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ALBERT DORRINGTON

THE FOURTH CIRCLE

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First published in Argosy All-Story Weekly, 13 June 1925
Reprinted in The Sydney Mail, 6 March 1929

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version Date: 2019-05-21
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Argosy All-Story Weekly, 13 June 1925, with "The Fourth Circle"



Illustration


I.

A BABEL of voices drifted from the fleet of pearling luggers, straddling across the six-fathom channel of the Ki Wi bank. There was no wind; the sea shone like grease-paint where the helmeted divers bobbed up and down like goblins in a pantomime.

Norry Denham climbed from the cabin of his nine-ton lugger, Sea Witch, a small parcel of pearls in his hand. A slim, sea-browned girl of nineteen was standing at the rail, watching the black-billed hawks swooping over the tide-washed banks. She turned quickly at sight of the gems Norry held.

There were eighteen pearls in all, milk white stones, glistening with the matchless orient of the sea. They represented months of untiring labor along the coral-strewn floor of the channel, where death ran in the twisting currents and in the ghostly movements of giant stingrays and sharks.

"I'll ask six thousand dollars for them, Elean! They're worth ten thousand. But I'd like old Ty Foo to feel he's getting a bargain. His schooner's at Nadir Point. He's buying all the pinkies of the season!"

Elean had come from Sydney to spend a month with Norry on board the pretty, snow-white lugger. They had been married a year, but owing to Norry's work on the banks she had found it necessary to live with her sister, a thousand miles away!

She drew him to the rail with a little sigh of pleasure. Translated into sterling, six thousand dollars seemed a colossal sum to her.

But Norry shook his head gloomily. After he had paid his divers and shell-openers, to say nothing of the storekeeper's account at Thursday Island, the six thousand dollars would begin to look like the price of a new hat and Elean's ticket home.

"What's the matter, grumps?" Elean laughed, running her fingers over the creases in his brow. "It's not so bad for a season's work! And it's better than hunting a job at a glue factory. And believe me, Norry, it nearly came to that last time you got left in the big town. And why not get a better price from this Mr. Chu Chin Chow or whatever his name is. They're lovely pearls, dear!" she added, holding them carefully to the light. "Ask another thousand. He'll feel just as good about it!"

Norry considered her words, but shook his head after a while. He wanted to please the old Chinese pearl buyer. Ty Foo was rich. Every roughneck schooner captain between Darwin and Sud Est was striving to please him. He bought shell at good prices. His godowns at Surabaya were filled with the trade of a thousand islands.

With the pearls stowed in the pocket of his twill coat, Norry kissed his wife and dropped lightly into the dinghy under the lugger's stern. The old Chinaman would be expecting him. The season was nearly over, and his own lugger hands had gone ashore earlier in the morning. Everybody wanted money, and there were Elean's bills in Sydney still unpaid!


II.

A MILE across the glittering straits of Torres lay Nadir Point. The morning was insufferably hot. The sun flared down from a sky of angry yellow. Not a breath moved over the oily, heat-flattened straits. Past the Pandora lightship Norry swung the dinghy round where the tide bore him without effort under the lowered gangway of the Plum Moon.

A number of lugger captains had called on the Chinese pearl buyer earlier in the day, but it was soon evident to Norry that little or no business had been done. White shellers were notoriously greedy and held off selling in the hope of scaring the pleasant-voiced Ty Foo.

He received Norry with gestures of welcome in his silk- upholstered buying-room below. A man of full girth was Ty Foo in his jacket of blue shantung, his shining girdle of tooled leather and jade inlay. A merchant prince, Norry told himself, with his nails burnished to the color of live opal.

"Ah, my dear Norry, you have been working all the tides!" he greeted in good English. "Sit down please and tell me about yourself. I like to hear that men are working hard. The sea is always kind to them. She repays in pearls and gold, in good health as she has repaid me!"

Norry sat in a high-backed chair, fascinated to the point of silence by the air of wealth and opulence that seemed to exude from the Chinaman's perfumed vestments. A Tonquinese boy appeared with two glasses and a gold-topped bottle of champagne. Ty Foo beamed on the young lugger captain.

"There is much heat in the sky, my dear Norry! Drink, and then talk. You will find me full of good will!"

Norry sipped his wine and coughed a trifle nervously. "I've got a handful of pinkies to show you, Mr. Foo. I'm no salesman," he stated deprecatingly. "And there's no need to call your attention to a single stone. Eighteen in all. Got 'em out of six- inch shells mostly, that drift of black-lip I worked off Monday Reef!"

The Chinaman raised the pearls one by one from the table, his big, bland face expressing the keen interest of the expert.

"They are very fine," he said at last. "I am glad some one on the banks is finding his luck! How much, my dear Norry?"

Denham sat tight in his chair. "Six thousand dollars, Mr. Foo! Not a penny less!" In spite of the fact that he was asking considerably less than their market value, his voice trembled slightly.

"Six thousand dollars!" The Chinaman rolled the pearls skillfully in the palm of his fat hand, while a silence sharp as the reef-points, spaced his next words.

"Very well; I will make it six!" At a glance he knew their value. But it was no part of his creed to force up prices. He was aware that men courted his good will, for when bad seasons came he remembered their unselfish dealings.

"Six thousand dollars!"

"Check to bearer," Norry prompted, sipping the cool wine.

Ty Foo nodded briskly as he reached for his checkbook on the desk beside him. Very slowly and with an obvious effort he drew up the amount. Attaching his sprawling signature, he blotted it carefully and then passed the check to the young pearling master.

Norry glanced at the check before placing it in his pocket. He noted the ultra-violet hue of the ink used by the old pearl buyer.

"I'll give you a receipt now, Mr. Foo!" he said quickly as he drew out his fountain pen and a stamp.

Just here he discovered that the pen was dry. In the twist of a thumb he had helped himself to some ink from the stand on the table. In a few moments he had passed the receipt to the smiling Chinaman.

Ty Foo followed him upstairs to the gangway, shook his hand cordially, begging Norry to be sure to let him have all his business in future.


III.

NORRY pulled slowly toward Thursday Island, his mind in a ferment, his nerves on the leap. He was thinking of Elean and the coming winter when the lugger would have to lie up for months. To-morrow he would divide the profits of the season with his crew. They were good fellows and comrades, and in need of every shilling. He would see that they got their just dues.

Elean was different. She had been accustomed to a refined home before her marriage, servants and a runabout car, theaters, and hosts of friends. She had surrendered all these to share his somewhat doubtful future. He had believed there were unlimited earnings in the pearling industry, only to discover a succession of unlimited risks.

Yet this wisp of girlhood had shown only smiles and letters of encouragement when his overdue remittances reached her in Sydney. He writhed at the thought of the paltry economies daily inflicted on her. She had traveled to him as a steerage passenger in an old coastal steamer to save a few pounds. In all probability she would return steerage, unless—

He pulled the dinghy under the pier, at Victoria Parade, It was lunch hour and the pier itself was almost deserted except for a solitary customs official and a couple of trepang fishers, throwing dice in the shade.

He sat on the steps of the pier, out of sight of the crowded Parade, and scanned the Chinaman's check hastily. He saw that Ty Foo had left the usual half-inch space between the written words six thousand dollars.

Denham took out his fountain pen and wrote the letters "ty" after six. The task of adding a naught to the figures in the check was simple enough. A scrap of blotting paper he carried in his pocket put the right shade on the added letters and figure.

The Bank of South China was at the far end of the Parade. The cashier was an Englishman named Gibbs. Norry was well known to Gibbs. The young pearling master had been in the habit of bringing Ty Foo's checks to the grille and getting them cashed. There had never been any trouble, and Gibbs had acquired the habit of expecting Denham and the Chinaman's check, every month.

Between the pier and the bank Norry had leisure to dwell on Ty Foo as a possible enemy. No man in the Straits had ever caught the Chinaman without his smile. Smiling was his strong card.

But Norry Denham had looked beyond Ty Foo's display of gold- filled teeth, had probed the eternal twinkle in the almond eyes. And what he had seen filled him with doubts and forebodings.

Norry set aside his qualms as he neared the bank. After all, Ty Foo was just a lucky Chinaman, nothing more. His luck had never failed him, and he would hardly feel the loss of the money that was destined to open the gates of a new heaven and earth for Elean!

A few customers moved in and out the bank, lugger and schooner captains drawing funds for stores and gear. At this time of the year large sums were needed daily to meet the demands of the Japanese shell companies and copra buyers.

Gibbs favored Norry with a slight nod as he entered the bank. Gibbs was forty and afflicted with insomnia. The heat and mosquitoes had soured his genial temperament, but not his capacity for scrutinizing a signature.

"I like the heat," Norry affirmed, leaning against the counter. "It's the wind upsets me!"

A tiny frown crossed the cashier's brow. He straightened his lean shoulders like one about to bat a ball, the check flattened out before him on the counter.

"Sixty thousand dollars!" he gasped. "Jerusalem! You've been selling some pearls to Mr. Foo, if I may say it!"

"There's no harm in saying it," Norry told him steadily. "There might be, though," he added as an afterthought, "if I'd been selling him flat-irons or water lilies, Mr. Gibbs! But just now I happen to be in the pearl business, and I assume that Ty Foo is in a position to buy up to a million pounds' worth when the fit takes him."

There was a snap in Norry's voice, a subtle challenge that brought the cashier round with a wan smirk on his nerve-ridden face.

"It's a large amount, Mr. Denham!" he stated sweetly. "To be quite frank, it's more than I have in bills or cash at the moment!"

"How long will it take you to get the cash?" Norry inquired without haste. "I'm mailing a deposit on a seventy-ton schooner I've bought at Surabaya!"

"I'll get it in an hour, Mr. Denham! Sorry to make you wait. Perhaps—"

"I'll call in an hour," Norry interrupted from the entrance. "Dollars or sterling; I'm not particular."

Norry strolled back to the pier, out of sight of the cashier's pursuing glances. He wiped his hot face and stared across the bay in the direction of Nadir Point. Ty Foo's schooner was a mile away, on the heels of the outstraddling lugger fleets.

He felt certain that Gibbs would not attempt to communicate with the Chinese pearl buyer. The check had been passed for payment. In an hour the money would be ready for collection. If there had existed a shadow of suspicion in the cashier's mind concerning the check, he would have referred it at once to the Chinaman!

Norry breathed like a boxer emerging from the first round in a stiff encounter. The next round would be easier, he told himself, unless Gibbs got drunk or the bank's messenger fell down with the money.

Phew! How hot it was!

Norry turned again to the lugger fleets across the bay. The tide had swung the Plum Moon stern on to the shore. To his horror he observed a boat pull away from the gangway. Seated at the tiller was the familiar outline of the Chinese pearl buyer.

Norry realized instantly that Ty Foo was coming ashore. It was almost certain that he would go into the bank, and at the very moment Gibbs was busy arranging to pay out the sixty thousand dollars!

Denham sat like a frozen image as the boat with the Chinaman on board reached the steps at the end of the pier.


IV.

AN almost childish desire to run away took hold of Norry as Ty Foo clambered from the boat and came swiftly along the pier. For one dizzy instant the fear of the stone jail at Shark Island beat through Denham's young mind, as the eyes of the bright-faced Chinaman settled on him.

"Ah, my dear Norry!" he called out, his whale-like girth heaving after his climb up the steps. "I am going to a friend's house to eat. I had almost forgotten the appointment. Then I have some business at the bank! There is always a rush for money at this time of the year, eh?"

Norry's face was wet with the terror that drains men white. He forced himself into a smiling attitude, scarce daring to speak. He felt that the sound of his voice would betray him. He glanced at his watch to cover his mental torment. Then he scanned the fierce yellow streaks breaking across the northern sky.

"More heat, Mr. Foo!" he predicted at random. "I'm expecting to meet my sail-maker, Evans," he blurted out, scarce knowing what to say. "Lost most of my canvas last month!"

Ty Foo gestured cheerily. His face was wreathed in smiles as he passed down the pier. At the Parade he turned almost sharply in the direction of the bank, as though urged by an overwhelming impulse to see Gibbs. At the last moment he seemed to change his mind, and passed on to the lower part of the town.

Norry writhed in his agony; sweat dripped from his face as he saw the Chinaman pass on. Fifty seconds later he observed the stooping figure of the old bank messenger emerge from a side street carrying a black bag. The bag was chained to his wrist.

"He's got the cash!" Norry choked as the messenger hobbled into the bank.

The young pearling master checked an impulse to hurry forward and collect the money from Gibbs. Ty Foo's movements were too uncertain. At any moment he might appear outside the bank. Yet Denham forced himself to remain inactive. One false movement on his part might turn Gibbs's attention to the police.

Up and down the pier he snailed, staring blindly at the water, the schooners across the straits, at his watch until his brain grew sick and the tension of waiting threatened to smash his nerve.

Gibbs was reading a week-old newspaper when he entered the bank. But Gibbs had witnessed the brief interview with Norry and Ty Foo. To him the talk had seemed full of smiles and pleasant understandings. Any feeling of suspicion that had lurked in his mind was dispelled.

"Hello, Mr. Denham!" he called out cheerfully. "Sorry to keep you waiting. Please endorse the check. I'll pay you the cash."

Denham wrote his name on the back of the Chinaman's check, whistled airily as he counted the pile of bills before him, separated them into hundreds and fifties, snapped an elastic band over them, and with a brief nod to the cashier left the bank.

Once outside he walked briskly in the direction of the pier. His plans were made. He would post money bills now to each of his lugger hands at their bungalows on Barren Head, where they lived with their families while ashore. He would give them a surprise in the way of an extra five hundred dollars each. They had wives and families, and the struggle to feed women and babies during the off season was pretty fierce.

Then he would go aboard his own vessel and tell Elean to make ready for a pleasant little trip to Port Darwin. With a couple of Manila boys they could make the crossing in a few days. The Sea Witch was the best little craft on the banks.

He turned the corner of the busy Parade and collided with the fast moving Ty Foo. The big pearl buyer was in a violent hurry. He paused only to emit a passing word.

"Sorry, my dear boy! I'm all out in my appointments. The bank shuts at three, eh? I'll see you soon!" He was gone in the fetch of a breath.

Norry stood rooted, then swung round in time to see the whale- like figure of the Chinaman disappear through the wide open doors of the bank.

"And that's that!" Norry declared under his breath as he fanned his burning cheek with his cap. It would take Gibbs about twenty seconds to lift the veil for the hard breathing Ty Foo. After that the deluge!

The big Chinaman would walk straight to the police commissioner's office, the receipt for six thousand dollars in one hand and the check for sixty thousand in the other!

Norry's thoughts flashed back to the stories he had heard of the convict gangs at the island prison, and how they welcomed new arrivals in their midst.

The next moment a soft blast of wind whirled a cloud of dead leaves into his face. A sulphur-hued bank of clouds was sweeping over the island, piled up masses of wind and steam from the hot, monsoon lands in the north.

Before Denham had gained the pier steps a thunderous rush of air had struck the town, scattering lean-to sheds and houses across the deserted thoroughfares. A green wall of water rose from the levels of the heat-whitened skyline and broke in squadrons of foam along the beaches.

In that moment of screaming wind and shouting voices, he saw the bulging figure of Ty Foo scurrying toward a powerful steam tug lying in the shelter of the bay. It belonged to one of his compradores and was hurricane-proof fore and aft.

Into this the big Chinaman scrambled, followed by a dozen Malays and Tonquinese sailors. Lying flat on the rocking, gale- swept pier, Norry saw the tug move out into the mountainous slopes of brine. Her engines slammed her through and over the avalanches of foam and spray. At a glance Norry saw that she was making for the Plum Moon off Nadir Point.

The wind burst over Denham like blasts of artillery. It rocked the pier to its foundations. Through the smothering whirl of sand and beach litter, he made out a few luggers laboring in the hell- broth of surf and shoal-water along the banks.

His dinghy had been pulped to match-wood against the iron wood piles below. Nothing could live in such a torment of wind and fury. Foot by foot he fought his way from the pier, the seas breaking in long, murderous swells at each step. The wind tore him from every coign of vantage, blew him like a bundle of rags across the Parade.

It was here the bamboo slatted roof of Chi Hi Lee's vegetable emporium planed down and buried Denham's struggling shape in a ton of debris and Chinese ceiling ornaments.


V.

NORRY woke with the sound of wind still in his ears. He seemed to have lain unconscious for hours with the ribs of the bamboo roof swaying and breaking above him. His shoulder hurt from the effects of the crash. With difficulty he crawled from his cave of slats and hessian roof-lining and looked out.

The beaches were strewn with spars and the wreckage of strange praus and schooners, blown from their island harbors and buoys. From one of a dozen uprooted gaming-houses on the Parade came the melancholy howling of a dog.

Denham crawled to the beach, his limbs grown numb, his brain sick. He was one of a few that remained to grieve over the havoc of the hurricane. His yearling lugger had gone the way of others. Nothing could have saved Elean. Without a single seaman on board, the Sea Witch could only drown like a kitten in a well!

Norry's fingers dug into the soft sand. His face had become a twisted agony. How could he meet the future without Elean? For her he had been ready to sell his life, his liberty. He had been ready to betray everything he held dear, if only her happiness were assured!

He lay in the warm sand, a craving for death in his eyes. He heard the faint voices of men searching among the ruins of the town. A police patrol passed in the direction of the bank. He fell into a stupor and emerged with the chill of night in his blood.

He fought to his feet and glared around. One or two lights showed along the Parade. People were searching among the wreckage on the beach. The police were guarding the three banks in the town. Looters were abroad. Two men had been shot while attempting to enter the strong room of the Bank of South China.

Eight luggers had gone down; others were missing. He had taken a chance leaving Elean alone on the Sea Witch. Fate in the guise of a hurricane had struck swiftly and savagely. That was all! His pockets bulged with money. But—his heart was in the grave.

He crouched in the warm darkness of a deserted store, the sparkle of life gone from his mind. At dawn the wind died and the sea quieted. Rain blew out of the west and the air felt sweeter.

He joined the small crowd of searchers along the beach. His distracted eye fell on Gibbs leaning over the wave-smashed pier rail. The cashier hailed him dejectedly.

"Man—you were lucky yesterday!" he greeted dourly. "The bank has suspended payment! Our directors in Canton have been fooling with the revolutionaries—squandering the bank's funds in military enterprises! God—it's awful!" he wailed.

"Yesterday's storm seems to have cut a track through most of our plantation properties in the north. We're smashed!"

He raised his nerveless face to Denham and grinned oddly. "When I told Ty Foo, yesterday, that you'd drawn the whole of the sixty thousand he looked a bit worried!"

"What did he say?" Norry inquired, dully.

"What could he say? It was his check and he owed you the money! And to be quite frank it was all the coin he had with us! Not so rich as people think! Without a word he bolted from the bank and ran right into the storm! Hell of a hurry to get aboard his schooner! I'd have stayed ashore. But you never know what's in the mind of a Chinaman!"

Denham walked away to avoid further parley. It occurred to him that the storm had temporarily paralyzed the Chinaman's wits. But where was he now?

The voice of Bill Lane, an old pearler, snapped on the morning air. His big hand fell with a slap on Norry's shoulder.

"Where you been, lad? Ain't you heard?" he demanded in rough but kindly tones. "That little old girl of yours was picked up safe an' plucky yesterday. She was at the wheel, holdin' the Witch up to the hell smother! Old Ty Foo's tug butted in when it looked as if David Jones was going to get her!"

"Ty Foo picked up Elean!" Norry's, voice cracked, but the warm blood leaped to his cheeks.

"I guess there was no one else afloat to do it!" Lane told him quietly. "That old Chinaman fought through weather that would have bent an ironclad. He's got your little woman safe and trim, lad. Your lugger's on the beach, none the worse for it either!"

A pause followed. Then Lane, noticing the young pearling master's agitation, drew him towards the pier steps.

"I got a bit of a launch over here. I reckon you'd like to see your wife! You helped me wunct, an' by the holy I'll stand by you now, lad!"

Norry followed him blindly to the launch, clambered aboard with stiffly groping hands. He almost missed his footing and would have fallen but for Lane's friendly grip on his arm.

"Steady, lad! I know how it feels to have your little girl back from the dead! Easy does it! And don't forget the old Chinaman next time you're at prayers!"

One thought flared in Norry's brain as the launch worried through the storm swell toward Nadir Point. The Chinaman had him at his mercy. And after what had happened the mercy would be applied in a way known to Chinamen and timber wolves!

All the ghastly tales he had heard of Chinese devilry assailed him now. Yet—he must go to his crucifixion if need be. He could not leave Elean in the hands of these yellow men!

The launch swung under the bows of the Plum Moon. The big trading schooner appeared none the worse for her fight with the wind and sea. A cable's length away rode the big tug, her crew alert and watching Denham's approach.

Lane steadied the launch and called out to Norry as he clambered up the gangway, "I'll stand by, lad! There's no hurry. Plenty of calm here!"

A terrible silence struck Norry as he reached the deck of the Plum Moon. Not a hand showed on the poop or cabin stairs. He recalled in a flash the story of the providore's wife, decoyed aboard a Chinaman's yacht in the Samarang Roads.

The providore had robbed and cheated the Chinaman. True to his nature the Celestial had bided his time. Then, one day, under the guns of a patrolling destroyer, he had kidnaped the white man's wife. Months afterward they found her on the beach at Apia, her speech and memory gone!

Norry stood at the cabin stairhead, the stark silence gripping him by the hair. Where was Elean? Where was the Chinaman who had dragged her from the shoals of death?


VI.

FROM the ghostly silence of the cabin below came the shuffling of sandaled feet on the polished teak floor. The voice of Ty Foo came up through the open door.

"Your husband is safe, Mrs. Denham! He is now on his way to this schooner! Even now I hear his steps on the gangway. How can I repay him for his noble efforts on my behalf?"

"What has he done?" It was Elean's voice, pleading and tremulous after her recent experiences.

The Chinaman ceased his shufflings to and fro. His words touched Norry like whip strokes.

"He has done everything for me to avert misery and ruin. Yesterday, before the great storm fell upon us, he took my check for six thousand dollars to the bank. Some one must have whispered in his ear the story of the bank's difficulties, its coming suspension. He realized there was no time to warn me, for at any moment the wireless might order Gibbs to shut the bank's doors. So your husband did a noble thing on my behalf!"

"Tell me," Elean pleaded in a hushed voice.

"It was simple, Mrs. Denham. Your husband altered the check from six to sixty thousand dollars. Gibbs paid him the money an hour before the news of the banks ruin was being broadcast from Canton!"

A sigh of relief came from Elean.

The big Chinaman laughed loudly as he resumed his pacings to and fro. "It is written that good deeds shall save men from the everlasting wrath!" he intoned. "There is always the choice of heaven or hell! Only the fool—"

"Ahoy, there!" Norry called from the cabin stairs. "I'm coming along!"

Elean's arms were about him as he stumbled forward across the polished floor of the cabin. Norry recovered himself, straightened his shoulders as he turned to the big-browed Celestial.

"By Jove! I was just in time to lift your capital from that bucket shop on the Parade, Mr. Foo!" he exclaimed, dropping the pile of money bills on the table. "Only just in time!"

Elean laughed excitedly as she patted his shoulder affectionately. Norry was always the victim of brain waves! Imagine him forging a friend's check to beat a bank before it flopped! Good old Norry!

Ty Foo raised the bills slowly from the table, counted a number to the value of twenty thousand, and squeezed them into Elean's hand.

"I am very superstitious!" he confided seriously. "It was foretold in the calendar that yesterday was to be the period of my humiliation. I was born under the Sixth star of the Fourth circle. And, you see, now," he added with infinite tenderness, "that by putting the fourth circle on my check Norry has saved me from disaster and ruin!"

Elean looked quickly into the big Chinaman's face, into his smiling eyes that revealed the sunshine of his open nature.

Norry's voice sounded steadier now.

"We'll find our lugger Elean!" he said, drawing her to the cabin stairs. "She's safe on the beach!"

Elean kissed him tenderly and it was then she noticed the sudden flush of a tear on his cheek.

"Silly boy!" she chided with an unaccustomed tremor in her voice. "But we're safe!" she added when they reached the stairhead. "And—oh, Norry, it must never happen again!"

He wiped the moist agony from his brow, drew in a breath of clean air from the cooling sky. "It won't—never happen again, dear! My God!" he added under his breath. "Only a Chinaman could have passed it off like that!"

"Passed it off?" Elean regarded him in silent commiseration for several moments. "Ty Foo believes every word of it," she declared with a final breath of relief.


THE END


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