Published in The Windsor Magazine, Vol LII, Jun 1920, pp 88-94

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2014
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JUST at that particular stage in its interesting career, Andrew Nulty's ship was known as the Bonny Lomond, a name which was not only picturesque, but just as good for business purposes as any other. Not that Lloyd's knew anything about it, or cared, for that matter, because the Bonny Lomond was not insured or ever likely to be. That would be almost impossible in the case of a boat that changed its name almost as often as a politician changes his opinions. And she was cosmopolitan, too, in the matter of the flag she carried, chameleon-like as to her coat, and catholic as to her funnels. In other words, she was a freebooter of the seas, a shy and modest craft, keeping as far as possible out of the main ocean tracks, and picking up a handsome living by divers means which it is just as well not to look too closely into.

She wasn't particularly pretty, either, but she was fast, and that was the great virtue in Andrew Nulty's eyes, because, you see, there were times when an extra knot or two an hour made all the difference between imprisonment and freedom. She was a blundering-looking craft, ugly and bull-nosed, but her engines were a dream. They were compound engines of the turbine type, and nothing finer had ever been turned out on the Clyde.

Now, Andrew Nulty knew something about machinery, as all Scotsmen do, and he had picked up those engines dirt cheap from a small manufacturer who had gone hopelessly bankrupt in the making of them. With a little more capital the inventor might have been a pioneer and a millionaire; but "the little more" was lacking in his case, whisky was cheap on the Clyde, and he had gone under, as many a man of his type has done before. So the engines found their way into the Bonny Lomond—then called the Robbie Burns—and Nulty had set out for the North Pacific to gratify a dazzling predatory dream which had obsessed him for many a long day.

To put it briefly, he meditated a dash on the most strictly preserved piece of water in the world. He wasn't going to fish for whales or tarpons, but for pearls in that favoured spot which, under the protection of the Japanese Government, had been leased, for some years before the War, to the inevitable German syndicate. And the mere fact that the Japanese had taken over the concession, and had closed the whole business down for the present, did not render the task any the less diflicult. These seas were patrolled by a Japanese gunboat, and, to add to the difficulty, Andrew Nulty was well enough known in those waters—known, indeed, a good deal more than he was respected.

He was not particularly afraid of being sent incontinently to the bottom, because on more than one occasion he had been made use of by the Secret Services of both Japan and England. For Nulty was a real patriot, and was always ready to put his private interests on one side where the needs of his country were concerned. And so occasionally he had carried important papers between Japan and Hong Kong and other international ports. But the old Adam was strong in him, he was a born poacher, and the lure of the illicit was irresistible. So he completed his arrangements in England, after a short time in the neighbourhood of Birmingham, after which he put boldly out to sea, in defiance of U-boats, and in the course of time reached the vantage ground, where, without delay, he set to work.

With the aid of a dozen or so of native divers, whom he paid extravagantly and treated handsomely, he found himself at the end of the month with something like eight hundred pearls of various sizes and values. And during the whole of this time he had never seen even the nose of a gunboat. But Nulty had counted on this; he knew perfectly well that the Japanese Navy had its hands full, and he knew, too, that the real danger would begin when the Bonny Lomond turned her bows to the open sea. For Nuity was no fool, he had no illusions, and he knew perfectly well that one or two of his divers, who had already left him with their pockets full, would be pretty certain to talk. But that was all in the day's work.

And so he sat on the deck of his ship, giving directions, and indulging from time to time in those whisky orgies which were his one weakness and a charm that he could never resist for long. He would bewail his backsliding afterwards in choice jeremiads (culled from a rich Presbyterian vocabulary, reminiscent of the time when he had attended the Wee Free kirk at least twice on a Sunday—a kind of sackcloth and ashes business that did nobody any harm, and certainly was powerless to check the next outburst when it was due. So he sat and prayed and smoked and drank, while the gleaming booty was piling up in the safe in the cabin, and yearned piously that he might find himself, without mishap, well out into the Pacific.

He lingered there as long as he dared, backing his luck for all it was worth till the end of the third week, when he paid off his divers and grubbed up the anchor. Then, with a fair wind behind him, and something like ten thousand pounds' worth of loot in the cabin, he turned his nose in the direction of Hong Kong, where he knew a dignified Chinaman of the mandarin class, who was prepared to take the pearls off his hands at a fair price.

The engines were working well, the weather was fine, and the end of the week ought, with any luck, to see the successful termination of the adventure. Nulty's spirits rose accordingly, and the whisky correspondingly went down into the bulb of the barometer, so to speak. Nulty was on deck, dreaming those dreams of his, just pleasantly drunk and caring nothing what happened, when presently he noticed a smudge of black smoke on the horizon, and shook his head sapiently.

He gave his orders quickly enough, too, and the Bonny Lomond went about on a wide tack as fast as those wonderful engines would carry her. But, in spite of everything, the black smudge on the horizon became more pronounced, and presently a couple of funnels lifted themselves ominously over the rim of the horizon.

"Ah, weel, the Lord's will be done!" Nulty ejaculated piously, "It seems to me, Andrew, my man, that yon's a gunboat, and, if I'm no mistaken, it's the Fan Tan."

Now, Andrew Nulty was not mistaken. It was the Fan Tan, picking him up hand over fist, and evidently meaning business. There were reasons, too, why Nulty would have preferred an interview with any other unit of the Japanese Imperial Navy. In the first place, the commander of the gunboat was personally acquainted with the wily Scotsman—indeed, they had transacted several pieces of business together, designed for the discomfiture of the wily Hun. Therefore it would be useless for Nulty to assume innocence, or to pretend that he was in those private seas entirely by accident. Indeed, the Bonny Lomond reeked of pearl-fishing; there were signs and portents everywhere which would be as so much open print to the commander of a gunboat stationed in those seas with the one object of keeping pearl poachers at a respectable distance. Also it would be futile to deny the fact that the spoil was on board. Any attempt in that direction would inevitably send the Bonny Lomond to the bottom without decent delay or benefit of clergy. And the fact that Nulty had been engaged more than once on Government service would not help him, either. As a Government official he simply did not exist. He was a number, a unit, anything that didn't count, and if he got into trouble now, he knew perfectly well that there would be no questions asked in the House of Commons in his interests.

So there was only one thing for it—to trust to his good luck and the speed of his engines, and the amazing fortune that had stood him in good stead all his life. And so for the next two or three hours he ran for it, hoping against hope, and cursing himself with lurid quotations from the Pentateuch. But all in vain. Just at sundown there came a little puff and something like a ball of cotton-wool from the bows of the gunboat, and a second later the aft funnel lurched forward and fell overboard. Then there came a second shot that just skimmed the bows of the Bonny Lomond, and, so to speak, Nulty held up his hands. A quarter of an hour later a dapper little man, looking amazingly like an English naval officer, stepped on board and greeted Nulty pleasantly enough.

"Good evenin' to ye, Captain Shinto," Nulty said. "It's lookin' for me you perhaps may be."

The little man grinned amiably.

"Glad to meet you again," he said in excellent English. "I have been looking for you a long time. Is it that you are particularly dull this evening, or is it perhaps that old enemy of yours?"

Nulty shook his head dolefully. He knew perfectly well what the little Jap was alluding to.

"Ah, weel," he said, "why is it that a man will put an enemy in his mouth to steal away his brains?"

"Oh, come off it," Shinto said. "That'll do. Now let's get on to business. I think you and I understand one another pretty well, Nulty."

Nulty shook his head again. He knew only too well that this smiling antagonist understood him all right—indeed, they had been acquaintances for many years. He knew that Captain Shinto had been at school in England; he had met him ages ago, when he was working as an engineer on the Clyde, and there had been one encounter of not too friendly a nature during the three years that Shinto had been in the R.N.R. And then, again, they had met recently on business of national importance.

"I am listening to you, Captain," he said, "and I'm not so far gone with whusky as all that. And I can't help it, ye ken. When I put that enemy in my mouth—"

"Well, it's not likely to make much difference to your brains, anyway," Shinto said. "Now, where's the stuff?"

"I'm no understanding you now," Nulty prevaricated. "What stuff might ye be askin' after?"

"There, that'll do," the other smiled. "You've been up the Gulf yonder for nearly a month. Why, you've actually been employing some of my own divers! I couldn't make up my mind what mischief the blackguards were up to, but I knew they were after no good. So, when they came back, I made inquiries, and heard all about a boat called the Bonny Lomond. I hadn't heard of her before, but I had heard of Captain Nulty and the steamer called the Robbie Burns. So I put two and two together, and—well, here we are."

"So I see," said Nulty guardedly.

"Now, look here, I've got no time to waste. As a matter of fact, I ought not to be here at all. Does it occur to you that I might have sunk you without warning?"

"I suppose you might," Nulty admitted.

"Might? It was my plain duty to do so. You know perfectly well you'd no business in these waters without a permit, and if you can show me such a thing, I shall be extremely surprised. You and I are old friends, and I wanted to give you a chance. Done pretty well, haven't you?"

"I'll no deceive you," Nulty said, with an engaging attempt at candour. "I've done very well indeed. I suppose I've got a matter of eight hundred pearls altogether. And why not? They don't belong to you, and they don't belong to your Government, either. It's spoiling the dirty Hun I've been."

"Here, let's go down below and talk it over," Shinto said. "I'm not here to argue international politics with you. What I ought to do is to take your boat into the nearest harbour and confiscate her, and you know what that means."

Nulty nodded. He knew only too well what that meant. It would mean the loss of his ship and those beloved engines, plus a few years' imprisonment in a Japanese gaol. But there was something in Shinto's manner that told him that the latter was not likely to proceed to this extreme.

"I'm glad you understand," the Japanese officer said. "Now, we'll just step down into the cabin, and you can hand over the keys of the safe to me. I'll take care of those pearls. And a precious fine get-out it is for you. But you've got to earn your liberty."

With an air of pious resignation to the will of an inscrutable Providence, Nulty led the way down to his cabin and handed over the keys of the safe. He sighed dolefully enough as he saw the result of a month's labour and the outlay of five hundred pounds stowed away in the pockets of his companion. Then he quoted an appropriate text or two regarding the laying up of treasure upon earth, and hospitably produced the whisky, which Captain Shinto did not disdain.

"Well, that's all over," he said, "and a sorrowful day for Andrew Nulty it's been. Still, it might have been worse, Captain, it might have been worse."

"You're right there," Shinto smiled. "I might have sent you to the bottom. But I've other uses for you. Now listen. I'll send some of my men along in about half an hour to rig up another funnel for you, and then you'll go as far as the south point of Balen Isles, and wait there till further orders. Take these papers. Put them somewhere where they'll be safe, and do exactly what I tell you. In a way, it's rather a godsend for me to meet you like this, because it's almost imperative that I should be in two places at once. As you say, I have other fish to fry, and I can fry them in a few hours now. That's why I didn't sink you. Even a Scotch pearl poacher has his uses."

"Ah, sheer Providence," Nulty said.

"Something like it, perhaps. But I've no time to waste talking. You know exactly what to do. About three days from this you will be spoken by another Japanese boat, and someone will come aboard you with another packet. And when you've got the two you'll put into Hong Kong and deliver those envelopes to an address which shall be given you. And I think, on the whole, you've got out of it very well."

"It might be worse," Nulty said, "and it might be better. If I'd pulled up anchor last night, we might never have met at all, and that's no pleasant thought."

"Ah, you never know your luck," Shinto said. "If you hadn't met me, you would have run smack into one of our flotillas before morning, and what would have become of the Bonny Lomond then? Don't forget the wireless."

"I hadn't forgotten it," Nulty said. "It's been in my mind this many a day to have a little installation of that same wireless myself. And it's very hard for a poor man to get an honest living since yon mon Marconi came along. And I'm thinking that I understand ye."

A few minutes later and this curious pair of associates parted with mutual expressions of good-will, and as soon as the repairs were finished, Nulty set the head of the Bonny Lomond due south, and proceeded on his errand in a frame of mind that was somewhat complicated. True, he had lost a fortune and was the poorer by five hundred pounds in hard cash, but then he had saved his ship and those beloved engines of his, and, at any rate, he would be well paid for the delivery of those dispatches. So, like the philosopher he was, he turned his back upon his regrets and the key resolutely on the cupboard where he kept his whisky. For he was a real patriot, and there would be no more of that, at any rate, till he had got rid of the envelope which Captain Shinto had entrusted to his care.

The fourth day found him at his destination, where he lingered a few hours, until he was boarded by a nondescript sort of craft that brought him another batch of papers and a set of instructions in the shape of a typewritten letter. No word passed on either side, and the whole transaction occupied only a few minutes; and this being done, the Bonny Lomond went on her way again, and in the fulness of time put into Hong Kong. There Nulty delivered up his papers, after which he let himself go, and indulged in a prolonged orgy that lasted him for the best part of a week. Then he pulled himself together, had a bath, dressed himself all in his best, and proceeded to go ashore in a stern and chastened frame of mind—a thing to which he was accustomed after one of his periodical backslidings.

He came at length to rather an imposing house at the back of Hong Kong, where he gave a fictitious name and demanded an audience with one Lo Ben. Mr. Lo Ben not only happened to be at home, but would be quite pleased to see his visitor, whom he welcomed cordially, not to say effusively. It was evident that these two were old acquaintances, and they sat down together presently over a cup of tea and a cigarette, and by easy stages led up to business.

"Now, what can I do for you?" the Chinaman said in his quaint English. "Is it money you need?"

"Who doesn't?" Nulty asked. "But. it's no the bawbees this time I'm after, my friend."

The Chinaman elevated his eyebrows.

"No?" he asked politely. "Then I have been—what is the word you use?—misinformed."

"Ah, there's little you don't know in these parts. But you're wrong for once, Lo Ben. I have something to sell."

"The pearls? Pearls, do you mean? Why, my agents told me—"

"Oh, I can guess what your agents told you," Nulty grinned. "They said I was boarded by a Japanese gunboat. So I was. You probably heard that I had to make a very heavy sacrifice to save my ship. And so I had. But there are more ways than one of throwing dust in the eyes of the heathen. Now, look here, Lo Ben, would you like to put a price on this lot?"

With this, Nulty dived his hand in his pocket and produced a wash-leather bag, the contents of which he spread out before the admiring eyes of Lo Ben. They lay there on the table in all their gleaming beauty, whilst the Celestial fingered them with a reverent touch.

"But how did you manage?" he asked.

Nulty waved the question impatiently aside.

"Oh, never mind that," he said. "I did manage. And you know where those pearls come from. There's nothing like them in any other part of the world. They're the genuine article right enough, and I'm after asking nine thousand for them."

It was a long and complicated deal, invoking protestations from one side and extracts from Holy Writ on the other, but it ended at length—that titanic contest between a Scotsman and a Chinaman— with the interchange of a piece of paper that represented something within a shade of what Nulty had asked.

"And now," said the Chinaman,—tell me."

"Well, it was like this," Nulty explained. "I knew the risk I was taking. Then, ye see, the Bonny Lomond is well known in these parts to the Japanese Navy, and there was a fine chance of my not gettin' sunk if I could only break away with the goods. And that's where the real trouble began. I did get away with the goods, but my old friend Captain Shinto, he overhauled me, and I had to throw up my hands. So he takes away all the pearls and gives me some dispatches to bring here, which I delivered all right, and that's to the good. But, ye see, Lo Ben, I was expecting some visitation of Providence of this lamentable kind, and I thinks to myself that Heaven helps those that helps themselves. Did ye ever hear tell of a town called Birmingham?"

"I handle goods from there," Lo Ben said.

"Ah, weel, in that city of wickedness they make all sorts of things, and all sorts of imitations—imitation pearls. And now, Lo Ben, ye know all about it."

"Oh, then, you—"

"Went to Birmingham and laid out a few pounds of good money on a lot of imitation pearls in the rough state that were manufactured on purpose for me. And that's the stuff that Captain Shinto took out of my cabin with him. Ay, it is very hard to get the best of a Scotsman when he's real bent on wickedness, Lo Ben, and don't you forget it."