The Barren Islands/Chapter 6

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3690120The Barren Islands — Chapter 6H. Bedford-Jones


MORNING came in a blaze of blue and scarlet and gold. Trenchard, coming on deck, stood struck with the glorious color all around, then spoke mechanically to Yusuf.

“I've been listening to the Tonkin. She's waiting for a dhow coming up from the south and bound in to New Maintiano today——must be our dhow.”

He did not hear the mate's reply; he was thrilled, transfixed by the clear beauty of the scene around, which in another hour would be all hot sea and rock under the blazing sun. Now the mainland lay in a vague purple mass to the east. Lava Island lay just to the south, a sharp triangle of bare rock studded with brush, conspicuous trees at north and west corners; all around the island broke snowy surf on the fringing reef, spray flying like molten silver under the level sun-rays. Three miles away was the desolate Simpson Reef, rising ten feet above the thundering surf; the same distance to the northwest were three little tree-girt islands, rich flecks of green. The scarlet of the sunrise sky glimmered back again from the blue water, and here and there showed patches of green where coral banks came close to the surface. Away off to the northwest rose a spire against the horizon, the tree-crowned rock of Androtra Island, reaching sheer out of the water for a hundred feet. For the rest, the horizon was blank, empty, blue sky meeting bluer sea-rim, while the schooner lifted and fell and tugged at her hawser as though straining to be away from here and plunging toward the open sea.

“All right, old girl, you'll be away soon enough!” said Trenchard. “An hour, and there will be only blazing blue sky, and green sea and brown coral banks, and a dhow coming north under the hot sunlight. … I'd give a hundred dollars if that rascal hadn't saved my life.”

He went down to breakfast, then spent half an hour listening in to Majunga and the Tonkin. Presently the Sagittaire struck in with some reference to her near catch of the schooner at Boyanna Bay, then Brouillan began filling the air with queries as to whether anyone had heard anything from Forillon. At this, Trenchard wearily broke off and began to dismantle the set, which he placed behind a false panel in his cabin wall.

“The fools!” he muttered. “It hasn't occurred to any of them that I might be listening to their talk! I'd like to have a sending set—no, that would wake 'em up. As long as they take me for a fool like themselves, I'm safe.”

He went on deck, ordered the antenna dismantled, and watched the crew finish their paint job. Half an hour later the man aloft reported the sail of a dhow visible to the southeast, and Trenchard knew that his waiting was ended. Hazo came up to report that Forillon had breakfasted and was reading quietly.

Then the morning breeze began to die out, and the waves fell to climbing rollers that swelled and ran down the sea and passed on. The dhow, a big sixty-footer with two masts, came crawling up past Lava Island before her canvas flapped; then she put out three big sweeps on either side and walked along at a fair rate toward the anchored schooner, thus covering the final half-mile, her Arab crew grunting out a wailing Swahili chant as they tugged on the oars.

There was only a ground-swell, none too heavy, at that, and she bore up alongside the schooner; a line was flung and made fast, then another, Arabs and Hovas greeting each other with laughing jests. The dhow was well laden, and on her stern deck were several symmetrical piles of huge green coconuts, smooth husks glinting like gold in the sunlight. Trenchard leaped to her deck and returned the greeting of the Arab rais—a white-bearded, dignified man.

“I am Captain Trenchard,” he said.

“May Allah further you!” replied the Arab. “I was told to ask where the arrangement was made, and by whom.”

“By my friend Grenille, with the son of Ali el Khadar, in Tananarive.”

“That is true. My master sends words to you that a plot is afoot, but he does not know the details—”

“I do,” interrupted Trenchard. “The Tonkin is ten miles north of here, searching all passing dhows.”

The Arab smiled. “She may search me, and welcome, once I am rid of my trust. Give me a receipt for three-score coconuts less two, which are to be delivered to Akbar ibn Hausa in Zanzibar.”

Trenchard looked at the piled nuts. He went to the nearest pile and picked one up, shaking it. There was no fluid inside. He looked more closely, and saw that one side bore a plug which stopped a round hole. Each nut, then, held a few quills of gold.

“Very well.” Taking pencil and paper from his pocket, Trenchard scribbled the receipt. The nuts were carefully transferred to the schooner, and Trenchard had them sent down to his own cabin. There was no mention of precious metal, but he knew that they held a great store of gold, stolen from the mines or washed in the hills by brown Malagasy hands, bartered here and there to the agents of Ali el Khadar, gradually collected at headquarters and now shipped up to Zanzibar. There would be good pay for delivering this cargo. Perhaps some of those nuts held drugs or stones—no matter.

“By the prophet—on whom be peace!—look out for the currents today, for they are swift,” said the old Arab skipper. “Peace be with you!”

“And with you,” answered Trenchard.

THE lines were cast off. The dhow came about and pointed eastward, her six sweeps hard at work, to go crawling up the coast inside the reefs to the north.

Still the calm continued, the sun blazing down with unwonted heat. Out of pity, Trenchard ordered that Forillon be allowed on deck. The Frenchman came up, looking extremely wilted, but nodded to Trenchard with his blue eyes indomitable and steady as ever. He came to where the skipper sat by the rail, lighted a cigarette, tossed the match overboard and then stood watching it for a moment.

“Lava Island,” said Trenchard, waving his pipe toward the islet. “The Tonkin is ten miles or so north of us. We'll be off with the breeze, and away.”

“And the breeze comes?” inquired Forillon.

“This afternoon.”

“I wish I knew what you meant to do with me,” said Forillon, turning.

Trenchard looked up at him from the chair, met the steady eyes with a gaze which was like gray stone, and spoke calmly. The crisis had to be met.

“You are to be shot at sunset this evening. I will take charge of any personal messages you'd like to have sent.”

Forillon compressed his lips, read an unswerving purpose in the face of Trenchard, and nodded slightly.

“Very well. I'd like to be alone for a little, if I may.”

“You have the deck,” said Trenchard.

Forillon walked forward, his step as deliberate and sure as ever. Gazing after that stubbornly determined figure, realizing anew that, while the man was no assassin, it was yet a duel to the death between them, Trenchard drew a breath almost of relief. At least he had set a time. He could visualize the rifles being broken out from under the rock ballast, the brown Hovas lined up, Forillon pitching forward as the crack of rifles blew down the wind. It would be a hard job to do—no doubt about that; but it must be done. The remembrance of those coconuts pounded that fact into Trenchard's brain with subtle insistence. This Ali el Khadar, Ali the Green. whom he had never seen nor met, entrusted to him as a matter of course a fortune which might be sequestrated with impunity. When that scrawled receipt came into the brown hand of Ali, the latter would reckon his gold safe as though held in a bank.

“Yes, it must be done,” muttered Trenchard. “And at sunset—no more vacillation or delay!”

YUSUF was below; so, too, were most of the crew, or asleep in whatever patch of shade they could find about the deck. The Malagasy cook was singing in the galley. Noon was approaching, the sun blazing down with intolerant fierceness. Trenchard felt lazy, sleepy, as he basked in the heat; but having dismissed Hazo, he felt it incumbent upon him to keep an eye on Forillon. He rather hoped, indeed, that knowing the worst, the man would somehow make a bolt for it or put up a fight—anything to serve as an excuse.

He mouthed his pipe and looked at Forillon. The latter had gone forward into the bows and was now sitting on the deck, leaning back against the capstan, smoking cigarettes. Trenchard lifted his eyes to the sea beyond. The schooner was heading to the north, the island behind her, as some current swung her stern; she dipped gently to the pull of her hawser, the long and steady ground-swell lifting her very slightly. The sea had fallen by this time, with the tide nearly at full ebb, and glimmered like molten glass under the pouring sunlight.

Time passed. Trenchard sought in vain for any breath of wind, any slightest cat's-paw ruffling the smooth and glossy surface of the water. The slow and regular dance of the spars against the sky, the occasional slap or bang of shrouds and stays, were all lulling in their influence. The dhow had quite vanished by this time, and there was nothing to break the infinity of the sea-horizon. Trenchard caught himself nodding, jerked awake, saw that Forillon had not moved position, and lighted his pipe to keep from another relapse. Forillon was smoking cigarette after cigarette.

“Don't know how I ever stood it ashore,” thought Trenchard in easy contentment. “A month of it! Well, after this I stay where I belong. I've no business—”

The naked torso of Yusuf emerged from the companionway, and an Arabic word spat forward. One of the men sleeping there moved, leaped to his feet and struck the ship's bell. Trenchard glanced at his watch—noon to the minute. He looked up, to meet a blank stare from Yusuf, who had come to the deck.

“What's the matter?” he inquired.

“By the ninety-nine excellent names of Allah, rais!” exclaimed the mate, still sleep-drugged. “If the island is not moving upon us—”

Trenchard glanced around, then sprang to his feet. A sharp call came from forward. There Forillon had risen and was coming aft, leisurely.

THEN it all broke upon Trenchard, though the others still stared in dismayed consternation. Instead of being a mile away, the island was a scant quarter-mile astern and a little to starboard: the schooner was drifting straight upon the quarter-fathom reef off the north point, must be over it now. Trenchard recollected in a flash how Forillon had tossed his match overboard and watched its drift, how he had been sitting there by the capstan and the anchor-hawser. His hand slipped under his shirt, and he whirled, pistol in hand.

Forillon halted and regarded him steadily. Trenchard was in the act of firing when the look of those deep blue eyes drove home to him; no fear there at all, nothing but a calm acceptance of fate. “To each of us his duty,” the man had said. Trenchard lowered his pistol.

At this instant the schooner staggered. Her bottom scraped; the brown men cried out, then with a crunch and a bang, the stiff three-knot current had her on the coral fair and square. She canted a little to port and hung there, motionless.

Trenchard indicated the Frenchman. “Put that man in irons. Take him down to his cabin.”

The dismayed, dumfounded men leaped to obey. To the skipper's irritated disappointment, Forillon made no resistance whatever. A man came running from forward with word that the hawser had been cut, and the crew understood. Forillon was searched, and from his pocket was taken a broken hacksaw blade.

At this Trenchard was silent. He remembered how, six weeks previously, he had been working in that spare cabin over some metal fittings, and had broken a blade or two in the hacksaw. And now the schooner lay grounded on a reef a thousand miles away, because of a broken blade flung carelessly aside and overlooked.

Yusuf met his eyes, both men reflecting on the same thing. If the iron anchor were put out, it would probably be lost on this coral ground, and whether the schooner could be pulled off was highly problematical. Even if this could be done, it would avail nothing, for there was not the shadow of a breeze to stir her. Trenchard shook his head to the unspoken question.

“No,” he said, as though Yusuf had inquired. “The tide's at ebb. Take out the small kedge and keep her from driving farther on the coral; that's all. She'll be off in an hour with the lift of the water, and by then the breeze will be coming.”

YUSUF snapped orders at the men, who began to get the whaleboat overside. Trenchard looked around the horizon, and his eye caught a slight speck off to the northeast. He turned to the companionway and went down to his cabin for his prismatics. In a moment or two he was back on deck.

“You'd better take command of the ship, Yusuf.”

The Arab looked at him, took the prismatics, turned and swept the horizon. He picked up the distant speck, then returned the glasses. A calm fatalism settled upon him.

“Allah the dispenser ordaineth all things, rais, and the fate of man is written,” he said.

Trenchard passed down the ladder and went to Forillon's cabin, from which Hazo and another man of the crew were just issuing. He motioned them back, and stood in the doorway looking at Forillon, who sat handcuffed on the edge of the bunk.

“Gag him,” he said to Hazo. “Then tie his ankles together.”

The two brown men obeyed. Dismissing the two men, Trenchard spoke to him quietly.

“You have done your duty, and I shall do mine. You've laid the schooner on the coral, and there's no breeze to stir her. The launch or cutter from the Tonkin is coming, and I fancy that Brouillan's in her. We're caught beyond hope of escape; at the same time, there's a bare chance that we may escape. If we do, you shall be shot at sunset. If not, you'll be rescued.”

He closed the door, locked it, and passed to his own little cabin across the passage. From his port, Trenchard had a clear sight of the sea to north and east.

He studied the cutter intently. She was steaming slowly along, and for a moment he thought that she might not have seen the schooner, since she was low in the water and her horizon was foreshortened. As he watched, however, she swung around and pointed for the island. He could see two sailors in her bow, working over a gun which they uncovered; it was a machine gun, whose nickeled bullets were capable of piercing through and through the schooner. He counted fifteen men aboard her, all wearing service pistols; his own crew of a dozen were far outnumbered. Under her stern awning was an officer who now stood up and began to scrutinize the schooner with a pair of prismatics. One glance showed Trenchard that this officer was Lieutenant Brouillan, and he withdrew from the port lest he be seen.

HE went into the saloon cabin, a small room stuffed with books and charts, closed the door of the passage, and then closed the opening in the skylight above; the two ports were already open, and he left them so, for the heat here was nearly insufferable. Trenchard sat at the table, laid his pistol at his elbow, and then calmly began to smoke. Below him in the bowels of the ship he could hear a confused noise. Yusuf was breaking out the rifles hidden in the ballast.

Trenchard had nothing to do but to wait, and he puffed steadily at his pipe, master of himself now as ever. Yusuf knew exactly what to do. Every possible contingency had been gone over and rehearsed with minute care; Yusuf had a whole box filled with forged papers in French and Arabic—clearances, manifests, documents of every conceivable kind, just as Trenchard had another box of different papers for his own use. More than once the schooner had emerged from disaster because these two men made no false moves, knew exactly what should be done, and did not hesitate to do it.

“If that cutter had a wireless outfit aboard, which she hasn't, we'd be lost,” reflected Trenchard. “Then Brouillan could have summoned up the Tonkin in a hurry. As it is, he's got us cornered and will make the capture himself. He's caught us, no doubt about that; but we have one chance. Slim and desperate as it is, it's a chance. If it fails, I'm afraid that I'll not keep that appointment with Grenille.”

He smiled slightly and tamped down his pipe with steady finger.