Joan of the Island/Chapter 9

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THE little alarm clock, that did general duty as a time piece in the bungalow, pointed to ten o'clock that night when the querk querk of a horn came over the water.

"That's the Kestrel!" said Joan, jumping up.

Keith had some misgivings on the subject of Chester Trent, but they were dispelled as soon as the planter leaped from the boat.

"Hope you weren't scared, sis," he said, with a brotherly peck on her cheek. "I had the deuce of a job getting back. The wind was dead wrong all the way, but I've brought three ripping divers with me. What's the news?"

"Moniz is calmly sitting on your reef," the girl announced.

"The devil he is!"

Keith explained briefly what had happened, and Chester nodded slowly.

"There'll be a shindy to-morrow," he said. "I haven't been all the way to Borenda for divers just for the pleasure of looking at 'em. And he had the infernal impudence to come to Tao Tao for a powwow, eh! You did quite right, Keith. By the way, I wonder—" his voice trailed off.

"What?" Joan asked.

"Moniz said he hadn't found anything much. He's a natural born liar, but maybe he didn't."

"I'm inclined to agree with you," said Keith.

"You never can tell with a wily chap like that," Chester declared. "Isn't it just as possible that he struck lucky and thought he'd try to make sure of getting in on the ground floor, for a share of the rest of the pearls there?"

"Maybe," Keith agreed, "but it doesn't cut any ice so far as we're concerned. Our real business with the brute starts in the morning. After that the reef is likely to be exclusively his or ours."

But the morrow brought the unexpected. While the trio were at breakfast, making deliberate plans for the coming fight, the bird-like schooner, fluttering a white sheet once more, dropped anchor in the bay. Keith, facing the window, saw it first, and, in sheer surprise held his coffee cup in mid-air for ten seconds before he spoke. Then he laughed.

"I wonder if he'll expect to be invited to breakfast!" he exclaimed. "Really, nothing that man did would surprise me."

The Portuguese came ashore and climbed up the path to the house with as much assurance as though he owned it. Chester Trent, going to the door, met him with an expression that was none too cordial.

"I think we should be better off as friends than enemies, Mr. Trent," Moniz said.

"What do you want now?" Chester demanded.

"I saw the ketch was back," the Portuguese said, with a wave of the hand in the direction of the Kestrel" and I came to ask you to listen to reason."

"Mr. Keith did the listening for me yesterday," the planter replied bluntly, "and if I understand him aright he gave you your answer."

Moniz muttered something in Portuguese which sounded like an oath. He gave a savage glance toward Keith, who had joined the others on the veranda, and pitched the end of a cigarette over the rail with an ill-tempered flick. For a moment he was on the verge of losing his temper, but with an effort he regained control of it.

"Mr. Trent, we were friends till this Yankee gentleman came here," he said with a forced smile. "We could still do good business together if you would join me in this little enterprise."

"Excuse me, my breakfast is getting cold," Chester said, turning on his heel. "I have no more to say to you."

He went indoors abruptly. Keith and Moniz, left alone on the veranda, glared at one another. The trader hated this big interloper heartily, and Keith, though not conscious of hatred, thoroughly disliked and distrusted the Portuguese. Had the situation been much more strained they would probably have flown at each other there and then. It needed but a match to the gunpowder. Physically they were fairly evenly matched. The sailor had the advantage of height by an inch, with thew and muscle hardened like steel. Moniz's shoulders were massive, and he had a peculiarly long reach; but though he lacked the sheer power of the man before him, he was quick as a cat in every movement, he had the sinew of a horse, and he possessed the grim, relentless determination which carries a man beyond his normal breaking-point when it comes to a life and death struggle.

While a swift flood of emotion weltered through their minds, each was oblivious of everything save the presence of the other. Suddenly, with a ghost of a smile flickering about his lips—a smile that was meant to taunt and goad—Moniz descended the steps, but at the bottom turned to ask with a sneer:

"Did you fall off that ship, or did they throw you overboard?"

Keith clenched his hands and for a moment did not move. A sudden pallor swept over his face. For a second time on Tao Tao a vision of the Four Winds flashed vividly before him. The scene in the captain's cabin as his eyes had last fallen upon it came to him in minute detail.

Then he strode down the steps quickly with a set face.

"If I lose my temper I may hurt you," he said. "Take my advice and clear out."

Moniz laughed tauntingly.

"The sea washed up a nice thing when you came here, didn't it?" he said. "Dropped into a soft billet, eh? Better than peeling potatoes at sea!" There was a dangerous glitter in Keith's eyes which the trader might have taken as a warning, but he owed the interloper a very large grudge, and was revelling in the opportunity of working it off. "You took good care to stop here to look after the girl when her brother wasn't around, didn't you?" he added. "Maybe you have nice time, eh?"

Without hesitation Keith bunched his fist and shot it straight from the shoulder to the point of the trader's jaw. Had Moniz not misjudged his man he would have had time to ward off or parry the blow, but his attempt to guard was a fraction of a second too late. Keith's fist landed home with scientific precision and the force of a battering ram.

A look of intense and pained amazement spread over Moniz's face as his spine received the jolt, and then he fell backward like a log. Keith glanced at the prone form, and then stalked back to the veranda. Chester and his sister were still indoors, and had seen nothing of the scuffle, for which Keith was glad. He was mounting the steps of the veranda when Moniz scrambled to his feet, and, nursing his chin with one hand and shaking the other, called: "You pig of a Yankee! I'll get even with you for this!"

Still muttering curses, he walked down the path to the beach, and climbed aboard his boat. Keith watched until the Portuguese pushed off, and then he entered the bungalow where Chester was busy again with his interrupted breakfast.

"Come along before the coffee goes cold," Chester said lightly. "Never let a little thing like that interfere with your meals in the South Seas. Why, man, you look worried about something. Forget it, and sit down."

Keith sat down, but he was far from forgetting what had happened.

"I am worried," he said. "Moniz knows that when I came to Tao Tao I swam here."

"Well, what of it?"

"Why, nothing much, but for the life of me I don't see how he found it out."

Keith did not say so, but his chief concern was how much the Portuguese had learnt, and not how he had learnt it.

"Why shouldn't he?' Chester asked, helping himself to another fried plantain. "There's no secret about it. Every nigger on the place must know it, and niggers will talk."

"Well, for instance, which niggers?" Keith said. "Think a minute."

"There are two of my divers he collared. I've no doubt they opened their mouths about everything on the island."

"They may have told him all he wanted to know about your affairs," observed Keith, "but, if you recollect, I came here after they had gone with you to Tamba."

Chester frowned.

"Umph!" he exclaimed. "That's right. Now, how the devil—"

"Exactly. Moniz hasn't had a chance to talk to any of our fellows since I arrived here."

"That's deuced odd! Are you sure he knew?"

"He knew something about it. I had gotten his goat and he wanted to make me mad, so he asked me whether I'd fallen off the steamer or been thrown off."

Chester was biting the end from a cigar reflectively.

"Miracles don't happen these days," he observed. "Maybe it was just a lucky shot of his. He knew you couldn't have dropped out of the clouds or jumped off a motor 'bus. But from the way he put it he seems to have understood that you didn't land here in a boat."

"It doesn't matter much, anyway," Keith said, "but I'm convinced he knew exactly how I landed; and as neither of us has told him, it must have been one of the blacks."

"Moniz knows a little too much about our affairs for my liking," said Joan. "It would not surprise me in the least to hear that he has one of our hands here in his pay."

"It may be Isa, the diver who didn't stop at Tamba when the other two deserted," Chester declared. "I've suspected something of the sort all the time. He's a wicked-looking brute, with his one eye. The other got poked out while he was having a fight, and I'll bet it was no more than he deserved. He's a wonderful chap at pearling, and for that reason I was glad he didn't go over to Moniz, but we've got to watch him."

"Still," said Keith, "I don't see how Isa could have got in touch with Moniz. It's twenty miles from here to Tamba, and even a nigger would jib at swimming that distance, because the currents are tricky among these islands."

"There isn't a boat on Tao Tao that Isa could have managed by himself, so he never rowed across," Chester put in.

"True. But he could swim out to the reef, couldn't he?" said Joan. "Moniz was there several nights, you know, and a three-mile swim would mean nothing to a man like Isa."

"That's a likely explanation, sis," the girl's brother agreed, "providing Isa is the culprit. I don't quite see what Moniz's game is, but I don't like to feel so much treachery around. Next thing we shall have all the niggers murdering us in our sleep and Moniz swooping down to collar everything he can find."

The two men exchanged glances. They were each thinking of the encounter Keith had had in the night—an encounter which might well have ended in the murder of one, if not two of their party. By mutual consent they had said nothing to the girl about it.

"Chester, see!" Joan exclaimed. "I believe the schooner is heading back for Tamba."

The others were by her side in a moment, and it was with considerable relief that they found the girl was right. Going before a fair breeze, the vessel was leaving the reef on her port side and running in a direct line for the other island.

"He's quit cold!" Keith exclaimed. "And yet that's peculiar."

"Why worry?" said Chester, delightedly. "He's saved us the trouble of driving him off, that's all. One of us might have been plugged in the process, and though I don't mind a scrap when it's necessary, I confess I know lots of ways of enjoying myself better than dodging bullets."

"It looks as though he might have been telling the truth for once when he said he couldn't find any pearls at the reef," Keith observed. "And yet he knows enough about the game to be sure you can't expect to fish out a handful of pearls every day. I don't want to discourage you, but I suspect we may hear something more of that gentleman before long."

"Wouldn't be surprised," replied Chester, "but the field is ours for the present, and I'm crazy to have another go at those oysters. Come along. Let's beat it. I shan't rest content until I've either found some more pearls where those two beauties came from, or else proved to my own satisfaction that they were the only ones there."

"It's impossible to say, until we've tried it out," Keith declared. "There's no accounting for the ways of the wily oyster. Wherever there is an oyster you may expect to find a pearl, even in a Manhattan cabaret, but you can't reckon on 'em a cent. You might spend a little fortune getting labour, and buying dredges and all sorts of paraphernalia, and scoop up every oyster within half a mile of the reef, and never find pearls enough to pay for one nigger's keep for a day. It's a baffling gamble."

"On the other hand—" said Chester, with a meaning laugh.

"Oh, yes, on the other hand you might blunder right into a pile of 'em. Don't I know it! Personally I think we shall have luck if we keep on. Any man who knows the first thing about pearling would tell you it would be flying in the face of Providence to leave that bed unsearched after you've got a couple of excellent specimens out of it. It's a funny thing that neither you nor the Portuguese have had any success since the first go off, but that doesn't amount to much. Maybe you were within fifty feet of good ones all the time and never knew it. A matter of a yard or two in the depth of the water, or a difference in the temperature caused by the currents, sometimes makes all the difference."

"Well, we'll soon know now," said Chester. "Everything is ready, and I'm going to strike while the iron is hot. Hurry up, you two. We're going to spend the rest of this blessed day at the reef."