WEST of the Solomon Islands, in the South Seas, is the island of Savo—a three days' run in a schooner after rounding Cape Astrolabe. Savo used to be a resort for the head-hunters of those regions, and traders and missionaries still fight shy of it. The near-by islands of Malaita and Guadalcanar belonged to Great Britain, but Savo belonged to King Channa.
King Channa was a small, dark islander, who wore a white flax wig, and carried a four-foot basket shield and spear. He was expert with the spear; also treacherous, which is probably why the pile of skulls outside his hut numbered a round score instead of Channa's skull decorating the hut of one of his henchmen. He was afraid of nothing except his own tabu, which was that he must not touch fish. All his life he had dreaded the sight of fish.
Skipper William McKechnie vouches for this, and McKechnie encountered Channa during the affair of the Sweet Alice and the Mongava pearl.
McKechnie was master and half owner of the trading schooner Auld Alfred. He was a Scotchman, past copra pedler, and pearl trader, who knew the by-ways of the South Seas like a book. Hence it was not surprising that a few days after he heard of the wreck of the Sweet Alice on Savo he headed his schooner for that place.
It was late in the afternoon that the Auld Alfred beat up to the north shore of Savo and slipped cable in a convenient cove within bowshot of the wrecked Sweet Alice. Gordon, the sandy-haired mate of the schooner, joined McKechnie on the after deck after he had seen to the anchor, and together they scanned the wreck on the beach in silence.
The Sweet Alice lay on her port side, forty yards beyond the water's edge, where she had been driven by the force of the hurricane, which had splintered her starboard rail and snapped her foremast. Her deck-house was crushed in, and she bore unmistakable signs of pillage by the Savo islanders. The hurricane that had wrecked her had taken the lives, apparently, of Dixon, her master, and Hallie, her mate—the only two white men aboard. At least, such had been the report McKechnie heard.
"Gordon, man," observed the weatherbeaten Scotchman at length, "if ye can ease a thought out o' your sandy head, consider yon wreck, and tell me what is strange about it."
The mate puffed tranquilly at a rank pipe, and closed one eye in pretended meditation.
"She lies high, Mr. McKechnie," he hazarded, "but the surf must have topped the beach to the edge of the bush during that tempest. Hallie lost his life trying to swim the surf with a life-line before she broke up."
Skipper McKechnie shook his head sadly.
"The good book says, Mr. Gordon, that there are them who have eyes and see not. Ye have put your muddling finger dead to the rights o' the matter; still ye see nothing strange. As ye said, Hallie, who was a decent man, was lost in the surf. Dixon, who was a scoundrel—having shot more than one harmless heathen for his amusement, besides kidnaping the brother o' Channa—stayed on the vessel with the crew. The report says that he was drowned. One o' the crew escaped to Malaita with the tale."
"Well, and why not?" demanded Gordon.
"Why not? Do ye ask me that? No doubt ye think Dixon drowned himself in the water-cask o' the cabin out o' repentance for his sins when he saw the Lord was about to take him! Cast your eye over the wreck, yon."
McKechnie pointed a blackened forefinger at the hulk on the beach.
"Will ye notice, Mr. Gordon, that the tale goes Dixon was drowned when the vessel broke up. Ye will notice, no doubt, she is not broken up. If Dixon had stuck to his deck he would be alive this day."
"He might have been washed over the side by a comber, Mr. McKechnie," objected Gordon, who loved an argument. "Have you the testimony on oath of St. Peter that the man was not washed over the rail, which was splintered by the crash?"
McKechnie scanned the bulk of the wreck with shrewd eyes.
"Oh aye," he grunted; "I need no word from the saints. If Dixon was swept over the side did all the crew follow him? Out o' love for the man that fed them lousy tucker and strung them up by their thumbs? No, Mr. Gordon; if ye had brains instead o' ballast in your top-hamper, ye would know that if any o' her company had stuck to the Sweet Alice, they would have lived, for she is not broken up. And Dixon was no man to risk his life when others would serve instead."
The Scotchman swept his arm across the vista of the shore.
"What happened to him when he reached the beach? Where is he now. Gordon; where is he?"
"A look over the bloomin' tub might tell us what you want to know, Mr. McKechnie," suggested Gordon.
By way of answer the skipper pointed toward the bush. Gordon surveyed the shore through binoculars, and saw what the shrewd Scotchman had noticed—the glint of spear-points among the ferns and an occasional dark form that slipped from one palm to another. The men of Savo had sighted the schooner.
"We had best wait until the commissioner sends the Thor here, Mr. Gordon," said McKechnie. "The gunboat is headed this way, I heard at Malaita. The British navy is fast becoming curious about the death o' Dixon and the unlettered heathen o' Savo. Then we may do a wee bit investigating for ourselves the while."
"The curiosity of a decrepit Scotchman is a sad thing, to my way of thinking," muttered Gordon. addressing his pipe.
"Curiosity, is it, Mr. Gordon?" McKechnie eyed his mate hostilely. "Aye, it may be that. But what if I tell ye Dixon had on him the Mongava pearl?"
Gordon had heard of the pearl—beauty of great size and purity that the native divers of Mongava had brought to the surface.
"The Malaita traders told me the tale." went on McKechnie. "Dixon bought it from the unlettered heathen o' Mongava for two pound, when he had them sweating drunk on the Sweet Alice. Man, it was robbery; but it cannot be proved, I'm thinking. The Mongava pearl is worth five hundred pound in Sydney and more in London. Aye, Dixon had the pearl. And we will find him or his body on the island o' Savo."
Darkness closed rapidly over the cove and the woods of Savo. A white line of gentle surf marked the shore. Between this line and the bush came forms invisible in the darkness forms that carried shields and spears. They gathered in a group by the wrecked schooner, watching the riding lights of the Auld Alfred. But when dawn streaked up over the sea they were gone.
Lieutenant-Commander St. George Barclay sat in a wicker-chair under the awning on the after deck of H. M. S. Thor, and wished that he had a better cigar than the one he was smoking. Also he wished that he could penetrate the secrets hidden behind the bush of the beautiful island of Savo.
The commander of the gunboat was a square-shouldered man of perhaps thirty-two years, with a fresh, tanned face, and mild, blue eyes. As he puffed at his cigar a frown creased his brow. It was late in the afternoon, and the heat had seeped in under the awning and into every quarter of the old gunboat. The brilliant green of the foliage that lined the beach shadowed the clear blue of the sea. A few cables' lengths away the Auld Alfred was tranquilly at anchor. Opposite the war-ship the wreck lay on the shore, some distance above the water-line.
Barclay's eyes swept the scene, which had grown familiar. Idly puffing smoke-rings at the awning overhead, he ran over in his mind the scanty fruits of his visit to King Channa.
The Thor had been ordered to Savo—which the trading schooners avoided on account of the evil reputation of the place—to learn how Dixon and Hallie had met their death, and, if possible, to recover their bodies. Also to salvage whatever valuables were on the wrecked Sweet Alice, including the Mongava pearl, which Malaita traders asserted Dixon had with him. Barclay, under orders from the commissioner, was to settle the question. Like English navy men throughout Asian waters, Barclay was an unlisted court of appeal against crime, a judge of the unwritten law. It was his task to see fair play.
Yet Barclay saw little chance of recovering the pearl. King Channa, interviewed at his village by the Englishman with a party of marines, had confirmed the story of the survivor of the Sweet Alice, who had come to Savo from Malaita on the Thor.
The Sweet Alice, declared Channa through an interpreter, had struck the beach of Savo during the climax of a hurricane, and the one boatman had been the only man to win ashore. The terrific wind and the high surf had prevented the islanders from giving aid to the stricken ship. Some bodies of the native crew had been washed ashore later. That was all. Nothing had been seen of the two white men of the schooner.
Channa and his spearmen had been in high good temper, plainly flattered by the visit from the war-ship. They admitted, when Barclay pointed out that the vessel had been looted, that they had taken the ship's furniture and fixings. But there had been no cargo, as the Sweet Alice was in ballast at the time, homeward bound for Sydney. No one had appeared to claim the vessel, so they had helped themselves.
Not content with this, Barclay had made a thorough inspection of the Sweet Alice, followed by a search of the island, which was small—being a scant ten miles around. No trace of the white men had been found. He was forced to admit to himself that there was little for him to do at Savo. He had not even found the ship's papers of the Sweet Alice.
Barclay knew of the evil reputation of Savo—of the head-hunting spearmen. He had seen the treasured pyramid of bleached skulls before Channa's hut. But the skulls were old, and the deeds of the Savo men belonged to a time before the coming of the British.
One curious thing he had seen. In talking with Channa he had idly flicked a dead fish, which lay on the ground between them, toward the king with his foot. Instantly Channa had sprung back, his eyes wide with terror. The action had alarmed the spearmen, and for an instant there were prospects of a free-for-all fight between the islanders and the marines. Barclay had quieted the disturbance, wondering at the fear of Channa for a dead fish.
The commander of the Thor looked up as he saw a boat approaching the war-ship from the schooner. The boat drew up beside the gunboat's ladder, and a few minutes later the stalwart form of Skipper William McKechnie strode aft.
The Scotchman greeted the naval officer calmly, and appropriated a chair beside Barclay. He sniffed at the smoke from the latter's cigar doubtfully, and drew a cigar from his pocket. Barclay eyed this and the weather-beaten face of the bald Scotchman curiously.
"This is no' so bad, Mr. Barclay." McKechnie extended the cigar. "And by the smell o' the one ye have, ye might relish a change. 'Tis a failing o' my mate, Mr. Gordon, to smoke the weeds. I saw ye go up to Channa's village this morning, when I was visiting the sad remains o' the Sweet Alice. How did ye like the bonny island o' Savo, with its canny king?"
Barclay exchanged cigars readily, and when the new one was alight ran his eye appraisingly over the skipper.
"May I ask," he inquired. "who you are and what your business is at Savo?"
"Ye may ask," responded McKechnie agreeably, stroking his whiskers with a stubby hand, "and welcome. My name is William McKechnie, master o' the Auld Alfred, yon. My business at Savo is nobody else's business."
The officer turned his blue eyes to the Scotchman, who met them frankly. He had heard of the master of the Auld Alfred, who bore a record for honest but crafty dealing.
"May I ask," resumed McKechnie calmly, "what ye have learned from Channa about the fate o' Dixon and Hallie? I'm thinking that's why ye are here, Mr. Barclay"
"Dixon and Mallie were drowned. There's nothing further for me to do at Savo. The Sweet Alice is a dead loss—can't be salvaged."
"Aye." McKechnie continued to stroke his whiskers. "No doubt ye would think that. Now, will ye tell me, Mr. Barclay, who the native was that went with ye up to Channa's village?"
"That was the survivor of the Sweet Alice crew."
"Aye. And did ye see the scar on Channa's cheek. Mr. Barclay?"
"Yes. I did." The commander of the Thor glanced at his visitor impatiently. "I say, is there anything more you would like to know. McKechnie?"
"There is." The Scotchman nodded gravely. "Do ye see nothing strange about the death o' Dixon?"
"I do not. I shall list him as drowned, with Hallie. Have you any suggestion to make, McKechnie?"
The Scotchman did not miss the mild sarcasm of this, but his expression did not alter.
"I might suggest, if ye ask it, that ye consider three things, Mr. Barclay—King Channa, who is afraid o' nothing except the tabu o' fish; also the scar on his cheek, and the man ye picked up at Malaila. Do ye know where he is, sir?"
Barclay sat up and ran his eye down the deck. When he had last seen the islander, the latter had been asleep in the shadow of a gig. The man was not there, however.
"The good book says." went on McKechnie, "that by their acts ye shall know them. The unlettered and benighted heathen is a canny man. Mr. Barclay, and will bear watching. The fellow ye are looking for saw me come aboard the Thor. If ye look ashore, ye will see him, yon."
McKechnie pointed to the beach. To his surprise the officer saw a dark form rise from the water and run ashore. The man ran, leaping in zigzag fashion, as if to dodge possible bullets. Barclay recognized him as the survivor of the Sweet Alice.
"I had a good look at the boy on deck before he slid over the side." McKechnie explained. "He wore a half-moon o' pearl shells, which is a sign o' caste on Savo. That boy is one o' the Savo men. and I doubt he ever saw the deck o' the Sweet Alice unless he helped to loot her. He saw me watching him, and he considered it was time to slip his anchor."
"I say!" Barclay frowned. "Then the beggar was spoofing me."
"Aye. No doubt he was. 'Twas a canny move o' Channa's to send one o' his men to Malaita with the tale that all on the schooner were drowned. Now, ye marked the scar on Channa, sir. Well, I'm thinking it was a bad day for Dixon when his vessel drew ashore here. That scar was Dixon's doing, the time he carried off the king's brother to Queensland. 'Tis bad luck to speak ill o' the dead. But Dixon was overquick to shoot when he was in the labor trade—getting islanders to work in Queensland. And Channa has a long memory. He remembers how Dixon cut a pearl from the mouth o' his brother when the poor man tried to hide it."
"Rot!" Barclay shrugged his shoulders skeptically. "Do you mean to say that Channa has taken to head-hunting again, and that he killed all the men on the Sweet Alice?"
"Did ye see, sir," McKcchnie's burr thickened with excitement, "that a' the ship's papers was missin' from the schooner. The unlettered heathen canna read. Where did the log and papers go, if Dixon did not carry them ashore? Ye hae na dealt wi' the benighted islanders so lang as I—"
"But nothing can be proved," argued Barclay, puzzled. "I'll go ashore and find that beggar, however—"
"Ye will not find him. sir. Nor will ye find the bodies o' Dixon and the rest. Channa has taken care to put them in a canoe filled wi' stones, and sunk the lot at sea."
"Then what's to be done, McKechnie?"
The Scotchman stared thoughtfully at the woods of Savo, which were now void of sign of life.
"If ye will wait for a day, Mr. Barclay." he observed, "I will go ashore and interview Channa. The king is a verra interesting man, with his collection o' skulls—if he can be made to talk."
Barclay shrugged agreement. After all, as McKechnie said, he could do nothing, except to shell the village on suspicion, and he was not willing to do that.
The village of Savo was a short distance back in the bush out of sight from the beach. Leaving their boat-crew on the beach with the gig, McKechnie and Gordon struck into the bush-trails on the following day. The mate was armed with his revolver. McKechnie carried a small bundle, but no weapon.
They had no difficulty in locating the village, where the Savo men were gathered, all armed. Their appearance took the islanders by surprise. The King of Savo was sitting in front of his hut, and he sprang to his feet, grasping his spear, when he saw the two white men. Seeing that they were alone, however, he resumed his seat.
The Savo men clustered about them as they made their way to King Channa. McKechnie showed no signs of alarm. He knew that as long as the women and children of the village were near them, the men would not annoy them.
The ruler of Savo was a small man, but muscular. One cheek bore a deep scar, and a shoulder-blade protruded where a spear had wounded him in the back. He wore his tawny wig of flax, and a woven ditty-bag hung from the pearl-shell belt at his waist. His small, bleared eyes watched the newcomers closely.
McKechnie seated himself unconcernedly by the pile of skulls beside Channa. Gordon took his stand at his back, leaning against the bamboo hut. Both men were alert for trouble, but for the present they knew that the curiosity of the natives was more powerful than any desire to attack the white men. McKechnie busied himself in turning over various presents to Channa—tobacco, knives, and a pipe. The eyes of the Savo chieftain glistened when he saw his visitor draw a pair of handcuffs from the bundle. Channa knew the use of the implements, having had dealings with the Queensland recruiters in his youth.
"You like 'em this, good fella?" asked McKechnie, holding out the handcuffs to Channa. The latter assented cordially, and extended his hand for them.
"You work 'em like this, Channa," continued McKechnie calmly. Gordon backed slowly against the hut, and his hand went to his pocket. He little liked this expedition into the Savo headquarters, but McKechnie had insisted on coming, and Gordon would not let him take the risk alone.
The natives thronged closer. McKechnie drew the key of the irons from his pocket. Channa had not withdrawn his hand. The skipper clamped one of the bracelets over his own wrist. With a quick motion he snapped the other half of the irons over the islander's wrist.
Channa started angrily, but McKechnie paid no attention to his movement. The skipper reached into his bundle. A silence fell upon the gazing spearmen—a hostile silence. In it McKechnie's hand came forth from the bundle. It held a dead fish.
As his eye fell on the fish Channa's angry yell echoed through the village. McKechnie balanced the fish near the native. His eyes wide with terror, the native strained back. But the handcuffs held him to McKechnie. Gordon had drawn his revolver, and now faced the ring of islanders.
"Listen, Channa," McKechnie growled at the struggling native; "this fish is tabu. You touch 'em fish, you catch 'em seven devils and die like— Don't move, or I'll rub it on your arm. Tell your boys to keep back, or Marster Gordon will shoot 'em plenty quick."
The terror that gripped Channa brought beads of sweat to his forehead. He shouted to his followers, who drew farther away, watching the scene the while with rolling eyes. Channa had been brought up from childhood to dread the sight of fish, which he was convinced would send him to immediate destruction. He had never been so near the object of his tabu. And his fear knew no bounds.
"Now," resumed McKechnie, "ye and I are going to have a palaver, Channa. Don't reach for that spear, unless ye want to touch this fish. First ye can tell me what happened to Dixon? If ye lie, ye will feel the fish."
Channa protested that he knew nothing of the master of the Sweet Alice, but a near whiff of the hated fish loosened his tongue speedily.
"Marster Dixon him plenty bad fella," he cried. "Long time him come along Savo. Him take my small fella brother along Queensland. My small fella brother him die along Queensland. Marster Dixon him give me this"—Channa pointed to his scarred cheek. So far McKechnie knew that he spoke the truth.
"Then come schooner along Savo," Channa hurried on, his gaze fastened on the fish as on a deadly snake. "Marster Dixon come along village after hurricane. Him drunk like seven bells, my word! Him tell Channa his good fella mate got drowned along hurricane. Him shoot three times at my hut. My small fella sister she catch bullet and die—"
"And ye speared Dixon, eh?" queried McKechnie.
Channa assented frankly. Reaching over to the pile of skulls, he rolled off the ones on top. In the center of the mound the severed head of a white man showed, scarred and bruised. McKechnie recognized all that remained of Dixon. He shook his head sadly. Channa glanced from the head of his enemy to the man who held him prisoner. Something like pride replaced the fear in his eyes. Pride and anxiety lest he lose his treasured trophy.
"So ye killed Dixon," McKechnie mused. "What about the crew o' the schooner?"
Channa, his gaze still fastened on the blood-stained head, replied that they had fled in a boat to Guadalcanar when Dixon was killed.
"I believe ye arc telling the truth, Channa," said the white man, "especially as ye offer proof. The killing is none o' my business. But I'll take the big pearl ye found on Dixon—the Mongava pearl."
Channa's glance turned to McKechnie and traveled back to the head.
"Marster Dixon, him swallow that big fella pearl." he said slowly.
"But ye cut it out o' him, Channa!"
The king hesitated briefly. Then he put his free hand into his ditty-bag. He pulled out a pearl, large and lustrous. McKechnie took it from him silently. And, in spite of Channa's wailing protests, he took the head.
On board the Thor that evening McKechnie told his tale to Barclay. As a climax he unwrapped the scarred head that he had brought from Savo. Barclay shuddered.
"I suppose we'll have to shell Channa's village for him, McKechnie." he decided. "Can't let these fellows take to head-hunting again. But I won't waste many shells on him. I'm half convinced Dixon got what was coming to him. By the way, did you see anything of the Mongava pearl?"
McKechnie held out the big pearl that had come from Channa's ditty-bag.
"Channa gave up this." he said. "It must be what ye want. I'll take Dixon's head, and give it a decent burial at sea, if ye wish."
Barclay was glad enough to let the skipper attend to this task. When McKechnie and Gordon reached the cabin of the Auld Alfred, the former placed his grim burden on the table.
"Hard luck we had to give up the pearl, Mr. McKechnie," said Gordon, with a wry lace. "It must have been worth— Man, are you mad?"
McKechnie was tugging at the jaw of the skull furiously. Gordon watched him in amazement. The teeth were clenched tightly in the rigor of death. But with an effort McKechnie pried the jaw open slightly. With a wild cry he reached two fingers inside.
The next instant he held up a round object. The bewildered Gordon saw that it was a grey pearl, blood stained, but of wonderful color.
"The Mongava pearl, Gordon!" cried McKechnie. "Aye, Channa was sorry to see us take the head, especially after he had given me the smaller pearl. He lost two treasures at once. It was a verra interesting place, that skull-heap o' Channa's."