Joan of the Island/Chapter 11

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
 

CHAPTER XI
DRAWN BLANK

A LOADED rifle lay on one of the hatches, near where Keith stood, and he reached for it quickly. In that moment, however, Isa had turned on his back and was splashing furiously with his legs, at the same time propelling his body toward the boat. The three other divers each took an oar and began to beat the surface. As suddenly as they appeared, the fins vanished below the surface, and a minute later Isa was nonchalantly getting into the whale-boat, uninjured. To him sharks were dangerous only if they were ignored. If he did not see one in time he would probably have a leg or an arm nipped off, but so far he had never been too late, and he had been swimming in shark infested waters for the greater part of his life.

With a horrified expression Joan had watched it all, every trace of colour gone from her face.

"If you two men insist on pearling," she said quietly as the black reached safety, "and if this sort of thing is likely to happen frequently, I shall stay ashore and attend to the more humble if less exciting duties of home. Sharks are my bete noir." The girl shuddered.

"They're nasty brutes," Keith agreed, "but they're cowards, fortunately. Besides, these niggers don't look on them in the same light that we do. Dozens of times I've seen blacks jump in and attack a shark with a knife for the fun of the thing. Sometimes they use a short stick, sharpened at both ends, and wait for the shark to turn over and open its mouth to make a grab. Then the nigger pushes the stick into its mouth and props the thing's jaws open with it. They have to be as quick as lightning, because Mr. Shark is moving just then about as fast as an express train and, being hungry, is in no mood to be fooled with. I must confess, though, it even gives me the creeps to watch that performance. You know it will be all right—that is to say, you expect it will; but if anything were to go wrong in the programme there'd be a nasty mess."

"I am quite sure I shouldn't like to watch such a thing at all," the girl replied. "It is risking life stupidly and unnecessarily."

"A good deal depends on one's point of view," Keith said. "After all, life itself is just as precious to a nigger in the most uncivilized corner of the earth as it is to an over-fed millionaire living in ease and luxury on Fifth Avenue. But the two of 'em look at things differently. The millionaire is a specialized sort of creature who has got to the point where making another million or so is the only thing that gives him any real pleasure. It's a joy, of a kind, to him to do so, but he doesn't get as much real happiness out of it as the nigger does in gagging a shark with a stick. The trouble with people like the millionaire is that they have learnt to think too much about the safety of their own skins. They ought to go about under a glass case."

"I think I know what you mean," Joan said, "but it is entirely a man's viewpoint. I don't regard myself as especially mercenary, but if I were faced with the alternative of attacking a live shark in the water or doing something which would net a million dollars I should be inclined to go after the million!"

"Never having tried either, I can't say from experience," Keith laughed. "But it looks as though we were going to arrive no nearer being millionaires to-day. The sharks are thick now."

So far the divers had been unable to enter the water again, for within a hundred yards of the whale-boat a dozen or more triangular fins were visible. A regular school of sharks, attracted either by the men or arriving on the scene by chance, were darting about. For nearly half an hour the divers watched them unemotionally, as one would wait for a steam roller to get out of one's way in a city thoroughfare. The day was now well advanced.

"He no good dive again," Isa declared at last. "Him shark plenty hungry and no go."

The whale-boat was hauled alongside, and the ketch was soon beating her way back to the island.

"Never mind, we didn't do so badly," said Chester. "There must be pretty nearly half a ton of shell there, and if we get that amount up every day for a couple of weeks without coming across any more pearls it will be enough to convince me the game isn't worth the candle."

"That would be seven tons of shell without a pearl among 'em," commented Keith, shaking his head. "No, somehow I can't see that happening. We mayn't get enough to make it pay, but we are bound to find something."

"You are a couple of optimists," Joan declared, "and I only hope you are right. Meanwhile, Chester, suppose we plan things a little systematically."

"Go ahead, sis. What d'you suggest?"

"Well, to begin with, need the whole family go out there to the reef every day?"

"Certainly not," her brother replied. "His nibs here can boss up the niggers and keep you company while I attend to the fishing for a while."

"While you and Moniz start trying to murder each other on the reef?" said the girl, with her eyebrows raised.

"I don't think you need bother your head too much about Moniz," Chester said. "To begin with, he's a longish way off, and if he came buzzing round I should see him in plenty of time. But somehow I don't think he will return at present. He hasn't had it all his own way, you know."

"And maybe he thinks we're on a fool's errand anyhow," Keith put in. "If he should want to put up another fight, though, you've got your Kanakas armed."

"Promise me you won't get yourself killed," the girl said to Chester.

"I hereby solemnly promise," the planter declared, patting her shoulder affectionately. "Now are you all ready to go ashore? This is where we drop the hook."

The shell was spread on a sunny ledge, and, at Joan's request, not too near the house, for oysters in a state of decay make singularly unpleasant neighbors. It takes two or three days for them to "ripen" satisfactorily, and by that time one is well advised to keep to windward, for this is the unpoetic part of pearling.

After breakfast the following day Chester again put off to the reef, and a regular routine was established. Keith, with years of experience at sea, had learnt the way of handling men of nearly every shade and disposition, and with the assistance of Taleile, the "boss boy," he soon had his crew of blacks settled down to hard work, or rather work which they considered hard. Excepting during the mid-day spell of rest, they were kept steadily at it from the moment when the bell on the veranda fetched them from their quarters, to the time when it sounded again at nightfall. Keith and the planter had put their heads together and decided exactly what labor had better be tackled first. The prospect was not an encouraging one, and Keith had grave doubts whether such chaos could be reduced to order and financial success, but he was determined not to allow the difficulties to dishearten him. He soon found that the first important step was to imbue Taleile with a little more enthusiasm, and the simplest way of doing this was by bribing that kinky-haired individual with tobacco. When the "boss boy" realized that he could smoke to his heart's content from dawn till night providing he made his crew hustle, he fell in with the arrangement joyously, though the crew did not appreciate it.

Keith did not find it necessary to spend the whole of his time actively supervising the work. Half a dozen times a day he made his rounds, cast his eyes over what was being done, and made a few suggestions to Taleile. The rest of the time he put in doing odd jobs about the place, such as repairing the copra sheds, some of which badly needed it; and incidentally he spent a good many hours with Joan.

Chester's second day at the reef was uneventful. The weather held good, and well over half a ton of shell was added to the decaying mass on the ledge. At length, when the first haul was "ripe," Chester and Keith began the task of sifting the contents of the shell for pearls. A cloth was stretched across the top of a bucket, and on it each gaping oyster was placed separately, water being allowed to trickle over it. Trying though the task was to their olfactory nerves, it had its exciting side, for there was always the possibility that any shell might give up a pearl worth a considerable sum. The two men worked steadily, almost in silence, for hours. Not even a "seed" rewarded their efforts.

"Never mind—better luck to-morrow," said Chester at last. He had scarcely expected to come across a rich find, but, like the gold prospector who goes on doggedly in the wilds panning mother earth for months and never finding what he seeks, he was spurred on by the unquenchable hope which alone keeps men striving to wrest from nature such elusive substances as gold, diamonds and pearls that, when found, unlock the gates of civilization, comfort and pleasure.

For some obscure reason Moniz caused no further trouble at that time. Keith and the planter often speculated as to the cause, but they were unable to come to any conclusion. Either the Portuguese had learnt his lesson, and was leaving them severely alone because he was afraid, or he was biding his time and getting ready for some sudden coup. In the former alternative Chester and Keith had little faith. Moniz was a thoroughly unprincipled blackguard, as devoid of scruples as he was soft-tongued when it suited his purpose to be so, but he was not of the kind who allow physical fear to stand in the way of their desires. His very mode of life proclaimed the fact that he was no coward. But he was too clever to run risks unnecessarily when he might achieve the same object by subtle means. The white inhabitants of Tao Tao were relieved at finding he paid them so little attention, but they never lost sight of the fact that he was a brooding menace. The only consolation they had—if consolation it could be called—was that if Moniz was by some means receiving reports concerning the doings on Tao Tao, there had been no rush of good fortune there to tempt him to adopt desperate measures.

The weeks glided by, and Keith settled down to the dolce far niente of island life in the South Seas. The work on the plantation proceeded apace. The man from the Four Winds calculated that if they kept at it in the same manner for another twelve months, and the fruits of their labour were not destroyed by the devastating hurricanes which sweep across those waters periodically, Tao Tao might begin to give promise as a plantation. It would never be a first-rate paying concern, however, because the soil was not only of an inferior quality, but it had not sufficient depth in many places. The pearling, unfortunately, looked most unpromising. On an average, the ketch had been out to the reef three days out of every four, and a considerable area at the southern end of the reef had been cleared of shell. But the results had been extremely poor. A quantity of seed pearls had been taken, small enough objects in themselves, but not without commercial value if found in sufficient quantity. They do not realize a very high price, however, for they can only be used, after being calcined, for certain trade purposes. They are reduced to powder for chuman, and used with betel nut as a masticatory in some parts of the world. But seeds alone would not repay a pearler for the trouble of getting them, and there was little else that had come Chester Trent's way, excepting baroques—irregular shaped things of nacreous matter formed round some rough object that had been an unwelcome intruder in the oyster's home. Chester's total "catch" since Keith landed on Tao Tao did not include more than half a dozen baroques of extremely doubtful value. Nothing but hope and grim obstinacy kept him at his task in face of such miserable results. Joan, still determined not to interfere in any way, but to let him satiate himself with disappointment if necessary, did not again suggest that the project be abandoned. Keith, on the other hand, continually encouraged him, though in doing so he was conscious of displeasing the girl.

Once, when the planter had been caught by a severe squall off the reef, and he and his Kanakas had had to battle for hours in a tempestuous sea before regaining their anchorage just beneath the bungalow, Chester began to show the first signs of being disheartened.

"It looks to me as though the two pearls I found first were just a lucky chance," he declared. "If this goes on much longer I'm afraid I shall have to give it up."

The two men were sitting on the veranda, smoking, after a belated evening meal.

"Give it another month's trial, anyway," Keith urged. "Fate plays funny tricks on you while you're pearling. Shift your ground a bit. You may have better luck elsewhere."

"I have shifted it," Chester replied. "I'm getting shell now off the northwest of the reef, and maybe that may pan out better."

"I remember once," said Keith, "and not so very long ago either, there was a man called Ellis started pearling at an island named Teipui in the New Hebrides. He was a trader, and there wasn't much about the South Seas that fellow didn't know. As a rule a trader in these parts is a natural born crook, otherwise he wouldn't be able to do much business. But Ellis was as straight as a die. I've known him for a good many years, and I've never heard any man dare to suggest that he would lie or cheat. He used to have prayers on board and try to teach the niggers to join in the hymns, and he was in deadly earnest about it, though he wasn't particularly tactful, because he'd as soon biff a Kanaka on the head with a marline spike as not if he wasn't taking his doses of religion regularly. There wasn't a cent's worth of cant in his composition. He believed in hell fire after death for the wicked, and a punch on the jaw for the living if they scoffed at things religious they didn't understand. Oh, you may smile, Trent, but you find 'em like that sometimes. They have to let off steam somehow, and if it's a choice between rum and religion give me the religious skipper every time. I've shipped with both, and I know.

"Well, Ellis had tried all sorts of games to make a living, and he was having a pretty thin time as a trader, when he took a flier at pearling off Teipui. He hit on the thing more or less by accident, but it was the luckiest accident that ever happened to him. He got two hundred and twenty-three pearls inside six weeks, and then sailed off to Sydney to turn 'em into ready. They realized enough to keep him in comfort for the rest of his days, and when an Australian who knew him offered to give him a thousand pounds for the secret of where he'd been fishing, Ellis snapped at it. He took the Australian out to Teipui, and after the man had seen some more pearls of the same kind found under his eyes he weighed out the thousand pounds.

"Ellis sailed off to Sydney, and the Australian met him there a year later, darn nearly down and out. He'd scooped up shell for six months and never got pearls enough to keep a mouse in cheese. If the Australian hadn't actually seen the niggers fetch up oysters containing pearls of course he'd have thought it was a plant, and there would have been some brisk shooting as likely as not. Old man Ellis kind of fretted about it—felt as though he'd sold a gold brick to a pal. Inside a week he'd fitted out a fresh expedition and taken the Australian off to Teipui, again, making him a partner. When they got there they started fishing within a hundred feet of the old spot, and the first day they got up a regular whopper—a black pearl, it was, worth a lot of money. They kept on working there for several months until the bed was fished out, and they made nearly enough money in that time to buy up a bank.

"So you see," Keith went on, refilling his pipe, "the only certain thing about it is that it's darn uncertain."

"It certainly is—uncertain," Chester agreed, "especially round about our reef. Maybe I'll give it another month, though. But if nothing comes of it I shall just be about dead broke by then."