CUTCLIFFE HYNE

THE PEARL-POACHERS

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WITH ILLUSTRATIONS FROM PEARSON'S MAGAZINE


Ex Libris

First published in Pearson's Magazine, January 1898

Collected in:
The Adventures of Captain Kettle, Pearson's, London, 1898

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version Date: 2019-08-29
Produced by Terry Walker and Roy Glashan

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The Adventures of Captain Kettle, 1898,
with "The Pearl-Poachers"


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"NO, Mr. Carnforth," said Kettle; "it would be lying if I was to say I knew anything about pearl-fishing. I've heard of it, of course; who hasn't? And, for the matter of that, I've had on a diving-suit myself, and gone down and examined a ship's bottom to see if the diver that had been sent down to look at some started plates had brought up a true report. But I've never done more than pass through those North Australian seas. They tell me the pearl-fishing's worked from small luggers of some ten or fourteen tons, sailing out of Thursday Island."

"It is," said the big man. "And—"

"Well, sir, you'd better get another captain. I'm a steamer sailor by bringing up, and on a steamer I know my business, and can do it with any other man alive. But you'd not find me much good on a little windjammer like a Thursday Island pearler. I'm a hard-up man, Mr. Carnforth, and desperately in want of a berth; I hope, too, you'll not think it undue familiarity when I say that I like you personally; but, honestly, I don't think you'd better engage me as your skipper for this trip. You could get a so much better man for your money."

Carnforth laughed. "My dear Kettle," he said, "I don't think I ever came across a fellow with less real notion of looking after his own interests. As you are aware, I know your peculiar qualifications pretty thoroughly; I'm an eminently practical business man; I offer you a handsome salary with both eyes open; and yet you refuse because you are afraid of robbing me of my money."

"Mr. Carnforth," said the little sailor stiffly, "I have my own ideas of what's right. You have seen me at sea using violence and ugly words. But you will kindly remember that I was in service of an employer then, and was earning his pay by driving his crew. It's another thing now; we are ashore here, and I would have you know that ashore I am a strict chapel member, with a high-pressure conscience, and a soul that requires careful looking after. I could never forgive myself if I thought I was taking your pay without earning it thoroughly."

"If you'll let me get a word in edgeways," said the other irritably, "and not be so beastly cocksure that you can rob me—which you could no more do than fly—perhaps you'd understand what I'm offering, and not sneeze at a good chance. The lugger is your own invention, and so is the idea that I'm merely going pearl-fishing in the ordinary way. My notion is to go pearl-poaching, which is a very different matter; to get rich quick, and take the risks and climb over them; and to go at the business in a steamer with a strong enough crew to—ar—do what's needful."

"And you're already a rich man," said Kettle, "with a fine position in the country, and a seat in Parliament. Some people never do know when they're well off."

"Some people don't," said Carnforth, "and you're another of them, skipper. For myself, I do a mad thing now and again because—oh, because I like the excitement and flurry of it. But you!—You go and refuse a profitable billet that would fit you down to the boots, merely for the sake of a whim. A quarter of an hour ago you told me you were practically destitute—ar—'on the streets' your own words were; and here you are chucking up a certain twenty pounds a month, and a possible ninety, when it's ready to your hand."

"I didn't know about the steamer," said Kettle, "and that's a fact."

"Well, I'm telling you now, Captain, and if you don't take charge of her upper bridge, it will be your own fault. Why, man, there isn't a job between here and New Jerusalem that would suit you better! and besides, I'm keen to go there myself, and you are the one man in the world I want to have as a shipmate, and I ask you to come as a personal favour. I'm sick of this smug, orderly, frock-coated life here. Nature intended me for a pirate, and fate has made me a successful manufacturer. I've tasted the wild unregenerate life of the open air once under your auspices, and rubbed against men who were men, and I want to be there again. I'm tired of fiddling amongst men and women who are merely dollar-millers and dress-pegs. I'm sick of what they call success. I'm sick of the whole blessed business."

Captain Kettle thought of Mrs. Kettle and her children in the squalid house in South Shields, with the slender income and the slim prospects, and he sighed drearily. But he did not utter those thoughts aloud. He said, instead, that he was very grateful to Mr. Carnforth for his magnificent offer, and would do his best to earn thoroughly the lavish income which was held out to him.

Carnforth reached out and gripped his hand. "Thanky, Kettle," he said; "and mind, I'm going to try and lug you into a competency over this. You might just as well have given way before. I always get my own way over this sort of thing. And now probably you'd like to hear a bit more about the poaching ground?"


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Carnforth reached out and gripped his hand.


"If you please, sir."

"Well, I can't quote you latitude and longitude off hand, but I'll show you the whereabouts of the place marked on the chart afterwards. It's Japan way, and the Japs have chosen to claim all the bits of reef thereabouts, and to proclaim a sort of close season against all foreign pearlers. Now the place I've got news of is in their area, but so far it has never been fished. It's enormously rich, and it's absolutely virgin. Why, man, if we can put in six months' work there undisturbed, we can easily carry off a million pounds' worth of shell and pearls."

"Six months!" said Kettle. "That's a big order. I've no doubt that with a decent steamer and a few rifles we could beat off one of their gunboats when we get there, and do, say, a week's fishing. But if that gunboat steams back to Nagasaki, or wherever her port is, and brings out a whole blessed navy at her heels, we may find the contract outside our size. Of course, if you are going to fit out a real big steamboat, with a gun or two, and a hundred men—"

Carnforth laughed. "Wait a bit," said he. "You're going ahead too fast. There's no question of fighting a whole navy. In fact we mustn't fight at all if there's any means of wriggling out of it. I believe fighting would amount to piracy, and piracy's too lively even for my tastes. Besides, if we got very noisy, we'd have some cruiser of the British China Squadron poking her ugly nose in, and that's a thing we couldn't afford to risk at any price."

"Then how are you going to manage it?"

"What we must hope for is to be left undisturbed. There's every chance of it. The reef is out of all the steam-lanes and circle tracks, and the Jap's gunboat patrol is not very close. In fact the place has only been newly charted. It was found quite by accident by the skipper of a sea-sealing schooner, and he missed the plum because he happened to have been a brute to one of his hands."

"But I thought you said this reef was out of all ship tracks?"

"Don't hustle me. The schooner had been sealing off the Commander Islands. She was coming home and got into heavy weather. She was blown away three days by a gale, and picked up the surf of this reef one morning at daybreak, ran down into the lee, and lay there till the breeze was over. The reef wasn't charted, and the skipper, who was 'on the make,' wondered how he could gather dividends out of it. In the off-sealing season he was in the Thursday Island trade, and his thoughts naturally ran upon pearls and shell. He'd a diving suit on board, and he rowed into the lagoon, made one of his crew put on the suit, and sent him down.

"Now observe the result," said Carnforth with sly relish, "of being too severe on one's hands. This sailor, who was sent down in the diving-suit, had been having a dog's time of it on the sealing schooner, and when he got on the floor of the lagoon and saw the place round him literally packed with shell that had never been touched by human fingers, he made up his mind that the time had come to repay old scores. So when he came up out of the water again, he said, sulkily enough, that there was nothing below but seaweed and mud; and the boat rowed back out of the lagoon; and the schooner let draw her forestay-sail sheet and ran away on her course.

"The skipper reported the new reef, and in due course it got on the charts; and the sailor kept holding his tongue till he could find a market for his information. He didn't find one at once; he had to wait two years, in fact; and then he found me. I guess that skipper would be easier on his hands in future if he only knew what he'd lost, eh, Kettle?"

The sailor frowned.

"A shipmaster, sir, has to get the full amount of work out of his hands, or he's neglecting his duty. I can picture that schooner, Mr. Carnforth, and I picture her Old Man hearing what he's missed, and still carrying on the driving game. The things we have to ship as sailors are beasts, and you have to treat them as such; and if you can show me a master who's popular in the fore-castle, I can show you a man who's letting his hands shirk work, and not earning his owner's pay."

"H'm!" said Carnforth. "I've seen you handle a crew, and I know your theories and little ways, and I know also that you're far too obstinate an animal to change your opinions in a hurry. I've a pretty strong will myself, and so I can sympathise with you. However, we'll let that matter of ethics slide for the present, and go into the question of ways and means"—and on the dry detail of this they talked till far into the night.


HERE, however, the historian may for awhile withhold his pen, since those in the shipping interest can fill the gap for themselves, whilst to all others these small questions of ways and means would be infinitely tedious.

The yacht's voyage out to Japanese waters may also be omitted. The English papers announced its commencement in one of the usual formal paragraphs: "Mr. Martin Carnforth, M.P. for the Munro division of Yorkshire, has started in his fine steam yacht the Vestris for a lengthened tour in China seas to study Oriental questions on the spot, and will probably he absent some considerable time."

The official log kept on board was meagre and scanty being confined to arid statements of distances run, and the ordinary meteorological happenings of the ocean; and towards the latter entries, even these were skilfully fictitious. Indeed, when the vessel neared the scene of action, her yellow funnel changed to black with a crimson band, a couple of squarish yards were crossed on her foremast, her dainty gaff sails vanished and were replaced by serviceable trysails, and the midship house was soiled by the addition of a coat of crude white lead above the trimly polished teak, and straddled over by a clumsy iron bridge defended by ill-fitting canvas dodgers and awnings.

There was no making the expert believe, of course that she was a mere trader that had always been a trader. But to the nautical eye she was unsuspicious; she looked one of those ex-yachts that have been sold out of the petticoat-cruising service of Cowes, and been adapted to the more homely needs of the mercantile marine; and in the Mediterranean, the Australian seas, and China waters, there are many of this breed of craft making a humble living for their owners. A couple of weeks neglect will make any brasswork look un-yachtlike, and a little withholding of the paint brush soon makes all small traders wonderfully kin.

Re-christening of course is but a clumsy device, and one which is (the gentle novelist notwithstanding) most seldom used. A ship at her birth is given a name, and endowed with a passport in the shape of "papers." Without her papers she cannot enter a civilised port; she could not "clear" at any custom house; and to attempt doing so would be a blatant confession of "something wrong." So when the paint brushes went round, and the name Vestris on counter, boats, and lifebuoys were exchanged for Governor L. C. Walthrop (which seemed to carry a slight American flavour) a half sigh went up from some of the ship's company, and a queer little thrill passed through the rest, according to their temperaments. They were making themselves sea pariahs from that moment onwards, until they should deem fit to discard the alias.

Captain Kettle himself finished lettering the last of the lifebuoys and put down his brush, and shook his head.


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Captain Kettle himself finished lettering.


Carnforth was watching him from a deck chair. "You don't like it?" he said.

"I never did such a thing before," said Kettle; "and I never heard of it being done and come to any good. We're nobodies now, and it's every one's business to meddle with a nobody. If you're a somebody, only the proper people can interfere."

"I can't help it," said Carnforth. "The Vestris is well known at home, and I'm well known too; and we've just got to see this business through one way or the other, under purser's names. She's the Governor L.C. Walthrop, and I'm Mr. Martin, and you can be what you like."

"I'll still use my own name, sir. I've carried it a good many years now, through most kinds of weather; and it's had so many stones thrown at it that a few more won't hurt. If we get through with this little game, all right: if we get interrupted, I guess the only thing left will be to attend our own funerals. I'm not going to taste the inside of a Japanese gaol at any price."

"I never saw such a fellow as you for looking at the gloomy side of things," said Carnforth, irritably.

"It's the gloomy side that's mostly come my way, sir."

"I wish to goodness I'd never been idiot enough to come out here on this hairbrained scheme."

"Why!" said Kettle in surprise, "you've got the remedy to your hand. You give your orders, Mr. Carnforth, and I'll bout-ship this minute and take you home."

"And don't you want to go through with it, skipper?"

"I don't see my tastes need be mentioned," said the sailor, stiffly. "You're my owner, sir. I'm here to do as I'm bid."

"Captain Owen Kettle," said the other, with a laugh that had got some sour earnest at the back of it, "you're a cantankerous little beggar. I sailed with you before, and found you the most delightful of shipmates. I sail with you now, and you keep me always at boat-hook's length away from you. Be hanged if I see what I've done to stiffen you."

"Sir," said Kettle, "on the Sultan of Borneo you were my guest; on this yacht you are my owner: there's all the difference in the world."

"You wish to point out, I suppose, that a shipmaster looks upon an owner as his natural enemy, as he does the Board of Trade. Still I don't think I personally have deserved that."

"I am as I have been made, sir, and I suppose I can't help it."

"You are a man with some wonderfully developed weaknesses. However, as to turning back, I'm not going to stultify myself by doing that now. We'll see the thing through now, whatever happens."

Martin Carnforth nodded curtly, and got up and walked the deck. He was conscious of a fine sense of disappointment and disillusionment. He had started off on this expedition filled with a warm glow of romance. He had been grubbing along at distasteful business pursuits for the larger part of his life, and adventure, as looked at from the outside, had always lured him strongly. Once in Kettle's company he had tasted of the realities of adventure amongst Cuban revolutionists; had got back safely, and settled down to business again for a time: and then once more had grown restless. He had the virus of adventure in his blood, and he was beginning to learn that it was a cumulative poison.


SO, once more he had started off, but this time he was being chilled from the outside. Properly treated, the prospects of the trip would have been rosy enough. Handled by Captain Owen Kettle, the whole affair was made to assume the aspect of a commercial speculation of more than doubtful sanity. And, as he walked, he cursed Kettle from his inmost heart for bringing him to earth and keeping him there amongst sordid considerations.

The little mariner himself was seated in a deck-chair under an awning, turning in the frayed sleeve of a white drill jacket. His sewing tackle stood in a pictured tin biscuit box on the deck beside him. He unripped the old stitches with a pocket knife, and re-sewed the sleeve with exquisite accuracy and neatness. His fierce eyes were intent on the work. To look at his nimble fingers, one would think that they had never held anything more deadly than the ordinary utensils of tailoring. Carnforth broke off his walk, and stood for a moment beside him.


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His fierce eyes were intent on the work.


"Skipper," he said, "you're a queer mixture. You've lived one of the most exciting lives any man's ever gone through, and yet you seem to turn your more peaceful moments to tailoring or poetry indifferently, and enjoy them with gusto."

"Mr. Carnforth," said the little sailor, "I guess we're all discontented animals. We always like most what we get least of."

"Well, I suppose that's intended to sum up my character as well as your own," said Carnforth, and sat down and watched the sewing.

The mate on the yacht's upper bridge picked up the reef with his glasses that evening a couple of hours after sundown. The night was velvet black, with only a few stars showing. A sullen ground swell rolled the seas into oily hills and valleys, and the reefs ahead showed themselves in a blaze of phosphorescence where the swell broke into thunderous surf. It seemed as though the yacht was steaming towards the glow and din of some distant marine volcano. The watch below were all on deck, drawn there by curiosity, and along one bulwark the watch on duty were handling the deep sea lead. At intervals came the report, trolled in a minor key, of "No bottom."

The engines were running half speed ahead, and presently they stopped, and the order was given for the yacht to lay-to where she was till daybreak. A light breeze had sprung up, bringing with it a queer, slender taint into the sweet, sea air.

For a long time Carnforth had been snuffling diligently. "I'm sure I smell something," he said at last.

"It's there," said Kettle. "Have you ever been in a north country Norwegian port, sir?"

"By Jove! yes, skipper. It's just the same. Decaying fish."

"There's not another stink like it on this earth. You know what it means here?"

"I suppose some other fellows are in the lagoon before us, and they're rotting out shell."

"That's it," said Kettle; "and we're going to have our work cut out to get a cargo. But we'll do it, Mr. Carnforth, never you fear. I suppose there'll be trouble, but that'll have to be got over. We've not come all this way to go back with empty holds."

Carnforth looked at the little man slily. Here was a very different Captain Kettle from the fellow who had been mending the white drill coat half a dozen hours before. He was rubbing his hands, his eye was bright, his whole frame had stiffened. He was whistling a jaunty tune, and was staring keenly out at the phosphorescent blaze of the breakers, as though he could see what was behind them, and was planning to overcome all obstacles. An hour before, Martin Carnforth had been cursing the tedium of his expedition. A little chill went through him now. Before many more hours were past he had a strong notion he would be scared at its liveliness. He had seen Captain Kettle's methods before when things went contrary to his plans and wishes.


SLOWLY the night dragged through, and by degrees the blackness thinned. The Eastern waters grew grey, and the sky above them changed to dull sulphur yellow. Then a coal of crimson fire burned out on the horizon, and grew quickly to a great half-dish of scarlet; and then the rest of the sun was shot up, as an orange pip is slipped from the fingers; and it was brilliant, staring, tropical day.

For full an hour the yacht had been under weigh at half steam with lead going, circling round the noisy reefs. The place was alive with the shouts of breakers and the scream of sea-fowl. Inside, beyond the hedge of spouting waters, were three small turtle-backs of yellow sand, and a lugger at anchor.

The water outside was clear as bottle-green glass, and of enormous depth. The only entrance to the lagoon was a narrow canal between the reefs, shown up vividly by the gap in the ring of creaming surf. It was not likely that any one from the lugger would lend a hand for pilotage—or be trusted if they offered. So Kettle steamed the yacht to some half-mile off the entrance, called away the whale-boat, and went off in her himself with a crew and a couple of leadsmen to survey the channel. He did it with all deliberation; returned; took his perch in the forecross-tress, where he could see the coral floor through the clear water beneath, and conned the yacht in himself. Carnforth leant over the bridge-end and watched.

The coral floor with its wondrous growths came up towards him out of the deep water. The yacht rolled into the pass on the backs of the great ocean swells, and the reef-ends on either side boomed like a salute of heavy guns. The white froth of the surges spewed up against her sides, and the spindrift pattered in showers upon her deck planks. The stink of the place grew stronger every minute.

Then she shot through into a mirror of still, smooth water, slowed to half-speed, and with hand lead going diligently, steamed up to an anchorage in sixteen fathoms off one of the sandy islets. A white whale-boat put off from the lugger, rowed by three Kanakas, and by the time the yacht's cable was bitted a man from her had stepped up the accommodation ladder, and was looking about him on deck.

He was a biggish man in striped pyjamas, bare-footed, roughly- bearded, and wearing a crumpled pith helmet well-down on the back of his head. His face was burnt to a fine mahogany colour by the sun, and, dangling over his chest at the end of a piece of fine sinnet, was a gold-rimmed eye-glass which glittered like a diamond when it caught the sun. He touched his helmet to Kettle. "You've brought a fine day with you, Captain," said he.


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He was a biggish man in striped pyjamas.


"Rather warm," said Kettle. "I haven't looked at the glass this morning. I hope it's going to keep steady."

The visitor glanced round and sized up the yacht and its resources. "Oh, I should say it's likely to for the present. You've a nice little boat here and a likely looking lot of men. You'll be having ten of a crew, all told, Captain, eh?"

"Thirteen," said Kettle.

"Humph, it's an unlucky number. Well, Captain, if I were you I wouldn't stay here too long. The weather's a bit uncertain, you know, in these seas."

"We want some pearls and shell before we go."

"I might have guessed that. Well, it's a nuisance from our point of view, because we thought we'd the lagoon to ourselves, and intended to skim it clear ourselves if the Japs didn't interrupt. But, take the tip, Captain, and don't be too greedy. If you stay too long, the glass may fall suddenly and—"

"Take care, my lad," snapped Kettle; "I'm a man that accepts threats from no man living."

"Oh, all right," said the stranger carelessly. "But who have we here?" And he stuck the glass into his eye and whistled.

Captain Kettle made a formal introduction. "My owner, sir, Mr. Martin, of New York."

"Humph," said the visitor; "you used to be Carnforth up at Cambridge, didn't you? M. Carnforth, I remember, and M. might possibly stand for Martin."

Captain Kettle smiled grimly, and Carnforth swore.

"Bit of a surprise to find you pearl-poaching, Carnforth. I see your name in the Australian papers now and again, and got a notion you were something big at home. Had a bust up?"

"No," said Carnforth. "I'm all right there. Come below and have a drink and a talk. By the way it's awfully rude of me; I haven't tumbled yet to who you are."

"Never mind my name," said the visitor coolly. "I don't suppose you'd remember me. I was a reading man up there and you weren't. You did your best to torment my life out. I took a big degree and made a fizzle of after life. You got ploughed and became a commercial success. So you see we've little enough in common; and, besides, I was here first, and I resent your coming."

"Oh, rubbish, man! Come below and have a cocktail."

"Thanks, no. I prefer not to be under the tie of bread and salt with—er—trade rivals." He dropped his eye-glass, and walked to the head of the accommodation ladder. "Look here, Master Carnforth," he said. "I'll give you a useful tip. Clear out!" Then he went down into his whale-boat, and the brown men pulled him back to the lugger.

"Curse that beggar's impudence," said Carnforth hotly. "I wonder who the deuce he is?"

"Maybe we'll find out," said Kettle. "I tried to catch your eye whilst he was speaking. If I had my way, he'd be on board now, kept snug till we were through with our business here. He'd have been a lot safer that way."

"Oh, no!" said Carnforth. "We couldn't have done the high- handed like that on the little he said. Wonder who he can be, though? Some poor beggar whose corns I trod on up at Cambridge. Well, anyway, twenty years and that beard have completely changed him out of memory. However, if he chooses to come round and be civil, he can; and if he doesn't, I won't worry. And now, Captain—pearls. The sooner we get to work, the more chance we have of getting a cargo under hatches and slipping away undisturbed."

"Right-o," said Captain Kettle. "They've got the other two sandbanks, and, by the stink, they're doing a roaring business. We'll bag this empty one near us, and set about fishing this very hour, and plant our shell to rot there. It'll smell a bit different to a rose garden, Mr. Carnforth, but it'll be a sight more valuable."


THEN began a period of frantic toil and labour. Every man on board was "on shares," for it had pleased Carnforth's whim to use this old buccaneer's incentive. Half of the profits went to the ship, and the rest to the crew. Each man had so many shares, according to his rating. Carnforth himself, in addition to his earnings as owner, earned also as an ordinary seaman, and sweated and strained like any of the hands. From an hour before daybreak to an hour after sunset he was away in the boats, under the dews of morn and eve, or the blazing torrent of midday sunshine. Every night he tumbled into his bed-place dog-tired, and exulting in his tiredness. Every morning he woke eager for the fierce toil. He was unshaven, sunburnt, blood-smeared from the scratches of the shell, filthy with rank sea mud. But withal he was entirely happy.

Kettle toiled with equal vigour, working violently himself, and violently exhorting the others. Neither his arms nor his tongue were ever tired. But he was always neat, and seldom unclean. Dirt seemed to have an antipathy for the man, and against his dishevelled owner he looked like a park dandy beside a rag-picker.

At the other side of the lagoon the white man from Cambridge, and a white friend, and their crew of ten Kanakas, worked with similar industry. The ring of the lagoon was some half mile in diameter, with lanes of deep water running through its floor where divers could not work. There was no clashing of the two parties. One of these water lanes seemed to set out a natural boundary, and neither transgressed it. On each submarine territory there was enough shell to work on for the present, and each party toiled with the same frantic energy, and spread out the shell on the sun-baked sandbanks and poisoned Heaven with the scent of decay. But there was no further intercourse between the two bodies of men, nor indeed any attempt at it. How the others were doing, the yacht's party neither knew nor cared. Theirs was a race against time for wealth, and not one striver amongst them all had leisure to be curious about his neighbours.

In a nicer life, the smells of the place would have offended them monstrously; here they were a matter for congratulation. The more the putrefaction, the more the profit. They ripped the shells from the sea, and spread them upon the beaches. The roasting sun beat upon the spread-out shell-fish, and melted away their soft tissues in horrible decay.

The value was all a gamble. There might be merely so much mother-o'-pearl for inlay work; or seed pearls, such as the Chinese grind up for medicine; or larger pearls of any size and colour and shape, from the humble opalescent sphere worth its meagre half-a-crown, to the black pearl worth its score of pounds, or the great pear-shaped pink pearl worth a prince's ransom. It was all a gamble, but none the less fascinating for that. Carnforth was mad over the work; Kettle, with all his nonchalance gone, was nearly as bad.

But the process of realising their wealth was none too fast, and, in fact, seemed to them tedious beyond words. Every filled shell, with its latent possibilities of treasure lying out there upon the sand, was so much capital left in a perilously insecure investment. They were so bitterly afraid of interruptions. The dark shadow of Japan was always before their eyes.

Still at last came the first moment of realisation. They had toiled a month, and they had collected that day the fruits of their first day's labour. The mother-o'-pearl shell was packed in the hold; the little crop of pearls stood in a basin on the cabin table, and they gloated over them as they supped.

Carnforth stirred them lovingly with the butt of his fork. "Pretty little peas, aren't they, skipper?"

"For those they amuse, though I like to see a bit more colour in a woman's ornaments myself."

"Matter of taste and matter of fashion. Pearls are all the rage just now. Diamonds are slightly commonplace; but women will spend their money on something, and so the price of pearls is up."

"So much the better for us, sir. It's a pity, though, that some of them seem a bit off colour, like that big grey chap for instance."

"Grey, man! Why, that's a black pearl, and probably worth any ten of the rest put together."

"Well," said Kettle, "I don't set up for being a pearl merchant. Poaching them's trouble enough for me."

"Pass the biscuit, will you?" said Carnforth, yawning, "I suppose that little lot—is worth—worth—anything over—a thousand pounds," and with that he dropped back dead asleep in his chair with a forkful of food in mid-air. Captain Kettle finished his meal, but he, too, man of wire though he was, suddenly tumbled forward and went to sleep with his head on the table. It was no new thing for them to do. They had dropped off like this into unconsciousness more than once during that month of savage toil.


THE next day they had a smaller crop ready to glean—a bare five hundred pounds' worth, in fact. But they did not lament. There would be an enormous quantity ready for the morrow.

That further realisation of their wealth, however, never came. During the night another lugger sailed into the lagoon, and upset all their plans. She was the consort of the lugger commanded by the Cambridge man, and she had taken away to a safe place their first crop of pearls and shell. Further, she was manned by fourteen whites, all armed, and all quite ready to defend what they considered their poachers' monopoly. As a consequence, they pulled across to the yacht some two hours before daybreak, and Carnforth and Captain Kettle found themselves waked by three men who carried Marlin repeating rifles, and were quite ready to use them if pressed.

But the little sailor was not easily cowed. "By James!" he cried, "this is piracy!"


Illustration

"By James!" he cried, "this is piracy!".


"It'll be a funeral," said the man with the eye-glass, "if you don't bring your hand out from under that pillow, and bring it out empty. Now, don't risk it, skipper. I'm a good snap shot myself, and this is only a two-pound trigger."

Captain Kettle did not chuck his life away uselessly. He let go his revolver and drew out his hand. "Well," he said, "what are you grimy pirates going to do next? By the look of you, you've come here to steal our soap and hair brushes."

"Carnforth," shouted the man with the eye-glass, "come in here and be told what's going to happen. I say, you fellows, bring Carnforth into the skipper's room."

Martin Carnforth came into Kettle's room sullenly enough, with his hands in his pockets.

"Now I'll give you the whole case packed small," said the spokesman. "A crowd of us found this place, and discovered the pearls and the shell. We were all badly in want of a pile, and we took the risks, and started in to get it. Most of us went away with the first cargo, and only two white men were left with a few Kanakas. Then you came. You were told you're not wanted, but you gently hinted at force majeure, and were allowed to stay. Finally the rest of our crowd comes back, and it's force majeure on the other side, and now you've got to go. If you've the sense of oysters, you'll go peacefully. There isn't enough for all of us; at any rate we don't intend to share."

"Mr. Carnforth," said Kettle, "I told you we'd better have bottled that dirty man with the window-pane eye who's been talking."

"Look here," said Carnforth hotly. "This is all nonsense. We've got as much right here as you."

"Right!" said the pearler. "Right had better not enter into the question. We're all a blooming lot of poachers, if it comes to that. You know that, Mr. Martin, or Carnforth, or whatever you choose to call yourself for the time being. You come here under a purser's name; your yacht is guyed out like a Mediterranean tunny fisher; and I guess you look upon the thing much as you did bagging knockers and brass door-plates in the old days at Cambridge—half the fun's in dodging the bobby."

"You're taking the wrong sort of tone," interrupted Carnforth. "I'm not used to being hectored at like this."

"I can believe it," said the pearler drily. "You are a successful man."

"And let me tell you this. You've got the upper hand for the present, that I admit. You may even force us out of the lagoon. But what then? I guess the account would not be closed; and when a man chooses to make me his enemy, I always see that he gets payment in full sooner or later."

"All right," said the man with the eye-glass—"pay away. Don't mind us."

"A hint at one of the Japanese ports as to what was going on would soon upset your little game."

"Not being fools," said the pearler coolly, "of course we've thought of that. We've—"

A hail came down from the saloon sky-light outside, from the deck above. "Scoot, boys, scoot! The Philistines be upon us."

"What's that?" shouted the man with the eye-glass.

"Well, it's one of those confounded Jap gunboats, if you want to know. Hurry, and we shall just get off. We'll leave these fools to pay the bill."

"Hmph!" said the pearler, "that settles the matter another way. I must go, and I suppose you'll try to hook it too. Ta, ta, skipper; you're a good sort—I like you. By-bye, Carnforth, can't recommend the Jap gaols. Hope you get caught, and that'll square up for your giving me a bad time at Cambridge."

He followed the others out on deck, and a moment later their whale-boat was pulling hard for where the luggers rode lazily at their anchors. Carnforth and Kettle went after him, and the engineers and the yacht's crew, who had been held down in the forecastle at rifle's muzzle, came on deck also.

It did not require any pressing to get the engine-room staff to their work. The boilers were cold; but never were fires lit quicker. Paraffin, wood, small coal, grease, anything that would burn, was coaxed into the furnace door. The cold gauges began to quiver, but as every man on board well knew, no human means could get a working steam pressure under half an hour.

On deck the crew had run the boats up to davits, had hove short by hand, and then stood like men on the drop, waiting their fate. The luggers had mastheaded their yards, and were beating down the lagoon against a spanking breeze. One after the other they tumbled out through the passage, and swung on the outer swell; and then, with their lugs goose-winged, fled like some scared sea-fowl out over the blue sun-scorched waters.

But though the yacht had canvas, Kettle knew that she could not beat to windward, and so dare not break his anchor out of the ground till the engineers had given her steam. There was nothing for it but to wait with what patience they could.

The Japanese gunboat had been sighted far enough off, and, as she was coming up from the farther side of the ring of reefs, she had to circle round them before she could gain the only entrance. Moreover, her utmost paper pace was eight knots, and she happened to be foul, and so her advance was slow. But still, to the watching men it seemed that she raced up like a Western Ocean greyhound.

The sun rose higher. The stink of the rotting shellfish came to them in poisonous whiffs. At another time it would have spoken of wealth in sweet abundance. But now they disregarded it. Prison and disgrace were the only things before them, and these filled the mind.

Then the chief engineer called up to the bridge through the voice-tube that he could give her enough steam for steerage way in another minute.

"Foredeck there!" cried Kettle. "Break out that anchor! By hand!" and the men laboured with the handgear, so as to save the precious steam. Then a thought flashed across Captain Kettle's brain, and he quickly gave it to Carnforth. "It's only a beggarly chance, sir, but we'd better try it, I suppose?"

"Yes," said Carnforth.

"If only we hadn't painted out those names, we might have done it more safely. As it is, we must risk it. Off with you below, sir, and get into some decent clothes. You'd give the whole show away if you stayed up on the bridge here in those filthy rags. You may be a yacht owner, sir, but, by James! you look far more like an out-of-work coal-trimmer."

Carnforth ran down the ladder, and Kettle gave crisp orders to the hands on deck, who disappeared also, and presently came back dressed as spruce yachtsmen, in white trousers, white drill jumpers, and straw hats; and by that time the yacht was under way, and steaming slowly to the pass.

The gunboat was coming in with her crew at quarters, officers with swords on, and everything cleared for action. The Japanese flag ran up to her peak.

Promptly an English royal yacht club burgee broke out at the poacher's main truck, and a British blue ensign fluttered up to her poopstaff, and dipped three times in salute.

Carnforth came up on to the bridge. "Now, sir," said Kettle, "you must do the talking. I guess it's got to be lies, and lying's a thing I can't do."

"What shall I say?"

"Say what's needed," replied Kettle concisely; "and don't say it wrong. Remember, sir, you're lying for your liberty. It's neck or nothing. She's got two big guns trained on us, and a shot from either would send us to Jones before we could get in a smack in return."

"What ship's that?" came the hail in perfect English.

"Steam yacht Vestris. Lord Martin owner," said Carnforth, who knew the value of titles on the foreigners. "I'm Lord Martin."

"What are you doing in here?"

"Been watching those poachers."

"Heave to and explain."

"I shall do nothing of the sort, and if you dare to fire on me I will bring the British fleet about your ears."

The Japanese spokesman gasped and consulted with a superior, and the steamers drew abreast.

"But you must heave to."

"I shall do nothing of the kind."

"But you are in forbidden waters."

"Then you should put up a notice to say so. I shall report this to my Admiralty in London."

"Go it," said Kettle, sotto voce. "For blooming cheek, give me an M.P."

"But you must stop," said the Japanese, "or I shall be compelled to fire."

"You can do as you please," said Carnforth. "I shall report you to your commander-in-chief at Nagasaki. I never came across such insolence. You heard my name—Lord Martin. You'll hear more of it before long."


STEAM was rising in the gauges, and the yacht was getting into her stride of twelve knots. She sped out through the passage, and rolled in the trough of the glistening swells beyond. The crew of the warship still stood to their guns, but the officers were in a dilemma. These pestilential Britishers always did make such a row if any of their vessels were fired on; and this apparently was a yacht, though grotesquely unkempt, and tricked out with a black and red funnel; and, moreover, she was owned by a peer of the realm.

A last despairing howl came over the waters: "Are you noble?"

"Yes, haven't I told you? Lord Martin. You'll know it better when you're next in port."

And that was the last word. The gunboat turned and steamed out after them, but her turning circle was large and her speed slow. By midday she was hull down astern; by evening her mast trucks were under the water.

Carnforth strutted the deck complacently. "Rather a gorgeous bluff, eh, skipper?" he said at last.

Illustration

"Rather a gorgeous bluff, eh, skipper?"


"You're the only man on the ship that could have done it," said Kettle admiringly. "It takes a parliamentary education to lie like that."

Again the silence grew between them, and then Carnforth said musingly: "I wonder who that Cambridge man was?"

"He seemed to hate you pretty tenderly."

"He did that. I suppose I must have played some practical joke on him. Well, I know I used to be up to all sorts of larks in those days, skipper, but that's long enough ago, now, and all that sort of foolishness is past."

Captain Kettle laughed. "Have you done with pearl-poaching, sir? Or are you going to have another try at it? But don't paint out the name of your ship next time. If that Jap had had the eyes of a mole he'd have seen the change, and he'd have taken his chances and fired. Governor L.C. Walthrop is no name for an English milord's yacht."


THE END