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As published in The Sydney Mail, 22 April 1925

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
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JIM KEELING was dead, and Owen Blyth felt that he had lost the one friend who had ever stood between him and the bread line. Altogether it was a curious situation for Blyth, whose experience in the management of pearling lagoons and squads of black divers was limited. And the passing of Jim had thrown the whole business on to his young shoulders. Keeling had died unexpectedly, although in the last year his gin account had gone up 50 per cent—a terrifying jump even for a South Sea pearl fisher.

The name of Keeling had figured in many an overseas cable message when the discovery of some unusually valuable gem was recorded. It was Jim Keeling who had negotiated the sale of the famous Pigeon Ruby pearl, found on the Yuen Li Bank in the Monday Group of atolls. The deal touched the twelve-thousand-pound figure.

Island mysteries are plentiful enough if one steers the true course among the ten thousand islands where the Admiralty charts show thirty fathoms instead of coral peaks and everlasting lagoons. Blyth had been part-owner of a twenty-ton fore-and-aft rigged schooner plying for copra and oil between Levuka and Samoa.

Blyth's fifth cyclone was the last as far as the twenty-ton schooner was concerned. Cyclones differ in quantity and quality. There are some cyclones that will spin a top or blow guava seeds through a beachcomber's whiskers. There are what old-timers call the she-winds, the playful gales that make a sailorman wink and laugh. It was an old man buster that put Blyth on the reefs at Matanga and pounded his life savings to driftwood in an hour.

Palm trees will often feed a shipwrecked sailor, but there are times when the scenery around a shipwreck is composed mostly of limestone peaks, razor-beaked sea-hawks, and sharks. Jim Keeling was glad of the storm that had sent Blyth to him. The boy was a gesture from the civilisation beyond the sea. He desired space for his energies, no doubt, unlimited work, and a measure of responsibility. He should have them. And just when Owen Blyth was beginning to understand the ways of the black 'skin' divers on the different lagoons Jim Keeling died, leaving him alone among the fifteen Malalonga boys, who now looked to him for guidance and support.

Owen was distressed and singularly embarrassed, for beyond the native crews of the luggers there was no visible heir to the riches that lay on the banks and channels of a hundred tideways. The trade-house was well built with furniture made from the timbers of storm-beaten ships. If was cool and spacious, with wide verandahs screened from flies and instraying pests.

Among the dead man's papers he found nothing to help him in his disposition of the estate. It was beyond the law and part of the reefs and waterways of no man's land. If Blyth disappeared it would become the plaything of the childlike Malalonga boys, who would treat it as children treat a castle of sand by the sea.

In the trade-room Blyth explored the sea chests and cupboards that smelt of camphor and sandalwood, pearls and spices. But only the smell remained. Within a blackwood cabinet he came upon a jotter that struck like a shaft of lightning into the dark air of mystery that surrounded old Keeling's affairs.

Dear, Dear Daddy:—

For all you have done and are doing I am deeply grateful. Some day we shall meet, if the sea is kind. But just for once, Daddy mine, let your mind peep at my tragedy. Separated from you since I was a child, because of a dead mother's inability to make you happy, I grow up alone and friendless, with just one thought of seeing you again. May it be soon, and may the love of your daughter enter the solitude of your life and dissipate it for ever.

Peggy Keeling.

'And that's that!' Blyth sighed as he scanned the letter for a date. There was none. The paper on which it was written revealed nothing of its age. The envelope had been destroyed. It might be a year old or twenty, he told himself. It was a school girl's letter, but, alas! the school girl might have become middle-aged! There was only the Sydney address to guide him.

He wrote a letter explaining everything. This letter he would post by the incoming mission steamer All Saints, which would deliver it to a mail steamer at Levuka. The news of Jim Keeling's death had already gone abroad; the natives had passed it on to other islands, where the schooners and copra men would hear of the rich pearl banks and lagoons awaiting a claimant or heir.

Opening a ledger that contained a reference to fifty bags of shell shipped to Sydney only three months before. Blyth came upon an entry in one of the broad margins:—

Red Planet Pearl: Nothing like it since the Southern Cross stone, 1889. Value undecided, but not less than eight thousand pounds. Colour: Blood opal at base; pear-shaped, orient and lustre matchless.

Below the above entry was another, written five days later: —

Worried to death over Red Planet stone. All my boys gone sulky, especially Noah, the Maluka diver. Perhaps mutiny. No help and there's sixteen of 'em. Must put Planet in place of security for Peggy's sake. Take notice, please. Number one Lagoon: From the sea entrance... Don't go. Hell's a pleasant place to what you'll get... if you step over.

A cigarette match had evidently burned parts of the entry in the ledger. In vain Blyth searched for a continuation of the directions.

Keeling had evidently been the worse for liquor at the lime of making the entry. After stopping the match flame from destroying the whole page, the old man had evidently fallen asleep and forgotten to complete his instructions.

Blyth cursed the gin that had fuddled poor Keeling's brain: he also cursed the habit that compels tipsy men to light matches over ledger entries. Here was a world prize in the shape of an incomparable sea gem completely lost as if it had been melted in the dead man's brain.

And what manner of girl was Peggy Keeling? he asked himself. A boarding-house drudge at Annandale, no less, a girl to whom a hundred pounds would mean unlimited picture shows, ice-creams, furbelows, bangles. Now she would get nothing, because a smelly match had dropped on the one square inch of paper that counted for heaven, or maybe serfdom, in Peggy Keeling's future.

IT was hot, even in the shade of the pandanus palms; hotter aboard the luggers, where the sun smote the lagoons like a blazing sword. The heat made Blyth dizzy, until he loathed the outline of the blood-red disc that seemed never to set—just hung above his head to sear and blind.

The bubbling voices of the divers across the reefs died down. The chatter of the shell-openers' knives ceased as the boys sprawled fore and aft under the luggers' sun awning.

Diving was not permitted within the spacious preserves of Number One lagoon. Chicken oysters must be allowed to mature. With the tide at low ebb Blyth walked along the coral ridge that overlooked Number One. The bed of the depression was covered with curious marine grasses and sponge beds. Along the eastern bank stretched an endless vision of shells, immature, golden-edge spat that was the life blood of the trade.

The mystery of Number One lagoon gripped him. It was here Keeling had hidden the Red Planet gem; but where and how? His despairing glance traversed the endless rows of shell and heavy growth of marine flora that made the work of exploration an impossibility. The unlucky match had destroyed the directions in the ledger. His eye moved from the rows of shell spat to a big pink bivalve with black lips that lay alone on the edge of the bank. Stooping near, Blyth dragged the bivalve from its resting-place, and with his knife opened it.

A cry broke from him as he glanced within. Lying beneath the clammy mass within was a human finger, encrusted with pearl!

Blyth sat on the hard coral reef and stared in amaze at his discovery. The finger had been in the shell for a year or more, before the Red Planet gem had been discovered. And it had been put there. Why? He had known experts manipulate foreign substances within the shells of growing oysters for specific purposes; but the placing of a human finger inside a bivalve smacked of savagery or worse.

A sudden shout from the luggers called his attention to the mission steamer All Saints making for the channel outside. The captain's signals were distinct and urgent. Blyth stepped towards the whaleboat lying under a canvas spread on the beach, and found five native boys preparing to go with him. His binoculars showed a tall white man leaning over the rail of the All Saints. Beside him was a young girl, staring at the reefs through a telescope.

The whaleboat gripped the mission steamer's gang way in a smother of reef-brine and grey-back combers. The short, fat, skipper on the bridge hailed him cheerily and then jerked his head in the direction of the two passengers.

'Miss Peggy Keeling and luggage, sir. The gent is Mr. Shannon, from Thursday Island. Says he's a friend of the late Jim Keeling.'

Peggy Keeling looked down at Blyth in the whaleboat, her childlike eyes exploring him with genuine interest. She was wearing a black arm-badge. So someone had broken the news at Thursday Island.

'All right, Miss Keeling,' Blyth called out, encouragingly. for he saw that she had left Sydney in ignorance of her father's death. 'There's a good house here, and in a day or two I'll get a few Malalonga women to look after you.'

Then his glance went over Shannon, standing near the rail. The eyes of the two men seemed to meet like thrusting blades. Shannon spoke. 'Sorry about my old partner, Jim Keeling. Blyth. I've come to look into his affairs. The deed of partnership between us is still in force. As a matter of fact, he added with brutal emphasis, 'I shall stay in possession until my claims are satisfied.'

Shannon was a giant of fifty. He smell of the sea and the beef cask. His face was the colour of an old saddle, with a pair of steely white eyes that squinted in the tropic sun-glare but mostly lip squinted at Blyth, his young face and slender, boyish figure.

'You've put yourself in charge of the Island,' he went on after a pause. 'Maybe you've been havin' a good time of your own.' He drew a nickel watch from his pocket and grinned sourly. 'It's midday, eighteenth of June, Mr Blyth. As far as you're concerned the good time stops here. I'm coming down.'

He entered the whaleboat with Peggy, while Blyth steadied his leaping nerves. Shannon's manner had touched him to the quick, but a bucking, heaving whaleboat was no place to discuss Peggy Keeling's family affairs.

Boxes, bags, and dunnage were dumped into the stern while Blyth clung to the steamer's gangway with a boathook. Peggy sat huddled almost at his feet in the thwarts. Her soft dark eyes were grave and overcast at the prospect ahead. Shannon sat cross legged on the pile of luggage and bayed an order to the crew of the whaleboat.

'Get to it! And by the holy, if you ship a pint of water I'll skin your tattooed noses! Pull away!'

They pulled.

Peggy Keeling glanced up slowly at his lank, heavy figure on the luggage, a tiny frown crinkling her brow.

'I like a man to grip things, Mr. Shannon, and to hold his place. But these natives were my father's servants. They're now going to be mine,' she stated sweetly. 'So we'll take a pull, as the sailormen say, on the civility line.'

Shannon stared at her from the roots of his pale eyes; the veins of his neck bulged. Then he caught the tail of Blyth's eye as the young Australian's cheek came round with the sweep of his oar.

Shannon choked himself to silence. In Levuka once he had seen a boy like Owen in a mix-up with three Kanakas and a German overseer. The experience had impressed him considerably after the overseer and his black henchmen had received attention by the military surgeon at the local hospital.

'I'm only handling these natives in my own style. Miss Keeling,' he grumbled, and fell into a sullen silence.

NEARING the lagoon entrance Peggy looked up at Blyth.

'Mr. Shannon met me at Thursday Island,' she explained. 'He came aboard the steamer that brought me from Sydney and explained that he was an old friend of my father. He said it would be to my advantage if he accompanied me here, as the natives were untrustworthy.'

Shannon favoured her with a deadly stare as the whaleboat entered the lagoon. While Blyth and two of the boys hauled Peggy's belongings ashore, Shannon sat on a coral hummock and lit a cigar. The whaleboat was drawn high and dry and covered with a canvas sail. Two of the boys remained in his vicinity like children courting favour with a new master. Shannon flung a handful of silver on the beach.

'That's for you, boys,' he intimated with heavy good-humour. 'Enough to buy each of your girls a dress piece. Forget what I said in the boat.'

The boys picked up the coins with avidity, grinning sheepishly as they watched him. Shannon became aware that the elder of the two boys had a forefinger missing from his right hand. His pale eyes twinkled curiously.

'How'd you lose your finger?' be questioned. 'Dynamiting fish?'

The boy shrank from the question like one dodging a blow.

'Me bin no tell,' he quavered. 'Bring um bad spirit belonga Mistah Keelin'.'

He sidled away towards the trade-house like a sheep-dog that had suddenly lost favour. Napa, his companion, laughed derisively.

'Noah, him fool, Mistah Shannon. Long time ago he catch ole Keelin' plant pearl in big pink oyster alonga bank over there. So he creep one night an' stick his linger into pink oyster shell to feel for pearl.'

Shannon's eyes widened.

'What happened?' he asked hoarsely. Napa grinned apishly.

'Mistah Keelin' crawl up behind Noah an 'ask him why he put his finger in pink shell. Noah look like dam fool; he no say anythin'. Then baas Keelin' get so mad he fetch um machete an' lopped off Noah's finger. Me stickem finger in pink shell to teach lesson to other boys.'

Shannon nodded thoughtfully. 'Bit rough on Noah,' he commented after awhile, 'Queer place, though,' he added broodingly, 'to think of hiding a pearl.'

ONCE inside the trade-house Owen Blyth turned to Peggy, a strained look in his boyish face.

'I know of no deed of partnership between Shannon and your father,' he stated quickly. 'He's trying a big bluff in the hope of something happening.'

Peggy Keeling was twenty, and the voyage from Sydney had tempered the roses in her checks to a golden tan; but behind this wind-blazed loveliness of throat and brow lay a well-trained disposition. At a glance she had read Owen and all that he stood for on this tropic belt of sea-scoured atolls. For her life had not been without its privations. Early enough she had come to a sense of her position in the daily scramble for existence.

The meaning of her father's lonely life in the South Pacific was clear enough. He had sent her money from time to time; but there had always been the complaint on Jim Keeling's part that pearls were hard to find, and when found exceedingly difficult to market or hide.

Peggy sat in a rattan chair and took in the objects of interest scattered about the room, the bundles of sharks' teeth. native spears, shell specimens, and the big flute with the silver keys that hung over the mantel. She smiled sadly at the thought of her father's musical evenings on this lonely edge of the world. Then her thoughts came back to Shannon and the eager-faced boy standing with his back to the trade-house window.

'Dad wrote me a letter a few weeks ago,' she began earnestly. 'By the look of it he was sick and worried, I could only make sense here and there, as I read it. Mostly it was about a pearl he had christened the Red Planet.'

Owen's face cleared instantly. 'There is a reference to it in the ledger, with the details of its exact whereabouts burnt out. Perhaps the letter gives the locality?' he hazarded.

Peggy's mouth tightened suddenly.

'My last recollection of Dad's letter was after we left Thursday Island in the All Saints. I'd been studying it in my cabin, trying to make out what Dad really meant. There was a call on deck by the stewardess for me to see some flying-fishes. I must have left the letter on the cabin table. Anyway, I never saw it again. Blown away, probably; a half-gale was blowing at the time.'

Owen dropped into a chair, mopping his face with a kerchief and trying to mask the feeling of despair that now gripped his heart.

OUTSIDE, in the shelter of the pandanus palms, Shannon waited for Peggy and Owen to discuss the situation. He wanted to know what they were going to do. The crews of the luggers over the reef would stand by Blyth and Peggy if he declared himself master of the island. Bloodshed would certainly follow any immediate attempt on his part to control the pearling banks.

Very gingerly, and with eyes slanting in the direction of the trade-house window, he drew a letter from his pocket, the one that had blown from the table of Peggy's cabin when the stewardess called her on deck. The stewardess was an old friend of Shannon's.

He had read the letter a score of times, the drunken, illegible scrawl that revealed plainer than words the condition into which Jim Keeling had fallen in the last year. It was full of a gin maniac's maunderings, of the griefs and tribulations incidental to one at grips with his destiny on a lonely atoll in mid-Pacific. There was a plaintive reference to the thieving habits of his native 'skin' divers. Three of these had absconded with gems, taking with them a valuable seven-ton lugger, impossible to replace in those seas.

Keeling's whole energies were centred on the Red Planet gem. He must keep it for Peggy. Such a priceless stone would stave off poverty in the days to come. Of all the pearls God had made, this one reflected his handiwork. It was the dream of sea-fairies, and had come from a sea-fairies' garden. Here the letter was blotted and smeared with grease from a candle. It was the last page that forced Shannon's attention even while he cursed the dead man's slovenliness and penmanship. It ran:—

Number One lagoon. The gutter runs from the sea entrance like a drain. At low tide it holds about two feet of water. Walk along thirteen paces from entrance. You will come to heavy bunch of sea-grass... wrapped in piece of rubber diving jacket... fastened to lead sinker. Stop here, or hell will be a picnic to your sufferings. Had to do it on account of those black dogs of mine.

Shannon replaced the letter in his pocket. In spite of its incoherencies and candle-grease stains, it conveyed the one item of information he had waited months to obtain.

Of course, Peggy had read the letter, he told himself, and would recollect the instructions relating to the thirteen paces from the sea entrance to the lagoon. But there was just a chance that a girl like Peggy might not. If she did it, it was certain that Blyth would get the Red Planet for her. Shannon clenched his teeth savagely as he stared across the lagoon. In a few hours the tide would be out and it would be quite dark. A shadow of uneasiness crossed him as he recalled Keeling's ominous reference to the thirteen paces: 'Stay here, or hell will be a picnic to your sufferings.'

What was in Keeling's mind, he asked himself, when he scrawled those lines? Behind it all lay some infernal trick, Shannon told himself, or was it that Keeling's mind had become affected towards the end?

He was suddenly conscious of Noah's white teeth leering at him from the pandanus shade. The boy was making signs in his direction. Shannon moved stealthily towards him and waited for him to speak. Something warned him that the boy with the missing finger was going to solve a problem. Noah was crouching low in the long grass that skirted the beach.

'Lissen, papalagi,' he said slowly. 'You no go into that big feller lagoon aftah pearl.'

'Why not?' Shannon growled without raising his head.

Noah leaned nearer until his sharks' teeth necklace touched the while man's hand.

'One big lui-trap planted in big feller lagoon there. All set. You no see lui-trap in wet mush an' coral until him catch hold of you. Bing. Bang! Ugh!'

Shannon lay very still in the pandanus shade, while a drop of moisture fell from his brow. A lui-trap was a steel-fanged contrivance for gripping and killing octopi and giant stingrays. Of all the devilish contrivances for destroying unwelcome visitors within a lagoon, the lui-trap was a living nightmare. It was generally embedded in the slime and sea-grass where the man-killing eels and stingrays interfered with divers. Caught in its toils, a man's body would crack like a stick, or be torn to pulp for the scavenger sharks. Shannon drew breath sharply.

The face of the native boy betrayed a ghastly grin. He spoke almost in Shannon's ear.

'Long time ago baas Keelin' hide big pearl in big heap of grass out in lagoon. I watch him put lui-trap beside um pearl,' he grinned. 'Baas Keelin' know all Malalonga boys scared like um hell of lui-trap. One day twenty-foot stingray kill um two divers in lagoon long way off. So Keelin' pick up lui-trap from here and put it in lagoon long way off.'

'And blamed well left it there,' Shannon chuckled.

Noah shook his head. 'No; Keelin' bring it back after trap smash up stingray. He put it fifteen steps from the entrance, a good way from the big grass lump.'

'Fifteen steps?' Shannon flung out. 'Are you sure, kid?' The while man sat up as though a knife had touched him.

Noah nodded with conviction.

'I watch baas Keelin' measure twelve to make sure. I hear him count, alla same as me. No mistake, papalagi. Lui-trap just one stride this side grass bunch now. So you get it from this side,' he added earnestly.

Shannon wiped his hot face. How like the action of a gin-demented old fish-trapper, he mused with inward glee, to change the position of the lui-trap long after he had written his instructions to his daughter! And if Peggy or Blyth were unlucky enough to search the gutter without knowing.... Whew! Shannon thrust a few more coins into Noah's hand, while his brow clouded with a sudden suspicion.

'Tell me, kid,' he said slowly, 'why didn't you go after the big Planet pearl when you had its bearings so pat?'

Noah held up his three-fingered hand meaningly.

'Too much bad luck, papalagi. Pearl no good to me, anyway. I go to prison next time they catch um me.'

Shannon drew a deep breath.

'All right, Noah. Keep your tongue still to that fellow Blyth. But you can tell him, when you're passing the house, that I'll sleep on one of the luggers tonight. Say I'll see them in the morning, after Miss Keeling is settled down. Go now.'

The Maluka boy loped in the direction of the trade-house, leaving Shannon staring across Number One lagoon.

Noah delivered his message to Peggy. She was alone, Blyth having departed to a roomy boat shed at the other side of Number One lagoon. Owen had assured her that he would be quite comfortable living there with one of the boys to cook his food. In the meantime he had sent for two women of the Talunga tribe, at Nukana Island seventy miles to the south-west. They would come gladly into Peggy's service for the gift of a few yards of turkey red twill.

A FAINT breeze fanned Peggy's cheek as she peered from the open trade-house across the dark lagoon. She regretted the loss of her father's letter that contained exact instructions of the Red Planet's whereabouts.

For many reasons she had refrained from confiding too closely in Owen. In the first place she feared that the letter had been written under the spell of liquor. Her sensitive nature shrank from the disappointment that would come to Owen if the directions, which she remembered, proved to be only her father's bibulous ravings. The Red Planet itself might be a fiction of his distraught mind. She would seek the pearl herself, and if she were successful, Owen would be told the truth. As for Shannon, her woman's instinct warned her that he was no more than an island bully, looking for dead men's property. The South Seas was the home of such characters.

Thirteen paces from the sea entrance, if she followed the narrow gutter at low tide it was quite simple. She took a thick-soled pair of shoes from a bag and drew them on quickly. She walked slowly along the lagoon beach towards the narrow channel where her father had measured the distance along the gutter. The tide had ebbed long ago, but the moon had set, leaving only the bare outline of the jagged reefs and beach to guide her.

In the darkness the floor of the lagoon shone like a wet garment, with great feathery flounces of weed and moss strewing the slippery surface. But the darkness yielded to her young eyes. The gleaming floor of the shell preserve became visible, with its pitted banks of sea grass and sponge, its myriads of tiny crabs moving with the sound of rustling leaves at her approach. A candle burned in the distant boatshed where Owen was fixing himself for the night.

Peggy moved gingerly across the tangles of sea kale. Within a few feet of the sea entrance to the lagoon she stopped dead and took her bearings. With her back to the low coral wall of the channel, she paced out to the gutter that ran directly from the wall across the lagoon.

'One, two, three...'

The sea water in the gutter covered her ankles, and then in a flash she recalled the warning words in her father's letter: 'Walk thirteen paces from the entrance. You will come to a heavy bunch of sea grass... Stop here, or hell will be a picnic to your sufferings.'

Her heart beat furiously, but she comforted herself with the thought that there was no need to go beyond the thirteenth step. Her father would not deceive her.

'Eight, nine, ten...'

Again Peggy halted, her feet faltering slightly, her eyes grown dim in the baffling light. Yet she could make out the big bunch of sea grass mentioned in the letter. It was almost within reach of her hand. The Red Planet gem inside fastened to a lead sinker. Twenty yards away in the darkness something was moving towards her, a lanky, stooping shape with out-stretched hands. Her lips stifled a cry.

It was Shannon. His moving hands and loose garments gave him the appearance of a huge bird of prey making towards some dainty morsel. His old eyes failed to penetrate the darkness where Peggy had retreated. She lay quite still, among the wet kale, a sick feeling in her heart that this human vulture was clawing his way to the Red Planet gem.

Arriving at the coral wall, Shannon began to stride out along the gutter, counting as he strode. His voice croaked at each step, his lanky frame swaying in his pent-up excitement.

'Seven, eight, nine...'

He stopped with the precision of a man on parade, and then bent forward again.

'Ten, eleven, twelve...'

Peggy's heart had ceased to beat. The warmth of her young breast seemed to pass into the chill of death. Something had happened, something that drew the fainting blood from her heart to her lips.

Shannon had remained erect, an instant after the twelfth count. His foot had gone forward, and the word 'thirteen' had left him. If was then he seemed to slip forward in the gutter, his hands grasping at the big hump of grass. A shout snapped on his lips, short-clipped, a cry of despair cut in half by the lightning grip of the unexpected. He disappeared. But in a little while she made out his angular figure rocking blindly to and fro across the bank. His hoarse voice reached her like the sob of an animal caught by fangs of steel.

In that moment the man's duplicity vanished from Peggy's mind. The courage of her race sang like the sea within her as she waded to her hips along the treacherous bank.

The tide was now rushing through the channel with the speed of wild horses. A scent of dawn was nipping the air, cold, grey, and desolate. Foot by foot, she thrashed through the in-driving waves until the livid, drawn features of Shannon were visible. He was lying backward across the shell bank, his ankles held by sabre-toothed flange of iron that pinned him to the bank like a bee caught between pincers. In the lift of an eye he saw Peggy battling nearer and nearer through the in-flowing tide. Something in her desperate courage touched him in his agony.

'I'm done for,' he choked, 'Get away as fast as you can. The sharks are here already.'

Peggy had discarded her heavy boots and was half swimming in the boiling inrush of brine.

'You're held by one of those octopus irons.' she gasped. 'I can't lift it and there's no help—in time.'

'Go back,' Shannon repeated. 'Look what's coming!'

The tide was beating over him in leaps and avalanches of foam. Again he struggled into an upright position, an automatic pistol slanting towards a phosphorescent wedge of light skulking on the edge of the deep water. He fired once, twice, until the grey-backed monster fled back to the entrance.

Peggy froze as she turned to grip the sea-grass above Shannon's head. The tide was fast covering the bank: the shark shoals were skirmishing close in to the trapped man on the bank. The iron lui-trap had often provided them with a meal. The tide slapped Peggy's face and limbs as she clung tenaciously to the sea-grass beside Shannon. She felt herself slipping gradually into the gutter below.

BLYTH had not slept. His nerves were on the jump, and the sound of pistol fire across the lagoon swept him to the door of the boatshed. Heavy seas were breaking through the channel. The grey dawn showed him the two blurred figures on the bank. His heart choked at what he saw. There was no mistaking the boylike figure of Peggy Keeling, up-crouched among the sponge beds and sea-grass, spindrift, and foam breaking over her still figure. And there was Shannon—

Blythe's flying start took him across the beach to the dinghy drawn up in the sand. Mercifully the oars were in place. He knew that the pistol fire would rouse the boys on the luggers, but he did not wait. It was one of many races he had rowed in his life, and the dinghy seemed to skate across the millrace of water.

Peggy was clutching the sea-grass with failing strength, the water drawing her slowly from her hold. Blyth caught her in a fierce grip as he wore the tiny craft stern-on to the bank. With some difficulty he drew her slight figure into the thwarts, and then turned to Shannon. The big man was lying bent in the gutter, submerged to his shoulders. His voice was faint and scarce audible as he met Owen's glance.

'Blamed trap's got me by the feet, kid. I guess the tide and the sharks will get me before you unlock it.'

At that moment a whaleboat appeared, cutting across the lagoon in their direction. Six native boys swarmed along the bank and, following Napa's directions, forced back the great, spring jaws of the trap from Shannon's ankles. Once in the boat the big man collapsed, his head resting on Blyth's knee. Nearing the beach he looked up at Napa with half seeing eves.

'That black runt Noah put me wrong. Told me a lie. I was nipped at the devil's number.'

Peggy sat up when the boat kicked the beach, her hand resting in Blyth's. Shannon had fallen back in a deadly faint. She looked at him almost pityingly.

'Take him to Daddy's room,' she ordered quietly. 'I'm sorry my father meddled with traps. It isn't fair, even to thieves,' she added with a touch of bitterness.

SHANNON struggled for his life during the long days that followed the incident at Number One lagoon. His ankles had been badly torn, and the healing process was slow and uncertain. Peggy and Owen took it in turns to attend him. When the mission steamer All Saints called three months later. Shannon felt that he was sufficiently recovered to return to his home at Thursday Island.

Peggy and Owen had turned to the task of making ends meet and repairing the faults of the dead Jim Keeling. Wisely they decided to forget the past, together with the crazy hide-and-seek performances attached to the lost Red Planet.

'I'll be saying good-bye,' Shannon announced as he limped from the trade-house to the mission steamer's longboat waiting on the beach. 'I've cursed every hole and corner of this place. If I could lay hands on Noah, by thunder, I'd skin him with his own shell-opener.'

Peggy and Owen walked beside him to the boat, assisting his shaking limbs over the rough coral peaks. With his trembling hand on the boat's gunwale he turned his drawn face to Peggy. A dry, humorous grin touched his fevered lips.

'I'm saying good-bye to a white man and woman,' he said hoarsely. 'You've both played the game. As for me'—he paused to fumble in the pocket, of his coat—'the only thing I played was your father's old flute, Peggy.'

'It was the only instrument he ever played.' Peggy responded with a sad smile. 'I thought of giving it to Noah. Every time he passes the house he begs me to lend it him. Some of the natives are quite musical.'

The grin on Shannon's face became fixed as he pressed Peggy's hand. A cry escaped her as she opened her palm.

A flaming pearl the size of a small pear glistened in its magic beauty and orient under her startled eyes.

'Mr. Red Planet,' Shannon stated hoarsely. 'Derned thing fell out of the flute, one night I was trying to play 'Home, sweet Home.' I must, say old Jim Keeling went funny in the head before he died. Good-bye, Peggy, and you, Mr. Blyth. I'll send the padre along from Thursday Island: maybe you'll find him useful. Their ain't been a wedding in these parts for years.'

The boat pushed off, but not before he had added a parting shot.

'I'd give the flute to Noah, Peggy, with a little dynamite wad fixed inside. Cheerio!'

Peggy and Owen returned to the trade-house wondering at the curious ways of men and fortune. But both agreed that the coming of the padre would be a happy event in their lives.


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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