THE individual known from Great Barrier Reef to the New Hebrides, and from Trobiand to the Three Kings as "Buck 'o the Islands" lounged on the deck of the yacht Nevermore discoursing learnedly upon the beauty of Aristophanes, one of whose plays lay on his immaculate knee. Over against him in another deck-chair sat Hilary Drake, known through the islands as "Pintail," listening good-naturedly to what he did not understand. But then Drake always was a good-natured man, a man of qualities and quantities, especially the latter, and perhaps the best-tempered pirate in the whole of the Coral Seas. He was by way of being the right-hand man of Jim Lovelace—" Buck o' the Islands" aforesaid—Chief of Staff, High Commissioner—in fact, a sort of Pooh Bah to the expeditionary force which had its headquarters on board the Nevermore.
To put it quite frankly, from the point of view of effete Western civilisation, the owner and crew of the Nevermore were pirates, and the Nevermore had been nosing about in those golden seas for the last few weeks, seeking for adventure, and it seemed to Lovelace as if he had found it. They were really lying up now on the lee of Discovery Island, waiting for events. They had passed, late in the afternoon, between two pillars of basaltic rock into the lagoon beyond, and lay there in the sweltering heat on a sheet of water as smooth and flawless as a mirror. There was no beach there, nothing but the volcanic rampart, some sixty feet in height, sheer at the edge as if it had been cut by a knife, except for one flight of steps leading up to the island—a flight of steps that could have been defended by one man against a ship's crew, and this Lovelace did not fail to notice. Above the terrace of shining rock were the cocoanut palms, and beyond that the jewel beauties of Discovery Island, flashing and glittering like some great gem flung down there on the bosom of the South Pacific. The lagoon itself, with its trending shore, was not less than gifteen miles in diameter, and a land-locked harbour large enough to hold the fleets of the world. And it was this rampart that Lovelace and his crew were going to storm presently, if the god of battle smiled on their side.
Lovelace jerked a finger over his left shoulder towards three boats that lay in the west of the lagoon.
"There they are," he said. "The Yankee and the Spaniard and tbe Chinaman are all there, waiting for their prey. They will land at dusk. Nobody lands here in the daylight, because Hellmer only knows the way up the cliffs, and no white man has ever been along those cliffs in daylight. I wormed that out of Lin Chin. They are landed in boats after dusk, and taken up to Hellmer's bungalow, where they are filled up to the chin with 'square-face,' after which the auction begins. But no one stays the night. The business is knocked off in an hour or so, and those chaps are escorted back to their boats by a dozen or so of specially-selected Kanakas armed with Lee-Enfields. Oh, Hellmer is pretty thorough, like all the rest of his accursed race."
"What's the game?" Drake asked.
"Well, at present I haven't any plans," Lovelace confessed. "Here, take these glasses and see if you can spot any place all round the lagoon where it is possible to land."
Drake took the powerful Goetz binoculars and carefully swept the ten miles or so of sheer basalt that fringed the blue waters of the lagoon. But that keen eye of his could make out no sign of a break anywhere. So the two men sat there on deck till the darkness began to fall, and they were still debating the knotty point as the graceful lines of the yacht faded into the gloom, and night shot down upon them like a violet blanket. In the stillness they could bear the sound of oars as the boats put out from the three other craft lying there on the face of the lagoon. Precious time was passing, and as yet nothing had been done. Then Lovelace, who had ears like a hare, lifted his head suddenly and held up a warning finger.
"Do you hear anything?" he whispered. "Call for lights and keep the deck clear. Unless I am mistaken, somebody is swimming out to us from the shore."
The ship's lantern was placed on the deck by the side of the big chairs, and the two men sitting round it waited. Then in the gloom something seemed to move up the ladder, and a shadowy outline came towards the light.
As the figure emerged into the yellow circle, a quick exclamation broke from Lovelace as he rose to his feet. Accustomed as he was to quick, dramatic surprises, here was one that shook him for a moment out of his studied calm.
"Good Heavens," he exclaimed, "it's a woman—an European woman, and a beautiful one at that!"
She stood there panting for a moment in the circle of light, a slim, graceful figure, golden brown as to her limbs and black as to the hair that streamed over her shoulders. She wore a simple bathing-dress of some black material, cut low in the neck and high above the knees. She was exceedingly fair to look upon, absolutely self-possessed, with the free manner of the Southern Sea, and yet with that daintiness and charm that marks birth and refinement all the world over. She was utterly devoid of self-consciousness, too, with a suggestion of one who passes a deal of her time in the water. Indeed, she could not have swum less than six miles, and that in a sea which is not free from the wandering shark.
"I am sorry to alarm you," she said, speaking in slightly broken English with a French accent, "but I saw your boat, or I should say your yacht, and, behold, I knew you were different to the men who come here. So, when it got dark, I made up my mind to swim out and ask you to help me."
"It will be a distinct pleasure," Lovelace said. "Here, Drake, go and get a wrap from somewhere."
"I will take no harm on a hot night like this," the girl said, with a charming smile. "Half my time I live in the water. It is, alas, the only place that is left to me. But surely I am speaking to Mr. Lovelace."
"The same, at your service," the bewildered Lovelace responded. "I am desolate—I am ashamed to say that—"
"That you have forgotten me, is it not? The last time I saw you I was staying with the Treehawks. Lady Treehawk was at school with me in Paris, and before I came back here she asked me to visit her. Now do you remember?"
"Oh, it's all coming back to me now," Lovelace lied politely. "I have forgotten your name,"
A charming little smile rippled on the girl's cheek.
"Yes, I see you have," she said demurely. "I am Vivette Lesterre, the daughter of Antoine Lesterre of this island."
"Indeed!" Lovelace exclaimed. "But I thought—What about the German, Hellmer. Isn't he—"
"He was my father's overseer. Eighteen months ago he murdered my father, and I have been kept a prisoner on this island ever since. Would it fatigue you if I told you the story?"
It was all coming back to Lovelace now. He began to remember the story of the little French beauty whom he had met just before the bottom fell out of his universe, and what Lady Treehawk had told him about her. She was the daughter of a brilliant French statesman, who had in some way entangled himself in a financial scandal, and had subsequently disappeared, to be heard of fitfully from time to time as a central figure in a romantic story set in the Coral Seas. He had apparently done well there, and had subsequently sent his only daughter home to Paris to be educated. It had all been nebulous enough at the time, but it was crystal clear now, on the deck of the Nevermore, in the violet darkness under the Southern Cross. And as Lovelace listened, his face softened strangely, though his lips were grimly set and there was a fighting light in his eyes.
"This must be looked to, Drake," he said. "Now, my dear young lady, I think you can trust me. I take it that you have some secret means of reaching the beach which is unknown to the genial pirate who governs Discovery Island?"
"Oh, yes," Vivette said eagerly. "There are many things that Hellmer does not know. Our bungalow he has taken for himself, and I have a tiny place some two miles away, where I am left entirely to myself, with one or two of my faithful natives. Hellmer does not trouble me. His one object is money, and when he has made enough he will probably go back to his Fatherland and leave the island to me. There is a way down to the beach from the brush at the back of my bungalow—a secret passage through the volcanic rock—that is known only to me and the Kanakas whom I can trust. And if you will follow me presently, I will show you the way, but not till I have prepared my people for your coming. Then away to the right yonder, in a line with the high peak, you will see a light. Pull for that light, and I will await you there."
With which the girl rose to her feet and strode across the deck of the Nevermore in the direction of the ladder. She laughed to scorn the idea that she would come to any harm as she let herself down the side of the yacht and dropped quietly into the smooth, warm water.
"Well," Lovelace said, "this looks like being some adventure. We are going to be the squire of dames. Now let's go below and tell the boys all about it."
It was just over an hour later that a boat put off from the Nevermore in the direction of a tiny light that gleamed from the foot of the cliff some four miles away. In the boat were Lovelace and Drake and one Captain Blossom, the latter a thick-set Englishman, with a chest like Hercules and the bull-dog strength of an international Rugger player, which, indeed, he had been in the past, though not known to his contemporaries by the name of Blossom. There were four other men in the boat, equally reckless and equally prepared to do anything in the way of a fight that came along. They pulled silently in the direction of the light, and beached their boat presently on the tiny spit of white sand where Vivette was awaiting them. In the background were one or two dusky shadows, evidently the friendly Kanakas whom the girl had mentioned. Then one by one they faded away in the darkness along a tiny cleft in the basalt rock that led upwards by rude steps to the cliffs beyond, and here Lovelace's fair guide halted.
"The hut is just over there," she explained. "I think I will wait till you return. Two of my boys shall guide you in the direction of the bungalow, and show you where Hellmer has placed his sentries."
"Oh, that's all right," said Lovelace cheerfully. "In an hour we shall be back here with your fortune. And then, perhaps, you may honour me with being my guest on the yacht, so that I can pilot you back between the New Hebrides, and in a day or two pick up the steamer which will take you to New Zealand. Am I impertinent, or would you mind telling me where you would go, once you find yourself back in England again?"
"To Lord and Lady Treehawk," the girl said. "I think I could trust him, don't you, Mr. Lovelace?"
"I should think so. If there is an honest man in the world—and in that respect I am on all fours with the late lamented Mr. Diogenes—then I should say that man is Jack Treehawk. By all means go back to him and tell him what has happened. Tell him anything so long as you keep my name out of it, and the names of my friends on the Nevermore.
They plunged on presently, with the Kanaka leading in the direction of the bungalow that they could see through the palms, one blaze of electric light. Then Lovelace, with his faithful band of followers behind him, stepped noiselessly on to the verandah and looked through the open windows into the dining-room beyond. There were only four men, all told, sitting in that luxurious apartment, with Hellmer, big and bloated and glistening in his thin vest and unstarched trousers, sprawling at the head of the long table, with Pardon, the Yankee skipper, Doggone, the Spaniard, and Lin Chin, the Chinaman, big and sturdy, yellow as a guinea, and wrinkled like the skin of a melon. On the table was a choice assortment of bottles of all sorts, and it was evident, from the noise and laughter that was going on, that the pearl dealers had been drinking heavily.
Upon this noisy, rowdy, blasphemous group Lovelace descended, bland, smiling, and immaculate, a monocle glistening in his eye, and his spotless white dandy clothes in fine contrast to the dingy garments of the rest.
"Salaam, sahibs," Lovelace said coolly. "I trust my presence is no intrusion."
Hellmer lifted his huge bulk and swore floridly,
"Buck o' the Islands!" he grunted. "Now, what in thunder are you doing here? This ain't no safe place for strangers, and so I tell you."
As the German spoke, he reached over in the direction of an electric bell on the wall. Lovelace put up his hand.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," he said quietly. "I am not armed myself, but there are others behind me in the darkness who are more fortunate. And if you want your sentries, then I tell you frankly they are otherwise engaged. Come, Herr Hellmer, there is no occasion to quarrel. I also have a fancy to do a little dabbling in pearls, and I think my financial credit is at least equal to that of the gentlemen I see around me. Won't you sit down?"
The question was almost a threat, and Hellmer, with an uneasy laugh, dropped into his chair again.
"Oh, all right," he muttered. "And if you like to bid for some of the pearls on yonder table—well, it is not for me to complain."
Lovelace's quick eye noted approvingly the mass of pearls laid out in glistening profusion on wash-leather bags lying on a little table. In any open market they would have realised at least a hundred thousand pounds, and one of them—three magnificent pearls fused together in the rough form of a cross—might easily have fetched a quarter that sum; and as Lovelace's eye fell upon it, his lips tightened and his brows gathered into an ominous frown.
"When are we going to begin?" he asked.
"Now," the German snapped. "We will take the first lot. Mr. Lin Chin, 2hat do you say?"
The Chinaman opened modestly, and by quick bids five thousand dollars was reached. Then the Spaniard bid another hundred, and Pardon, the American, capped it with fifty. But with every lot, as it came along, and with every bid, Lovelace went one better, until practically the whole of the glittering objects on the table had become his property at a price that staggered the local ring. They were not accustomed to do business with a man like this, and if looks could have killed the immaculate figure in the white ducks, he would have dropped dead at their feet. They were whispering ominously amongst themselves, and presently Lovelace noticed that a couple of revolvers lay on the table. It was the American who spoke first.
"I guess we're going to have no more of this," he said. "Say, stranger, what's the game? We haven't been running this show all these years to be bluffed by a guy like you. You are cramping the market. Clear whilst the going's healthy!"
Lovelace waved the suggestion aside pleasantly.
"I think not," he said. "Fact is, we're only just beginning. And I guess my money's as good as yours, though Mr. Hellmer will have to take my cheque."
"Nothing of the sort," the German growled. "Cheques don't go in Discovery Island. If you can't put down the dollars, then it's no deal."
"Nevertheless, you'll take my cheque," Lovelace said quietly. "Any other man in the islands would, as you know very well."
"Put up the big lot, Mr. Hellmer," the Chinaman said persuasively. "It was him what I come for. I'll offer you ten thousand dollee for um on the spot."
"I am going to have it for less than that," Lovelace said crisply—"in fact, I'm going to have it for nothing. That cluster of pearls belongs to me, and don't you forget it. Here, look at this, Mr. Hellmer. It's a photograph—a photograph of that cluster of pearls taken eighteen months ago by the late Antoine Lesterre, and shown to me by him on Loyalty Island. He'd only just found it, and because he wanted to buy a new steamer in a hurry, and hadn't the ready money on him, I advanced him ten thousand dollars on that pearl, and I've got his receipt for it in my pocket at this moment. If any of you blackguards like to see it, here it is."
The little group round the long table shuffled uneasily. They knew bluff when they saw it, but there was no bluff here, as every one of those hardened ruffians knew only too well. Hellmer boiled over, furious and foaming.
"You lie, you dog, you lie!" he hissed. "If that is so, why was the pearl not delivered to you?"
"It would have been if you hadn't murdered the owner in cold blood," Lovelace said coolly. "You came here broke and penniless, hunted from one island to another, hated and feared by every fellow-scoundrel in the Coral Seas, and Antoine Lesterre gave you a roof and work to do. And when the time came, you collected those half dozen ruffians of yours from New Caledonia, and shot your benefactor down as he sat at the table where you are sitting now. You can't deny it, and, even if you did, my proofs are beyond question. And now you know. All those pearls there belong to me—every one of them. Not that I am going to keep them—I shall merely hold them in trust for the daughter of the man whom you treated so vilely, the girl who has so long been a prisoner on this island. I am sorry to disappoint you, gentlemen, but disappointment is the common lot of all of us, and, besides, I have behind me an argument which you will appreciate, the only argument that goes in the Coral Seas—the logic of force. And now, you cold-blooded murderer, what are you going to do? What have you got to say?"
The big German was saying nothing. His great, bloated face wet and ghastly, and his huge limbs trembling with fear, he rose to his feet and backed steadily away from the table in the direction of the desk that stood in the angle of the wall. Just for a moment Lovelace could not quite comprehend what was going on, till he saw the German turn with a swiftness almost incredible for one of his bulk, and a second later the Englishman had a vision of the blue rim of a revolver in the direct line of his head. It had all happened as quickly as a flash of lightning, but out there in the velvet darkness someone, looking into the blazing room, had been quicker still. Before the German could crook his finger iu the trigger, there was a little whiplike crack and a tiny spit of flame from the gloom, and the big German collapsed like some great empty sack on the floor. He lay there quite dead, with a neat little blue mark plumb in the centre of his great beetling forehead.
The three men sitting round the table stirred uneasily, but none of them moved. It was up to them to take no hand in the game, and as the American muttered in his beard, "it was no funeral of his." The German had been fool enough to try force in the face of a superior foe, and he had paid the penalty accordmg to the unwritten law of the island. It was the inevitable end of all of them, the one sure thing they had to look forward to, and in all probability they were safe enough if they played the game according to the recognised formula. It was the American who spoke first.
"Waal, I guess he asked for that, Mr. Lovelace," he said. "It was bound to come sooner or later, and, anyways, it was a neat shot. If you'll kindly untie one of them guards, I guess I'll be getting back to my boat."
There was nothing more to be said or done, there was no further comment on what was, after all, the commonplace of the islands. Lovelace called his men in and gave them the necessary instructions. And then, as if he had been no better than a dead dog, three of the boat's crew picked up the carrion lying on the floor and took it out and buried it. Lovelace gathered up the pearls from the table and shovelled them carelessly into his pocket. Then he turned the lights out in the bungalow, and, with a friendly Kanaka to guide them, made his way back in the direction of the hut where Vivette was awaiting him.
"We have been quite successful," he explained, "and all that remains to you is now in my pocket. You will be troubled no more with Hellmer. He tried treacherously to shoot me, but one of my crew was a bit too previous for him. We buried him half an hour ago. And now, my dear young lady, if you are quite ready, we will get back to the Nevermore."
The golden days went on for a week or more, as the Nevermore swam in an azure sea through the New Hebrides in the direction of Loyalty Island. And day by day, until the mail steamer was sighted, Lovelace sat on deck talking to his fair companion, who listened as Desdemona listened to Othello, oft-times with grateful tears in her eyes. And then at length, when the steamer had been sighted, and Vivette's belongings had been put on board, she stood by the ladder with her hand in Lovelace's for the last time.
"I can never thank you," she said. "Ah, what a friend you have been to me! When I think that I am leaving the Nevermore for ever, and that I shall not see you again, I could sit down and cry my heart out!"
"Dear lady," Lovelace said, as he stood by the side with his hat in his hand, "dear lady, no woman has ever shed tears for me. And, besides, it is no very far cry to London."
"I regard that as a promise," the girl said, with shining eyes. "Not to-morrow, perhaps, but some day."
"He'll keep it," Drake chuckled. "He never broke a promise to a woman yet."