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ALBERT DORRINGTON

THE PEARLER'S BABY

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As published in The Daily News, Perth, Australia, 4 January 1910

Reprinted with minor changes as "The Christmas Pearl,"
Freeman's Journal, Sydney, Australia, 13 Dec 1916

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-06-17
Produced by Terry Walker, Gary Meller and Roy Glashan

All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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TWO divers had been drowned on the Vanderdecken Bank, about six miles east of Thursday Island. A whisper had gone through the pearling-fleet that foul play among the rival lugger captains had caused the accident.

In company with the Inspector of the Torres Straits Pearl Fisheries we crossed from the mainland in a small oil-launch to where the lugger squadrons rolled under the lee of a surf-washed bank.

The deck of the big store-ship Aladdin was strewn with rotting bivalves and tangled headgear. Marine inquiries conducted within the Carpentaria seaboard are often brief and searching. Hauled aft by their respective captains, the small gangs of Malays and Burghis men were submitted to a sharp cross-examination by the inspector. Nothing was elicited, however, beyond the fact that the two divers had been caught in a tide-rip and carried with their fouled air-lines under the keels of the luggers.

Deprived of his glass helmet and rubber dress the drowned diver is not good to see. Death had come to both men through the sudden scouring action of an unknown current and the green shadow or his merciless strength was reflected in their wide-open eyes.

A death certificate was granted to their captain, and, after the usual formalities, we took our departure. In the launch the inspector suggested that we should pay a visit to the little township snuggling beyond the distant sand hummocks. There had been some talk, he said, of a kidnapped baby on the part of a man named Morton Hake and his wife Janet.

Heading the launch for a tiny inlet between some mangrove jungle, we stepped ashore and passed leisurely down the crooked street, where a few score pearl shellers and bÍche-de-mer men idled with the low-roofed paka-pau shops and Chinese gambling houses. A strange quiet fell upon the township at the sudden entry of an officer wearing the uniform of the Queensland Government.

From the close-shuttered opium houses streamed gangs of sullen-browed Kanakas and Malays, ejected for the moment from their sleeping-mats and bunks by the affrighted proprietors and hashish syndicates. Somewhere beyond the sweltering roofs and casements a Chinese fiddle throbbed unceasingly; while above, in an almost livid sky, the sun poured it's tropic wrath upon the treeless dunes and mud flats.

We found Morton Hake in his hut near the beach, a pile of trawling-nets about his bare feet.

Although Hake fished in his spare hours, his name figured occasionally in the local excise officer's reports. Something had been said of him in connection with an illicit still and the tubs of over-proof whisky that were nightly smuggled aboard the pearling-luggers in the bay. Our visit, in the present instance, was one of friendly curiosity, and Hake seemed to fathom our intentions in the shift of an eye.

He was a strong, blonde man, with a scar on his left cheek that might have come by way of a slanting kris stroke or a casually flung trepang spear. He waved us to a pair of empty shell-cases on the beach, and we sat down with the thunder of surf in our ears.

"That baby of Black Fogarty's, Hake?" the Inspector began genially. "It's bad enough to hear of you kidnapping the Government's excise duties. Pearlers' babies ought to be left alone, you know."

A flash of hostility crossed the man's eyes, that changed gradually to an amused grin.

"I plead guilty with honest intentions, sir," he said in a brogue-mellowed voice; "and under stress of provocation."

The story of the kidnapped baby had already spread across half the Continent. Passing from the pearling fleets it became a much-discussed theme among the cattlemen of the Paroo River, where the sun-blackened overlanders soon carried it south of the Maranoa.

"Go on, Hake," nodded the Inspector of Fisheries. "The father of the baby is known to every police-boat this side of Darwin."

"Black Fogarty had no hand in the matter, inspector." Hake sat beside us in the white beach sand, his reef torn nets drawn across his knees. "The affair was between myself and his wife Kate."

"The woman who bored a hole in the Government cutter last year?"

"I'll not say she did that, inspector, although I've known her to tear the cheek off a man with a mullet hook. Still, Katie Fogarty is no worse than dozens of other women in these parts. Her trouble was with Maie, the big Fijian girl from the Fly River. They quarrelled over some cotton trade that Fogarty gave to one of her people.

"Six months ago," he continued, "Maie came over to the island to make trouble with Katie Fogarty. Maie stood six feet in her sandals, and looked handsome enough, in her grass skirt and ornaments, to turn the head of a mission-house saint.

"Well, Katie Fogarty happened to be strolling along the beach with her baby when Maie jumped from her canoe. I was passing by the pier with a load of fish when Katie hailed me.

"Hake," says she, "be a white man for once in your life, and hold my baby."

"What for?" says I, pulling up.

"'To give my arms a chance while I teach a lesson to this black beauty in the grass overcoat. I'm goin' to uphold the dignity of white women in these parts, Hake.'

"I took the baby, inspector, and there's no need to harrow your feelings with what happened between Katie Fogarty and Maie from the Fly River. Both were strong women in the pink of condition, but I must say that the woman from Ireland made tatters of the grass skirt, and turned Maie's beautiful headdress into a conglomeration of birds' nests and flying feathers.

"Beside being umpire, I was commissioned to hold the baby," went on Hake. "And that eight-mile beach wasn't big enough for them to turn when they began swinging each other by the hair.

"The water-police heard the noise at the jetty; they came up in the launch, and clapped handcuffs on both women and bundled them off to the lock-up at Thursday Island."

"And the baby?" questioned the Inspector. "Even the Queensland police will not deny a prisoner her baby."

Hake flushed to his ear-tips. "I, too, have found the police kind to women," he answered. "But the officer who arrested Kate knew nothing of her baby. The boat was across the Straits, before Kate herself remembered."

"Well, she and Maie got three months each for creating a disturbance on His Majesty's foreshore, and for bringing a British port into disrepute and contempt. I was fixed with the child, anyhow; and I felt like a jape, walking through, the town with it in my arms.

"A crowd of loafers followed, and each one asked me to do my duty by it and behave like a man. One advised me to go to the Dutch mission-house, and offer it to the little fat minister as a Christmas-box. Another said he'd provide the crowd with drinks if I could carry the baby for three hours without getting cross or quoting poetry.

"The baby got heavier as I tramped through the town, and the boys kept asking if I was the man who was walking round the world for a wager. The leader of the mob declared that I was an advertisement for a quack doctor with a wagon-load of babies' mixture for sale.

"Black Fogarty, as you know, sir, was away on the new bank, at Sunday reef, working his luggers in double shifts. No one expected him home for months. And the fathers of families grew indignant when I asked them to take Fogarty's baby until Kate came out of gaol.

"So there was nothing to do but bring the brat home to my wife Janet. I sat for an hour under a tree before I could make up my mind, for I knew that my wife regarded the Fogartys with no friendly eye.

"'Where on earth did ye get the bairn?' says she, when I walked into the hut. 'Isn't your own big mouth hard enough to fill without finding another!'

"That was Janet's way, but she had a sweeter manner at times. While her tongue scolded she warmed a bowl of milk on the fire, and rigged a cradle out of a new shell-basket lined with platypus skin.

"Instead of going to M'Kee's whisky shanty that night, I sat with my pipe listening to the wife singing and talking to the bairn in her arms.

"'You'll be losin' some of the fun at M'Kee's, Morton,' says she, walking up and down the room with the child. 'The boys'll miss ye.'

"'Let them,' says I. 'It's aisy I'm feeling all the same.'

"And so the weeks ran on till the monsoon came and work grew slack. The boats lay idle inside the bay, while the wind slammed the praus and junks against the rotten pier. Jordan, the storekeeper, turned a sour eye on me when I asked for favours in the way of bread and a little sugar."

"And milk at a shilling a pint," broke in the Inspector, with a sudden show of sympathy.

Hake nodded grimly. "The bairn threatened to drink the township dry of milk," he went on, "there being only one cow on the island, and that the property of a Chinaman."

"There was a report current at the time" (it was the Inspector who spoke) "that your Janet stole into the Chinaman's paddock every morning before he was awake and helped herself to the milk."

"True enough," laughed Hake; "and the bairn thrived like a young seal, although there was small butter on Janet's bread those mornings. People thought we were crazy not to hand in the brat at the lock-up to its rightful mother.

"But Janet thought different. 'Tis only a month or two to wait,' says she. 'And we'll keep the little one from the black shadow of the gaol, where the bad men from all the islands are crowded together.'

"And so we kept Black Fogarty's baby out of the fever-trap of a cell, where its mother lay through the bitter months of the monsoon. But the bad season passed, and one morning before daylight Janet crossed to Thursday Island in our boat and waited by the big gaol gate for Katie Fogarty to come out.

"At six o'clock the warders opened the spiked door, and the first to come forth was a lame Jap with a bandaged head. Then a couple, of Kanakas, came out, singing with joy as they felt the clean air from the sea blowing in their faces.

"Janet kept close to the big stone wall until Kate stepped from the gaol gate, her wild eyes looking right and left down the empty road. Janet called her, and they stood for half a minute watching each other like a couple of ewes."

"'I have something for ye, Kate Fogarty,' says Janet at last; 'and but for my man, Hake, it's the number of its grave I'd be handin' ye.'

"Kate sat by the road hugging the bairn, and walking with it up and down, talking, babbling, like a human being let out of a cage. Janet cried, she was sorry for the rough, ill-tempered woman who had been locked in a stone cell with a crowd of ruffians and cut-throats adjoining her.

"They parted friendly enough, but Janet suffered most when she returned home and looked at the empty shell basket. A week later came news of Black Fogarty and his pearling-luggers in from the banks at Sunday Island. Men talked of nothing else but Fogarty and his wonderful haul of golden-edge shell. Whisky flowed through the town, until boys and old men lay drunk at the pier-head.

"Janet sat beside me at the hut door brooding over the bitter, foodless days we had passed, and, worst of all, the little empty basket in the corner. For she had grown to regard the little one as her own during the long wet nights of the monsoon. A fisherman came by with news of Black Fogarty's wild ravings about his wife, and the baby that had been stolen while she lay in gaol. I was certain that a lot of drunken nonsense had been told to Fogarty—talk likely to set him at my throat after all the good we had done.

"On the night after Fogarty's homecoming, we heard a step outside the door. Jane looked out, and then faced me white and trembling.

"'Fogarty lying in wait outside in the scrub,' she said.

"I stood up, and passed to the door.

"'Take your rifle!' Janet called to me, 'The animal you're going to meet is mad with liquor!'

"'I can kill him without my rifle, Janet.'

"And out I went into the mangroves to Black Fogarty, the man who had shot half a tribe of aboriginals six months before on the Gascoyne River. He was standing in the shadow of a crooked tree that had arms outstretched far over the water. A giant of a man he was, with the hands of a gorilla and the stoop of one.

"'Ye took me cub, Hake,' says he, without shifting. 'I'm here to pay yez for the throuble ye went to.'

"'If you paid him with most of your black blood, Fogarty, you would still owe him a debt!' cried Janet from the hut door. 'Go, hide your bad face this night!'

"Fogarty shifted, and I heard his breath come and go. I threw myself forward to stop his mad rush, for I knew him to be the toughest fighter in the fleet. 'Twas the tree shadow bothered me as I saw his hand go down to his knife-sheath.

"'The women hereabouts have tongues,' says he at last, 'but this I'll give ye for the service rendered.'"

"Tis his joking way of giving me the knife, I thought, as I stood ready to break his knee with a straight kick the moment he leapt out.

"His fingers fumbled at the knife sheath, as though his thumb was digging for something at the bottom.

"'This for a Christmas greeting, Hake; hold it tight man, for 'tis worth the eye of a king.'

"'Twas not a knife-stab he offered for a Christmas gift, sir, but a pearl as big as the knuckle of your hand—a pearl that was full of milky whiteness and matchless orient.

"'Take it,' he says, 'and tell Janet to come and see the bairn sometime.'

"He was gone before I could speak. We did not see him or Kate again. Still"—Morton Hake rose with the nets hanging from his shoulders, and smiled in the face of the Inspector—"the pearl was more than we expected, sir. The price it fetched bought us a new boat and set of sails."

Hake accompanied us to the jetty, where Janet, a tall, good-looking Scotchwoman, sat knitting in the bows of a newly-painted fishing yawl.

We saluted her deferentially, marvelling at the unexpected impulses that guide these rough toilers into paths of humanity aid forbearance.

A babel of voices reached us from the slow-drifting pearling fleet, where the sun turned the oily waters into gouts of crimson and opal. Hake and his wife stood in the bow of the yawl, waving their hands until the great oyster-bank shut them out.


THE END


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.