Roy Glashan's Library
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Collected in The Evening Standard Second Book of Strange Stories,
The Hutchinson Printing Trust Ltd., London, 1937

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version Date: 2019-12-01
Produced by Paul Moulder and Roy Glashan

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The Evening Standard Second Book of Strange Stories

THE Kanaka screwed on the helmet, leaning well over the side to do so; and Saung Lo, for perhaps the ten- thousandth time in his life, dived gently backwards into the warm ocean.

"Not a bad little feller, for a Malay," remarked the Australian boss to his visitor from the mainland. "Only you can't get him to realise that the stuff don't fetch what it used to. Except for this partic'ler job, y'know, these boys ain't got much headpiece."

Meanwhile Saung Lo was sinking slowly through the green translucent fathoms. His airpipe and life-line trailed above him, the used air escaping by the outlet-valve in a succession of explosive bubbles. A strange apparition he was, though a familiar one, in these waters—the round steel helmet, the bulging canvas and rubber clothing, the brown hands, naked from the wrist, holding lifeline and shell-net. And these hands were small and sweetly shaped as a woman's. They matched, for delicacy, the brown face screened by the steel and plate-glass.

Saung Lo, in fact, was but twenty-one years old, though he had been diving for years. Born on a Sumatra plantation, he had drifted south after the rubber boom, to find at last a job he could do that white men would always pay him for. He himself did not profess to understand the whys and wherefores of it; he only knew that he could earn money by groping in deep levels for pearl shell, apart from the prospect of finding an occasional pearl. He had had such luck on several occasions, and had made extra money.

He did not know that the sum paid him was less than a hundredth of the price that the pearl eventually fetched in the shops of Bond Street or Fifth Avenue. He did not know that his Australian boss traded for two hundred per cent profit with an American firm that made a similar profit. He did not know that the Jap storekeeper who sold beer and tinned provisions systematically cheated him.

And since there were so many simple things that he did not know, it was not perhaps surprising that he couldn't be got to realise the world slump, the fall in commodity prices, and the need for him to dive twice as often and bring up twice the quantity of shell for the same reward.

Yet there were, on the other hand, a few odd things that Saung Lo did know.

He knew, for instance, the bottom of the sea. He knew the geography of a small patch of ocean floor near Thursday Island as well as most men know their own town or village. He knew the clefts and shelves of that strange under-sea world, the twilight green of coral caverns, the shadowed haunts of creatures hardly to be described in any words of his own. He knew where this secret continent steepened into depths where he could never explore; often he walked to the brink and stared into the dark vastness; he felt it was his own discovery, and when afterwards he regained the surface the thought comforted him even if the contents of his shell-net fetched a disappointing price.

He was proud that he could descend farther than any other diver he had ever heard of—ten, twenty, even thirty fathoms, to a depth where he dare not stay more than a few moments because of a gripping numbness that came into his limbs. He did not know that this was caused by a pressure of scores of pounds' weight upon every inch of his body; his science was as deficient as his economics.

But he well knew the major symptoms of danger, and he knew also what those dangers were. He had seen men die of diver's paralysis, yelling in hideous agonies throughout the warm island nights; and he knew from his own experience that if he stayed down too long, or descended too quickly, gouts of blood would trickle out of his ears and nose, and he would feel as if an iron bar were being clamped across his forehead and tightened.

But he did not worry. It was his job. And as the gently swelling current drifted him into the depths, he would have had no misgivings at all but for that mystifying business of the price-level. "What's the matter him big feller shell not get plenty good money put longa bank, heh?" had been his protest at the time of the last reckoning with the boss. And the Australian's reply, given with a laugh, had been one that Saung Lo had completely failed to understand.

But as usual, his remote and private world consoled him. There were two dreams in his mind—the one quite practical, a matter of saving up enough money "longa bank" to return north some day and marry a girl of his own race; but this happy consummation was fast receding in prospect now that his earnings could scarcely keep up with the Jap store­keeper's ingenuity in framing his account.

Curious—however much he tried Saung Lo could never quite get out of debt to the wily trader, and as long as he was in debt he would not be allowed to leave Thursday Island. The system worked perfectly—more perfectly than Saung Lo realised. But there was always his other dream, which was a mystical one—a deep tranquillising concept of the waters under the earth, of a world untouched by other men, of secrets he alone could probe.

Cautiously, as he descended, he looked about him, sensing anew the magic of his dream. He felt the air reaching him in small regular gusts; the deep sea was calm, as it always was, yet with a peculiar additional calmness that came from a smooth surface and sunny skies. One of the odd things that Saung Lo knew was to forecast the weather; he would often amuse the Australian by coming up with a prophecy of “plenty big strong feller wind.” And he was almost always right.

But the Australian did not believe him when he said that he learned it from the fish. But again Saung Lo was right. Indeed, on that populated sea-floor he was more learned than many professors of oceanography. He had observed over and over again, the quick, uneasy movements of all kinds of marine creatures when bad surface weather impended. And sometimes, before especially severe storms, he had seen even stranger sights there below—weird existences of pulp and blubber, straying out of their proper depth as if in some fretful agitation—fantastic shadows, half fish, half vegetable, that broke through the long green corridors.

No use describing them to the Australian; he would not believe; he was of the other upper world. But Saung Lo believed, because he had seen, and because on more than one occasion he had been in danger through the entanglement of his airpipe with one of these perambulating mysteries.

* * * * *

SAUNG LO was quite happy when he felt his thick rubber boots touching the coral. There was a buzzing in his ears and a prickling behind his eyes—slight discomforts he had long grown used to. He knew exactly where he was—on the slope of a rocky shelf that fell away into the abyss. He looked around him, recognising the scene. Fish of many kinds passed him by, like phosphorescent gleams in the twilight; but he took no notice of them, he had his work to do, and he could not further delay.

Signalling with his lifeline, he began to stride over the rough sea-bed, while the lugger drifted with the current far above him. It was hard work, and it made him very tired. He forced his way over mounds of coral, scrambling on to ledges and down again into deep fissures, lifting the smaller rocks to peer behind them—his mind automatically intent on a dozen dangers, but his eyes searching all the time for shell, and his soul quite reasonably at ease. He did not mind this job, if only he could make enough money.

As it happened, he was more than usually lucky. Soon his net was full of slabs of pearl-shell as big as soup-plates; a good haul, and worth "plenty money," if only the Australian would pay him properly. He was glad, too, because he felt increasingly tired and his head ached; if only he could have more luck like this he would not need to dive so many times a day.

He did not mind diving for a living, but he didn't like the way his head ached when he had been down too often. Now that his net was full he pulled on the lifeline and gave the signal that he was about to ascend. He would not, he decided, go down again that day. And it was then, amid such weary satisfaction, that he felt his whole body re-transfixed into tension by a sight that faced him a few yards away. It was the swinging shadow of the biggest shark he had ever seen.

Saung Lo, of course, had met a good many of these unpleasant creatures. He was not more than half afraid of them. He knew that they did not often attack a fully-clothed diver, being scared by the forbidding appearance of his helmet and inflated clothes, as well as by the constant out-bubbling of air from the escape- valve. A diver, however, would act prudently in their neighbourhood; they had an instinct for flesh, and there was always risk of a vicious plunge at a naked hand.

Saung Lo watched the monster as warily, therefore, as the monster was watching him. On this occasion he did, perhaps, feel more than half afraid—the shark was so huge, and he himself was not at his best after a day of successive dives. Still, he knew the proper technique of these encounters, and he was far from getting into a panic.

He flapped with his arms against the heavy water, making as much commotion as he could, and at the same moment he closed the air-valve to assist his ascent. The shark, disconcerted by these manoeuvres, sheered off a little, then followed well behind. Saung Lo expected this, and was not surprised to find the distance between them gradually diminishing. Curiosity overcomes fear—it was the law of men as well as of sharks.

When the creature was again a few yards away Saung Lo reopened his air-valve and caused a rapid volley of bubbles to detonate into the water; this lost him a little of his height, but it served to scare away the shark once more. It might, with luck, have scared the marauder away altogether, but such luck was not Saung Lo's. After his big haul of pearl-shell he could not, perhaps, expect it. But he might reasonably have expected the shark to be scared for more than a few seconds.

Unfortunately, it wasn't. It came on after him again with redoubled curiosity, only to be scared afresh by a new out­flow of air-bubbles. And suddenly Saung Lo, with that head­piece of his which the Australian had so often derided, realised that his life most probably depended on that running battle between fear and curiosity. For he noted that each time the air-bubbles spouted they had a smaller effect upon the threshing fins and the wide, half-gaping mouth. Even in the very eyes of his adversary Saung Lo imagined he could read a puzzlement that was rapidly becoming contemptuous.

And now, with passion, he wished that his limbs were completely free. If he could, he would have thrown away his diving-dress and air-pipe and flung himself to the surface. His slim, naked body was like oiled silk, and he felt confident that he could dodge a shark, for he was a superb swim-diver. He felt that his cumbersome garments, though physically a protection, were in too many ways a handicap, and he doubted, before many moments had passed, whether he could reach the surface before the shark had conquered its fear and had reached him.

Still he watched, feeling the lift of his body through the lightening water, sensing the nearness of the great fish as it circled around. He could see the rows of serrated teeth in the open jaws, and the large, unswerving eyeballs. These were the perils of that secret world that was his own; he must fight, and fight to the last. He had once battled with an octopus, and several times he had had obscure struggles with things he could not name; but this was his first enemy shark—the first of the species that he had not easily scared away.

Through the glass panes of his helmet he viewed it with a warm bodily fear, yet still with his mind racing sweet and cool. He must fight. It would come to that in a moment, and to be ready for it, with his two hands, he dropped his loaded net of pearl- shell and drew from an outside pocket a knife that he used for prising open the shells. It was a good knife. But he was sorry to have had to let go the net.

Suddenly the jaws leapt at him, and he felt their sawlike teeth grate on the metal of his helmet and drag down to his shoulder and arm. The graze was tentative, experimental, and insufficient to break through the canvas and rubber. But it was enough to make contact in Saung Lo with something that fused mind and body into elemental decision.

He swung his arm and struck with the knife into an obstruction that was apparently hard and impervious; yet with such effect that in an instant the whole under-sea world was alive with leaping and lashing fury. His vision darkened; he could not see anything at all; he was buffeted about in sudden currents; once the rough, scaly carcase struck him like the blow of a huge fist and lifted him high.

His mind still functioned; he knew that he must, amidst all these commotions, preserve the thin tube through which the air reached his lungs... he must postpone, somehow, the discovery of flesh and blood behind the steel and rubber. He waited, half- blind, with the knife poised in his hand. His head was bursting, but he felt his body dissolve in a fear that was partly an ecstasy; he was alive, as the shark was alive; they were both of them leaping, living things. And then, in sudden blood-fury, he ran amok—slashing and rending and stabbing as so many of his race were won't to do on land...

* * * * *

AN hour later, on board the lugger, the Australian stooped with some curiosity over the prone figure of Saung Lo. He had been hauled aboard unconscious, though apparently uninjured. Strangely, however, he had lost his shell- net.

Saung Lo regained consciousness, but he did not tell the Australian about the shark. It was the sort of thing the Australian would laugh at and only half believe. He just said, in the clipped pidgin English he had learned from the Kanakas: "Plenty big feller shell down below, Tuan. Bimeby I fetch him to- morrow."

But by the morrow Saung Lo was dead—of heart-failure.

"It gets most of 'em sooner or later," commented the Australian philosophically to his visitor from the mainland. "All these fellers stay down too long and go down too quick—and it's no use warning 'em, they don't take any heed... Not a bad little feller for a Malay, but a dam' fool when all's said and done..."

* * * * *

TEN thousand miles away, about the same time, another man died of heart-failure. He was seventy-five years old, a millionaire, and head of the great firm of Amalgamated Ocean Products, Inc. Indirectly he employed Saung Lo, though neither had ever heard of the other's existence. For some weeks before his death this old man had been trying to frame a merger between his company and a rival one, with a view to economies in the production and marketing of pearl-shell. He attended a board meeting in defiance of his doctor's orders; he made speeches, drafted figures, and went to Chicago for a conference. Then he died suddenly one night, in his sleep.

All the newspapers had columns about him and about the wonderful work he had done for the pearl industry. One of them said: "It would be no exaggeration to say that he gave his life for it."


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.