Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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JIM DYSART stood in the bow of the Dolphin. The schooner lay over so that he had to cling to the rail and at every plunge the spray splashed over him like a shower bath, soaking him to the skin. Jim did not care, for the water was warm as new milk, and he had nothing on but a singlet and a pair of blue dungaree trousers. His clean English skin was browning under the blazing sun of the South Pacific and his grey eyes shone with sheer joy.
Jim was just fourteen and this was his very first day in the Dolphin, and in spite—yes, in spite of everything, he was thrilled. The pale blue sky with its hard white clouds, the immense expanse of sea bluer than the sky, the dark forms of the porpoises looking as if moulded in shiny black leather, keeping station in front of the bows, the deep note of the wind in the rigging—oh, it was all just what he had read of, only better.
"Liking it, Jim?" The boy turned quickly to meet the smiling eyes of his elder brother Don. Don himself was barely nineteen, yet in everything except years a man. Just on six feet tall, he was already notable for his great strength and fine seamanship. The chief difference between him and Jim was that his eyes were blue and that they had not the touch of steel which was to be seen in the younger brother's grey ones.
"Liking it!" repeated Jim. "It would be perfect if only Dad were with us."
Don nodded, and for a moment the two stood silent.
"You really believe he's better?" said Jim at last.
"I'm sure he is," replied Don. "If the doctor had not said he was out of danger I wouldn't have started. You can trust Dr. Jarvis to look after him."
"Yes, he's a real good sort," said Jim slowly, "but, Don"—he paused and looked hard at his brother—"what was he telling you yesterday?"
"Go on," said Jim. "Did he mean that Dad would never get well again?"
Don looked startled.
"No, not that, Jim; He can get well, only he'll have to have an operation first."
Jim paled. "What, and we've left him to have it alone?"
"No; he can have it yet," Don answered hastily. "Jarvis couldn't do it, anyhow. Dad must go to Sydney."
Jim looked grave. "But that will cost a heap of money, and now that the plantation has gone up how can we afford it?"
"Jarvis told me that the whole business would run us into about five hundred pounds," said Don.
For a moment Jim looked dismayed, but only for a moment. "It's a lot of money," he said, "but we're going to make it."
"That's the notion," agreed Don. "But we must make it quickly, Jim. Three months is the limit. If we can't do it in that time we shall have to sell the Dolphin."
Jim's face changed. "Can we make it?" he asked curtly.
"We'll have a good try," replied Don. "I've a fine cargo aboard, and I'm going to work the Solomons."
Jim understood. He knew the risk as well as Don, for the Solomon Islanders are still almost as fierce and uncivilised as in the old days.
It was a big responsibility that fate had thrown on the shoulders of these two youngsters. Their father owned a coconut plantation on the coast of New Guinea, but a month before the opening of this story a hurricane had ruined it. That was not the worst, for a tree had fallen on Mr. Dysart, breaking a leg and injuring him internally.
Don had got him aboard the Dolphin and taken him straight to Thursday Island, where there was a hospital, and wired for Jim, who was at school in Sydney.
Jim was frowning. "What about pearls?" he asked.
Don smiled. "Those days are over, Jim. Every pearl lagoon is charted and leased. We might get some shell, but pearls—no."
"I was thinking about Seward," said Jim.
Don nodded. "The American, the millionaire who's crazy about pink pearls. Yes, the story's all over the Pacific, but old pearlers say it wouldn't matter what money he offered, there aren't as many pink pearls in the world as he wants."
Jim sighed. "You ought to know, Don, but if we could only get one or two everything would be all right."
"I think we'll trust to straight trading, old chap," said Don.
Jim did not answer. He was staring out across the sea.
"What's that?" he asked sharply, pointing to a dark dot which swung on the blue waves far out to leeward. Don took a pair of glasses from a case slung over his shoulder and, bracing himself against the swing of the schooner, focused them.
"A canoe," he said presently, "a native canoe. Looks to be empty." The canoe rose on a roller and Don got a better view. "No, there's a man in it. Can't tell whether he's dead or alive. Hi, Motu"—he turned toward the wheelhouse, where a big brown man was steering—"let her off three points."
Motu, a quiet, capable fellow who hailed from Tonga, obeyed. Don himself slackened off the sheet and the schooner headed straight for the derelict. Jim stood gazing eagerly at the tiny craft tossing to the send of the seas.
"It's a native," he said presently. "And, Don, I'm afraid he's dead."
"Starved, by the look of him, poor beggar. Yes, he's dead enough. Still, we'd better make quite certain. Throw her up into the wind, Motu."
With sails shaking the schooner lay tossing motionless, and Don, leaning over the low rail, caught hold of the canoe and drew it alongside. Then with hardly an effort he lifted the wasted body of its occupant aboard and laid it on the deck.
It was a brown-skinned man quite young, and once, no doubt, a fine, powerful fellow, but now hardly more than a bag of bones. His only clothes were a pair of ragged trousers, and the skin of his face and the upper part of his body was bleached and cracked with salt water. His appearance was so terrible it made Jim feel ill. But Don had his ear against the man's chest and in a moment looked up. "His heart's beating, Jim. Call Chi Ling. We may be able to save him after all."
JIM was up at five next morning yet, early as it was, Don was already on deck.
"Is he alive?" was Jim's first question.
"Alive! Bless you, yes! My word, Jim, these natives are wonderful! He told Motu he'd been ten days in that canoe, with nothing but two coconuts."
"Did you find out who he is?"
"Only that his name is Parami and that he's been a schooner boy. We'll let him sleep, and by tomorrow I expect he'll be able to tell us all about himself."
Don was right, but even he was surprised when next morning he and Jim found Parami on deck. He was still little better than a skeleton, but his skin had lost its dead look, and his eyes were bright and shining with gratitude. The man fumbled in the waistband of his ragged trousers and took out an old pill box.
"I thank you much, boss," he said in very fair English. "I give you this, please, because you so kind."
Don knew he must not refuse the gift whatever it was. But when he opened the box a look of startled amazement crossed his face.
"Pearls!" he said sharply. "Pink pearls!" He turned out two pearls into the palm of his hand. They were small, but very perfect and glistened with a delicate, rosy pink. "Where did you get these?" he asked eagerly.
"They come Aroa," answered Parami.
"Aroa—where's that?" Jim asked of his brother.
Don looked puzzled. "I've heard of it, but I don't know just where it is."
"You get map. I show you," said Parami eagerly.
Jim fetched a chart and Parami ran his thin fingers North- West, past San Cristoval, into the great archipelago north of the Solomons. His finger stopped at a small island. "Him Aroa," he said.
"But there's no lagoon there," said Don, frowning.
"Yes, boss, but you no see him from sea. Him inside island."
Jim's eyes shone as he looked up at his brother. "An unknown lagoon—and pink pearls." His voice-trembled with excitement, but Don shook his head.
"Too good to be true, Jim."
"Him true," asserted Parami. "Plenty oysters, plenty pearl, plenty red pearl."
"And no one fishing it?" asked Don incredulously.
"No one can fish there," said the native. Jim stared at the man. "Shark, he stop them," explained Parami. "Big shark. No one can kill him."
Jim and Don exchanged glances. That one shark should keep pearl fishers out of a lagoon seemed simply a stupid lie.
"Why not?" asked Don.
"Him too big, boss," was the startling reply. "Him big as schooner."
Now the Dolphin was sixty feet long, and the idea of a shark of such a size brought a smile to Don's face.
"Some shark!" grinned Jim. "I say Don, what about it?"
"I'm tempted," said Don. He turned to Parami.
"You could show us the way into this lagoon?" he asked.
A scared look crossed Parami's face.
"It no good, boss. I tell you true, him, shark tabu. No one can kill him."
"But has anyone tried?"
"Cap'n Mallory, him boss of schooner Kiwi. He try. Shark eat three men, then he go 'way to get help, but he never get there. Him Kiwi run on rock off Guadalcanal, and niggers get him. I tell you, him shark tabu."
"What's he mean, Don?" asked Jim.
"That this particular shark is bewitched, or perhaps I should say protected by some sort of hoky-poky."
"That wouldn't protect him from modern rifle bullets," said Jim.
"Takes a lot of lead to kill a big shark, Jim, and personally I believe in a big hook and a chunk of pork."
"Then you're game to try it?" said Jim.
"Yes," said his brother gravely. "I'll plot a course at once for Aroa Island."
Parami of course understood Don's decision, and a very troubled look came into his dark eyes.
"It no good, boss," he said unhappily. "I wish I no told you. You be sorry if you go."
"Never mind, Parami," said Don kindly. "You've warned us, so you won't need to blame yourself if anything does happen." Then he put the schooner on her new course.
If there was any hoodoo it did not work at once, for the Dolphin took half a gale with her and, racing past numbers of dark wooded islands, crossed safety a stretch of sea sown with ugly reefs, and on the sixth afternoon came within sight of an island which Parami said was Aroa.
It was a queer-looking place, for one end was low and the other mountainous. But there were cliffs all round and no sign of a harbour. Thick forest covered it right up to the hilltops, and as the schooner approached smoke was seen rising on the higher ground.
"Natives," said Don gravely. "We'll have to watch our step." He called Parami, who came up quickly. The man had gained a stone in weight. No one would have recognised him for the shrunken wreck of a week ago.
"Do you know the way in?" Don asked.
Parami pointed to a great rock which stood up like a monument on the rim of the cliff. "Him right mark," he said, "but reefs pretty bad."
"Then we'll go in under power," said Don, and gave orders to get the sails down and start up the petrol engine.
Leaving Chi Ling to look after this and putting Motu in the bow as look-out, he himself took the wheel and with Parami beside him felt his way through the reefs. Presently a narrow channel opened between low cliffs of dark-coloured rock, and passing through these they found themselves in a large land-locked lagoon about a mile across. On the far side was a beach of white sand. The water lay still as glass under the setting sun, reflecting its wild and beautiful surroundings as in a great mirror.
"What a topping place!" exclaimed Jim in delight. He turned to Parami. "Is this where your shark lives?" he asked with a laugh. Parami did not laugh.
"Him live here," he stated gravely. "You see soon."
Don's first care was to anchor. Then they tidied up the ship, and presently went to supper. Chi Ling was a good cook, and the brothers sat down to a capital stew of tinned meat and vegetables, followed by a dish of peaches and custard. Just as they were finishing they felt the schooner jar as if she had struck a rock.
Both raced for the deck. Motu and Kupa met them at the hatch. Their faces were grey with terror.
They looked over the rail and saw directly beneath the ship a pale, luminous shape almost as long as the schooner herself. Every bit of the monster's shape was outlined in flickering fire.
Jim turned to his brother. "It can't be real!" he said hoarsely.
DON craned over the rail gazing at the vast, shimmering form which hung beneath the schooner.
"What a brute," he said. "I didn't believe there was such a thing as that in all the Seven Seas."
Parami spoke. "I tell you true, boss; you believe Parami now?"
The man was still shivering with fear, yet his voice had a touch of triumph in its tone.
"Yes, you were right, Parami. And as you were right about the shark I'm beginning to think you may be right, too, about the pearls."
Parami paid no attention to the last part of Don's remark. His eyes were on the shark.
"You seen him now, boss. That enough. Now you go 'way before he get you."
"Oh, he's not going to get us," Don answered with a smile. "On the contrary, we're going to get him—and the pearls."
Jim broke in.
"Now's our chance. We've a harpoon aboard. Shall I get it, Don?"
"No good, Jim," replied his brother. "We can't reach him."
"Can't reach him!" repeated Jim. "Why he's only just under the surface."
"He's under our keel and we draw seven feet. There's no touching him with a harpoon."
"Then what about the bait—the pork you talked of?" asked Jim eagerly.
"We'll try that tomorrow."
"Why not now?"
"My dear chap"—Don was a little impatient—"this isn't a mackerel or a cod we're going to angle for. It will take the lot of us half a day to fix up the tackle."
"Oh," said Jim rather abashed. "I didn't think of that. But we are going to get him?"
"We're going to do our worst," said Don. "You can come down now and help to sort out some line."
The amount of rope which Don thought necessary surprised Jim, so did the size of the shark hook, and of the iron chain attached to it. They worked for a couple of hours, then Don suggested that Jim should turn in. Jim looked doubtful.
"Think it's all right, Don? Somehow, I don't much fancy sleeping with only an inch or so of planking between me and that awful beast."
"You'll be all serene," Don assured him. "The beggar won't meddle with the ship and by tomorrow night—"
He paused with a smile and Jim laughed.
Jim did not sleep as well as usual that night. Twice he was wakened by the whole ship quivering as the monster beneath rubbed his barnacled back against the keel. He was up before dawn to find Motu taking the watch.
"Him gone," said Motu quietly, and sure enough when Jim looked over the side there was no sign of the giant shark.
"Gone to look for breakfast, I suppose," said Jim. "It must take something to fill a creature like that."
The Sun rose in crimson glory and presently the day breeze began to ruffle the surface of the lagoon. Chi Ling called all hands to breakfast, and afterwards Don and Jim completed the tackle. One end of the heavy line was fastened to the base of the mast but Don arranged a spring to take the strain. He sharpened the point of the hook, then he broke a cask of pork and, choosing the biggest piece, hung it out in the sun.
"Sharks like their food a bit high," he told Jim.
It was dinner-time when they had finished their preparations. Afterwards there was nothing to do, and Jim looked longingly at the white beach. But Don, flatly refused leave to go ashore.
"It's not the shark so much as the natives," he said. "By this time every soul on the island knows we're here."
"I haven't set eyes on one yet," grumbled Jim.
"All the more reason for caution," Don told him. "I'd much sooner see them come down to the beach, but I've no doubt that at this very minute there are dozens of them hidden among those trees, ready to swoop down on a boat the minute it reaches the shore. The chances are they'd come out and tackle us if it wasn't for the shark."
Jim frowned. "Then if we kill the shark we're finishing our policeman," he said.
"There's something in that, Jim; but on the other hand we can't try for the pearls until we've got rid of the shark. And as there are no canoes on the beach I don't think we need worry."
Jim went to the side.
"I wonder where the beggar is," he said.
"Not far off," Don told him. "When the breeze dies down you'll see him again."
Don was right. Towards five the wind fell, and as the wave ripples smoothed out there was the shark lying close under the lee of the schooner, a monstrous, slate-coloured shadow, sinister and mysterious. The whole crew leaned over the rail staring at the giant which lay motionless, its cold dull eyes peering up at them, dark as pools of ink. Once it rolled slightly, showing that its underside was almost as white as snow.
Jim raised his head and looked at his brother. "What sort of shark is it, Don?"
"I don't know. I never saw anything like it. I think it must be a survival of some prehistoric sort. Did you see his teeth when he rolled?"
"We'll see them a bit better," said Don, and, going across to the harness cask, took a chunk of pork and pitched it over the side. Instantly the surface broke and a monstrous blunt head rose into view. Jaws armed with a triple row of gleaming white fangs opened like the leaves of a double door, then closed with a terrifying clash. The head vanished, the surface stilled again, and the foam floated away in snowy patches.
"Rose like a trout," said Jim presently. He was rather white, but his voice was steady. "He's hungry all right."
"We'd better begin operations," he said. "There's not much more than an hour of daylight. Lend a hand with the tackle, Parami."
Parami's brown face had paled to a sickly ash colour. He was shaking in every limb.
"It no use, boss," he said earnestly. "We no catch him; he catch us."
Don saw that the man was really terrified.
"Don't worry, Parami," he said kindly. "We won't take any foolish risks. We can always cut the line if things get too hot."
Before Parami could say anything more Don got to work. He baited the hook with the great lump of pork and laid the line out so that it would run easily.
"Keep clear of it when it starts running out, Jim," he warned his brother. "If you got caught you'd be switched overboard in a second. Motu, you and Parami get up the anchor." He called Chi Ling and told him to go down and start the engine. "But don't switch on until you feel the schooner moving," he ordered.
Looking down, Jim could see the white sand of the bottom thirty feet below the schooner's keel and sea growths of wonderful shapes and colours shimmering in the depths. Don looked round.
"All clear," said Jim, and Don, lifting the baited hook in his strong hands, flung it over the side.
JUST as before, the shark shot like a trout to the surface, and the bait had hardly struck the water before the cavernous jaws gaped to receive it.
"He's got it," yelled Jim, and sprang aside in time to avoid a coil of rope which whizzed over the gunwale. The shark seemed to go straight to the bottom, but finding this useless came to the surface again, twisting, turning, lashing the smooth water to a boiling foam. His struggles were terrific.
"Look out! He's starting!" cried Jim as the shark, finding all its efforts vain, suddenly darted away. The thick rope raced out over the side with such speed that the gunwale actually smoked with the heat of its passage.
"He'll break it!" gasped Jim, for it looked as if no line made by man could withstand the shock that must come when the last coils left the barrel in which they were stowed. And break it must for a certainty but for the spring which Don had rigged. Even so, when the strain came the shock made the stout schooner shiver in every timber, then she shot forward across the lagoon as if towed by a powerful tug.
But Chi Ling had obeyed his orders and the engine started its sturdy chug. Don, who was at the wheel, put her head round and steered the schooner in the opposite direction to that in which the shark was towing her. Now began a terrible tug of war; on one side the schooner driven by her powerful motor-engine, on the other the giant shark mad with rage. For a few moments the schooner had the better, and Don headed her for the shore, but then the shark turned straight for the passage, and as the rope tightened the schooner began to move slowly backward.
Parami came up to Jim and his face was grey with fear. "I told you, boss. Him too strong for us," he said hoarsely.
"It's all right," Jim encouraged him. "He'll tire. The engine won't."
Such confidence was all very well, but there was no sign of the shark's tiring, and though the crew was turning at top speed the schooner was dragged steadily in the direction of the channel.
"How would it be to follow him out to sea?" Jim asked of Don; but Don shook his head.
"You're forgetting the reefs. We should go to smash for a certainty. No, Jim, we've got to keep him here in the lagoon."
The struggle went on. The shark seemed to think his one chance of victory was to get out of the lagoon, and with all the power of his mighty muscles he struggled to do so. Don tried a new scheme. He turned the schooner, raced her after the monster, then steered sharply to one side. As the line came taut again the huge sea beast rose to the surface, his great triangular back fin rising a good three feet above the water. Then, with a flick of his tremendous tail which sent the spray twelve feet into the air, he was down again, and the schooner swung behind him and shot towards the mouth of the channel.
Chi Ling rapidly reversed the engine, but the damage was done. The schooner towed far more easily bow than stern foremost, and it was quite clear that the shark was going to pull them into the channel.
There was silence for a little while the Dolphin, with her screw churning the water, was dragged slowly but surely towards the narrow mouth of the channel.
"Don," said Jim suddenly, "the natives are on the beach."
Don glanced round and saw that at least a hundred natives were down on the beach of the lagoon. All men, muscular, wild-looking fellow's. Their only garments were loin cloths of coconut fibre, and they carried clubs and spears. They were strangely quiet as they eagerly watched the battle between the ship and the sea beast.
"Surely they'll be glad it we can finish this brute," went on Jim.
"You never can tell," said Don. "If the shark is taboo the priests will be furious with anyone who meddle with it." He paused and glanced seaward again. A frown creased his forehead.
"We'll have to cut pretty soon, Jim."
"I know, but if we don't get the shark we lose the pearls," said Jim in dismay. "Won't the brute ever stop? He can't—" He broke off with a shout, "He's done! The line's gone slack."
"Done! Not a bit of it. The brute's turned!" cried Don. And almost as he spoke the strain came again, but now in the opposite direction. For some reason best known to himself the shark had turned and was heading right back into the lagoon. The trouble was that the schooner was already in the channel so that there was little room for her to turn. Don spun the wheel frantically, but his brown face whitened as he saw the bow of the Dolphin driving straight for the wall of rock which rose sheer out of the water hardly two ship lengths ahead. For a horrid moment it seemed as if nothing could save the little ship from driving bow on against the cliff.
Suddenly she stopped dead, and heeled terribly. A yell of terror came from Parami, for he was the first to see what had happened. The shark had dived back right under the schooner and fouled the line. Caught on the starboard gunwale it was dragging the schooner down so that, if it held, she must most certainly be capsized.
It was only a second before Don and Jim, too, realised the danger and both leaped forward. Don was quick, but Jim was even quicker. He reached the axe first, snatched it up and down came the keen blade on the thick cord, shearing it through with one blow. The end attached to the mast flew back with a hiss, and with a violent jerk the schooner righted. Then the screw, still reversed, drew her back from the cliff face into safety.
"Phew!" gasped Don. "I thought we were gone!"
"The shark is gone," said Jim.
JIM leaned over the rail and gazed down into the lucent depths of the lagoon where the pink and purple and yellow weeds bent to the faint pull of the tide, and fish of every colour of the rainbow flashed among them like birds of paradise.
"There's not a sign of the brute," he said unhappily.
"Can you wonder?" replied his brother. "He gave us a scare, but he got a worse one himself."
"Parami says he saw him at dawn," said Jim; "there was no sign of the hook."
"Well, he won't touch salt pork again. That's one thing sure," said Don with decision. "We can do nothing with him unless we can get some fresh meat as bait."
Jim turned and looked at his brother. "We can't get that unless we go ashore," he said. "And you won't let me do that."
Don shook his head.
"I dare not risk it," he said. "It's not our own skins I'm thinking of, it's Dad. If we lose our lives or the schooner what earthly chance has Dad got?"
"I know." Jim's voice was despairing.
"But if we can't get fresh bait we may as well give up."
"That's what I am thinking," Don answered.
"You can't," cried Jim, pointing downwards. "Look! The whole floor of the lagoon is simply paved with shell."
Don's eyes followed the direction of Jim's pointing finger. The schooner lay in water shallow enough to catch a glimpse of the white sand at the bottom, and in the small open spaces amid the tangle of weeds great oysters, the size of a plate, lay tilted edgeways. Even if there were no pearls here was a fortune in pearl shell.
"I know." Don's voice was almost as strained as Jim's. "But what's the use of it all if we can't take it back to Thursday Island? Be sensible, Jim."
"I'm trying to be. There are pigs ashore. Do let me go and shoot one."
But Don shook his head. "You don't know these natives as I do. You wouldn't have a show. The moment you were in the bush spears would simply rain on you. Even if we had twenty men we could not tackle the job with any chance of success."
"What about those fireworks?" asked Jim. "We have a case in the hold."
"I haven't forgotten those, but I don't see how they'd help. If we used them at all it would have to be at night, and you can't shoot pigs in the dark." He paused. "I can't see anything for it but to clear out."
"Wait another day," begged Jim. "Something may turn up."
"All right," said Don; "I'll give you a day, then if nothing happens I'm off to Malaita to try the trading. We must have that money as soon as we can get it. Now let's go to breakfast."
Later that morning Jim had a brain wave.
"Don," he said, "suppose we rig up a dummy to look like a diver and let it down."
Don frowned a little. "What's the good Of that?"
"To see if the brute will take any notice."
Don shrugged his shoulders. "You can try it if you like."
"I think it's worth trying," said Jim, and he set to work.
It was easy enough to fill a sack with rags and a few lumps of ballast and rig it up into some resemblance to a man. When it was ready Jim got Motu to help and they lowered the dummy on a thick rope over the side. It looked horribly human as it wobbled slowly down through the transparent water. Down it went all among the fairy forest of delicately-tinted sea growth, and the rainbow fish closed around it in shoals, full of curiosity. It reached the bottom and nothing happened.
"Him shark know too much," remarked Motu.
"All right, lug him up," said Jim.
The dummy was halfway back when it happened. A monstrous dark shadow came hurtling out of the distance, then stopped short and hung motionless a few yards from the dangling dummy.
"Pull softly," whispered Jim, his voice not quite steady.
The dummy rose past the great shark's head, and as it did so the giant shot forward. Jim fully thought he was going to seize the thing between his monstrous jaws, but instead he drove at it with mouth shut like a great battering ram. Jim felt the rasp as the brute's sandpaper hide caught the rope. Another moment, and the shark was gone, and the dummy swinging in the sand-clouded water.
"Him know too much," repeated Motu, and Jim had to agree.
After that there was nothing to be done and Jim mooned about, racking his brain for some plan, yet finding none. The sun blazed down like a burning-glass; the heat made his head swim, and at last he was driven to cover below the awning. And so the long day passed, and at supper that night Don and Jim talked, and Don said plainly that he intended to leave at daybreak. Jim groaned, but he did not object. He knew it was no use, and after all Don was not merely his brother, for he was also his skipper.
Jim slept badly that night, and was on deck before dawn. He looked over the side, but there was not light to see anything below the surface. And presently here was Don giving orders to Chi Ling, who was not only cook but engineer, to get the engine going. Kupi and Motu were ordered to get up the anchor. These preparations took some little time, and when they were finished and just as the engine began to throb, the great red sun rose over the dark woods of the island casting a crimson glow over the mirror-like surface of the lagoon. The head of the Dolphin turned towards the entrance of the channel, and she was actually moving when Jim gave a shout that startled everyone aboard.
"What's up?" demanded Don.
"There—on the beach!" Jim's voice was hoarse with excitement. "A pig!" Don turned and looked in the direction in which Jim was pointing.
"By Jove, you're right," he said in a tone of extreme astonishment.
"Then you'll wait," begged Jim. "You won't go yet?"
Don hesitated! "I don't know," he said doubtfully. "It may be a plant."
"Plant. Nonsense! Those natives are keen for us to catch the shark and that's why they've brought the pig and left it for us. Don, let me go and get it. I'll go alone."
"No you won't," snapped his brother. "You'll take Kupi, and Chi Ling and I will cover you with rifles."
JIM'S heart was beating rapidly as the boat approached the beach, but it was with excitement rather than fear. There was the pig evidently fresh killed, a fine fat young porker, and so far as Jim could see not a sign of any natives. But the bush was like a wall only thirty yards back from the water's edge, and Don had told him something of the way natives can hide unseen and rush out. It might be a trap.
As ordered, Jim stopped the boat about three lengths from the shore. Kupi held her with the oars while Chi Ling produced an automatic gun fully loaded and sat facing the beach with this formidable weapon ready in his hand. Jim, too, was armed with a pistol and he knew that Don was also covering him with a repeating rifle from the deck of the schooner. He felt fairly confident as he slipped overboard and waded ashore waist-deep through the warm water.
Nothing moved, yet he had an odd feeling that the bush was full of eyes as he went boldly towards the pig. He bent down and got it on his back. It was about all he could do to carry it, yet he had a comfortable feeling that its plump body was good protection from spears if any were to be thrown at him. Still nothing happened and he regained the boat. Chi Ling took the pig from him, Jim scrambled in, and they rowed hard for the schooner. Just as they got alongside Don's rifle began to crack.
"Be quick!" they heard him shout, and they flung the pig aboard and scrambled after it in a frantic hurry.
"What was it—natives?" gasped Jim breathlessly.
"Natives—no. It was the shark," replied Don curtly.
"Great snakes! Do you suppose he smelt the pig?"
"Most likely," said Don. "He meant to have the lot of you, and would if I hadn't been lucky enough to put a bullet in him just as he reached the surface."
"Have you killed him?"
"No such luck. It would take a cannon to do that. My word, but I had a fright. It's the last time I put a boat over while that terror is cruising the lagoon."
"Never mind," said Jim cheerfully.
"We've got the pig. Now let's rig up some fresh tackle."
"That's done," said Don. "We've spliced a new length on the old line, and got a fresh hook and chain. My only doubt is whether the wily old brute will take a bait again after his last experience."
"We can test him," Jim answered. "Now we've got a whole pig we can cut off a bit and try him with that."
"Good notion," agreed Don. "Chi, come and chop up this pig."
Chi nodded. He brought a chopper and deftly divided the carcass. One half he laid aside, the other half he divided into two.
"Shark take numbel one piece," he remarked. "We eat othel pieces."
"Roast pork," said Jim, smacking his lips.
The tackle was soon ready, but there was no sign of the shark. The day was strangely still, for the usual trade wind had died down. It was intensely hot.
"That bullet of yours has scared him off," Jim said to Don.
"He's forgotten all about that," returned Don. "Chuck over a few small pieces of meat and he'll show up."
Chi shredded up a piece of pork and flung the bits over. As they drifted in the tide scores of small fish fought for them.
Suddenly the shoals scattered.
"Here he comes," said Jim sharply, and sure enough here was the monster so near the surface that his giant bulk flung up a wave as he came.
"Try him with a small piece," said Don.
Chi hewed off a leg and flung it over.
"He's got it!" shouted Jim. "Now for the bait."
This was already on the hook, half the pig fastened on firmly with wire. Don cast it over. The great lump of meat had hardly struck the water before the monstrous jaws yawned for it. They closed with a clang like the gates of Doom, and out rushed the rope so swiftly that the gunwale smoked with the tremendous friction.
"The engine!" cried Don. But Chi Ling was already below. As the strain came the schooner swerved so violently that it was all Don and Jim could do to keep their feet, and for a moment Jim fully believed that even the powerful spring could not save the heavy rope from breaking. It sang like a taut wire, but held and, as before, the schooner was dragged flying towards the outer channel.
Suddenly the strain ceased. Next moment the giant sea-beast shot out of the water like a salmon, all his great barnacled body fully visible in the hot sun blaze. As he fell the water rose in sheets, almost swamping the deck of the little schooner.
"My word!" gasped Jim, then he was flat on his back, flung down by the jerk as the shark started again. As he picked himself up he saw they were running straight for the rocks near the entrance, and that Don was standing over the rope with an axe, ready to cut.
At furious speed the maddened brute drove on towards the rocks, which thrust their black heads above the calm surface.
"It's no good," Jim heard Don say. "He'll wreck us if I don't cut."
"Wait!" gasped Jim. "Wait!"
Next instant the shark rushed blindly on the rocks, and with such insane force that its body drove clean out of water, slid right over the low reef, and lay stranded in the shallow beyond. Down came Don's axe and with the engine working full force the Dolphin slewed round into safety.
"A close call," said Don, turning to his brother. "He's smashed himself to pieces on the coral."
Chi came up, "Engine stop," he said. "And I think wind come."
Don looked up at the sky.
"Hi, Motu!" he shouted. "Kupi! Be sharp! Lend a hand."
Jim was startled at the sudden change in his brother's voice and manner. "What's up?" he asked quickly.
"That's more than I can tell exactly," replied Don. "But look at the sky. Something's going to happen, and whatever it is it means wind. And here we are drifting straight on the beach."
The sun glare was dimmed by a strange coppery haze which was spreading with extraordinary swiftness across the sky. Even as they watched it thickened, and out of the distance came a low roar like that of a train approaching through a tunnel.
Don's lips tightened. He turned to Jim.
"Tell Chi Ling to start the engine. If we're beached there's nothing can save us from being raided and plundered by those natives."
JIM ran to obey and went below with Chi Ling to give help, if needed. Chi Ling, cool as usual, retarded the spark and spun the starting handle. It was not until the engine purred into life that he spoke.
"What matter, Mistel Jim?"
"Storm coming," Jim answered quickly, and then, "My word, listen to it! It must be a typhoon."
A dull roaring sound had filled the air and penetrated even into the engine room, drowning the purr of the motor.
"Give her gas." It was Don's voice from above through the speaking tube. "Full power. Be quick."
Chi Ling threw in the clutch and slowly advanced the levers. The screw began to turn and Jim felt the Dolphin moving. The roar grew louder.
"You go see," said Chi Ling, and Jim dashed up.
The roar was louder than ever, but the strange thing was that he did not feel a breath of wind. Don himself was at the wheel and the schooner under full power was running down the lagoon toward its far end.
"What's up?" demanded Jim.
Don took one hand off the wheel and pointed seaward and then Jim saw. A vague shape had lifted from the sea, rising against the sky like the neck of some vast reptile. Its foot he could not see for the land cut it off, but its pointed head towered hundreds of feet in air, while above it was a dark mass of cloud from which a second shape was dropping toward the one that rose from below. Both the upper and the lower masses were spinning at dizzy speed while the roaring grew steadily louder.
As Jim watched, fascinated, the upper mass let down a dark tentacle which in another moment joined the pointed cloud rising from below, and the whole thing turned into one great hourglass- shaped pillar which seemed to join sea and sky and at the same time was evidently sweeping toward the island at fearful speed.
"What is it?" gasped Jim.
Don answered in one word: "Waterspout."
Jim gasped again. He had heard and read of such things, but never had he dreamed that the reality could be so terrible. The pillar was now black as coal and appeared almost as solid. There must be thousands of tons of water in that spinning mass which bore down relentlessly upon the island. Flickering tongues of lightning leaped and danced around its terrible head, but there was no sound of thunder. Only that steady, driving roar which grew and grew until the whole air vibrated with the sound. Yet the air remained still as that of a cellar while, though the sunlight was cut off, the heat was almost intolerable. The darkness grew deeper, lit only by the swift flashes of livid blue electric fire which danced around the upper part of the spout.
"What's going to happen, Don?" Jim asked, He was surprised to find his voice fairly steady.
"It will burst when it hits the island."
"And fall on us?"
"No saying. We'll dodge it if we can, but there's so little room here in the lagoon."
"And if it does hit us?"
"It's goodbye, Jim. There wouldn't be enough left of the dear old Dolphin to build a raft."
"Sounds cheerful," remarked Jim.
He was scared, and he knew he was scared, but he secretly wondered that he was not more seared. Perhaps that was because he was so intensely interested. Anyhow, there was not much time for fright or any other feeling for now the spout was almost on the island. It was strange to see it move like a live thing with no wind to direct it. It did not come quite straight, but in a wide curve. The noise of its approach was like that of an express train roaring through a tunnel.
Now it was towering over the island, and to Jim's astonishment it headed straight for the channel. The lightning flaring through the gloom showed the water in the channel swept into a maelstrom of snowy foam. Next instant it had reached the lagoon and it seemed to Jim that the very wings of death hung above them. The calm water heaved and spun. Sucked toward the whirling centre, it was drawn into broken waves and the Dolphin quivered under the terrible suck. Again the lightning blazed.
"It's missed us!" cried Jim.
But his shout was drowned in a roar like that of Niagara as the waterspout, striking the high bluff directly opposite the entrance, collapsed and crashed down with appalling force. Although the Dolphin was nearly half a mile from the bluff the spray fell on her like a deluge.
Then silence and the sun shining again; but Jim stood staring at the bluff.
"The big rock's gone," he said slowly.
He was right. The great pinnacle which had been their landmark had crashed down on to the beach and the whole shape of the bluff itself was completely changed. Don drew a deep breath.
"We're well out of that, Jim. I only hope there aren't any more. They generally come two or three at a time."
"There is another," said Jim, pointing south to where a second spout careered across the horizon like a drunken giant, "but I don't think it's coming here."
Don watched it a moment.
"No; we're safe from that. But the natives!"
"What about the natives?"
"If any of them have been killed it may be bad for us. Their medicine man will put it down to our finishing the shark."
Jim was gazing at the beach.
"I don't think it got any of them," he said. "And—and I say, Don, look at the shark. It's right up on the beach."
So it was. By some strange chance the suck of the spout had drawn the huge carcass with it and flung it ashore, and there it lay with all its great grey length spread upon the white sand. Already the natives were recovering: some of them were cautiously approaching the body of the monster. Don brought the schooner round, and as he sent her slowly back toward her old anchorage he and Jim anxiously watched the savages.
"They're all right," said Jim eagerly. "Two of them are examining it. One's looking into its mouth. And see the others all round it. They'll be pleased it's dead, for now they can fish in the lagoon."
Just then Parami came up and Don turned to him.
"The shark's dead, Parami," he said with a smile. "He can't do us any harm now."
There was no answering smile on the native's handsome face.
"Shark him dead," he admitted gravely, "but I no think this good place, boss."
Don frowned. "What's the matter? Are you afraid of the natives?"
"I not know just what I afraid of," replied Parami in a troubled voice. "I not afraid for self, I afraid for you."
Jim broke in suddenly.
"Don, they're beckoning us to come ashore. And see, they're bringing down bananas and stuff. Hurray! It's all right and we can start in and get the pearls."
ALTHOUGH Don agreed with his brother that the natives appeared to be friendly, he had no idea of taking foolish chances. And the first thing he did was to bring the Dolphin within easy gunshot of the shore. Then he called up Chi Ling and took counsel with him. The Chinaman had thirty years' experience of the South Seas, and Don valued his opinion.
"I tink all light you go ashore," said Chi Ling, "but I tink you no go mo' far than beach."
Don agreed, and turned to Jim.
"This time I'm going, Jim, and I shall take Parami and Motu. You will stay here on deck with Chi Ling, and both of you armed. But don't show your rifles unless there's any trouble."
The boat was dropped, and two casks put into it. Also a case of bright beads, buttons, and other small ornaments such as appeal to savages. Don took a pistol but hid it in a pocket, and there were two guns in the boat, both loaded.
Don stopped the boat a little distance from the beach and waded ashore. Parami followed, carrying a case. About thirty natives were waiting, and there were more behind. The schooner was so close in that Jim could see the men plainly. They were of middle height, with stocky, muscular bodies. All they wore were wide belts of bark or coconut-fibre around their waists, and a few, Jim noticed, had necklets of some sort of shell. Their skins were shiny black.
If their bodies were fine, that was more than could be said for their faces. Their noses were their best feature, but their eyes were deeply sunk under arches of bone and their lips were immensely thick. Many had skewers of bone thrust through their noses, and all wore large plugs of wood or ornaments of some sort in their ears, so heavy that the lobes hung right down upon their shoulders. They stood silent as Don reached the beach, and for a moment or two no one moved. Jim fingered his rifle anxiously, but Chi Ling spoke.
"All light, Mistel Jim. They no move till Chief come."
A native stepped forward. He did not seem to be older than the rest, but he was distinctly fatter. He wore two shell necklaces on his broad chest. He stopped opposite Don and spoke. Jim could hear what he said but could not understand the words. Don spoke in return, and Parami translated. Then Parami laid the box on the beach and opened it, and Don took out a necklace of large blue beads, which he offered to the chief.
"I say," whispered Jim to Chi Ling, "that's hit the right spot. See how he's grinning!"
Jim was right, for the chief showed his teeth in a pleased smile as he examined the present. Then he hung it carefully round his neck. Next Don gave him a small looking-glass, and Jim almost laughed out loud at the expression on the chief's face as he saw himself in it.
At first he was scared, then his grin broadened, and he held the glass in front of his ugly face and prinked just like a girl.
"He's pleased all to pieces," declared Jim, but Chi Ling looked doubtful.
"He's pletty pleased, but I no tink him medicine man pleased," he observed.
There was a second man standing behind the chief, much older, skinny and hideously ugly. He had a necklace of bones round his wrinkled neck and more bones decorated his loin-cloth. Evidently he was the tribal medicine-man, and Chi Ling was right, for he was scowling fiercely. But Don, too, had spotted this, and turning to him offered him first a stick of plug tobacco then a box of matches. He grabbed the tobacco eagerly, but the matches puzzled him until Don struck one. Then his scowl changed to a look of amazement, and he hastily struck another for himself.
"Big medicine!" chuckled Jim. "It's all right now, Chi Ling."
"P'laps light, p'laps not light," replied the other stolidly. "We no move till boss come back."
Seemingly, however, it was all right, for the rest of Don's presents were accepted with evident pleasure, and Don had a short talk with the chief. Then the medicine-man sidled up and pointed landward.
"Wants him to visit the village," said Jim.
"He velly foolish if he go," replied Chi Ling gravely, but Don was seen to be excusing himself, and presently the bananas and water casks were carried to the boat and Don himself came back to the schooner.
"Well?" asked Jim eagerly.
"Pretty well," said Don quietly. "Togan, the chief, is all right but I don't trust that witch-doctor fellow. Naroa his name is. He was a bit too keen to get me up to the village."
"You velly light not go," said Chi Ling. "You go, you no get away velly easily."
"What do you mean?" Jim asked. "Does he want to kill him or keep him prisoner?" But Chi Ling only grunted and went below.
"What a funny old bird he is!" said Jim, as he picked a banana from a bunch and began to eat it.
"He's our best man," said Don firmly.
Somehow Jim did not sleep so soundly as usual that night, and about one in the morning he heard a faint tapping as if something were knocking against the hull of the schooner. In a flash he was out and hurrying to the companion, and lifted his head above the hatch.
Motu was on watch, but by the light of the stars Jim saw that he was drowsy. He looked round and noticed a queer dark heap in the stern. As he watched a skinny arm rose above the gunwale and piled something on the heap. Again and again this happened, and the heap grew to a stack.
Jim's first impulse was to rush aft, but he decided to wait a while first and see what would happen. He waited a little too long. There was a faint, scratching sound and a little glow of light appeared behind the piled-up stack. Instantly followed a crackle and a great blaze shot up as the heap burst into furious flame.
"Fire!" yelled Jim as he sprang on to the deck and raced aft.
JIM came down on the deck with a crash that made him see stars. Someone had left a rope lying loose, and in his frantic hurry he had caught his foot in it and tripped.
The shock knocked the breath out of his body and for the moment he could do nothing but lie still and gasp painfully. He saw Don shoot up from below like a Jack from a box, and heard his horrified exclamation as he saw the blaze in the stern.
Chi Ling was hard after him; Don shouted to him to bring buckets. He himself snatched up a boathook and, using it as a pitchfork, began heaving the pile of burning stuff overboard. Chi Ling and Motu dipped up sea water and sloshed it over the flames, and so quick were they that in less than a minute the last spark was black and the danger over.
Don turned. "Jim, where are you? Are you hurt?" he called in great anxiety.
"I'm all right," panted Jim as he limped aft. "I—I had a tumble."
"Sure you're not hurt?"
"No, but I knocked the wind out of myself. I was a fool," he added bitterly.
"Nonsense! You gave the warning and saved the ship."
"I was awake," said Jim. "I heard something bump against the schooner, so I came up. I saw an arm rising above the gunwale and piling that stuff on the deck. I couldn't think what was up."
"But who could have done such a crazy thing?"
"There's not much doubt who it was," Jim answered. "It was that skinny old scoundrel of a witch doctor."
"What makes you think that?"
"Because lie's the only man who has matches. You ought to know that, for you gave them to him yourself."
"That's true," said Don, rather taken aback. "But why did he want to burn us out? And how did he get out here? There are no canoes in the lagoon."
"I don't know what his notion was in trying to make a bonfire of us," said Jim.
"But as for canoes, I expect they have plenty on the far side of the island."
"I suppose they have," agreed Don; "but it's the queerest business. Those fellows seemed perfectly friendly yesterday and the chief, Togan, said we could have all the fruit we wanted and stay as long as we liked."
"Yes, but the wizard chap, Naroa, is jealous as a cat," said Jim. "Chi Ling and I both noticed that. I believe he's got his back up about our killing the shark."
Don looked puzzled. "Even if he was upset about that, how would it help him to burn us out? He might polish us off, but the ship would have been destroyed and no loot left."
"I no tink he want loot. I tink he want you on shore," remarked Chi Ling, who had been standing beside the brothers, listening in his usual quiet fashion.
"What for?" demanded Jim bluntly.
"I not know," replied the Chinaman, and, slipping away, vanished down the hatch.
Don stood staring in the direction of the beach. "I never saw any canoe," he said at last.
"Too dark," said Jim. "If I hadn't been such an ass I'd have got him," he added sorrowfully.
"More likely he'd have got you, old lad," replied his brother. "Anyhow, we're none the worse, and now that we've had this warning we know what to expect. In the morning we'll shift the schooner farther from the shore, and every night in future we'll keep a double guard. Now you turn in, Jim. There won't be any more trouble tonight."
"You will begin pearling tomorrow?" said Jim.
"Yes, and I'm not going to waste any time about it, either. We'll all be working fourteen hours a day, so go down and sleep while you can—and dream of pink pearls," he added with a laugh.
Early next morning the schooner was moved to her original anchorage, and the sun was hardly up before Chi Ling was in his diving dress. Jim, who had never before seen one, could not imagine how the Chinaman could bear the thick woolly garments which he had first to put on and the gigantic weight of the dress with its huge, leaden-soled boots, and the great slabs of the same metal which were hung across his broad shoulders. Jim himself wore nothing but an old pair of grey flannel trousers, a thin cotton shirt and a hat, and even in these he was melting.
"He won't be any too hot at six fathoms," Don assured Jim, and Jim watched eagerly as Chi Ling slipped quietly over the side and so below the surface. Parami had volunteered to work the pump, which he seemed to understand perfectly, and Don, leaning far out over the gunwale, saw the bubbles rise in a silver stream from the valve of the huge copper helmet, while its wearer dropped slowly down the ladder. The water was so clear that Jim could see Chi Ling reach the bottom and stoop to pick up the oysters from the sand.
They were very thick, and in a little more than five minutes the signal cord jerked and up came a string bag full of oysters, enormous things, far larger than any of the same family that grow in Northern Seas. Each was about the size of a pudding plate.
Don picked one from the bag and examined it. "The real gold- lip," he said with great satisfaction.
"What's that mean?" asked Jim. "There's no gold that I can see about them."
"It's the name of this particular sort," Don explained. "They are the best, and the shell fetches more than any other kind."
"Never mind the shell," said Jim, "What about pearls? How do you open the things?" He had his knife out and was trying to force one open. Don laughed!
"You'll have your work cut out if you want to open them by hand, old man."
"Then how do you do it?"
"We let 'em open themselves. Or rather the sun does it for us. We are going to dump them on that bank." He pointed to a sandbank near the seaward side of the lagoon. Jim looked disappointed.
"How long do we have to wait?"
"Not long. Here, give me that oyster; I'll open it for you." Don knew the trick of it. He cut through the hinge, opened the double shell and handed it back to Jim, who quickly scooped the flesh away. A yell burst from his lips.
"Here's a pearl—a whopper!" Don took the shell and looked, A pearl nearly half an inch across was fastened to the inner part of the shell.
"Yes," he said, so coolly that Jim stared.
"What's the matter with it?" he demanded. "It's a pearl, isn't it?"
"It's a pearl all right, but a dealer wouldn't give you move than five shillings for it."
"What's the matter with it?" repeated Jim.
"It's a baroque, a blister pearl. See, it's no sort of shape and all rough where you have to cut it from the shell." He laughed. "Don't look so disheartened. It's a jolly good sign to find a pearl of any sort in the very first oyster opened. We'll cut into a few more and see if they hold anything." He opened five more. Three had nothing, the fourth had another baroque, but the fifth held two pearls, one tiny but the second the size of a small pea. Don held it in the palm of his hand and examined it.
"It's very small," said Jim.
"But it's worth at least ten pounds," replied his brother. "The shape is excellent, the colour and lustre are good." He paused and looked at his brother. "Jim," he said, "I believe we've managed to strike a bit of luck."
DURING the next week or two Jim learned more about pearls than he had ever dreamed possible.
At the end of ten days Don had a bag in the safe in his cabin which held nearly three hundred pearls. Most of them, of course, were small, but there were two very nice ones of about fifty grains apiece, and one not so good (because it was pear-like in shape) of well over one hundred grains.
Don reckoned that the Jew dealers on Thursday Island would pay him somewhere about two thousand pounds for the lot.
"They'd fetch twice that in London," he said regretfully as he ran his fingers through the little heap of lustrous gems.
"But what about the pink ones?" said Jim frowning. "We haven't one yet."
"I know, and I believe we are not working in the right part of the lagoon."
"Doesn't Parami know?"
"Yes, but he is very shy about talking. He's got some rum idea in his head that pink pearls are unlucky. He's a queer sort of chap."
"He's very queer," agreed Jim. "Have you ever got him to talk about the time he was here before?"
"Not a word. Get him to talk if you can, Jim. You can tell him that if we get a few of those pink ones we shall be able to clear out all the quicker."
Jim nodded. "I'll see what I can do."
He lost no time in keeping his promise. That night Parami had the first watch and Jim, instead of turning in, waited on deck until the rest had gone below. Then he slipped up alongside the tall native who was standing in the bow, gazing intently towards the shore. It was a moonlight night, and Jim could clearly see the grave look on the man's fine face. Parami had filled out and become a splendid looking fellow, broad-shouldered and deep- chested. His skin was the colour of copper and he had large liquid brown eyes.
"What's the matter?" asked Jim "You don't think the natives are going to attack us?"
Parami turned and smiled at Jim. He was very fond of his "little master."
"Him, Naroa, he try burn ship," he reminded Jim.
"But he can't try it again, especially on a night like this, and the rest are friendly enough, What is it you're afraid of?"
"This not good place," he answered quietly.
"But why?" asked Jim. "I can't see any reason. It isn't half as risky, for instance, as trading in the Solomons. Has it anything to do with your first trip here?"
Parami nodded again, and bit by bit Jim got the story—how Captain Mallory sailed into the lagoon and sent a boat ashore. The boat was tackled by the great shark, upset, and only one of her crew escaped, that being Parami himself. Mallory was mad to kill the shark, but he had no shark hooks, so tempted the beast to the surface with bait and fired bullets into it. Of course that was no use, so after a stay of only two days he pulled up his anchor and started away to get proper tackle.
Then came disaster—a sudden storm which dismasted the Kiwi and left her to drift helplessly on the iron-fanged reefs of Malaita. Parami and a man called Sangata were the only two who got ashore, where they had the luck to be picked up almost at once by a "black-birder" (a vessel collecting men to work on the plantations).
"Then," went on Parami, "I never have luck no more. I wrecked three times. Now I no want see Dolphin wrecked."
Jim went straight to the heart of the matter. "But see here, Parami, you gave us two pink pearls; where did you get them?"
"I get them off native man on beach. Give knife for them."
"And where did he get them?"
"I not know. Naroa, him tell maybe."
"All right. We'll tackle Naroa in the morning. A few plugs of tobacco ought to do the trick."
Parami fixed his big eyes on Jim. "You no wait, little master," he begged. "You keep what you got and go." But Jim turned on his heel and went below.
Next morning Jim talked to Don, and Don wont ashore and met Naroa on the beach. Just as Jim had said, a present of tobacco and a pipe did the trick. Naroa pointed to the part of the lagoon under the bluff and told Don that was where the pink pearls had been found in the old days before the great shark had come.
The Dolphin was moved at once and Chi Ling went down. Shell was plentiful but there were no pearls.
Three days later, just before sunset, Parami came aboard looking very excited. In his brown palm lay something that resembled a great drop of petrified blood.
"What's that?" gasped Jim, then "Don!" he shouted. "Don, come here!" Don came, and for a moment stared open-eyed at the perfect, blood-red thing. It was like a great glossy cherry, fully half an inch in diameter. He picked it up. The low rays of the setting sun struck upon the monstrous pearl, making it flame like fire.
"It's not pink," was all Jim could find to say.
Don shook his head. "I never saw anything like it before. I never knew there was such a thing as a blood-red pearl."
"Is it valuable?" asked Jim.
"Valuable? Look at the shape of it. It's perfect. Worth a mint of money." He paused, still gazing at the wonder. "But just think if we could get a pair of them. Imagine what a pair of earrings they would make!"
The sound of the native drums boomed through the warm darkness as Don and Jim sat together that evening. Supper was over and the ship was very quiet. Not a ripple stirred the surface of the lagoon, and apart from the drums the only sound was the distant but never ceasing roar of the surf on the outer shores of the island.
Don put his hand into his pocket and took out the great pearl. In the light of the hanging lamp it glowed crimson.
"Almost like a danger signal," said Don thoughtfully.
"We've had enough croaking from Parami," said Jim sharply.
"How do you know he isn't right?" returned Don. "Some of these natives have something like second sight. I tell you, Jim, I've more than half a mind to clear out first thing tomorrow morning. We've got what we came for—and more. What are we waiting for?"
"We're waiting for a second pearl like this one," said Jim forcibly. "Just think what ten thousand would mean to us! We could go home and buy a farm in Devonshire and have a glorious time. Fancy fishing in a real trout stream and tramping across English hills!" He paused a moment, then went on even more earnestly. "What's the sense of leaving just when we've found where the real pearls lie? There's no danger in staying."
Don picked up a red and gold mango and began to peel it. "I'm not so sure," he said in his quiet way. "It isn't Parami only; Chi Ling doesn't like this place."
"He hasn't said so," retorted Jim.
"But he feels it. I know Chi Ling, and I rely on him. He's as good a man as any skipper could want in his crew, and plucky, yet he's keen to get away."
Jim's lips tightened. "You're the captain, and what you say goes."
Don looked troubled. "I don't want you to feel like that, old chap," he said. "See here, it's Tuesday. If I give you six days more, that is till Monday next, will you be satisfied?"
"Yes," said Jim. "Six days will give us a good chance to find a second pearl."
"Then that's a bargain, but we leave first thing Monday morning, and I don't expect you to do any more grousing."
"I won't," Jim promised.
During the days that followed no one worked harder than Parami, who ferried cargoes of shell over to the bank and laid them out in the sun. On Friday they began the clean up. That evening Parami brought in forty-seven pearls, of which a number were pink, but there was nothing to match or approach the great crimson beauty which they had already found.
"But there are some more shells to finish tomorrow," Jim told Don. "I haven't given up hoping yet."
"We shan't exactly starve even if we don't find any more," said Don. "I reckon we're worth about six thousand pounds."
"I hope it will be double that by to-morrow night," said Jim with a laugh. Next day, in spite of the appalling odour from the rotting oysters, Jim went with Parami to the bank. He had a handkerchief dipped in disinfectant across his mouth and nose, and worked steadily in the blazing sun. Don stayed by the ship, for the natives, now that they were free of the shark terror, had brought canoes into the lagoon and were fishing there. Although they seemed friendly and brought out fruit to trade for beads and other odds and ends, Don did not trust them or allow any of them aboard.
The sun was dipping when Don was startled by a shout from the sand-bank and, looking up, saw Jim and Parami rowing furiously back to the schooner.
"'Pon my word, I believe the boy's got it," he remarked. He had not long to wait for Jim certainly broke all records in crossing the lagoon, and was so done by the time he reached the Dolphin that he could hardly climb aboard. Scarlet in the face and dripping with perspiration, he thrust a hand in his pocket, and when he brought it out in the palm lay not one but three great crimson pearls!
"Two of them were in one shell," croaked Jim. He was still so breathless he could hardly speak.
Don took the pearls and held them one by one against the light.
"Perfect!" he said in a low voice. "Jim, it's about the biggest find ever made in the South Seas. We can buy two farms if you want them."
"One will do me," said Jim. "And a trout stream and a couple of good ponies." He drew a long breath. "For mercy's sake give me a drink, my throat's like shoe leather."
Chi Ling appeared with a long glass of orange juice and water and Jim put it down. "Now," he said, "I don't care how soon we start home."
Parami came up.
"It too late, now. Schooner come," he remarked.
THEY watched her in silence. She was a big vessel compared with the Dolphin, being of about one hundred and fifty tons, and looked quite imposing as she came slowly and steadily in under her own power. Don was the first to speak.
"Stiletto," he said, as he read the name painted on her bow. "I never heard of her." He turned to Chi Ling. "You know her?"
Chi Ling shook his head. "I not know," he answered briefly.
"What on earth brings her here?" demanded Jim, frowning. "Parami, I thought you said that your schooner, the Kiwi, was the only one that knew the way into the lagoon."
"You forget, little master," said Parami gently. "Him Sangata, he get away, so he know how come here."
"You mean that this fellow Sangata is aboard this stranger. If that's the case then they're after the pearls."
"There are plenty left for them," said Don quietly. "There's no need to get fussed up, Jim."
"Of course there isn't," agreed Jim. "All the same I wish I know who these people are."
"You'll know pretty soon. She's coming our way and looks as if she meant to anchor close alongside."
Jim looked doubtful. "Hadn't we better load up our guns?" he suggested. Don laughed outright.
"My dear Jim, we don't live in the days of Bully Hayes. Piracy is a thing of the past in these waters."
"We've got several thousand pounds' worth of pearls aboard and those people outnumber us three to one. I don't believe in taking chances," said Jim.
"Mistel Jim quite light, captain," said Chi Ling. "You please give me big pearls and I put them safe."
Don's eyes widened, but he trusted Chi Ling and at once handed him all the four big red pearls.
"Do as you like," he said, "but see you hide them where we can find them again."
Chi Ling merely nodded and, taking the pearls, vanished below in his usual noiseless fashion.
The others remained on deck, watching the stranger gliding quietly toward them. As she came nearer they saw that her crew were all natives. The skipper seemed to be the only white man. He was an enormous fellow, fully six feet high and very fat.
"What a whopper! Why, he must weigh about eighteen stone," said Jim.
"All of that," agreed Don. "But he carries it well, and looks smart."
Don was right, for the big man walked as lightly as his barefooted crew. He wore white duck trousers and some sort of light silk shirt with a pale blue sash around his waist. On his big head was a snowy white Panama hat with a broad, dark blue riband. This big man hailed them through a speaking-trumpet.
"Ahoy, Dolphin!" he cried in an oddly high-pitched voice. "Have you any objection to our anchoring here?"
"None at all," said Don; "so long as you give us room to swing."
"I will be careful," responded the other, and they heard him calling out orders.
"Funny way he speaks," said Jim to Don. "Foreigner, isn't he?"
"German or Dutch, I'd say," was the answer. "Wonder what the idea is in coming right alongside."
"The shark, I expect," said Jim. "If Parami is right and Sangata is aboard he will have warned them that it isn't safe to put over a boat."
"They ought to have spotted the carcass by this time," replied Don, glancing at the vast skeleton on the beach. Every bit of flesh had been picked off, first by the natives then by sea birds.
The Stiletto was quickly anchored, then her fat skipper came to the side and hailed again. "I will come aboard, if you permit," he called in his funny, high-pitched voice.
"Glad to see you," shouted Don; and at once a boat was put over and, with two natives rowing, the big man was ferried to the Dolphin. He came over the side as lightly as a great cat, and Don met him, shook hands, and introduced himself.
The big man bowed. "I am Dirck Jansen," he said. "Captain and owner of the Stiletto. I am on my way back to Sydney with copra, and have put in for fresh water. Ours has gone bad. It is a pleasant surprise"—he bowed again—"to find another ship here." He spoke very good English but with a slight foreign accent; but his voice was absurd for so big a man, high and piping.
"I'm wondering how you found the way in," said Don pleasantly. "I didn't think anyone but ourselves knew of this lagoon."
"But why should you think that?" asked Jansen in surprise. "It is marked on the charts."
"Not on ours," replied Don.
"But it is on mine. I have been here before—about twelve years ago. There was then a great shark here so large that it attacked boats."
"We managed to kill him," said Don, pointing to the skeleton on the beach.
"That was fine work," said Jansen approvingly. "The natives, doubtless, are pleased."
"We had to do it," Don explained. "You see, we are after shell. But you will come below and have some refreshment?"
"You are most kind," said the big man and followed Don down into the cabin, where Chi Ling already had cool drinks on the table. Jim joined them, and the three sat and chatted for nearly an hour. In spite of his funny voice Jansen talked wonderfully well, and his manners were equally wonderful for a South Sea skipper.
"It is a great pleasure to speak to educated men after so long consorting with natives," he said. "Will you be so kind as to come and take supper with me tonight."
"We shall be very pleased to," said Don simply, and Jansen, who had got up to go, smiled with evident pleasure.
"I will then expect you in an hour," he said, and went away.
"I say, why did you tell him we were pearling?" was Jim's first question to Don after Jansen had left.
Don laughed. "Why not, when the first thing he must have seen was all that shell? Now you'd better go and change your togs. We've got to do the Dolphin credit tonight."
Jim nodded and went to his cabin, where he changed into clean, white ducks. He and Don looked very smart when they came on deck. Chi Ling himself was ready to pull them across, but Parami was nowhere to be seen. Don had a word aside with the Chinaman.
"Think he's all right, Chi Ling?"
"I tink he's all light if you no speak of red pearls, Captain."
"I'll be careful," replied Don, and they went across.
Supper was laid in the little saloon, and Jim was surprised at the extravagant way it was served. Their host seemed to know every part of the South Seas and he told them more about this island of Aroa than they had ever known or suspected.
"And the people were once highly civilised," he continued. "About four miles inland are the ruins of what must once have been a large fortified town. Stone walls of great thickness and the foundations of the citadel are still visible."
"You've seen them?" asked Jim.
"But indeed I have seen them. I visited them when I was last here."
"And the natives were friendly?" questioned Jim.
Jansen looked mildly surprised. "Yes, indeed. They are not of the same dangerous type as those of the Solomons. I had no difficulty with them at all. I am interested in these ruins, and now that I am here intend visiting them again. I wish to obtain some photographs for the Sydney Archaeological Society."
"My word, I'd like to see them!" exclaimed Jim.
"I should be pleased to act as your guide," said Jansen courteously.
"Let's go, Don," said Jim.
"That would be pleasant," said Jansen. "Tomorrow being Sunday would be a good day for a walk ashore, and we would take our luncheon."
Don agreed, and presently they said good-night and returned to the Dolphin. Kupa was on watch, and Jim asked him to send up Parami.
A few minutes later Kupa came back quickly. "Parami, him not in ship," he said in a scared voice.
DON looked incredulous. "Not in the ship!" he exclaimed. "But he must be. Go and look, Kupa."
"I look. I sure, master," said Kupa.
"He must have gone ashore," said Jim.
"I don't know what would have taken him to the beach," muttered Jim, very perplexed, and then Kupa broke in.
"He come." He pointed over the side, and Jim saw a sparkle of phosphorescence in the calm water and in it a dark body driving swiftly toward the schooner. A moment later Parami came over the rail and stood, with the water running off his shiny brown body.
"Where have you been, Parami?" Don asked sternly.
Parami shifted a little so as to be beyond the rays of the binnacle lamp.
"I go to see other schooner," he answered simply. "I want see if him, Sangata, aboard."
Don looked puzzled.
"He means the Malay, the one who escaped with him from the Kiwi," explained Jim.
"Yes, of course," said Don. "I'd forgotten. Was he there, Parami?"
"I no see him," replied Parami.
Don nodded. "Then you feel easier in your mind, eh, Parami?"
Parami looked doubtful. "I glad when we leave this place," he said.
"Oh, stop croaking and go and turn in," said Don. "And don't leave the ship again without leave. D'ye hear?"
"I see, master," said Parami quietly and faded away.
Jim frowned. "That chap's getting on my nerves, Don. I shall be almost as glad as he to clear out."
Next morning dawned bright and not quite as hot as usual, for the breeze sprang up early and the lagoon sparkled with a million sun-kissed ripples. Chi Ling cooked an extra special breakfast and Don asked him to put up some sandwiches.
"We're going ashore with Captain Jansen," he told him.
"You be caleful. You take pistol," said the Chinaman.
Don smiled. "I'd do that if it will make your mind easier. Remember, you're in charge while we're away."
A few minutes later Parami came up to Jim, who was standing by the rail examining the island through a pair of field- glasses.
"You go ashore, little master?" he said.
Jim swung round upon him. "Yes. Any objections?"
Parami shook his head. "It no good I say anything," he said sadly.
"Not a bit," Jim retorted. "The fact is you're getting to be a nuisance, Parami, with your endless croaking."
"Please, I go with you."
"No. We're going with Captain Jansen. You must help Chi Ling to look after the ship." Then, seeing the downcast look on the man's fine face, his heart smote him. "Cheer up, Parami, and remember we're off first thing tomorrow morning."
But Parami showed no signs of cheering up and Jim felt half angry, half worried at the man's queer objection to their plans. But he had not much time to think, for here was Jansen being pulled across to the Dolphin.
Jansen wore stout breeches and gaiters and carried a heavy stick. He was clean-shaven and smart as ever, and the usual smile was on his big face as he gave Jim a cheery good-morning. Jim and Don got into the boat and were pulled rapidly to the beach. Jansen ordered his men to take the boat back, but warned them to watch and be ready to fetch them off when they came back in the afternoon.
"I am not taking any of them with me," he said. "I will get one of these islanders to carry the food."
Half a dozen natives were busy with their canoes and Jansen called to them. He seemed to speak their language perfectly, for at once one of them came up and Jansen gave him the hamper to carry.
"His name is Tulagi," he explained. "Now let us get forward. This sun is somewhat too much, even for me."
If it was he did not show it, for there was hardly a bead of perspiration on his broad face, and Jim was more than ever struck with the lightness of his walk. He came to the conclusion that most of what seemed to be fat was muscle and that Captain Dirck Jansen must be a man of enormous strength.
This idea was strengthened by the way in which the big Dutchman went up the bush path leading into the heart of the island. It was steep and it was narrow, and though the great trees cut off the direct rays of the sun the atmosphere was like that of hottest hothouse at Kew.
The native Tulagi stalked along ahead. He seemed a silent fellow and said nothing. They met no other natives on the path and the only life was birds and insects. The birds were brilliant in colour but curiously silent. Up and up they went until at last they arrived in a clearing where the sun blazed down fiercely and hundreds of butterflies fluttered over patches of waxen-looking white flowers.
"Is it not beautiful?" said Jansen as he pointed to a gigantic swallow-tail fully six inches across the wings and shining with metallic blue and purple.
They pushed on up the path which wound endlessly through the thick bush, and after nearly two hours' walking they came suddenly upon a great wall of huge stones.
This wall enclosed a wide circular space rounded like a skull, and the ground within was bare and tramped hard. In the centre was a platform built of the same great stones and on it a statue.
Jim pulled up short and gazed at the thing, his eyes widening with horror. There were no legs. It was a huge, half-human body with an enormous head. But such a head! The wide thin-lipped mouth, great blunt nose, and small eyes sunk deep under craggy brows gave the face a fiendish expression.
"What a brute!" said Don.
"Not pleasant," agreed Jansen, "yet most interesting. A relic, I believe, of the days when this island was part of a continent, and the centre of a great nation of whom these natives are the degenerate survivors."
There was a great stone trough in front of the image, carved with monkey-like heads. Jansen sat coolly down on this.
"I think we might have lunch," he said.
JIM looked round to see Tulagi standing stock- still, and staring at Jansen with an expression on his ugly face that might have been terror or horror, or both.
"What's the matter with the man?" Jim asked in a whisper of Don.
"Jansen's no business to sit on that trough," said Don. "It must be sacred to the native. I'll tell him."
"You are perhaps right, Captain Dysart. Besides, the sun here is too hot. Let us find shade in which to seat ourselves."
A great cotton-wood flung its branches across the wall on the east side of the enclosure, and some loose stones lay beneath it. Jansen walked lightly across to these, and the others followed. Jansen sat down and called to Tulagi, who brought the hamper across. Jim noticed that the man's eyes were still fixed on Jansen with an odd expression of wonder and fear.
The lunch which Jansen unpacked was a very good one. Sandwiches, cheese biscuits, fruit salad in a glass jar, delicacies such as Don and Jim had not seen for a long time.
"You do yourself well, captain," said Don with a laugh.
"I am glad you are pleased. Besides, this is a special occasion," said the big Dutchman.
He was smiling again, and somehow that smile struck Jim unpleasantly for it was on Jansen's lips, not in his little bright blue eyes. In spite of the good food Jim was not happy. That hideous statue worried him, and he had a sort of feeling that this place had been the scene of terrible rites in past times. Tulagi, too; he could not understand the way the native was watching Jansen. He was grateful when lunch was finished and Jansen rose lightly to his feet.
"There are more ruins on the hillside beyond," he said. "Would you wish to explore them?"
"No," said Jim, so sharply that Don looked at him in surprise. "I hate the place," Jim explained. "There's something evil about it. Don't you feel it, Don?"
"I can't say I do," said Don, "though that statue is a regular nightmare. But it's hotter than ever and I rather think a storm is brewing, so I'd just as soon get back to the ship."
"Very good," agreed Jansen courteously. "Let us return."
They packed up the plates and glasses, Tulagi balanced the hamper on his head, and they started back. As they passed under the arch in the great wall Jim glanced back. The afternoon sun struck full on the face of the image, and it seemed to him that the thin lips were curved in a cruel grin. In spite of the heat he shivered and quickened his pace down the slope.
Don was right. A storm was brewing. The steamy air was breathless, and a grey veil covering the whole sky dimmed the sun glare without cutting off its heat. When they reached the clearing where the waxen flowers grew Jansen turned to the left. "This path is steep but it is shorter than the one we came by," he explained. "We must hurry if we do not wish to get wet."
The path was steep. In some places it was almost a precipice, yet Jim noticed that it looked as if it were much used, for the clay was smoothed with the pressure of many bare feet. But he did not pay much attention to this, for a low rumble of distant thunder warned him and his companions that the storm was coming fast.
They came to more level ground; the path widened, and there, right in front, was the street of a native village. Jim and Don pulled up short, and Don spoke to Jansen. "We can't go through this," he said sharply.
A look of surprise crossed Jansen's broad face.
"Why not? These people are all right. This is the village of Togan, who is your friend?" He paused. "And here he comes to welcome you," he added.
Sure enough, here was the stout chief, showing his white teeth in a grin of welcome. Jansen spoke to him in his own language, and Togan replied. Jansen turned to Don.
"He asks that we shall come into the tribal house. That is a great favour on his part. And it will be as well that we do so, for the rain is near."
"I don't like it," said Jim in a whisper to his brother.
"We can't refuse," Don told him.
"We should give fearful offence."
Jim spoke to Jansen.
"You think it's all right?"
"But yes. I would not go unless I knew that it was safe."
A brilliant flash of lightning lit the gloom, followed by a clap of thunder. Then came a lower, deeper roar, and the grey rain cloud swept across the jungle.
"Come!" cried Jansen, and ran.
As there seemed nothing else to do the others followed, and reached the tribal house just as the rain broke like a cataract across the village. The house was a vast, dark place, some sixty feet long and twenty wide. The thatched roof sloped steeply up above them. The walls were decorated with grinning masks, fierce- looking faces painted black and red, and with native shields. At the far end was a raised platform on which stood the tribal drums made of hollowed logs and covered with skin.
Togan ushered them to the platform. He was talking all the time, but the din of the pealing thunder and the tremendous roar of the rain drowned his voice. In any case only Jansen could understand what he said. He seemed to be very friendly, yet Jim was not quite comfortable, for Parami's warnings kept returning to his mind. The storm came right overhead; a blinding flash was followed by a crash like the explosion of a shell, and Jim covered his dazzled eyes with his hands. When he recovered a little he heard Don speaking in his ear.
"Where's Jansen?" he was asking.
Jim looked round but the gloom was so intense that it was like midnight. Then came a second flash, and by its light Jim realised that he and Don were alone in this great, gloomy place.
"Something wrong," he snapped. "We must clear out."
He and Don ran for the door, only to find it closed. They tried to open it, but it was barred from without.
"Crooked work somewhere," said Don.
"It's that fellow Naroa, the witch doctor," Jim answered. "I'm sure of it. What are we going to do?"
"Sit tight until someone comes," said Don quietly. "Don't worry, old man. It will be all right."
"I'm not worrying," Jim answered; and indeed he was not. Now that real trouble had come all his nervousness had left him. "What I'm wondering is what they've done with Jansen. I never saw him go out."
"Nor I," allowed Don. He looked round. "I suppose we couldn't cut our way out."
"Not a dog's chance," replied Jim, with a glance at the flint- like bamboos which composed the walls.
The storm was passing. It grew lighter.
"Someone coming," said Jim suddenly.
The door opened and Naroa appeared. But he was not alone, for behind him were six men armed with spears and shields.
JIM moved closer to his brother. "Got that pistol, Don?" he asked quietly.
"Yes, in my pocket, but I shan't use it until I'm forced to."
Don did not move. "Look at his face," he said. "He's grinning. I don't believe he means to murder us."
It was true, for Naroa's wizened face was twisted into something vaguely resembling a smile, and what was more he was coming forward alone, leaving his spearmen standing by the door. As he came near to Don and Jim he stopped, took a letter from his waist-cloth and offered it to Don. Don's eyes widened a little, but he took it quietly and opened it. As he read it Jim, watching, saw his lips tighten and a blaze of anger in his eyes.
"It's from Jansen," he said, and his voice was suddenly so harsh that Jim hardly recognised it. "Read it."
This is what Jim read:
My English friends,
I have realised that you are what in your slang you call 'easy meat,' and I am therefore writing this letter before we start upon our little excursion. My good friend Naroa has informed me that he has been much impressed by your prowess in killing the great shark and that he intensely desires your presence in his village where, he thinks, you will give his tribe an advantage over the other island villages. It seems to me a pity to thwart his excellent idea, and I am, therefore, leaving you with him. He will, he assures me, treat you and feed you well, so you need be under no apprehension of ill-usage. Since your future is provided for you will not be needing your schooner or the pearls of which I, however, can make good use. And so I bid you farewell.
Yours to command,
Dirck Jansen (Captain)."
"The treacherous brute!" Jim began, but Don checked him sharply.
"Keep a stiff lip. Don't let Naroa crow over us," he said. "Our best chance is to make him believe we don't care."
Jim made a great effort and got hold of himself, and Don, stepping forward, spoke to Naroa.
"We shall stay," he said in a loud, imperious voice, "but only so long as it pleases us. And you will take good care that we are well fed and looked after. If you don't there will be trouble."
Naroa, of course, did not understand the words yet Don's tone and manner impressed him. He pointed to two beds made up of clean leaves and covered with a sort of coconut matting in one corner and made signs that food would be brought. Then he and his escort retired, closing and fastening the door behind them.
Don and Jim stood in that great, silent, gloomy place looking at one another. The disaster was so sudden, so utterly unexpected, that they were almost overwhelmed. Jim was the first to break the silence.
"It's my fault," he said dully.
"That's nonsense," retorted his brother. "You would never have come ashore unless I had given leave. Jansen fooled me completely."
"I can hardly believe it now," said Jim.
"The fellow was so smart and well-mannered and spoke so well."
"They're the worst of all," Don told him; "but it's no use crying over spilled milk. We have to get away before Jansen can skip out with the Dolphin."
"You're right," said Jim. "But won't it be wise to wait until dark? Jansen will hardly sail before morning, and we shouldn't have a dog's chance of getting out of the village in daylight."
Don bit his lip. The probable loss of his schooner had shaken him worse than anything that had ever happened to him. He was mad to get away yet he could not help seeing that Jim was right.
"Yes," he said hoarsely; "but let's try to find a way out so that we can start as soon as it's dark."
"We'll try," said Jim simply, and try they did. They went all round the walls, testing them; but these walls were made of great bamboo canes almost as hard as iron and so cunningly interwoven that nothing short of an axe would cut a way through them. But there was no cutting tool in the place. Naroa had taken precious good care of that. They stopped at last and Don looked up at the lofty roof of thatch.
"We might set fire to it," he said.
"And roast ourselves," was Jim's answer. "That's no use, Don."
"Then what are we going to do?"
"Frankly, I don't know," said Jim.
Don's fists clenched. "If we don't get away pretty soon Jansen will be off with the Dolphin."
"He's got Chi Ling to reckon with."
Don shook his head. "He has fooled Chi Ling just as he did us. He'll go aboard and tell him some cock-and-bull yarn and have him below hatches before Chi knows what's happened."
"But Chi Ling will never tell him where the pearls are hidden."
"Not the red ones, perhaps, but he'll get all the rest out of the safe." He paused and drew a long breath. "If he gets away with the Dolphin we're done, Jim. Even if we broke loose we couldn't leave the island. And you know as well as I do that ships never visit the place. We might spend the rest of our lives here and no one be the wiser."
Jim was at his wits' end to comfort his brother, but he could find very little to say, and for that matter was feeling equally miserable himself.
So the time dragged by until the door opened again and here came a woman carrying a bowl of food. Naroa was with her and behind him again was his bodyguard. Quite clearly the old scoundrel was taking no chances. The bowl, a large, flattish thing made of wood, held roasted fish and fruit, and Naroa himself laid down a couple of green coconuts, the milk of which forms a delicious drink.
Don would not eat, but Jim persuaded him, and at last, utterly worn out with worry and anxiety, they lay down on their beds. Darkness fell. Very soon the sounds in the village outside died away and the silence became intense.
All of a sudden the deadly silence was broken by a loud explosion, followed by a glare of light which shone brightly through the seams in the wall of the tribal house.
Jim leaped to his feet. "A shell!" he cried. And almost instantly there came a second crash.
IN an instant the village was all awake.
There were wild cries, shrieks of terror pealed through the night air. Boom! again. The sound came from right overhead and for a third time the glare of light lit the night. Then a sharp crackle, a whizzing noise, and a quick flash.
"That's not a gun," said Don.
"If I know anything about it, it's a rocket," replied Jim. He gave a sudden cry. "Those fireworks we had aboard the Dolphin, Don; Chi Ling must have brought them." Whiz! again. It seemed as if this rocket, if it were one, had gone straight down the street, and fresh shrieks broke out. Darkness fell like a wall, but a moment later a bright red light shone through the cracks land there was a sharp fizzing sound.
"Red fire, Don," said Jim. He was shaking with excitement. "It's Chi Ling. He'll be at the door in a minute." They both stumbled toward the door in time to hear a loud snapping of squibs as they danced and burst along the open outside. Then—welcome sound!—something crashed against the door.
"An axe. I told you so." Jim was steady again now. Three tremendous blows in quick succession, then a pause and another crackle as fresh squibs went off. More blows and the steel head of an axe showed through a considerable gap.
"All right, Chi, I'm coming," said Jim as he squeezed through, then, as he straightened up, imagine his amazement to see not Chi Ling but Parami.
"You!" he gasped.
"Come quick," was all that Parami said.
"Wait a jiffy," said Jim. "Got any more fireworks?"
"Some here still," said Parami, "but you not wait. Naroa, him very angry you go."
Jim glanced round, then grabbed a couple of Roman candles, lighted them swiftly and chucked them back into the tribal house.
"That'll give 'em something to bite on," he said. "They'll think a big debbil is loose inside and won't start after us till it's all quiet. Now then, collar the rest of the stuff and let's go."
Each grabbed up a few fireworks from the big bag that Parami had brought, then all three bolted away into the darkness. It was not as dark as they would have liked for one of the rockets, fired at random by Parami, had set fire to a thatched hut which blazed like a bonfire. Jim looked back.
"All right. They're too scared to follow," And the words were hardly out of his month before a man sprang out of the bushes into the narrow path in front and stabbed at Parami with a spear. It was Naroa himself. Parami dodged, and Don, leaping in, smote the wizard in the jaw with his fist and knocked him head over heels backward into a clump of thorns. Then they hurried on.
Alone Don and Jim would have been hopelessly lost in the thick tangled bush, but Parami seemed to have a sort of sixth sense and somehow kept them on the narrow, twisting trail which led downhill to the beach. Jim was crazy to ask questions but Parami kept on at such a pace that he had not breath to do so and at last they saw the gleam of stars in the smooth surface of the lagoon and stumbled out, panting and almost exhausted, on to the ring of white sand which bordered it. Jim stared; he rubbed his eyes. "The Dolphin—where is she?" he gasped.
"Him gone. Other schooner! gone," Parami answered. The blow was so stunning that it struck Don and Jim silent.
"Him, Jansen, go 'way before dark," Parami told them.
"Then what's the use of our escaping?" asked Don bitterly. "We're tied to the island. In the morning Naroa will drag us back, and this time he'll probably finish us."
"We no stay here," said Parami simply. "We take canoe. We take two canoe."
"Canoes—what good are they?" said Don.
"A jolly sight better than nothing," Jim told him briefly. "We'll be out of sight of the island before daylight."
"And what then We can't catch Jansen. And we have no food or water."
"Have plenty food," Parami told him. "Have plenty water."
Don stared. "Where? How?"
"I got him in canoe," said Parami patiently. "You come see." He led them to two canoes which lay drawn up on the beach, just above high water mark. They were long, narrow things, each carved out of a log. The natives went far out in them fishing, but they were terribly frail craft in which to face any weather. Parami showed in one of them a sack of provisions and in the other two petrol tins full of water fresh from the stream.
"'Pon my word, you're a bit of a wonder, Parami," said Jim with warm approval. "Come on, Don, let's got to it."
"But what's the use of two canoes?" Don questioned. "We can all get in one."
"Two better than one," Parami explained. "We tie two to make one."
"I know what he means," declared Jim. "A catamaran, and that will carry a sail. Help me to shove 'em down, Don. You and I will go in one and Parami in the other."
"That right," said Parami in his simple way, and at once they set to work. They pushed the canoes down, launched them, got aboard and started away for the passage out of the lagoon. By the greatest of good luck the tide was ebbing and so helped them through the passage. In less than half an hour they were clear of the island and paddling side by side across a windless sea. They looked back but there was no sign of pursuit and they dared at last to slack off.
"Where's Chi Ling?" was Don's first question.
"I not know. I think him in ship."
"Then how came you ashore, Parami?"
"I tell Chi Ling I scared. He say I foolish, then I say I go shore for water. He not mind, and I take Kupa. I take bag of spitting fires and grub. Kupa take boat back and I hide in bush and wait. Then I see big fat man come back. He smiling like cat, and I hear him speak his men and say go Dolphin. Then I know."
Don stretched out his hand and took Parami's brown one and gave it a hearty grasp. "If we ever get out of this," he said, "we owe it all to you. Now what's your advice?"
Parana's answer was prompt.
"I say go to island"—he pointed down toward the south—"tie canoes and make sail. Then we chase fat man."
"Sounds good sense to me," said Don. "What do you think, Jim?"
"If there is an island handy it's the very best thing we can do. Do you know of one?"
"There are several," Don told him. "If I had a compass I could be pretty sure of fetching one."
"I got compass," said Parami. "In grub bag."
"You're a wonder," said Don warmly. "Get it out, Jim."
Jim got it. It was a small thing, little more than a toy, but it made all the difference. By the light of a match Don got his bearings and pointed to a star by which they were to steer.
"We must push on while it's cool," he said, "and with any luck we ought to sight land about dawn." He flipped his paddle and Jim did the same. And so they started, two men and a boy, in two tiny dug-out canoes with a pistol and food for three days.
A GOLDEN dawn breaking slowly over the great waste of waters found the three still paddling, but even Parana was showing signs of fatigue, As for Jim, his body was one great ache, and though his paddle still rose and fell the action was simply that of a machine that is wound up and goes on until it runs down. As in a dream he heard Parami's voice: "I see him island."
Jim looked up, and there, straight ahead, a tall mountain seemed to rise straight out of the calm sea, The top caught the rays of the sun which to them was still below the horizon and shone like a beacon.
Don roused himself.
"I know it," he said. "It's Omoto."
"What's it like?" asked Jim hoarsely.
"I don't know much about it; it's small and I don't think there are any natives. It's just a volcanic peak."
"Can we land?"
"I think so."
"Thanks be. I'm all in, Don."
"I should just about think you were, you poor chap," replied Don. "I'm pretty near finished myself. Can you last another hour?"
Jim braced himself. "Rather!" he said, with a brave attempt at a smile. Parami spoke.
"We stop and grub," he suggested.
"That's a good notion," Don agreed. They stopped paddling, and Parami dived into the food sack and brought out biscuits and potted meat. Jim could not eat much but he drank two tin cups of water, and it did him good. His hands were badly blistered, and Parami made him rub a little butter on them, The great red sun was just heaving itself out of the sea when they started paddling once more.
Of the next hour the less said the better, for it was a terrible one. Yet at last they won to land to find a steep beach of white sand lying beneath a tall cliff. And in the cliff opposite was a deep, narrow ravine which seemed to lead upward into the high centre of the island. Here they staggered ashore, and Parami looked round.
"I tink him safe," he said. "I tink we sleep." Dragging the canoes up just far enough to be safe from drifting away, the three managed to reach the shaded gorge, and there they dropped on the dry sand and were fast asleep almost as soon as they reached ground.
The shadow's had turned from west to east when Jim was roused by someone gently shaking him.
"You better?" asked Parami in his soft voice.
Jim sat up. "Heaps," he said, "and hungry as a horse."
Parami smiled and nodded. "Grub ready," he said, and pointed to a little fire on which a pot of coffee simmered.
"You are a brick," Jim said, and Parami, though he had probably never seen a brick, understood the compliment and smiled again. Don was awake too, and to both him and Jim that coffee was the most delicious drink they had ever known. They drank it all, they ate biscuits, potted meat, and bananas, then Don pointed to a tiny thread of water which ran down the ravine.
"A wash, then we must get on," he said.
They found a little pool clear as crystal and deliciously cool, and stripped and bathed. Parami had already bathed and was filling the water-cans. As he came back with them to the beach his face was thoughtful.
"You know where go?" he asked of Don.
Don shrugged. "That's just what's been puzzling me. I've been trying to worry out which way Jansen has gone. He'd want, of course, to sell the pearls as soon as he could, and the question is where would he find the best market."
"Surely Thursday Island," said Jim.
"I'm not so sure. The dealers there are pretty smart. But the main objection to his going in that direction is that he couldn't take the Dolphin there."
"For all we know he may have scuttled her," said Jim bitterly.
"I don't think it. She's worth seven hundred, and Jansen isn't the sort to chuck that away."
"Then where could he have gone?"
"Well, we can be sure he hasn't gone North, for all those islands to the North are in the Japanese mandate. And he hasn't gone due South for that's New Guinea, and no good to him; But he might make for Broome."
"That's on the west coast of Australia, isn't it?" asked Jim.
"North-west. But it's one of the main pearling centres, and he'd be safer there than at Thursday Island."
"Suppose we see," suggested Parami.
"What on earth do you mean?" asked Don in great surprise.
Parami pointed upward to the tall peak that rose above them. "We go up there, perhaps we see," he said.
Don whistled softly. "I never thought of that. Jim, he's right. It's been almost dead calm for the past thirty-six hours, and I don't believe that Jansen would have used his engine, for he never believed there could be any pursuit. From the top we can see at least thirty miles. I really think it's worth it."
"Quite a sound idea, I think," said Jim. "I'm game. We'd better start at once, for there isn't too much daylight left."
"All right. You lead, Parami."
The way was steep, but this island was purely volcanic, and there had been an eruption not so very long ago. Consequently the sides of the peak were mostly covered with lava, and there was not a great deal of scrub, so they got on rapidly and within little more than an hour had reached the summit, a height of about two thousand feet. Here was a small crater still hot and with a nasty smell of sulphur reeking from cracks in the rock, but at this height there was a little breeze and by keeping to windward they avoided the fumes. All around them the sea spread like a flat blue plain. To the north Aroa Island was plainly visible and to the south were several small islands. Very far away, like a cloud on the horizon, rose the great mountainous mass of Ysabel, one of the largest of the Solomons. But it was not land they were looking for, and it was the keen eyes of Parami that first spotted the object of their search.
"Him ship," he said briefly.
"Two ships," added Jim sharply. "Yes, I see them plainly, don't you, Don?"
"I see them. If I had a pair of glasses I could be sure."
"But there can't be any doubt," said Jim.
"I don't think there can be," agreed Don as he stared at the two dots far away to the South-West. "I believe that big thief is making for Broome."
"Is there any earthly chance of catching them?" asked Jim earnestly.
"A mighty slim one, old chap. One thing is sure. We can never do it by paddling."
"Then we must tie the two canoes together and make a sail."
"What are you going to make it of?" asked Don—"unless we use our shirts, and they wont go very far."
"I make sail," said Parami suddenly. "I make him coconut bark."
Jim stared but Don said: "Yes. It is to be done, but it will take a day, or so."
Jim glanced once more at the two schooners down in the distance. "Let's get to it, then," he said eagerly. "If we get back at once we can start tonight."
"That's the spirit," said Don and down they went, plunging over steep slopes and taking big chances on great slides of broken pumice. They were at the bottom again in little more than half the time it had taken to climb the mountain, and made their way down the little stream to the beach. Jim was the first to emerge on to the open beach and the others heard his cry of dismay.
"Look!" said Jim in a tone in which horror and despair were equally mingled. He pointed to the two canoes which lay in broken fragments on the beach. They looked as if a mad elephant had been stamping on them.
DON seized Jim by the arm and dragged him hastily backward into the shelter of the bushes.
"What's the matter?" asked Jim dully.
"The matter is that the thing, whatever it is, that has wrecked those canoes is probably waiting to do the same for us."
"What can it be?"
"Not natives, anyhow, is it, Parami?"
"It not natives," agreed Parami. "I tink him white man."
"White man!" exclaimed Jim. "What white man would do a thing like that?"
Parami touched his forehead significantly, and Jim understood.
"Loony—mad, you mean?"
"I believe he's right," said Don. "That job has been done with an axe."
"But I thought you said there was no one on the island," said Jim.
"No natives, but it's just the sort of place where one of these island hermits settle and, as Parami says, the chances are he's as mad as a hatter."
"Nice job for us," remarked Jim bitterly. "We're properly done in now."
"Lucky if it's no worse," Don answered.
"We may be the next victims." He broke off as Parami touched his arm. "You not talk so loud, please. I tink him listen."
"Did you hear him?" asked Don in a whisper. He himself had heard nothing, but he knew the keenness of Parami's ears. Parami pointed to the bush which covered the opposite side of the ravine.
"Him there. We move," he said briefly. They sneaked away through the thick bushes, and just as well they did so, for next moment a gun roared and a charge of shot tore through the leaves of the very bush under which they had been hiding.
The only thing was to clear out and they did so, creeping from bush to bush. It was an awkward place to be caught in for behind was a steep, bare bluff. The only thing to do was to move up the ravine, taking cover as they went. Two more shots were fired, but it was clear that their enemy did not know just where they were for none of them was touched.
At last they got back to the top of the ravine into thick bush, and following Parami crawled into a thicket of hibiscus where they lay and waited.
"What on earth are we to do?" asked Jim. He was more angry than frightened.
"We've got to get that fellow somehow," said his brother.
"Much chance we have of that!" retorted Jim. "He'll get us first with that old scatter gun of his."
"Well, we can't stay here," said Don.
"Our grub's gone as well as our canoes. We shall simply starve if we can't get hold of him." He turned to Parami. "What's your idea?" he asked.
"I tink we go beach," said Parami.
"Man got boat perhaps."
"By Jove, he's hit it," exclaimed Jim.
"Of course he's got a boat somewhere, and if we can only find it we can take it instead of our canoes."
"It seems about the only possible plan," agreed Don, "but you'll better remember we're not going to find it easily. A man like this will have hidden his boat pretty carefully. And he may be watching it."
"I don't care," said Jim doggedly. "I don't care if it takes a week. That boat's our only chance of getting away and catching up with Jansen."
Don consulted with Parami and they moved again. They dared not show themselves, and it was weary work crawling on hands and knees through the scrub. It was nasty thorny stuff, too, and their knees and clothes both suffered. They worked back down the western side of the ravine, only to come upon the edge of the cliff which was too steep to climb down, so they turned and, keeping as much under cover as possible, made west along the rim of the cliffs. So they skirted the base of the mountain, and beyond it came to more level country. The cliff here was only a low bluff and beyond was a low-lying sandy stretch with reed beds and ugly, mangrove trees. By this time it was getting near sunset.
"A nice look-out," growled Jim. "No supper and we daren't even light a fire to keep off the mosquitoes."
"There won't be many here," Don said; "it's too sandy. And I think we shall be fairly safe. Two can sleep and one keep guard."
Parami pointed to a big wild fig tree which grew at no great distance.
"I tink dat good place," he said and the others agreed.
A little beyond and below it began a big bed of reeds; Parami, going down into this, pulled armfuls to make a bed. Then just before dark he went away again and came back in triumph carrying the body of a huge lizard.
"What are you going to do with that? Jim asked.
"Him guanny. Him make supper."
"But you can't cook it for you can't light a fire."
"I light fire," said Parami confidently. "No one see." He scooped a hollow, he got some very dry wood and built a tiny fire which gave practically no smoke and being right under the thick shade of the banyan could not be seen. Meantime he skinned and cut up the iguana and a most appetising smell it gave out. When cooked it looked like chicken, and tasted as good.
"You're a jewel, Parami," vowed Jim, and though Parami said nothing there was a pleased look in his grave, brown eyes.
THE night passed quietly enough and not uncomfortably, but day had hardly broken before Parami had them out.
"We look for boat," he said, and Don agreed. The island was only a few miles round and they decided that the only way to find the boat was to make a complete circle of it, so they went back to where they had left off the previous night and followed round the coast. At first they saw no one, but they had not gone far before Parami pulled up.
"Someone come," he said. "I tink we hide in rushes."
Neither Don nor Jim had heard anything, but they knew too well to neglect the warning. All three crept into the tall rushes and lay flat. A slight crackling sound came to their ears. It seemed as if someone were pushing through the dry reeds. Suddenly Parami went tense. He was sniffing the air like a dog.
"I smell smoke," he muttered.
"Smoke," repeated Jim. "Yes, so do I." The crackling had changed to a sharp snapping and suddenly a pungent cloud of smoke blew down upon them.
"What's up?" asked Jim.
"Him crazy fellow put fire in dem reeds," replied Parami.
The reed bed was well alight. There was no doubt about that, and the wind, though light, was carrying the flames straight down upon them.
"This is about the limit," snapped Jim.
"It will be a bit beyond the limit if we stay here," said Don. "We have to go; and sharp about it."
"But that's just what the crazy fellow wants us to do," replied Jim. "And then he'll be waiting for us with that old scatter gun."
"Not if we're quick," said Don. "We can go straight ahead through the reeds while he must go round."
But it was hot work and hard work forcing a way through those tall, stiff reeds. Jim for one was precious glad when they began to thin and he found himself on more open ground. He stopped.
"Where do we go now?" he asked of Parami.
"We go beach," replied Parami, and as this seemed as good a plan as any they hurried straight on until they came to the edge of a low bluff and saw sand beneath them and, beyond that, the sea. By this time the reed bed was blazing like a young volcano, and smoke was hanging in a great cloud far out over the blue water.
"He can't see us anyhow," said Jim. "What shall we do now?"
"What's your notion?" Don asked of Parami. Parami pointed to the left.
"We go up beach, Captain. Fire, him stop man coming that way." He was right, for the reed bed stretched farther to the left than to the right, so it seemed plain that the man with the gun would take the shorter cut. They hurried on, keeping close under the bluff. The Sun was well up now and it was very hot while the glare from the white sand was blinding. They had had no breakfast, they were hungry and thirsty, and Jim was beginning to feel decidedly annoyed.
"Hang it all, Don," he grumbled, "we can't spend the rest of our lives running away from this lunatic. What are we going to do about it?"
"If you can tell me I'll be glad," said Don dryly. "Myself, I'd sooner run than get peppered with bird shot."
"I don't believe he's chasing us," vowed Don.
"Him chase us now," said Parami. "You look, little master. Him after us sure 'nough." Jim glanced back over his shoulder, and gasped. Parami was right, for less than a quarter of a mile behind a tall, gaunt man raced after them. His gun swung at the end of one long arm, and his strides devoured the ground at a great pace.
Jim forgot all about his resolution to stop running and sprinted like a hare. A little way ahead the beach curved to the left around a low headland. The three running hard passed this and for the moment were out of sight of their pursuer. Suddenly Parami checked his pace.
"Him cave," he said quickly, and pointed to a narrow fissure in the face of the bluff which rose here to a height of forty feet.
"Good business!" panted Jim, and he, Don, and Parami all made for the opening.
The mouth was ten or twelve feet above the beach, but it was easy enough to scramble up, and they dived into the welcome shade. It was quite a small place but there was room for them all, and the best of it was that the floor dipped inward so that when they lay flat they could not be seen from outside. They were hardly hidden before the long man came round the point. He seemed to be running as fast as ever, and he still clung to his gun.
He stopped a moment as if he were surprised that his quarry was no longer in view, but the beach curved again a few hundred yards farther on and he seemed to think that the men he hunted so vigorously were out of sight round the bend. At any rate he kept straight on. Jim heaved a sigh of relief.
"That's all right," he whispered. "It gives us a chance to got our wind back."
"That's about all," said Don, "for as soon as he gets round the next bend and finds we're not within sight he'll smell a rat and come back. Our only chance is to catch the fellow," he said gravely, "catch him without hurting him if we can, but catch him anyhow. As it is, we're wasting a lot of valuable time."
Jim glanced out at the sea which lay almost as smooth as a pond.
"There's no wind yet," he said. "I shouldn't think the schooners have got far since we saw them yesterday." He broke off sharply. "What's that?" A shout had come from the far side of the next point around which their enemy had disappeared. It was a strange, high-pitched cry, full of terror. A moment later it came again.
"Him man scared," said Parami quickly. "I tink we go help." Don hesitated.
"Yes; but what's got him? There are no wild beasts on this island."
"Help!" Now there was no doubt about the urgency of the cry. Don delayed no longer. He scrambled down the bluff and the other followed. As they rounded the point they found themselves on the edge of a little inlet into which ran a tiny brook which came down from the heights of the mountain above. The brook had cut itself a shallow channel through the sand, but there was hardly any water in this channel. In the middle of it was the long man up to his waist. At that moment he shouted again, a cry full of terror.
Jim started to run forward, but Parami caught him by the arm. "You no go there," he exclaimed warningly. "It quicksand."
Jim turned a horrified face to his brother. "How are we to get him out?"
"I KNOW," said the ever-ready Parami, and darted up the beach to a spot where some bushes grew. By main force he tore off branches until he had a great armful. Don and Jim, seeing what he was about, ran to his help, and soon each had a big faggot. Carrying these, they ran down to the spot where the tall man was stuck.
By this time he had seen them, and, realising that they were going to help him, had ceased struggling. He had laid his gun crossways in front of him, and by putting part of his weight on it had checked the rate at which he was sinking. Yet he was still going down, and now was in the horrid stuff half way up his chest.
Parami went first, testing the sand at each step with his bare feet. The moment he found that he was sinking he flung down his bundle of branches. These gave him fresh foothold and he called to Don and Jim to throw him theirs. With these he made a sort of platform over which he was able to crawl and so reach the sinking man. The poor fellow was quiet enough now. He seemed to be almost insensible, for his eyes were closed and his sunburned face had gone a sickly yellow.
Parami got hold of him and tried to move him, but the man was fast in the sticky mess. Parami tucked branches under his arms to keep him from going deeper and crawled back.
"We want rope," he announced.
"Rope," repeated Jim. "Where on earth can we get it?"
Parami pointed to Jim's sheath-knife. "You lend him. I get rope."
Jim had not the faintest idea what Parami meant, but he had such complete faith in the man that he at once passed over the knife. Parami went off at full speed up the inlet. He was away about a quarter of an hour and came back dragging a great length of liana, the stem of a creeper tough and thick as a two-inch rope. He was panting, but the anxious look left his face as he saw that the long man had not sunk much farther.
Still dragging the bush rope, he crawled out again and fastened it round the victim's body, then he came back to firm ground and the three started pulling. Slowly and gradually they dragged the unfortunate man out of the sand that had so nearly been his tomb, and then they carried him into the shade and laid him down.
The fellow was shaggy, wild-eyed, and unkempt, yet his features were good, and it was quite clear that he was not one of the sea tramps they call beachcombers who infest the beautiful islands of the South Seas.
"Feeling better?" asked Don.
The man did not answer, but still stared fiercely. "I don't like the look of him," said Jim in a low voice.
"He's harmless enough," Don replied. Although Don spoke in a whisper the other caught what he said.
"Harmless," he repeated bitterly. "Yes, for my gun's gone. And now what are you going to do with me?" He set his teeth. "You can cut me in pieces, but you'll never get the secret from my lips."
"I haven't the least desire to cut you in pieces," replied Don. "And as for your secret, all I want to know from you is why you smashed up our canoes and tried to murder us with that old gun of yours?"
A look of intense surprise crossed the long man's face, and his pale blue eyes seemed to bore into Don's.
"Aren't you Gabe Paran's gang?" he asked at last.
"I never heard of the gentleman," Don told him. "My name is Donald Dysart, this is my brother Jim, and the native is our very good friend Parami."
The other still gazed up at Don.
"How do you come here?" he asked, and Ron told him. He did not, of course, give the whole story and he said nothing about the red pearls. When he mentioned Jansen the long man woke up in earnest. His pale eyes gleamed with a fierce light.
"That brute!" he exclaimed. "He's in with Gabe Paran. Those two are birds of a feather." He chuckled harshly. "So he fooled you too, and stole your schooner. I don't wonder. He's fooled older and cleverer men than you." He paused. "And what are you going to do about it?"
"We were chasing him when you smashed our canoes," put in Jim sharply.
"How would I know they were yours? I thought they belonged to Paran's gang. He's been after me this long time, trying to get my—" He stopped short and the look of suspicion came back into his eyes.
"Your gold," said Don. "You needn't be afraid," he added a little scornfully. "We don't want your gold. We want our schooner and the pearls that Jansen has stolen from us."
The other looked suddenly ashamed.
"You're all right," he said gruffly. "I can see that now. But you must forgive me. Here I've been for weeks fighting that brute, single-handed. You can't blame me if I'm on edge." He stopped again. "See here," he went on after a moment's thought. "My name's Weldon, Mark Weldon. You'd better come along to my place and have a bite of food, and we'll talk things over."
"We'll be glad to, Mr Weldon," said Don frankly, "But the one thing we don't want to waste is time. The schooners were still in sight last night. If you have a launch we might catch up with them and retake the Dolphin."
Weldon shook his head.
"I've got nothing but an old sail boat. But see here. You fellows help me and I'll help you. Help me to get my gold away; we'll take it across to Thursday Island, use some of it to hire a fast launch, and then we'll go out and wipe up the whole of this gang."
He rose stiffly and started away.
At first he moved slowly, but soon he seemed to limber up, and quickened his pace. He took them straight back to the inlet where they had first landed and beyond that plunged into thick bush.
"This way," he said, and they followed him into the most curious place they had ever seen. It was a circular cave about thirty feet across. Light came from a small hole in the dome and roof, showing walls which resembled black glass, and a flat floor. Jim stared. "Who made this?" he demanded.
Weldon chuckled. "The volcano," he answered. "It's a lava bubble. Not a bad treasure house." He pointed as he spoke to six small sacks standing against the wall. Each was full to the brim with what looked like fine yellow gravel, but which even Jim could see was gold.
DON went across and looked at the sacks. He tried to lift one and found it all he could do.
He turned an astonished face to Weldon.
"I knew there was gold in the Solomons," he said, "but this!"
"A pocket," explained Weldon. "Every bit of it came out of a deep pool at the head of this little creek. For thousands of years the water has been washing down gold from some lode which is hidden under the lava. An old friend of mine, Bill Harrigan, stumbled on it by chance, and saw that if he could drain the pool there was a fortune to be had. He told me and I put up the money for a boat and a pump. We started six months ago, and—and there it is." He paused.
"And Bill?" asked Jim gently.
"Dead," said Mark Weldon bitterly. "He was wounded in a fight with Gabe Paran's men, and though I did what I could he caught fever and died. But his wife and kids—they must have his share. I must get the stuff out for their sake more than for my own." He spoke with a fierce earnestness. Don swung round and put out his hand.
"We're with you in that, Mr Weldon. You can count on us all three."
Weldon smiled, and the smile was a very pleasant one.
"Thank you," he said cordially. "I'm really grateful. And you have my word that I'll do all I can to help you to get back your pearls." He paused a moment, then went on. "And see here, if we're going into this together you can cut out the mister. Mark's good enough." He smiled again and turned to a small stove in the centre. "Now we'll see about that breakfast I promised you. There's a tin of tongue I've been saving. I think this is the time to open it."
All helped, and in a very short time breakfast was ready—hot coffee with condensed milk, biscuits, tinned butter, tongue and, greatest luxury of all, a dish of apple rings stewed with sugar. Don and Jim had not tasted civilised food since Sunday and they enjoyed every mouthful. While they ate they talked and decided to load up Mark's boat with the gold and get away as soon as possible.
"Where is the boat?" Jim asked.
"Where you wouldn't find it if you searched for a week," Mark told him. "And yet it's not a quarter of a mile from here." He handed Jim a piece of soap. "You chaps will want a wash. The brook's quite close. And while you're out I'll try to find you clean shirts and socks."
"Him good man," was Parami's verdict as he went but, and his two young masters thoroughly agreed. It was a joy to have a regular wash, especially as the day had turned intensely hot, and they did the job thoroughly while they were about it. When they found their way back into the odd circular cave both pulled up short and stared at the tall, good-looking stranger who was awaiting them, The man laughed.
"I thought a shave might change me, but I hardly thought you wouldn't recognise me," he said with much amusement.
"I wouldn't have believed a shave could have made all that difference," vowed Jim, who could not take his eyes off the other. "Why you look about twenty years younger."
"And how old do you think I am?" asked Mark.
"Forty," suggested Jim, and Mark laughed again.
"I'm only thirty-three, Jim. But we haven't time to talk about ourselves. We must get this gold aboard the boat." He shouldered a sack and the other three each took one, then they started back through the scrub. It seemed hotter than ever.
"Storm brewing," said Mark as he led them out into the open close to the mouth of the creek. "Lay your stuff here and I'll show you where the boat is."
They dropped their sacks and Mark turned and vanished into scrub which was thick as a hedge. They followed and suddenly found themselves on the edge of a little deep pool surrounded by steep banks, where the brush grew so thick and high it met overhead so that no sunlight reached the surface of the dark water. And there was the boat, a good sound craft about thirty feet long, half-decked and, if old, looking quite able to stand up to a rough sea. Her mast was unstepped, so that nothing of her could be seen from the creek close by. Don's eyes widened.
"We shouldn't have found her in a month of Sundays," he said. "How did you ever chance on this place, Mark?"
"Harrigan found it—how I don't know. It's a sink hole, very deep, with a spring at the bottom and fresh water though it is so close to the sea.
"How do you get her out?" asked Jim.
Mark pointed. "There's the channel. Only it's hidden by a screen of bushes. It runs into the creek itself. Now let's load up, then we must go back for the rest and the grub."
They stacked the gold in the boat. Mark lifted the bottom boards and got rid of some of the pig-iron ballast, replacing this with gold bags.
"First time you ever saw a boat ballasted with gold, I vow," he said. "Now for the rest. Three of us can get it. One had better stay here and keep guard."
"Leave Parami," said Don. "He's got better sight and hearing than any of us. And," he added in a whisper to Mark, "he's as plucky as a lion." Mark agreed, and the three whites went back, leaving Parami with the boat. It took them quite half an hour to get the food and the other odds and ends packed up, and they were heavily laden when they returned toward Mark's hidden pool. It was hotter than ever yet the sky was still clear enough except for an odd yellowish haze.
Imagine their surprise, when they were still in the thick of the sand, to be met by Parami. "Schooner, him come," he said briefly. "Him, Dolphin."
THE news took Don's breath away. "The Dolphin here! You're dreaming," he retorted.
"I no dream. I see him through bushes. I quite sure, master."
"Of course he's sure," said Mark swiftly. "It's exactly what would happen. And it's my silly fault. All that smoke I made burning the reed bed. It must have been visible miles out to sea. Of course Jansen and Co. smelled a rat, and Jansen has sent the Dolphin back to find out what's up."
"Then who's aboard her?" asked Jim.
"You don't need to ask. It's Gabe Paran, for a certainty. But we'll make sure. First, we'll hide this gold in the boat, then well climb to the top of the bluff and scout." The gold was carefully stowed, the bags of food were hidden in the bushes, then all four climbed cautiously to the top of the rising ground between the pool and the beach. Reaching the top, they crept through the bushes.
"Go slow, you two," said Mark. "Remember that we haven't a dog's chance if they spot us."
"Well be careful," Jim promised, and very cautiously pushed aside a thick branch and peered out. He ducked back.
"She's there," he said in a voice that shook with excitement. "The dear old Dolphin, Don. Oh, can't we manage to collar her?"
"No use thinking of that, I'm afraid," said Don sadly. "This fellow Paran has probably a dozen men aboard and we are only four."
"But this hangs us up," said Jim. "We can't get away so long as these fellows hang about. What will they do, Mark?"
"They'll come ashore to hunt for me and my gold," replied Mark. "And this time I doubt if they'll go till they've combed the whole island. I'm not afraid of him or any white men," he went on; "but if they have Malays or black trackers the odds are they'll pick up the scent."
"Sounds cheerful," growled Jim. "But you're right. They are coming ashore."
The Dolphin was anchored about a quarter of a mile out, and a boat was being got out.
"My boat," Jim heard Don mutter.
No fewer than six men got into her and began to row ashore. Mark took from his pocket a case containing a small pair of glasses, focused them, and gazed hard and long at the advancing boat.
"Gabe all right," he said softly, "and there's one other chap I recognise—Kapak. He's a Chinese, and, a real bad hat; what's more he's got precious sharp eyes. I don't like it a bit, you chaps."
Don shrugged his shoulders. "We can't do anything, can we?"
"No," said Mark. "Only sit tight and hope for the best. If it comes to a scrap—"
He paused and looked at the others.
"We'll scrap all right," said Jim with a grin. Mark handed him the glasses.
Jim took the glasses and focused them to suit his eyes. In a moment he had them fixed on the man who sat in the stern of the boat, holding the tiller lines. He saw a scrawny figure, long legged and long armed, with a small head, a beaked nose, and a skinny neck. The face was disfigured by a crescent-shaped scar running from the corner of the left eye right down to the mouth. He lowered the glasses and turned to Mark.
"Why he's the dead spit of a blizzard," he said, and in spite of the seriousness of the situation Mark chuckled.
The boat came rapidly in toward the mouth of the creek and the four watchers lay silent. The keel grated on the beach, and the men jumped out and pulled her up. Paran got out. He was dressed in a pair of blue dungaree trousers, fastened round his waist by a dirty red sash, and a cotton vest. An ugly-looking pistol was thrust into the sash; he looked like a shoddy imitation of a pirate. Standing on the beach he addressed his men.
"Kapak, you stay right here and watch the boat," he ordered in a harsh voice which had a strong American accent. "The rest of ye come along with me. And see here. This time I don't take excuses from any of you. That old coot's on the island, and we've got to find him. You get me?"
"We get him, cap'n," said one of the men fingering the big knife that hung at his side. "We get him and we get his gold. I, Sula, swear it." And with that they all filed away up the creek bank.
"The old coot—that's me," whispered Mark with a twinkle in his eyes, and Jim smiled back. Then they lay still again while Kapak stalked up and down the beach smoking a poisonous-looking black cheroot. The sound of the feet of Gabe's party died away and the hot silence fell again. The sea was like oil, the sun burned through the haze, looking like a great brass gong. Parami leaned over till his lips were close to Don's ear.
"Master," he whispered, "why we no take dat boat and go for schooner?"
Don's eyes took an eager look, but that faded almost at once. "No good," he said. "Kapak would see us and shout or shoot, then Gabe's men would be on top of us in no time."
Parami was not discouraged.
"It rain pretty soon," he said. "Then I catch dat Kapak."
Mark was listening. "He's right, Don. There's the dickens of a storm brewing. It's just on the cards we might be able to scupper that Malay gentleman and seize the boat."
Jim glanced up and saw that above the mountain peak the sky was turning black. The storm was actually forming over the island. Suddenly a white flash clove the darkness and was followed by a splitting crash. Down came the rain like a water spout, drenching them all in an instant.
Parami spoke again. "I go, please?"
Don looked at Mark. "Yes, let him try it," said Mark, and next instant Parami was gone. The rain roared down like a cataract, splashing up from the ground in a thick water mist through which their eyes could not penetrate.
Jim was nearly crazy with excitement. It was all he could do to keep still. The lightning flared again and gave a glimpse of Parami crawling along the beach below like a great brown snake. But there was no sign of Kapak and instinctively Jim knew that the Malay was sheltering behind the boat which had been dragged up on the sand. He waited breathlessly for the next flash and beside him felt Don quivering like himself with suspense. At last it came. Jim leaped to his feet.
"He's got him," he cried. Mark and Don were up almost as quickly as he, and all three raced recklessly down the slope through the streaming rain. As they reached the boat Parami rose to his feet and his white teeth flashed in a grin.
"I tell you I get him," he said and pointed to Kapak, who lay flat on his face on the sand with his wrists knotted together behind his back.
"Well done!" cried Don. He turned to Mark.
"Now's our chance," he said swiftly. "If we take this boat and go straight out to the Dolphin we shall be aboard her before Paran's men know what's up. What do you say, Mark?"
"But my gold," said Mark. "We can't leave that."
Don caught him by the arm.
"Mark, if we wait to get your gold the storm will be over, and our chance will have gone west. It's now or never."
Mark nodded. "I'm with you," he said simply.
DON grasped Mark's hand. "You're a brick," he said warmly. "We'll come back for your gold. But hurry. The worst of the storm is over and we must reach the Dolphin before the rain stops."
"Yes, but what about this fellow?" asked Mark, pointing to Kapak. "We can't leave him here to tell his master just what's happened."
"We can't take him with us, that's one thing sure," Don answered. "We'd better carry him into the bushes and leave him. Loosen the cords a little so that after a bit he can free himself. After all, once we're away Gabe Paran's gang can't hurt us."
Mark agreed, and they lugged the scowling Malay into the bushes and slackened the cords so that in time he could get free. Before they left him Mark took the fez from his head. Then they rushed the boat down into the water, jumped in and pulled for the Dolphin. The storm was passing, but the rain still fell heavily, beating up in a mist from the surface of the sea. As they neared the schooner Mark stopped pulling for a moment.
"Don, take this fez and put it on instead of your own hat. It's not much of a disguise but it may just make the difference." Don nodded and did so. Next minute they were alongside the Dolphin.
Don, who was pulling bow, rose calmly to his feet, picked up a boat-hook and caught the rail which was just about level with his head. As he did so a man looked over from above. He was white, a squat, thick-chested fellow with a broad red face.
"Didn't expect you back as soon as this, Cap'n," he remarked. "Did you find—" He stopped short, his expression changed, his small eyes looked as if they were going to pop out of their sockets, while his mouth opened to yell. Don did not give him the chance. Reaching up like a flash he caught the man round the body and using all his strength jerked him over the rail. He came down into the bottom of the boat with a crash that nearly upset her.
"Gag him," whispered Don urgently, but there was no need, for the fall had stunned the man. Leaving him where he lay, the other four were over the rail in a flash. A Malay who had been in the little deck house and had evidently heard the crash ran out. Three more came up from below. Ugly-looking knives with crooked blades were gripped in their brown hands.
Mark raised his shotgun and fired a charge over their heads, and they paused.
"The next shot won't be in the air," he said curtly, and it was clear that they understood for though they scowled savagely they stood still.
"Drop your knives," was Mark's next order, and sullenly they obeyed.
"Pick up the knives, Parami," said Mark. "Don, you and Jim be good enough to tie them up."
It was done swiftly and securely.
"Question is, are there any more?" Jim asked.
"Not, likely," Mark answered. "Still, we'd better watch our step. Don, perhaps you'll attend to that fellow in the boat. Then we will go through the ship."
Don took a length of cord and lashed the hands and feet of the white man. Then they lifted him out of the boat and laid him with the other prisoners. He was none the worse except for a lump on the top of his head, but the business of the recapture of the schooner had been so sudden that he seemed dazed. Jim could hardly believe that they had gained such an easy victory.
"What do we do next, Don?" he asked.
"What Mark said—go through the ship."
"Yes; but what about those fellows?" Jim asked, pointing to the prisoners. "How do we deal with them?"
"You gib them me and I deal with dem all light," came a voice, and Jim turned.
"Chi Ling, you old pirate!" he cried, and seized both the Chinaman's hands in his. For once a flicker of real emotion showed in Chi Ling's usually impassive face, and he returned Jim's grip with interest.
"I plopel glad see you," he answered. "And Cap'n Don too. You klite well, Cap'n?"
"I'm feeling a heap better now I've got you back as well as the schooner, Chi," said Don cheerfully. "Mark, this is my old friend, cook, and diver, Chi Ling. Chi Ling, this is Mr Mark Weldon whom we met on the island there and who's done a lot to help us to get back the schooner."
Mark shook hands cordially with the tall Chinaman.
"I tink we got plopel clew now," said Chi Ling with something approaching a smile on his yellow face.
"But what about Kupa and Motu?" Don asked anxiously.
"Jansen, him take dem 'way, Cap'n. I tink dem in Stiletto."
"And the pearls?" asked Jim. Chi Ling glanced at the prisoners and made a sign for silence.
Don saw the movement. "We must get rid of that lot," he said briefly.
"Best thing you do, 'tlow dem over side," said Chi Ling.
"What makes you so hot against them?" asked Don.
"You see my galley, Cap'n, den you know," said Chi.
Don grunted and looked again at the prisoners.
"I think we'd best dump them on the island, Mark, If we dump them the far side we shall be safe enough."
"That will do all right," Mark agreed. "But as there's no wind we'd better get your engine moving. Is there petrol, Chi Ling?"
"Can do," said Chi, as he dropped below. The others set to getting up the anchor and inside five minutes the schooner was moving steadily away westward. The rain had swept away, the sun was out again, the whole island glowed like a newly-cleaned picture, when suddenly the quiet was broken by a sharp rattle of firing, and bullets came smacking against the hull of the Dolphin.
"Rifles," snapped Don as he flung himself flat behind the wheel. "Get down, Jim."
AS quickly as possible Don turned the Dolphin's head away from land and drove straight out to sea. The shots followed her but the range was long and they did no harm beyond smashing a scuttle glass. Presently they ceased, and Don told Parami to take the wheel while he picked up a pair of glasses and examined the shore.
"They're all there, Paran and the whole of his gang," he said to Mark, who stood by him.
"And mad as hornets," added Mark with a chuckle. "We're lucky to have got off without anyone being damaged. And now what are we to do about these prisoners?"
Don frowned. "I've a jolly good mind to make 'em swim ashore, but I suppose it wouldn't do. Sharks might get 'em. All the same, I'm not risking going back to Omotu. I shall unload them at the next island we come to and let them take their chance."
"Right you are," said Mark. "And now we'd best settle our plan of campaign."
"First we want to know where we stand," said Don. "My safe's been forced, I've seen that already. So the white pearls are gone, but I haven't had a chance yet to ask Chi about the red ones."
"Chi Ling hid them, you say?" asked Mark.
"That's it, so they're probably still aboard, and if they are I've a mind to push straight back to Thursday Island and settle things for Dad before we come back for your gold."
Mark nodded. "Just as you say. Now we'd better go down and talk to Chi. We can't call him up because someone's got to tend the engine."
"I'll give Parami the course and call Jim," said Don, and presently he, Mark, and Jim went below. Jim frowned angrily as he saw the state of things.
"Did you ever see such a filthy mess?" he exclaimed.
Chi Ling looked up as they approached. "You come ask pearls, Cap'n," he said quietly.
"That's it, Chi. Of course Jansen has rifled the safe. I've spotted that already. But the pink pearls: you hid them and I'm hoping they're safe."
Chi Ling hung his head.
"I velly solly, Cap'n. They gone too."
"Jansen has them?" asked Don sharply.
"He got dem, but he not know he got dem," was Chi's odd answer.
"Suppose you explain?" said Don.
"I tell you pletty klick," said Chi. "I hide dem pearls in one catlidge."
"But what a crazy thing to do!" said Don.
"I no' tlink him clazy at all," replied Chi. "I take out shot, put in pearls, put wad on top, den I put catlidge back in box and fix all up just like new."
"Seems to me rather an ingenious notion," put in Jim.
"Then Jansen has the whole box of cartridges?" Don asked.
Chi nodded. "Dat light, Cap'n. He say he want catlidges and he take all two boxes."
"And the next tiling that will happen is he'll fire ten thousand pounds' worth of pearls at a mollymawk," said Don bitterly.
"I no tink he do dat velly soon," Chi answered. "Dat box all paste lound with blue papel and look like new. Othel box, he open."
"Jansen's got the pearls," said Mark. "It's up to us to get them back."
"You're right," agreed Don frankly. "What's your idea, Mark?"
"I've no particular plan," said Mark. "I'm all for direct action. Chivvy the Stiletto for all we're worth, slip up on her by night and try to surprise her."
Don shrugged his broad shoulders. "It's taking big chances. We haven't a notion how many men Jansen has. It may be a score and we're only five all told."
"It may," agreed Mark, "but I don't think it's as many. My notion is that Gabe Paran and his lot of beauties are part of Jansen's crew."
"We didn't see anything of Paran when we were aboard the Stiletto last Sunday," objected Don.
"You wouldn't. Jansen wasn't giving anything away."
"There's another thing in our favour," struck in Jim. "Jansen hasn't a notion that we've collared the Dolphin, so the odds are he'll be waiting for us at some place or other. And we shall be able to come right alongside and surprise him."
"There's another point," said Don after a pause. "We might get some useful information out of our prisoners. With a little persuading one of them might tell us how many men Jansen has in his ship."
"A good notion," Mark agreed. "Let's have them down and question them."
"Right," said Don briskly. "And after that we'll lock them up in the fo'c'sle until we can get rid of them. We don't want them spying. Jim, you and I will fetch the white man down first."
The white man was in a savage temper.
"If you want to finish us you'd better chuck us over to the sharks instead of leaving us here to burn to death in the sun," he growled.
"You should have thought of that before stealing our schooner," Don answered dryly. "What's your name?"
"No business of yours," retorted the thick-set man harshly.
"All right. Stay and grill," said Don and turned away. But this was too much for the fellow. The sun was blazing down upon the deck, turning it into a very good imitation of a frying- pan.
"My name's Redburn," he snapped. "Now take me out of this and give me a drink."
"Where's the Stiletto?" questioned Don.
Redburn peered up at Don with suspicion in his small eyes. "Thinking of calling on Dirck?" he asked with a sneer.
"A bit more than calling," returned Don. "That pirate has my pearls."
"Want to catch him, do ye? Well, maybe I can help you. But take me outer this afore the sun burns me up."
They took him below and left him in the cabin, then the Malay prisoners were shut up in the fo'c'sle. They gave Redburn a drink, and he began to talk at once. Jansen, it seemed, was not bound for Broome. He had a secret harbour on the coast of the big island of Malaita. Redburn was willing, he said, to show them the way to this place if they would make it worth his while.
"And what do you want?" asked Don with a touch of scorn.
"A share of the pearls," replied the fellow. "There's four of you—and me. Give me a fifth share and I'm your man."
Don hesitated, but Jim did not.
"That sounds fair, Don. If I were you I'd agree."
Don's lips curled. "All bright, Redburn," he said. "You shall have your blood money." Then he turned away and went on deck. Jim followed. "You did that jolly well, Don," he said with a grin.
Don looked at him in blank surprise. "Oh, don't be a silly old ass," said Jim affectionately. "You knew that Redburn was kidding, didn't you? He hasn't the faintest notion of going back on Jansen."
"Then—do you mean he won't show us this secret harbour?"
"He'll show us that all right, only we won't run into it blindfold, as he thinks. Two can play at kidding," chuckled Jim.
MARK chuckled softly over Jim's story. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, young Jim," he said, "humbugging your big brother like that."
"It's not Don that's humbugged," retorted Jim. "It's that unpleasant person Redburn."
Mark laughed again. "Yes, it's all turned out very well. Couldn't have been better. Don is so straight that he can't understand a treacherous brute like Redburn."
"Don's the straightest chap alive," said Jim warmly, "and it's just because he is so straight that Redburn feels sure he's humbugged him."
"Take care he keeps on being sure," said Mark; "then he'll guide us straight to this secret harbour of Jansen's, and with a bit of luck I think we ought to come out on top. But here's the breeze. What about setting some sail and saving petrol?"
Don had already seen the dark ripple stealing across the glassy swell and was shouting to them to come and help to make sail. He told Chi to take the tiller while he and Mark and Jim and Parami hoisted the big mainsail. Very soon the schooner, under all plain sail, was lying over to a brisk breeze and fairly snorting through the water. When conditions suited her the Dolphin was very fast.
The sun was getting low and Jim relieved Chi at the tiller so that the Chinaman could cook supper.
When all was ready it was pleasant to sit down again to one of Chi's well-cooked meals. Don was eager, almost excited.
"If this breeze holds we ought to reach Jansen's harbour by tomorrow night," he said—"at least, that's what Redburn says."
"And when we get there, what then?" asked Mark quietly.
Don looked up sharply. "Why, we've got to settle him," he said.
"Five of us," said Mark in the same quiet voice, "against at least a dozen and probably more."
Don frowned. His was a downright nature. "But what else can we do?"
"Surely it's a case for strategy," smiled Mark. "We must use our wits if we want to get ahead of the Dutchman. We must try to get alongside before he has any idea of who we are."
"But he won't," said Don. "He can't have a notion that we've collared the Dolphin, He'll think it's his precious pal, Gabe Paran."
"Up to a point, yes, but once we're alongside he'll very soon spot his mistake. And it's just that minute or two that will make all the difference."
Don nodded. "I see. You're quite right, Mark. What are we to do?"
"That's just what we have to plan out," said Mark.
Jim spoke up. "Mark, you're thin; don't you think you could disguise yourself to look like Gabe?"
Mark laughed. "I might try."
"I don't suppose you could make yourself quite such an awful- looking buzzard," said Jim, "but if you painted a scar like his on your face it might humbug Jansen."
"I will try," promised Mark. "I'll certainly try." He turned to Don. "There's another thing. These Malay prisoners—couldn't we stick them up in the bow to add to the show? We could scare them into behaving nicely and keeping their mouths shut."
Don shook his head. "No," he said, with sharp decision. "Malays are treacherous, and I'm not going to risk it. There's a small island we shall reach in an hour or so. I'm dumping them there."
"Just as you like," agreed Mark.
"I'll keep Redburn. I must, for we need him to show us the way to this secret place of Jansen's. Now I'm going on deck to take the wheel and let Parami get his supper."
The breeze held and the Dolphin flung the miles behind her. In little more than an hour they came up under the lee of an islet, one of the hundreds of small atolls which strew these seas. Don hove to, they got the boat over, and Parami and Jim manned it. Then they put the prisoners in her with some food and some cooking pots.
"They won't starve," said Don. "There are plenty of coconuts and fish for the catching. Be careful with them, Jim," he added as the boat pushed off. "Don't untie them. You can leave them a knife so that they can cut one another loose."
He waited anxiously for the return of the boat, but all went well, and in less than half an hour Jim and Parami were safe back.
"They're better off than they deserve," grumbled Jim. "It's a perfect peach of an island. Grub enough there for a regiment. Where's Mark?"
"He went below," said Don. "Slack off the sheets, Parami. I hate losing even half an hour of this breeze."
Don, turning to go to the wheel, was startled by a cry from Jim. He swung round sharply, and there coming up out of the hatch was such a villainous-looking head that he stopped short and stood gazing at it in blank astonishment.
"It's Gabe or his ghost," gasped Jim as he stared at the ugly scarred face with its bushy eyebrows and coarse hair.
The ghost gave a sudden laugh. "Will I do?" he asked.
Jim burst out laughing. "How did you manage it, Mark?" he exclaimed.
"Tow and paint mainly," said Mark, emerging on deck. "I used to be rather a dab at amateur theatricals. Do you think I shall be good enough to humbug Jansen?"
"You humbugged us all right," declared Jim.
"And now you'd better turn in," said Don. "You and Jim both. I'll take the watch and call you later."
"I could do with a bit of shut-eye," agreed Jim with a yawn. "It's been a strenuous day." He slipped below, and in five minutes was sound asleep.
It seemed no time at all before Don roused him, and the first thing he noticed in the light of the swinging lamp was that his brother's face had a very grave look.
"What's up?" he asked.
"Glass dropping badly," was Don's response. "Breeze failing, too."
"What's it mean—storm?"
"Some sort of nasty weather brewing. Keep an eye on the glass, Jim, and rouse me if you see a change." He dropped on the settee and was asleep even before Jim had left the cabin.
WHEN Jim reached the deck he found that the breeze had died down so that the Dolphin had barely steerage way. The sky was still clear but the air had a close, heavy feel. He looked at the glass. It was 29.2 and falling slowly. Mark was at the wheel.
"Don thinks there's a storm brewing," said Jim.
"A cyclone, I fancy," was the brief answer.
Jim whistled. "What makes him think that?"
"Look at the run of the sea and watch the sheet lightning playing on the horizon."
Jim began to realise that the Dolphin was pitching heavily in spite of the very light breeze and that the lightning which flashed in the distance was unusual in colour. It was of a greenish hue.
Whatever was coming it was not in a hurry, and when Parami and Chi Ling came up to relieve Jim and Mark conditions had not changed greatly. True, the swell had become somewhat heavier, the air seemed oddly moist and sticky and the glass was at 28.8; but the stars still shone and the Dolphin found just enough breeze to push her forward at about three knots. Jim told Chi what Don had said and went below. This time he undressed and turned into his own bunk. He was not awake for long, for it was some time since he had had a full night's sleep.
Jim woke with the impression that big guns were firing a broadside, but in a moment realised that the sound was that of seas pounding the bow of the schooner. The motion was terrific. He felt her rise, halt, then plunge down head foremost as though she were going straight to the bottom, only to rise and do the same thing all over again. The lamp pitched and jerked on its gimbals, and a cold grey light coming through the skylight overhead told that dawn had broken.
Jim leaped from his bunk and was at once flung clean across the cabin. He picked himself up and hung on with one hand while with the other he struggled into some clothes. Then he made his way up on deck. The wind seized him as he emerged. Never could Jim have believed that wind could have such a weight unless he had felt it. It tore his jacket open, it ripped at his hair, he felt he could hardly breathe for the force of it.
And the noise! The schooner was under bare poles yet the scream of the wind in her rigging was like the wild shrieking of a steam siren. It was lightning at intervals and probably thundering, but the roar of the thunder was drowned in the yelling of the wind and the crashing of the seas. The water looked like great drifts of snow as spindrift, snatched from the top of the waves, blew in a pure white fog across the water. It plastered the deck of the schooner; it plastered Jim and nearly blinded him. Overhead clouds rolled in vivid, swollen masses. They flew at an incredible speed and their colour was a horrible sulphur-like yellow.
To Jim it seemed impossible that any ship could stand such a gale. For a while he was breathless, unable to move, even to think. Then, as he found that the schooner was still holding together and was actually travelling over the sea and not under it he pulled himself together, and feeling half ashamed of his panic he looked round for the others.
Don and Parami were together at the wheel. They were both lashed, and it seemed to take their combined strength to keep the schooner on her course. He saw Don beckon to him urgently and, seizing his opportunity, made a dash aft. Just as he got to them a sea broke and he shivered as he realised that but for his movement he must have been swept away like a straw into the maelstrom.
Don flung him a rope end and he tied it round his waist. Then Don pointed across the sea to windward, and suddenly Jim saw that they were not alone, that another ship was driving out there in the hurricane.
"The Stiletto?" cried Jim. He had to shout at the pitch of his voice to make himself heard. Don nodded. The great muscles stood out on his bare arms as he fought the bucking wheel.
"We sighted her just before it broke on us," Don shouted.
Jim stared at her. Like the Dolphin she was under bare poles. Every other moment her whole hull plunged into the tremendous hollows between the seas and disappeared. Then she would rise again and be flung upward so that half her coppered keel was plain to sight.
"Any chance for either of us?" Jim asked after a while.
"Slim," was the answer. "All right if we had sea room, but look!" Don pointed again and now Jim saw down to leeward a loom of land. Peaks towered against the savage sky and toward them the schooner was driving at frightful speed.
"Malaita?" questioned Jim, and Don nodded.
"What about the engine?" was Jim's next question.
"No good. Couldn't get her round. I ought to have hove to when it started, but I wanted to keep in sight of the Stiletto. Now it's too late." He paused. "Sorry, old man," he added.
"That's all right," said Jim, trying to smile. "Anyhow we might beach her."
"We might," Don answered, but Jim knew that Don had no real hope of anything of the sort. And, looking again toward the land, he saw that this was no coral-reefed atoll but a great volcanic mass with iron-bound cliffs against which the schooner would be crashed like an eggshell.
The wind grew worse. To Jim it had seemed when he first came on deck that it could not be worse, yet the blast which now beat upon the ship felt solid like lead. If they had not been tied all three would have been whipped from the deck like feathers. The Dolphin lay over at an appalling angle and Jim said to himself that she would turn turtle before ever she reached the land.
"Where's Mark?" Jim asked presently.
"Below. I told him to stay there. Chi is below too, in case we can use the engine. But I'll have to keep that to the last. We've barely twenty gallons of petrol left."
"And the Stiletto?" Jim asked.
"And the pearls aboard her," said Jim, but not loud enough for Don to hear. His thoughts were bitter. They had gone through so much and now—now Dad would not even know what had become of them; their father would be left alone, ill, helpless, with no one to look after him.
Time passed, and still the Dolphin floated and drove. She seemed to have as many lives as a cat. At last Don spoke again.
"Letting up a bit."
Letting up! Jim could see no sign of it. The clouds still raced overhead, the huge waves leaped like wolves, the wind raved furiously across the mad sea. Don looked across at the land now terribly close. It stretched east and west as far as eye could reach, half hidden by mist, yet the one solid thing in all this world of reeling water.
"But I'm afraid it's too late," Don added.
NOW that the land was close Jim began to realise the frightful speed at which the schooner was travelling.
The tall cliffs of the island seemed to grow higher every moment. Their tops were hidden in driving mist, but beneath the broken clouds huge spouts of white foam leaped to enormous heights against the walls of rock.
The Stiletto had disappeared, but what had happened to her, whether she had foundered or merely been driven out of sight, Jim could not tell. Nor did he give her a second thought. He was too much occupied with the chances of the Dolphin. He glanced at Don. Don's face was set and hard, and he was staring dead ahead. Suddenly he wrenched the wheel over.
"Reefs!" he cried, and sure enough it was only his quick sight and action that had saved the ship from crashing upon a spouting reef.
Jim saw that the schooner was tearing down a dark lane of deep water at terrific speed, with huge breakers leaping on either side. The lane twisted and turned, but Don and Parami seemed to have instinctive knowledge of each bend, and the schooner swerved this side and that like a hunted hare. Jim himself could do nothing; only watch. Each moment he expected to feel the crash which would herald the end.
Again the lane angled and Don and Parami threw themselves on the wheel. The Dolphin trembled yet obediently turned. Even as she did so there was a sharp grating sound, and the whole fabric of the stout little ship trembled. Then the wheel spun idly.
"Rudder gone," Don said, and in his voice was the calmness of despair.
A huge wave came rushing up aft. It caught the schooner, lifted her like a chip on its roaring summit, and hurled her forward at dizzy speed. Another bump, but no check. Then they were hurled bodily over a tangle of grinding coral fangs and pitched again into deep water. Jim, looking back, saw that the wave had carried them clean across a great bar of rock into comparatively calm water. Don, too, understood.
"The engine. Tell Chi!" he cried hoarsely, and Jim fled to obey.
Don and Parami, leaving the useless wheel, ran aft to see if any makeshift steering could be arranged. Another wave as big as the first came thundering over the reef, and though its force was broken enough was left to pick up the Dolphin and send her flying forward. She scraped again, then was flung over this second obstacle, and fetched up with a dull jar on what seemed to be soft bottom.
For a few moments Jim could only stand clinging weakly to the wheel, trying to understand the miracle which had saved them. The wind still howled venomously, yet there was no sea to speak of, and ahead through the mist he could see a wide white beach.
Don came slowly back. His clothes were mere rags and there were great blue blotches on his bare chest and arms, but otherwise he was apparently unhurt. Jim stepped forward to meet him. "Luck was with us after all, Don," he said.
Don looked round at his battered ship.
"There's not much left to be cheerful about," Don answered heavily. "The Dolphin's a wreck, and hard and fast on the worst island in the Solomons, while the Stiletto, with our pearls, is probably at the bottom of the sea."
"But we're alive," urged Jim, "and there are plenty more pearls in the lagoon at Aroa."
"Which we can never get," said Don bitterly.
Jim's face twitched. "Do stop croaking, Don. I simply can't stand it."
Don saw that the boy was on the point of breaking down.
"Sorry, old chap," he said quickly. "You were right and I was wrong. After all, we've come through alive when the odds were a thousand to one against it. As luck has been with us so far perhaps it will stick to us."
"Of course it will," declared a cheery voice, and there was Mark. "Look, the sun's coming out," and he pointed up to where, through a rift in the clouds, a patch of dark blue showed. Though the wind still whistled and the mists on the inland mountains whirled before the blast, the storm was passing swiftly as it had come. "I came to tell you that Chi has a kettle on, and we both think breakfast is the next best thing."
Don held up his hand. "There's a job to do before we do anything else. We've got to barb-wire the ship."
Jim's eyes widened. "What for?"
"Natives. These are head-hunters, Jim, cannibals every last one, and the moment they see a wreck like this they'll be on us like gulls on a dead fish. Our very first task is to wire the decks all round and post a guard. And even then—" He ended with a shrug which said more than words.
"Barbed wire!" groaned Jim. "Of all filthy stuff! But never mind. Let's get to it."
Weary as they were, they found it a heavy strain getting up the rolls of wire and stringing them four deep all round the decks. What impressed Jim more than anything was the fact that Redburn turned to and worked as hard as any. It gave him a real sense of the peril which surrounded them.
Presently Mark stopped and stood, hammer in hand, staring at the shore. The Dolphin had been driven into a sort of bay, hemmed in on all sides by the wall of coral rock over which the storm wave had carried her, and she lay on a bed of soft sand. All of a sudden he dropped his hammer and strode across to Don.
"Stop that, Don!" he said.
"We're wasting time, energy, and wire. Look round and you'll see."
Don looked and so did Jim, and suddenly Don laughed.
"What's up?" demanded Jim.
Don pointed to the bay.
"Don't you see that the beach is backed by cliffs that even a native couldn't climb."
Jim whistled softly. "In that case let's go to breakfast," he said, and the resolution was carried without demur.
IN spite of terrible destruction of crockery during the storm Chi managed to produce a real good feed, and one which they all enjoyed. Afterwards Don and Chi sounded the well, and found to their surprise and delight that the Dolphin was not leaking anything to signify. Her hull was still sound.
They also found that she was afloat again. It had been almost full ebb when they were carried into this odd little lagoon, and the rising tide had lifted the schooner off the bank. They ran out an anchor and warped her into deeper water, where she rode easily.
"Not so much of a wreck as you thought, Don," said Jim triumphantly; but Don's face did not reflect Jim's cheerfulness.
"She'll float," urged Jim.
"She'll float," agreed Don, "but what's the use of that when she has only about fifty acres of water to float in?"
Jim looked badly dashed.
"You mean we can't get out?"
"How can we?" asked Don, pointing to the reef.
Mark had come up and was listening to the discussion.
"I don't think it's so hopeless as all that," he said in his quiet way. "You have dynamite aboard, haven't you?" Don's tired eyes brightened.
"You mean we might blast a way out?"
"That's the notion."
Don roused up at once. "Let's go and see," he cried.
By some miracle the boat was still safe. At least, it was not so much miracle as Parami's foresight in lashing her tightly to ringbolts in the deck before the storm blew up. They got her over and went exploring.
The reef was irregular and the lagoon much longer to the East than to the West. In that direction it ran as far almost as a large mangrove swamp which seemed to mask the outfall of a small river. In some parts the reef was high, in others it barely showed above the surface. But beyond it the sea was simply sown with reefs, so that it seemed incredible that the Dolphin could have come through them without being smashed to bits. Mark had his eyes on the reef, and all of a sudden he pointed.
"Here's the place! A couple of sticks of explosive and the job's done. Am I right, Don?"
Don looked, and his face brightened again.
"You're right, Mark. Two sticks at that point ought to do the trick, and if the engine works and we can patch up the rudder there's hope for us yet."
"Hope—it's a certainty!" cried Jim in high delight. "Let's get back to work." All three felt full of fresh hope and courage as they pulled back to the Dolphin. Their schooner was afloat, they had found a way out, and, greatest luck of all, they were safe for the moment from marauding savages. They set to work without delay to see what had to be done before they could get to sea. Chi gave them good news to the effect that the engine was all right and that the screw turned. One of the blades was damaged, but he thought he could straighten it. The mast was badly strained and would have to be fished, but they had a spare spar which could be used for this. Then Don stripped and went over the stern to have a look at the rudder. This was badly smashed and would need a lot of work before it could he used. He got it off its pintles and they hauled it on deck.
Work began at once, and all hands were busy for the rest of the day. The weather, after doing its worst, was now delightful, and cooler than for weeks past. That night they took watch and watch, but nothing troubled them. At breakfast next morning Don announced that they would finish during the morning, and in the afternoon would blow a gap in the reef and get away.
Jim made a suggestion.
"Chi says we're short of grub. If you can spare me, what about some fish?"
"Not a bad notion, Jim. We can spare you right enough, and you'd better go off now and see what you can do. Only keep your eyes open for natives."
Jim promised, got his tackle into the boat, and went off.
The lagoon was full of fish—fish which had perhaps never seen a bait in the whole course of their lives. Jim caught some small fry on a hook baited with bread paste, then used these little chaps as bait for larger fellows. Every time that his leaded line sank into the blue depths he got a bite, and he kept on pulling up fish of the oddest shapes and most brilliant colouring. Then he got into a shoal of parrot fish, creatures with round, spiky bodies and queer, hooked beaks. As they are no good for food he pulled up anchor, rowed farther on down the lagoon, and tried again.
This time he hooked something really big. He could not see what it was, for it kept along the bottom, towing the boat behind at a great pace. Jim could not pull it in, so the only thing was to hang on until it got tired.
It was surprising how fast it went, and it seemed to Jim that the current was helping it. Within a very few minutes he found himself nearing the western end of the lagoon. The fish pulled harder than ever; Jim got hold of the line with both hands and tugged.
"Must be one of those great rock cod," he said uneasily, for these fish run to over two hundred pounds and are dangerous to divers. He could not move it, and the only result was that it made a fresh rush—such a rush that it came within an ace of upsetting the boat. The gunwale actually dipped, and a lot of water poured in. Jim had no time to bale. It was all he could do to hang on to the monster.
All of a sudden the strain ceased, the line had caught against some sharp coral edge below the surface, had snapped, and Jim tumbled backward into the bottom of the boat.
"Of all the luck!" he grumbled as he scrambled up, half dazed, for his head had hit the thwart as he fell. Suddenly he noticed that the boat was still moving at a great pace. She bumped against something with a force that nearly knocked him overboard. The something was a big rock, and then Jim saw—what he had not noticed before—that there was a passage here clean through the reef, and that the ebb tide had got the boat in its grip and was whirling it through this opening. He sprang for the oars, shipped them, and began to pull for all he was worth.
Imagine his dismay when he found that it was impossible to stem the current, which ran with the force of a mill race. He strained and tugged till the perspiration streamed down his face; but the current was running fully twice as fast as he could row, and he was carried stern foremost out through the gap. He heard the roar of the breakers behind him, and hastily turned the boat so as to meet them bow on. In a moment he was fighting in a welter of foam where the ebb, meeting the swell, made a fierce and ugly sea.
Somehow Jim kept the boat's head to it and struggled through, and she lay rising and falling on great smooth swells. She was nearly a quarter full of water, and Jim, shipping the oars, picked up a baler and went to work. He had almost cleared her when he felt a slight bump.
"What on earth—" he began. Then, as he looked up, he saw a large boat alongside. It was manned by Malays, and in the stern sat the huge figure of Dirck Jansen, with the usual smile on his broad face.
THAT grin on Dirck Jansen's face—it was so fixed, so mirthless and cruel that it sent a thrill of anger through Jim, and actually saved him from showing the very real fear which he felt. For he saw in a flash that he was helpless. Already one of Dirck's Malays had grasped the gunwale of his boat, and even if it had been possible to break away he could never pull back into the lagoon against the tremendous tidal stream that poured out like a mill race.
Dirck spoke. "This is indeed a surprise," he said in his careful English, "for me as well as for you, Mr Jim Dysart. Is it permitted that I ask how you came here?"
"You can ask all you like," returned Jim, trying to speak calmly and succeeding fairly well, "but it doesn't follow you will get any answer."
"No?" said the Dutchman raising his eyebrows slightly, but still smiling. "We are obstinate. Is that so? I think," he, added slowly, "that it is foolish to be obstinate."
To this Jim made no reply, and suddenly Jansen snapped an order to his men in their own language. At once Jim's boat was pulled up close to the larger one; two men seized him and dragged him aboard.
Jim had the sense not to struggle. He knew it was no good, and resolved to save his strength and energies for a better opportunity. Then his boat was attached to the other by a rope and Jansen's men started pulling in a westerly direction. Presently, as they came opposite a lower part of the reef wall, Jansen signed to his men to stop rowing, and, standing up, took a long stare at the Dolphin.
Jim saw a puzzled look cross the man's big face and guessed pretty clearly what he was thinking. It must be plain to him that Paran and his gang had somehow lost the Dolphin, for if Paran was still in command it was obvious that Jim would not be allowed to go fishing all alone. Jansen must be wondering what had happened to Paran and his men and where they were. Jim realised, too, that Jansen would see that the Dolphin had been blown ashore, and what he wondered more than anything was whether Jansen would attack her.
That thought was evidently also in Jansen's mind, for presently he ordered his men to pull back to the gap in the reef. But the ebb was still rushing out at a furious pace, and kicking up such an ugly sea that Jansen, himself a good sailor, saw at once it was useless to think of forcing the passage. If he tried it the boat would almost certainly be swamped. Jansen turned to Jim again. "So your brother has recovered his ship?" he said with a slight sneer.
"It looks like it," replied Jim quietly.
"What has happened to Paran?" questioned Jansen.
"That would be telling," replied Jim.
"There are times when to tell is wise," said Jansen significantly.
"Opinions differ," said Jim.
"And yet you will tell later, if not now," said Jansen, and there was no mistaking the threat in his voice. Jim remained silent, and for once the smile passed from the Dutchman's face and Jim had a glimpse of the real man behind it.
"You fool, do you think that I shall allow my plans to be upset by a boy like you?" he snapped.
"It looks as if they'd been pretty much burst up already," said Jim.
Jansen's lips tightened in an ugly fashion.
"Is it that you are going to answer my question or not?" asked the Dutchman.
"No," said Jim plump and plain.
For a few moments Jansen sat glaring at him, trying to master the rage that boiled within him. Jim was scared, badly scared, but he refused to drop his eyes before the other's angry glare. When Jansen spoke again his tone was milder.
"Hear me, Jim Dysart. If you will give me the information that I desire I will let you go free to return to the Dolphin. If you refuse you come with me and remain my prisoner until you do speak. Meantime you will have neither food nor water, and I do not need to explain to you the unpleasantness of being left without water in weather like this."
For a moment Jim's heart failed and he hesitated, but it was only for a moment. Once Jansen learned how helpless the Dolphin was he would have no difficulty in seizing her, and even if Don and the others escaped with their lives they would be flung ashore helpless and without weapons on the most dangerous coast in the South Seas. No, whatever happened, it was up to him to keep his mouth shut.
Jansen spoke again. "You will be wise to talk?" he threatened.
"On the contrary, I think I should be silly," Jim answered.
Jansen's great fists clenched, and for a moment Jim believed the man was going to strike him. But once more he restrained himself.
"We shall see," he said harshly, and gave his men a curt order. Next moment the boat was driving away down the coast in a westerly direction. Jim wondered greatly whether Don knew what had happened. He hardly thought it likely for the reef wall was high enough to hide Jansen's boat. Even if Don did know he could do nothing, for he had no second boat and the schooner was still aground. In any case, the loss of the boat would be a serious matter for Don and Mark. The more Jim thought, the lower his spirits sank.
Presently they were past the mangrove swamp and round the next point, and Jim lost sight of the Dolphin's mast. He glanced round at the dark, sullen faces of the Dyak crew and the great bulk of Jansen seated in the stern, and once more wondered where he was going or what would happen.
Helped by the current, the boat moved quickly along the coast, passing coves where the beaches glowed white as snow under the blazing sun and headlands dense with forest. Here and there were great patches of rich purple, where the bougainvillea hung in masses fit to drive a gardener crazy with envy, and sometimes wafts of rich scents hung on the warm air. Jim saw these things without noticing them, for his whole mind was taken up with wondering where he was bound.
He had not long to wait. After about an hour the boat rounded a second headland, and the first thing he saw was the Stiletto lying with her bow right up on the open beach. Men swarmed around her, and he could hear the clink of hammers. Another thing he saw. Out on the beach in a wide semi-circle stood guards armed with rifles.
THE boat fetched up under the stern of the schooner and Jim was bundled aboard. Jansen took him by the collar and thrust him down into the lazaretto, the store room of the ship.
"It is dark," he said. "It is also hot, and I fear you will not be too comfortable. It is true that there is food here, but there is no water, and I do not think that you will eat if you cannot drink." He paused. "You change your mind?" he asked, with his ugly smile. "You are ready to talk?"
"Not just yet," Jim assured him, and the smile changed to a scowl.
"By tomorrow you will be more ready," he snarled, and climbed out, pulling the hatch to behind him, and Jim heard the bolt shot in the staple.
The place was small, dark, and horribly stuffy, and Jim, who had had nothing to drink since leaving the schooner, was already thirsty. But he would not let himself think of his dry throat; he found a seat on a packing-case and began to try to figure out things.
It was clear that the Stiletto had been driven ashore just like the Dolphin, only in a much worse place. The Dolphin was fairly safe from attack, but the Stiletto, fast on this open beach, was in constant danger from the natives, and was also in peril if the wind got up again. As the boat came alongside he had seen enough to be sure that she was pretty badly damaged. It looked as if her bows had been smashed, and he reckoned it would take at least a week to repair her. It was only Jansen's big crew and display of force that was keeping off the natives.
Hammer blows rang on the timbers outside, making a constant din of sound, and presently it occurred to Jim that he was wasting time. The noise would drown any sounds he made in moving about, so he decided to begin at once and see if there were any way out of this horrible oven in which he was prisoned.
The first thing he did was to feel in his pockets. Luckily it had not occurred to Jansen to search him, and Jim found that he had his knife, handkerchief, wrist-watch, and a box of matches. He struck a match and looked round. The first thing the light revealed was that the lazaretto had a porthole which, however, was quite hidden by piled-up cases. Jim went to work at once and in a very short time had cleared the boxes away. The porthole was glazed with thick and extremely dirty glass, but he saw that even if he could get it open it was too small to force himself through. At any rate it gave a little light, enough for him to see his surroundings. Next thing was to find whether there was anything drinkable in the place. A tin of fruit or tomatoes, for instance.
Alas! there was nothing of the sort. He found flour, sugar, tea, biscuits, and salt pork in quantities, but nothing that was of any use to allay his thirst. His heart sank at the thought of a whole night with nothing to drink; but Jim was not the sort to give way to despair.
As he prowled round his narrow prison he spotted a number of small square cardboard boxes on a shelf. They were cartridges, and all of a sudden Jim remembered that Chi Ling had hidden the red pearls in a cartridge. A box covered with blue paper, the Chinaman had said. These boxes were brown, but a very brief search showed two blue boxes behind the others. One was half empty, but the other full. Jim listened a moment to make sure no one was near, then quickly cut open the box and, picking out the cartridges one by one, gave each a shake.
One rattled, and with his knife Jim dug out the wad. Next moment the three great crimson globes were in his hand. For a moment excitement left him breathless, but only for a moment, then he dropped the pearls back into their hiding-place and covered them with the wad. He had barely done this when he heard the bolt being drawn in the hatch.
Quickly he thrust the cartridge into his pocket. There was no time to put the box back, so he pushed it under the nearest packing-case. He was sitting quietly on the case when the hatch was drawn back and Jansen's great face appeared in the opening.
"Supper is being prepared," remarked the Dutchman with sneering politeness. "You can perhaps smell the coffee, my young English friend."
Jim could smell the coffee ail right and the scent nearly maddened him, but he was not going to let Jansen know that.
"I'm very comfortable, thanks," he said.
"I would ask you to supper with me if you are ready to talk," said Jansen.
"Very kind of you," returned Jim, "but I prefer my own company."
The smile faded from Jansen's face.
"So!" he snarled. "But you will sing a different song before morning." Down went the hatch with a bang and Jim heard his heavy tread overhead as he stamped away up the deck.
Jim put the cartridge box back on the shelf and, seating himself on the floor with his back against the wall, tried to sleep. He found it impossible. Each time he dozed off he woke with a choking in his throat. It was many hours since he had had a drink, and in this heat all the moisture had oozed out of his body. Although the sun was down the heat was as bad as ever, and there was no ventilation in this hole. He felt he could not last alive till morning, and the prospect drove him to fresh action. If there had been anything in the shape of an axe he would have tried to cut his way out, but there was not. He could not even break the scuttle, which would at least have let in some fresh air.
All of a sudden an idea flashed through his head, a perfectly crazy idea, yet the only one which seemed to offer the faintest chance of escape. Up he got and began lifting the boxes of cartridges down from the shelf. He emptied out the cartridges and set to work to cut them open. The shot he threw away, the powder he poured upon a piece of sacking. Bit by bit the pile increased until, by the time he had finished them, he had well over a pound-weight of powder. A little of this he laid aside to make a train, the bulk he wrapped tightly in the canvas and laid it against the porthole. His idea was to blow this out, casing and all, then jump into the sea and take his chance on the beach. But powder, when fired, blows upward, and Jim knew that he must have tamping to hold the force of the explosion against the port. He set to work to tear canvas from the packages and, rolling it up into tight wads, jammed it into the opening.
All this took a long time and before he had finished darkness had fallen. Then he had to lay the train. By this time he was feeling so bad he could hardly stand. It was not only heat and thirst from which he was suffering, the air in this close place was nearly exhausted and Jim's head was throbbing dreadfully. If his plan failed, if the scuttle did not burst, the smoke from the explosion would finish him. But anything was better than this torture.
He laid his train, carrying it right across the room, then he took out his matchbox.
WITH the match actually touching the side of the box Jim suddenly froze. Someone was moving above; he heard the bolt of the hatch being quietly drawn back.
Who was coming at this hour? Surely not Jansen. No; for Jansen would not have come so quietly, and in any case the deck would have creaked under his ponderous weight. Yet if not Jansen who could it be? He crouched breathless, waiting. Overhead a little slit of light showed and widened, and a breath of fresh air blew down into the stifled place. He saw the stars shining and against them a head outlined against the night sky. Then a voice came, a low whisper: "Marse Jim."
The voice was that of Motu; Jim could have screamed with delight at the sound. He knew, of course, that Kupa and Motu had been captured by Jansen but had seen nothing of them, and had supposed them to be prisoners. That either of them would have had the pluck to come to his help he had never dreamed possible.
"Marse Jim?" came the whisper again.
"I'm here," Jim answered in a voice that was no more than a harsh croak. "Water, Motu," he begged.
"I got him," was the quiet reply, and Motu's brown arm reached down with a tin pannikin full of water.
Oh, the joy of that drink! With every swallow Jim felt new life running through his parched body. Meantime Motu was speaking in a quick whisper.
"You come out quick, Marse Jim. Kupa wait in boat."
"But the guard?" asked Jim anxiously.
"Two men, them watch," Motu answered. "We tie their mouths so they not speak."
"Good for you," said Jim delightedly. "Give me a hand up." He clambered on a chest, and Motu reached down and gave him a hand. At any other time Jim would have needed no help to swing himself out through the hatch, but the bad air had done deadly work and he was horribly giddy and weak. Even with Motu's help it was all he could do to gain the deck.
"You sick?" asked Motu anxiously.
"I'll be all right in a minute. Where's the boat?"
"Him tied aft. You come quick." Motu glided away, his bare feet treading the deck soundlessly, and Jim followed. But his head was still spinning, and he could hardly see where he was going. Even so, it would have been all right if it had not been for a line which stretched all across the deck. In the darkness Jim failed to see it, and fell with a thump that sounded terribly loud. Motu jerked him to his feet, and holding him by the arm ran for the boat.
But the damage was done. There was a quick rush of feet, and the whole ship seemed to vibrato as Jansen himself, springing up out of the hatch, dashed after them. In spite of his great bulk he moved with amazing speed.
"Make jump," gasped Motu, and swung himself over the stern into the waiting boat. Jansen was so close that Jim was forced to jump. More by luck than anything else he landed in the boat and Kupa caught him just in time to save him from going over into the water.
Motu, was struggling to get the oars out. As for Jim, all he expected was a bullet from Jansen's revolver. Jansen, it seemed, had not got his revolver, but he was not the sort to be easily balked. Stooping, he picked up one of the great sheet blocks of the schooner which lay loose on deck, swung it up above his head with both hands, and sent it crashing downwards into the boat. It burst right through the bottom.
"She sink," gasped Kupa in horror, but Jim kept his head.
"Overboard," he ordered, and, springing out into the shallow water, set to wading for the beach.
The two brown men followed. Splash! Jansen was over the low rail and after them. Jim heard his panting breath close behind, and next moment felt the man's great hand close on his collar. Instead of trying to wrench free, Jim swung round, flung himself at the Dutchman and caught him round the knees. Taken for once completely by surprise, Jansen toppled over backwards, to disappear with a mighty splash, and before he could pick himself up again Jim was well away. He felt his strength coming back to him as he gained the beach, then he and the two brown men raced side by side for the shelter of the trees.
Jansen was roaring like a bull behind them, which was lucky for them, for his men dare not shoot. Jansen was active enough, but his weight was against him. He ploughed deep through the soft sand while Jim and the light-footed island men scuttled over the top. At any rate they beat him to the edge of the bush and were soon in the thick of it.
Alone, Jim would have been lost before he had run a hundred paces, but Motu and Kupa had the native sense of direction and kept straight on. The slope grew steeper, but they did not stop. Jim was panting, yet excitement kept him going and they went on and on till they reached level ground where, in a little open glade, Jim dropped and lay still, unable to move another step.
"Him sick?" Kupa asked of Motu in a scared voice.
"Him not sick; him tired," said Motu.
"I'll be all right in a few minutes," Jim said hoarsely. "I could start right off if I had a drink."
"I get you guava," Motu said, and plunged into the bush. It was not his eyes but his keen nose that told him where to find the fruit, and he was back in a few minutes with half a dozen yellow ones each the size of a small lemon. Guavas have a pink pulp full of seeds but quite juicy, and though their smell is rather strong Jim thought them delicious. Kupa was very nervous.
"Them fellows chase us," he said. "We run quick."
Jim laughed. "Don't worry, Kupa. You couldn't pay those Malays to start into the bush at this time of night. They're too scared of nats" (evil spirits).
"Him say true," agreed Motu. "We all right till morning."
"And by morning we'll be a long way off," said Jim. "Motu, I haven't thanked you yet for getting me out. You saved my life, for I'd have been dead before morning.
"I very glad," said Motu simply. "But how Jansen get you there, Marse Jim?"
Jim explained, and the two men listened eagerly.
"You get Dolphin back. That fine!" exclaimed Motu when Jim had finished his brief story.
"Yes; but what isn't so fine is that we're about six miles by water from where she lies and I don't know how many by land."
"Which way Dolphin be?" Motu asked, and Jim pointed to the east, and told him about the lagoon and the impossibility of getting down from the sheer cliffs which overhung it.
Motu nodded. "I tink we get canoe," he said. "You walk now, Marse Jim?"
"I'll walk all right," Jim told him, and they started.
THE first grey light of dawn found the three still struggling through the bush. They had covered perhaps three miles in a straight line and walked ten to do it. In many places they had been forced to crawl through thickets where it was impossible to stand; in others they had been driven to circle around swamps or to climb down into deep gorges.
They were soaked to the skin, covered with mud and insect bites and almost exhausted. As for Jim, every muscle in his body ached, and he was desperately hungry and sleepy. He longed to stop and rest but dared not suggest it for he, like the others, knew that they would have to lie up during the day. At night they were safe, for the superstitious natives of the Solomons will not leave their villages in the dark hours, but in the day they were in desperate danger.
Motu, who was leading, was forcing his way through a belt of dense scrub when he stopped so suddenly that Jim bumped into him.
"What's up?" asked Jim.
"You see," said Motu, moving aside a little, and Jim, coming a couple of steps forward, found himself on the sheer edge of a great ravine at least two hundred feet deep and about a quarter of a mile across, at the bottom of which a good-sized stream made its way to the sea.
The cliff fell almost straight to the valley beneath and Jim could see that it was utterly out of the question to climb down.
"That puts the hat on it," he grunted.
"Hat—I not know," said Motu in a puzzled voice.
"I mean we can't get any farther," said Jim. "There's nothing for it but to hide up until night, then try to find a way round."
Motu stood gazing down into the depths. By the frown on his face Jim could see he was thinking hard. At last he turned.
"Him pretty big river," he said. "I tink canoe down dere."
"Can you see one?" Jim asked.
"No see canoe, Marse Jim, but smell smoke."
"Smoke!" repeated Jim, anxiously. "Then there's a village somewhere near."
Motu pointed up the ravine which curved sharply to the west about half a mile higher up.
"I tink village him dere," he explained. "Marse Jim, you wait while I go see."
Jim hesitated, but Motu went on quickly. "You no be frightened. I back soon. Den when night come we steal him canoe and go Dolphin." The man seemed so sure of himself that Jim decided to let him go. It was no use for him to go too for Motu could travel more quickly and quietly alone.
"All right," he said, "Kupa and I will wait here. Don't be long, Motu."
"I no be very long," said Motu, and, gliding away as quietly as some wild thing, vanished like a shadow in the brush. Jim sank down wearily on the ground, but Kupa stood looking at him.
"Marse Jim, you pretty hungry," he suggested.
"I could eat a horse," said Jim.
"I not know horse," replied Kupa, "but I tink I get some guavas."
"They'd be better than nothing," Jim agreed. "And we ought to have some water, Kupa. It'll be smoking hot here in another hour."
Kupa nodded. "First, I get guava, den find water," he said, and slipped away. He was back presently, full of triumph, carrying a great bunch of bananas.
"Him better dan guavas," he declared, and of course he was right. Jim ate half a dozen and felt better. Kupa, too, had his share but presently was up again.
"Now get water," he said.
"Be careful," Jim warned him. "It's broad day now and the natives will be on the prowl. Don't take any chances."
"I no tink they come this place," said Kupa, and Jim agreed for there was nothing to bring them up here on the edge of the ravine. Kupa went off again, and Jim leaned back against a tree. The sun was up now and it was already getting hot, but here the shade was thick and at any rate the air was fresh.
It was now twenty-four hours since Jim had slept and he was terribly tired. Before he knew it he was sound asleep.
* * * * *
A dusky figure stood over Jim, who stirred drowsily. "Hulloa, Kupa," he said in a sleepy voice. "Got the water?"
There was no reply and Jim, wondering, opened his eyes.
The breath seemed to freeze in his lungs as he looked up into a pitch-black face with cruel eyes sunk deep on each side of a blunt nose. It did not need the great metal discs hung from the man's ears or the necklace of bones round his massive throat to tell Jim that this was one of the dreaded head-hunters of the Solomons. Nor was he alone, for half a dozen others as hideous as himself stood behind him. In his great fist the savage grasped a spear tipped with a barbed head of sharp flint.
Jim did not flinch but stared straight up into the man's brutal face. The tighter the fix the higher Jim's courage rose: if this savage was going to murder him he would end up smiling. The black man's eyes blinked and fell, and from his lips came something that sounded like a croak but must have been an order, for his followers gathered round. Two of them dropped to their knees and seized Jim. The smell of the rancid grease on their bodies sickened him, but he showed no sign of his disgust, nor did he flinch as they tied his wrists firmly, with cord twisted from the bark of the coconut. Then they dragged him to his feet and by signs ordered him to march.
His captors went swiftly and silently through the brush and presently came out upon a bush path. Jim had been wondering how they had found him but now he began to understand. These men had been watching the Stiletto and it was probably while on their way to the beach that they had picked up his trail and followed it.
At last they came out into the open and there lay the village sprawling at the foot of a steep hill. The men who held him raised a loud cry, and out poured a crowd of the most hideous savages Jim had ever seen. All were armed with spears or great crooked clubs carved out of heavy black wood. They yelled with horrid delight at sight of the prisoner and swept down on him in a solid mass.
THE natives on Aroa had no claim to good looks, but they were beauties compared to this tribe.
Jim had a sort of feeling that it could not be real, that it was all a dreadful nightmare from which he must presently wake up. He could not believe that people like these really existed. It looked as though they meant to finish him off at once, and he was horribly scared, yet he stiffened his tired body and stood as straight as he could, facing the horrid mob.
All of a sudden a man stepped between him and them. He was old, wizened, and as ugly as a chimpanzee, but he wore three necklaces of boned instead of one and had a sort of headdress of feathers; his face was tattooed with queer designs. Jim spotted him at once for the tribal wizard. He creaked out a harsh order and the crowd fell back. Then he turned his scowling face on Jim and spoke to him.
Jim, of course, did not understand a word he said, but the signs he made were clear enough, and he followed. His guards remained one on either side and the crowd came after. They gabbled like monkeys and Jim wondered what they said, yet at the same time was grateful he could not understand.
They took him through the one wide street of the village and beyond Jim saw the wall of a kind of stockade. To this he was marched, a gate was opened and Jim was pushed through. His guards remained outside and the only person who entered with him was the wizard. The stockade enclosed a piece of ground about fifty yards square, in the centre of which was a hut. The gleaming white skulls hung across the doorway told Jim that this was the residence of the wizard himself.
One big tree grew in the stockade, and the wizard made a sign to Jim that he was to seat himself under this tree. As there was no particular use in disobeying this command, and as the shade was welcome after the intense heat of the sun, Jim did so, and the wizard, after untying Jim's hands, disappeared into the hut.
The rest gave Jim a chance to steady his jumping nerves and to look about him. The stockade lay close under the hill he had seen from the distance and behind it the ground rose very steeply. The lower part of the hill was covered with thick brush but higher up were bare-looking terraces. The stockade itself was surrounded with a fence fully eight feet high made of stout bamboos set end- ways. They had spiked tops and even if he were given the chance Jim saw plainly that he could not climb this fence. It looked as if the only way of getting out was by the gate, but this was securely fastened and two of the hideous-looking warriors lounged outside, guarding it. The more he looked the less Jim liked it, and the less chance he saw of escaping.
Yet escape he must, for Jim had no foolish illusions about the reason why his life had been so far spared. They were only keeping him for some big occasion, probably the night of the next full moon. The one comfort was that Motu and Kupa were still free, but he was very uneasy about them for he knew that the cannibals must have seen their tracks and were probably hunting them at this very minute. Their only chance of safety would be if they had managed to find a canoe.
Time went on; the village drowsed in the noonday heat and Jim was growing terribly thirsty. But Jim was not the sort to sit and suffer. He rose and went straight to the hut. He saw the guards at the gate rouse and stiffen to attention. They stared at him as if they thought he had suddenly gone crazy. Jim did not care. He had no superstitious fear of this horrible old wizard, and he felt that if it came to a scrap he was his equal. He strode boldly in.
The sorcerer was squatting on a kind of mattress made of dried grasses and seemed to be drowsing, but he roused himself when Jim came in and glared in terrifying fashion. Jim, however, was feeling far too desperate to be easily frightened. He stood in front of the old fellow and, pointing to his mouth, made signals that he must have a drink. The wizard at first seemed stunned by his daring, but presently recovered and, reaching down beside him, picked up a green coconut and handed it to Jim.
"Thanks," said Jim briefly and took it and went away.
He was glad to get outside the hut for what he had seen inside made him feel rather sick. He went back to his tree and with his knife cut open the coconut and drank the milk. Then he leaned against the trunk and went sound asleep.
The sun was getting low when he woke, feeling much refreshed but extremely hungry. Smoke rising from the village showed that the evening meal was being cooked, but the stockade was as quiet as ever. With the idea of escape still uppermost in his mind, Jim began prowling round the place. He thought that if he could only find some sort of weapon he might tackle the sorcerer and force him to let him go.
All he found was half a dozen bamboo poles, but these were fully twelve feet long and were evidently meant for mending the fence. They were far too long to be used as weapons. He picked one up. In spite of its length it was quite light, and as he handled it an idea flashed through his brain.
"My word!" he muttered to himself. "It might work."
Just then a slight sound attracted his attention and he turned to see the gate opening and two women coming in with dishes of food. Jim dropped the pole, but his heart was beating hard as he went back to his tree where one woman, a hideous old hag, dumped down a sort of wooden tray on which were some broiled fish and baked yams. She brought also half a dozen bananas and two more coconuts.
Jim thanked her; but she only scowled and shuffled away, leaving him to make the best of his supper. Hungry as he was, he ate slowly and quietly. One potato and two of the bananas he stowed in his pockets. If his plan worked and he did get away he might need this food.
By the time he had finished the sun was down. It would be dark in twenty minutes, but he needed light to carry out his plan. He looked round. The guards were still at the gate, but no one else was near the stockade. It was only by a strong, effort that he was able to steady his jumping pulses as he got up and walked slowly toward the pile of bamboos.
Again he heard a sound, and to his horror here was the witch doctor coming toward him.
THE hideous old savage walked straight up to Jim and pointed to the hut, and Jim understood that he was to be shut up there for the night. The very thought made him shudder. It would, he felt, be almost worse than the lazaretto of the Stiletto. Besides, once in the hut, all chance of escape was at an end.
He stepped back, and the wizard, feeling that his prisoner was disobedient, grasped him by the arm. His fingers were like the talons of some wild beast; Jim shook off the grip. With blazing eyes the wizard drew a knife from his belt. It was a real knife with a steel blade sharpened like a razor, and Jim saw that the old scoundrel meant to use it. There was only one thing to do and he did not waste any time. Clenching his fist, he drove it into the man's face. It was a hard, clean blow with all the weight of Jim's young body behind it. The wizard's arms flew up and he went flat on his back and lay on the ground, completely knocked out.
Now the fat was properly in the fire, and Jim knew that he had to work quickly. If there was any delay in his escape, if his plan failed, there would be no waiting for the full moon. He would be "chopped" inside five minutes. Already the guards had seen what had happened, and were wrenching open the gate. Jim snatched up the pole he had chosen. Earlier in the day he had spotted one place where this fence was not quite so high as elsewhere. This was on the side nearest the hill.
The two guards, brandishing their spears were already inside the stockade and racing toward him. Jim knew he had not a second to lose, so he gave one swift glance over his shoulder, measuring the distance between him and his enemies, then, grasping the long pole firmly in both hands, started on the run for the fence.
A mocking yell went up from the cannibals; but it died in their throats. Spellbound, they saw the boy reach the great bamboo wall, place his pole and leave the ground in a perfectly timed vault. Like a bird he skimmed over the top of the sharp stakes and, leaving the pole behind him, vanished from their sight.
To these savages the whole business savoured of magic. They had never seen a pole vault, and never dreamed that anyone could possibly jump an eight-foot fence. It was half a minute before they recovered their scattered senses, then with wild yells they turned and made for the gate.
The delay gave Jim the chance he so badly needed, time to cross the open ground between the stockade and the base of the hill and fling himself into the thick bush. The long rest and his meal had given him fresh strength, and once among the bushes he went up the steep at a great pace.
Behind he could hear savage yells. The whole village buzzed like an overturned beehive. By this time the witch doctor was no doubt on his legs again and mad for revenge.
Jim quickened his pace, but the thorns caught and tore at him and, struggle as he would, he could not make any speed. He began to feel that it was all no use.
All of a sudden he blundered out of the thick into the open, and found himself on a narrow path which ran steeply up the mountainside. He took a deep breath and started to run. Jim was a pretty good runner, and now with the fear of death behind him he went up that great slope at a wonderful speed. Where the path was leading he did not trouble to think. It was enough that it was a path and that it gave him a chance to show his speed.
They were coming. He could hear them down below, but now he had got a bit of a start and meant to make the most of it. It would be dark soon; perhaps he might dodge them in the gloom of the night forest. At the back of his mind he knew it was all pretty hopeless, for even if he did get away it would only be to starve in the bush or blunder into the hands of some other tribe of savages. Yet he would not despair, and went higher and higher. The rock face was so steep that the path had turned to a flight of steps. It occurred to Jim as odd that savages should have taken the trouble to carve steps like these in the living rock. He wondered where they led.
He was now above the bushes, for the cliff side here was too steep for trees to grow. Only patches of scrub clung here and there in fissures and crevices. He saw a ledge above him, swung up over it, and found himself on a flat terrace, face to face with a collection of stone images which reminded him of the horrible idol he had seen on Aroa.
There were seven of them all equally hideous. In the failing light they looked like demons squatting on their pedestals and looking down with stony eyes on the village, hundreds of feet below.
But Jim had no thoughts to spare for images, ugly or otherwise. All his energies were devoted to escape, and he hurried across the terrace, only to find himself confronted by a cliff that was almost sheer. It was true that there were cracks and ledges in the face, but he saw in a moment that, even if he could climb it, he must go slowly, and, judging by the noise below, the cannibals were already so close that they were bound to catch him before he could get up that wall of rock.
Cold chills ran down his spine at the thought of those black hands clutching at his heels. He turned desperately, wondering if there was any way of stopping them.
It occurred to him that if he could only find a few good hefty rocks he might keep his enemies off by flinging them down, but a glance showed him that the terrace was bare as a dance floor except for the horrid images. Jim's brain was one of the sort that works best in an emergency; in a flash he saw that the centre one of the seven idols was tilted forward. Centuries of sun and rain had rotted the pedestal on which it stood, and it was poised in such fashion that it looked as if it would not take much to topple it over. It stood exactly above the top of the flight of steps; if he could upset it the chances were it would smash the steps.
At any rate it was worth trying. Jim sprang to the image and, jumping on the pedestal behind it, put his shoulder against its huge body.
It moved—only a little, but still it moved. Jim braced himself afresh and pushed with all his might. The great block of stone moved a little more. Jim heard a creaking at its base and set to rocking it. To and fro, to and fro it rocked, yet it did not seem any nearer falling, and already Jim could see the savages pouring up through the bush below. They had not reached the steps yet but they were very near them.
Jim became desperate. Turning, he put his back against the back of the idol and the swing increased. To and fro again—twice—three times—four times, and at the fifth he heard a loud crunch. The rotten pedestal split, the statue toppled over, and it was only by a desperate effort that Jim saved himself from going with it.
WITH a crash and a shower of sparks the god struck the flight of steps, rebounded, struck them again some fifty feet lower down, then, with an immense leap, went sailing through the tree-tops, cutting its way through them like some huge projectile. Seconds later came an earth-shaking thud as the great mass of stone buried itself in the ground at the bottom of the mountain.
The echoes died, and were succeeded by an utter silence. Jim, standing breathless on the rim of the terrace, wondered what had happened. There was light enough left for him to see that he had done what he had hoped to do. The steps were completely wrecked; even a monkey would find it difficult to reach the terrace.
Suddenly the silence was broken by a strange sound. It was a sort of groan coming at once from a hundred throats. Jim was utterly puzzled for so far as he could tell no one had been hurt. The rock had bounded clean over the heads of his pursuers. Yet there was no doubt about the sound. It was not a yell of anger but a low cry of terror. It was followed by a sudden rushing noise. Distinctly Jim could hear the thud of bare feet on the ground and a rustling as naked bodies hurled themselves furiously downhill through the bushes. The natives were running—running back to their village as if pursued by fiends.
At first Jim was so utterly amazed he could hardly believe his senses, yet there was no doubt about it, and presently he was actually able to see the vanguard bolting across the level space at the foot of the hill, running madly back to their huts. Something had scared them almost out of their senses.
Jim looked vaguely round, and his eyes felt on the broken pedestal. Then suddenly he understood. These stone gods were evidently very sacred in the eyes of the savages, and it was the sudden descent of the hideous idol from its age-old perch that had upset the superstitious savages and filled them with terror. For the first time in many hours Jim grinned.
"I only wish I could chuck the rest down," he said aloud, "but perhaps I'd better take the chance of getting down myself."
Turning to the left, he walked quickly along the terrace. It ran about a hundred paces along the hillside, then broke off sharply. Daylight was now failing fast, but there was just enough for Jim to see a long, steep slope and at the bottom the river. Half a mile or so downstream was a place where the bank was lower, and beneath was a beach on which he could dimly see a number of canoes drawn up. He drew a long breath.
"My word, if I could only get one of those!" he muttered. Then his jaw set firmly. "I'm going to get one," he added. "And if I do I'll get away after all."
Without any hesitation he swung off the end of the terrace and started down toward the river.
Even in broad daylight the climb would not have been an easy one, but before Jim had gone down a quarter of the distance the last rays of light had faded from the sky and he was groping in black darkness. After that the descent was an absolute nightmare. Jim had to feel for some branch or trunk, grasp it, swing downward, and grope in the gloom for a second hold. Once a bough that seemed stout enough when he took hold if it snapped with a loud crack, and he fell twelve feet before he was brought up in a thick bush which luckily broke his fall. Another time he got caught in some horribly thorny vine which tore him badly before he managed to get clear.
It seemed to Jim he had been climbing for hours when he came to a place where there were no trees. Vaguely he realised that there was a sheer drop beneath him, but how deep it was or whether there was any way down he had no means of knowing. All his courage seemed to ooze away, and, with a groan of despair, he dropped back on the rock and sat still. The slope was so steep he had to cling to a tree-trunk to save himself from sliding forward into the gulf that yawned beneath.
After a bit he remembered his bananas, and pulled them out. They had suffered a good deal during his descent, but he ate them and they did him good. He recalled then the fact that the Moon would rise somewhere about one o'clock, and he hoped it would give him light enough to get on, but rather doubted whether it would show at all through the thick canopy of clouds which now covered the sky. He knew he must reach the canoes before dawn for, if he failed to do so, the natives would be there before him and his last chance would be gone.
Without the slightest warning a vivid flash lit the whole scene, making it for an instant as bright as day, and showing him that the drop in front was nothing but a pit a few yards across, and that, by going either to right or left, he could easily get round it. It was sheet lightning, and presently the whole sky was ablaze with flashes which came about every ten seconds, and were infinitely better than any moonlight. Feeling rather ashamed of his sudden attack of despair Jim started again, and, helped by the lightning, got on much faster. All the same, he heaved a sigh of relief when at last he found himself on level ground.
The bush here was thick, and he pushed on cautiously until the lightning showed that he was on the edge of the high bank overlooking the river. He was closer to the village than he liked, but he had the comforting remembrance that these islanders do not venture abroad by night, so, keeping as near the bank as he could, he went steadily on downstream.
The bank grew lower and he saw an open space in front. He waited until another flash came, which showed him the beach which he had spotted from the terrace. Here a small stream joined the main river, and in course of ages had cut a hollow some thirty yards across. On the far bank of the little brook grew a huge banyan tree, with branches which spread far out over the river. Several canoes lay under its shade, moored to posts driven into the sand.
So far so good. What was not so good was the fact that the lightning had showed up the figure of a man standing under the big tree.
AGAIN the lightning flickered, giving Jim a second view of the fellow. He was a big, ugly-looking savage armed with club and spear, and so long as he was there Jim did not see the faintest chance of getting hold of a canoe. Jim drew back a little into the bushes and racked his brain for some way of getting round this fresh difficulty.
If only the man would go to sleep there might be a chance of passing him and launching a canoe, but he was standing bolt upright and very much awake, and as Jim had no weapon it was out of the question to tackle him. He wondered if there were any way of scaring him.
While Jim stood there, vainly trying to think of some scheme to get the canoe he so sorely needed, the lightning came at longer and longer intervals until finally it ceased and the darkness remained unbroken. Jim began to wonder if he could not steal past the man in the darkness, yet, knowing as he did the wonderful powers of hearing of these natives, he doubted if it were possible.
If you think long enough and hard enough you generally get an idea. One jumped into Jim's mind so suddenly that he almost shouted.
The tree. The great branches came low toward the ground and covered a tremendous space. It would be easy to climb into them at the landward side, then with any luck he would be able to go right over the native's head and drop gently into a canoe which lay under the tips of the outer branches. It was true the man might hear him, but even if he did he would probably think it an opossum or a bat. Anyhow it was a chance, and the only chance, so Jim wasted no time in taking it. Another reason for hurry was that the clouds were clearing away and the stars beginning to shine. Glancing at the luminous dial of his wrist watch, Jim saw that it was already past one o'clock. The Moon would be up in half an hour, and once it had risen any hope of getting away with a canoe was at an end.
Jim started at once. He had only a few steps to cover in the open and the sand was soft underfoot, also it was very dark. He was not much afraid of being heard because there were literally scores of tree frogs in the big banyan, all calling at the top of their voices, making a noise like a whole pen of young lambs. He caught a branch and swung himself up. Then he started climbing in toward the trunk.
Barring the tree-ants, which bit like fire, this was easy enough, but the ticklish part of his task came when he had to cross right over the savage's head. The stars were bright now, and a faint glow in the East told that the Moon would rise very soon. Jim knew that he had not more than about ten minutes, yet he dared not hurry. He hardly dared indeed to breathe as he crawled along a thick branch.
Suddenly the man below moved. Jim heard him and his heart dropped a beat. He lay like dead stretched out along the branches, flat and motionless. By this time his eyes had got so accustomed to the darkness that he could make out the figure of the islander, and you may picture his horror when he realised that the man had turned and was staring straight up into the tree.
Jim knew that these savages are like cats: they can see in the dark. He felt that the big black savage was only waiting until he could make quite certain what was above him and that then he would raise his spear and drive it upward.
He tried to think what was best to do, but horror froze him, and he merely lay still, stretched flat on the branch. The savage remained equally still and Jim began vaguely to wonder what was the matter with him. Why did he not strike? Could it be possible that the man did not see him after all? The strain was fearful. It was so great that drops of cold perspiration started from Jim's forehead and rolled down his checks.
How long this lasted he never knew. It seemed like an hour but was probably only a minute, then, just as the suspense was becoming unbearable and Jim was prepared to end it by jumping straight down on the savage's woolly head, he heard the man gasp out something in a strange, strangled sort of voice.
Jim had picked up a few words of the language from Parami and he caught one which he recognised. It was "The Eye!" The eye—what could he mean? For the moment Jim was utterly mystified, yet one thing he saw, and that was that the big savage was as badly scared as he.
Then all in a flash he understood. His wrist watch—its luminous face must be shining full in the eyes of the native. That was the eye, that was what was scaring him. Very cautiously Jim moved his hand so that the Eye was turned straight downward. That did the trick. With a groan of dismay the man dropped his spear and ran like a mad thing back to the village. Jim reckoned it would take him no more than three minutes to get there and about three more to get back with his friends. He dropped from his branch, snatched up the spear, leaped into the smallest canoe, picked up a paddle, and was off as hard as he could go downstream.
The current helped him, and he was round the next bend before the Moon rose. Then as its silver light touched the yellow water of the stream he caught the reflection of a glare of torches and knew that the chase had begun, or at any rate would begin within a very few minutes.
Most youngsters in Jim's place would have gone all out, but instead of quickening his pace Jim steadied it. He reckoned he was at least three miles from the sea and knew it was out of the question to covet that distance at racing pace. He had to save his strength; if he did so there was just a chance that he might be able to keep ahead until he reached salt water or found some refuge. All he wanted to do for the present was to keep out of sight of his pursuers, and that would not be difficult for the river wound in sharp curves between high banks.
He drove on steadily, keeping in the middle of the stream so as to get the advantage of the current. The current was strong and he travelled fast, yet he knew well enough that the cannibals behind could travel faster still. They would have a big canoe with eight or ten paddlers, all big, powerful men and far more skilled than he.
As he swirled past each curve he looked back, but one passed after another and still his pursuers were not in sight. His spirits began to rise a little for it seemed to him that he must be holding his own.
He turned the fourth curve and saw in front a stretch fully half a mile long. Here if anywhere was where they would sight him, and he began to paddle as hard as he could. The Moon was well up now, and showed up the high banks and the yellow stream dimpled with swirling eddies. Harder and harder he drove and the next point came rapidly nearer.
He had almost reached it when a savage yell rang out, echoing horribly between the cliffs. No need to look back for now nothing but sheer speed could save him, He shot round the corner and suddenly saw a second canoe dead ahead. It was coming straight toward him.
THE shock was so great that Jim nearly dropped his paddle.
If it had been bad before his situation was now desperate for, tired as he was, he could never hope to escape from these men who barred his way to the sea. Even if they did not belong to the same tribe as the cannibals who were chasing him, it was certain that they would not let him pass, for a white man's head is the greatest of trophies in the eyes of a Solomon Islander.
He looked quickly to right and left. On the right the bank was still too high to climb, but on the left it was lower and there seemed some chance that he might be able to land there and hide in the bush. With all speed he turned his canoe in that direction, only to see the canoe in front turn the same way to cut him off. He paddled with all his might, yet before he reached the bank the other canoe was almost on him.
"Marse Jim! It all right. We Motu and Kupa."
Jim could not speak. This second shock had almost finished him. Next moment the two natives were alongside and then Jim came to himself.
"They're after me," he gasped. "Head-hunters. They'll be round the bend in two minutes. Get in with me and hurry."
The two were aboard in a matter of seconds. Motu spoke.
"No good we go back down river, Marse Jim. Them fellows catch us pretty quick."
"Then where can we go?" demanded Jim.
"Him way ober dere," Motu told him, pointing a little distance down the left bank.
"Get to it then," said Jim; but Motu and Kupa were already paddling, and with Jim helping the light canoe fairly leaped downstream.
As for the other canoe, it drifted away toward the bank. They had no time to salve it. Lift and dip, lift and dip—all three were working for dear life. Suddenly Jim saw a narrow channel opening to the left, and into it they drove at top speed.
"Just in time," panted Jim. "They're not round the point yet."
"I tink more better land," said Motu, and, driving the canoe to the bank, he stepped ashore.
Then he and Kupa picked the canoe bodily out of the water and, carrying her up the muddy bank, dumped her behind a bush. They had hardly done so before their pursuers came into sight, flashing past the mouth of the creek. There were a dozen of them, seated two and two, so that six paddles worked on each side of their big canoe. Jim had a glimpse of the bestial faces of some of the lowest savages on the Earth's surface, of woolly hair and bare, black arms glistening with sweat. Not a pretty sight, and he was thankful that he had managed to elude them.
"Shall we go on now?" he asked of Motu. The brown man shook his head.
"I tink more better not. I tink dem fellows come back pretty soon."
Jim said nothing, but his feelings were not pleasant as he crouched there, gripping his spear, the only weapon he had.
Motu was right. Ten minutes later they heard the splash of paddles and a moment later the big canoe was in sight again. To Jim's horror it turned straight into the channel. He felt Motu and Kupa cower closer to the swampy ground, and he himself hardly dared to breathe. The question that tortured him was whether their canoe was quite hidden from the sharp eyes of the savages. If it were not—if they caught a glimpse of it—the game was up, and Jim did not flatter himself that he would get a second chance of escape. The odds were that they would all three be finished off at once.
The black men came straight on; they were opposite, and Jim saw the light reflected in their savage eyes. Happily the trees nearly met overhead and the shadow on the banks was so thick that no ray of moonlight penetrated it. They passed and Jim breathed again as the long canoe drove out of sight down the darksome tunnel.
"Shall we move?" he whispered to Motu, "clear out now and go down toward the sea?"
"No do that," Motu replied in an equally low tone. "More better stay here. They come back pretty soon."
"They come back now," muttered Kupa.
He was right. Presently the big canoe came shooting back out of the gloom. Again the three cowered flat among their bushes and suffered agonies of suspense as the cannibals passed them, almost within the length of a paddle. Their quick, restless eyes roved this way and that, yet either the darkness was too profound or the canoe too well hidden for them to suspect its presence. Once more they passed and paddled back into the main stream. Kupa, whose ears were sharp, bent forward, listening. At last he spoke.
"Dem fellows gone dat way," pointing downstream.
"Then they're between us and the sea," said Jim in a horrified whisper.
"Dat true, Marse Jim," agreed Motu. "But I think dis ribber he go sea too."
Jim looked hard at the water. He had supposed that this was a tributary of the main stream, but now he saw that the sluggish current ran past in a northerly direction and realised that this was merely another mouth of the river. His spirits rose.
"You're right, Motu. Then the sooner we're off the better. We must be out of this river before daylight."
"We go now, I tink," said Motu, as he rose silently to his feet.
He and Kupa slid the canoe back into the water, then all three got in and went swiftly away down the channel. Motu and Kupa paddled. They would not let Jim help, and Jim understood the reason when he saw the canoe drive forward without so much of a splash as a rising fish might make. He knew that he himself could never have matched this amazing silence.
The channel curved and grew narrower, the trees met overhead, then all of a sudden they found themselves faced with a tangle of twisted mangrove trunks which seemed to bar any further progress.
"So that's why they turned back," Jim murmured in dismay. "It's a blind alley."
"Him swamp," explained Motu, but he did not stop paddling.
The canoe drove forward under the thick branches, it bumped against twisted roots, yet it still floated, and in a minute or two they had forced their way through the barrier into the heart of a mangrove swamp.
It was a horrible place where the black, stagnant water stretched on each side, with the ugly, twisted mangrove trunks growing out of it, their branches laced thickly overhead. The hot, stagnant air reeked with the smell of decay and was thick with humming swarms of mosquitoes, which bit like fire. Yet Jim had no thought of the horrors of the place; his feeling was one of intense relief that he and his companions had at last dodged the head-hunters, and for the first time since escaping from Dirck Jansen were reasonably safe from them.
"How far are we from the sea, Motu?"
"I not know, Marse Jim," replied Motu, and looked round. "This pretty bad place," he added uncomfortably.
"Never mind," said Jim; "we're safe from those black cannibals, anyhow."
"Dem other fellows here—dem crocodiles," was Motu's reply.
JIM hadn't thought of crocodiles and the idea was not pleasant. Had he and the other two jumped out of the frying-pan only to land in the fire? He looked round but saw nothing except the dark water and the darker trees. The roof of branches overhead was so thick that but little moonlight leaked through. He dug in his paddle.
"Let's get out of it," he said, and Motu nodded and set to paddling.
But it was one thing to talk of getting out, quite another to do it. There was no current to tell them which way to go and they could never see more than forty or fifty yards in any direction. The only hope was to find a clear space and get their bearings by the Moon. Meantime they pushed on, trying to keep some sort of direction.
Without warning they ran upon a mud-bank and had to push off as best they could and turn in another direction. They had not gone far in the new direction before they ran into a channel choked by roots. Jim took hold of one of the twisted trunks to push the canoe back when something reared up and seized his arm with a grip that made him cry out with the pain. Motu raised his paddle and brought it down with a crash on the armour-plated body of an enormous land crab.
"Him hurt you, Marse Jim?" Motu asked anxiously.
"Pretty near paralysed my arm," Jim answered, as he rubbed the crushed muscles.
They got out of the channel and tried another. This time they had better luck, and, presently struck a little open lagoon where the moonlight silvered the sullen surface. Motu gazed at the Moon and considered for a few moments. Then he pointed to the west. "I tink we go dis way," he said.
"But the sea ought to be to the north of us," Jim answered. "Why should we go to the west?"
Motu could not tell. He had the animal-like sense of direction, but Jim forgot this and insisted on going north. They left the lagoon and paddled on in that direction for some time, but the trees grew thicker and thicker and presently they were fast on the mud again.
"It's like a maze," growled Jim as he shoved off. "You try your way now."
Motu took charge, and this time turned west, and for a while got on better. Then the trees thickened once more and they had to work along a narrow, twisting channel. Jim was getting heartily sick of this swamp; he had begun to feel that they would never get out of this horrible place. The channel grew more and more narrow and the bow of the canoe again bumped against something.
"More roots," groaned Jim, shoving his paddle against the obstruction.
Suddenly he felt the thing move. Next instant the slimy water broke and a monstrous head rose out of it, with wide jaws set with yellow tusks. Two eyes glowed red as fire in the gloom, and a reek of musk rose so thick it was like a cloud of poison gas.
"Him crocodile!" shrieked Kupa.
It was Jim who acted. Dropping the paddle, he snatched up the spear which he had taken from the guard and rammed it down the yawning throat of the hideous monster.
Clang! came the great jaws together, snapping the shaft clean in two, and at the same moment up came his great tail and fell across the bow of the canoe like a flail. If it had hit Jim it would most certainly have killed him, but luckily it just missed him. But the blow smashed the bow of the canoe to pulp and its occupants had only just time to spring out on to the nearest mangrove roots before it sank.
"Up—get up the tree!" cried Jim, "The brute will have you."
"I tink he got plenty 'nuff already," said Motu. "Him spear stick in throat. Him not bite us any more."
Jim shrugged his shoulders.
"It might be better if he did," he remarked. "We're done for anyhow."
It looked as if he was right, for the canoe was finished, and there was no way of making a raft. There seemed nothing for it but to hang on to these slimy roots until they starved or were eaten by the mosquitoes and land crabs. Several of these fearsome-looking beasts were already walking toward them. But Motu refused to be discouraged.
"I make climb tree," he said simply, and with that picked the biggest mangrove and swung up into the branches. Jim watched him silently. He did not think for a moment that the native would be able to see anything, and he himself was feeling so utterly worn out with the adventures of the past thirty-six hours that he did not seem to care much what happened. Another crab attacked, and he kicked it fiercely into the water.
"Dem too plenty many crabs," observed Kupa uncomfortably. A regular army of the great blue-shelled brutes was gathering, and barring a couple of paddles they had nothing to fight them with. Suddenly Motu came swinging down like a monkey out of the tree. He was more excited than Jim had ever seen him. "I see him sea," he cried.
Jim caught him by the arm. "Are you sure? How far?"
"I quite sure. It not far. You come. I show you." Without a moment's delay he began clambering away across the maze of curved and twisted roots that circled above the black slime and water, and Jim, forgetting how weary he was, followed. But the natives were more active than he, or perhaps not so tired, and they went much faster. He had to call to Motu to wait. Both the good fellows came back and helped him, but at best it was terribly slow going.
An hour passed, and Jim's hands were sore and his muscles were one great ache from swinging from branch to branch. At last he stopped. "I'm done, Motu," he said hoarsely. "You and Kupa go ahead."
"You rest little while. It not far now," said Motu. "I smell him sea." He stooped, scooped up some water in the palm of his hand and tasted it. "I right," he cried jubilantly. "It salt."
The news gave Jim fresh courage and he started again. They pushed up the edge of a channel, found a way of crossing it, and all of a sudden the mangroves broke off and Jim found himself on the edge of open water. He turned quickly to Motu.
"It's the lagoon," he exclaimed, "the very place where I left the Dolphin. But where is she?"
Motu shook his head.
"I no see Dolphin," he answered gravely.
YES, the Dolphin was gone, and the water of the lagoon lay smooth and empty under the Moon. Jim's spirits, which had risen at the prospect of getting clear of the abominable mangrove swamp, sank again to his very boots. He was worn out, hungry, terribly thirsty, and this seemed the last straw. Motu, seeing the look of despair on the boy's face, tried to comfort him.
"Marse Don, he gone look for you. He be back plenty soon."
Jim felt suddenly ashamed of his despair.
"I hope you're right, Motu. Perhaps you are. And, anyhow, there's fresh water on the beach. Let's see if we can get across. A good drink and a good sleep is what we all need."
"Dat right," agreed Motu. "I tink we get to beach. I find way." He started along the rim of the mangroves and the others followed. It was not likely that there were crocodiles here in the salt water, so they were able to go more quickly. Also they had the moonlight to guide them, and in a little while they came opposite the beach but separated from it by a channel some thirty yards wide.
"I tink we swim," said Motu.
Jim hesitated. "What about sharks?"
"I no tink sharks come here," Motu answered. "I go first and see."
"Nonsense!" said Jim. "We'll all go together. If we splash well we shall be all right." In he went. The water was warm as new milk and very refreshing after the foulness of the swamp. Half a dozen strokes and they were in their depth, and waded up on to the beach. It was a good half-mile walk along under the cliffs but it was delightful to Jim to have dry sand under his feet and to feel free of the danger of crocodiles, crabs, and head-hunters. It was still more pleasant to reach the spring and kneel down and drink the cool, fresh water, and after that wash away the mire of the swamp. At last Jim rose to his feet.
"I wonder," he said to Motu, "if my brother left any message."
"I tink he sure leave letter," agreed Motu. "I look."
Kupa caught Motu by the arm.
"You no move," he whispered. "Someone come." There were bushes around the spring and the three crouched down under their cover.
Nearly a minute passed and then Jim heard something. Footsteps were crossing the sand, and by the sound were being made by bare feet. Jim was scared, for it seemed certain that natives were about, though how they had got down the cliffs he could not tell.
The steps came nearer and Jim, peering through the bush, saw someone coming toward them. The light was not very good but it was enough to show that this man was wearing trousers, and that he carried a rifle. So at any rate he was not a head-hunter.
Kupa sprang up. "It Parami!" he cried in delight.
Jim was up like a shot. "Parami!" he almost shouted.
"Marse Jim!" cried Parami joyfully, and next moment Jim had hold of the brown man's hands and was shaking them vigorously.
"Where's my brother?" he asked.
"Cap'n gone look for you, Marse Jim. I see Cap'n Jansen steal you 'way, but we not able help because have no boat. So we hurry mend schooner and soon as he finished Marse Don sail down coast."
"When did they go?"
"Yesterday in afternoon," Parami answered. "They leave me so I meet you if you come back."
"Splendid! I can't tell you how glad I am to see you. But I'm worried about the Captain. Jansen's schooner is on the beach five or six miles east of this, but he's got a lot of men and I'm scared they may attack the Dolphin."
Parami shook his head. "Cap'n, he not take chances. He pretty clever."
"But he may go ashore to look for me," urged Jim.
"I think he find out you get away and come back pretty soon," said Parami quietly. "How you get away, Marse Jim?"
"It's a long story," Jim answered. "It was Motu and Kupa who got me out. But see here, Parami. We're pretty near starving. Can you rustle up anything to eat? And while we feed we can tell you all about it."
"I make you supper," said Parami, and turned quickly away in the direction of the cliff. The others followed and he led them into the mouth of a cave new to Jim.
"We find him day after you go," Parami explained. "Cap'n say good place to sleep."
"A jolly good place," agreed Jim, as he noticed how very narrow the mouth was and how it was almost hidden by a mass of trailing convolvulus which hung down from above. Inside, however, there was plenty of room, and a crack in the roof acted as chimney. A hurricane lamp gave light, and Parami had built a fireplace of stones and got plenty of fuel. He soon had a fire going and in a few minutes the savoury smell of frying bacon made Jim's mouth water.
In little more than a quarter of an hour a meal was ready. Motu and Kupa were even hungrier than Jim, and Parami had to fry a second panful of bacon.
"My word, I never knew bacon could be so good," said Jim as he finished his plate. "More coffee, please, Parami."
Parami filled up his mug and Jim drank it all before he began to talk. Parami leaned forward a little and Jim saw his big brown eyes glistening in the lamplight as he listened to the story of the escape. When Jim had finished Parami nodded.
"Cap'n he be very pleased when he hear," he stated, "and I think he be very pleased with Motu and Kupa too."
"So he will," agreed Jim. "It took a bit of pluck to tackle those sentries. I'd never have got away without their help."
Motu and Kupa grinned rather bashfully but said nothing.
"And you got red pearls, Marse Jim?" said Parami. Jim fished out the cartridge.
"Here they are, Parami, and here they'd better stay until I can hand them over to the Captain." He leaned back against the wall of the cave and yawned. "I'm dead sleepy, Parami. Can you keep watch while I get forty winks?"
Parami smiled and nodded.
"I watch. You sleep," he said.
Jim lay back on the soft sand. "Wake me if the Dolphin comes," he said, then his eyes closed and all in a moment he was sound asleep. Kupa and Motu followed his example and Parami went softly to the mouth of the cave, squatted down and sat gazing out over the moonlit surface of the calm lagoon.
"MARSE Jim, Marse Jim—ship come."
Jim, struggling up out of deep sleep, opened his eyes and looked up into Parami's face. A shaft of sunlight struck down through the rift in the roof of the cave, making a patch of strong light in the gloom. Motu and Kupa still lay where they had dropped, both sound asleep.
"Ship come," repeated Parami.
Jim sat up. "What—the Dolphin?" he exclaimed eagerly.
"No, Marse Jim." Parami's face was curiously grave. "It Cap'n Mark's launch."
Jim stared. "Mark's launch," he repeated. "Who's in it? Not Gabe Paran?" Parami nodded.
"That's right," he said.
"Right! It's all wrong," growled Jim. "I never dreamed the beggars would find the launch. Are they all here—his Malays, I mean?"
Again Parami nodded.
"Do you mean they're in the lagoon?"
"They in lagoon. They coming this beach," said Parami.
Jim bit his lip. "What on earth could have brought them here?"
"It just place for them, Marse Jim. Cliffs make him safe and I think they want water."
"Yes," said Jim slowly. "That's about the size of it. And what are we going to do, for they'll be right in on top of us?"
This time Parami did not nod. On the contrary he shook his head.
"They not find us if we not make noise. I cover up mouth of cave quite safe."
"Then we can't see out."
"We see out. You come see," said Parami.
Jim followed him to the entrance and found that Parami had pulled the vines down all over the crack so that the odds were long against anyone spotting that there was any sort of hole in the cliff. But by lying flat on the floor and lifting the vines a little it was easy enough to see out across the lagoon.
The very first thing Jim saw was the launch. The sun, high in the sky, blazed down upon the lagoon, twinkling on the ripples raised by the sea breeze, and showing up with pitiless clearness the scarred and cruel face of Gabe Paran and the brown skins and slitted eyes of his rascally Malays. Gabe was at the tiller, steering the launch straight in toward the clump of bushes which marked the spring. Jim knew that he and his companions were in a very tight place and took command at once.
"Parami, go back and wake Motu and Kupa and warn them to keep quiet."
Parami hurried away. Jim lay watching the invaders and trying to consider what was best to do.
Presently Parami was back beside him.
"Parami," said Jim, "got any water in the cave?"
"One bucket, Marse Jim."
"Good man. We shall have to make it last, for there's no going out so long as these people are here."
He spoke in a very low voice for the launch was now quite close to the beach. Next minute it had touched the sand, and instantly its crew flung themselves out, splashed ashore and fairly raced for the spring. Jim saw that they were all half mad with thirst. But Gabe did not give them long to drink and in a very few minutes was driving them back.
They scowled and muttered but were evidently afraid of him and of the heavy pistol which swung at his waist, and he made them pull the launch right up on the sand until she was clear of the water. The ugly Achinese Kapak came up and spoke to him, and to Jim's surprise in quite good English.
"You'd better let them feed, Cap'n," he said. "They'll work better after they've eaten." Gabe scowled, but agreed, and gave a curt order in their own language. At once the men got busy. One set to lighting a fire, another got out a cooking pot from the launch, a third took it and filled it with water at the spring. They boiled a quantity of rice, which was dished out on to tin plates and eaten with nasty-looking, dried fish. Gabe had a couple of flying-fish which Kapak grilled for him over the fire, but Kapak ate rice like the rest. After eating the Malays lit long brown cigarettes and lay loafing in the shade.
As there was nothing else to do Jim lay flat on his face and watched them. Gabe gave them half an hour to rest and smoke, then got up and issued sharp orders. Presently they were all crowding round the launch. They laid her over on her side and Jim saw that the keel was damaged, part of it being split away.
Parami spoke in Jim's ear. "They mend her, Marse Jim, then they go."
"It's a pretty big job," replied Jim doubtfully. "They'll hardly finish it today. And where will they get the stuff to do it? There's no timber."
This was true, but Gabe was equal to the difficulty, and they heard him tell Kapak to get out some of the bottom boards. Kapak spoke to two of the men, who at once climbed into the launch.
Suddenly one of them gave a queer guttural exclamation and lifted out a heavy sack, which he flung on the beach. It burst as it fell and a mass of metal flakes gleamed dully in the sun glare.
Jim gasped. "They've found the gold!" he said to Parami. In his excitement he spoke out loud; but there was no risk of the men outside hearing him—they were far too excited. They flung themselves into the launch and hauled out bag after bag. They cut them open and ran their brown fingers through the glittering dust. Gabe and Kapak had their work cut out to drive them off and force them to close up the bags again and lay them aside.
Gabe forced them to carry on with the repairs, and for the rest of the day they were busy. Just before dusk the work was completed, and the Malays settled down to cook supper. As for the prisoners in the cave, they of course could not light a fire and had to put up with biscuits, a tin of bully beef, and cold water.
After their supper Gabe and Kapak sat together with their backs against the cliff close under the mouth of the cave and talked. Low as they spoke, Jim and Parami could hear every word. Gabe was very pleased.
"A real bit o' luck finding that stuff," he said with an ugly chuckle. "I wouldn't wonder if it was worth more than all those pearls of Jansen's."
"You going to share up with him?" asked Kapak softly.
Gabe fixed his pale eyes on the other's face. "What are you getting at?"
"We've got the launch," Kapak answered; "what do we want with the schooner? I'd say clear out before Jansen gets to know anything about this gold."
Gabe sat silent a while. It was a minute or so before he spoke. "Not a bad notion, Kapak, but I reckon it's a bit too late to try a game like that. There's the Stiletto coming right up the coast this minute."
JIM turned to Parami. "The Stiletto!" he repeated. "If that's true we're properly in for it!"
Parami made no answer and it was too dark to see his face, but Jim felt his dismay.
Just then Kapak spoke again outside the cave. "That's not Jansen's ship, cap'n; that's the Dolphin."
Jim listened breathlessly. There was a pause of perhaps half a minute, then Gabe's voice answered:
"You're right, Kapak. And that young Dysart." He paused again. "See here, Kapak," he went on fiercely, "we've got to have that schooner. She'll be a sight better for the trip we're going than this rotten old launch."
"And how do you think you're going to get her, cap'n?" asked Kapak.
"We'll get her fast enough if she comes in here. And that's just what she's going to do by the course she's steering."
"But Dysart will see the launch and keep clear."
"He won't see the launch," retorted Gabe. "Not if she's hidden. Get the men. Make 'em cut bushes from round the spring and cover up the launch. And tell 'em to be smart about it!"
Kapak sprang to obey. Jim tried hard to get a glimpse of the Dolphin, but could not do so without moving the bushes more than was wise. Meantime the Malays were already busy chopping bushes and carrying them quickly to the launch. Kapak and Gabe himself piled them, covering the launch completely.
"This is bad business!" Jim whispered to Parami, and his voice was very anxious. "Don will come sailing right in on top of this pack of pirates; and in the dark too; and they'll be aboard him before he knows anything about it. I must warn him."
"I not think you can do that, Marse Jim," said Parami gently. "They catch you for sure if you go out of cave."
Jim bit his lip. He knew that what Parami said was true, that the moment he showed himself outside the cave he was bound to be caught. And not only he but his three companions as well. Yet, on the other hand, he did not see how he could possibly let Don come sailing into this trap without warning. It was a terrible fix, and for the life of him he could not see any way out of it.
Meantime Gabe and his crew had covered the launch with branches and themselves had gone off and hidden among the bushes near the spring.
"If we could only signal in some way!" groaned Jim.
Parami got up quickly.
"Marse Jim, I try to climb up into roof of cave. Then maybe I wave to cap'n Don, and he understand."
Jim's eyes brightened.
"If only you could!" Then he looked up and shook his head. "But it's not possible," he added.
"I try," said Parami quietly, and began to hunt for the best way up. Presently he beckoned to Kupa, who came to him. He made Kupa stand against the rock-face and climbed lightly on his shoulders. With that start he gained a projection and clung. The little ledge was only a few inches wide and to Jim, watching anxiously, it did not seem possible that any human being could stand on it, let alone climb the almost sheer face above. Jim knew that he could not have done it himself. But Parami's bare feet seemed to have the clinging power of a monkey's paws, and his brown lingers were like steel claws. Foot by foot he wormed his way up toward the cleft which opened slanting into the face of the cliff. Once he reached the slant the going was easier, and he went more quickly.
The other three saw him disappear into a kind of chimney and waited anxiously until, after about five minutes, he came crawling down. Jim did not dare to speak until Parami was safe again on the floor of the cave, then he asked anxiously: "Could you see her?"
"I see them, Marse Jim, but they no see me."
Jim's face fell. "Then it's no good," he said in a very troubled voice.
"It's not so bad," said Parami. "Dolphin, she not coming in. Tide, he go out."
Jim looked much relieved. "Ebb running still. How long has it got to go?"
"About four hours, Marse Jim."
Jim nodded. "It gives us time to think. It means that she won't come in till well after dark." He thought for a moment. "But Don is bound to come in some time, and then it will be worse than ever, for he won't be able to see Gabe and his crew of pirates."
Parami looked as troubled as Jim.
"There's only one chance, so far as I can see, Parami. When it gets dark I must slip out of the cave, go down the beach, climb through to the swamp and swim to the reef. Then I can shout to them in the schooner."
"That no good," said Parami. "Waves make so much noise they no hear."
"Then I shall make a torch of some sort and light it."
Parami nodded. "That better, Marse Jim. I come, too."
Jim did not say no, for he knew that Parami's help might make all the difference. But his very skin crawled at the thought of swinging from tree to tree across that horrible mangrove swamp.
He and Parami sat and talked in low voices until nearly sunset. Then they got out some food and made a cold supper, after which there was nothing to do except wait again until it was dark enough to slip out of the cave without being seen by Gabe and his Malays.
The Solomons are very near the Equator, so the sun sets a little before or after six all the year round, and once it is down twilight lasts a bare twenty minutes, then out come the stars and it is night.
At long last the crimson and gold reflected from the sky began to fade from the smooth water which mirrored it, and Jim edged forward. Parami laid a hand on his arm.
"It's not dark enough yet, Marse Jim," he whispered. "They see us for sure."
"We'll wait ten minutes," said Jim, "then we must go." He looked at his watch, which he had managed to keep safe all through his wanderings; it was just half-past six, and with each minute the darkness deepened. Eight minutes—nine, and then a slight sound outside. Figures came creeping out of the bushes toward the launch. Gabe's voice was heard.
"Get those boughs off. It's all right, Kapak; they can't see us, and I want to be ready to start the minute the schooner comes in."
"WHAT shall we do?" Jim's voice had a queer quiver in it. He had been through a lot in the past three days and this last blow was almost too much. "What can we do?" he demanded of Parami.
The brown man was equally at his wits end, yet kept his head. "We wait a little, Marse Jim. When they get boat out then we go."
"It'll be too late," Jim answered hoarsely. "The Dolphin will be in the lagoon before we can reach her and these brutes will be waiting close under the reef. They'll be aboard her before anyone in the schooner sees them."
Parami was silent. He knew only too well that what Jim said was the truth. Jim spoke again. "There's only one thing to do. We must fight them."
"I got no cartridge," said Parami, "Jansen, he stole all cartridge from Dolphin."
A groan escaped Jim. It was true. He remembered now how Jansen had taken the cartridges. He had one of them in his pocket this minute, but that had no shot, only the red pearls. The rest he had emptied in his mad attempt to blow up the Stiletto. Oh, if he only had just two of those cartridges now! But it was no use crying over split milk or vanished cartridges. Something had to be done if Don and the Dolphin were to be saved. He racked his brain for some new idea, and quite suddenly it came.
"Parami," he said swiftly. "I must get into the launch and hide and go out with them."
Parami's brown eyes widened. He looked as if he thought Jim had taken leave of his senses. Jim went on.
"I'll sneak out and hide in the stern locker; then when we get near the Dolphin I'll jump out and shout."
"But how you get in locker?" asked Parami. "Some of them men be in launch all the time."
"They won't start yet," insisted Jim. "They'll wait till the Dolphin is in the lagoon anchored. And its getting darker. Clouds are coming up. I'll take Motu's clothes and turban and dodge in somehow."
Parami, who was lying flat on the cave floor alongside Jim, peered out under the creeper which hid the mouth.
"I do not think you can do that, Marse Jim. They sure catch you."
"Oh don't croak," retorted Jim in a fierce whisper. "I've just got to do it."
Parami remained calm.
"You wait little. They go eat. If they leave launch you get good chance."
"You're right." Jim's voice shook a little with sudden excitement for he saw Gabe's men slipping away back to their bushes where they were evidently going to eat and drink before their night's work. Then he saw that not all went. One was left crouching behind the launch. The launch herself had been pushed down to the water's edge and would float presently as the tide rose. He pointed out the man to Parami.
"I'll have to tackle him," he said grimly.
"That my job," replied Parami and, though his voice was low and soft as ever, Jim caught a determined ring in it. Before he could stop him the brown man was gone, and Jim saw him sliding like a snake across the sand toward the launch.
Jim's heart was in his throat. He could hardly breathe for sheer suspense, yet there was nothing to do but lie where he was and watch. Clouds were drifting across the sky and hiding the stars, but it was not too dark to see the outline of the launch or the figure of the Malay squatting by her stern. Parami, too, he could see as a dark blot against the white sand, but he made not the slightest sound as he crossed the gap separating him from the launch.
Jim's hands were clenched so tightly that the nails dug deep into the palms. He quivered with suspense. If the Malay turned his head it was all up. Slowly the distance between him and Parami grew less and presently Jim saw Parami stop and lie perfectly still. The Malay had moved slightly, but apparently had seen nothing for he settled down again. Parami went on and disappeared into the darkness under the launch's stern.
Jim peered forward. Excitement made him feel quite sick. If Parami could not prevent the man from crying out all his work was in vain. Suddenly Jim saw the Malay's body jerk backwards. He heard a smothered gasp. There was a struggle, but a soundless struggle.
"He's got him," breathed Jim, and he was right for presently here came Parami back to the cave mouth, dragging the Malay behind him.
"I got him, Marse Jim," said the big brown man quietly. "He no make noise."
"You're a wonder, Parami," said Jim fervently as he helped to pull the prisoner into the cave. The Malay was helpless for he was gagged and his arms and legs tied.
"I take him clothes and go on boat," said Parami.
"You'll do nothing of the sort," said Jim curtly. "You're a foot taller than he and they'll spot you the moment they laid eyes on you. I'm just his height and can wear his things all right, and they'll never notice in the dark. Strip him quick."
Parami had to agree that Jim was right, and he and Motu stripped the Malay as quickly as possible. The man was little the worse, for Parami had merely choked him into submission, but he was pretty badly scared and took it all quietly. It was a bit awkward changing in the dark, but with Parami's help Jim managed it. Then he gave Parami's hand one squeeze.
"Don't worry about me," he said. "I'll be all right," and slipped out of the cave mouth on to the beach. He looked toward the bushes, but all was quiet so he followed Parami's example and crept across the sand toward the launch. Reaching it, he took up his position under the stern and waited.
The tide had risen a good deal and the launch was almost afloat. The clouds had thickened and it was comfortingly dark. He looked across the lagoon and though he could not see the Dolphin herself he spotted her riding light about a mile away. She was still outside the lagoon.
All he could hear was the low-toned thunder of the swell breaking on the outer reef. He filled his lungs with the fresh salt air which was a pleasant contrast to the stuffiness of the cave.
Some time passed, then Jim noticed that the light on the Dolphin's mast was moving. A thrill of excitement ran through him. At last she was coming in, no doubt under engine power. Jim rather wondered at Don's risking the passage on so dark a night, but supposed that the anchorage outside was not trustworthy.
Someone else had seen the light move. Jim caught a faint rustle behind him, and, glancing round, saw Gabe and his Malays come hurrying across the beach from the direction of the spring. His heart began to thump. Would they spot him?
"SULA!" It was Gabe's harsh whisper.
"You, Sula, are you asleep?" he added angrily. It was not till then that Jim realised that he was Sula. He jumped up in fright, for he knew not one word of Malay so could not answer.
Luckily Gabe paid no particular attention. The last thing he could possibly suspect was the presence of anyone but his own people on this beach, and in any case it was very dark. Besides, he was accustomed to the sullen, silent ways of his Malays. In a low voice he gave orders to get the launch afloat, and Jim lent his help in this work. It was easy enough, for the rising tide had already reached her stern.
Then all tumbled in and Kapak set to work on the engine. It fired almost at once, but as they had covered it up with folded sail-cloth the sound was not loud. There was no danger of the Dolphin's people hearing it for she was near the reef where the roar of the surf drowned other sounds. Jim saw that she was still moving but was evidently slowing to her anchorage.
Then it occurred to him that the first thing Don would do after anchoring would be to lower a boat and come in for Parami, and this gave him a fresh fright for the launch could, of course, pick up a boat with much less trouble than capturing the schooner.
Kapak nursed the launch along with the engine just ticking over. She made hardly a ripple, hardly a sound, as she crept across the lagoon, and dark as it was Jim felt sure that Don would never see her. Presently he heard a fresh sound, the rattle of a chain.
"She's anchoring," he heard Gabe say to Kapak, and there was a satisfied tone in his voice. Yes, she was anchoring and the question in Jim's mind was whether the launch would reach her before Don started ashore. Suddenly he remembered that Don had no boat, for the only one left by the cyclone was the small boat in which he himself had drifted out of the lagoon. This took a little of the load of anxiety off his mind, but all the same his heart was thumping unpleasantly against his ribs, for with every turn of the screw the launch was getting nearer to the Dolphin and to the moment when he must give his warning.
Nearer they came and nearer. Now Jim could see not only the riding light but the faint glow from the binnacle lamp and another from an open porthole of the main cabin.
Gabe whispered to Kapak and the engine was stopped. The men got out paddles and began silently working the launch toward the schooner. Jim accidentally splashed a little and heard the man behind him whisper an angry threat. Like a great black insect the launch crawled across the calm water toward the Dolphin, and Jim began to feel a difficulty in breathing as he thought that in less than a minute he must give his warning.
Jim began to count to himself. He decided that at the end of twenty strokes he would be near enough to be certain of making Don hear. The strokes were slower now. It was marvellous how quietly the Malays worked. They seemed hardly to breathe. The Dolphin herself was very quiet and the only sound that Jim could hear was the low, endless roar of the surf breaking on the outer reef. Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty! Jim sprang to his feet.
"Don!" he yelled at the top of his voice. "Don, look out!"
With a fierce exclamation the man next him grabbed at him and caught his arm. Jim swung and drove his fist full against the man's jaw, knocking him flat into the bottom of the launch, then before the rest had recovered from their amazement he made a great jump overboard.
As he struck the water he heard the sharp bark of a pistol; but the bullet missed him and he dived deeply and swam hard under water. On and on he went until he began to feel as if his head would burst, then suddenly he bumped against something hard and grasping it found that he had hold of the Dolphin's anchor chain. He raised his head above water and took a long gasping breath, then looked round for the launch. She was coming right past him, and as she came flashes of fire darted from her and he heard the heavy reports of pistol fire. He ducked again, holding the chain below water and keeping his nose only above the calm surface.
Fresh flashes came from the Dolphin. Mark's rifle, it seemed, was at work, but the launch's engine was working at top speed and the launch herself travelling at a great pace. Jim felt a great surge of thankfulness as he realised that he had been successful and that Gabe had given up his hope of seizing the schooner.
The firing ceased and Jim heard Don shouting. "Jim! Jim! Where are you?"
"Here," replied Jim, as he let go of the chain and swam to his side.
Don had him in an instant and lifted him right out of the water and on to the deck.
"Are you hurt? Did he hit you?" he asked in a voice that was harsh with anxiety.
"I'm all right," Jim assured him, "absolutely all right. But Gabe. He's getting away. Get the anchor up and go after him."
"Can't be done, Jim," Don answered. "We've hardly any petrol. We could never catch them."
"But they have Mark's gold."
"I know. At least I thought they must, for I spotted it was Mark's launch. But what's it matter? You have the red pearls."
"How do you know?"
"I know you got away from Jansen. I know a lot of things. You see I have Jansen aboard."
Jim gasped. "Jansen aboard—a prisoner!"
"Yes. But it's a long story. And you look as if you'd had about enough. Come below and change and I'll tell you."
As they turned Mark came hurrying up.
"Jim, old chap," he cried, seizing both Jim's hands, "so you got through?"
"I'm here anyhow," said Jim with a grin.
"And you came at the right moment for us," Mark answered. "If you hadn't warned us those beggars would have had us for a certainty."
"Then the whole lot of us would have been scuppered," added Don with a grim edge to his voice. "Now come on down, Jim; you'll be getting fever."
"And you've got Jansen?" asked Jim eagerly as he stripped off the wet, dirty clothes which he had taken from the Malay. "How did you manage that?"
"I didn't," said Don drily. "The natives did it for me."
"Go on," Jim said. "Tell me."
"THERE'S not much to tell," Don answered. "You'll know from Parami how we went after you. Mark and Chi Ling and I were going to get you away from Jansen even if we had to board the Stiletto. But the first thing we saw when we got down the coast a bit was a big blaze."
"The natives had fired the Stiletto?"
"They had, and made a job of it. When we got near she was blazing like a bonfire, and the beggars dancing on the beach like mad things. We knew what had happened, and at first we thought they'd mopped up Jansen and the whole of his crew. But just then Chi Ling spotted a boat making off to sea. The chance was too good to miss, so as we couldn't save the Stiletto we went after her. Jansen began by defying us and vowing he would shoot if we tackled him, but I soon found out that he was the only one of all his lot who had a gun. I told him I'd run his boat down if he didn't surrender. So we got him aboard and tied him up. And we did the same with the rest of his precious crow, including Sangata. And there they are in the fo'c'sle, safe as houses."
Jim drew a long breath. "It looks as if things were really straightening up at last," he said. "What's the next move, Don?"
"Him suppel," said Chi Ling, poking his solemn face in at the door.
Jim jumped across and grabbed the tall Chinaman's hand.
"Chi, you old ruffian, I'm jolly glad to see you again. And supper will be a good move. I have had nothing all day except some cold grub."
"I tink you look pletty hungly," declared Chi. "So you come."
Supper was ready in the main cabin. Chi had opened a tin of sausages and fried them; he had made coffee; there were peaches with custard, and fresh, crisp scones with lots of tinned butter. Don, Mark, and Jim sat down and Chi waited on them and listened to their talk.
Jim did most of the talking, for the others insisted on hearing every detail of his escape, first from Jansen, then from the natives. When he had finished Mark looked at him.
"It's better to be born lucky than rich, Jim. You're not the first to escape from a cannibal village, but I never before heard of a chap getting away from a crocodile without a gun, or swimming in a lagoon like this without being taken by a shark."
Jim shivered a little at the recollection.
"Don, what are we going to do now?" he asked.
"Pick up Parami, Kupa, and Motu and push back for Thursday island," replied Don promptly.
"And let Mark's gold go?" Jim said, in a very disappointed voice.
"You have the pearls?" said Don.
"Yes, I've got the pearls," Jim answered and put his hand in his pocket. He jumped up. "I must have left them in the other clothes," he added hastily, and hurried out of the cabin. He was back in a couple of minutes, and the expression on his face frightened the others.
"They're gone!" he cried, "The cartridge is gone!"
"You left it with Parami," said Don.
"I didn't. I wish I had. I had it in the pocket of my shorts which I kept on under Sula's things. And the pocket has a hole, and ten to one that cartridge is lying in the bottom of the launch this minute. Oh, what a fool I am!" he added with a groan.
He looked so wretchedly unhappy that neither of the others could find a word of blame. Mark was the first to speak.
"Then it's up to us to follow the launch, Don. After all, we know exactly where Gabe has gone."
"Venga, you mean."
"Yes, Jansen's secret harbour. It's not more than thirty miles west of here. We'll pick up Parami and the others, and that makes us seven. With that number we ought to be able to handle Gabe's crowd."
Don nodded. "Yes. Then the sooner we start the better. Your launch isn't fast, is she?"
"If they can get six knots out of her they'll be lucky," replied Mark.
"Then we'll be all right if we can pick up a breeze," said Don as he got up. "Jim, do you feel up to helping me with the boat? Mark must stay aboard to keep an eye on the prisoner."
"I'll come," said Jim. "Pulling a boat is about all I'm good for," he added bitterly.
They had the Stiletto's boat, which was a good one, and it did not take them long to reach the beach where Parami and the other two were anxiously waiting.
"You safe, Marse Jim!" exclaimed Parami. "My word, I glad!"
"He's safe, and thanks to him we're safe," said Don. "And we've got Jansen and his men prisoners aboard the Dolphin. But Gabe has gone off with the red pearls and the gold and it's up to us to catch him. So jump in, the three of you, and I'll tell you about it on the way out."
This time Kupa and Motu took the oars, and while they rowed Don told Parami what had happened. Parami listened with his usual quiet attention, and remained silent when Don had finished speaking.
"You're very quiet," said Don smiling.
Parami looked up. "Cap'n, you taking Jansen to Venga?"
"Why, yes. What else can I do with him?"
"I think better leave him here. If we catch Gabe we have too many prisoners for one small ship."
Don grunted. "I hadn't thought of that, but of course you're right. Yes, they'll be safe enough here, and we can give them food enough to keep them until we can pick them up again."
"It hangs us up for an hour," said Jim. "We might just miss catching Gabe before he gets into this place you call Venga, and if it's so secret we may never find the entrance."
"We'll find that all right. Redburn is ready to tell us in return for his liberty."
"I wouldn't trust him," said Jim curtly.
"No more would I, but in this case he's reliable enough. He's got the wind up thoroughly since we caught Jansen."
"Well, just as you like," said Jim quietly, "Parami is probably right about the risk of having too many prisoners." As he spoke the boat ran alongside the Dolphin, and Don called to Mark and told him of their decision. Mark agreed, and he and Chi Ling brought the prisoners one by one and put them into the boat. Last of all Jansen himself was brought out, and Don told him What he meant to do.
"You'll be safe enough," he said. "The natives can't reach the beach and there's a good cave in which you can shelter. I'm leaving you food and I shall pick you up on my way back."
Jansen shrugged his huge shoulders. "I doubt it," he said. "If you go to Venga the odds are that you will never return."
"NOW what did he mean by that?" Jim asked of Don as the boat pushed off in charge of Mark.
"Trying to scare us," replied Don rather scornfully.
"I'm not so sure," said Jim slowly. "I'm wondering if there isn't some trap."
Don laughed; "No; Jansen just wants to make us feel uncomfortable."
Mark did not waste much time in dumping his prisoners on the beach and was back in twenty minutes. While he was away the others had got the anchor up and the engine going. Chi Ling told Don that they had petrol, left for barely two hours' run, and that it was going to take half of it to get the schooner out of the lagoon in the teeth of the strong tide.
"Never mind," said Don, "we'll pick up a breeze outside. I can feel a breath of it already."
He was right, for by the time they had threaded the rather dangerous passage through the reefs quite a fresh breeze was blowing. Now that they had their full crew again there was no time wasted in getting up sail, and in a few minutes the Dolphin was laying over and snoring through the small waves.
Don sent Jim below. "Get a bit of sleep while you can," he said. "I'll call you if we sight the launch."
Jim was not sorry for he had a lot of lost sleep to make up, and it was a joy to be able to turn in on his comfortable bunk after the hard lying of the previous nights. He did not waste much time in getting to sleep and the next thing he knew Don was shaking him awake.
"Daylight, Jim, and we've just spotted the launch."
"Daylight!" repeated Jim. "Have we been sailing all night?"
"We have. The wind shifted dead ahead and we had to beat. Luckily it hung up the launch, or else she had engine trouble. But she's running in now."
Jim flung on his clothes in a desperate hurry and went up. Dawn was just breaking, and the first beams of the rising sun shone on the lofty summit of a great volcano which rose a little way inland, and from the cone of which a thin trail of smoke poured away down wind. Oh its flanks Jim caught glimpses of terrific gorges and dark forest waving in the dawn breeze. The coast itself, however, seemed to be low and swampy, and there was the launch heading straight, in toward a dark line of mangrove swamp.
Don was up forward and Jim was surprised to see that Redburn stood beside him. Don had his glasses focused on the launch and was watching her as she drove in toward the land. The Dolphin was still under sail and travelling a good deal faster than the launch. As Jim came up Don turned. "It's all right, Jim. Redburn says there's plenty of water in the channel. She can't get away from us."
Jim glanced at Redburn, with his coarse red face and narrow eyes. He felt he would not trust the fellow an inch but couldn't well say so before him. As they came nearer to the mangroves the schooner lost the breeze and Don called to Chi to start the engine. He himself came aft and took the wheel from Parami who had been steering. Jim slipped across to Mark who was standing by the rail.
"Don's much too trusting," he whispered. "Redburn would sell his grandmother for sixpence."
"Well, I'm not too happy myself," said Mark, "but Don's boss and all we can do is to keep our eyes open. Anyhow, it looks all odds that we'll catch Gabe before he gets much farther."
This was true, for the Dolphin, with her engine working, was rapidly overhauling the launch. Gabe and his crew did not seem to understand the launch's engine and were not getting more than five knots out of her. If the schooner's petrol held out she was bound to catch up with the smaller craft in another mile.
"I'm going up forrard," said Jim. "Are you coming, Mark?"
"I'll come," replied Mark, picking up his rifle, "but you'd better watch Master Gabe. The odds are he'll start shooting when he finds we're on top of him."
"Two can play at that game," responded Jim dryly, as he and Mark walked forward.
The light was growing stronger and they were now able to see the mouth of the channel for which Gabe Paran was making.
"That's the way in," said Mark; "the entrance to Venga. It will be interesting to see what lies inside."
"I only hope we catch Gabe before he gets inside," said Jim as he peered over the bow.
"Be careful," Mark warned him. "You're a splendid target."
"He won't shoot while he sees you ready with your rifle," Jim said. "I'm keeping an eye to spot if there's water enough for the schooner."
"If there's depth for the Stiletto there's plenty for us," Mark told him. "We're gaining," he added.
They were gaining, but the launch reached the mouth of the channel a hundred yards ahead of the Dolphin. Gabe himself was attending to the engine and Kapak was in the stern watching the schooner. The rest of the Malays lay hidden.
A minute later the schooner reached the channel which was narrow, deep and black and wound serpent-like through the swamp. On either side the mangroves stood thick, with their twisted roots writhing upward out of the dark, greasy-looking water. The launch had vanished around the next bend, but they could hear her engine thumping away, sending dull echoes through the swamp. Their own was running sweetly, and Jim knew the schooner was travelling faster than the launch.
Suddenly they came out into a great dark pool and there was the launch racing for the mouth of the creek at the far end of the pool.
Don called to Chi. "Give her all she'll take, Chi. We must get her before she reaches that opening."
Chi opened the throttle wide, the schooner shot forward, flinging out a foaming bow wave on the smooth, dark water. Gabe turned his head, saw that he must be caught before he reached his goal, and suddenly swung the launch toward a narrow opening on the left.
Don followed, but Jim shouted a warning.
"We can't go up that creek. There's no room."
"If we don't she'll get away from us," Don snapped back.
"I tell you—" began Jim, and just then the launch quivered as if she had hit something. Her bow rose sharply and a cry of terror came from her crew.
"Stop, I tell you!" shouted Jim. "Stop! she's aground!"
With her engine still running, the launch forced her way across the obstruction. The schooner was right on top of her, but Don spun the wheel and brought his ship round just in time to save her from crashing into the launch's stern; but she was moving sluggishly and dropping lower in the water.
"She's sinking," cried Jim.
JIM was right. Whatever it was that the launch had hit it was plain that it had ripped a terrible hole in her. The people in the Dolphin saw Gabe and his men spring to their feet. The launch's engine stopped; then as she settled down bow foremost her crew leaped overboard.
The water was shallow but the mud deep, and there were yells of terror from men who felt their feet sinking in the treacherous slime. Kapak and another gained the mangroves, but the rest were sinking fast.
Jim did not need to be told what to do. He, Mark, and the rest raced for the boat, fairly flung it over the side, leaped in, and went to the rescue. Within ten minutes Gabe, Kapak, and the six Malays were prisoners aboard the Dolphin.
"What did I tell you, Jim?" said Don, as the last of the ugly little brown men was stowed safely away. "Now what about your dismal prophecies?"
Jim pointed at the place the launch had sunk. "Isn't that bad enough?" he asked. "The gold's at the bottom, and the pearls!"
"Oh, we'll get them all right," said Don in a changed voice. "The launch is only just covered."
"She's in the mud," retorted Jim. "And in that black water how are we going to see anything?"
Don saw the boy was really worried.
"Come on," he said. "I think we can manage all right. We'll get some tackle on to her and haul her up."
They rigged a block and tackle and after anchoring the Dolphin as near as safety allowed, got a rope round the hull of the launch; then, using a big mangrove trunk as a purchase, all tailed on and pulled.
The mud was frightfully sticky, but at last the launch came up, and they dragged her on to the slimy bank and wedged her between some roots. It was a long job, and a very hot and dirty one, but at last it was done, and Jim and Parami got in and began baling out the water that was still in her. Luckily most of it had run out through the nasty hole close to her bows where she had hit a sunken snag.
Jim hardly gave a thought to the gold. That was safe enough. It was the cartridge he thought of. What tortured him was the fear that he might have lost if, not in the launch but when he had jumped overboard into the lagoon.
"It was here I was sitting."
He pointed out the place to Parami.
"You no bother so much," said Parami softly. "We got white pearls and gold."
"The gold isn't ours; it's Mark's," replied Jim. "And as for the white pearls—why, the whole lot are hardly equal to one of those red ones. And now they're gone, and it's all my fault."
There was no doubt about it, and at last Jim was forced to give up and go back to the schooner empty-handed.
Don tried hard to comfort him.
"I've got the other pearls, Jim, and they'll pay for all Dad wants and leave us a good nest-egg. And we can always go back to Aroa and get some more."
"I'll throw in with you," said Mark. "Thanks to you people I'm a rich man."
"But the red pearls," groaned Jim. "Think of them! Ten thousand pounds; that's what Amos Seward would pay for them. We could buy an island of a farm at home. And we shall never find anything like them again."
"Red pearls." It was Redburn's voice. He had come up behind and been listening. "Where did you say they were? In that there launch?"
For a moment no one spoke. Jim saw the covetous gleam in the man's little pig-like eyes, and distrusted him more than ever.
Don broke the silence.
"Yes," he said; "there were some pink pearls hidden in an old cartridge case which my brother believes he left in the launch."
"And it ain't there now. What'll ye give me if I find them for ye?"
"You're getting more than you deserve already," retorted Mark sharply.
"You mean I'm going free," said Redburn. "You've promised me that already. See here, you say the pearls are worth ten thousand. You give me a thousand if I find them?"
"Yes," said Don curtly; "you shall have a thousand if you find them."
Redburn gave a hoarse chuckle, turned, and went below.
"What's he after?" asked Mark.
"You'd better keep an eye on him, Don," said Jim quickly. "I wish you hadn't made that bargain with him," he added.
"Why not? It's worth a thousand to get the pearls back. Not that he can do it, for I believe he's only bluffing."
"I'm not so sure," said Mark slowly; and then there was silence until suddenly Redburn's broad red face and squat body came up again through the forward hatch.
"This what you was looking for?" he said, and grinned broadly as he handed Don a twelve-bore cartridge.
"That's the one!" cried Jim sharply.
Taking a knife, Don worked out the wad, and the red pearls trickled out into the palm of his hand. The sunlight fell on the crimson globes, making them gleam like balls of iridescent fire.
"Where did you find them?" said Don.
"If you knew Malays as I do you wouldn't need to ask. They pick up things just like monkeys. I got it off the third fellow I asked." He looked hard at Don. "You stick to your bargain?"
"Of course I do," said Don shortly. "You'll get your money as soon as these are sold."
"After they're sold!" Redburn scowled. "That's no good to me. I'll need the money before that; and, anyway, I ain't coming to Thursday Island to claim it."
Before Don could reply Chi Ling came up.
"Cap'n, what we do now?" he asked. "Have breakfast," said Don, with a smile.
"Blekfast leady, cap'n, but I not talk of blekfast. I talk petlol."
"Petrol. What do you mean?"
"We use evely dlop," said Chi. "How we get out of this place without engine?" He waved his yellow hand at the surrounding swamp. "We no can sail out of heal."
DON frowned. "No petrol! We shall have to use the boat and tow out."
"I tink him pletty big job," said Chi Ling, looking rather blank.
"An awful job," agreed Jim. "We're a good mile in from the sea, and think of rowing and towing the schooner in this heat! But of course you might set Gabe's Malays to it," he added as an afterthought.
Don shook his head.
"I daren't do that, Jim. The odds are they'd cut the tow rope and make off. No, we shall have to do the job ourselves."
Mark came up and asked what they were discussing so earnestly, and Don told him.
"Why worry?" asked Mark. "There's petrol close by and plenty of it."
"Where?" Don asked.
"Over there," pointing inland. "Jansen must have good stores of it in this secret place of his. Redburn said as much."
Jim laughed. "Of course. How silly of us! Shall I go and get it, Don?"
But Don did not jump at the suggestion.
"You may be right, Mark," he said, "but I can't say I'm keen on pushing any farther into this place. It gives me the creeps."
Mark stared, for it was not like commonsense Don to make such a confession.
"Besides," Don went on, "we don't know what we may run into. There may be a force of men here—Malays or natives, and as we've got the pearls and the gold I'd like to clear out and away quickly."
Mark looked round.
"It's not going to be any picnic towing the schooner out of this place. See here, you know I'm pretty careful, and if there's any sign of trouble I'll come back at once."
Don still hesitated, but Jim chimed in.
"Do let us go, Don. Mark and me and Parami, and you'll have Chi Ling and the other two to help you keep ship. Mark will take his rifle and we'll keep our eyes open."
"All right," said Don rather gruffly, "but don't be any longer than you can help. I shan't be easy till I see you back."
"We'll hurry," promised Jim, and at once jumped into the boat which lay alongside. He and Parami pulled and Mark, with his rifle on his knees, steered. They went to the head of the big pool and up the channel beyond. This was only a couple of hundred yards long and broad enough and deep enough to float a good-sized ship. Then they came out into a second lake-like expanse of water much larger than the first. On the near side it was bordered by a mangrove swamp, but on the other the land was higher and covered with huge trees, the boughs of which spread far out over the still, dark water. But it was not the water or the trees that Jim gazed at as he twisted his head, round, it was a row of buildings.
The queerest buildings he had ever seen, for they stood up on stilts. In other words, they were built upon posts which had been rammed into the bottom so that their floors were about six feet above high-water mark. They were not the usual flimsy huts built by the Solomon Island natives, but good-sized, solid buildings with stout walls and roofs of heavy thatch. In all there were seven of them, the largest in the middle.
"Stop pulling," Mark ordered, and as the boat drifted quietly he stared hard at the queer houses.
"So that's Jansen's village," he remarked. "There doesn't seem to be anyone there though. What do you think, Parami?"
"I no think any live there," replied the brown man. "There no smoke; no one move."
"Then pull ahead," said Mark, "but watch me, both of you, and if you see my rifle go up, duck."
They went on slowly, Mark watching the place keenly; but nothing moved and presently they pulled up in front of the centre building which had a kind of verandah from which a ladder dropped to the water. Mark, rifle in hand, stepped past the others.
"You people wait in the boat until I see whether the coast is clear," he ordered. He went up the ladder and into the place. "All right," he called presently. "You can come up."
Jim scuttled up in a hurry, eager to see the inside of the buildings, but what he saw left him gasping.
"Jansen does himself well, eh, Jim?" said Mark dryly. "I wonder where this carpet came from."
"Out of a mail steamer, by the look of it," replied Jim. "And see those saddlebag chairs and this mahogany table; and the china and glass. Why, the beggar must have been looting all over the South Seas."
"He pretty big thief, I think," remarked Parami, who had come in behind Jim and was gazing round at the luxurious interior of the big room. It was furnished like the saloon of a millionaire's yacht, and, although the damp heat had damaged some of the luxurious hangings and blurred the mirrors, the whole effect was gorgeous. Mark, who was exploring at the far end of the long room, suddenly gave an angry exclamation.
"I know this," he said, lifting a silver cigar-box from a shelf. "It came from the Barracouta. You remember her, Parami?"
"I know, Cap'n Mark. She big yacht sunk in typhoon."
"That's what they said," replied Mark, "but the odds are that Dirck Jansen captured and scuttled her. I wonder what he did with poor old Mallett, who owned her?"
"What are we going to do? We can't leave all this stuff here," said Jim.
"No, we'll take it with us, but just at present a dozen gallons of petrol would be worth more to us than the whole lot. Let's go and hunt in the other buildings."
Three of these they found were sleeping apartments, one for white men with bunks fitted with spring mattresses. The windows were screened with wire gauze to keep out mosquitoes, and the floor covered with fine matting. Beyond the dormitories was a cook house, or rather, kitchen fitted up with oil stoves of latest pattern, pots and pans of aluminium and every kind of utensil for turning out a first-class meal. A store-house behind looked like a shop. There were rows and rows of tinned things, tongues, sausages, sardines, anchovies, peaches, apricots, pineapples, and jam.
"It makes me hungry to look," said Parami, and Jim laughed.
"Wait till Chi gets his hands on these. You won't be hungry much longer."
"We haven't got that petrol yet," said Mark. "There's one more building. That must be the store-house."
It was, and the first thing they saw was stacks of petrol cans piled against the wall. There were coils of rope, spare sails, cases of nails and bolts, parts of petrol engines. It was like a ship's chandler's shop. Jim sprang upon the petrol with a whoop of joy.
"Parami," said Mark, "you go and get a bagful of those tinned things. We'll have a real supper tonight."
"I go," said Parami, and hurried off while Mark and Jim stacked the petrol tins carefully amidships. In less than a minute Parami came running back, empty-handed.
"What's up?" demanded Mark.
"I hear someone," said Parami. "You lend me rifle, Cap'n Mark."
Mark seized his rifle and raced up the ladder. The others followed.
"Where was he?" demanded Mark as they reached the kitchen. Parami pointed through the window at the back.
"He in trees there."
"Can't see a sign of anyone," said Mark.
"Him man," replied Parami with certainty. "I hear his feet go pit-pat."
"Who could it have been?" Jim asked.
"A native most likely," Mark answered.
"YOU'VE been away nearly two hours," said Don as they came alongside.
"We've got the petrol anyhow," replied Jim. "And food, Don. You ought to see the place."
"I don't want to. I want to get out to sea. This place poisons me," said Don.
"You'll have to see it, Don," Mark told him gravely. "There's stuff we must take back with us—loot from ships. I found a silver cigar-box from the Barracouta, and there's china which came out of the mail steamer Canton Castle. These things will be evidence against Jansen when he comes to trial."
"You're right, Mark. We must get those things. But we'd better go at once. You and I and Parami. Jim must stay with Chi Ling to look after the ship. I don't like our both being away," said Don uneasily.
"We'll take Redburn with us," said Mark. "He may be useful. Gabe and his lot are tied up. They can't do any harm."
"It'll be all right," said Jim. "You go ahead and get the stuff."
They took Redburn and left in the boat. Jim wandered about the ship. He could not settle to anything. Don's uneasiness seemed to have infected him and he found it impossible to sit still. He longed to be away from this swamp and out to sea. Then all they would have to do was to pick up Jansen and make back for Thursday Island. They had the pearls, and Jim began to think of all they would be able to do.
A deep rumbling sound startled him. He thought it was thunder, yet when he looked up the sky was clear.
"What was that, Chi?" he called, but Chi did not know.
"I wish Don was back," said Jim. "It's getting very late. If he doesn't come quickly it will be night, and we can't get out of this place in the dark."
He grow more and more uneasy. He wandered up and down the deck watching for the boat. But the sun was down and a sultry dusk closing in before it appeared, laden almost to the water's edge.
"My word, I'm glad to see you," said Jim, as Don climbed aboard. "I thought you were never coming. But it's too late now to get out tonight."
"I can't help it, Jim," said Don. "There are piles of stuff there which must be brought away. We'll have to make another trip in the morning."
"Did you hear that rumble?" demanded Jim.
"I heard thunder once."
"It wasn't thunder. The sky was clear." Don's eyes widened. "Then what was it?"
"That's what I want to know. This vile place is full of mysteries."
"We'll be off tomorrow," Don assured him. "Now I must go and wash. You get this stuff aboard."
Chi had a very special supper for them that night, and after they had finished they fed the prisoners. They took no risks, and loosed them one at a time. Gabe glowered at them sullenly.
"Mark," whispered Jim as they went on deck, "did you see anyone at the houses?"
"No. It must have been an animal of some sort that Parami heard. We found no signs of anyone."
Just then Don called. "Jim, you'd better turn in. I want you to take the first dog watch."
"Right," said Jim, and went to his bunk. In spite of the heat he was soon asleep, and it seemed no time before Parami was shaking him awake. It was just on four and he was due on deck in five minutes. He was still rubbing his eyes as he reached the deck. Clouds covered the sky and it was intensely dark. The only light was a dull red glow above the head of the volcano.
The first thing Jim did was to go down and see that the prisoners were safe, then he came back to the deck and stood near the bows. The croaking of frogs was almost deafening, and now and then came the hoarse bellow of a bull alligator. Suddenly these other noises were drowned by a heavy rumble which shook the still air.
"There it is again," said Jim aloud, and at the same time turned quickly to see where the sound came from. That movement saved his life, for a blow meant for his head just grazed his skull and fell on his shoulder. Even so it was enough to stun him for the moment, and down he dropped in a heap on the deck. His attacker stood over him a moment, club raised, then as Jim did not move glided silently away on noiseless feet and vanished down the forward hatch.
But Jim was far from dead, and after a time his eyes opened and he stirred. His shoulder hurt vilely and at first he could not understand what had happened. Then as his powers of thought came back he realised that he had been treacherously attacked, and at once remembered the man whom Parami said had moved behind the buildings. For a moment he lay still listening hard, but, hearing nothing except the frogs, he dared to roll over and crawl into the scuppers, and so wormed his way down as far as the main hatch.
There he waited again. It was far too dark to see anything and he had to depend on his ears. The safety of his brother, of the crew, and of the ship herself depended on him. Of that he was certain and he dared not make any blunder.
This time he did hear something. People were moving up forward, moving very softly, yet he could certainly hear bare feet rustling on the deck. What was more, steps were coming toward him. He waited no longer, but flung himself down the hatch.
"Don!" he shouted at the top of his voice. "Mark!"
A door banged open, the light of a torch flashed; here was Mark with his rifle and Don followed armed with a heavy stick.
"Someone on board!" cried Jim. "They're releasing the prisoners!"
Mark and Don did not wait an instant. They went dashing up on deck?
"Quickly!" roared Don. "They're off."
"It's too late," said Mark; "they're gone!"
"GONE!" cried Don. "Who's gone?"
"Gabe, his men, the whole lot," Mark answered. "Listen I can hear them."
As he spoke there came again the same dull roar which Jim had heard before, and a red glow lit the black sky. The glow rose from the head of the volcano, and the ominous crimson glare shining on the dark surface of the lagoon showed a large canoe racing for the channel at the inner end of the great pool.
"Yes, there they are!" said Don bitterly. "How came you to let them go, Jim?" He turned as he spoke, and in the light of the red flame from the volcano saw something redder and darker on Jim's face.
"You're hurt!" he exclaimed sharply.
"Nothing to speak of," Jim answered. "Someone sneaked up behind me and tried to hit me on the head. Luckily I turned in time. It's only my car that's cut."
Don stared at his brother.
"You're as white as a sheet. You're in pain," he said.
"I got rather a knock on the shoulder," said Jim, and just then he staggered, and Don caught him.
"Come below. Chi will fix you up. You take charge, Mark."
Jim tried to remonstrate, but he was so giddy he could hardly stand.
Don helped him below and called Chi, who quickly stripped off Jim's shirt, showing a terrible bruise on his right shoulder. The long, yellow lingers worked quickly, feeling the bone.
"It's not bloke," he said. "I make you well quick." He soaked a pad of cloth in some queer-smelling compound from a bottle, and bound it deftly on the injured shoulder; and almost at once the throbbing pain began to cease.
Mark came down into the saloon.
"Redburn's gone too, Don. I suppose it's no use chasing them?"
"I haven't the least intention of doing anything of the sort," replied Don. "And as for Redburn, I'm only too glad to be quit of him."
"The question is whether they'll attack us," said Mark.
"They'll have to be quick if they do," Don answered, "for I mean to sail the moment there's light enough to see."
"And a jolly good job too," agreed Mark. "I've had enough of Venga."
He turned to Jim. "What's happened?" he asked.
Jim explained how the noise of the eruption from the volcano had made him move in the nick of time.
"H'm! Jolly lucky he didn't get you where he meant to," said Mark, "for if you hadn't managed to warn us Gabe would most certainly have polished us all off. He wanted the Dolphin."
"But who was it that tackled Jim?" Don questioned. "It wasn't Redburn, for he was locked up with the rest for the night."
"It must have been someone from the settlement," Jim said, "I told you Parami vowed he heard someone moving among the trees. Anyhow, the canoe shows it must have been someone from the shore."
Don nodded. "Yes; there might have been a dozen men hidden for all we could see. Now the best we can do is to swallow some breakfast for we're off the moment there's a gleam of daylight."
"I tlink that velly good notion," said Chi, who was standing by Jim. "I go make coffee."
Again the volcano's voice shook the still air and the blood- red glow which had died down shone through the ports.
"If that thing's going to play up, the sooner we get out the better," said Jim.
"I don't think much of that," Mark told him. "I've seen it before, and it's always more or less active. Still, this is a nasty place, and I quite agree with Don that the sooner we're out of it the better. Now what about that petrol?"
Jim wanted to help, but Don ordered him to lie still on the couch and he and Mark went off about their work. Parami was posted on deck, armed with Mark's rifle, to keep guard in case any attack was made by Gabe.
Presently Chi came in and set the table, and a few minutes later returned with a tray on which was a pot of hot coffee, a big dish of fried bacon, bread and butter, and fruit. He called the others, and they all sat down.
By the time they had finished the false dawn was showing in the East. The volcano seemed to have quieted down again but the sky was still red above its fiery summit, showing that the crater was full of molten lava. Presently Don gave orders to heave up the anchor, then Chi started the engine, and the Dolphin began to turn.
The light was still faint, and Don, who was at the wheel, made Chi throttle down so that the schooner had barely steerage way. And so she crept very slowly through the narrow channel leading to the open sea. Jim drew a long breath as the little vessel passed beyond the mangrove screen into open water.
"We're out of that place at last," he said. "Now for the lagoon, and then Thursday Island."
The grey sky changed to pink and gold, then up out of the sea sprang the great globe of the sun, turning the dull waters to sparkling light, and just then Parami's voice came from the bows:
"Ship, Cap'n Don. I see ship."
Jim looked up, and there was a big vessel driving down from the East parallel with the coast. She was all white paint and twinkling brass, a fine sight as she came rapidly on with a white wave curling under her sharp bow.
Jim hurried across to Don. "A yacht," he said.
"Some American millionaire," Don answered. "See; she's flying the Stars and Stripes."
"But what is she doing here?" he added in a puzzled voice.
Mark chimed in. "I can tell you that. She's the Osceola, Amos Seward's yacht. You won't have to take your pearls very far to market, Don."
Jim whistled. "My word, what luck! Don, we'll make him pay top price for them."
"You can leave that to me," said Don with a smile.
"Hullo! She's slacking up and signalling. Let's go and see what she has to say." He spun the wheel as he spoke, and the Dolphin turned in the direction of the bigger ship. Within less than five minutes the two vessels were close alongside.
"What's the matter?" said Don sharply. "Why doesn't someone show up?"
"You forget," said Jim with a laugh. "It's only just after six. They're all in bed still."
"Of course," said Don, smiling back, and then a head appeared over the rail of the Osceola, and a voice said:
"Heave to or I shall blow you out of the water."
THE voice was Jansen's, and the great round face was that of the big Dutchman. Jim could only stare unbelievingly while Don himself could find nothing to say. What could he say when the muzzle of a three inch gun pointed straight down upon the deck of the Dolphin and he knew that one shell would send the little schooner to the bottom?
"You will come close alongside," continued Jansen in his precise English. "Then you will come aboard, you, your brother, and Mr Weldon. You will be wise to do exactly as I say, for otherwise I shall open fire at once."
Tim's eyes flashed.
"He won't, Don," he whispered. "He dare not risk the pearls. Let's run for it."
"I would if there was a dog's chance," groaned Don, "but she can travel three yards to our two. No; we must do as he says and trust to something turning up."
Jim's feelings were beyond description as he, his brother, and Mark climbed aboard. The disaster was so sudden, so utterly unexpected, that it took all the heart out of him. Jansen smiled like a great cat as his prisoners came over the rail.
"You are surprised," he said; "but you must learn that it takes more than a couple of Englishmen to defeat Dirck Jansen."
"Brains have nothing to do with it," retorted Don curtly. "It was simply luck that this yacht happened to enter the lagoon yesterday. And it must have been by sheer treachery that you captured her."
It was in Jim's mind to leap at the huge bully and bear him down, as he had done once before, and chance the consequences; but perhaps his intention showed in his face, for Jansen's hand came out of his pocket grasping an automatic pistol. At the same moment Sangata and the other Malays closed in, and Don, Jim, and Mark were hustled below and thrust into an empty cabin, the door of which was at once locked.
"Oh, what fools we are!" groaned Jim as he flung himself down on the bare bunk.
"Come now, Jim, that's not fair," said Mark. "None of us could possibly have known that Jansen had stolen this yacht."
"No; but we ought never to have left him at the lagoon," returned Jim.
"Perhaps not, but it's too late for useful repentance," said Mark. "And now, instead of lamenting about the fix we are in, suppose we see if we can think of any way out."
"There's none," retorted Jim. "Jansen has slipped up once, but he's not likely to do it a second time."
"Our chances are no worse than yours when he had you on the Stiletto, Jim," Mark said, so quietly that Jim felt ashamed.
"I'm sorry, Mark. I'll do anything you and Don say."
"Well, the first thing is to find out what's going to happen, then to shape our plans accordingly. But speak low. The odds are someone is listening outside."
Jim looked out of the port.
"He's going aboard the Dolphin," he said in a whisper. "He'll get the pearls."
"They're in the safe. He's bound to get them," he whispered back.
"The red ones too?"
"Yes; they're all there."
"If you ask me," said Mark, "he'll take the Dolphin and scuttle this craft."
"Why?" asked Jim. "This yacht is bigger and faster than the Dolphin."
"But she's too well known," Mark explained. "He dare not take her into any port. And Seward is an important person. As soon as he's missed there'll be warships on the job."
"He won't scuttle her," said Jim. "He'll take her into Venga. Yes; she's moving and heading in toward the entrance."
Jim was right. The Osceola's bow was turning slowly toward the entrance to the secret harbour, and the Dolphin was following.
"Back into that horrible place," he muttered. "And how shall we ever get out again?"
Slowly the fine yacht picked her way through the reefs and, followed closely by the Dolphin, crept into the hidden channel among the mangroves. The thick, stagnant air of the swamp closed around her, and the three in the cabin sat silent, struggling against the gloom that enveloped them like a stifling blanket. Steadily the two ships passed through the first pool, then through the second channel, and finally drew up in the anchorage opposite the settlement.
"There's Gabe," whispered Don. "Gabe, Redburn, and Kapak and all his lot. And there's the canoe they escaped in!"
"He's got two extra Malays with him," Don said. "One of those must be the fellow who sneaked aboard the Dolphin and tackled you."
"They'll be pleased to see Jansen," said Jim. "They will be after their share of the loot."
A gleam showed in Mark's eyes. "That's our best chance," he said. "They may quarrel over the stuff."
They saw Jansen go ashore and watched him talking to Gabe and Redburn. There was no sign that Mark was right, for the three seemed perfectly friendly. All went into the big house together, no doubt for refreshments, and meantime the Malays under Kapak set to work to unload the various things which had been taken aboard the Dolphin.
Hours passed and the three prisoners were suffering badly from thirst in the stuffy cabin when at last the door opened and Jansen's great bulk appeared in the entrance. Behind him was Kapak, backed by two of his ugly little Malays armed with the sharp curved knives they call kreeses.
"I have the honour of conducting my guests to their quarters," he said sarcastically. "I do not think I need warn you to behave yourselves."
"What are you going to do with us?" Don asked curtly.
"If you will kindly accompany me you will find out," replied Jansen with a sneer.
As there was no choice in the matter they followed him into the boat and so ashore. The Malays loafing on the platform scowled at them, but Jansen took them past and into one of the smaller buildings.
"I have long wanted trustworthy caretakers for my private harbour," he said. "I propose that you three act in that capacity. You have your choice between that and—" He said no more, but pointed with his great hand toward the deep, dark, oily water outside.
"HOW long do you propose to keep us?" Mark asked quietly.
"There is no bargaining," replied Jansen. "It is what you English call unconditional surrender. These will be your quarters. Some food will be brought you later, and your duties will be appointed." He went out.
"Sweet prospect," said Don grimly.
"We're not dead yet," said Mark gently. "Cheer up, Don."
The long, hot day dragged slowly on. No one came near them. Mark realised that this was part of Jansen's clever plan to break their spirits. They saw Jansen board the Osceola. He was there for an hour or more. They saw the Malays carrying out of the Dolphin the stuff they themselves had loaded as evidence against Jansen.
At dark supper was brought. Rice again, ill-smelling dried fish, water. Not a morsel of meat or fruit or even a cup of coffee. They talked a while then lay down to sleep. For a long time Jim could not sleep. The heat seemed greater than ever and the mosquitoes were terrible. At last Jim dozed off, only to be wakened by a glow of ruddy light through the window.
Suddenly Jim saw a dark shadow flit around the stern of the Dolphin, which lay anchored only fifty yards from the wharf. It was a boat, and before it shot out of sight Jim had time to see that Jansen sat in the stern. He quickly shook Mark and Don awake.
"Jansen is skipping out," he said. Mark was not surprised.
"Why, it's exactly what I expected. I always told you he was out to do down Gabe and Redburn."
"Do you mean that Gabe knows nothing of this?" asked Don.
Mark shook his head. "The odds are that Jansen has given him some sort of sleep medicine."
"Then it's no use our shouting," said Jim.
"Not a ha'porth," replied Mark. "Besides, why should we? Let the beauties settle their own differences."
"But he's going away with the Dolphin," said Jim.
"And the pearls," added Don.
"And my gold," said Mark, as they watched the Dolphin slowly sliding away.
Jansen had slipped her cable so as not to make any noise. They watched till she vanished in the channel. The glow from the volcano had grown stronger and the rumbling began again.
"My word, something's going to happen!" exclaimed Jim.
"Something is happening," added Mark. "That's waked up some of the Malays. Look! They're piling out in a hurry, and next thing, they'll see that the Dolphin is missing."
"They have seen it," cried Jim as shrill cries arose from the Malays. A moment later Gabe rushed out half dressed and Redburn with him.
"You're right, Mark," said Jim. "Jansen has gone off with the loot. But that earthquake has rather upset his plan, for now Gabe will be after him in the Osceola."
"Will he?" was all Mark said, and Jim was left to wonder what he meant. He did not wonder long. In less than three minutes Gabe and his men were aboard the yacht, but though they were all desperately busy she did not move.
"What's the matter?" asked Jim.
"Do you think Jansen was silly enough not to take precautions against being followed?" replied Mark.
"He's busted up the engine."
"Then what will Gabe do?"
Mark shrugged. "Wait and see."
They had not long to wait. Gabe was back on the wharf, shouting orders, and some of his men went off in the boat. They turned into a side creek and vanished, but in a very short time were back towing a large canoe.
"It's a lakatoi," said Mark. "My word, Jansen had better look out."
"Do you mean that Gabe will chase him in that thing?" demanded Jim, as he gazed at the big, clumsy-looking craft with its platform deck and one short mast.
"Yes; and if there's any wind outside he won't be very far behind him. These lakatoi are both fast and seaworthy."
"But even if Gabe caught up he could not attack the Dolphin."
"It would be a bit risky," said Mark slowly as he watched Gabe and Redburn hurry aboard the lakatoi. The Malays crowded after, paddles dipped, and the ungainly-looking canoe drove away across the big pool in the direction of the sea.
"Our chance!" cried Don suddenly, and flung himself against the door.
"THE door was heavy, but with the shoulders of all three against it the staple drew, and it crashed open.
"Look out!" warned Mark. "There may be guards left."
"I don't believe there's a soul," Don answered. "They've forgotten all about us. Now if we can only find Chi." He hurried on down the platform and the others followed.
"Chi!" shouted Jim, and at once came an answer from the other end. They found an axe and burst the door, and here were Chi, Parami, and the other two natives.
"We see all go," said Parami. "We think Jansen steal pearls and gold."
"Of course," said Mark. "He's skipped out, and Gabe is on his track." He turned to Don. "You're boss, what do we do now?"
"Take that boat and clear," said Don. "It's about time," he added. "There's going to be a big dust up pretty shortly."
The mountain roared and the ground quivered again, while the red glow mounted.
"You're right," said Mark, "but I don't think the boat's much good to us. Why not take the yacht? The engine's done, but we could tow her out, and Seward would be grateful. We'd get the salvage."
"Let's do it, Don," cried Jim. "There are seven of us. We might get the engine working again, and catch Jansen."
"Very good," Don said curtly. "We'll try it." He started for the boat which had been left at the wharf, and within a few minutes they were aboard the Osceola. Chi went straight to the engine, but one glance was enough. "He no lun," he said.
"I didn't expect it would," said Don. "Up with the anchor. We must tow her out."
Towing a big craft of nearly five hundred tons with one row boat is a terrific job, and if it had not been for the lucky fact that the tide was running out would have been impossible. As Jim's damaged shoulder made it impossible for him to row he stayed aboard and steered. Four men rowed at a time, and two were relieved every half-hour.
It was just after two when they started, and day had broken when at last the big yacht reached the open water. The dawn breeze was springing up and the tired men got sail on her. Then Chi made hot coffee, and they bore out to sea.
"Think we've any chance of catching them, Don?" asked Jim anxiously.
"I don't even know which way they've gone," said Don.
"But you're making for the lagoon."
"Yes, because I think that Jansen is likely to go back there to pick up Seward. Seward would be worth quite a bit in the way of ransom."
It was four in the afternoon before they sighted the lagoon and heavy rain was falling. Don had his glasses to his eyes and suddenly he lowered them.
"The Dolphin!" he said sharply, "She's there—in the lagoon."
"What are you going to do?"
Don's jaw tightened. "Run straight in on the flood. We've got the gun, and we'll use it if we have to."
"All right," said Mark quietly. "I can handle it."
He called Parami and they loaded the gun. There were rifles in a rack and these were got up. Sail was shortened and the Osceola drove straight for the opening in the reef. The rain lifted a little.
"No sign of the canoe," Jim whispered to Don. Don said nothing. He was frowning as he gazed at the Dolphin.
Mark spoke. "She's very quiet. I can't see anyone on her deck, Don. Yet they must have seen us."
Don did not speak. He was dodging the rocks at the entrance. The yacht drove through and Don held her straight toward the Dolphin.
"Lie down, all of you," he ordered. "They'll start shooting in a minute."
With rifles ready, they lay on the deck. Yet nothing happened. The Dolphin lay quiet and silent close to the beach.
"She's aground," said Mark suddenly.
"Be careful, Don." Don swung the yacht just in time and held her in the wind.
"Ahoy, there!" he shouted. A man raised himself from the deck of the Dolphin. It was Redburn, who crawled painfully to the side.
"You kin come aboard," he said. "I reckon I'm the only one left alive, and I ain't got long."
"What do you mean?" demanded Don. "I mean Gabe was too smart for us. He slipped in on us in that big sailing canoe in a rainstorm, and we never saw him till he was alongside. Jansen got Gabe, but Kapak shot Jansen, and I was knocked out. When I came to I found I was the only one breathing. It's truth I'm telling you," he added.
"It's true enough," said Mark. "Look at the bodies. And there are Seward and his crowd on the beach. Let's anchor and get the boat over."
Don gave the orders, and presently the boat was out and they reached the Dolphin. Of the sight on her decks the less said the better. Like the Kilkenny cats, the two parties of pirates had fought till they had wiped one another out, so that Redburn was actually the only one left alive. And he was very badly hurt.
Chi was left to attend to his wounds while Don, Mark, and Jim hurried below. The safe was in its usual place but the key was missing.
"It'll be in Jansen's pocket," said Mark; and so it was. Then they opened the safe, and to their intense relief the pearls were all there, the red as well as the white. There was not room in the safe for Mark's gold, but this they found in Don's cabin.
"So that's all right," said Jim with a sigh of relief, "and now hadn't we better get to the beach? The people there are shouting like anything."
"You're right. Let's hurry," said Don.
Reaching the beach, they were greeted with intense delight by the tall, grey-haired American millionaire, his pretty daughter Ida, and the whole crew of the Osceola, fourteen in number. Everyone was asking questions at once, but Don cut in.
"You must all be starving, Mr Seward. The best thing will be for you to come straight out to your yacht and we can tell you all that's happened over the meal."
"That's right," said Seward. "We surely do need food. And after we've eaten maybe I can begin to tell you how grateful we are to you fellows."
"Perhaps you won't be so grateful by the time we've finished with you," said Don, with a laugh which puzzled Seward; but it was not until more than an hour later that he understood. Then Don took him aside and showed him the pink pearls.
Seward took them in his big palm and examined them. Presently he looked up. "Say, these ain't real, are they?"
"We took them out of real oysters," replied Don gravely.
Seward drew a long breath.
"I don't reckon even I can afford to buy these," he said.
"We'll be disappointed if you don't, Mr Seward. We heard through Mannister that you wanted the best, so we went and got them."
"And what were you reckoning to ask Mannister for them? asked Seward shrewdly.
"Ten thousand for this pair," said Don.
Seward's sharp grey eyes bored into Don's.
"Either you're mighty modest or you don't know a lot about pearls. Mannister sold two white pearls no bigger than these for thirty thousand last fall." He paused. "See here, if these are as good as they look, I'll give you two hundred thousand dollars, that's forty thousand pounds. Will that satisfy you?"
Don's head swam so that it was a moment before he could speak.
"That suits me," he said at last.
"And I guess there's salvage to pay on this ship," said Seward.
"Not a penny," returned Don shortly, "Let your men help me to tow the Dolphin off the beach and we'll call it square."
Seward thrust out his hand.
"I always did like Britishers," he said.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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