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ALBERT DORRINGTON

THE BELL AT CHRISTMAS REEF

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As published in The Sydney Mail, Australia, 17 October 1928

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-06-19
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'SOMEONE has stolen my bell!' the Reverend Mr. Hammond announced from the step of the mission-house. 'This time last year, you remember, Cherki, the trepang fisher, took our whaleboat and burnt holes in it.'

Malatonga Island shook under the hurricane blasts of brine that thundered across its glittering beaches. The mission-house stood while and square on the lime stone bluff where the slanting palms broke the rush of the south-east trade-wind.

Joan Hammond, in her pretty overalls and peach-like complexion, was vexed over the loss of the bell. Always these native trepang fishers and taro planters strove to add an extra laugh to holiday festivities. How quickly they forgot the periods of famine and plague, when her father had fought single-handed to keep the children alive!

A mile from the mission-house was a commodious trade-room and bungalow, owned by two Sydney boys, Noel Tempest and Carson. They bought copra and oil from the chiefs, trading cotton goods, tobacco, and knick-knacks in return.

Billy Carson was dark-haired and big-limbed, and had fought his way through the rough-house gangs of Honolulu and Frisco before settling finally in Malatonga. Tempest was his partner, a slim, student-faced youngster who loved the island nights and the sound of the seas breaking under the trade-house window.

Their venture with the trade-house had been a success. The chiefs respected Billy Carson as a man who would fight rather than drink or dance. They sent him their best mats and the pick of their sandal-wood cargoes. Their daughters brought seed pearls to Tempest in exchange for coloured fabrics, bottles of perfume, and nickel-plated scissors. But Noel's thoughts were never far from the slim young figure of Joan at the mission.


DURING the early part of the day there had been a rush of native girls to the store. Carson had sold every scrap of turkey- red twill to the insatiable but laughing-eyed daughters of the headmen, who came with garlands of red passion vine in their hair and the fragrance of vanna forests on their shouting lips. They brought gifts of amber and rare coral from the outlying islands, beautifully woven mats, paradise plumes of raw blue and rainbow, vermilion and shimmering sapphire. In return they had taken all the biscuits and nickel-plated ware, the enamelled hairpins, and silver-washed pocket mirrors.

During the first wild rush for bargains things had been stolen, for it was impossible lo keep these chattering, laughing island beauties from the enchanted cases of pink and ruby glassware, the brass thimbles, and the funny little picture- books.

The morning was stiflingly hot. The beach under the trade- house verandah was a while blaze. Tempest, in his spotless twill, was attending to a crowd of Tapanua girls, all screaming for lengths of blue shantung.

'Lo, tafanga, papalagi. You must gif us blue shan-tun'. Why yous breeng alla thees grey black cotton trade to our Malatonga? These colours are very dead. Te mate! You must gif us more colour.'

'I've got to take what those boozy schooner captains bring us,' Tempest retorted with a laugh. 'All the black checks and left-overs. Never mind, girls. You shall have a boatload of blue shantung and gold brocades soon,' he assured them. 'Just now there isn't a yard of blue this side of Sydney.'

He threw the rejected checks back to the shelf and lit a cigarette. 'But I'll give ten yards of yellow twill to the girl who'll tell who stole the mission bell.'

A dead silence. The whispering hush was deepened by the unexpected entry of Naura, only child of a poor Samoan planter. What Naura lacked in dollars and rich mats was more than balanced by the loveliness of her tall, slender figure and face. She was fifteen; her heavily braided hair was drawn away from the Madonna-like brow. She wore a cheap Russian smock and woven grass sandals. Her complexion matched the little ivory crucifix she wore on her breast. The silence grew more deadly as she stepped lightly to the board where Carson was unrolling the last of the turkey twill.

'I want, if you plees, Mr. Casson, enough of blue shantun' to complete me a gown.'

Naura followed her order by gently slapping a five-dollar bill on the board.

Carson turned sharply, and seemed to catch his breath at sight of Malatonga's peerless beauty. All the morning he had heard the screamed-out demands for blue shantung from the twenty girls and women who had come in from the surrounding atolls for their holiday bargains. Tempest had told them pleasantly but definitely not to yell for any more. They seemed to eat the stuff. And there wasn't a yard left. And now here was Naura with her little five dollars asking for Heaven.

Carson glanced covertly to where Tempest was bending over the checks, and then drew a deep breath.

'Just five yards I want, if you plees, Mr. Casson, to complete me a gown,' Naura repeated with childlike persistence. 'I hope you have kep' me just five yards?'


Illustration

'I hope you have kep' me just five yards?'


The last sentence was uttered in a voice that would have produced water from a burning rock. Billy made secret efforts to reply by lip movements only. But Naura of Malatonga was not inclined to conduct her buying with undue secrecy. She was anxious to show her twenty rivals how to pull shantung from under their devouring eyes.

'Listen, Naura,' Billy began in a craven whisper. 'I've got a piece, but can't hand it you now. That flock of birds watching us will lynch me.'

Naura did not want her blue shantung by stealth: she did not want it passed to her from a back window when no one was looking. She would have it now or never. Noel Tempest looked up from his board as Billy stooped under the counter. On the face of Tempest was a look of stark understanding. The starkness did not fade as Carson, under the fire of twenty pairs of burning eyes, drew forth a short, shimmering length of the unobtainable shantung.

'I give you my word,' Billy blurted across the counter, 'I wasn't aware we had another yard in stock. Take it away!'

Rolling the material hastily into a parcel, he thrust it into her hand. Naura accepted it languidly, stooped to dust away a couple of pink sea-shells that clung to the toe of her sandal, and then stepped out to the beach. A few moments after she had gone the store was empty. Tempest wiped his hot face, and then fumbled for a cigarette.

'That's what I call dirt, Billy,' he proclaimed in an even voice. 'You're allowing this kid Naura to beat us out of our business.'

The blood was in Billy's cheeks now.

'I had to give it her, Tempest,' he confessed haltingly. 'You know how dog-poor her people are.'

'About half as dog-poor as we'll be if we trade on your fancy lines, Billy. We depend on the goodwill of the parents of those girls who saw you hand the blue stuff to Naura. You heard me refuse little Mariana, the chief's daughter, when she begged for shantung. Mariana's old man is worth three thousand dollars a year in trade to us. She couldn't have shantung because you hid it for Naura!'

Carson busied himself among some packing-cases. But Noel of the long legs and dreaming eyes was beside him.

'Another thing, Billy,' he commented pleasantly, 'Naura's engaged to that half-caste fellow Cherki. A big, nasty chap who tries to sell us all that rotten shark oil. He fishes night and day off the reefs. They say he tortures even the sharks. Wraps red-hot stones in his bait, and then watches the poor brutes twist and thrash in their agony. He's bound to hear about the blue shantung from the girls who didn't get any. And I'll conclude my sermon, Billy, by asking where in this island of butterflies she got that five dollars?'

'Her father earns something,' Carson retorted, and went on with the packing-cases.

'Blessed if I saw you take the money,' Tempest murmured under his breath. But Carson did not hear the remark.

Joan would laugh when she heard about the shantung. Everyone petted Naura. Even the dour old Scotch minister thought her the loveliest creature from God's garden. But there was a limit to allowing Naura to ruin their trade. Billy hadn't the tact of a horse.

They ate their mid-day meal almost in silence. Joan had promised to join them, but at the last moment the loss of the bell had caused confusion at the mission-house. The native congregation had little or no idea of time. Without their bell Joan would have to go round to the huts and plantations and round them up for the evening service. The booming note of surf beat in upon these two lonely young traders. Myriads of sooty-winged hawks planed and drowsed above the reefs.

Billy Carson sipped the one glass of wine he allowed himself on holidays. His mind was troubled over the blue shantung and the thought of Naura. Tempest's reference to Cherki had touched him on the quick.

'What's the matter with Naura?' he challenged, after an unbearable silence. 'You seem to think she belongs to the woolly- haired crowd we had in the store to-day. What you said about her engagement to Cherki has got to be contradicted, old boy. Naura looks for someone of her own complexion.'

'Yourself, eh, Billy?' Carson moved uneasily in his rattan chair. 'I'll answer that, Tempest, in the friendliest way. 'She's better than I am, with my past record for street fighting. In the name of Mike, why am I supposed to be superior to her? Is it because my skin's the colour of a fried pancake, or because my father laid bricks and kept out of gaol?'

Tempest laughed heartily. 'I'll say she's better than either of us, Billy. I shall always think of her as the gamest kid in the islands. Mr. Hammond told me that the week before we arrived the whole settlement was down with flu and whooping-cough. There wasn't an ounce of medicine or quinine in the archipelago. The children in the village were in a terrible state. Old Jimmy Kidson's schooner, loaded with stores and comforts, was lying off the island, scared stiff of the surf and unable to make the entrance.

'The island was dying,' Tempest went on. 'Hammond was down; Joan was at her wits' end with the village threatened with extermination. And old skin-flint Kidson, afraid to risk a boat in the surf, smoking his big cheroot and spying at the village with his German binoculars.

'And then this kid Naura! She trips off to the end of the reef, kicks off her sandals, and shoots like a little fish through the big smokers and fetches up under the gangway of Kidson's schooner.

'Mr. Hammond told me she made Kidson fill up the longboat with stores and medicines, jollied him into lending four boys to man it, and then took a steering oar and brought that longboat through Five-Fathom channel without shipping a pint of water. And now, my dear Billy,' he concluded with a boyish grin, 'you are at liberty to sketch out all the other virtues that surround our little comrade Naura.'

Carson flushed to his hair-roots as he pushed the cigarettes in his partners direction. 'I say she's too good for a roughneck like me.' he growled. 'But if I thought she'd got to marry that black stiff Cherki I'd carry her, sandals and all into the mission-house and ask Mr. Hammond to get busy on us.'

Tempest sighed. In the security of Joan's affections he felt it would be priggish to deny Billy the one spark of romance ever likely to enter his life.


THE night came up black at the length of one's arms. Tempest sat reading beside the naphtha lamp on the verandah. Carson was strolling with a hurricane lamp round the boathouse and outbuildings. Often in the dark he had stumbled over gangs of native boys removing the lids of biscuit cases left on the store- room verandah. Candy jars and boxes of glass-ware had a trick of vanishing into space.

Turning from the store-room to join Tempest, he stood rooted for a moment at the far-off stroke of a bell. It came from the far side of the island in the direction of Christmas Reef, a lonely spot avoided by the natives on account of the spirits from the drowned ships that dwelt there. The bell tolled softly, stopped, and began again.

The effect on Billy Carson was electrical. Never before had he heard a bell toll on that lonely shelf of tide-washed reef. He saw Tempest's shadow in the doorway of the trade-house, bent forward to catch the sound.

'The mission bell, for sure,' Billy called out, with a laugh. 'The heathen is pulling our minister's leg!'

Tempest, was silent, annoyed. If these black clowns thought they could humiliate the sturdy old minister they were mistaken. They could be taught to respect the man who had given them a lifetime of service. The bell notes sounded clearer as the night wore, Carson could stand it no longer.

'Come along, Noel; we'll give it a look-over. Somebody's hitting the derned bell!'

Tempest followed along the beach and through the dark pandanus, as a huge white moon, the size of a ripe breadfruit, tipped the forest line. Once clear of the pandanus scrub they came to a low line of glittering coral that formed a barrier across the northern end of the island. It was an eerie spot. The strong moonlight turned the expanse of coral peaks into, a graveyard of leprous whiteness. Crawling to the extreme edge of the shoal, they beheld a sight that drove the blood from their hearts.


STRETCHED on the lip of the shoal was Naura. The Russian smock had been torn from her shoulders; her lissome young body was covered by a cage-like structure having an opening on to the water. Across this opening hung the mission-house bell. The tide being at low ebb, both men were puzzled to know what had moved the bell. Naura's hands and feet were securely held to the reef by a sinnet line passed through some iron staples driven into the coral.

Stooping, Billy Carson tore away the wire cover, while Tempest cut the line, from Naura's quivering ankles and wrists. Her body was warm, but limp from terror and exposure. Speech fell dead between the two men. As yet neither was accustomed to the ways of the Malatonga fun-makers.

Tempest could see nothing but barbarous folly in pinning down a young girl to a bare reef. The presence of the bell was more mysterious than ever. With ankles and wrists bound to the staples it had been impossible for Naura to touch the bell. Yet it had been rung at regular intervals.

'Bellamy.' All the blood had drained from Carson's face as he massaged the trembling limbs of the girl in his arms. 'Be a pal and carry this kid across to the mission. Don't worry Miss Joan or the old man about the bell part of the story. Tell them I'm keeping watch on Christmas Reef for the nigger with the funny ways.'

Without question Tempest took the slim Samoan girl from Carson and stepped lightly across the coral shoal in the direction of the mission-house lights. Joan would be there, glad and eager to succour her unfortunate little friend. He could depend on Billy Carson dealing with the fun-makers of Malatonga.


BILLY lay flat on the reef, his slow-moving mind seeking to probe the meaning of the uncanny situation in which he had found Naura. Through it all he began to detect the sinister hand of Cherki, the shark-fisher. It would be some time before Naura was sufficiently recovered to tell the story. They would have to wait. And then—

Billy's teeth clenched as he turned face down on the cool, spray-drenched reef, he had sworn a year ago never again to raise his hand to a man. All his life had been spent fighting beach crooks and mutinous schooner hands, keeping in place the white bullies who tried lo live on the women and girls of these far- flung islands. In his island home he would fight only for peace and the happiness of the simple traders, who were often at the mercy of drunken schooner captains and labour recruiters.

The sound of a paddle dipping near the reef stirred him. A small canoe shot alongside where the bell still hung above the dismantled wire. Billy flattened his body in the shadow line of the shoal. The canoe hung motionless in the full glare of the tropic moon. The tall figure of Cherki stood in sharp silhouette, a long fishing lance in his right hand. Stepping from the canoe, he made it fast to a boulder of coral. For an instant he stood transfixed at sight, of the torn cage, the strands of cut sinnet rope. Then his glance went across the shoal, and, with the unerring instinct of the tracker, rested finally on the dancing lights within the mission house.

A soft Polynesian oath disturbed the warm silence of the reefs. He turned almost, fiercely to the canoe as Carson whirled to his feet with the speed of a tiger.

'Hello, Cherki,' he saluted with a frozen grin. 'How's the fishing to-night? Plenty of lobsters, eh?'

Cherki drew away as one avoiding a discussion. He was thirty, with the limbs of an athlete and the neck of a bull. The long flat muscles of his naked arms and torso seemed to respond to the blind, jealous fury that began to surge within him.

'I come to feesh, Mahster Casson. No business of yours, sah. This reef belonga me as well as you, sah.'

Billy held himself in check. He would make this fellow speak about Naura and the bell, or fasten him to the reef with his own sinnet ropes.

'I'm going to ask you a question, Cherki. You can answer it or scrap. Who on this island appointed you chief torturer of girls and animals? Who gave you this reef to tie up my friends and play the witch doctor?'

Silence.

Carson knew by the deep, slow breathing of the half-caste, the soft crunching movement of his bare feet on the coral, that he was bunching his huge body for a spring.

He came with a rush and a stab of his long fishing spear, striking full at the white man's breast. Billy Carson hated spears and poison darts. A bullet put a man out of his pain, but the barbed point of the lance in Cherki's grip made wounds that never healed. So Billy bounded away and around the moonlit reef with all the old skill of his ringside days. He knew that the half-caste had more than the ordinary native's daring, and would fight like a panther while the winning chance looked good. And Billy was determined to have Cherki's chance look good—to Cherki.

Round and across the reef they whirled, the half-caste seeking to drive Billy to the extreme edge and into the water, where the white man would have no chance whatever.

'You teenk,' he snarled, pausing and tightening his grip on the spear, 'you can gif blue shantun' to Naura, an' make de oder gels laff at me. I show her what I teenk. I show you now, Mahster Casson, how I keel white feesh for a joke!'

He followed Billy along the reef edge as a tamer follows a caged lion. 'I will show you how I tickle de big white feesh, 'Mahster Casson.' They stood almost foot-to-foot now, and Cherki measured his thrust with the precision of a big-game hunter. Billy saw it coming. His iron-shod boot shot out lightly to the knee-joint of the bending half-caste. The kick was unexpected, and, delivered from a stooping angle that disturbed Cherki's aim, spoilt all chance of a direct, thrust.

The half-caste was jolted almost to his knees, which was enough for Carson. Toes dug in the coral, his long left smashed on the half-turned jaw of the lance-man and again as Cherki fought to recover his balance.

'You big black wop! I'll dig the truth out of your heart. Stand up!'


Illustration

'You big black wop! I'll dig the truth out of your heart. Stand up!'


But Cherki had crumpled like a shot beast under a hurricane of head blows. He lay still as death, knees updrawn, eyes staring vacuously.

'All right, my bimbo,' Billy grinned, staring down at the semi-conscious figure. 'Just say why you put that wire net and bell over Naura. Say it quick, or I'll turn you into shark- bait.'

No answer.

Billy reflected swiftly. Then, with scarcely an effort, he dragged the sprawling figure to the iron staples that had pinned Naura to the reef. Kneeling on the flinching body of the half- caste, he fastened his wrists quickly with the sinnet rope, drew them over his head, and ran the ends of the rope through the staples. Roping the half-caste's knees together, he looped them tightly to the two staples near the overhanging ledge of reef. Billy then pressed the wire cage into place over the straight- drawn body of Cherki, so that he lay in a wire tunnel opening on to the deep water.

The bell remained in place.

'You can keep your mouth shut, Cherki,' Billy told him quietly; 'but I've a notion that your patent fish-trap is going to speak for itself.'

Cherki writhed at his bonds, but Billy's head punches had sapped his strength. In a little while he lay still.

Carson stretched himself in the shadow of the reef and waited. He lit a cigarette; yet, in spite of his assumed carelessness of manner, he realised that the shock of his life was somewhere at hand.


THE night had grown stiflingly hot, and Billy was inclined to doze with the gently-crooning tide in his ears. He was roused to a sitting position by a sudden stroke of the bell. Crawling near Cherki, he stared into the moonlit water directly under the reef. Ten yards away a gigantic sea flower seemed to rise from the bed of the channel, spreading its dark stems in the direction of the opening in the wire cage. With almost human intelligence it thrust a searching tentacle into the opening of the cage, brushing aside, the bell violently as it reached for Cherki's ankles. The bell swung back, and was again tilted away as a second tentacle made play in the vicinity of the lanceman's fleshy calves. And again the mission-house bell protested.

A sharp howl broke from Cherki; then a savage struggle to free himself from the fleshy fingers took place, while the pair of searching tentacles sought to tear him from his holding-ground. Billy watched the terrific struggle in silence, Cherki fighting desperately, grimly, to save himself from being dragged piecemeal from the sinnet ropes by the gouging, slimy fingers of the monster under the reef. The branch-like tentacles withdrew leisurely, allowing the huge, dish-shaped body of the monster to, float for a moment on the ghostly surface of the tide. From the centre of this dish-shaped mass a single eye stared at the struggling man inside the arch of wire. Then it sank again, leaving only a single tentacle clawing under the bell.

A bitter oath stayed on Carson's lips. He saw now what Naura had endured each time the fear some creature thrust at her unprotected limbs. Cherki's wail of terror broke the death-like silence.

'This feller octopus, him get me, Mahster Casson, if you go away. You please stay here, Mahster Casson.'

Billy thought of Naura's sufferings and shook his head. 'It's a nice warm night, Cherki, for you and your friend. You'll find those ropes pretty tight. Let the derned fish keep on pulling; he'll soon get tired. Good-night, Cherki; I'll try a stroll.'


ONCE clear of the reef Billy walked quickly towards the mission-house. At the head of the limestone path he came upon the old minister pacing up and down the avenue of palms. He held out his hands to Billy.

'I'm glad you've come, Carson. That poor child Naura has been asking for you. She is talking wild nonsense about her wickedness in taking blue cloth from you in the presence of other women. She says she has been justly punished.'

Billy hung his head, and was about to enter the room where Joan was comforting the distracted Naura. The minister's hand stayed him.

'Perhaps it would be better to wait,' he begged. 'She is wonderfully recuperative and vital, and will forget her adventure in a couple of days. Let her rest a little.'

Just here the muffled clang of a bell reached them. Billy raised his head and beckoned the minister.

'Perhaps you'd like to see the new bell-ringer, sir,' he ventured, with a sub-humorous grin. 'I met him on Christmas Reef, and had the choice of killing him or allowing him, so to speak, die in the arms of his own little joke.'

In silence the old minister followed across the moon-whitened coral, through the black-shadowed palm scrub, until the breakers of Christmas Reef burst over the high pinnacles of the shoal.

The bell had ceased suddenly. A ghostly hush fell in the interval of the crashing surf. Cherki was breathing hard inside the wire cage as both men knelt beside him. The minister noted a wan smile on his twisted lips.

'Well, Cherki?' Billy greeted with rough good humour. 'Rings on your fingers and bells on your toes. Had enough?'

'Plenty, Beel, plenty!' the half-caste sighed. 'Enough to lasta me alla my life. Listen!'

He jerked in the direction of the lagoon across the reef. 'I hunted um big feller shark in there awhile back. He tore my nets, he smashed a good canoe that costa me a year's work. He drove alla my feesh, my mullet, my schnapper out to sea. So I been hunt him before you catch me an' out me here.

'Just now,' the half caste went on, 'the big feller shark begin to wonder where I have gone. He then smell plenty drops of blood from my ankle that the tua devil make run down the side of reef here. The blood run into the water, into the gills of big shark. So I saw his shadow creep along here a minit ago. He came right up to the tua devil, pulling at my ankle.'

'Good lord!' the old minister exclaimed, staring across the water to where the black trail of the octopus was visible on the surface.

'The big shark tore heem in half!' the half-caste chuckled. 'But it was a great fight wit me listenin' here. The damn octopus thought I was his meat.'

Billy cut the rope from his wrists and ankles and then, without ado, began to massage his numbed limbs.

'And... what, are you going to do if I let you return to your village?' was Billy's thought-out query.

The half-caste sat up, nodding gratefully. 'I shall put back the bell,' he promised with a timorous stance at the old minister's averted face. 'And then go to Levuka, where my brother lives. You will see Cherki no more.'

'Get up,' Billy ordered. Cherki stood up, while Larson handed him his spear from the ground. The half-caste accepted it meekly.

'But before I go to my brother in Levuka,' he confessed thoughtfully. 'I must keel the big shark who tore up my canoe and drove my mullet back to the sea. If I do not keel heem,' he added with another glance at the minister, 'he will haunt these reefs when he hears the bell strike in the church.'

They let him go.


AT the door of the mission house Joan met them. She drew Billy aside, where he found Naura in a wide-armed chair, her dark eyes fixed wistfully on the door as it opened.

'Seems to me,' Billy announced cheerfully, 'it's going to be fine.'

It was slightly warm, as the weather experts are fond of saying; visibility good, with prolonged periods of sunshine.


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.