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ALBERT DORRINGTON

THE RED COOLIE

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A published in
The Sydney Mail, 28 January 1925

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-03-30
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'LOWER a boat, Mr. Langdon, and see if he's alive. These Chinamen often come to life, like oats, when you don't want 'em.'

Jim Balk stared down at the sea of driftwood that collected around the schooner in ever-growing masses. For eight days the Nancy Free had battled against the earthquakes, tides and currents that had threatened to engulf them. Captain Balk had not seen a ship for weeks, and was in ignorance of the mighty earth- heave which had submerged parts of Japan and many of the islands lying north of the East China Sea.

But he had seen empires of matchwood floating under his keel, pagoda roof's and temple gates drifting in the debris of a hundred native villages, washed and sluiced from island rivers and estuaries across the sapphire spaces of the Pacific. There had been days in the voyage from Thursday Island when Jim Balk felt that the earth had disappeared. Palm-sheltered coastlines he had known all his life had vanished into the gaping holes of the ocean floor. The seismic giant had sucked down cities and towns, cattle and men, had buried them in a million feet of mud right under his schooner's bows.

And now out of the debris of a hundred drowned villages appeared the bald head of a solitary Chinaman. His long, bloodless fingers clutched a fragment of wood that resembled the roof of a doll's house.


Illustration

Out of the debris of a hundred drowned villages
appeared the bald head of a solitary Chinaman.


Langdon lowered a boat, and in a trice he had the Chinaman out of the water. Captain Balk stood by the gangway as the young man, with the help of two coolie deckhands, brought the dripping, pigtailed figure aboard.

Now Jim Balk, of the Nancy Free, knew move about Chinese than most men know about their wives. He saw at a glance that this driftwood voyager was no ordinary Celestial, certainly not a coolie or compradore. The coat he wore with, its sixteen jade buttons was of purest Shantung silk. Moreover, his skin was almost white, the nails of his delicate pink-crested lingers were newly manicured and trimmed. He was still alive when they carried him to the little stateroom aft.

Balk lounged in the doorway watching Langdon's efforts to restore his circulation. Noel Langdon was barely twenty-five. He had signed on at Sydney for the voyage north in the Nancy Free, in the hope of finding a berth in one of the big British trading houses in Shanghai. Balk, the owner of the Nancy Free, was a dealer in copra and nut oil. His markets lay between the Black Stream of Kuro Siwa and along the islands of the Australian littoral. So far Langdon's experience of the red-haired, fishy-eyed little schooner captain had been amicable enough. Danger breeds a certain fellowship, especially when the sky and sea are asmoke with the anguish of lost souls and cities.

Hand him the brandy jar, Noel, and clap a hot bottle to his feet' Balk advised from the stateroom door. 'He's coming to'.

Wrapped in a warm dry blanket on the stateroom couch the waterlogged Celestial began to breathe faintly. The long, prehensile fingers had had clutched the doll's house-roof grew slack over the edge of the blanket, but the soft, onyx eyes took note of Langdon's movements and nodded gratefully when the young man packed the hot bottle against the soles of his waterlogged feet.

Balk grunted in the doorway, lit a cheroot, and returned thoughtfully to his trick at the wheel. Langdon, remained beside the couch like one in doubt. It was the first time he had ever pulled a man from the sea, and his heart was filled with the gentle pride of achievement. Yet as he stared down at the waxen face and purple lid's of the Chinaman's eyes he felt that he had been too late. The Chinaman's lips parted slightly; his finger twitched as he looked up into Langdon's sunburnt face.

'Thank you very much,' he whispered faintly. 'Me too long in the water. My heart not big enough to come round. Come hear.... one little word, boy. I am weak. I fall, into the dark....'

Langdon bent near the moving lips, and his eyes widened as he caught a word here and there from the faintly moving lips. He glanced up suddenly from the relaxing face and glazing eyes on the couch to the tiptoeing figure of Balk beside him.

'WHAT'S he say?' the captain demanded hoarsely. Been talkin', has he?'

Langdon straightened the blanket over the still grey face; his own had become almost ghastly white.

'He's dead,' he intoned quietly. 'How these Chinese slip off! I was sure, he'd pull 'round,' he added, with a note of genuine regret!

Captain Balk stared down at the jewelled fingers of the dead Celestial like one who had somehow missed a stroke of fortune.

'But he said something to you, my lad. The last words of a Chinaman are generally his best. What did he say?'

Langdon shook his head. 'Said he was too weak to fight it out. Then he spoke in Chinese. I couldn't get his meaning at all. Poor fellow, he wasn't strong enough to bear up against the tide.'

Balk brooded over his words, nibbling the end of his cheroot and staring fixedly at the cluster of emeralds set in the heavy flat rings on the dead man's forefingers.

'All right, my lad,' he said at last. 'You can lake the wheel for a spell. I'll sew up the Chink, and we'll drop him over at sundown.'

Langdon nodded and passed up to the wheelhouse.


IT was easy to see that the schooner had been caught in the washdown of earthquake-riven towns. The shifting currents altered their course a dozen limes a day. The horrors of the Honjo, the fire and misery and desolation that had gripped the northern islands, had not readied them. Before them lay an endless vista of silting channels, floating jungle, covered with screaming birds and ravenous sea fowls. All around them the sky was a typhoon yellow that Balk had seen in the storm areas of the China seaboard.

To Langdon at the wheel if seemed is if the world had come to an end. Beneath the frail schooner he could feel the deadly hiccuping of submarine craters as the gaping chasms of fire and larva burst through the tides and filled the air with choking infernos of steam. 'We'll find shelter or we'll drown,' Balk slated from the schooner's waist.

'I don't know what's happening, but I know the bottom of the sea is changing. We're likely to be smothered in one of these boil-ups.'

Ahead of them loomed a tangle of flood-wrapped palm scrub. On a naked sandbar they saw a breast-high shoal of dead fishes, cast by the tide from the lava-poisoned depths below. Above the gleaming silver of the dead shoal screamed myriads of gulls and black-billed hawks, with here and there the shadow of a cruising shark to feast and gorge on the mighty banquet the sea had spread.

'The Lord be merciful!'Balk muttered. 'Only the birds have escaped.'

His eyes wandered north and south with superstitious terror. 'This place was a city once—a Chinese port with banks and shops... gambling hells. All gone!' he almost choked. 'Men and women by the thousand. Over there,' his shaking finger indicated a sea of mud that still supported a wilderness of roof tiles and broken tree-tops, 'over there was an avenue of planted trees, and a temple the size of St. Paul's. All gone!'

Once more his fish eyes fell on Langdon's boyish figure at the wheel. 'You're sure, my lad, the dead Chow didn't say anything about his affairs?' he questioned. 'Not a single word, eh?'

A faint flush mantled the young seaman's ruddy cheeks, that might have spelt anger or surprise at Balk's insistence on this point.

'I gave you my answer a while back, Mr. Balk. The last word spoken was in Chinese, and the language is foreign to me.'

It was just here, that both men uttered a shout of wonder. Out of the rising mists of the drowned city bulged a gigantic image of Buddha, its huge smiling face turned to the east. It was all that remained of the vast temple winch had once raised its coppery dome above a splendid avenue of palms and magnolias. The Buddha itself was the size of a small house, and rested on a square stone platform that had once been an altar. Beyond the image, in the centre of some piled-up house wreckage, a girl was signalling frantically with the torn half of a trade-house flag.

'In the name of Mike!' Balk blurted out, 'is this a show or the home of the creeping Willies?'

'It's a live white woman,' Langdon responded quickly. 'We'll have to reach her somehow.'

'You'll get her with the dinghy,' Balk snapped, eyeing the girl through his binoculars. 'She's English or French, by the look of her clothes. Funny how people manage to keep alive in these hell holes,' he added with sudden ill-humour.


LANGDON navigated the dinghy through drifting shoals of debris with the skill of a Canadian lumber-jack. Once or twice, he came perilously near his own end as the shifting current jammed his frail craft between the fallen timber of a native joss house. He reached the pile of wreckage at last, and scrambled from the dinghy to where the girl was standing almost to her waist in water. Her eyes explored his eagerly, for death had been so near to her that she could have cried out a his coming.

Langdon fanned himself with his while cap in an effort to appear at ease. He saw at a glance that she was the daughter of some well-to-do merchant or trader, the one survival probably of a prosperous British colony.

'Thank you for coming,' she said faintly, her pale cheeks showing the effects of her terrible privations. 'Nearly everything has disappeared, as you see,' she told him with an effort.

Langdon drew breath sharply as he look in her plight.

'Yes,' he answered slowly: 'the water is over most of this old peninsula. You'll better come aboard, Miss—'

'Ingram,' she told him. 'My father was a dealer in art ware.'

'Dead?' Langdon questioned gently. Her lips said yes, and he felt that he had been a fool to ask her. He braced himself and turned slowly to the dinghy. He was conscious of her hand on his shoulder and her soft sobbing as she rocked to and fro.

'It came like a whirlwind over the islands in the north. My father said if might not reach us and refused to leave the town. But the seas broke over us and destroyed everything. Not a soul escaped.'

The dinghy, with Miss Ingram aboard, gained the schooner, where Balk awaited them at the gangway head. Pity was no part of his stock-in-trade. For the last few hours he had scented salvage among the ruins of these coast towns. Somewhere, beneath the shifting sandbars lay unlimited treasure, the gold and silver of the rich Chinese merchants, the silk and gems of the local yamens. He had no time for castaways. In a few hours the British and Japanese destroyers would be patrolling the submerged areas. The pirate gangs would be down in their infernal junks, stripping and looting. No one would have a chance.

All his life he had hoped for something like this to happen, something to get away with in his old age. For thirty years he had sweated in Chinese and Australian waters for wages and meals. And here was his fifty-ton schooner straddling over the wealth of a hundred opulent firms, Chinese banks, temples, and godowns stuffed with priceless commodities. He looked at the pale, terror-stricken girl with unseeing eyes. She had brought nothing to his schooner to repay him for his trouble, not even a handbag or a purse.

He returned chafing to the bridge, while Langdon escorted the dry-lipped girl to a spare cabin in the schooner's forepart. The night came swiftly enough, with a few misty stars to pierce the Stygian gloom that shrouded every landmark from view. Balk was in no hurry to be gone. A man never knew his luck, he told himself. The floor of the sea was still in travail, with undreamed-of wealth sifting and silting beneath his feet.

'Maybe I'll salvage a gold toothpick or a copper frying-pan, if I hang round long enough,' he muttered ironically under his breath. 'I'll put that dead Chinaman overboard now,' he added thoughtfully. 'Like as not it'll bring luck to the ship to have him out of the way.'


LANGDON remained in the doorway of Miss Ingram's cabin like one in doubt. She had seated herself on a locker, her hands slightly clenched, a look of unutterable pain and dismay in her dark eyes. Noel Langdon belonged to the sea. The flint of the cities had not yet entered his young soul. Hard work and bitter taskmasters had not robbed him of his clean visions and readiness to serve. And Miss Ingram's bearing was that of one accustomed to ready service. Her voice and gestures revealed a spiritual beauty often seen in the white women of the Far East.

'I'm afraid of that man upstairs,' she said after a while. 'He isn't honest.'

'Why?' Langdon inquired with studied calm. She looked up, and her eyes were gleaming and wet.

'He is wearing rings that belonged to a priest of the temple in Songolo. The priest who lost his life, helping the perishing children and women! I saw the rings on his hand when I came aboard — emeralds set in flat gold, with Chinese characters embossed.'

Langdon was silent. He had not noticed the rings on Balk's fingers. He swore softly under his breath. 'I could not prevent the sacrilege,' he vouchsafed after a silence that hurt. 'The good priest, died in my arms. We found him clinging to some wreckage.'

Miss Ingram's face became suddenly alive with interest. The tears on her lids had burned dry. She looked up slowly into the young seaman's face. 'The priest was Mahal Tong, one of my father's dearest friends,' she told him. 'He was the huza, or abbot, of the Imperial Temple of Buddha that stood a little way from here. It was so strongly built that, my father thought it would withstand anything.'

Something fell into the water with a heavy, thrusting sound on the port side of the schooner.

Langdon bent his head for a moment. He did not speak.

Miss Ingram rose softly from the locker; a strange perfume floated about her, the odour of frangipani that carried with if a tang of Eastern shrines and the warm incense of tropic flowers.

Balk's footsteps sounded again on the bridge above as he paced to and fro. The schooner was lying in the shelter of a mud- flanked bay out of the track of downdrifting lumber. For two nights Balk had not slept on account of the currents and driftwood. In a little while he would turn in. It was sheer waste of effort staying on the bridge; Langdon would keep a lookout.

'Drat that, girl! Always these women to turn a young fellow's head from his duty,' he told himself as he passed lo his cabin.

Miss Ingram returned to her seal on the locker as Balk's footsteps died away aft. Langdon remained in the doorway, while the Cingalese cook prepared a hurried meal for their unexpected passenger. Langdon was thinking of the dead Mahal Tong and the heavy splash on the port side.

'The typhoon and the earthquake cleaned up Songolo?' he hazarded after a while.

'Even a Chinese temple has its weak spots.' Miss Ingram sighed as the Cingalese cook brought in some coffee and a few slices of cold chicken from the pantry. Langdon poured out the coffee and gently drew her attention to the food before her. 'You'd better eat a little. Miss Ingram. If Mahal Tong could have ate that chicken there wouldn't have been a splash just now,' he added under his breath.

It was evident that Miss Ingram did not hear his last remark. She ate slowly, but drank the coffee almost greedily. A little colour came to her cheeks, and Langdon felt, that a few days' rest would work wonders. At the moment her eyes carried the shadow of terror and disaster. Her lips still quivered as she spoke.

'When the storm broke my father selected a number of rare porcelain pieces and artware he had acquired from the collection of the Dowager Empress at Pekin. None of it was insured, although a Sydney firm had just- cabled an offer of six thousand pounds for six water-blue Ming bowls and a bronze statuette by Ko Chwan, of the Fifth Manchu Dynasty.'

'A fierce price,' Langdon murmured from the doorway.

'Only half what my father paid for them,' she assured him wearily. 'So when the wind had unroofed our show rooms Mahal Tong begged my father to place this one collection from the Palace at Pekin within the stone-built Buddha temple at the end of the Avenue of the Sacred Spirit. The water was driving over the beaches across the town.

'Our Chinese shopmen carried the collection to the Buddha temple. My father ran to the assistance of the hospital staff in an effort to get some of the sick children to the higher lands in the south. Poor Daddy forgot the collection. I—I never saw him again.'

She sat very still on the brassbound locker, while Langdon turned his face to the dark, typhoon-ravaged shoreline, where a city and its people lay buried in a thousand fathoms of sand and lava. Noel had a dreamy, introspective eye at limes. He had been moved to silent anger when Balk's shoulder had turned away from this luckless girl. Her clothes were rags, her sufferings had been unendurable amidst the hellish commotion of flood and earthquake. His generous mind could only see her as the daughter of the far-famed Baring Ingram, Oriental art connoisseur, lapidary, and dealer in Imperial treasures. It needed no strain on his imagination to tell him that her life had been one of cultured ease, and refinement.

He remained tight-lipped in the doorway of the cabin, as one feeling the finger of Destiny plucking his sleeve. He looked down at her bent figure on the locker, the delicate hands and face, and his mind leaped back to the last whispered message of the dead priest. He thanked his stars now that he had kept that whispered message from the ferret-faced Balk.

'Miss Ingram,' he began steadily, 'Mahal Tong gave me a sign, a message, before he died. I am satisfied that you ought to know.'

She looked up slowly, her eyes grown luminous, strained. She tried to speak, but her voice fell away to an inaudible cry of pain.

'He said,' Langdon went on quietly, 'that Buddha held the life blood of his dearest friend, his treasures, his fortune. The name Baring Ingram was plain on his lips. He asked me to find your father and to just say that.'

Barbara Ingram rose steadily from her seat, and her hand fell on his arm.

'I can guess his meaning,' she said with an effort.

'So can I,' he answered. 'The one big thing that survived disaster in these death lands is that amiable old Buddha over there.' He gestured across the flood waters to where the smiling stone statue of Buddha remained intact on the flattened out landscape.

'The old priest meant that your father's collection of art ware from the Imperial Palace is somewhere inside the Buddha.'

She put her hand to her lips, as though a blood drop had welled from her heart. Langdon passed along the deck with a back glance in her direction.

'Wait,' he called in a whisper. 'I shan't be long.'


THE dinghy was at the foot of the gangway. Heavy breathing inside Balk's cabin told him that the fishy-eyed captain was asleep. Langdon pushed off from the schooner, a lighted hurricane lamp stowed in the thwarts. The darkness around him was like a wall. But here and there a few stars showed through the fume drifts, revealing the gargantuan outlines of the Buddha in the distance. Langdon approached it cautiously, for he knew that in times of flood and stress all kinds of reptiles and animals sought refuge in the vicinity of deserted temples and shrines.

Raising the hurricane lamp, he peered up at the statue's dark, sullen outlines before stepping out of the dinghy. The floor of the altar on which the Buddha rested was of white Manchurian stone. The image itself was of hammered copper, and towered fully twenty feet above the young seaman's head. A score of sea-fowls roosted above on the sloping, elephantine shoulders of the Buddha, but beyond a drowsy fluttering of wings they made no attempt to abandon their resting ground. Langdon was anxious to inspect the back of the huge image. That a cavity existed within the capacious interior he was confident. At the north side of the altar he drew back with a stifled exclamation.

Squatting on the extreme edge of the altar was a half-naked Chinaman. His face and eyes went towards Langdon, particularly the eyes. The young seaman's nerves had been aleap for the unexpected. A turn of the hurricane lamp in his hand revealed a small sampan moored alongside the altar. Then his glance went back to the immovable Chinaman.


Illustration

Squatting on the extreme edge of the altar was a half-naked Chinaman.


'Hullo, Sam,' he called out with an attempt at pleasantry. 'Trying to cool yourself after the big blow-up, eh?'

The wolf stare in the Chinaman's eyes passed over the young sailor to the lamp in his band. Not a muscle of his naked body moved. His swart, talon-like hands lay on the handle of a straight steel blade, notched in places, but shining in the soft glow of the hurricane lamp like the weapon of a craftsman.

'You heard me?' Langdon insisted, holding the lamp so that every feature and limb of the Chinaman was revealed. Around his naked torso was a belt of brass covered with Chinese inscriptions. It was his uncanny length of limb that impressed Langdon. Never had be seen such long, snake-like arms that suggested a certain feline capacity for gripping things by the throat and hair. He yawned suddenly, revealing a number of broken teeth and a parched white tongue.

'Peace, thou!' he rasped in harsh Mongolian. 'I am waiting for the dawn.' Then in pidgin English he made his inquiry. 'Why you come heah to the Sacred One? Why you come at this hour?'

Langdon flinched. It was as if a huge toad had addressed him. In his day he had encountered all sorts and conditions of Chinese beggars and coolies. But in the crouch and gaze of this mysterious vagrant he saw something that filled him with an unnamed loathing. The length of the fellow's body reminded him of a giant lizard as he sprawled forward on the altar floor. And Langdon remembered with regret that his automatic pistol was lying in his cabin drawer. Otherwise he might not have bothered to explain that he had missed his way back to his schooner, and would have to wait till daylight before he could move.

The wolf stare of the Chinaman went over and around Langdon: it look in the dinghy and the circumstance of Langdon's extreme youth, together with the fact that he was unarmed. Yet he seemed uneasy at the proximity of a schooner that might at any moment spill half-a-dozen white men across the altar of Buddha.

He rose from his squatting altitude like a frog in search of a fly. Langdon noticed for the first time a knotted band of red silk stuff about his right arm. Above the red band was a tattooed skull that marked him as a Government official of some kind.

'I was fool enough to fo'get my lantern,' he stated almost threateningly, as he indicated the dark sampan alongside the altar. 'I must, takee your lamp to do my work.'

He paused,' watching the young seaman narrowly, his long steel blade slanting into the light.


LANGDON had never been anxious to quarrel with Chinese bandits or professional swordsmen. Moreover, he was not certain of the fellow's real business in the locality.

'The lamp is yours for the evening, Sam,' he said with a laugh, as he passed the ship's lantern into the Chinaman's snatching hand. What followed was a lesson to Langdon in the art of entering a Buddha image by way of the back door. In vain the young seaman's eye had searched the straight, smooth wall of copper at the back of the statue in the hope of locating a door or passage to the interior. He had seen none. Raising the hurricane lamp to the smooth wall of copper, the Chinaman peered along the face like one reading small line of type. In a moment Langdon's young eyes had focussed a number of microscopic Chinese letters clustered about a slit no larger than a child's tooth. The point of the Chinaman's blade pressed and turned the slit with the precision of a screwdriver. Instantly six feet of smooth copper panel swung forward, showing the dark interior of the Buddha.

The aperture smelt of the dead centuries, of priestly vestments and vanished incense. For a millionth fraction of time the Chinaman remained poised in the aperture, his eyes blazing under the glow of the hurricane lamp, his mouth agape. Across the floor was scattered a small bundle of ancient tapestries that carried the seals of a dozen dead emperors. Wrapped in their perfumed folds were the water-blue Manchu and Ming bowls, inset with emeralds and sapphires. There were vases of ivory with ruby- studded handles, statuettes of soft, untarnished gold, jewelled fans, and miniature peacock thrones that would have dazzled the eye of a George-street dealer.

The Chinaman merely snarled over the heap like a jungle cat that had come upon its kill. Words escaped him that were full of z's, like the buzzing of a pit saw. Some of these z's penetrated Langdon's understanding. He was also conscious of the long steel blade poised within an inch of his throat to make the language clearer.

'You helpee me move evelyting into sampan. You savvy, quick. By 'ell, I slice you up like one dam chicken if you no hully up!'

Langdon was thinking of the sweet-faced girl seated in the cabin of Balk's schooner, not a biscuit-loss away. If he risked his life now in a scrimmage with this eel-like assassin, Barbara Ingram would face the world with not enough to pay for a meal! Noel had seen bold, bare-handed men tackle armed Japs and Chinamen for the price of a drink. The results were more or less disastrous to the barehanded men, as the British consulates and foreign hospitals could testify. Langdon had tumbled into a bad corner, and wisely his young brain jumped instead of his muscles.

'All right, Sam,' he cheerfully agreed as he stepped inside the Buddha-pit. 'This stuff wants careful handling. The stone floor outside is pretty slippery, so we'll take our time and avoid breakages,' he added, as the hurricane lamp revealed fresh piles of porcelain and art ware within the dark bay of the image.

Only for a moment did the Chinaman exhibit a tremor of superstitious fear at the thought of his sacrilegious act in removing the priest's collection from the Buddha. The next saw him scurrying in and out the opening, depositing the fragile pieces of porcelain among the rich tapestries in the thwarts of the roomy sampan. He worked with the feverish lust of possession that reminded Langdon of a starved jackal he had once seen at the dead carcass of a sheep.

The sampan's waist, was soon filled with the heaped-up collection from the Buddha. Not once did the Chinaman lay aside his steel blade, not once did his slat eyes shift from the young seaman.

Langdon knew what was coming. When the last of the precious hoard was placed aboard the sampan he would be asked to unfasten the rope that held it to the iron post rail of the altar. The moment he stooped over the knotted line the long blade would descend with professional promptitude on his neck. It was an old trick among the river bandits and junk men, and prevented discussion anent the just division of the spoils.

Langdon felt that his lonely little drama had been played to no purpose. He had hoped for a chance to close with this human jungle cat, but the chance had not been allowed. He saw the brief and horrible scramble that must now take place across the floor of the slippery altar, with Noel Langdon dodging hither and yon to avoid the flashing strokes of the long steel blade. The dinghy offered no means of escape. For an unarmed man it was a death- trap, with a panther-limbed robber striking at him over the gunwale.

Two or three small articles remained within the Buddha. The hurricane lamp had been placed on the altar floor to show the way in and out. The Chinaman was swindling near the sampan, his thumb caressing the edge of his steel weapon. His glance darted from the sampan to Langdon bending over the last article within the Buddha.

'You one long-time in there,' he squalled impatiently. 'Why fo' you no come out?'

Langdon felt that he had guessed right as he emerged from the Buddha's interior in the direction of the slanting steel. In his hand were seven sovereigns, the first wages paid to him by Balk in Sydney. There were times, he argued to himself, when seven English sovereigns could do the work of gun or steel.

'Look!' he shouted excitedly. 'Found 'em in the Buddha. There's probably millions more under the floor.'

He thrust the sovereigns into the Chinaman's outstretched fist. 'It's a crime, Sam, to leave so much wealth behind for the coolie rats to dig out. The goods you've got in the sampan will need a buyer. But this English money is the stuff that talks.'

A moment before the Chinaman's eyes had been eloquent of murder. The sight of the gold coins strained his nerves to the point of hysteria. He weighed them, bit them in wolfish haste. A moment later he was inside the Buddha, crouching over the cracks in the stone floor, prying the age-old cavities with the point of his blade.

'Where, where?' he screamed. 'Come an' show, come—'

Langdon side-leaped to the copper door, his brain sobbing, his throat burning like molten glass as he slammed it from the outside. The copper panel fell swiftly into its groove. Langdon leaned heavily against the panel for a few moments, in the full knowledge that it could only be sprung open from the outside. In the turn of a wrist he had cast off in the sampan, with the dinghy trailing at the starn.

Day was breaking in mists of turquoise and saffron. The schooner loomed Titanesque through the breaking fog. The craning neck of Captain Balk became visible over the port rail.

'What the hell you got there?' he snapped at sight of the tarpaulin-covered sampan.

'Salvage, by the holy!' he added with sudden glee. In the matter of a schooner captain's rights to salvage Balk was a legal expert. His eye fell on his own dinghy that bad been used in the operation.

'Avast there!' he commanded as Langdon brought the sampan under the gangway.

'Whose property, and whose orders?' he bellowed.

Noel Langdon was full of the meekness that getteth the soft treatment. It was a woman's life and future he was handling.. At another time he might have put Balk in the galley and locked him among his own pots. But this was an affair of the high seas.

'Miss Ingram's property, sir. Didn't like to disturb you last night, cap'n. It's just an assortment of old chinaware and oddments that was put aside for the young lady.' Balk's glance snapped over the tumbled collection of faded tapestry and bric--brac in the sampan, while a look of boredom crept, into his eyes.

'Confounded rubbish,' he growled, edging away to the forepart.

Barbara Ingram appeared at the gangway head. In a flash she took in the contents of the sampan. The touch of her hand on his sleeve told Langdon more than signs or expressions of gratitude. With the help of a coolie deck hand the contents of the sampan were transferred to Miss Ingram's cabin.

A sudden shout came from Balk as he indicated the flood- encircled Buddha in the distance. From the gargantuan mouth of the image appeared the head and shoulders of the Chinaman.

Wriggling and cursing, he dropped from the aperture, to the altar and turned his saturnine face to the schooner. Barbara Ingram shrank back at sight of his features, the red bandage, and glittering length of steel in his right hand.

'That man is Zang Ho, the Red Coolie,' she declared faintly.

Balk stared in blank amaze, his binoculars leaping into line with the red bandage and the tattooed skull on Zang's quivering bicep.

'Guess I've heard of that fellow,' he declared hoarsely. 'Belongs to the Songolo prison stockade. I'd know the yellow hound by his badge. He used to rob his prisoners under the threat, of using a blunt decapitation sword unless they assigned their valuables to him. The miserable cur!'


ZANG HO waded to his chin in the flood waters, and then, with a snarling oath, struck out for the schooner's side, the steel blade held between his teeth. Langdon took a cutlass from the fist of the Cingalee cook and stepped to the foot of the gangway.

'There's a good time coming, Zang Ho. You're swimming right into it,' he called out invitingly.

'Come along!' A suppressed scream escaped Barbara as a long grey shadow glided into the channel, its triangular fin slicing the surface of the water. The scream of terror reached Zang Ho. He turned to meet the pair of swinish eyes racing towards him, his steel blade clutched in his long, sinewy hand.

A cloud of screaming gulls and seafowl hovered above the naked Chinaman in the water. The blood cry seemed to wake the dormant hawks on the distant sandbars. The air bristled with swooping wings and hungry beaks.

Zang Ho's eyes clinched as he treaded the water, the blade held like a dagger in his fist, his slat eyes measuring the torpedo-shaped shadow beneath him. The shadow turned as the blade struck down; its spiny length seemed to double across the Chinaman's body with the pliancy of a flogging cane. Zang's blade missed; his shout of dismay was drowned by the squalling of the reef-hawks overhead. Ten seconds later the water was thrashed into a whirlwind of red and white brine where he had disappeared.

Balk wiped his hot face with a kerchief. 'These derned reef sharks are the limit,' he confessed aloud. 'First, time Zang ever missed a neck—and the last,' he added cheerfully.

The freshening wind caught the schooner's sails. In a little while she was racing south from the earthquake belt to the open waters of the Pacific.

Peering towards the for'ard cabin he I saw Langdon and Miss Ingram sorting and readjusting the collection of chinaware from the Buddha.

'Always cooing time for some people,' he grumbled as he sauntered up to the wheelhouse. 'Just plain schooner time for others.'


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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