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   Chapter 2 HARD-BIT DERELICTS

Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 25371

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


With Allen and his coming in the back of my brain, it was only natural that my thoughts, as I ground and sifted and sorted the golden powders, should turn to Kai and the train of events leading up to the ghastly tragedy of the Cora Andrews, so distorted a version of which had gone abroad as a consequence of the fact that Allen was alive and Bell was dead, and that I, so far, had not told what I knew of the circumstances under which the one and the other had been induced to board the stricken "black-birder."

It must have been, I reflected, its comparative remoteness from all of even the least-sailed of the South Pacific trade routes that was responsible for making Kai Atoll, a barely perceptible smudge on the chart of the Louisiades, the unofficial rendezvous for the most picturesque lot of cut-throats, blackguards and beachcombers that "The Islands" had known since the days of "Bully" Hayes and his care-free contemporaries. Like had attracted like after the original nucleus gathered, safety had come with numbers, and at the time of my arrival no man whose misdeeds had not made him important enough to send a gunboat after needed to depart from that secure haven except of his own free will.

Among a score of hard-bit derelicts whose grinning or scowling phizzes flashed up in memory at the thought of that sun-baked loop of coral, with its rag-tag of wind-whipped coco palms and its crescent of zinc and thatch-roofed shacks, only three-or four including myself-occupied my mind for the moment. Allen-reckless daredevil that he was-had come to Kai from somewhere in the Solomons for the very good and sufficient reason that it was the only island south of the Line at the time where his welcome would not have been either too hot or too cold to suit his fastidious taste. Bell had come, in a stove-in whaleboat, because Kai was the nearest settlement to the point where he put the Flying Scud-the trading schooner that was his last command, if we except the Cora Andrews-aground on Tuka-tuva Reef. The girl, who arrived with Bell in the whaleboat, came because he brought her. The tide-rips of Kai passage and the Devil's own toboggan were all the same to Rona-at this stage of the game, at least-so long as the big, quiet, masterful Yankee was bumping-the-bumps with her. And even afterwards-but let that transpire.

I, Roger Whitney, artist, formerly of New York and Paris, and, latterly, man-about-the French-colonies, with no fixed abode, had been landed at Kai by a French gunboat from the Noumea station. I packed myself off from that accursed hole because the suicide of a couple of officers in whose company I had been drinking absinthe at the Cercle Militaire for some weeks had reminded me altogether too poignantly of what I might, in the ordinary course of things, expect to be doing myself before long. A change of scene and, if possible, a modification of habits was the only hope. I would never have had the initiative to tackle even the first had not the feeling persisted that I was on the verge of doing something worth while with my painting. I went to Kai because the archipelago thereabouts was reputed to have the most gorgeous sky and water colouring in Polynesia.

Neither the promised beauties nor the reputed badness of Kai stirred me greatly in anticipation. With a bitter smile I told myself that every night I was seeing sights more lovely than anything my eyes were likely to rest on short of Paradise, while the Chamber of Horrors in which I awoke every morning was a veritable annex to the Inferno itself. No, it was out of the question that Kai could unfold in realities, whether to delight or shock, things to outdo those that were already mine in dreams that had themselves become more real than realities. Well, it turned out that I was only half right, or wrong, whichever way you want to put it. While, on the one hand, I found the bluff, open badness of Kai rather more refreshing than shocking; on the other hand, it was hardly more than a week before I was ready to swear that not the most ethereal houri that ever laid her cool green hand upon my fevered brow was of a class to run one-two-three with a flame-quivering slip of a nymph whom I had surprised at her bath in a beryline pool inside the windward reef. I began to pull myself together from that hour. Rona, the very sight of whom threw most men out of hand, had quite the opposite effect upon me. I knew she was not for me, and the thought that the world actually held such loveliness in the form of flesh and blood had a sort of reassurance about it, like the knowledge that one has an ample income from government bonds.

Because I had landed from the Zelee, and also, perhaps on account of my rig-out (especially the brimless Algerian sun-helmet), the "beach" of Kai put me down at once as a "We-we," and, therefore, a creature quite apart. The only Frenchmen on the island were a couple of escapes from the convict settlement of New Caledonia, and because neither of them could ride or shoot or fight with their fists, they had no standing with the predominant Australian "push," most of whom were more or less handy at all three. It was, indeed, the fact that, in spite of all my years in Paris and the French colonies had done to make a physical wreck of me, I still retained something of the quickness of eye and hand and foot which had conspired to make my Harvard record as an all-round-athlete one that only two or three men have equalled even down to the present day, that gave me such easy sledding in making my way with the "best people" of Kai.

It took just three minutes-the length of the first round of the "friendly bout" I fought with "Heifer" Halligan, ex-welter-weight champion of Victoria, at Jackson's pub one afternoon-to change Kai's openly expressed contempt for me to something very near respect. I thoroughly appreciated the attitude of that breezy lot of sport-loving rascals toward a Frenchified Yankee artist, especially one that did not appear to be a fugitive from justice, and so took the first opportunity to win a standing with them which would at least incline them to let me go my own way when I wanted to. Notwithstanding my wretched condition, I outpointed my chunky opponent a good three to one in that opening round; indeed, the "Heifer's" excuse for the foul which put me to sleep in the Second was that both his "bloomin' peepers" were so nearly swelled shut he couldn't see "stryght." But it was my swelling groin and battered hands, rather than "Heifer's" bruised optics, that came in for first attention from deft-fingered Doc Wyndham-once of Guy's, on his own admission. The next day I was waited upon by a delegation sent from "Jackson's Sporting Club" to urge me to put myself in training for a go-to-the-finish with "Shark-mouth" Kelly of Suva, the Fiji open champ. My speed would dazzle a cow-footed dolt like "Shark-mouth" was, they said, and he would be easy picking for me. They further urged that we could clean up all the loose money west of the "Hundred and Eightieth"-what odds would Fiji not give in backing a fourteen-stone stoker against an artist that only weighed ten stone and looked half dished with the "green" besides? Moreover, I could keep the whole purse for myself; all they wanted out of it was the sport. God bless the scalawags, it was more than half true, that last.

The funny thing about it was that the project actually tempted me at the time, principally, I think, because there seemed a chance that the hard exercise of training-the very thing, indeed, that helped work the miracle a few years later-might effect me at least a temporary separation, if not a permanent divorce, from the "Green Lady." I was still temporizing with "delegations" when the Cora Andrews dropped her hook in Kai Lagoon and gave us something else to think about.

If the little cunning I had left with my fists won me the respect of the "beach," it remained for my proficiency with the revolver-something which I had never allowed myself to grow rusty in-to give me real prestige. My father had been only less famous as a pistol shot than as a builder of steel bridges, and from my birth it had been his dream that I should carry on the tradition in both lines. If it had broken the old boy's heart when I turned my back on engineering for art-insisting on going from Harvard to Beaux Arts instead of to Boston "Tec" as he had planned-he at least had nothing to complain of on the score of my aptitude for the revolver. He admitted that I had bred true in hand and eye, even on the day that he called my "art tomfoolery" a throwback from my French grandmother. I have always thought that the one circumstance which prevented the Governor from cutting me off in his will when he finally had definite proofs of the depths to which I had sunk in Paris, was the fact that, on my last visit to the old home on the Hudson, I had beaten him, shot for shot, with his own pistols, and at his favourite distance.

They were rather free with their gun play during my first fortnight at Kai, each little affair having been followed by one or two more or less ceremonious burials in the coral-walled cemetery on the south lip of the windward passage. It was merely as a precautionary measure-on the off chance that they should be tempted to draw me into something of the kind at a time when I might not be quite on edge for it-that I took early opportunity to uncover a trifle of what I had crooked in my trigger-finger. A casually winged gull or two, and a few plugged pennies (not a miss at the latter, luckily, even when they tried to spin them edge on to my line of fire) effected all that was necessary. After that, though they were continually sending for me to come down to Jackson's and shoot the wire off champagne corks (fizz, loot of some kind, was the freest flowing drink on the island at the time), or perform some other equally useful and spectacular gun stunt, not the roughest of the gang but took the most meticulous care not to press his invitation the instant it sank home to him that my mood of the moment wasn't of a kind calculated to blend smoothly with the free and easy spirit of a beach-combers' carousal.

It was hardly to be expected that they would ever quite understand why a man who could "blot out a cove's blinker as easy wiv his fist as wiv his gun" (as I was told that "Reefer" Ogiston, penal absentee and pearler, put it one day) and who "'peared mo' than comfitabl' heeled fo' coin," should be "light an' looney enuf tu go roun' smearin' smashed barnculs on sail cloth"; and yet it was on that very score-or at least to their quick comprehension of what I was driving at in my pictures-that the "beach" of Kai rendered me a priceless service. Almost from the outset they began to "twig" my marines, to feel the living atmosphere I was striving to paint into them. They were all men who had lived by the sea, on the sea; yes, and not a few of them had worked under the sea. Well, when I began to see those deep-set, wrinkle-clutched eyes squint to a focus of concentration, and, presently, the quick heave of a hairy chest as the message of the canvas flashed home, I knew that I was on the right track. Nothing less than that would have given me the courage to go on working, as I had set myself to do, on a steadily decreasing allowance of absinthe, a certain supply of which, of course, I had brought with me from Noumea.

So much for me and my relations to Kai at the time of which I am writing. Now as to Bell....

"Who is that tall, square-jawed chap who looks as though he was not quite sober?" I had asked a day or two after I landed.

"Yank-calls himself Bell," Jackson replied laconically; adding that he was "not quite sober" when he tried to take a cross-cut over Tuka-tuva Reef with the Flying Scud, that he was "not quite sober" when he hit the beach in a busted whaleboat, that he had been "not quite sober" all the time since, and that there was no doubt that he would still be "not quite sober" when the time came for him to leave the island, whether he went out with the tide in an outrigger canoe or shuffled off up the Golden Stairs. "Allus been pickled and allus goin' to be pickled," Jackson continued; then, qualifyingly: "Course I don't know he was pickled when he kum int' the world, but I'm willin' to lay any odds that he'll be pickled when he shuffles out of it."

Just about all of which was, or proved to be, "stryght dope."

After quoting this terse summing of Jackson's, it may sound a little strange when I say that Bell was a gentleman-not had been, understand (that could have been said with some truth about a dozen or

more of us at Kai), but was a gentleman. Though undeniably never "quite sober," the fact remained that no one on the island had ever seen him "quite drunk." And no matter how much liquor he had stowed "under hatches," no one could say that it interfered either with his trim or his navigation. His even rolling gait was always the same, whether it was the glow of his eye-opening plunge at dawn that lighted his face, or the flush of twelve hours of steady tippling that darkened it at twilight. Nor was he ever known to omit that gravely courteous, almost "old-fashioned," bow which, with the flicker of smile that was more of his eyes than his mouth, was the invariable greeting he bestowed upon friend and stranger alike. The mellow drawl of his "It's suah goin' to be a fine mawnin'," had made it easier for me to weather dawns that-in my inflamed imagination-menaced monstrously in jagged lines like a cubist's nightmare. If drink had any effect on his speech, it was to incline him to reserve rather than garrulity. His temper appeared to be under quite as perfect control as his legs. Even when he broke "Red" Logan's jaw with a swift short-arm jolt the time that sanguine Lochinvar tried to nip Rona off his arm as they passed on the beach in the twilight, they said that Bell hardly raised his voice as he "guessed that'd hold the varmit fo' a while." And when, a few days later, Doc Wyndham told him with a grin that "Red" wouldn't be screwing a diving helmet on his block for some weeks to come, it was said there was real regret in the Yankee's voice as he hoped that the injury wouldn't be "pumanant."

Yes, before I had been a week at Kai I felt that there was a little addition I could safely make to Jackson's comprehensive estimate. I knew that Bell had been born a gentleman, and-whatever lapses there may have been, or might be-I knew he was going to die a gentleman. And that also (had I put it on record) would have proved pretty nearly "stryght dope."

What stumped me at first was trying to reconcile the remarkable control Bell maintained over all his faculties in spite of his hard drinking with the fact (apparently fully authenticated) that he had run aground-through drunkenness-every ship he had ever commanded, beginning with a U. S. gunboat. He cleared up that matter for me himself one afternoon, however, by casually observing-at the moment he chanced to be watching me trying to transfer to canvas the riot of opalescence between the lapis lazuli of the barely submerged reef and the deep indigo where a hundred fathoms of brine threw back the reflection of the sinister core of cumulo-nimbus in the heart of a menacing squall-that the sea had always acted as a tremendous stimulant to him, especially when he trod a deck.

"If I could just have managed to cut out the whisky at sea, all would have been smooth sailin'," he said in his deep rich Southern drawl. "On land-heah ... anywheah-kawn jooce is lak food to me; mah body convuts it into ene'gy just lak an engine does coal. But with a schoonah kickin' undah me-we'ell, I guess theah's just one kick too many, something lak mixin' drinks p'raps. It suah elevates me good an' plenty ... and when I come down theah's natchaly some crash. My ship an' I gen'aly strike bottom at about the same time. But, s'elp me Gawd" (a tensing timbre in his voice) "on mah next command-"

It was the one sure sign that Bell was beginning to feel the kick of his "kawn jooce" when he spoke of his "next command." Unless that kick was beginning to carry a pretty weighty jolt behind it he knew just as well as everyone else on the beach did that he would never get his Master's Certificate back again, and that even if he did there was no house from Honolulu to Hobart that would trust a ship to a man who had already beached a half-dozen.

Kai was glib to the last detail-rig, tonnage, cargo, insurance, owner and the like-respecting the several merchant craft Bell had piled up in the course of his downward career; but the extent of local "dope" in the matter of the gunboat episode was to the effect that it happened "up Manila-way," and that "that was the bally smash that started him goin'."

Personally, I took little stock in the naval part of the yarn-that is, at first. Then, one morning-it was the day after the tail of a typhoon had sucked up the end of Ah Yung's laundry shack and left everyone on the beach short of clothes-Bell came out in a suit of immaculate starched whites. It was the cut of the jacket and the way he wore it that drew and held my puzzled gaze; that its shoulders were "drilled" for epaulettes and that its thin pearl buttons barely held in buttonholes that had been worked for something thicker and wider I did not notice till later. Steady-eyed, lean-jawed, square-shouldered, ready-poised-not even a flapping Payta sombrero could quite disguise, nor five years of heavy tippling quite obliterate, the marks of type. Then I understood why it was that Bell, all but down and out though he might be, was, and would remain to the last, a gentleman. There are things the Navy puts into a man that not even a court-martial can take away.

The only allusion Bell ever made to his remoter past was drawn from him a few days later, when-he was watching me paint again-I chanced to mention that I had spent a fortnight in the Philippines on my way south from Saigon to Australia. Glancing up at the sound of his sharp intake of breath, I saw his jaw set over the questions that leapt to the tip of his tongue, to relax gradually as a faraway look came into his wide-set grey eyes and a wistful smile of reminiscence parted his lips.

"Did you heah the band play on the Luneta in the evenin'?" he asked eagerly, "while the spiggoties in their calesas wuh racin' round the circle, an' the kiddies an' theyah nusses wuh rompin' on the grass, an' the big red sun was goin' down behind Mariveles beyond the bay? An' did you know the Ahmy an' Navy Club-not the new one ... the ol' one ovah cross the moat inside the wall?"

"Put up there all my time in Manila," I replied. "A very comfy old hangout, especially considering what the hotels were."

"An'-did you-" (he gulped once or twice as though the question came hard) "did you evah heah them speak at the Club of a chap called Blake ... Lootenant-Commandah Blake? He was a son of Captain Blake, who helped Sampson polish off Cervera, an' a gran'son of Adm'al Blake. Ol' naval fam'ly."

"You mean the man who pulled off that coup when Wood was cleaning up the crater of Bud Dajo? Some kind of a bluff on his own with one of the little old gunboats Dewey captured after the Battle of Manila Bay, wasn't it? Scared some Jolo Dato into giving up a bunch of our men he already had lined up against a wall to bolo, didn't he? Of course, I remember perfectly now. General X--" (mentioning the Military Governor of Mindanao by name) "told me the yarn himself the night I dined with him in Zamboanga. He said no one but an old poker shark would ever have thought of the stunt, much less had the nerve to bluff it out. Incidentally he mentioned that the chap was the best poker player in the Navy, as he was also the speediest baseball pitcher ever graduated from Annapolis; that he had been missed almost as much for the one as the other since he dropped out of sight several years before. Some difficulty about-"

"Tryin' to push Corregidor out of the entrance to Manila Bay with the nose of his gunboat," Bell cut in harshly, the hell in his soul glowing through his eyes as the glare of the coal-bed welters beyond a stoker's lifted furnace flap. That, and a single sob sucked through his contracted throat as the vacuum in his chest called for air, were the only outward signs of the intensest spasm of throttled emotion I ever saw assail a human being. Then the square jaw tightened, the cords of the muscular neck drew taut, and what would have been another body and soul racking sob was noiselessly absorbed in the buffer of a flexed diaphragm. The fires of agony behind the eyes paled and died down like an expiring coal. The corrugations of the brow smoothed out as a smile-half amused, half wistful-relaxed the set lips. The old controlled Bell (I shall continue to call him so) was in the saddle again.

"So they still remembah mah ball-playin'," he drawled musingly, his left hand digits gently massaging the bulbous swelling remaining after some red-hot drive had telescoped the middle finger of his right. "Ye'es, of co'se they'd miss mah wing in the Ahmy-Navy game at Ca'nival time. But mah pokah-we'ell I reckon a few of 'em did find mah pokah hand about as bafflin' as mah baseball ahm. But it was straight deliv'ry, tho'-both of 'em. An' they wouldn't be callin' me a fo'-flushah, etha. No, you didn't heah any of 'em say that, I'm right suah."

A smile more whimsical than bitter twitched his lips twice or thrice in the minute or two he stood alone with his thoughts. "So I've sort o' dropped out o' sight to 'em?" he said finally. "We'ell, I guess that was about the best thing to happen for all consuned. But, just the same, if you evah go back Manila-way I won't be mindin' it if you tell 'em that, tho' the ol' wing's tuhn'd to glass from long lack o' limberin', an' tho' I don't play pokah down heah fo' feah o' bein' knifed fo' mah luck, I'm still hittin' true to fohm in mah own lil' game of alterin' the sea map with the noses of ships. I reckon they'll know the reason why."

There was another interval of silence, but, unlike the other, not charged, electric. Bell's blow-off through the safety-valve of frank speech had taken the peak off the pent-up pressure within, and when he spoke again it was merely to quote what the Governor of North Carolina had said about its having been a long time between drinks. "Great thust aggravateh, the Sou'east Trade." Would I mind-ahem-hiking home with him and lubricating my tonsils with a drop of "J. Walkah"? That was simply his delicate way of pretending to ignore my slavery to absinthe, a habit which not even the most whisky-saturated sot of an Anglo-Saxon can ever quite forgive one of his race for falling a victim to. I wouldn't? "We'ell, hasta manyanah."

With a crunch of coral clinkers under his feet and a stave of "Carry Me Back to Ol' Virginny" on his lips, Bell, disdaining the smooth path by the beach, swung off through the pandanus scrub on what he called a "bee-line for home"! He had a weakness for taking "short-cuts" on land as well as at sea. Never again-not even in the moment of his great decision-did he lift for me or any other man the "furnace flap" of iron reserve that masked the fires of his innermost soul.

Their saving "sense of sport," which was the golden vein in the rough iron of the "beach push" of Kai, made it inevitable that they should have a substantial sense of respect for a man of Bell's stamp, and this might easily have ripened to an active popularity had not the American's quiet but inflexible reserve prevented their knowing him better. They suspected that he was no novice in handling the big Colt's that was flopping on his hip when he landed, they knew that there was a weighty punch behind his long arm, and they were frankly outspoken in their admiration of the manner in which he stowed and carried his booze. But what had impressed them more than anything else was the way in which he had taken the devil out of a vicious imp of a Solomon Island pony on the beach one morning. "Hellish hard-handed," "Slant" Allen had said, as his steel-blue eyes narrowed down to slits in the intensity of his interest and admiration; "but a seat like he was screwed to the brute's backbone. Old cross-country rider-hundred to one on it. Man in a million in a steeplechase on a horse strong enough to carry the weight. Gawd, what a seat!"

All in all, indeed, there was only one thing the "beach" held against Bell, and that was Rona, or rather his possession of her. There was nothing personal in this, of course. They merely regarded the big American in the same light they had always regarded a man with a chest of pearls or anything else of value that their simple, direct natures made them yearn for the possession of. There was this difference, however. Where the "push" of Kai would have combined to a man to get away with a box of pearls or a cargo of shell, the annexing of a woman was essentially a lone-hand game, and-well, Bell was hardly the kind of a "one-man job" any of them cared to tackle. I feel practically certain that, but for the disturbance of the even tenor of Kai's way incident to the Cora Andrews affair, his "rights" in Rona would never have been challenged.

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