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ALBERT DORRINGTON

THE OPIUM FISHERS

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As published in
The Sydney Mail, Australia, 11 November 1925
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-06-01
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Illustration

For an instant terror blinded her movements.
All her childish fears of yellow men and temple
priests came scorching on her heels.



"THE barbarian, Dean, has sworn that no more opium shall come to the islands. He has given his word to his priests and his Government. There is a gunboat watching the channels of the Seven Straits. What will the Giver of All Things do now?"

The speaker was a small, shrivelled Chinaman, dressed in the garb of a Buddhist priest. The other man was Kum Sing, who owned the string of gambling houses and pak-a-pu shops in Sumala.

There was nothing of the starved ascetic about Kum Sing. From the roots of his bull-neck to the soles of his sandalled feet he breathed of rich foods and the silken comforts that surround the yellow croupiers in every Eastern town. Kum was seated on the sun-screened verandah of his island residence, sheltered from the prying eyes of Government officials by a tall stockade of bamboo and close-planted palms. The priest's words awoke an angry flush in his saffron cheeks.

"Tell me, Chuen," he said slowly, "how this Customs dog, Dean, learns so many things about my private business. Who among our people is likely to breathe the secret of my household? Give me his name!" he demanded in a savage underbreath, "so that my swordsman shall know his neck before the next moon gives light."

The priest shook his head. "No one knows the secrets of thy opium trade, O Giver. I have come here to warn thee of this Government officer, Dean, who seeks to punish the children of heaven for eating of the poppy that groweth in the fields."

KUM SING had grown so rich in the last few years that his existence began to threaten the very life of the working community. The meanest coolie in the Archipelago knew that his agents supplied thousands of plantation workers with opium. In this matter European and British consuls are not over-squeamish, but when the juice of the poppy began to figure like poison gas in the daily death-rate a plaintive howling is heard on the skyline.

Norry Dean was the sole Customs surveyor at Sumalu. Norry was twenty-five, and fresh from an Australian college. Sumala, with its teeming native life, its busy plantations of guava, tobacco, rice, and copra, gave him an interest in the daily lives of the natives, who toiled from dawn till dusk in the rich valleys and cane-belts. He saw the products of their labours go east and west in the big brown sampans and junks to feed the starving millions of the great yellow land in the north. Gold taels and dollars came back in payment. Sumala prospered.

Then silently, like a dreadful skeleton hand, the opium-hunger fastened on a hundred thriving villages and settlements in the Sumala group of islands. Like the breath of the beast, it rotted and disabled, it destroyed the morning laughter in the valleys. The men who had once ploughed and reaped lay huddled and nerveless in the darkness of their huts.

Dean beheld this slow process of village extermination in the full knowledge that an elephantine Chinese with jewelled hands was operating in the background.

And Kum Sing sat tight as a stone god in his big house overlooking the bay. He laughed at Dean's efforts to counter the illicit traffic in the drug. He laughed at the gunboat in the offing that nightly thrust its powerful searchlight into the windows of his sleeping apartment. At any moment of the night the accusing finger of this searchlight was likely to stab through the palms and foliage of his house, to the infinite discomfort of his guests and friends.

No man had yet connected Kum Sing with the traffic. The planters were helpless to stop it or produce evidence that would convict him. Incoming vessels were halted and searched systematically in mid-channel, but not enough opium had been found to affect the health of an inquisitive bee.

"At night they blind my house with their searchlight," Kum snarled to the priests of the Buddha temple that stood near a clump of mangroves at the water's edge. "Bymby I blind the lot of them with the black smoke. Hi yah, children of heaven, watch me!"

Mary Walters, the eighteen-year-old daughter of the Sumala mission house, was at her wits' end. She had never interfered with the Chinese in their opium lairs, but she bitterly resented the undoing of the clean-minded natives, who wilted like children under the poisonous breath of the poppy. Mary was conscious that the authorities were blaming Norry for permitting the illicit traffic. In all likelihood some older man would be sent out to replace him. And that would mean the end of her dreams as far as the young Customs surveyor was concerned.

In her woman's heart she knew that Dean was shouldering the work of six men. And against him was arrayed the whole gambling community of Sumala. These Chinese gamblers were remitting large sums to various banks in Hongkong and Shanghai, while their victims became added burdens to the mission.

"Norry hasn't a chance with them," she complained to her father. "Day and night they watch him. The junk captains have a code of signals. They are always talking about him with those yellow flags."

"Norry has brains," the vicar told his daughter. "These junkmen have only got pigtails," he said, somewhat bitterly.

Mary often called at the little office on the wharf where Dean took toll of incoming vessels, the copra schooners and liquor-laden prahus that blew in from Malaya. The little, fat Malay skippers joked with Dean on the eternal opium feud. They advised him to put a wire fence round the port and wear horn-rimmed glasses. He might then see how the contraband walked into the smoke parlours of Sumala.

"All right, my brown brothers," Dean retorted good-humouredly. "When I catch Kum Sing, his hat and feet will go into a twelve-foot cell."

WHEN Kum Sing heard this threat he shook in his elephantine wrath.

"Allee my life I hopee that feller Dean on the hop, hop. He think he marry Missey Walter, bymby. No feah! I makee him worry until he losee his sleep an' go mad. Him no sendee me to plison. I sendee him into one big madhouse."

Also, the gunboat crews were not pleased at the state of affairs in Sumala. They wanted a change from the eternal searchlight practice and the chasing of smelly prahus and sampans. Chasing pirates from their river nests in the northern estuaries was more to their fancy.

One hot afternoon Dean found himself wandering among the coral hummocks along the northern extremity of the island. A ten-mile stretch of glittering white beach bore the thunder-shocks of the in-driving surf. A canopy of storm clouds drifted low over the jungled headlands in the far north. Day after day Norry came to this spot on account of its remoteness and freedom from the squalling voices of the coolie hordes and cargo-shifters who infested the wharf. He liked to be alone at times.

His eye wandered along the beach to where a round piece of rubber lay in the sand. He approached it casually, and saw that the rubber ring was attached to a small air-tight tin. Dean's fingers snapped over it as he crouched in the sand. His jack-knife prised open the tin, revealing a leaf-wrapped cake of the purest Indian opium.

"And that's that!" Norry flung out under his breath. The storm broke over his head in sheets of white tropic rain that whipped and drenched him in a moment. But throughout the squelching blasts of water his brain worked steadily to a conclusion as certain as life. The rubber ring, with the air-tight receptacle attached, had once been fastened to the foot of some big bird. The rubber ring itself was broken, and had no doubt fallen to the beach while the bird was in flight. Dean's mind went over the names of the birds that frequented the coast and atolls of the Sumala Archipelago. He thought of the spindly blue herons that haunted the rocky pools and streams of the mountainside; he thought of the flat-footed Pacific gulls that flocked to the reefs and sandbars of the channels and bays. And the reflection did not help him at all.

A Chinaman might catch a gull or heron and attach a rubber ring and tin to its tough ankles. But that didn't get big quantities of opium anywhere, he argued, even if the booby-brained gull or heron could be induced to enter the conspiracy. Pigeons were also out of the question. They did not exist in Sumala or the neighbouring islands.

Dean returned to his office on the wharf, ate some supper his kitchen coolie brought him, and for a while tried to forget the rubber ring and the seven ounces of pure Indian opium contained in the tin.

IT was past midnight when he left the office. Always there were a number of junks and paddy-boats ready to slip away with the tide. They carried livestock, goats, pigs, and the small Sumala cows that were in demand at the thickly-populated ports of the South China coast. Alongside the pier he saw a frowsy double-deck junk with lantern gods suspended from the dragon-headed poop. The lanterns revealed a number of crates crowded with live geese. The junk captain greeted him with a slat-eyed grin.

"Good wind, sah," he intimated, with a gesture at the storm wrack of clouds on the horizon. "Plenty cyclone come bymby to worry me. Poor Chinaman in lille junk no likee slip-slap weather."

Dean nodded abstractedly as he studied the geese in the crates. "Where are they going?" he asked, pointing to the crates. "And who's sending them from here?"

The junk captain grinned good-naturedly at the young surveyor's question. "They go to Van Gall at Shark Island, sah. Him welly fond roast goose."

Dean pondered swiftly. It occurred to him that Van Gall was the possessor of a Gargantuan appetite if he consumed all the geese in the crates. And Van Gall was not a breeder of geese. It also came back to Norry that this particular junk was in the habit of carrying heavy consignments of geese to Shark Island in the north. But until now the fact had not bitten into his mind. Surveyors of Customs are not usually concerned with the outward destinies of geese and fowls.

Shark Island lay about ten miles from Sumala, and was administered by the Netherlands Government. Van Gall was a trepang fisher of no particular standing; he lived alone in a two-roomed hut with his wife. Beyond a couple of native boatmen who assisted him at his work, there were no other people on the island. Dean counted fifty geese on the crates, youngish birds, he thought, but in rather poor condition.

"All right, Jo Koon," he said to the drowsy eyed junk captain. "Get a move on. Good luck and plenty of rice!"

The unclean junk put to sea an hour later, and Dean went to bed, but not to sleep. The fifty live geese in the junk's crates formed a disturbing incident. And the more be examined the rubber leg-ring with the opium tin attached the more, his brain responded to a simple proposition in smuggling, as conducted by an over-fed Chinaman named Kum Sing and a piebald Dutchman named Van Gall.

"Geese it is," he again soliloquised. "And here I've spent the last two years fooling blindly among the plague-soaked cargoes of every squint-eyed banana tramp in the China trade! And all the while the dope has been sailing over my head on the feet of Sing's grey geese. Mother of Mike! I thought I knew Chinamen—me, that doesn't know fantan from fantails!"

It was as clear as day to Dean that Van Gall, at Shark Island, was receiving the drug from Hindu agents in Singapore or Calcutta and sending it across the narrow straits by means of Kum Sing's trained geese. The goose pens were within the tree-sheltered stockade at the back of the big Chinaman's residence on the hill. There they were regularly fed and attended. It was possible, he argued, that many of the geese were hatching eggs, and the moment Van Gall liberated them, with the rubber-leg rings attached to each bird, they flew back to the stockade on the hill.

Unable to control his feverish anxiety, Norry put off in a dinghy to the gunboat that lay a few cables' length from the pier. He found no difficulty in seeing the young lieutenant on duty. At first the young naval officer regarded Dean quizzingly as he listened to the story of the rubber ring and the theory of the homing geese. In a little while, however, his face lit up at the suggestion of Kum Sing and Van Gall working together.

"I think you've called the right 'phone number this time, Mr. Dean," he said at last. "I might also mention," he went on quickly, "that I have noticed flocks of geese flying over the bay at odd times, but generally an hour or so before dawn."

"I wish we could intercept a few," Norry hazarded. "About time we put these drug devils out of commission."

The lieutenant looked up quickly, his eyes grown keen as stiletto points. "Our searchlights will beat the geese if they come across in the dark. Go back to your rest, Mr. Dean," he urged. "Leave this bit of sport to us. You may come aboard if you hear firing. We'll bring some of the birds down as evidence."

But Norry had been made to writhe under the jibes of the Administration and the taunts of the sampan crews. He had been called a slacker for allowing the yellow-skins to conduct the most pernicious traffic known to men. Sleep was not for him. Up and down the beach, like a young tiger out for a kill, Norry padded. The storm clouds had blown south. He watched the starlit sky in the north where Shark Island snuggled among the reefs and sandbars of a typhoon-ridden archipelago.

Gall's nationality protected him from interference on the part of the gunboat, but if it were possible to bring down a few birds carrying opium to Kum Sing's stockades the wrath of a dozen consulates would be on the big Chinaman's head. Norry felt that the knockout was coming. He could almost hear the yellow man's squeals for mercy. He paused in the shadow of some pandanus trees and again looked at the sky. In a little while the dawn would be at hand.

His glance went out to the gunboat, and he detected the shapes of men moving stealthily about the deck. And just here the whirring sound of wings overhead reached him, the unmistakable air motion of geese in high flight. One or two ragged clouds lay across the star track in the north, but Norry's sharp eyes picked out the blurred line of necks and wings trailing down towards Sumala. Then a mile-long splinter of light stabbed the sky in front of the down-streaming geese.

The fierce white rays sprayed the leaders of the flock like a hose. Instantly a strange piping cry of protest came from the goose trail as the leaders veered from the blinding beam of light and planed in a blundering circle above the gunboat. A dozen shots rang out from the gunboat's poop. Norry saw several birds pitch down into the water. A moment later he was running to the dinghy he had left under the pier.

He rowed frantically to where the dead geese lay on the water, and was joined almost immediately by a launch from the gunboat. The searchlight aided them in recovering the shot birds. Fully a dozen had been now brought down, and the willing hands of the blue-jackets in the launch soon had the geese spread out in the thwarts.

A sick pain seized Norry Dean as he stared at the result of the night's bag. There was no sign of rubber rings or opium-boxes about any of the geese in the launch. A sense of having been fooled came to him. His stark disappointment was voiced by the gruff-voiced petty officer in the launch.

"These Chinks have got us by the leg, sir. They're makin' geese of us to-night, curse 'em! And we ain't got a dog's chance of handin' him the bird at this game. They got us by the whiskers."....

KUM SING sat on his silk-padded divan and bellowed with laughter at the sound of firing from the gunboat. Beside him stood the trusty Chuen from the temple of Buddha at the waterside.

"And the white dog, Dean, picked up the goose's leg-ring and carried a story of air-smuggling to the gunboat people," the priest informed him for the fifth lime. "The ways of these white barbarians make my little gods laugh, O Giver of All Things."

The big Chinaman on the divan controlled a fresh outburst of laughter with an effort. His saturnine face grew serious as the priest continued.

"The rubber ring and the opium box on the beach would have set any Wiseman thinking, O Giver," the priest hazarded. "We must not laugh too much at the boy Dean for making a simple guess. I do not see," he added slowly, "why the Giver of All Things should try to make Dean believe that geese are carrying opium from Gall's island to Sumala. It is risky."

The gunfire had ceased across the bay; the searchlights no longer wheeled across the starlit sky.

Kum Sing lit a long-stemmed pipe at his elbow and puffed with the serenity of one who had accomplished a big piece of bluff.

"I will tell you why I have turned the searchlights of this gunboat on to my geese, Chuen," he confessed after awhile. "I could not sleep for those lights. Aei, chu bo! They picked the locks of my doors and windows, those lights. I could not see how this big consignment of opium from my Indian agent was to be brought ashore to me if the lights and that fool Dean kept spying along the waterfront. So one of my coolies put the rubber ring on the beach, and the geese on board Jo Koon's junk did the rest."

Chuen the priest fidgeted uneasily. His thin face wrinkled in an effort to gauge the strange workings of the big Chinaman's brain.

"The geese have returned to their pens, O Giver. That much I understand. But my brain is clouded. I cannot yet see what is in thy great mind. Thy wisdom and secrecy are beyond me," he deplored.

Kum Sing's fat forefinger rested for a moment on the sleeve of the priest's vestment.

"It is well that holy men do not always understand," he intimated softly. "I will go with you now to the steps at the fool of the temple. You will see why I kept the lights busy searching the sky for my geese. You will see why I kept the eye of the gun-boat men and Dean turned upwards."

Kum Sing heaved his great bulk from the divan and drew the priest after him to the wide verandah outside. The night was black at the length of one's arm now. At the foot of the jungle-clad slope below a solitary lantern glowed in the deserted temple of Buddha.

The priest trembled slightly as he followed the elephantine Chinaman down the steep slope. For once in his life he was to be shown the key of this master smuggler's mind. He was going to peep into the mystery that was driving strong men to the verge of madness.

MARY WALTERS had ventured alone into the house of a sick Chinaman named Yip Lee. The garden of Lee's house lay almost in the shadow of the Buddha temple. Yip was a fisherman, and owned a leaky sampan and some mats. Wet clothes and opium had put the sign of the sickle on his brow. He had once been a visitor to the mission house, but the pipe and the poppy had lured him away.

Mary had brought him some medicine, and had opened the window of his stuffy bedroom to give breath to his failing heart. She had heard the firing from the gunboat. Yip, with the death sweat on his cheek, also heard, and even his sick brain understood something of the young girl's apprehension at the thought of Norry Dean's nightly efforts to check the criminal tactics of the Sumala drug-runners.

Yip turned his bleached, pain-wasted features to the flickering candle beside the bed. Then his fevered eyes again took in the slim figure of the girl with the medicine glass beside the bed.

"Why you takee trouble with me, Missee Walter?" he sighed. "You go home an' letee me die. Evelybody die some day."

The sound of geese crying overhead brought a wan smile to his blackened lips. A deep sigh escaped him as his fading eyes explored her winsome face.

"Kum's geese," he intoned faintly; and then with an effort he struggled almost to his elbow, beckoning her nearer with his shaking hand.

"They will ruin Dean," he gasped. "Kum an' the big Opium Six! Opium killee me, Missee Walter. I want... to speakee one, two words befo' I go."

Mary touched his shoulder gently, held a cool drink to his bleaching lips.

"Don't worry now," she begged him. "Kum's sins will find him out. Some day his foot will slip, and then the people of Sumala will breathe clean air."

Yip Lee smiled, and again fought back the grey film of death from his eyes as only a Chinaman can.

"From here you go to the Buddha temple, Missee Walter," he advised with a gasp. "Go soon—go now, befo' Kum Sing and Chuen take away the big basket from the Buddha altar."

Mary Walters stared at the shrunken features of the Chinaman, while her heart hammered noisily within her warm breast.

"The big basket from the Buddha altar!" she repeated slowly. "What is the basket doing there?" she inquired in a whisper.

Yip Lee made a sign with his stiffening fingers. "Fisherman's basket, full of big eels. You getee that basket—show it Dean. He will understan. I—I go now."

Yip Lee fell back on the bed as though an invisible hand had pushed him down. For some moments Mary Walters remained staring at the dead face of the old Chinese. Then gently, very gently, she placed her white silk shawl over the strangely quiet face, and then turned to the open door of the house. She could do no more. The outlying villages were full of similar cases of drug poisoning.

Outside, the air was cooler. A breath of the dawn wind was beating in from the sea. The sky in the East was belted with saffron and the smoky flares that heralded the coming sun. In front of her stood the flat-roofed temple of Buddha. A green joss-lantern still burned inside. In a little while Chuen the priest would come with his punk sticks and dried lilies to burn at the altar. The gate of the temple was wide open, for there were times when coolies and compradores shuffled in at midnight to ease by prayer and offerings the torment of mind and body. An uncontrollable impulse moved her into the dark gateway, where a drowsy praying-flag hung listless above the grinning masks and gargoyles. Her young eyes darted to the altar where the fat, bland outline of the Buddha image showed in the green glow of the joss lantern.

On the step of the altar was a big black fisherman's basket filled with dripping seaweed and moss from the coral-strewn banks of the channels outside. Inside the tangle of woods and moss lay half-a-dozen silver-bellied eels; fat, glutinous offerings for the priest of Buddha.

Mary Walters hesitated for the fraction of a second, then stepped into the temple. The silence within touched her like a naked blade. A fear that comes to lonely white women in tiger-haunted forests seized her heart. It was a fear that stifled and killed like the cord of a thug. The odour of burnt offerings floated about her with the insistence of a dead priest's hands.

The words of Yip Lee lingered in her mind—"Go now, before Kum Sing and Chuen take away the basket from the altar."

The basket was near her hand. She touched it, and then turned with an inaudible cry towards the temple gate. Above, on the jungle-clad slope, the voice of Kum Sing fluted and chattered as he descended the path, accompanied by Chuen the priest.

For an instant terror blinded her movements. All her childish fears of yellow men and temple priests came scorching on her heels. She was a trespasser within the sacred gate.

Immediately behind her was a tiny door that led from the temple to the waterside. It was used by the junk crews and fishermen of the bay, who often squeezed into the sacred presence with their joss sticks and offerings from the flowery land. The voice of Kum Sing had reached the temple gate. His soft explosions of laughter suggested a certain tension of mind bordering on the hysterical.

"Lift thy feet, Chuen," he giggled. "The good fishermen have not forgotten the eels. While the white dogs looked at the sky the eels slipped to the altar of the Sacred One. Let thy hands alone raise them from the heavenly presence, O Chuen."

Mary Walters felt that this one moment of life would never return to her. Already the crunching of Kum's heavy sandals sounded in the gateway. And the dead fisherman, Yip Lee, had begged her to act.

Her hands snatched at the basket on the Buddha altar. The leaden weight of it amazed her as she staggered through the tiny side door. And only just in time. The bulging shadow of Kum Sin crossed under the green joss-lantern. A short-clipped sound came from his throat.

"Where is the basket?"

He turned with a sudden panic fury in his eyes to the trembling priest. Sweat glistened on his coppery skin as he blundered across the altar, peering, sniffing like a huge jungle cat, into the dark corners of the temple. "Where is the basket?" he repeated with murder in his voice. "Speak up, thou rice-fed dog!"

The dozing eyes of the priest came to life at sight of the big Chinaman's panic terror. From a slow-footed, prayer-chanting servant of Buddha he became nimble as a dingo as he darted in and out the temple shadow's, clawing the tapestries, snatching in every hole and corner for the missing basket. Then his slant eyes suddenly focussed a girlish figure hurrying from the side path, through the temple garden, down to the waterside.

"Look, O Giver!" he almost squealed. "The mission girl! The daughter of the barbarian priest, Walter. She is running with the basket! May the breath of Gehenna overtake her! Woe to the Giver!"

Kum Sing stood rooted beside the Buddha, his bull-neck bent to the level of the scarce visible doorway that revealed the dawn light, and the slim figure of Mary Walters, the heavy fisherman's basket in her arms, walking swiftly towards the pier.

"Someone has given her my secret." he wailed. "She will run to Dean. Stop her, priest of the devil! Run fast!" He gesticulated frantically. "You have a right to punish the temple thief. Bring her back with the basket."

The priest stood frozen in the narrow doorway, then dashed down the garden path on the trail of the fast-moving girl. His spindly legs flew over the ground, while his hands searched in his vestments for the lead-lined rubber cosh, capable of stunning a bullock.

Chuen knew that the future well-being of Kum Sing depended on the possession of the fisherman's basket. As a priest, of Buddha it was his business to play shut eye to his wealthy patron's tricks and fancies. It was also his duty to see that young white girls did not enter the temple and remove offerings from the Buddha altar, a crime punishable with death, he told himself.

Chuen ran like a dog on the trail of Mary Walters. As he gained on her he saw with relief that the wharfside was deserted. Not a foot or hand moved along the slumbering quay. The high godowns along the front obscured the movements of Mary Walters from the look-out on board the gunboat.

"Stop while we discuss this matter," he panted. "It is not good to steal from the sacred presence."

Mary Walters half turned, and in a flash saw the deadly weapon in his hand. There was still a long stretch of deserted quayside between her and the pier, where Dean's office bungalow was situated. Her frightened glance leaped to the black-shuttered gaming houses in the frantic hope that some friendly coolie or sailorman might stave off her pursuer. Not a shadow stirred within the drowsy, drug-bound hovels.

"Stop!" the priest fumed almost at her elbow. Then the lead-loaded cosh whizzed within an inch of her swaying shoulder.

"Stop!" he insisted. "Why you run away flom my temple? I teachee you?"

The cosh fell wide as Norry Dean's six feet length crashed across a pile of empty shell-cases near the wharfside. The cases rattled and spilled away from his hurtling body: he landed with a soft oath on the priest's sandalled toes.

"Mustn't chase white girls, Chuen," he remonstrated, tripping the Chinaman headlong into the doorway of a chop-suey restaurant. "If you've a grievance, what's wrong with the Deputy Commissioner of Police?"

He raised Mary in his arms and held her for an instant. She was white-faced, ashen-lipped, but still possessed of the fisherman's basket.

Dean turned at sight of the elephantine figure of Kum Sing ploughing in their direction. The big Chinaman ran like an overweighted cyclone, clawing the air and emitting blasts of Mongolese.

"Leave him to me, dear," he whispered to the trembling daughter of the mission house. He raised the basket curiously from the ground. His face coloured slightly at sight of the contents; his lips framed a scarce audible word as he thrust his hand among the silver-backed creepers inside the moss and weeds.

"Touch not the sacred gifts of the temple!" the priest screamed from the doorway of the chop-suey. Kum Sing arrived like a bull slamming through a gate.

"My basket!" he bellowed, turning to a sullen-eyed crowd of Chinese who had formed around round the Australian and Miss Walters. "Those white barbarians planned to steal from the Buddha house; is there not enough food in Sumala that they rob our priest?" he demanded.

Illustration

"My basket!" he bellowed.


Dean hesitated a moment as he again scrutinised the contents of the basket. Then he drew one of the long sea-crawlers from the basket and slashed it in the middle with his knife. A dark brown mass of pure Indian opium oozed over the knife handle. Norry snapped his teeth.

"So this is your property, Kum Sing. For the last eight months eels from a fishing prau have been transferred to the temple. The prau goes to sea every week and meets a vessel from Singapore. I have searched that prau," Norry confessed to the crowd, "and found nothing but live eels in her fish tanks.

"It seems to me," he went on slowly, "that the eels were skinned alive, the skins washed, and then stuffed with opium."

Yelps of laughter went up from the yellow-faced throng. The knees of Kum Sing sagged slightly; his thick lips fluttered in an agony of suppressed rage.

"This stuff"—Norry indicated the brown mess that trickled from the tight-packed skin—"is ready for the cooking needles and the pipe. And until this moment," he added bitterly, "I never associated the eel-fishing in these parts with the cemetery full of dead people over there."

He indicated briefly the palm-sheltered little grove adjoining the mission house. In the passing of a breath, it seemed, the coolie crowd had vanished into the shuttered gaming house and pak-a-pu shops.

Dean remained silent for a nerve-breaking period. All the futile searching of ships, the endless vigils, and sleepless nights came back to him now. Norry had a sense of humour, but he found little to relieve the atmosphere of greed and devilry that clung to Kum Sing.

The big Chinaman addressed him in a quavering voice, the voice of the trapped tyrant who sees himself stripped of authority and deprived of his days of ease.

"I pay up, Missa Dean," he choked. "I wantee no noise. How muchee?"

Dean's eyes had the chill glisten of white steel as he replied, "You'll build a big hospital for sick children and health-ruined men and women, Mr. Kum Sing. You'll build it on the hill up there, where the clean winds blow. It is going to cost from fifteen to twenty thousand pounds. That's that!"

The big Chinaman clawed the air with his manicured fingers. His face and neck dripped moisture and tears.

"I no pay," he screamed. "What then?"

Norry Dean turned to the bay of Sumala, where the sun flashed across the huddle of junks and rice boats. A big canoe with eighteen convicts at the oars pulled slowly towards the mile-long breakwater in course of construction.

"Or what?" the big Chinaman insisted. "I want to know."

Dean pointed to the convict gang heading for the day's weary labour on the seawall.

"That's the other thing you can help build, Mr. Kum Sing. At the Government's expense, of course," he added.

The Chinaman's glance went out to the murder gang in the canoe, head-hunters and island cut-throats from the mercury mines at Bangola. His face grew suddenly wan as he turned away.

"I likee build big hospital, Missa Dean," he gasped. "No savvy plison gang!"

THAT night, within the mission house compound, Norry and the Rev. John Walters laboured over a huge copper boiler perched on a blazing wood fire. The boiler sizzled and threw up a curious sticky brown scum as the clergyman stirred the fuming mass with a sapling. An odour reminiscent, of witches' cauldrons floated over the compound.

"If the stuff is properly applied to the coconut palms, my dear Norry, it will save hundreds of young trees from destruction. I tried some of this opium mixture on my own prize trees, and found masses of drugged rhinoceros beetles lying around. This year my crop of fruit will beat all records," the minister assured him.

All that year Norry and Mary Walters knew where to find swarms of dead and drugged rhinoceros beetles. But the following season they experienced difficulty in obtaining fresh supplies of opium. Chinamen also have a sense of humour. There isn't one Celestial smuggler south of Saigon willing to risk his liberty merely to provide rhinoceros beetles with a lot of sleep.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
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