Joan of the Island/Chapter 10

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CHAPTER X
THE SHELL BANK

SPIRITS were high as preparations were made for the day's work, for apart from the fact that they were at least temporarily rid of Moniz, there was the glamour of the thing to attract them. There is a romance attached to pearling that never dies, and the gambling element of it has a subtle fascination. It is always the unknown, the uncertain in life that attracts the adventurous spirit; and the adventurous spirit was strong in all three members of the expedition.

The men were careful to see that they were well provided with arms and ammunition, in case of a sudden return by the trader, and it was still early in the forenoon when the Kestrel spread her sails to the breeze and glided across the limpid water toward the reef, with the whale-boat in tow.

"Going to try the same place?" Keith asked when they were approaching the spot.

"I think so," Chester replied. "For the present, at any rate. It was off the southern end of the reef that I found pearls the first time, and though I've been there since without success, that still seems to me the most likely place."

Soon the ketch was swinging to her anchor a couple of hundred feet off the coral, and Chester Trent's four divers were in the whale-boat, ready for business. A rough ladder had been swung at each side of the smaller craft, to facilitate climbing aboard from the sea. Even the divers seemed to be imbued with enthusiasm, which, however, may have been inspired partly by the promise of a bonus, which their employer had made. For each large pearl found, a reward of one plug of tobacco was to be paid. Exactly what was to constitute a "large" pearl was not determined, but Trent felt he could be magnanimously generous with plugs of tobacco if pearls worth a hundred dollars a-piece or more came rolling in. The divers, like savages the world over, were boisterously playful now that they were in a happy frame of mind. They laughed and indulged in horse-play, blissfully unconscious of the fact that a single pearl which they might fetch to the surface could be worth enough sheath-knives to sink the whale-boat, or indeed the whale-boat and the ketch together. As they tumbled over the side into the smaller craft one of them tripped a companion and, with the assistance of a brown hand placed in the small of the victim's back, sent him splashing into the green sea. But the men were nearly as much at home in the water as they were ashore. They swam like otters, dived as only a South Sea islander can dive, and but for the fact that they had to come to the surface frequently to breathe, they were almost amphibious.

The water was about ten feet deep at the place where the boats lay, and so clear that every small object on the powdered coral and sand beneath was clearly visible from the surface. This, moreover, gave the water the appearance of being only about three feet deep, and those above were able to watch every movement of the divers at the bottom.

The shells did not lie in thick clusters, but were spread unevenly. For the most part they were large, many of them running to six and seven inches in length. The blacks remained below between thirty and sixty seconds at a stretch, according to their haul, and then came puffing and blowing to the surface with three or four shells which they dropped over the side of the whale-boat. Then, after recovering their breath and resting for a few minutes, they slid to the bottom again.

Work of this nature, by a white man untrained to the trick of holding his breath so long, would soon utterly exhaust him, but for the natives it was not work, as the white man understands the word. They went about their task with that air of indifference to time peculiar to tropical dwellers. They knew well enough that their employer placed some great value on the pearls, also he would not come from a great distance and pay them twelve English shillings a month to grub along the bottom of the ocean for oysters; but their sense of values was hazy, and they did not bother their heads much about white men's motives. This, however, applied particularly to the three men Chester Trent had lately recruited; Isa, alone, was less simple in that respect, for he had intelligence, of a low order, and much cunning.

Little more than a raw cannibal though he was at heart, Isa had learnt much by the simple process of watching during the many years he had been a pearl diver. It was always the white man, never the black, who went to so much trouble, risked everything, aye and even fought, for these small round objects that were found in the oyster.

Twice in his life he had seen divers killed for disobeying the white man's rules about pearls. Once it was when a New Guinea native held up a pearl a little larger than usual in his wet fingers to examine it. It had a curious, pinkish hue. Isa had never seen one quite like it before nor since. The white man who was employing them shouted something, and the diver let the pearl slip out of his wet fingers. It fell over the side in rather deep water, and the white man crushed the diver's skull in with a crow-bar.

On the other occasion a black tried to steal one of the pearls, and he was shot dead on the spot. Isa knew, therefore, that these pearls had a value to white men which was beyond the ordinary diver's comprehension.

If one is prospecting in fresh pearling grounds, and impatient, the oysters may be opened immediately they are brought to the surface and the contents examined. That is a slow, laborious operation, however, and once the pearlers have settled down to work they leave the shells to rot in the sun for a day or two before attempting to reap the harvest, for the valuable little objects are much more easily discovered then. Chester Trent had got over the feverish stage weeks before. So long as plenty of shell was raised he was well content to wait. Nor did Joan display any particular keenness. More than once she had been out with her brother while fishing was in progress, and moreover, her faith in pearling was but slight. It was different, however, with the man from the Four Winds. "Once a pearler always a pearler" is a saying one hears in the Pacific. It was long since Keith had leaned over the side of a boat watching the gliding forms of black men hunting for shell in which he was interested. The sight of it brought back something of his old ardour, and he pried open the shells one after another as they were flung into the whale boat, though his search was entirely without success. He laboured in this way for more than a couple of hours before his first enthusiasm wore off, and then, catching sight of Joan, watching from the deck of the Kestrel, he joined her on the ketch.

"I fancy, as you have been as quiet as the grave all this time, you've not found your fortune yet," she said quizzically.

"Not yet," he replied. "You know, Miss Trent, one good pearl a day would amount to a fortune if we could keep it up for a while." There was the faintest trace of resentment in the way he spoke, and the girl was quick to notice it.

"I know how true that is, Mr. Keith," she said more seriously. "Please don't think of me as a wet blanket in this. You must remember that I have been all through it so often, and that nobody knows better than I how difficult it will be to regain lost ground once the plantation really begins to slide back. It is sliding now—it has been doing so far too long. Ever since I first came to the South Seas I have tried to regard myself as a sort of supernumerary, helping Chester in every way that lay in my power and checking him only when I really felt it necessary. Even now, though I strongly suspect this is all time and money wasted, I am not standing in Chester's way. His welfare is all that I—all that I think about."

Keith was watching a gull sailing in stately grace overhead, but though his eyes took in the creature's movements his mind was concerned with other things. He had been listening to the girl intently, and his eyes dropped to hers when he noticed her slight hesitation in saying that Chester was all she thought about. Doubtless that was true—in a general way. Certainly she spared herself in no effort to help her brother.

But there were three of them on the island now. Keith felt sure his coming had made some difference. He knew that her thoughts were at least less concentrated on her brother now. That was only natural. Instinct, however, told him there was something more. Exactly how much more he did not even attempt to guess. Just as surely as he knew that was an oyster a diver was dropping into the whale-boat, did he know this girl and he had an attraction for one another. How much or how little she felt it he could not tell. He told himself that for her sake he hoped it was very little, for the memory of the Four Winds hung like a dark cloud about him. Of his own feelings, however, there was not the shadow of a doubt. She was—or could have been—the one woman in the world for him. Her voice, her smile, the scent of her hair, her eyes, all drew him with an intensity he had never known. As she stood there, with her head a trifle to one side—a little mannerism into which she fell when in particular earnest—he longed to gather her up in his arms and crush her to him, telling her that he loved her more than anything on earth, and always would love her.

"All—all that you think about!" he found himself saying aloud mechanically. The words came of their own accord. He could not have suppressed them had his life depended on it, though he condemned himself for his folly as soon as they were uttered.

Their eyes met for a moment questioningly and a faint tinge of colour dyed the girl's cheeks. But she answered unfalteringly, while Keith, his heart beating faster than usual, turned his gaze.

"Yes," said Joan, resting her elbows on the ship's rail, and looking down into the shimmering water. "You see, we grew up together, and I think there must be a closer bond existing between us than is usually the case with brother and sister. Perhaps if we had not come out here he might have married, and someone else would have looked after him, but as it is we are very dependent on one another."

Keith nodded. "Your brother seems to be regaining his grip on things," he said. "I mean, to put it frankly, he isn't drinking at all now."

"I believe that is largely due to your influence, Mr. Keith. You came when he was badly in need of a man friend. I don't know quite what might have happened but for your misfortune."

"Misfortune!"

"I mean in falling overboard."

For the space of twenty seconds Keith remained silent.

"My leaving the Four Winds in these waters was the best thing that could have happened, in more ways than one," he said slowly. "It—it wasn't very pleasant on that ship, especially toward the finish. But my greatest good fortune was drifting on to Tao Tao. If anyone has cause to be thankful, Miss Trent, it is I. You have been very good to me, you know. I appreciate it all more than I can say. It is—it is rather a rough life at sea, and one is inclined to become brutish after a long spell of it. If I have the good fortune to remain here many more weeks I may become almost civilized again!"

"You are not thinking of leaving the island just yet, I trust," Joan said with a little laugh.

"So far as I am concerned," he answered boldly, "the longer passenger traffic from this island is held up the better. Tao Tao comes nearer to my conception of an earthly paradise than anything I ever struck."

He broke off abruptly. This seemed the psychological moment for telling her that when he did go he might have to do so hurriedly. And yet it was not easy. All his life he had acted quickly, determinedly, grasping the nettle firmly when necessary. But now he hesitated. It was so easy to slide, and if he spoke of what was in his mind it might mean the end of this something more than friendship which to Keith at least had become very dear.

"Miss Trent," he began, irresolutely, "if ever—"

A triangular fin shot along the surface of the water by the side of the whale-boat, just as one of the divers scrambled over the side. A huge shark snapped at his leg as it disappeared, and then, with a vicious whisk of its powerful tail, swung off.

Isa, at that moment, came to the top, a dozen feet from the boat.

Two other dorsal fins appeared from nowhere, and the black diver, with a quick glance over his shoulder, saw death in a terrible form rushing toward him.