ISLE OF JEHANNUM.
RICHARD STONE had nothing in his past to shame his future. That he was no common sailor was true, in the sense that he had an education; he had gone to sea in the expectation of eventually managing his father’s shipping business. But his father and the business had gone to wreck together on the shoals of a friend's note, duly indorsed, and the crash found Stone in Sydney, his only asset a mate’s license in steam.
From Sydney he had worked north, with nothing in particular turning up, gaing a little reputation as a hard Yankee mate and ever looking out for some chance at fortune. Except for his Yankee conscience, Stone might have picked up many shekels.
When he had placed Agnes Bretton in her cabin to pack her necessities he returned to the deck. Mickelson had gotten safely away with all the boats, and was heading north across the comparatively quiet lagoon toward the island city, dimly visible under the gray skies. With Tan Tock and the two Malay quartermasters to aid him, Stone found himself in charge of the ship.
The remaining passengers—Chinese, Malays, and some mongrel ruffians—were wildly praying or stoically smoking opium. A dozen had flung themselves overboard after the boats and were lost. Stone moved among the rest, explaining matters, and in a few moments had them working cheerfully enough breaking out more stores.
“See here!” He took the two quartermasters aside. “What is that island named?”
“Tuan, it is called the Isle of Jehannum,” returned one uneasily.
“Hell Island, eh? It ’ll be well named. When the boats come back, keep one empty for ourselves and pick out for rowers four more men whom you can trust. We will be the last to leave. Tan Tock goes with us. You will not fail me in this?”
The eyes of the two stalwart seamen flickered over his shoulder. He turned to see the steward standing almost beside him.
“Hello there—you heard the orders? Everything ready?”
“Yes, tuan.” Tan Tock assented respectfully, his yellow face impassive as a Buddha’s.
“We obey you, tuan,” said the quartermasters as one man.
Stone turned back to the Sultan’s cabin and waited at the door until Miss Bretton appeared with a hand-bag.
“We may as well wait here,” he said quietly. “Excuse me while I get a few of the Sultan’s cigars. Might as well loot what I can.”
He entered the cabin and filled his pockets from the locker, then rejoined her. She was pale, as ever, with the same hint of childlike wonder in her eyes. But Stone was not deceived by that look; it sprang, he knew well, from a virginity of soul which was rare in this corner of earth—a heart of steel, so finely tempered from within that no exterior force could threaten its resiliency. Stone wondered what had sent this child-woman into these lands, upon such an errand as hers. Surely a mischance of Fate!
“I’ll take another look up the ladder. Sit down, Miss Bretton.”
He ran lightly up the companionway and paused, head and shoulders above the coaming, for a glance around. The Penang was being driven more solidly into the bar by every following wave, and gave no immediate signs of breaking up. Mickelson’s boats were lost to sight. The crowd on deck had relapsed into quietude.
As Stone took a step down to return, something flicked over his shoulder, and a knife slapped and quivered in the coaming; had he stayed where he was it would have gone through his heart.
He whirled and jerked out a revolver. But no one was in sight. The port-ladder had been lowered and the crowd was huddled there in the waist, waiting for the boats. The knife itself was an ugly little throwing-weapon. Stone shrugged his shoulders.
“Some Malay devil who wanted to kill an infidel,” he thought. “And cursed near did it!”
Returning, he found Miss Bretton sitting in one of the Sultan’s red-plush chairs—asleep! Stone eyed her with wonder; then he recalled that she must have been intensely wearied by lack of sleep and the strain of events, and now, with the ship motionless, she had given way. He saw that her hair was, like her face, unbeautiful, yet across its dull yellow ran a sheen of gold, like the smile that lighted her face into glory. He turned from gazing at her, with a vague sense of shame. She was like the Golden Virgin of Besut.
Fortunately, the Penang’s supply of boats and pontoon-rafts was excellent, for the Sultan never took chances when traveling. Mickelson had towed away two rafts laden with pilgrims, and owing to this fact those who remained would be easily accommodated on the second trip, and Stone could have one boat for himself. The presence of Agnes Bretton had caused him to form a simple and definite plan for the use of that boat.
Stone had no intention of joining the main mass of castaways. The disaster was due wholly to Benbow and Mickelson, who could take their medicine. Stone intended to keep away from the crowd until the storm had blown itself out, then to set forth for Kuala Gajah in his own boat, with Miss Bretton, and he had made preparations accordingly. Unfortunately for all concerned, however, the American kept his intentions to himself.
Half an hour later, yells of joy from the deck apprised him that the boats were returning. He wakened Miss Bretton, and together they sought the deck. Stone kept his hand on a revolver, but was given no further sign of trouble. Joining Tan Tock, Stone contrived a sling with which to send down the cases of mineral water, and the boats came under the lee of the slowly-settling bows.
The two quartermasters did their work well. While Mickelson came aboard to superintend the loading of the remaining passengers, they brought one boat and four rowers around to the lowered gangway ladder; before the second officer realized what was forward, Stone had loaded his supplies aboard and was helping Miss Bretton down. He got her safely into the pitching boat, and returned to the deck to find Mickelson interrogating Tan Tock.
“What's all this?” The Scot turned angrily as Slone joined them. “You’re—”
“I’m attending to business, Mickelson,” cut in Stone evenly, his eyes narrowing. “You’d better finish the embarkation and look sharp about it. This junkpile will go to pieces under us in a few more minutes.”
“What were you loading up with mast and sail for?” demanded Mickelson thickly, his jaw shoving forward in accusation. “Figurin’ to run off with the woman, hey?”
Tan Tock stood to one side, hands in sleeves. That he had innocently told Mickelson of Stone’s preparations was undoubted.
“I’m going to the island with all of you,” said Stone quietly. “If you say one word more to me, Mickelson, I’ll drill you. Mind—one word! Get to work, you filthy dog!”
A revolver flashed out in his hand. Mickelson’s mouth opened, but before the look in Stone’s eyes it closed with a snap. The second officer turned and strode away.
“Get down to the boat, Tan Tock. Mind how you jump!”
Stone followed the steward down the ladder, timed his jump as the boat lifted, and fell asprawl in the stern beside Miss Bretton. She pulled him up, and he gripped the tiller as the Malays gave way. Mickelson’s work was done. The boats crowded under the port bow were filing off across the bar, loaded deep; the last man gone, Mickelson himself jumped, was hauled into one of the boats, and headed north.
“Now, boys,” Stone smiled as he faced his men and lifted his voice down the wind to them, “I want you to work. We must get to the island before any of those other boats.”
“Aye, tuan!” came the grunted chorus, and the long oars bent again.
The stroke was one of the Malay seamen who had made the first trip. From him Stone learned that the island city was very large, and that the Malays in general believed it to be the abode of evil spirits. Also he learned that between the Malays and Chinese was bad blood, and that so far as any one knew, there was no water on Hell Island.
Mickelson’s boats were passed without effort, but still Stone urged his rowers ahead. In the lee of the mangrove swamps the surface of the lagoon was well protected, and gradually the gray mass of Hell Island drew into shape before them. A fantastic thing it was, and a fantastic city it must have been, connected by a causeway with the mainland in the ages before the coastline began to sink.
Like other such ancient cities of the jungle, it was too massively built to be ruined by anything less than an earthquake. The island, half a mile in length, was solidly covered with masonry—palaces and temples whose carven glories and obscenities were now masked by jungle vines and towering trees. Straight ahead was the great wharf of which Stone had heard tales, a mammoth platform of hewn stone; here the other boats had landed, as the crowd of natives testified. Stone caught sight of Captain Benbow watching.
“Sobered up, eh?” he reflected. “We’ll not bother him for a while.”
He turned the boat’s head to the right, paid no heed to Benbow’s waving arms, and the great wharf slid behind them.
“Look at the birds!” exclaimed Miss Bretton suddenly.
“Yes, the storm has driven them to shelter,” assented Stone. The trees and vines seemed cloaked with birds, seabirds, and gay creatures of the jungle, and the carven edges of old temples were etched by them into color. “Ah, there’s the place we want!”
A little promontory opened up ahead, upon which stood a fairy-land building—the pavilion of some forgotten Sultan’s favorite, perhaps. A perfect example of the Indo-Burmese art it was, a tiny, two-storied, pagoda-like structure, masked by ornate carving into semblance of a much larger building, and connected with the maze of other ruins by a wide stone platform that was bare except for a spreading baobab tree in the center. The little building itself seemed untouched by the jungle growths, and was exactly suited to Stone’s requirements.
“It’s a dear little place!” said Miss Bretton.
Stone laughed. “It won’t be very long. If it ’ll hold us until to-night I’m satisfied.”
“Until to-night?” Her eyes came to him questioningly. “Why?”
“Well, I’m greatly tempted to run away with you to-night!” Stone looked into her eyes and laughed again. “In fact, I think I shall. Will you mind? To be frank, this is not going to be a good place in which to stay, Miss Bretton.”
“And we’ll really run away together?” She colored slightly, merriment in her gaze.
“You bet we will!” rejoined Stone cheerfully. He turned to find Tan Tock, the steward, who was crouched beside the stroke oarsman, gazing at him fixedly. “All right, Tan Tock—hop ashore! We’ll stop here, boys.”
Tan Tock wrinkled his yellow face, as if in distaste of the orders, then jumped to the rocks against which Stone laid the boat. Five minutes later they were all ashore, and Stone set about inspecting his new quarters.
They found the pavilion free of snakes, being, in fact, a mere stone shell of the former grandeur. The lower and larger chamber opened directly upon the great platform and baobab tree; ascending by the stone stairs, they found the upper chamber to be intact and habitable.
“We’ll pull out after dark for Kuala Gajah,” he said to the girl at his side. “You had best stay up here until then. Benbow and Mickelson will be over here soon, and I want to know that you’re out of danger.”
“There’ll be—danger? How?”
“Danger from unscrupulous men, my dear young lady. Please accept my dictum.”
She assented meekly enough. Stone returned to the boat, got a portion of its load, ashore and up to the pavilion, and set Tan Tock to work getting them all a meal. He said nothing of his ulterior plans, however; nor did it occur to him that his half-jesting words to Miss Bretton in the boat might have fallen upon ears which would construe them as other than jest.
Stone’s forebodings proved to be quite justified by events.
Tan Tock’s meal was served and polished off. Half an hour afterward Stone, who was congratulating himself that the gale would be blown out before night, observed a boat coming along the island shore toward the pavilion. In the boat were seamen, with Captain Benbow and Mickelson. Stone joined his men, who were also watching the boat.
“Now, boys,” he said quietly, hands in his jacket-pockets, “here come Tuan Benbow and Tuan Mickelson. Do you choose to obey me or obey them? If you obey me there may be some fighting before we go away.”
The eyes of the Malays gleamed at the mention of fighting; your Malay is a man of peace, but his fathers were pirates and reivers. It was Tan Tock, however, who made reply.
“We obey you, tuan!”
“Aye! We obey you!” chorused the others quickly.
“Good,” said Stone. “Then listen well to the talk, for in it you may learn that in following me you have done well for yourselves.”
He strode down to the rocks above his boat, and stood there waiting. Although Miss Bretton remained in the upper chamber of the pavilion, he knew that she would hear all that passed. So, too, would the men behind him.
The other boat drew in slowly. A huge beef-eater was Captain Benbow, with a great, red face like the face of Borrow’s apple-woman, a liar’s soul behind his staring blue eyes, and the dangerous courage of a carrion rat in his heart. Beside him in the stern was the bulky, menacing figure of Mickelson. To all appearance neither man was armed, but Stone was not deceived by appearances.
“Way enough!” cried Stone when the skipper’s boat was twenty feet out. “Back water, you men! What do you want, cap’n?”
The boat stopped. Benbow cursed, then tried wheedling.
“I say now, old chap! Don’t be so bloomin’ set up—”
“Stay where you are.”
“But let us come in and stretch our legs a bit, you know—”
“Stay where you are. What do you want?”
Benbow’s red face flushed purple; with an effort, he repressed his emotion.
“Come, now, Stone! Dashed bloomin’ mess, old chap—all pull together, you know—in union strength—white men, eh, what?”
“What do you want?”
“Seamen in distress, old chap. No water on this bally island, except the few casks in our boats—cursed stinkin’ stuff, and even the Chinks turn up their noses at it. So we’ve come over to join forces—”
“I don’t want you.”
“Eh?” Benbow’s voice rose to a hoarse bellow. “No spoofin,’ old boy! We want—”
“Your wants don’t matter, cap’n,” rejoined Stone imperturbably. “While you lay drunk in your berth, Mickelson’s rotten stowing smashed the old Penang, and we’d all have gone down except for me. I have the ship’s papers and the log, and it ’ll be entered up just as it happened, so try that in your cuddy pipe, old chap!
“Now you’re stranded with your passengers, so make the best of it. If you’ve no good water it’s because you were too cursed drunk to get it—so make the best of it. If you don’t like your company over yonder, skip out and leave ’em. But keep away from here!”
Mickelson remained dour, silent, a threatening light in his pig-eyes; but Benbow rose and shook his fist in wild rage.
“So that’s it, eh, my bully?” he roared. “Thinkin’ you’ll sneak off wi’ the woman, eh? Tell you what I’ll do, lad—turn over the woman, and go your ways; refuse, and I’ll set the whole bloomin’ lot o’ brown devils on your neck!”
“If you want the woman, why not come and take her?”
Benbow’s hand went to his pocket; but he hesitated and weakened before the unmoving, inscrutable American. A torrid curse broke from him.
“Jump on him, you boys!” he cried out to the brown men behind Stone. “You, quartermaster, take him from behind—”
Stone caught a movement behind him, but dared not take his eyes from Benbow, nor his hand from the revolver in his pocket. Then, unexpectedly, the thin voice of Tan Tock, surcharged with anger, rose from beside him.
“You, Tuan Benbow, we are not your men! It is the white woman you want, then? Wait until the Sultan hears of this, dog of an infidel! May Allah take you alive to Jehannum!”
Now, as though at mention of the Sultan, Mickelson made a wry face and spoke out.
“Stone, don’t be a fool! Throw in wi’ white men, lad; have naught to do wi’ them heathen or ye’ll have a knife in the back one o’ these days. Tan Tock there is the worst murderin’ devil unhung—”
“Clear out,” ordered Stone briefly. He saw that Tan Tock hated Benbow, and for some occult reason had chosen to protect Miss Bretton from the skipper; and he was now well satisfied that his men would stand behind him. That Benbow would set the Malays and Chinese upon him he did not doubt. In any case, they would be at his throat for the precious bottled water—if he remained here. But Stone did not intend to remain for long.
“Why don't you two precious ones pull for Kuala Gajah to-night when the wind goes down?” continued Stone, seeing that they hesitated before him. Mickelson responded with a black scowl, sweeping his hand toward the two rowers.
“There’s not enough boats for all, and the brown devils smashed ’em and smashed all the oars but them two—if they can’t get away, d’ye see, they mean to keep us, too! Fat chance we’d have wi’ two oars! No, give us a lift in your craft, Stone—don’t go back on your own color—”
“Get to hell out of here,” cut in Stone calmly. “You’re probably lying, but I don’t care if you are or not—get out!”
“You’ll sweat for this!” stormed Benbow. “It’s mutiny, that’s what!”
Still storming, he ordered his men to give way. Still smiling, Stone watched them go, then turned to Tan Tock and the seamen.
“Good! Tan Tock, remain here and watch along the shore for boats; the rest of you go over among those ruins, work your way along carefully, and bring in word when any comes. They may not wait until night before attacking.”
“Yes, tuan,” was the response.
Stone strode on to the pavilion. At the entrance he turned to look seaward; Benbow’s boat was crawling away along the shore line, while Tan Tock was talking with the quartermasters. Then the latter turned with their men and departed across the open pavement to the jungled ruins beyond, and Tan Tock seated himself on a rock above the tethered boat.
Stone passed on into the pavilion. As he recalled the words of Mickelson, the tale of the smashed boats and oars began to appear less incredible; at first he had deemed it a lie, but now he believed it true. The Malays and Chinese, seeing themselves marooned and in sore straits, would without doubt have insured against the two white men leaving them, and they had apparently done so very promptly and efficiently. Such was their character. Mickelson and Benbow were alone with seven-score sharp krises of Trenganu steel, which would become sanctified by the blood of an infidel, and Stone was not in the least worried over their predicament.
He found Miss Bretton waiting for him, sitting under the ruined roof with a slight smile traced upon her pale features, her gray eyes gleaming at him like the fire-lit jade eyes of the god in the Yellow Temple.
“Yes, Mr. Stone.” That was all; a simple assent. No talk of her danger, no hysterical fear of lust and rapine, no overwhelming of soul before the unleashed and monstrous terror of the jungle world. Stone’s eyes lightened with admiration. This girl plainly understood her position—and was not afraid!
“If they leave us alone we’ll clear out of here a couple of hours after dark,” he said quietly. “Tan Tock will stand by me—”
“Don’t trust him too far.”
“Eh? Why not? He saved you from Benbow when you came aboard.”
“I understand that. Still, I have an instinctive fear of him.”
Outwardly, Stone nodded assent. Inwardly, however, he laughed to himself; she was afraid of all these yellow-brown men, he thought, and it was only natural that her armor should give way at some point. To doubt Tan Tock was absurd, of course.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll stretch out here at the head of the stairs for an hour’s nap.” The American smiled wryly. “There are no snakes up here, and I’m afraid of ’em down below. You don’t mind, I hope? I don’t want to call in any of the men to watch over me—”
“Please don’t be foolish!” A rippling smile stole across her pale face. “You know that it will be my privilege to be of any help. Aren’t we partners in distress?”
“Sure! Want a gun, partner?”
She shook her head. Stone, with a great sigh of relief, stretched out on the flags.