Sea Scamps/At the Break of the Monsoon
BREAK OF THE MONSOON
THERE are a great many better places to be than around the Pellew Islands at the breaking up of the monsoon. If Dr. Boles and Jordan Knapp had only been satisfied with the nice little trade that we were getting in the Philippines, we three might have been together yet. As it is, Boles is annexed; the Lord only knows where poor old Knapp may be; probably resting deep on the rose coral, with his hair ground into the golden sand that carpets the floor of those sunlit seas. As for me, I have been on the wallaby again with palette and brush and inseparable colour-box. My studies were all lost in the wreck,—that is, those in my sketch-book,—but the studies that are still unfaded in head and heart can never be taken from me, and have already, I am told, done much to make me famous as a painter of marines.
It was Dr. Boles who first showed me the folly of trying to express in colours the spirit that I had never felt—the spirit of the sea. It was he who first persuaded me to abandon my futile life of æsthetic indolence and turn my face to the changing, changeless face of the great Artist whose colours are the elements, and whose canvas the broad face of the waters, with the frame of the heavens circling them about. He showed me indeed how to get the spirit of the sea, but alas! I learned the lesson all too well—for now I have sucked up its restlessness and intolerance of all restraint. Before, I lived in a fool's paradise, happy in my narrow little sphere. Now, I am discontented in a grander one.
As I sit in my little summer studio, way up on Duncansby's Head, and watch the cold grey waters swirling through the Pentland Firth, and, when the night is clear, see the early summer sun dropping redly to its brief resting-place behind the grim "Old Man o' Hoy," my thoughts flit back to those perennial summer seas where day and night are both so sensuously sweet that the great yellow moon can hardly wait for the sun to go below—and is in turn deposed in one quick burst of glory when the night watch is over.
To one fresh from those sparkling waters, it is easy to feel and to express the gloom and bleakness of these grim northern shores. And so my pictures are lauded in Academy and Salon, but, strange to say, the power of such praise has gone. Before the masterpieces carried in my mind, those pictures that I spread on canvas are drab and colourless.
In the six months that I had spent cruising around the islands with Knapp and Boles in their little schooner, I had got to know them both better than either knew the other in spite of their former associations. I think that perhaps this was because they were a little critical of one another, each feeling the masterfulness of the other, and neither caring to be dominated. It was this tacit acknowledgment on the part of each of the strength of the other which made them at times so assertive of their own, but to me, of whom God knows they never had the slightest occasion for jealousy, they were always the epitome of kindness. I doubt if there ever lived two men of more heart and less principle. It seemed as if each felt that the world had used him unduly hard—thrown down the gauntlet, so to speak—and they had accepted the challenge; asked no favours, but wrested from their mutual enemy all that they could get. They pretended that this common cause was the tie that had linked their fortunes for so many months, but this, while it may have deceived themselves, failed to deceive me. I could see—in fact, had seen—that underneath all of their indifference and coldness there was a powerful tie of affection, such as may exist between two brothers who often quarrel and never approve one another. On our first cruise to Samar, when Boles was so severely wounded by one of the Spanish traders whom we had fooled out of a rich cargo of hemp, Knapp was tremendously overcome, and tended him as a mother would her child—all of which, however, failed to prevent Boles' scathing criticisms of the manner in which he handled or, rather, navigated the schooner; but for once the big Yankee was silent and took all of the bedevilling without a word.
Both men were voluntary exiles: Knapp from a little New England State of the historic shrewdness of whose sons he was a shining exponent, and Boles was from London, that great whirling centre, the centrifugal force of which flings men to so many far comers of the earth. Whatever his past, it was easy to see that he had originally come of thoroughbred stock. Although repeatedly floored by Fortune's buffets he had never lost his poise. As Knapp once said: "If that man Boles didn't have so much sense, there'd be no abiding him."
Both had confided more or less in me—Knapp more, Boles less. I knew how Knapp had drifted into the East in the interest of an iron construction company which for some reason had lost its interest in him, and I knew that Dr. Boles had once stood high as a surgeon in London; this I discovered accidentally. But it sufficed for me that both were wise in their way, and both were good to me, and long before our last cruise through the bright waters of the Sulu Sea I had learned to love them both. There is a pathos about the hardened, confirmed adventurer, perhaps because of his loneliness—or it may be on account of the feeling that his end will be a tragic one. At any rate, when you have faced death with him and found him stanch, as I have done, it brings him very close.
I have said that my comrades were unprincipled. They were; not, however, in the coarse, selfish, criminal way of brutal high-handedness to be found., I regret to say, in so many of the island traders, but unprincipled from the standpoint of their early associations. Knapp was a rigid New England Congregationalist, and Boles, it is safe to assume, had been educated in the High Church of England; at any rate he once told me that he was a graduate of Oxford. Yet not more than a year before I met him he had been engaged in an attempt to smuggle opium into the Philippines, and he and Knapp had been together in another enterprise which, as far as I could make out, was little short of piracy.
But their lack of principle never descended to the plane of low personal conduct. Neither was a drinking man, and once or twice, when the glamour of the East was in danger of anæsthetising my moral senses, Boles had laid a firm detaining hand upon my arm. I was never so sure of Knapp. At the end of a cruise he would sometimes melt away from our sight—nor would we see him again for a couple of days. Where he went we never asked him—nor would he drop a hint by word or sign.
For six months we had plied a legitimate and profitable trade running up and down the islands from Aparri to Sibutu, and in and out to Ho Ho, Cebu, Zamboanga, and a score of others, for hemp, tobacco, copra, which was scarce, or anything we might pick up. Once we ran down along the coast of Mindanao and loaded the schooner chock-a-block with curios—odd-shaped knives, spears, and shields, and a few relics of the early Spanish invaders of the island. These we sold at a good profit to the tourists beginning to arrive in Manila and to some of the returning officers as well.
At last, when we had grown familiar with the waters, and probably for that very reason, Boles grew discontented and began to talk of pearls and copra to the eastward. Knapp tried to discourage it, and did succeed in staving him off for a month or two, but a couple of poor trips at length sowed the seeds of his discontent, which the sight of familiar mountains could never have done. Three weeks later, deep with a cargo of trading junk, a lot of which was brought out for us by a transport-captain friend of Boles, we beat out through the San Bernardino Channel and headed southeast by east.
That night I took the mid-watch. When I came on deck I found that we were becalmed on a gently heaving sea with the land looming blackly on our starboard quarter. Knapp, whom I relieved, was yawning by the wheel, and up in the eyes I could dimly distinguish the huddled figure of one of our Filipino boys who was supposed to be on lookout, but whose attitude suggested oblivion. It struck me that the air was strangely oppressive, but I had not been a sailorman long enough to instinctively go and take a look at the glass. Knapp was too sleepy to notice it, and presently I heard his vigorous snores vibrating up the companion.
There seemed to be a little air stirring aloft, for her topsails were drawing slightly and we seemed to keep our steerage way. Usually we furled topsails at night, but Boles had heard of something that made him want to lose no time, so we kept all her rags on her but the staysail.
Before long the little air aloft fell flat, and about the same time the stars went out. The pale glimmer on the face of the compass showed that our head was swinging to the southward, though the helm was hard a-starboard. The feeling of suffocation and high nervous tension which I had noticed when I first came on deck increased until, finally, I was almost ready to scream from the indefinable apprehension that seemed to have suddenly seized me. Weird, phosphorescent flashes seemed to come from the inky water on all sides and the air weighed on my chest like a heavy blanket. Yet, because the sea was still and the night soft and warm, I never thought of the impending evil. Instead, I sat cursing what seemed to me an unmanly nervousness and making every effort of will to overcome it.
Finally a new perception brought me up all standing. Leaning idly against the wheel, I happened to cast my eyes aloft to see if I could get a glimpse of a star. I found the star through a little rift in the murk, and getting it in line with the fore shrouds I watched it for a moment to see if we were still swinging.
Then a peculiar thing occurred. The star began slowly to ascend! Puzzling over this phenomenon it seemed to me that my ears caught a dull, growling, muffled roar far astern of us.
Then, all at once, the full reason of these marvels burst upon me, and grabbing a heavy belaying-pin from the collar of the mainmast I thundered on the hatch at the head of the companionway. The vertical movements of the star were caused by a great swell beneath us; an undulation so long that the whole of our little vessel was raised and lowered bodily, and the dull, distant rumble was caused by the crashing of these great smooth seas on the rocks of Batag Island, far astern.
My rough summons had brought all hands from their bunks on the jump. Boles gave one look around, then at the compass, and then he ducked down through the hatch for a look at the glass. I heard him give one horror-stricken curse, and the next moment he was flying forward. Our Filipino boys, who knew nothing of barometers, but had the quick instinct of the seagull, were already on deck and frenziedly casting off the maintopsail halliards, anticipating the order. Boles was a dozen men in one incredibly swift-moving body.
"Brown, drop that wheel and get in the jib—quick! Knapp, help 'em with those topsails." As he shouted he was quickly throwing extra lashings around our whaleboat and dinghy.
"All right—leggo your foresail halliards—on the run. Knapp, get ahold of that foresail reefin' tackle—haul away, man—make fast. Look sharp there. Brown——" He jumped aft, and with the help of the three. Filipinos started to furl the mainsail.
We had swung completely around by this time, so as to head back toward the island of Samar. Out on the bowsprit, with one leg thrown across the spar, the other foot on the starboard bobstay and my arms full of the jib, I was too intent on getting the sail securely furled to take much heed of what was going .on around me. A roar from Knapp almost knocked me overboard.
"Lay aft, Brown—for your life!"
Looking quickly up, I saw with horror what the flapping of the canvas, as I threw the loose bights in place, had hidden. Between us and the land there had risen a long, uneven line of ghostly white, and as I looked there came the shriek and roar of a loosed inferno. Dropping everything, I came in off that bowsprit like a frightened chimpanzee. Boles and the boys were throwing extra gaskets around the hastily furled mainsail, and Knapp, having hauled taut and belayed the reefing tackle rove through the leech of the foresail, was frantically clawing at the reef pennants and tying them in. Someone had cast the halliards of the forestaysail off the pin and let the sail run, but it had not been furled. I saw that Boles' idea was to let go everything until the first squall blew over, and then to run, or heave her to under the double-reefed foresail. If there had been time he would have gotten in the foresail altogether and set a little storm trysail, but as it was we were too late to secure what we had.
The noise by this time was appalling, but we had not felt a breath of wind. The screaming of that gale as it tore at us through that breathless blackness was, without exception, the most nerve-racking torture that I have ever conceived, and I believe that if I had been less actively engaged I might have jumped overboard from sheer panic.
Knapp was not affected this way. He was working against time to save money, and the keen grey eye that he cast ahead was cool and calculating.
"Looks sort o' dusty," he remarked to me as he worked. "Darn it, there's that new forestaysail all over the place—hang on, kid—here she comes."
And come she did. As he talked I could hear the hum of the wind aloft through the rigging; then we felt a quick hot puff and the loose sail forward gave a flap on the deck like a great wounded bird. There came another puff that sent me staggering against the mainmast,—another and still another,—and then all hell broke loose.
Over we went to starboard—over and over and over till we seemed completely on our beam ends, and there we stayed while the deck was awash clean amidships, and the spume and flying spray struck our weather bilge and shot clean over us, making it seem as if we were lying under a Niagara. Forward I caught a momentary glimpse of a great struggling balloon as the wind got into the belly of the forestaysail, and the next moment there was a report like a gun and I saw it gyrating to leeward. Following it came a tearing, drumming noise, and all at once the jib, which I had so securely furled, stood out like a great pennant from the bowsprit. Only for a moment and it, too, was gone.
Both topmasts were over the side with a mass of wreckage, and as we righted slightly and backed away before the gale the foresail was lifted dear of the sea enough for the wind to get in it, and then with a sort of double parting salute it took flight. Above the roar of wind and sea, flapping canvas, and ripping cordage, at each consecutive loss I could hear Knapp's strident curses mingled with the blast of the gale. We lay side by side, flat on our faces on the deck, protected by the weather bulwarks, and squeezing the tar out of a runner near at hand.
Looking aft over my shoulder I saw Boles lying on his side on the leeward side of the wheel, which he seemed to be going up hand over hand. His antics were purposeful, for soon the schooner, which had been broadside on to the squall, began to pay off and the wind came in on her quarter and then astern. Knapp and I crawled aft. I only saw one native boy where there should have been three. The lives of the others are charged up to the great profit and loss account of the sea.
"Here, Brown," called Boles, "take the wheel and keep her off before it. Knapp, let's clear away the wreck."
For about an hour they worked like beavers while we tore along under bare poles at such a rate of speed as I never expected to attain with everything drawing. Then Boles went below to study the chart. Knapp came and stood beside me, remarking casually that both of our boats had gone to hell, so it would be well to try and keep the schooner afloat if possible. Neither man had said, or ever did say, a word of reproach to me for my neglect in waiting so long before breaking them out.
When Boles came on deck the first thing that he did was to grab the long iron lever of the pump and suck her dry. Apparently we were leaking nothing to speak of. Then he cast a look all around, but there was nothing to see but flying spray.
"Seems to be going our way," he said, turning to us. "After all it might have been a lot worse. Serves me jolly well right for not looking at the glass before I turned in. Probably wouldn't have made any difference though—that's a rotten barometer. Well, there's two of our crew gone up—or down, rather—too bad—too bad."
"How long are you going to run?" asked Knapp.
"Until daylight anyway. I want to get well clear of that coast in case the wind comes back at us. Did you notice the way that sea was coming in? Looks like wind ahead." Needless to say, this conversation was a series of shouts.
All that night we tore along, and when the morning came it brought little cheer. The sea was getting up wickedly and combing somewhat, which rather puzzled Boles, as he said we must have passed the 2500-fathom line long ago. However, he laid it to the currents.
At nine o'clock we got a scrap of headsail on her to keep her well ahead of the sea, which was beginning to loom up ominously under our stem. Our speed then after this was done became absolutely appalling. I would not have been surprised to have discovered the Chilian coast close aboard at any moment. The chaos of sky and swirling waters seemed to have affected my brain, and all sense of fear had long since left me. Instead there was a mad, exhilarating sense of freedom of all restraint, and I wanted to shout and sing. The wind was dead astern of us now and was blowing a steady gale, which occasionally abated slightly, thus giving the sea a chance to rise. A great brimming swell would lift our stem, and for a moment we would seem to pause as if to gather strength while our bows were buried to the hawse-pipes in the green flank of the sea ahead, then the big following sea would slowly creep amidships, the schooner would raise her head, and for a minute we would shoot like an arrow on the very crest of the wave.
These mad leaps ahead, combined with the crash of the foam under our bow; the roar of the gale through our tousled tops, and the hiss of the flying spray about, were perfectly intoxicating. Boles wore a flush in either cheek, and his grey eyes sparkled as he met her wild yaws with a strong and steady twist of the wheel. Even Knapp the practical, the utilitarian, who had but to look aloft to see where the hard dollars had been torn from his grasp, presently threw his big-featured, deep-lined visage to the scowling sky and bawled at the top of his lungs:
"'Oh the Dreadnought was sailin'
Down the Long Island sho-o-o-r-r-e,
And the seas from her scuppers
In torrents did pour-r-r-r-e——'"
And on the last line of the chantey Boles and I would join in with:
"'Lord God, let her GO!!'"
It was a crazy performance for three men in our position, and I know that our poor little remaining Filipino was firmly convinced that the wildness of our surroundings had sent us stark, staring mad.
At midday came the crucial test. Boles decided that we had run as far as was safe, and that if we were going to heave her to at all it would not do to wait much longer. Indeed, as I looked back at the heaving mass of water astern of us, I decided that we had already waited too long, and that we would never live to get her head to that sea. But Boles seemed satisfied, albeit a little anxious.
We set a little leg-o'-mutton ridingsail from the main throat-halliards and lashed it to the main boom, which was lashed fore and aft. A little scrap of a storm trysail was rigged from the mainmast to the foot of the foremast, and Knapp stood by to get it up as soon as we got around into the wind. The Filipino boy and I stood by to get in the scrap of headsail as soon as Boles should give the word. I think that that minute's suspense was the worst I have ever had.
Boles stood gripping the wheel in his strong, nervous hands and casting an alert eye over his shoulder for a lull in the sea. Strong, wary, vigilant, with the beautiful outlines of his classic, splendidly developed figure sharply defined through the thin wet linen clothes that clung to limbs and body, he was a sight to hold the artist's eye.
Then as we watched him, waiting for the signal, our hearts in our mouths, a calm seemed to settle on the sea astern. Far in the distance a great billow shot whitely upward—and disappeared again.
"Down jib!—hard a-lee!"
We hauled for our lives, and had the canvas almost in, when suddenly the wretched halliard jammed 'way aloft in the block. I looked around despairingly, and in a bound Knapp was beside me. Together we hove for every pound that was in us, while the gale, catching the scrap of sail, paid us off and held us for a moment abeam to wind and sea. Just for a moment, when away came the kink and we piled on one another on the deck. But the mischief was done. Boles, seeing that the delay had lost us only chance to heave her up, clawed his wheel madly back again and tried to get her off before the comber rushing up astern should strike us. And practically he did. But one great mass of dark green water came hurtling at our stern and struck the rudder full, just as it rose. There came a jar as though our stem had dropped upon a rock, and Boles went spinning across the deck as though slung by a giant hand. I grabbed the wheel, but the spokes twirled idly in my hands. Boles was on his feet in an instant.
"Get up that headsail again—quick! Leggo this ridin's'l! By the ——! now we have done it!"
In a minute we had her off before it again, but not till a couple of seas had swept her clean and given us a quick scramble for our lives. And then, as we turned and looked at one another in dismay, a new note in the uproar smote upon our ears. Knapp leaped to the fore rigging and took a long look ahead. Then he slid to the deck, turned, and snapped both thumbs above his head, a queer expression on his face.
"Breakers ahead!" he sung out, and added reflectively, "and the rudder gone to hell."
Boles and I leaped to the main-shrouds and strained our eyes to pierce the veil of flying spray that hung across our bows. Then in a moment it thinned a bit and we caught a glimpse of snow-white tumbling water on the starboard bow. I glanced at the bewildering chaos of mounting waves astern, then at the mad, rioting line of breakers, and for a moment felt the hair bristle on my scalp. But there was little time for idle speculation, which was fortunate, as we were as helpless as a chip in the rapids of the St. Lawrence. Before we had time to recover from the shock we had driven past clear of the shoal and left it on our quarter.
This danger past, our hope revived a bit; then there fell the heaviest blow of all. We tried the pumps and found her leaking badly!
The sea that had carried away our rudder had undoubtedly started something about the stem-post; Boles thought that she was generally strained as well. She seemed to be getting very logy, and now every following sea threatened to come crashing over her stern.
Knapp and the boy Emilio were put at the pump and Boles and I managed to get some more headsail on her. It was a precarious job, but we had to have it, both to keep her off before the wind and to keep her ahead of the sea. Boles had considered rigging a sea anchor and dragging out before the gale, but now that she was leaking so badly our only salvation was to try and fetch an island and have it close aboard when the gale broke. And already the glass was rising and there seemed less weight in the wind. But the sea was, if anything, worse.
All that night we slaved away, wet and hungry and, for my part, half dead with fatigue. Emilio had completely given out. Boles and I were hammering and sawing away at a raft, if the worst came to the worst, and steadily through the clatter of our hammers and the crash and seething of dying gale came the "gurgle—chunk, gurgle—chunk" of the pump as Knapp's great tireless frame swung up and down, up and down, hour in and hour out.
Towards morning I shame to say that I collapsed. Thirty-six hours of ceaseless work and anxiety, with no sleep and scarcely any food, was hauling the line too taut. I just sat down for a moment to rest, and passed away. Knapp stopped pumping long enough to carry me below like an infant.
When I awoke the sun was streaming down the companionway, and through the hatch I caught a glimpse of the sweetest blue sky I ever saw. Boles was leaning over me with one hand on my chest. Sleepy as I was I could not help noticing the deep lines on either side of his mouth and the dark shadows under his eyes. And then I heard the "gurgle—chunk, gurgle—chunk," that had followed me through my dreams, and knew that poor old Knapp was still swinging away at the pump.
Full of remorse and apologies, I hurried up the ladder, or rather stumbled up, for I was still dazed with sleep. When I struck the deck my eyes popped open wide enough.
Aside from a long, even ground swell, we were in water as smooth as a mill-pond and a soft little breeze was fanning gently abeam, and right ahead and not more than three miles away rose a mountainous island, girt with a snowy zone of gleaming beach. Beyond a promontory a mile to windward I could see the uneven horizon that bespoke a heavy swell of which only the skirts reached us. A glance over the side showed me that we had found our lee none too soon. Amidships the deck was not eighteen inches above the water. Boles and Knapp had rigged out a sort of great sweep astern, made from a couple of planks nailed to one of the whaleboat masts. They had set a jib and the riding sail, and under this we were slowly approaching the beach.
"Do you know that island?" I asked Boles.
"Oh, yes," he answered. "It's charted right enough, but not very well recommended as a health resort, I believe——"
"It 'll be a better health resort than this hooker in about another hour," said Knapp. "Here, give me a spell at this pump, kid. Lucky that I was in the milk business once or we'd been on bottom long ago."
"Why didn't you wake me up before?" I asked. "What are we going to do?"
"We couldn't wake you up with a pound of dynamite, and we're going to beach this hooker if we can keep her afloat about half an hour longer," said Knapp.
"Sooner than that," said Boles. "Might as well hang her up to dry on that bar ahead—it seems to run all the way along."
"Let's get the raft overboard now," said Knapp. "No use waiting until she strikes, we might get our feet wet."
The raft at which Boles and I had been at work was completed sufficiently to ferry us and a few of the necessities of life. We slid it over the side, and Emilio jumping down aboard it secured the junk we passed down to him. The pale green water over the bar was not a cable's length ahead of us when we cast off from the poor little schooner's side, and a few minutes later the long, low combers were washing her decks.
We managed to paddle ashore without mishap, though it was a very wet and rather precarious passage. Knapp wanted to go back to the schooner and try and rescue some more truck, but Boles dissuaded him, saying that the raft would not live two minutes on the bar. Our experience coming in through the surf seemed to verify this.
We were not a very cheerful party as we sat on the beach and watched our poor little schooner breaking up on the bar. Boles seemed to mind it the least—next to Emilio. He remarked philosophically: "Fortune of the sea—poverty at the best, and Davy Jones' locker at the worst." Then he lit his pipe and started down the beach.
Knapp had fallen asleep almost as soon as he struck high-water mark. Emilio was rolling a cigarette and I was lazily watching Boles disappearing in the distance, when suddenly I saw him turn and wave his hands above his head. Though he had told me that the island was not inhabited there was something startling in his gestures, so giving Knapp a dig in the ribs, I picked up a rifle and belt and started down the beach. Then I saw the cause of his excitement.
Around the point a giant swell was thundering up on the beach, and not a mile away, and about a quarter of a mile off the shore, two dismantled masts rose from the churning water. On the beach we could distinguish several moving objects and what seemed to be a sail rigged out as an awning. The barking of a dog came down to us on the breeze.
"Seems to be a popular watering-place," said Boles, turning to me. "Let's go down and pay our respects."
When we were within about half a mile they discovered us, and for a moment there was great confusion. Then, probably seeing that we were white, they quietly waited our approach. As we drew near, the relief that I had at first felt on seeing that there were other occupants of the island, quickly turned to disgust. Of all the villainous-looking scoundrels that were ever rejected by sea and land the six that defiled that shining stretch of beach left any in that line I have ever seen hull down. Their primary instincts were treachery and deceit. With no earthly reason for doing so they lied to us from the start. First they told us that they were whalers; then seeing Boles glance contemptuously at the slight spars of the wreck, they said that they were trading around the islands. Before we left them they had given us two or three other lines of occupation. The only point on which their stories agreed was that their captain had been washed overboard in the hurricane, and that they had lost their bearings and been cast up on the island the night before. How they had managed to reach the shore was a mystery to me, but I suppose the bar on which their vessel struck had broken the force of the surf. While we were talking Knapp came up, but after he had listened to a fragment of their vile talk he turned and went back. Boles and I soon followed him, declining invitations to remain.
"What do you make of that outfit, Boles?" I asked as we were walking back.
"Sea tramps," he answered. "Pearl and seal poachers, black-birders, thieves, and scoundrels in general. They've got a boat there that only needs a little overhauling to make her seaworthy. I hope to the Lord they'll fix her up and clear."
"What chance have we of being taken off?" I asked.
"Oh, we're all right enough. We've got our tools, and when the sea goes down a bit we'll see what we can do with the schooner. If nothing else offers we can get planks enough from her to whack together some sort of a craft that will float us to the Pellews."
That night the mongrel crew from the wreck came over to visit us, and defiled the soft night air for rods around with the reek of their foul mouths. They were all about half-drunk, as they had managed to save a cask of rum from their vessel. One of them, a Cockney gutter-cat, interested me by vigorously insisting that the island was inhabited, swearing with much sulphurous obscenity that he had found by a spring not far from our camp the print of a naked foot, which, from its smallness and slenderness, he thought to belong to a woman. That started them off on a line of argument such as in all of my knocking about I had never listened to, and I verily believe that if they had stayed an hour longer I would have run amuck and exterminated some of them as I would a noxious beast. But at last they went, the Cockney swearing that he was going to get up early and try and stalk the owner of the little footprint the following morning.
Knapp and Boles regarded the Cockney's maudlin assertions as the incoherent ravings of an alcoholic intellect, but in some way the story had made an impression on me. Accordingly, the following morning I hunted up the place described, just to satisfy my mind. And well it was that I did so.
I found the spring without any difficulty by following the little stream of crystal water that flowed down across the beach not far from our camp. Where it burst from the mountain side there was quite a good-sized pool, and there, sure enough, in the damp loamy sand that encircled it were the sharp impressions of a dainty foot. What caused me to catch my breath with surprise was the fact that it was not a native's foot—or, if so, decidedly unlike any that I had ever seen before, as the instep was almost clear of the sand. A further discovery almost paralysed me. I found a place where she had knelt to drink, and there in the mould were the sharp impressions of two rounded knees, and on the brink two shapely hands. Clearly marked across one of the finger prints was the sharp-cut outline of a ring.
Quietly I stole away, and ten minutes later had brought Boles with me to the spot. Silently he approached the pool and carefully studied the prints in the sand; then as silently pointed to what my startled eyes had failed to see, the heavy marks of hob-nailed sea boots on the other side of the pool.
Hark!—what was that? From up on the slope above us there rose a scream that clove the hoarse babel of the thundering surf as the cry of an eagle pierces the rumble of the coming storm. Again it rose clear and quavering, then sobbed into silence.
Together we plunged into the jungle, following the only open way. A few minutes later we burst into an open space and stood with thumping hearts and staring eyes.
Under a frowning ledge of rock there stood a woman, a goddess, a Diana of Hans Makart. A tangled mane of red-gold hair poured across her naked bosom, and a tattered shawl of oriental colours, torn and faded, was caught about one shoulder, and hung in ribbons to her knees. Her beautiful head was thrown well back, while the fire of defiance gleamed from her sparkling blue eyes. In each hand she grasped a rough fragment of rock. Her feet stood in a little pool of blood.
Facing her on either side stood the Cockney and one of his villainous shipmates, half stooping, with hands on knees, and glaring bloodshot eyes. Absorbed in the woman they had brought to bay, they had not heard us, but stood panting like two bloodhounds who have run their prey to earth.
The woman heard us and quickly turned her head. Then, like a flash, the Cockney sprang in and his knotty fingers closed around her marble arm.
I heard a snarl beside me, and in the instant Boles had leaped upon the man, seized him by the throat, torn loose his grasp, and hurled him with a crash against the cliff. Then came the sound of crunching bone, and the woman fell forward. As Boles swung round, the other villain had thrown his musket to his shoulder, but before he could aim I had emptied my pistol in his face. Down he went, and as he fell his musket was discharged with a roar that shook the mountain side. But the charge flew high. Gently we raised the woman, and Boles sat down upon the ferns and put her head upon his knee. Her fingers were still clenched on the jagged, bloody mass of stone. I rolled the Cockney over on his back, and Boles reached out and took his wrist. It was pulseless. The other ruffian was lying sprawled out on his face, and I did not take the trouble to look at him. His position was diagnostic.
We made a rough sort of stretcher and carried the girl back to our camp. Aside from a few scratches, and some nasty cuts on her poor little feet, she did not seem to be hurt, but still she remained unconscious. In about an hour her eyes opened, but she seemed delirious, and Boles said that her temperature was rising. A little later she was in a raging fever, and babbled incessantly in some Teuton language that sounded to me like Holland Dutch. We were utterly unable to form any theory as to how she came to be on the island. As may be supposed, Knapp was almost knocked off his feet when we came up the beach with our burden, but I saw his grey eyes gleam for a moment when I told him of how we had left the two on the mountain side.
Late in the afternoon we saw five sombre figures stalking up along the water's edge, casting long shadows on the purpling sands ahead of them. Ominously they walked up to our fire.
The Portuguese spoke in a soft, purring voice, that reminded me of a panther.
"Where are our shipmates, señors—and who is that?" His wicked black eyes flashed across at the woman, who was moaning and muttering. Boles started to speak, but Knapp interrupted him.
"We don't know, and we don't care a damn. Who this woman is, is none of your business—and what's more, we don't like your kind, and I reckon you'd better just keep away from this camp—savvy?"
"Ah!" replied the Portuguese with a wicked smile. "We heard two gun shots a leetle while ago, and——"
"Yes," said Knapp impatiently, "and you'll hear some more gun shots in a minute. Now move on—sneak—and mind ye, if we catch a glimpse of ye prowlin' around this camp you'll be shy another shipmate, savvy?—Now vamoose—pronto!" He threw his rifle into the crook of his arm. The men lost no time in going, and slunk down the shore into the gathering shadows.
After they had gone we held a council of war. Knapp was strongly in favour of our helping ourselves to our neighbours' boat, overhauling it, and leaving them on the island until we could make the nearest inhabited island, which was only about one hundred miles away, and send a schooner for them. Boles objected to this plan, saying that it was downright piracy, but I have a strong intuition that he was deterred less from any such scruples than from his unwillingness to subject his patient to the dangers of an open boat. Thereupon Knapp grew silent, but I could see that he was thinking hard.
We stood watches that night, though we had little fear of our neighbours, as our numbers were nearly equal, and we were armed, while Boles was pretty certain that the musket we had brought with us from the dead man on the hillside was probably the only firearm which they possessed.
Knapp was very quiet at breakfast, and soon afterwards he picked up his rifle and sauntered down the beach. We asked him where he was going, but he simply said: "To see what that scurvy outfit's up to."
Two hours later, as he did not return, I grew nervous, and, taking a rifle, started after him. A few minutes' walk brought me to the other camp, where a strange comedy was going on.
The surfboat had been hauled up clear of the water and capsised, and over it the four ruffians were working like beavers, while at a little distance stood the huge, gaunt, watchful figure of Jordan Knapp. His rifle was lying in the crook of his elbow, and he was admonishing the workers in profane and strident terms. They, on their part, worked silently, and with a will. A bloody gash over the forehead of one of them bore evidence of insubordination, but the present discipline was excellent. The Portuguese was missing.
Knapp turned to me with a grin.
"I reckon the greaser smelt work in the air," he said. "They don't any of 'em like it too well, but they're doing first-rate for beginners—hey?"
I looked at him amazed.
"For Heaven's sake, what's the game?" I asked.
"Just this, sonny. Boles doesn't want to take the lady to sea in this crate, and I don't blame him. But there are too many on this island, and the grub can't last forever, so I'm just going to get this yacht in commission, and then these gentlemen and I will take a little cruise to Pauee and send a schooner for the rest of you. You'll have to look after the greaser, but there 're enough of you to do it."
This, then, was his plan. Talk of Yankee daring! Alone in an open boat, a poor navigator, and with four scoundrels who would like nothing better than to knock him in the head and throw him overboard.
I tried to dissuade him, but it was of no use, so I went back and told Boles about it. Rather to my surprise he laughed softly, and smote his thigh with his hand.
"That's Knapp all over. Don't worry. Brown—if anyone can do it he can, and before the day is over that gang will be so scared of him that they won't dare whimper."
"But he's got to sleep," said I.
"No," said Boles, "he can stick it out for twenty-four hours, which he can make it in, easily, with this breeze. He'd make the scoundrels row it in that. Trust him."
The work on the boat was finished at sundown, and Emilio and I provisioned her. That night, rifle in hand, I guarded the boat's crew while they slept, that Knapp might slumber deep and long.
At sunrise they embarked, and the tears ran down my cheeks as I wrung the Yankee's great hard hand. Two hours later they had slipped over the horizon, and that is the last that up to this time I have heard or seen of Jordan Knapp, Trader.
Three days later Dr. Boles' patient opened her glorious blue eyes and looked with wonder on the unfamiliar faces around her. Her reason had completely returned, but from the time, six months before, when in the wreck of her father's missionary schooner she had seen her parents and two brothers drowned before her eyes, her mind had remained a blank. She was island-born, her father having been an English missionary, and her mother the daughter of one of the Dutch residents of New Guinea. But of herself and family we spoke little, not wishing to tear open fresh wounds. How she had managed to subsist on the island was a marvel, but, as I have said, she was island-born, and there were eggs, shellfish, and fruit in abundance.
The day after Knapp had sailed, the Portuguese came humbly into our camp and begged to be allowed to remain. We let him stay, but I watched him very closely.
Within six weeks a passing vessel sighted our signal of distress and took us off. Long before that time I had discovered that Dr. Boles, the masterful, the fearless adventurer, quondam Master of Arts and F. P. C. S., the hero of countless desperate encounters with men savage and civilised—he who for so many years had carried his life and fortunes on the foresight of his revolver, was doomed at last to defeat at the beautiful hands of an island maid. But she was more than that. She was the island maid—the spirit of the islands, the deity of surf and shoal, which both were powerless to harm. Right regally she wore her royal gems. In her eyes was the sublime colour of the ocean where the deep-sea lead drops soundless fathoms, and her hair was the colour of those golden beaches late in the day when the purple shadows fall athwart them from the drooping palms—but there the poet speaks rather than the artist.
Sweet their wooing must have been—and wild, for who could listen to words of love where the moonlight flickers through the palms, and fail to feel the heart pound like the crashing surf that, with all its noise and tumult, will never tell to aching hearts the fates of those dear comrades who lie, who knows—a thousand fathoms deep.