's "nigger-chasers" running at that hour, and into
the teeth of a rising hurricane? There was questioning in both our
glances as the girl's eyes met mine, but in hers certainly no hint of
fear.

Before either of us spoke a firm, quick step sounded from the back of
the house, and a moment later, following a light tap on the door, Ranga
entered from my bedroom. If he was surprised at Rona's presence, or at
her somewhat dishevelled appearance, he gave no sign of it. Nor was
there about me--now that I was holding the knife behind my
back--anything to suggest to the Malay that he had stumbled upon a
situation in the least out of the normal.

Tuan "Slant" was sleeping heavily, he said, and so he had snatched the
opportunity to come up for some of his own Borneo tobacco and a change
of clothes. They had nothing in the hospital large enough for him. Tuan
"Slant" was growing stronger in body, but--he finished by tapping his
temple and shaking his head dubiously.

A heavier broadside of the gathering storm shook the house again, this
time sending a shudder through its stout frame and wringing a vibrant
_ping_ from the tautened "hurricane cables" that guyed its windward
corners. Out of the heart of that blast came the bell-mouthed baying of
the nearing hound. He was still sounding his clear bugle notes as he
swung in through the gate from the road, but down the driveway, with the
incense of the burning trail conjuring visions of an imminent quarry in
his brain, he began tearing his throat with harsh, savage yelps of
eagerness. I was looking for his charge to come against the closed front
door, but a sudden shower of claw-spurned gravel rat-a-tat-ing against
the glass of the French windows told that he had wheeled in his tracks
and was circling to the rear of the house. A yell and a clatter of
saucepans from the kitchen, a scramble of slipping claws upon the
hardwood floor of the back hallway, and in from the open door of my
bedroom--drooling-fanged, bloody-eyed and bloody-minded--came dashing
that black bolt of canine fury, closing on his cornered quarry for the
death-grapple.

Ranga, on entering, had moved a step or two aside from the door, a
survival doubtless of his training at sea, where an idle man blocking a
companionway or a ladder is liable to be taught manners by a rap on the
head. Rona was still in the corner to which I had hurled her. I was at
the opposite corner, near the big canvas and twenty feet or more from
the girl. The flying hound tried to check himself at the doorway, but
the polished floor gave him no grip for his claws. Down on his haunches,
with forefeet poked rigidly ahead, he slid the full width of the room,
tobogganing on a smooth-running Samoan mat for the last half of the
distance.

With the certainty of Rona's guilt fixed in my mind by her possession of
Allen's knife, I had no doubt, from the moment the hound's baying
indicated it had turned into the clearing, that it was hot on her trail.
But even so, the brute's entry by the bedroom door had been so
unexpected and so swift that I had not stirred from my tracks to the
girl's defence when the snarling animal, shooting across the room,
brought up against the wall close beside her. Even Ranga, leaping
forward instantly as he had, was scarcely past the middle of the floor
when the beast regained its balance and bearings almost at the girl's
feet. Drawing back into the angle of the walls and crouching low like a
cornered cat, Rona awaited the attack, while Ranga, barehanded, and I
with the throwing-knife rushed in to her aid. Without an instant's
hesitation, the savage beast spun to a full right-about and, brushing
the girl's advanced knee as though it was no more than the piano stool,
launched itself full at the throat of the yellow man.

Ranga's counter was swift, sure and terrible. He might have been
fighting bloodhounds barehanded from childhood, for all the surprise and
dismay he showed at the sudden attack. Where my own instinct (if I had
not tried to side-step the charge completely) would have been to grapple
for the brute's throat from beneath, he simply struck--or rather
grabbed--down from above. The impact crushed the snarling beast to the
floor, but when Ranga raised his arm again he was gripping his
struggling canine adversary by the scruff of the neck. Or rather, I
thought it was the scruff. In reality his grip was a bit more inclusive.

Holding the floundering black form at arm's length with no more effort
than if it had been a terrier, Ranga suddenly tightened his hold. I saw
the hound's red-lidded eyes grow slant and elongated like a Chinaman's
as the skin of its scalp was drawn backward in the relentless vise
closing from behind; then a grinding snick cut short an unearthly scream
of pain, and the hound was dangling limp and lifeless with a crumpled
spine at the end of a gibbet of knotted yellow muscle. Ranga tossed
lightly aside what a moment before had been a flying bolt of wrath, and
where the great head doubled under against a flowered chintz
window-curtain I saw the sprawling outline of a tooth-torn ear,
doubtless the scar of a fight with a luckier ending.

In its strangely terrible tenseness, the electrically charged silence
that succeeded has no parallel in my experience. Not a word was spoken.
The only sound was the banging of the wind-wrenched trees against the
house and the nearing mutter of the thunder in the north. The
significance of the fact that it was Ranga the dog had been trailing was
lost upon neither Rona nor me, nor yet upon the big Malay himself. The
latter met my questioning glance steadily for a moment, but it was the
girl's piercing stare of fierce concentration that drew and held his
troubled black eyes. While one might have counted fifty those two stood
and (as I have since understood) communed with eye and mind. It was a
sudden thunder-clap that broke the connection and checked the interflow
of thought. Ranga had not winced at the blinding flash and
close-following crash, but Rona's higher strung nerves fluttered for an
instant, and the wire was down. But Ranga's words indicated that the
message was about complete.

"Yes, I did it, Tuan," he said quietly, turning toward me as though
answering my unspoken question. "It had to be, Tuan, and--yes, I did
it."

It was not until afterwards I recalled that it was to Rona I addressed
my protest. "But 'Slant' swore to me that he did not kill Bell; that he
was in no way responsible for his death, first or last."

A spasm of passion twisted the girl's face to the seeming of an ape's as
she caught the drift of my words, and her reply was almost a scream.
"Not ke-el Bel-la? 'Slan' do worse than ke-el. He--"

The chorus of the leashed pack that checked her words came from so close
at hand that it made itself heard above the now unbroken roar of the
storm. There was the clang of shod hoofs on a metalled road, too, and I
thought I could distinguish the shouts of men. The hunt was closing in
for the kill.

"I think I go now, Tuan. I like the better to fight outside." Ranga's
voice was as quiet and controlled as when he had told me the news from
the hospital a few minutes before; but there was the lust of battle in
his flashing eyes, eagerness for action in the quick heave of his chest.

There was no time to debate and decide the question as to who had
committed the outrage upon Hartley Allen, or of what justification
there might have been for it. One thing only was clear to me, and that
was that I was not going to throw either Rona or Ranga to the dogs--no,
nor to the law either--if there was any way of avoiding it. My mind--as
was always the case when I had fasted long and drunk absinthe
sparingly--worked with lightning swiftness.

"Don't fight unless you have to," I said, stepping closer to Ranga as
the wind and thunder threatened to drown my voice. "Follow down the
stream over the falls. Jump won't hurt you--plenty of water at the
bottom. That'll throw off the dogs. Then follow the path by the flume
down to the sea. The rain'll kill your trail for the dogs. It ought to
be starting any minute now. Wait for me on the pier by the old sugar
mill. I'll come for you in a boat as soon as I can."

Baring his teeth in a quick grin of comprehension, the big fellow
wheeled and started for the front door. I caught his arm and checked him
just in time. "This way!" I shouted. "Through my bedroom window. Beat
it! _Lekas!_"

Again that intelligent tooth-flash of understanding. Ranga's
foreshortened bulk was making a blurred blot against the blue-green
lightning flash playing across the rear bedroom window as I turned to
answer a heavy banging at the front door. Everything considered, I have
always felt that I got away fairly well with the situation with which I
now found myself confronted. It was Harpool, the Chief of Police, who
staggered into the room, bracing back against the push of the still
rising wind. The flutter of the lightning revealed two or three horses
in the driveway, and three or four men following a bunch of howling dogs
around the corner of the house.

I was on the point of opening up at the Chief with a facetious sally
about the way he was sending his hounds around to frighten my lady
visitors, when I chanced to glance to the corner where Rona had been,
and lo--I had no lady visitor! The girl was gone, but whether under the
couch or out of one of the windows I could not guess. So I only gaped
rather stupidly and said nothing, leaving the Chief to open the attack.
I was glad the face on the canvas was covered, and only wished there had
been time to throw something over the crumpled remnants of the big
black-and-tan.

"I am quite satisfied it isn't you we want, Mr. Whitney," Harpool began,
with a shade of embarrassment, I thought. "But the fact remains that
Rawdon's hounds have followed a live scent straight to this house, and I
have every reason to believe they are on the trail of the man who tied
up Hartley Allen. Perhaps you can explain--"

"I think I can," I cut in, anxious to gain time for the fugitive, but
realizing that no end would be served by trying to conceal his identity.
"You're right that it was a hot scent. Just a few degrees too hot for
your canine deputy there in the corner. It's the end of _his_ trail, I'm
afraid."

The Chief strode over to the limp corpse and turned it with his foot.
"Who killed this hound?" he demanded angrily, regarding me suspiciously
for the first time.

"Not I, Chief," I replied jauntily; "but can't you guess? You can see
for yourself that he hasn't been shot--or clubbed--or poisoned. Well,
then--look at that neck. Do you know of more than one man in these parts
capable of snapping a bloodhound's spine between his thumb and
forefinger?" (I added that little thumb-and-forefinger touch with malice
aforethought, for I wanted to impress upon Harpool--for whatever it
might be worth--that it was no old broken-down of a "Squid" Saunders
that he was going to try to run to earth out there in the darkness.)

The Chief's honest eyes opened with amazement as the answer dawned upon
him. "You don't mean the big Malay?" he ejaculated incredulously. "Why,
he has been tending Allen like a sister for two days. Everyone in the
hospital has been speaking about his devotion."

"No other," I answered. "Ranga came up from the hospital less than half
an hour ago to get a shift of togs. Five minutes later that hound came
tearing in through the back entrance and flew at his throat--right here
in my studio. You see the result. That fellow can drop a horse with his
fist--a dog is no more than a flea to him."

"I can hardly believe it," said the Chief, shaking his head; "but the
fact remains that if the hound went for him, he's our man. I hope we
won't have to shoot him.... But Rawdon will never stand by and see his
dogs pinched out like that. This fellow was his best hound by a mile.
Drive him crazy when he finds it's been dished. Gawd, that neck might
have been run over by a steam tram! What in hell--"

A bedlam of howls and yells and savage oaths rising from the rear of the
house at this juncture broke in upon the Chief and caused him to bolt on
the double through the door of the corridor leading to the kitchen. The
unearthly racket, with the rattle of pistol shots spattering through it,
made me certain that Ranga had run afoul of the hunt at his first jump.
Shuddering at the thought of the terrible fight that must ensue, I
pushed on after Harpool, reaching the further end of the corridor just
in time to catch his reeling form as he staggered back from a bullet
that had burned his scalp the instant he opened the kitchen door.
Astride the sill of a kicked-in window sat old Rawdon, his bearded face
distorted with fury and pain, coughing, sneezing, cursing, and firing
impartially at all parts of the long, low room. Under the sink, almost
at Rawdon's feet but quite out of pistol range, crouched Suey, blinking
blandly and rubbing his almond eyes. He it was who was the author of an
unpremeditated diversion which was the only thing in the world that
prevented Ranga being nabbed at the outset.

The late black-and-tan, in following Ranga's trail, had entered the
kitchen by snapping his way through the light screen door. To prevent
his lines being thus penetrated a second time, the foxy Celestial, when
he heard the main pack rallying to the attack, closed and bolted the
heavy outside door of his domain and, with a little surprise packet in
his hand, took station beside the little swinging window above the sink.
Waiting with true Oriental restraint till the clamouring enemy was
compactly bunched upon the porch outside, Suey gently raised the screen
and emptied the contents of a can of red pepper into their midst. The
paprika appeared to have been pretty fairly divided between three of the
most oncoming of the dogs and their equally forward master. The hounds
quit for the night, then and there, but the old bushranger's fighting
spirit urged him on to make the best stand he could with his automatic.
Considering the way he was being racked with coughs and sneezes, and
that he only blazed away at the creak of an opening door his streaming
eyes could not locate, his shot that welcomed the Chief was by no means
uncreditable. It cut a neat furrow through Harpool's stubby pompadour
and even drew a drop or two of blood.

The Chief's fervent swearing stayed Rawdon's murderous hand just as he
had finished fumbling a fresh clip of cartridges into his emptied
"thirty-eight" and was about to start fusillading anew. Roaring mad as
he was, his first thought was for the dogs. "Get a wet rag round the
muzzles o' Dingo an' Jackaroo 'fore you let 'em inter this 'ell 'ole,"
he growled between sneezes. "Our bloke's somew'ere in this 'ere 'ouse,"
he went on, laving his smarting eyes at the water-tap of the sink above
Suey's jack-knifed form. "Don't let 'im slope by the front door, Chief,
now we've got 'im in 'is 'ole."

"Sloped already," snapped Harpool laconically, adding that most of the
sloping had been done while Rawdon was setting his dogs on a "bally
Chink cook." In a few terse sentences the Chief explained the way things
stood, giving it as his opinion that their man would be trying to follow
the stream right across the plantation and down through the belt of bush
to the mangrove swamps. The loss of the big black-and-tan was so great a
calamity for the old bushranger that it had the effect of sobering
rather than further exciting him. His red rage burned white and flamed
inwardly rather than outwardly. "I'll know 'ow to even up for 'im
killin' Starlight w'en I gets that bloody wombat in a patch o' dry bush.
Nice bit o' a torch that greasy 'ulk o' 'im'll make. Come along! We'll
'ave a better chance o' makin' a quick bag if we get 'im in sight 'fore
the rain starts."

There were still left two dogs with undamaged "noses." Fearful that
these, if they took the bridle-path down the right side of the creek,
might pick up Ranga's trail where he would have left the stream at the
pool, I made bold to suggest a plan calculated to carry them wide of
that danger point. "Why don't you ford here," I said, "and push straight
across the plantation to the end of the big loop the stream makes round
the nigger village? Your man will be all of an hour making that point if
he wades by the stream. You can make it through the cane in twenty
minutes and be waiting there to bag him."

The Chief was inclined to favour the plan--until Rawdon cut in
sarcastically with: "An' wot's to pervent the bloody bloke's givin' us
the slip a 'undred times 'tween 'ere an' there? One hound down each side
o' the stream--that's the only way to be sure o' clappin' our 'ooks
inter 'im."

That was sound reasoning of course--from Rawdon's standpoint,--and I
didn't dare urge my plan any further. Ten minutes later, when a sudden
eager baying came down the wind from the direction of the waterfall, I
felt sure my worst fears were realized. It was, therefore, with only the
faintest hopes of success, that I pulled myself together to take the
first step in making good my promise to pick up Ranga at the pier of the
old sugar mill.

The priceless Suey had crawled out from under the sink as the sounds of
the hunt grew faint, and turned to tidying the kitchen as though
cleaning up after a pack of bloodhounds was just a pleasant little
incidental of the day's work. When I ordered him to get me out a fresh
bottle of absinthe he did not even forget the cracked ice. I told him I
should probably be away for most of the night, and that if Rona showed
up in the interim to see that she was made comfortable till my return.
"All lightee girl-ee. Otha fell-ee too much peppa can have," he said
decisively. I told him to do what he liked to Rawdon, but to give the
Chief a shake-down if he asked for it.

Quaffing a couple of glasses of raw absinthe, I filled a flask, pulled
on a pair of riding-boots and a raincoat, and pushed out onto the
veranda. The wind had not increased greatly in force, but the lightning
and thunder were flashing and crashing almost simultaneously overhead,
and the first big drops of rain were beginning to spatter. The moon was
hidden behind a dense pall of black cloud, so that it was by the
incessant flicker of the lightning that I sized up the three
saddle-horses tied at the side of the driveway and picked the rangy
waler of the Chief as the likeliest rough-weather beast. I had no
compunction to taking him, as the bunch would be breaking away anyhow as
soon as the sagging bottom of the cloud overhead dropped its contents on
them. I preferred not to have my own saddle-horse left standing in the
town if it could be avoided. There would be enough tell-tale posts on
the course I was going to try to negotiate without deliberately planting
another one.

The cane fields in the valley were glistening with the opening volleys
of the rain as I spurred across the clearing, stabbing the night with
silver gleams in the lightning flashes as the bayonets of massed troops
throw off the rays of the sun. The wind was behind me as far as the main
road; then side-on, but broken by the wall of the thick-growing trees. I
put the waler at top speed, anxious to cover all the distance possible
while the footing was good. I was halfway to town before the storm let
go in real earnest, and from then on it was about as much of a swim as a
ride, especially after the hillsides began to spill off on the lower
levels. My mount was a sensible beast, evidently no stranger to tropical
cloudbursts. He took the initiative readily when I ceased to urge him,
and kept plugging right on through the storm at a good steady
business-like jog. Nothing but my good fortune in getting a jump on the
rain prevented my going out in this first lap of my race, as all of the
four bridges I had to cross must have washed away within a very few
minutes from the time I put them behind me. Indeed, one of the two
horses I had left in the driveway, after both had broken away as I had
anticipated, was drowned in trying to flounder through an open crossing.

The worst of the terrific downpour was over as I rode into the town, but
the wind--as was to be expected--was blowing with increased force.
Everyone had been driven indoors by the rain, so that it was in an empty
street I dismounted and left my horse, knowing that he would be pawing
at his own stable door within a very few minutes. The rest of the way to
the landing I covered on foot. As I had feared, the creek was empty of
launches. I would have to see what could be done at the Burns, Phillip
offices, which, busy with manifests and other odds and ends of business
incident to an imminent steamer sailing, were still lighted up. It was
an alternative I was very reluctant to resort to, as I had been hoping
that my visit to Captain Tancred might be managed on the quiet. Just as
I turned to go a red light, bobbing past the outer end of the jetty,
caught the tail of my eye, and, on the off chance that it might be a
craft I could hire, I held on at the steps. Smartly handled in the nasty
cross-lop, a small but powerful steam launch bumped in alongside the
landing stage.

"Can I get you to take me off to the _Mambare_?" I demanded of the
uniformed youth who came bounding up the steps.

"Glad to do it, sir. This is her launch," was the cheery reply. "Just in
for clearance papers. Be back in a jiffy. Climb aboard and make yourself
comfy in the cabin." Then, as an apparent afterthought: "You're sailing
with us, aren't you? Can't take off visitors at this hour. No way to get
back. Getting under way at midnight." He had so little doubt that I was
a belated passenger, perhaps delayed by the rain, that my nod was quite
sufficient to reassure him. Five minutes later we were shoving off for
the run back to the line of lights where the _Mambare_ tugged at her
moorings.

The sea was white with foam outside the jetties, but with waves and wind
almost dead astern the sturdy little launch made very comfortable
weather of it. It was by no means as bad as it had been coming in, said
the young officer, who turned out to be a freight clerk. As the gangway
was already raised and the launch had to come in anyway, we remained
aboard her and were hoisted right up and swung in to the chocks on the
_Mambare's_ boat-deck. My companion hurried at once to his office to go
over his pouch of papers, while I, locating it without asking anyone for
directions, went forward to the Captain's cabin under the bridge.

The faint shadow of constraint on Captain Tancred's face as I entered
disappeared the instant his ready mind divined I had come to him for
help. "So they're after ye at last, lad," he said, sympathy and
satisfaction queerly blended in his deep voice. "Weel, noo, tell me a'
aboot it. I ken we'll be findin' a way oot for ye."

I told him all that he needed to know as quickly as possible, making a
point, however, of omitting to state that the man I wanted him to
smuggle away to the Islands had confessed to committing the outrage upon
Hartley Allen. "Slant" was an old friend of "Choppy's," and I felt sure
that the latter, far from being a witting party to helping the man who
had attacked him escape from justice, would undoubtedly lend every aid
to placing him where he would receive his just deserts. Luckily, the
quixotic old Scot was not a man to ask searching questions. He was
plainly disappointed that it was not I who was fleeing the law, but
there was ready consolation in the fact that a friend of mine, in very
sore straits, might be saved from being torn to pieces by a pack of
bloodhounds if he was picked up at a certain point on the north coast
before morning.

We located the cove of the old sugar mill on the chart without
difficulty, and in his bulky volume of "Sailing Directions" found the
comforting assurance that it afforded especially good shelter in a
northerly blow. There was no surf, it was stated, and the shore was
almost steep-to. This was all in our favour. He was sailing at midnight,
the Captain said. The hurricane was central over the New Hebrides, so it
was only the tail of it flirting across the Great Barrier--nothing he
would dream of sticking in harbour for. Doubtless he would be able to
find an excuse to heave-to off the cove, while I piloted the launch in
to get our man. Then, if I didn't care to return and take a pleasure
voyage with him to Insulinde and the Straits, I could drop off and make
the best of my way home.

The Captain had just finished telling me how he had made a point of
bringing his old launch crew with him from the _Utupua_--"the lads I use
for speshul wark, ye ken"--when the freight clerk who had brought me off
entered the cabin with a number of papers and letters. On the top of the
pile was a red envelope marked "Rush." "Choppy" tore the letter open at
once. The up-flop of his grizzled side-burns at the sudden flexing of
the jaw muscles at their roots gave me warning of the coming jolt.

"We'll nae be gettin' under wa' the nicht, Ryerson," he said quietly to
the freight clerk. "Will ye be sae guid as to bid the Chief an' the Mate
to step this wa'. Mair carga the morrow," he added by way of
explanation. To the Chief Engineer, when he came, the Captain merely
countermanded an order for steam on the capstan at seven bells, and
warned him to keep the pressure in the boilers high for fear the steamer
might part a mooring cable if the wind increased. The Mate he ordered to
be ready to handle a consignment of silver bullion and ingot copper that
would come in a tug from the _Moresby_ as soon as she arrived from the
south in the morning. He also told him to have the crew of the steam
launch called away at once, so as to put "yon gentleman" ashore as
quickly as possible. If the Mate was lively about it, "Choppy"
suggested, he might find that the fires of the launch had not yet been
drawn from her trip to the landing. If so, that would save time in
getting up steam.

Not until all of this was ordered did he turn to me with: "The de'il's
ain luck, lad. Nae gettin' awa' afore eight bells, noon, the morrow.
Shipment frae Broken Hill catchin' up wi' us in the _Moresby_."

"That means that the game's up and you're sending me back because
there's no hope of doing anything?" I asked in dismay.

"Nae, nae, lad," he soothed. "No' so fast. Just a wee bit o' a shift o'
program, that's a'. True I'm sendin' ye ashore in the launch, but when
she comes back I'm hopin' tae find oor mon in yer place. Do ye ken noo
wha' I'm drivin' at?"

"Do you mean to send the launch all the way round from here?" I demanded
in astonishment; "and then to keep him aboard here in the harbour for
ten or twelve hours before you sail? Isn't that asking for trouble both
ways? Even if the launch stands up against the gale outside, aren't you
done for if they come off from town and make a search of the steamer?"

Old "Choppy's" blue eyes twinkled merrily at the latter suggestion. The
police never did seem to have any luck in searching his ships, he
laughed. As for the launch--it was new, its engine was unusually
powerful, and it would have "Pisco" at the wheel. "Pisco," he explained,
was a Chilean who had been with him for years, and had never been known
to fail at a pinch. He thought that combination ought to win out. I
didn't mind a bit of slap-banging off the point, did I? That settled it.
If he was willing to risk his own launch and his own career to save _my_
friend, it was not for me to hang back. Fifteen minutes later we had
been lowered over the side and were rounding under the _Mambare's_ fine
clipper bows into the teeth of the gusty norther. It had been agreed
that I should pilot "Pisco" to the rendezvous and deliver my man into
his care. "Choppy" undertook to do the rest.

What the hard-bit old sea-dog had characterized as a "bit o'
slap-banging" off the point proved to be a frontal attack upon as
ruffianly a bunch of headseas as it was ever my lot to face in anything
smaller than a ninety-ton schooner. Stoutly built and over-engined as
she was, the launch was quite equal to the task of driving her nose
through the waves, but--not being built for submarine service--proved a
dismal failure at getting rid of the solid green water that deluged her
as a consequence. Knot by knot, cursing fluently in picturesque _roto_
Spanish the while, "Pisco" rang down the engine, until finally the
pugnacious little craft ceased tunnelling the bases of the seas and
contented herself with boring neat round holes in their curling crests.
By this method she shipped no more water than her scuppers could put
back where it came from. The only fear now was that enough spray might
splash down her squat funnel to quench the fires, and to minimize the
chances of this, the resourceful "Pisco" made the lookout stand so that
his broad chest would receive and deflect the heaviest rushes of the
threatening flood. Fortunately, the distance to be run head-on to the
seas was comparatively short. Once round the point the alteration of
course brought the wind and the waves on the starboard beam, and though
she now just about rolled her side-lights under, it was fairly quiet
going compared to the buffeting outside.

I gave "Pisco" his course for the first leg in by the lights of the big
sugar central, and then, as we opened up the inner bay, gave him a
bearing on the notch--barely guessable against the overcast west--where
the old cartroad grade pierced the brow of the cliff. The clouds were
racing overhead and the baffling cross-gusts on the surface would have
made it bad business for a sailing craft. But for a launch the task was
a comparatively simple one. The loom of the old mill was discernible
against the darker opacity of the cliff at a couple of hundred yards,
and the right-angling lines of the pier at half that distance. As the
latter was sure to have been built of the eternally-lasting _jarra_, I
knew that it would be as solid and serviceable as the day it was
abandoned.

I had not thought it best to risk dampening Captain Tancred's enthusiasm
by confessing that I thought it was a good ten-to-one against my man's
turning up at the rendezvous. Indeed, I could see no grounds whatever
for hoping that Ranga had shaken the pursuit--already at his heels--and
won through to the appointed place. Nothing short of a miracle could
have compassed it, I told myself. It was on the off chance that the
miracle had been wrought that I was keeping my promise.

"'Bout half a point to sta'boa'd, Tuan. Way nuf now! Steady!" That deep
rumbling voice from the darkness was a welcome surprise. "Pisco,"
heeding the quiet directions, brought his launch alongside the broad
solid flight of steps as neatly as he would have laid her up to the
_Mambare's_ gangway in broad daylight.

Ranga was coming down the steps--with a slowness which I attributed to
the fact that they were probably very slippery--when I heard a thud on
the deck behind me, such a sound as a heavy, soft bundle thrown down
from above might have made in striking. A second or two later there was
an ejaculation of astonishment somewhere aft, probably from "Pisco," I
thought, as the words were Spanish. I did not try to puzzle out the
purport of them at the moment, as my attention was occupied with Ranga,
who seemed to be hesitating at the last moment about coming aboard.
Twice or thrice he drew back his foot from the rail, as though uncertain
of his balance. And when the great bulk of him finally did surge
forward, it was with a lurch that took all my strength to check it and
prevent his reeling on across the narrow bow and over the other side. He
steadied himself slowly, with a great intake of breath. "Sorry--make
trouble,--Tuan. Now--I go aft."

"I am leaving you here, Ranga," I said quickly, for I was getting
nervous about a movement of lights I had observed along the flume in the
rear of the big sugar mill. "Captain Tancred will look after you on the
steamer, and put you off wherever you want to go. He also has some money
for you. Good luck!"

The big fellow took a long shuddering breath, and when he spoke it was
as though he had rallied himself from a spell of faintness by sheer
force of will. "Some day, Tuan--I pay you back--for all you do. So
long." He turned with painful deliberation and started to edge along
aft. I was a bit surprised that he had not grasped my extended hand, but
could not be sure that he had been aware of it in the dark. It did not
occur to me until afterwards that he had not used his own hands on the
rail of the stairway in descending, and that he had seemed to shoulder
his way back to the cockpit rather than to grope. I waited until his
swaying shoulders ceased to blot the blinking of the phosphorescent seas
astern, and then swung off to the stairs.

"All clear!" I called softly to "Pisco," as I felt the solid step
underfoot. "Shove off when you're ready. _Buena fortuna!_"

It was doubtless "Pisco's" ejaculation in Spanish a few moments before,
lurking in the back of my mind, that prompted me to speed the spirited
coxswain in his own tongue. On the heels of that "_Buena fortuna!_" the
words he had spoken flashed up in my memory. "_Cristo! Porqué la
muchacha?_" It could hardly have been a sarcastic dig at Ranga's
hesitancy in stepping aboard, I reflected as I mounted the
slippery--astonishingly slippery--steps. He would not have expressed it
quite that way in that case. A sudden slip in a slimy patch at the head
of the steps put an end to conjecture for the moment, and when I
regained my feet the answer was written across the cabin doorway of the
turning launch. The lamp inside had--purposely--been turned very low,
and the blurred silhouette of the figure that came groping out to where
Ranga had collapsed on a cockpit transom might easily have been that of
any one of old "Choppy's" true and tried launch crew. But wet amber silk
reflects a deal of light, and there was only one peacock shawl in the
world--or in that neck of the world at least.



                              CHAPTER XVII

                             DOWN THE FLUME


The lights had disappeared from the flume as I turned to go, and, rather
than take the chance of another fall, I decided to use my small electric
torch in finding a solid footing. The lacquered crimson reflection of
the fluttering disc of light instantly revealed the cause of the
slipperiness I had encountered. The whole end of the pier was
criss-crossed with thick trails of blood, with great spreading pools
here and there where, whoever shed it, had stood or sat. The blood on my
hands and raincoat, where they had come in contact with Ranga's reeling
frame, proved beyond a doubt that he was badly hurt. That explained his
unsteadiness on his feet, and also the fact that he had avoided shaking
hands with me. Very likely, indeed, his hands were unfit to use. Tired
to the verge of exhaustion though I was, my blood leaped at the thought
of the battle royal the splendid fellow must have fought--and won. I was
expecting to come upon traces of the fight at any moment as I picked my
way in past the ruined mill to the foot of the old grade leading to the
top of the cliff.

As I left the planking of the pier behind two sets of footprints
appeared in the wet, firm earth of the path at the side of the road.
Both were made by bare feet, but the larger ones--plainly Ranga's--were
broken and irregular, and saturated with blood. There could be no doubt
that his feet, like his hands, were frightfully torn. The small prints
pressed very close to the side of the large, indicating that Rona was
either supporting the wounded giant or being supported by him. From the
fact that the smaller impressions were deeply indented, I figured that
the former was the case--that she was helping him. The girl, evidently,
was not badly hurt--perhaps not at all.

Where the path I was following joined the bridle-road at the brink of
the cliff, the trail of blood turned off down the foot of the flume
toward the big sugar mill. The battle royal must have been fought
somewhere in the depths of the dense tropical growth that filled the
rocky fissure in the cliff followed by the flume. What grim secret the
black hole held would have to wait for the coming day to reveal. My way
home led in the opposite direction, and there was some question in my
mind as to whether or not I had the strength for the full course.

Fortunately for me the flume had been built along ridges and high
ground, so that the trail following it had not been exposed to heavy
flooding in the torrential rains of the early evening. I found it hard
and firm underfoot for the most part, and by no means hard to follow
without resorting to my electric torch. It would have been very easy
going had I not been so nearly all in, but even as it was, by using my
absinthe sparingly as I had done while painting, I managed to keep
plugging steadily on toward home.

At one time something very near a panic seized me for a while, when the
thought flashed through my mind that the great quantity of Ranga's blood
soaked up by my boots and my clothes would undoubtedly leave a trail
that Rawdon's hounds, should they chance to nose into it, would be quite
justified in mistaking for that of the Malay himself. Even if I
succeeded in holding the beasts off with my revolver, my presence there,
and in such a state, would call for a lot of explaining. If the Chief
once became suspicious, I told myself, it would undoubtedly upset my
plans to get Ranga away, to say nothing of involving both myself and
Captain Tancred in a serious scrape. I was in a miserable state of funk
until the cheering thought entered my head that Ranga had probably
killed not only the dogs, but probably Rawdon and the Chief as well.
That reflection reassured me immensely, and, buoyed in mind and body, I
trudged on confidently to the foot of the waterfall.

I had noticed from time to time along the way that the flume, in its
less inclined stretches, was overflowing its sides. The reason for this
became evident when I reached the intake, at the side of the pool under
the falls, where I discovered that the gate, usually only partly raised,
was wide open. A flow of more than double the normal was rushing out of
the rain-swollen stream and into the flume.

I was too tired to speculate upon how this might have happened. It was
touch-and-go with my tottering knees all the way up the steep, slippery
path to the top of the cliff; but, with three or four breathing spells
and the last of my absinthe, I managed it, and came out at last upon the
greensward rimming the bathing-pool under my bedroom window. It was
comparatively quiet here, now that the roar of the falls was deadened by
distance, which was doubtless the reason that I heard for the first time
a racket from the other side of the plantation that must have been going
on right along. It was rather a lucky thing that I _did_ hear that noise
before I turned in. Had I not done so, it is hardly likely that it would
have occurred to me that it might be a wise precaution to remove my
boots before entering the house, and then to strip off and burn
carefully in the kitchen range everything that I had been wearing. It
was all I could do to keep awake until the irksome job was over, but,
since it was evident from the ki-yi-ing and cursing that was floating
down the wind that Ranga had not made a clean sweep of Rawdon and his
pack, I reckoned that it well might be the means of preventing
unpleasant complications.

My arduous climb up from the old sugar mill had served a useful purpose
in one respect. The hard physical exercise had sweated the poison of the
absinthe out of my system and relaxed the near-to-breaking tension my
nerves had been under for thirty-six hours. I fell into a good normal
hard-workingman's sleep the moment the mosquito-net closed behind me.
And the best of it was that, when a pandemonium outside awakened me a
little after sun-up, I tumbled out upon my feet in full possession of
all my faculties. This was a mighty fortunate circumstance, for the
rather delicate situation with which I was confronted called for
something better on my shoulders than the usual "absinthe-holdover"
head.

Harpool and Rawdon, it appeared, had experienced a beastly night. Losing
a hot scent that had been picked up at the foot of the waterfall
immediately after leaving the bungalow, they had been forced to take
refuge in one of the labour villages during the deluge. Dragged out by
the bloodthirsty Rawdon before the rain had ceased to fall, they had
spent the night "working" the fringes of the bush in the hope of
stumbling upon the trail of the elusive fugitive. The net result of this
was the drowning of two more hounds and the driving of the baffled
bushranger to the verge of distraction. Returning, dead beat, in the
early dawn, they had encountered, at the intake of the flume, a scent so
strong that even the paprika-dosed noses of Suey's victims followed it
readily. Swarming up the cliff in full cry, the hunt came on to whirl in
a mad war dance round the bungalow and put a period to my morning
slumbers.

The maniacal Rawdon was the worst difficulty, and I honestly believe
that only the Chief's restraining presence saved me from the necessity
of winging him with a revolver bullet to prevent his setting fire to the
bungalow. That "bloody wombat" had dodged him once from that shack and
he wasn't going to take chances on its happening again. The Chief and I
finally induced him to leave his "ring of death" intact round the
bungalow and come in and search for himself. That gave me a chance for a
quiet word with Harpool, whom I did not want to have push on to town for
fear he would start a search that might extend to the _Mambare_. Indeed,
he admitted he was afraid that his man might have doubled back to
Townsville and got off to the Singapore boat, which had doubtless sailed
at midnight. He had lost a badly-wanted counterfeiter a fortnight ago
that way. The skippers never seemed very keen to co-operate in a search
of their ships. Too many little smuggling games of their own probably.

I suggested to Harpool that he have a bath, a change of clothes--my togs
were about his size--and a snack of early breakfast. Afterwards--since
his horse was gone--I would drive him down in my trap. In the meantime
he could ring up the Police Station and give any orders he thought
desirable by 'phone. (This latter suggestion I made in full knowledge of
the fact that the line must be down for over a mile. I had seen myself
where uprooted trees were responsible for wide hiatuses.) If it was in
any way possible without arousing his suspicions, it was my intention to
detain Harpool until I was sure the _Mambare_ had sailed.

The Chief fell in with my suggestion readily, and felt so much bucked up
after a bath and a couple of whiskies-and-soda that he did not appear
seriously upset when the telephone turned an irresponsive ear to him.
Like the straightforward gentleman he was, he accepted at once my
assurance that Ranga had not entered the house again, and took no hand
in Rawdon's wild scrimmages, which carried him from cellar to garret
with no other result than the brushing of a bit more of the bloom off
"Honeymoon Bungalow" with the soles of his hobnailed boots. Madder than
ever after his vain search, he surlily refused my invitation to remain
for a cup of the coffee that his Chink friend of the night before was
already preparing in the kitchen, and slogged off down the road,
followed by three draggled hounds and two cursing helpers. I was a good
deal cheered by the thought that it was unlikely that any of them would
be getting through to town, without swimming, for another twelve hours
at least.

Before he left Rawdon turned over to the Chief the little piece of red
rag he had been using to put the dogs on the scent with. It was at this
time that Harpool told me of "Squid" Saunders' suggestion, and of the
visit to the schooner in search of a clue. I did not tell him that I
recognized the rag as one which Ranga had used to wrap his little Malay
flute in, and that it had undoubtedly been left there the morning the
big fellow helped carry Hartley Allen to the quarantine launch. It was
interesting, however, to know that Ranga was absolutely guiltless of the
outrage to which he had confessed. I thought I could just conceive how a
well-guarded passion for the girl might have prompted that chivalrous
attempt to shield her from suspicion; but why had Rona herself committed
the ghastly crime?--and how? It was many months before I was to have an
answer to those questions, and they came from the lips of the last
person from whom I could have expected them.

Direct and straightforward as ever, Harpool was visibly impressed by my
suggestion that Ranga had probably remained hidden near the fall until
the pursuit had passed, and after returning to the bungalow and finding
it dark, had retraced his steps and adopted the desperate expedient of
trying to escape the dogs by riding down the flume. That reminded him
that they had found the gate of the intake closed when they first
reached it, and that it had occurred to him at the time that the
fugitive might have done this so that he could walk down the bottom of
the flume without risk of being carried away by the water. This would
account for the patch of scent the hounds found at that point. The Chief
said that he was for pushing along the path by the flume, but that
Rawdon scouted his theory, insisting that their man had jumped back into
the water and gone on wading downstream. The hound-master had carried
his point, but, to be on the safe side, they had ratcheted up the gate
to its full aperture and turned a stream down the flume heavy enough, he
was afraid, almost to carry the sugar mill into the sea. And that
reminded me (though, obviously, I could not speak of it) that I had not
heard the roar of the mill's machinery when I paused at the brow of the
cliff. There was no doubt it was hung up for some reason. Was it
possible that Ranga had made his escape after coasting right down into
the crushing gear? But of course not. He would never have been able to
get away unpursued, even if he had survived.

I welcomed for two reasons Harpool's suggestion that we ride down the
flume and investigate as soon as breakfast was over. It would keep him
away from town until the _Mambare_ had sailed for one thing, and, for
another, it would give me a chance to fathom the mystery that lay at the
end of that trail of blood leading down into the rift in the cliff. It
seemed probable to me that both Rona and Ranga, after the former had
overtaken him--probably at the foot of the fall--had started down the
flume on foot. Whether there would be any indications of what had
befallen when the water overtook them remained to be seen.

The gate was still wide open when we rode along beside the intake, but
halfway down to the coast we met a man from the mill who said that he
was going up to shut the flow off so that a break near the lower end
could be repaired. The wires were down from the storm, he said, making
it impossible to 'phone directions to the plantation office. The break
was a bit of a mystery, he added. Flume opened right out. There were
indications that some large animal--perhaps a bullock--had been carried
down--probably washed in at the upper end while the stream was at flood.
Funny part of it was, though, that there was no trace to be found of the
bullock below the break. Must have been washed right on into the sea.

Harpool pushed on eagerly after hearing that significant piece of news,
and we reached the head of the first steep pitch at the top of the cliff
some minutes before the water had ceased to flow. As I did not care to
have the Chief discover the trail of blood leading down to the sea for a
while yet, I proposed that we tie our horses here and walk down the top
of the flume on a narrow board that evidently had been placed there for
the use of workmen when repairs were necessary. It proved ticklish
going--both on account of the incline and the elevation,--but nothing to
trouble seriously a man with a sure foot and a steady head. Harpool, who
was up first, led the way, I following closely.

If the power of the flying bolt of water in the bottom of the flume had
been impressive on the occasion of my first visit, it was a vast deal
more so now, both on account of the greatly increased volume of flow and
because of my certain knowledge that a human being--perhaps two of
them--had gone down that chute, where I had been assured that a team of
bullocks could not hold a man--and survived.

The foot-wide board on which we were walking was nailed to the left side
of the flume. The top of the right side was a rough line of unplaned
two-inch pine planks. Harpool had only taken a step or two when he
brought up short with an exclamation of surprise and horror. "Look at
that top board on the other side!" he shouted; "raw, red meat all the
way from here right out of sight round the bend at the bottom!"

I looked, shuddered, shuffled my feet uncertainly, and brought my
staring eyes back to the precarious footing. "Push on!" I implored
quaveringly; "my head's beginning to swim as it is."

The roar of violently falling water came to my ears as we rounded the
bend at the lower end of the steep incline, and just ahead was the
break. The whole right or seaward side of the flume had opened out and
the flood was pouring to the rocks below in a spreading forty-feet-high
cataract. The ghastly smear along the top ran on unbroken, right out to
the end of a loose plank, which was kicking spasmodically under the
impulse of the released stream of water shooting under it. The Chief,
pointing to a ragged fragment of bloody cuticle, wedged in a joint of
the line of boards on which we were standing, delivered himself of what
I believe was his only approximately correct diagnosis of any feature of
the whole affair.

"The fact that piece of skin and toe-nail were torn off on this side of
the flume directly opposite the bulge," he said, "would seem to indicate
that the brake our man made of his right arm flung over the top plank of
the other side must have finally brought him to a stop here. Then he
must have doubled up crosswise of the flume, with his feet against the
place where that skin is torn off and his back against the end of that
plank that is sprung loose. When he straightened out that great rack of
bone and muscle of his something had to give way, and it seems to have
been the flume. Probably the force of the water, where his body
deflected it against the side, was of some help; but it must have come
jolly near to staving in his ribs where it drove into him at right
angles."

"Perhaps it did," I said. "We can't tell till we find him." I was not
anxious to hurry up the search by any means; but I felt that it would be
better to move on to a place where I could grow dizzy without the risk
of plunging forty feet onto a pile of broken rocks. The Chief, with
ready consideration, hastened forward, and my faintness passed quickly
when I felt the solid floor of the crushing level of the mill beneath my
feet.

It appeared that they had knocked off early the previous evening for
want of cane. At the time, the superintendent said, he thought the flume
had been carried away by flood water. He had only evolved the bullock
theory when he went out at daylight and found the blood and meat smeared
along the planks. The bullock must have got wedged in finally, he
thought, and the water had piled up behind it and sprung out the side.
They had not found the carcass yet, but, as there was a very sharp slope
down to an in-reaching neck of the cove, it was not impossible that the
rush of water had rolled it right on into the sea. Neither Harpool nor
myself thought it worth while to ask him if he had found any bullock's
hair among the "meat."

Going down through the silent mill to reach a lower level before
doubling back to the foot of the flume, a weird sort of sputtery peeping
caught my ear while we were traversing the boiling-room. Something
vaguely familiar in the sound caused me to trace it to its source behind
one of the big vats. The _virtuoso_ proved to be a lanky Australian
sugar-boiler, whiling away the idle hour blowing across the holes in a
queer little bamboo flute. One of the blacks had found it in the last
run of the _bagasse_--the crushed cane--a while ago, he explained.
Someone must have dropped it in the flume. Funny thing that it had been
so slightly crushed in coming through the rollers. He gave it to me
readily when I told him that I was a collector of primitive musical
instruments. Said he had a much better one--made in Germany and all
bound with brass--in his home in Maryborough. I took it on the off
chance that I might some day be able to give it back to Ranga. I knew
how greatly he was attached to it, and, since flutes like that were only
made in one little pile-built village on the coast of Ambon, how hard a
time he would have to replace it.

I played up the superintendent's "washed-into-the-sea" theory for the
Chief's benefit as long as I could, but finally he circled round and hit
the double trail of footprints that led down to the end of the old pier.
The idea that Ranga had ridden the flume alone was so firmly rooted in
his mind however, that he agreed at once with my suggestion that the
smaller prints must have been made by an idle boy from the hung-up mill,
who had perhaps trailed the blood on his own account, in the hope of
getting the bullock meat. As I myself had made a point of keeping on the
grass to the side of the path, my trail of the night was not discovered.

"The poor devil must have thrown himself over here and been finished by
the sharks and 'gators," Harpool shouted up to me from where, at the
foot of the steps of the old pier, he stood beside the black-filmed pool
that had drained from Ranga's wounds as he steadied himself for a few
moments before lurching over to the bow of the launch. The Chief also
said something more about coming back with a boat next day and searching
the beach for anything that might remain. I didn't follow him very
closely, for, just at that moment, a trim clipper bow slid out past the
end of the southern point. Knowing a certain old brass-cylindered
spy-glass would be training landward from the bridge that followed, I
opened and closed my arms swiftly in a surreptitious wave of farewell.
Good old "Choppy" must have been standing very close to the
whistle-cord, for his reply came instantly. The wind carried the toots
that must have sprung from the heart of two woolly steam-puffs in the
opposite direction, but I caught the message just the same. "All's
well!" was what old "Choppy" signalled in answer to my wave. His
"puff-puff" talk was a deal easier to understand than his English.

I was no longer in Australia when the _Mambare_ returned from her maiden
voyage to Singapore, so her skipper's report came to me in Paris by
letter. He had put both of my friends ashore in Macassar, he said, safe,
sound and comfortably heeled for "siller." He had become much attached
to both of them in the course of the voyage, and couldn't thank me
enough for putting him in the way of giving them a bit of a lift. He
trusted I wouldn't fail to command him whenever another opportunity of
the kind presented itself.

The night that I sent Rona and Ranga off from the pier of the old sugar
mill in the _Mambare's_ launch marked the beginning of one of the
strangest and most picturesque friendships the Islands ever knew;
picturesque in the striking background the strongest and most
terribly-scarred man in the South Pacific made for the hauntingly
appealing beauty of the most interesting woman, and strange--more than
passing strange--in that there was none who could say that their
relations were ever other than those of mistress and servant.



                             CHAPTER XVIII

                            THE MASTERPIECE


The third day after the _Mambare_ sailed found me southbound for
Sydney, with Paris as my ultimate objective. The thought that a
striking--possibly a great--picture might be painted about the face I
had already done came to me the first time I threw back the veiling rug
and encountered poor Allen's terror-haunted eyes staring back into my
own. In deciding to finish the work in Paris I missed whatever chance I
might have had of doing something really worth while. That I did finally
complete a picture that was striking, arresting--something to set the
tongues of the art world wagging for many a day--was due to the effort I
had already made--The Face.

With small chance of being able to do anything for Hartley Allen--at
that time believed to be permanently insane,--there was no reason for my
remaining longer in Townsville. As nothing that the good Chief of Police
had learned--or ever did learn, so far as I know--was calculated to
connect me with his failure to run Ranga to earth, he, naturally made no
objection to my leaving. The whole affair was a complete mystery to him.
The disappearance of Rona was rated only as a minor mystery. The amusing
part of it was that it never occurred to the dear man to connect the
two. The last thing that I fixed my glass upon as my southbound boat
steamed out of the harbour was a confused mass of wreckage, blurring
darkly against the mangroves a few miles north of the town. It was all
that the late storm had left of the grounded labour schooner, _Cora
Andrews_.

Missing the P. & O. boat by twenty-four hours at Melbourne--too late to
overtake it by train to Adelaide,--I found the next sailing was a
_Messageries Maritime_ steamer. Rather than wait a week for the next
Orient liner, I booked for the French boat. This was all against my
better judgment, especially in the light of the fact that I had work
ahead. The one most effective influence I had known in keeping my use of
absinthe at a point where it was not entirely beyond my control was the
scathing if unspoken contempt of men of my own race for another of that
race addicted to the insidious Latin habit. The nearest thing to a clean
break-away I had ever made up to this time came after a stony-faced
Cockney steward on a transatlantic Cunarder, who had put my
whisky-drunken cabin-mate to bed one night as a matter of course,
slammed the door with a snort when he surprised me pouring absinthe into
cracked ice the following afternoon. In France, in French colonies, on
French steamers--wherever the tri-colour flapped, in short--that
restraining contempt was non-existent. There one found palliation,
indulgence, even encouragement. That was the reason I had always become
so abject a slave of the "Green Lady" during my sojourns in Paris, in
Algiers, in Saigon, in Noumea. With no one to remind me of my shame, I
forgot it, sinking ever lower and lower the while. This time, it had
been my plan so to occupy myself with work on my picture in Paris that I
should be able to keep my absinthe appetite just about where I had
managed to hold it during the last six months in Kai and Australia. It
is quite possible I might have kept to this program had I caught the P.
& O. from Melbourne, or had the sense to wait for another British boat.
As it was, five weeks of _dolce far niente_ were too much for me. By the
time we reached Suez, I was seeing so green that the desert banks of the
Canal looked like verdant lawns to me, and at Marseilles they took me
straight from the ship to the hospital, pretty well all in mentally and
physically. As my case presented some interesting complications of
malaria and tropical anaemia, the doctors took a good deal of interest
in it. Under the circumstances, I was dead lucky to get out of their
hands at the end of a month.

Thoroughly disgusted with the world in general and myself in particular
on the day I was discharged from the hospital, it was a toss-up for a
few hours as to whether I should jump out for the Islands by the first
boat, or push on to Paris. That I finally plumped for the latter was due
more to the fact that there was no east-bound sailing for a couple of
days, than to any faith that remained in my ability to get on with the
picture. Considering all this, it seems to me that the effort I finally
did pull myself together for was fairly creditable in its results.

It was The Face itself--after I had unpacked and set up the canvas in a
studio that a former friend kindly placed at my disposal--that was
responsible for finally jolting me into action. Even at the end of ten
weeks, Hartley Allen's tortured features seemed as real to me as on the
night I had finished transferring them from my burning brain to the
canvas. It struck me then--as it seemed to strike the public later--as
the nearest thing to flesh and blood ever flicked off the tip of an
artist's brush; and I felt that I had only to daub in some kind of an
_ensemble_ around it to have a work that would at least give Parisian
art circles something to talk about for a while.

It seemed to me that the most effective thing to do would be to make
Allen, lashed to the schooner's wheel, the central and dominating figure
on the canvas, and to have the other figures the creatures of his
imagination--the phantoms conjured up by his reeling brain. These would
include Bell, Rona, Ranga and a background of plague-stricken niggers.
It was not to be--as we had planned the "Black-birder"--an attempt to
portray some incident of the voyage. The "phantoms" were to be done in
greys and blues, filmy and indistinct, to differentiate them from the
solider flesh of the maniac tied to the wheel. It was not an uneffective
conception, had I been up to carrying it out--which I wasn't.

By a remarkable coincidence, as I have already mentioned, The Face was
in exactly the right place to fit into the _ensemble_ I had planned.
This was a good omen and I derived no little encouragement from it.
Fearful of the effect that terror-stricken gaze might have upon my
models, I stuck an opaque square of paper over the distorted features,
with the intention of leaving it there until the rest of the picture was
finished. This was a wise precaution, as the sequel proved.

The model whom I chanced to secure to pose for Allen's figure was an
especially fortunate choice. He had recently finished spending six or
eight hours a day lashed to a hollow canvas cross in connection with a
mural decoration at some cathedral--Sacré Coeur, I believe it was,--so
he stood up rather well under the strain being triced to the property
steering-gear I had contrived to borrow from the _Folies-Bergère_, where
the "marine" _revue_ in which it had figured was just over. Considering
the fact that I had never done anything but seascapes and was notably
weak in anatomy, my work on this figure was far from being as bad as
might have been expected. It was not seriously out of drawing, and, even
with The Face covered up, one was conscious of an unmistakable
suggestion of agony in the tensely-strained limbs and back-drawn torso.
From the artistic side, I would undoubtedly have done better to have
trimmed down my canvas and limited the picture to this single figure.
This, however, never occurred to me until a long time afterwards. At the
moment, my mind was quite incapable of running away from the track on
which I had started it.

Although I knew that one of the things that must have been in
Hartley Allen's mind was Bell's face, as he had described it to
me--pain-twisted, with the lower lip bitten clean through, and a bar of
light from the cracked binnacle slashing across it,--I could not bring
myself to attempt to dramatize the sufferings of my friend. (Indeed,
even at that time I had a guilty feeling that I was not doing the decent
thing in using that of Allen in a picture to be exhibited to the
public.) All that I did in Bell's case, therefore, was a back view of a
huddled figure, sitting on the rail of the cockpit, with a half-empty
whisky bottle rolling on the deck behind. It was not destined to draw
much attention or comment one way or the other, for which I was duly
thankful.

Ranga, as a consequence of being unable to find a model that would do
him justice, I finally omitted. Rona came near to elimination for a
similar reason, but in her case fortune, in the end, was more kind. It
may be remembered that there was a so-called Hindu dancer leading the
Oriental ballets at the _Comique_ about this time. She was really an
Eurasian half-caste--the daughter of a British "Tommy" and a Mahratta
girl, born in Poona. With little of Rona's beauty of face and
winsomeness of manner, she was still possessed of the same flaming
temperament and a figure that might have been poured from the same
mould. It was the lithe, sinewy, serpentine shape of her that caught my
eye when I chanced to drop in at the _Comique_ for a matinée of
_Marouf_, and (as she was still a few strokes short of the crest of the
wave of popularity on which she rode for the next season or two), I had
little difficulty in persuading her to give me a few sittings. She
insisted she was doing it for art's sake, but it was really vanity that
brought her into line. Also, as transpired shortly, she had a very sharp
weather eye for the main chance. In any event, the picture proved both
her immediate making and her ultimate undoing. The advertising she got
out of the fact that her living, breathing likeness had been painted
into the most talked-about picture at the spring _Salon_ of the _Société
Nationale des Beaux-Arts_ doubled and trebled her salary several times
in the course of the next year. But it was also a reproduction of that
same picture in a Vienna art journal that was directly responsible for
luring to Paris the young Serbian ex-prince who chopped the girl to
pieces with a curved Arabian scimitar--a part of her dancing toggery--as
she was dressing to go on at a gala night of _Aïda_.

It had been my original intention to paint Rona issuing from the
companionway, just as Allen had seen her rush out on the morning Bell
died. This, however, was far from meeting with the approval of Keeora
(that was what she called herself at the time; it was only in her
hey-day that she was known as Kismeta), who insisted upon breaking in
full length or not at all. I was so sodden with absinthe by this time,
so sick of the whole job, so anxious to get quit of it for good, that I
raised no objections. The flighty thing proposed a sort of near-aerial
posture on the deck-house that was something like a cross between the
wing-footed Mercury and one of Puck's getaways in Midsummer Night's
Dream. Rather than lose the girl outright, I let her have her own way.
Steadied by two or three convenient guy-wires and puffing contentedly at
one of my hemp-doped cigarettes, she held her painful pose with a
fortitude truly Oriental. I can see yet the queer little heart-shaped
pucker that dented the muscle-knotted calf of her leg when she swung up
to the tips of her toes.

I fancy it must have been a certain appeal the audacious minx made to my
physical senses that prodded on my flagging energies. Everything that
was left in me I devoted to making her absurd conception effective on
its own account. To make it so as an integral part of the picture was,
of course, out of the question. It is still a matter of a good deal of
wonder to me that I succeeded as well as I did. The pirouetting figure
on the _Cora's_ deck-house might just as well have symbolized _Peter
Pan_, or _The Spirit of Spring_, as _Rona Rampant_; but the fact
remained that it was exceedingly pleasing to the eye. In this connection
I thought an American tourist--from somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon
Line by his accent--expressed himself rather well. I overheard the
remark on my first and only visit to the _Salon_. "If that little filly
doan leave off kickin' up so neah them buck niggahs," he drawled,
"things ah suah fixin' fo' a lynchin' pa'ty. By cracky, if she doan look
good enuf to eat!"

It was "them big buck niggahs" that were responsible for bringing my
labours to a sudden end. I had managed to round up a half-dozen hulking
Senegambians from the docks at Havre to pose for my plague-stricken
Solomon Islanders, and for the first two or three days things went very
well. I was striving for a sort of Doré-esque effect, by painting a
tangled bunch of blacks writhing in the half-light of the shadowed waist
of the schooner. The lazy brutes found lolling round on the studio floor
a deal more congenial work than humping cotton bales, and I was getting
on very encouragingly considering my wretched condition, when one of the
prying rascals, taking advantage of a moment when my back was turned,
turned down a corner of the patch that hid the face of the man lashed to
the wheel. What damage was wrought was inflicted on such flimsy
furniture as chanced to be in a direct line of flight from the "models'
throne" to the door. Fortunately, the canvas was well to one side. The
Senegalese, it seems, have a raw, red terror of the "Evil Eye."

That little episode brought to an end my work with models. I simply
blocked in my plague-stricken blacks in a rough sort of way and let it
go at that. The effect was hardly as crude as one would think. The
remark of the Southern gentleman I have quoted proved that a man not
unfamiliar with niggers could at least distinguish of what the tangle in
the waist was intended to be made up.

I have definite recollection of only one further occasion on which I
tried to work. The interval in which I had anything approximating
command of my normal faculties had dwindled to a half-hour or so in the
afternoon, and I quickly found that I was utterly unable to concentrate
my mind sufficiently for connected effort even then. On the occasion I
have mentioned, I knocked off dead after discovering that I was trying
to decorate Keeora's brow with the wreath of maiden's hair fern that had
crowned the aviating "Green Lady" in her flight of the night before. I
chucked in my hand complete after that, and had the whole monkey-show
packed off to the Selection Committee. As might have been expected, the
picture nearly caused a riot in that temperamental bunch of "pickers,"
but, in the end, The Face won the day with them, just as it did with the
public.

Of the furore created by "_Hell's Hatches_" in the _Salon_ it will
hardly be necessary for me to write. Most of the excitement it stirred
up was traceable to the haunting horror of the face of the wretch tied
to the wheel; the rest was due to its name, which only suggested itself
to me at the last moment. Perhaps the fact that everyone was baffled
from the outset in trying to discover the _motif_ of the bizarre thing
also contributed to the impulse of the whirlpool of morbid curiosity
with which it was engulfed. And who could blame them for failing to
discover any connection between a tied-up maniac, a hunched-up drunkard,
a kicking-up dancer and a bunch of tangled-up niggers? The avalanche of
surmises would have been highly diverting had not my sense of humour
already fallen a victim to the apathy that was rapidly settling upon my
mind and body.

My outstanding recollection of the whole affair is of a highly effective
by-play staged by that keen little publicist, Keeora, who had become a
bit piqued over the slowness of the Press to broadcast the identity of
the lady dancing on the deck-house. Utterly indifferent, I had avoided
the _Grand Palais_ not only on the opening day of the _Salon_, but also
during the week that followed, when it was reported that the _Avenue
Alexander III_ was at times blocked with the throngs striving to get
within sight of the most intriguing picture shown in years. My telephone
was disconnected; telegrams and letters by the stacks lay unopened; a
pile of newspapers were unread. Growing more sullen and sodden day by
day, I had eyes for nothing but the green bottle at my elbow and the
constantly replenished glass of cracked ice by its side. All the rest of
the world was one soft, verdant tunnel--nothing else. I had been
drinking steadily for days, afraid to face the reaction that must
inevitably follow the first break in the continuity of the flow of the
life-saving trickle of green.

In a way, I suppose, it is Keeora I have to thank for the fact that,
when I finally left my room in the _Continental_, it was to be headed
for the _Grand Palais_ instead of to _La Morgue_. I am quite convinced
that nothing short of the violent eruption of hysteria that soulful lady
brought off outside my door would have induced me to open it, and
probably no one else in Paris could have been equal to just that kind of
an outburst. In passionate French-Cockney, Keeora told how, after
failing for days to reach me by 'phone and telegraph, she had at last
come in person to bear me to the _Salon_ to share with her our common
triumph. That didn't move me greatly, but when she swore that she was
going to stay until she "jolly well croaked, G'bly'me," unless I let her
in, something inside of my head snapped and I gave way. (I always was
like that with hysterical women.) When I opened the door I discovered
that she was dressed in some Mogul princess sort of a rigout, and
accompanied by an Italian _Marchesa_ and two or three lesser satellites.
Between them and my valet they got me dressed and down to a waiting
carriage.

To get away from the mob at the main entrance, they took me around to
the _Avenue d'Antin_ side of the _Grand Palais_, where Keeora pointed
out with glee that the _Salon_ of the _Société des Artistes Français_,
which had opened a week or two previous to that of the _Beaux-Arts_
outfit, was almost deserted. "_Et tout, mon cher Monseer W'itney, por
raison de--de la grand success de 'Aykootillys don fur.'_"

"And what might they be?" I asked dully, rather fancying some new sort
of epidemic had broken out.

"Madame means to say '_Ecoutilles d'Enfer_,'" began the _Marchesa_
politely; "eet--eet ees--"

"Eat your bloomin' 'at!" cut in the lady impatiently, indignant that
anyone could be so stupid as to have her Parisian interpreted to him.
"Don't you twig me, old cock? That's wot them French Jo'nnys calls
'Ell's 'Atches."

The picture was extremely well hung, both for position and light; though
whether this had come about as a consequence of a reshuffle after it had
turned out to be the main drawing card, I did not learn. There was a
roped-off area in front of it, and through this a number of perspiring
attendants were feeding the crowd, working hard with tongue and hand to
keep the chattering line in motion. Keeora called my attention to a
woman who had fainted and was being carried out on a stretcher. "Bowls
'em over just like that right along," she giggled. "Six of 'em squealed
and keeled back just w'ile I was 'angin' on 'ere yustidy. But it ain't
_me_ wot gets 'em," she hastened to explain; "it's that crazy bloke at
the w'eel, wiv 'is bloomin' eyes borin' right through your chest an'
raspin' up an' down your spine. Don't see wot you wanted to put _'im_ in
for any'ow."

At a word from Keeora's sedulous satellites, the attendants opened up a
line through the mob and cleared a space in front of the picture. Then,
assuring herself with a critically comprehensive glance that the setting
was all correct, she rushed in, threw her arms around my neck, kissed me
smackingly on both cheeks, French-fashion, and began declaiming in her
best Parisio-Whitechapel how I had earned her undying gratitude and
affection (_mon amours eternel_) in making her the central figure in the
greatest work of art of modern times. It was all extremely well
done--from Keeora's standpoint, that is. She had a solid phalanx of
reporters massed in the background, as a consequence of which, after the
next morning, there was no chance for anyone to remain longer in
ignorance of the fact that the nymph hot-footing around the coamings of
"Hell's Hatches" was Keeora of the _Comique_. The following Saturday the
management came round voluntarily to her hotel with a new contract worth
several thousand francs a week to their rising _danseuse orientale_.

For myself, groggy in head and knees as I was, the experience was rather
trying. Breaking away from her stranglehold at the first opportunity, I
told Keeora to keep her "eternel amours" for those who wanted them, and
bolted. There was some pretence at pursuit, but, with the real magnet
drawing in the other direction, I finally managed to elbow clear.
Hailing a cab in the _Champs-Elysées_, I returned to my hotel.

But the interruption, as I have said, was a fortunate one. It checked my
downward slide dangerously near the point where a crash was due. I was
far from being out of the woods yet, but the interval of comparative
lucidity had given me enough courage to try to pull up. Unloading all
the firearms I had about my suite and giving them to my man, I told him
to go away for the night and not to return until noon of the following
day. Then, as restrainedly as I could, I drank during the first three or
four hours of the evening, before allowing myself to go to sleep. The
crisis--the dread reaction I had feared to face--I knew would come on
awakening in the morning. It arrived on schedule--two hours of teetering
on the edge of hell and cursing myself for putting the guns beyond my
reach. Even with the _absintheteur's notorious_ dread of cold steel, I
fingered Hartley Allen's Portuguese throwing-knife a long time before
mustering up the courage to drop it out of the street window. That gave
me a new idea, and I held lengthy debate with myself about following the
knife to the pavement. If I had been on the fourth floor instead of the
second, I might have tried it. As it was, fifteen feet to a glass
marquee didn't look good enough. But at last I won through--just. It was
a sorry looking figure that shivered back at me from the mirror after I
had got up my nerve to ring for a pot of black coffee at seven; but I
was off the toboggan, at any rate, with my face set unflinchingly toward
the one place in the world where I felt there was at least a fighting
chance for me to pull up again. I had arrived at the end of the day of
which I had dreamed so long--"My Day," I had called it. Paris had come
fawning to my feet--and brought me Dead Sea Fruit. I was going back to
work out my own salvation in the Islands.

I had a rather trying time of it, getting packed up and away on such
short notice; but I simply did what I could and let the rest go. Putting
Paris behind me was the thing. It took all that was in me to do it, but
I caught the Brindisi Express from the P.L.M. station that night.

My last act before leaving the hotel was to sign a paper brought there
by a well-known art dealer, with whom I had talked by 'phone earlier in
the day. It authorized him to sell to the highest bidder a painting in
oil known by the name of "Hell's Hatches," delivery to be made
immediately after the closing of the spring _Salon_ of the _Société
Nationale des Beaux-Arts_. It also provided that he should receive a
liberal commission for his services. It must have been something like a
month later that he collected ten per cent. on three hundred thousand
_francs_ less about five hundred paid some second-rate artist for
executing a slight alteration in one of the figures. It was a petty
Sultan from Morocco (high card with Keeora at the moment) to whom the
picture was knocked down after a spirited run of bidding with an Irish
distiller and a Chicago soap-maker. The buyer's only condition was that
the man lashed to the wheel should be changed to a _burnoused_ Arab.
That would tend to give the picture an atmosphere more in keeping with
his desert palace, he said; also, he wanted the _efrangi's_ face covered
up. The eyes made him jumpy.



                              CHAPTER XIX

                               AFTER ALL


I had not planned by what route I should go to the South Seas, and it
was only because an Orient-Pacific liner chanced to be the most
convenient connection at Brindisi that I went by Australia instead of by
India and Singapore. I was rather glad, on the whole, that I was going
to have an opportunity to learn something at first-hand of Hartley
Allen--or, Sir Hartley, as he had become since I left Australia. That
much I had been able to gather from an item I had read in _The Times_
shortly after my arrival in Paris. This stated that Sir James Allen,
Bart., Agent in London for New South Wales, had just died of pneumonia.
Being without male issue, it was understood that the title would pass to
his younger brother, formerly a well-known racing man, and more recently
in the public eye through his heroic action in navigating a labour
schooner full of plague-stricken blacks through the Great Barrier Reef
to Queensland.

Nothing was said in the local item of the outrage aboard the _Cora
Andrews_, but the day following a dispatch from Sydney stated that Sir
Hartley Allen was recovering his health and strength at a sanitarium in
the interior, from which, however, it was not expected that he would be
in a condition to be discharged for several months. The shock to his
nervous system from the mysterious attack upon him in Townsville three
months previously had been so great that only time could obliterate the
traces of it. He had not yet been allowed to see any of his old friends,
but the correspondent affirmed on good authority that Sir Hartley's
reason, so long despaired of, had been fully regained.

From the fact that the attack was still spoken of as "mysterious," I
took it that Allen, for some reason of his own, had refrained from
revealing the identity of the person who had left him to die lashed to
the wheel of the _Cora_. What that reason might be, was one of the
things I hoped to learn when I should see him in Australia.

Hartley Allen was still in a sanitarium in the Blue Mountains, I learned
on my arrival in Sydney, but of late there had been little news of him.
He was believed to be getting stronger, slowly but surely, though no
hope was held out that he would appear in the saddle again for at least
another season. It was unlikely that I would be permitted to see him,
but there would be no harm in trying. I should, of course, communicate
with his physicians, not with Allen himself.

By a lucky chance, in wiring the head of the institution where Allen was
under treatment, I stated that I was a former friend of his from the
Islands. A reply arrived the same day, telling me to come on at my
earliest convenience. The eminent nerve specialist in charge of the case
drove down to meet me at the train. It was very fortunate indeed, he
said, that I had mentioned in my telegram that I had known Sir Hartley
during his residence in Melanesia. He had failed, very stupidly, to
recognize my name as that of the famous artist who was about to paint
Sir Hartley's picture when the attack upon him occurred. As a
consequence, he was about to wire a refusal to my application, when he
recalled that news from the Islands was the one thing in which his
patient had shown any great interest. Accordingly, he had asked Sir
Hartley himself if he cared to see a certain Roger Whitney, lately
arrived in Sydney. The eager interest manifested by his patient was the
most encouraging symptom the latter had shown since his mind had
cleared. If I would carefully refrain from introducing any subject
calculated to excite Sir Hartley nervously, he was confident that my
visit would be productive of nothing but good. It was even possible,
should it prove convenient to me, that he would want me to remain for
several days. Sir Hartley was quite sound in brain and body. What he
needed was increased vigour of both, and to this end he would have to
develop a greater interest in living than he had yet shown. It was just
possible there was something on his mind....

After leaving my coat and bag in the reception-room, the doctor led me
out across a bright solarium. We would find Sir Hartley out of doors, he
said, probably playing polo. He seemed to hate the very thought of
having a roof over him, even to sleep under. It was a strange sight that
met my eyes as we came round the corner of the veranda. In the shade of
a grove of blue-gums and stringy-barks a wooden horse had been erected,
saddled with a light pigskin, and provided with snaffle and curb reins
running back from the angling bit of board that served as "head."
Astride the saddle, in the famous short-stirruped "Slant" Allen seat,
booted, spurred, and in immaculate whites, slashing smartly at
grass-stained and dented bamboo-root balls that were alternately tossed
in and chivied by a pair of bare-footed youngsters, was a familiar
figure. Save for the white hair (which I had already seen) and the
absence of the former coat of tan, he did not, from a distance, appear
greatly changed. It was not until his eyes met mine at close range that
I was conscious of the weary listlessness which, like a bed of ashes,
smothered the coals of his old fire.

Allen had just poked away the first of two successively thrown balls in
a sweet-running dribble, and sliced off the other in a sharp-angling
"belly cross," when he raised his eyes and caught sight of the doctor
and me coming down the steps. Swinging a bit uncertainly out of the
saddle, he came toddling in a swaying childlike trot across the grass.
His grip was firmer than I had expected, and the thought flashed through
my mind that this was the very first time I had ever shaken hands with
him.

"I've been wondering when you were going to turn up, Whitney," he
exclaimed eagerly. "There's something I've been waiting to talk to you
about." He spoke in generalities while the doctor lingered, saying that
he had given up his old idea of returning to the Islands, and that,
instead, he was hoping to get away before long to a back-blocks station
he owned and ride the boundaries for a year or two. But when the
specialist, evidently assured that his experiment was getting under way
properly, quietly excused himself, Allen led me over to the wooden horse
and launched at once into a subject which had doubtless occupied his
mind for many days. From ancient habit he leaned, as he spoke, now on
the hollow pigskin of his "pony," now on the flexible Malacca handle of
his polo mallet.

"You're the only man in the world I can talk to about this now,
Whitney," he said with a queer new quaver of weakness in his voice. "I
suppose that's because you're the only person I ever talked to about
it--before. I take it, Whitney, that you had no great difficulty in
making up your mind as to who was responsible for--for my night of
contemplation on the _Cora_?"

"Well," I began evasively, "I had such grave doubts about Ranga's guilt
that I went to some little trouble to get him away. Mostly old 'Choppy'
Tancred's work, though."

"Good old 'Choppy'!" said Allen with an appreciative grin; "on hand at
the right time as usual." Then, with serious interest: "But the
girl--how did she manage to get clear?"

"Just turned up and helped herself to a place in the launch I was
sending Ranga off in," I replied, a bit worried at my failure to lead
the conversation away from subjects "calculated to excite Sir Hartley
nervously."

"And you were also convinced of _her_ innocence, I suppose," he said,
eyeing me with a strange smile across the leather-bound handle of his
mallet.

"On the contrary," I answered; "I knew that she was guilty. I had taken
your throwing-knife away from her the same night. I knew that Ranga was
quite innocent, even though the police, through a silly ball-up, tracked
him down with their dogs."

"Then why did you let the girl go?" he pressed.

"Because I thought I knew Rona well enough," I replied evenly, "to feel
sure that she wouldn't have done--what she did, unless she was convinced
in her own mind that she had a good reason for it." It was a stiff jolt
for a sick man, that; yet, for the life of me, I couldn't have made an
evasive answer.

But there was a smile of untold relief on Allen's face as he leaned over
and laid his hand on my arm. "You were right, Whitney," he said in a
voice that trembled with the depth of its fervour. "You were right. She
_did_ have good reason. I ought to have seen it all along."

"I don't quite understand," I said, greatly puzzled. "Do you mean that
all you told me about your--your having nothing to do with Bell's death
was not true?"

"Not at all," he replied, with unexpected vigour. "Everything that I
told you that afternoon at the _Australia_ was true--according to my
understanding of the moment, I mean. But later my understanding
broadened a bit, you must know. A chap doesn't spend a night tied up
alone with the spirits of three or four white men, and Gawd knows how
many blacks, without coming to comprehend some things that have eluded
him before. I didn't go all the way off my chump till well along toward
morning, you see; and I was broadening my understanding all the time."

"I was never able to make out," I remarked somewhat irrelevantly, "how
the girl managed to get the best of you the way she did."

"Oh, that," he said lightly, in a voice that indicated he rated it as a
negligible incidental to the "broader understanding" that had come to
him as a consequence. "Well, I suppose you have a right to know if you
are interested in that phase of the affair. I simply got tired of
holding out against the girl, that was all. Her relentlessness wore me
down. It was not long after our return to Townsville that I realized
that her picture stunt was only a blind. She counted on it to get me
away to the schooner, where she could finish me off on the scene of--of
my offence. I won't need to tell you that hit me jolly hard. Training
out Yusuf and making a clean-up for Doc Oakes' mission with him helped
while it lasted; but I gave up as soon as that was over and there was
nothing to do but wait and brood. Since I knew she'd have her way in the
end, I told myself that the sooner it was over the better. That was the
reason I finally consented to go off to the schooner with her when she
waylaid me on the north road, the day after I paid you my last visit.

"She must have planned the whole thing in advance for the place at which
she intercepted me was at the point where the road ran nearest to the
wreck of the _Cora_. As it was low tide, we were able to walk on the
sand to within fifty yards of the heeling hulk. Careless of consequences
as I was, I readily enough consented to her suggestion that I wade the
remainder of the way, carrying her in my arms. For the rest, it was more
or less of repetition of her little coup at Kai. She pinched the knife
from my belt while I was wading out with her, keeping it carefully out
of sight while we were walking round the deck of the schooner. I missed
it presently, but thought it had fallen from its sheath while I was
clambering over the side. Leaning over to look for the knife in the
water, I felt the point of it on my neck. Same old place--just over the
jugular. Trick she learned from the Malays.

"I told her to hurry up and get the job over. She coolly replied that
this wasn't the place she had had in mind for it, and would I mind
coming aft to the cockpit? Confident that she knew how to do the thing
with decency and dispatch, and heartily glad to get life's fitful dream
over anyhow, I went. Just like a lamb to the slaughter, Whitney. It
sounds foolish, but I assure you that's just the way it happened. The
idea was so fixed in my mind that a plain every-day throat-cutting was
all she was figuring on, that I let her get three or four hitches of the
log-line around my shoulders before it occurred to me that she might
have a few refinements in pickle. I started to put up a fight at that,
trying to force her to use the knife straightaway. Do you think she
would do it? No fear. She wouldn't deviate from her set program by a
hair. Rather than risk having the joint jolted into my jugular so that I
would bleed to death quickly and painlessly, she dropped the knife and
used both hands on the log-line. We had a hell of a tussle, Whitney, but
she wore me down. Those three or four well-thrown hitches she had to
start with were too much of a handicap.

"When she finally had me bound fast, she sat down on the rail of the
cockpit to recover her breath. I tried to argue with her, pointing out
the certainty that I would be seen and rescued in the morning if she
left me as I was; whereas, if she would cut my throat then and there, it
would finish things for good and all. I also reminded her that dead men
tell no tales; that she would be much less likely to get into trouble
herself if there was no one to bear witness against her. (Fancy a man
having to rack his brain for arguments like that, just to get his throat
cut, Whitney.) The girl admitted the soundness of my contentions, but
declared she was willing to run all the extra risk for the sake of
cleaning up the job 'good an' propa.' (One of Bell's expressions, that,
wasn't it?)

"Then--I must have begun losing my nerve a bit, I think--I told her I
had never yet been able to twig why she had a grudge against me at all;
said I'd only done for Bell what I'd be jolly glad to have another man
do for me under similar circumstances, and probably a lot more twaddle
along the same line. She listened for a while, as though she rather
enjoyed hearing me rattle on in that vein. Then she got up and
disappeared down the half-open companionway. When she came back on deck
she had an empty whisky bottle in her hand, probably one of a stack left
in my cabin. This, with some effort on her part and much to my further
discomfort, she wriggled under the lashings about my chest until she
seemed satisfied it was held securely. Then, binding a filthy gag of
oakum in my mouth, she stood off and looked me over critically. 'I
the-enk you will twe-ig ver-ee much pu-retty soon, Mista "Slan',"' she
finally chirruped with a knowing nod of her head. Without once looking
back, she stepped to the side, jumped over, and waded ashore. I never
saw her again--in the flesh, I mean. It took a deal of squirming to
shake that bottle out. The satisfaction of hearing it break when it hit
the deck was the only comforting thing that happened in the whole
night."

"And you say that you understand why she did it?--that you believe she
was justified?" I exclaimed incredulously, shuddering at the horror of a
cold-blooded cruelty that even Allen's deliberately matter-of-fact
recital could not obscure.

"Most assuredly," he replied with an enigmatic smile. "I'm just a bit
surprised that you don't see it yourself, Whitney. It seems to me that a
chap like you ought not to miss a point like that. But then, you haven't
had a night alone on the _Cora Andrews_ to broaden your understanding
like I have."

"What was it?" I asked bluntly, completely mystified and not a little
awed.

"Just this," he answered, growing suddenly serious. "That bottle I
shoved along to Bell the night he died had been partly emptied--by me,
of course. Well, the first thought that entered the girl's head, when
she came across it on the deck near his body, was that he had been
drinking from it. In spite of all my assurances to the contrary, it
seems that she was never able to rid her mind of that idea. That was--"

"But couldn't she see _why_ you offered him the whisky?" I interrupted.
"What if he did drink some of it? She must have known it was the one
thing that would have saved his life."

"Ah, that is just where you miss the point, Whitney," he cried. "And
that was just where I always missed it until--she showed me the way to a
broader understanding. Don't you see that Rona realized that keeping
away from whisky, as he had sworn he would, had come to mean more to
Bell than even a new lease on life? Well, she did. But, even so, one
would hardly have expected her to fall in with the idea. And yet, don't
her actions prove that she even did that? Whitney, I've never come
across anything comparable to the straight physical passion of those two
for each other. And, if anything, hers was the hotter flame of the two.
There must have been something of the impetuousness of her rages in her
loving,--for.... Well, the most maddening of all the thoughts I tried so
long to stifle in Kai was the one that those frequent welts and
abrasions appearing on Bell's neck and cheeks and arms were not from the
bites of no-nos or mosquitoes. And yet, loving his body like that, she
loved his soul enough more to be willing to give up the body that the
soul might pass in peace. It was because she thought I had intervened to
destroy that peace of soul, Whitney, that she--well, the effect of it
was to pave the way to my broader understanding."


                                THE END


              WOODS & SONS, LTD., PRINTERS, LONDON, N. 1.



                           Transcriber Notes:

Passages in italics were indicated by _underscores_.

Small caps were replaced with ALL CAPS.

Throughout the document, the [oe] ligature was replaced with "oe".

Throughout the dialogues, there were words used to mimic accents of
the speakers. Those words were retained as-is.

Errors in punctuation and inconsistent hyphenation were not corrected
unless otherwise noted.

On page 34, "dispayed" was replaced with "displayed".

On page 67, "skin-kicking" was replaced with "shin-kicking".

On page 74, an apostrophe was added in 'Slan'.

On page 102, "Ulupua" was replaced with "Utupua".

On page 159, a period was added after "he was going through".

On page 176, "its" was replaced with "it's".

On page 188, a quotation mark was added before "On the off chance".

On page 203, "at the botton" was replaced with "at the bottom".

On page 205, "twentyfive" was replaced with "twenty-five".

On page 233, "back of the easel" was replaced with "back off the easel".

On page 238, "in no may" was replaced with "in no way".

On page 241, "ejaculted" was replaced with "ejaculated".

On page 246, "Marbare" was replaced with "Mambare".

On page 282, "firsthand" was replaced with "first-hand".

On page 285, "listnessness" was replaced with "listlessness".





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