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Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 21730

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

As for the girl herself, words fail me in trying to picture her, just as my brush and pencil (save perhaps for that one rough memory sketch, done at white heat while still gripped in the exaltation that first glimpse of her splashing inside the reef had thrown me into) have always failed. This is, I fancy, because, unbelievably beautiful though she was, there was still so much of her appeal that was of the spirit rather than the flesh-something intangible which had to be sensed rather than seen. She was compact of contradictions, physical as well as mental. So slender as almost to suggest fragility at a first glance, there was still not a straight line, nor an angle, nor a hint of boniness, from the arch of her instep to the tips of her ears. Again, pixie-like as she was in the dainty perfection of her modelling, there was yet a fairly feral suggestion of suppleness and strength underrunning the soft fluency of contour. The strength was there, too, held in reserve in the flexible frame like the power of a coiled spring. I saw her unleash it one morning when, impatient of the slowness of a clumsy Fijian who was launching a very sizable dugout for her, she yanked him aside by the hair of his fuzzy head and did the job herself. I can still see the run of muscles under the olive-silk skin of arm and ankle, and the bent-bow arch of her slender back, as she gave a last push to the cranky outrigger. Indeed, my mind is full of pictures like that-paddling, swimming, leaning hard against the buffets of a passing squall, with a lock of wet hair streaking across her glowing face and her drenched garments clinging to her lithe limbs; and yet, as I have said, the buoyant, flaming spirit of her always escaped my brush and pencil as it now eludes portrayal by my pen.

But the most baffling, as it was also the most fascinating, of Rona's contradictions was the combination she presented of inward intensity and outward calm. The fire of her was, perhaps, the first thing one was conscious of. Even I, with my blood thinned and cooled with the ice of absinthe, could never watch her movements without a quickening of my jaded pulses; to the sanguine combers of Kai the sight of her (whether the rippling undulations of arms and shoulders as she drove a canoe through the water, or the hawk-like immobility of her as she poised on a pinnacle of reef waiting for a chance to cast her little Dyak purse-net) was palpably maddening.

So much for the flaming appeal of the girl in action, or suspended action, which was, of course, about the only way in which she was ever revealed to the "beach." Now picture the same creature (as Bell-and occasionally myself, his only intimate friend on the island-so often saw her) seated cross-legged on a mat, her sloe-eyes, set slightly slant, fixed dreamily on nothingness, like a sort of reincarnated girl-Buddha. The sight of her thus never failed to awaken in my nostrils the smell of smouldering yakka sticks, and to set my ears ringing with the throb of temple bells.

To my hyper-sophisticated (I will not say degenerate) senses this Oriental side of the girl made a subtle appeal that was like an enchantment. The passion to paint her-always burning within me when I saw her in action-never assailed me when she fell into one of those contemplative calms. Rather the peace of her soothed me like an opiate and made me content to sit and dream myself. It was the one thing (until I got the habit by the throat years afterward) that ever held my nerves steady when the "absinthe hour" drew near at the end of the afternoon. As long as Rona would continue to "sit Buddha" I had myself completely in hand, even till well on after sunset. But if she moved, or spoke, or even showed by her eyes that she was following Bell's words (it was he-less sensitive to this phase of her than I-who did most of the talking at these times), the spell was broken. The haste of my bolt for home was almost indecent. I have sometimes thought that a few months alone with Rona at this time might have effected very near to a complete cure in me-by a sort of involuntary mental therapeutic treatment on her part, I mean. But perhaps the other side of her-the "unreposeful" one-might have complicated the case.

Both the fire and the repose of Rona-the passion and the peace of her-were reflected in the olive oval of her face, the one by the full, sensuous lips and the sensitive nostrils, and the other by the smooth, low brow. The low-lidded blue-black eyes were "debatable territory," now in the hands of one, now the other. So, too, that infallible "gauge of temperament," whose dial is the pucker between the eyebrows. With Rona, this "passion-pressure index" was a corrugated knot of intensity or an olive blank according as to whether her inner fires were flaming or banked.

Bell knew little of the girl's origin and said less. "Rona's trousseau consisted of huh peacock sca'f an' this heah baby bolo," he said in his slow drawl one afternoon when he had borrowed the exquisite little dagger to show me how the Jolo juramentado executed his favourite belly-ripping stroke; "an' I reckon they'll comprise 'bout the sum total of huh mo'nin' at mah fun'ral." That, and "I guess Rona knows no mo' 'bout mah past reco'd than I do 'bout huhs," was all I recollect his ever having said on the subject. He was content to let it rest at that.

It was old Jackson who told me that he had seen the girl at Ponape, where she had been brought by an "owl-eyed" (referring to horn-spectacles rather than to the almond orbs themselves, I took it) "chink" when he came back to the Carolines after buying bird-of-paradise skins down New Guinea-way. She was dressed "Java-style" at the time, and was said to have been picked up at Ternate or Ambon in the Moluccas. Although the wily old Celestial kept the girl practically under lock and key from the first, customers of his shop occasionally glimpsed her, and she them, it would seem. Among these was the Yankee skipper of the trading schooner, Flying Scud. The coming together of those two must have been like the touching off of a ku-kui-nut torch, Jackson opined, adding that he supposed I "twigged that thar was no snuffin' uv ku-kui, onst aflar."

Just how the sequel eventuated no one in Ponape save the old Chinaman knew, and he never told. With only half her copra discharged, the Scud was heard getting under way at midnight, shortly after which the silhouette of her, close-reefed, was observed to blot out the moon three or four times as she beat out of that "hell's craw" of a passage in the teeth of a rising sou'wester. The girl was never seen in the Carolines again. Neither was Bell nor the Scud, for that matter, as it was but a few days later that he attempted his disastrous short-cut across Tuka-tuva Reef.

The next morning the Chinaman waited on his customers with his neck heavily, obscuringly swathed in bandages. He kept these on for a fortnight or more, and when they were finally dispensed with replaced his loose shirt with a close-buttoned jacket having an unusually high-cut neck. Even the latter, however, could not entirely conceal a number of parallel red cicatrices which, beginning on his fat jowls, ran down, slightly converging, onto his puffy yellow throat. Jackson felt sure that the point where those red furrows came to a focus must have been "fairish messed up."

On the beach of Ponape opinion was fairly divided as to whether the big, close-mouthed Yank had "strong-armed" the Chinaman and carried off the girl bodily, perhaps against her will, or whether she had made the get-away unaided, going off to the Scud on her own. In Jackson's mind there were no doubts.

"I see them welts wi' my own peepers," he said, "an' they wan't the marks uv a man. They wuz scratches. That lanky Yank don't scratch ... 'e wallops. But that gal-s'y, did y'u ever tyke a squint at 'er taloons? Them's the ans'er. She kum to 'im; an' she's stickin' lika oktypus."

Again I must credit old "Jack" with handing me pretty near to the "stryght dope."

Yes, I had indeed noticed Rona's wonderful fingernails; likewise the astonishing amount of care she lavished on them. One could not have helped noticing them. A quarter to half an inch long, meticulously manicured, and stained a maroon-brown (rather darker than the rich sang du b?uf of henna), she was always polishing them-those of one hand on the palm of the other-even when "sitting Buddha" with dreaming half-closed eyes. I inferred the habit of letting them grow was acquired in the course of her association with the Chinese. She cut them just short of where they would begin to curl and be a nuisance. A fraction of an inch longer, and they would have been as useless as the tusks of an old boar that had curved back more than a half circle. As they were....

One man's guess was as good as another's in the matter of Rona's racial origin. Kai, though agreeing that she came from "somewhere Java-side," always spoke of her as a Kanaka, just as they did of all the rest of the "beach" women who were not palpably Jap, Chinese or white. I doubt very much, however, that she had a drop of real Polynesian blood in her veins. Flaring with temperament though she was, there was still nothing about her of the happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care sensuousness of the Caroline or Samoan, the only women of the Islands to whom she bore even the faintest resemblance in face or figure. If she had come from Marquesas-way-but no, not even an admixture of old Spanish pirate blood would have accounted for either the spirit or the body of Rona.

The girl's practice of wearing her sulu (Kai used the Fijian name for the inevitable South Sea waist-cloth which the Samoans call lava-lava and the Tahitians pareo) Malay-fashion-looped over the breasts and secured by a hitch under the left arm-indicated that her outdoor life at least had been spent somewhere in the Insulinde Archipelago. Her very considerable English vocabulary, however, and especially her fluency in "pidgin," could hardly have been acquired save through some years of residence in the Straits Settlements or the Federated Malay States. I was inclined to favour Singapore, especially as she had once let slip something about a fling at fan-tan at Johore. But even had she been born in that amazing island melting pot, her unmistakably Hindu cast of features and mould of figure were hardly accounted for. The Madrassi Tamils of the Straits were coolies, and Rona radiated caste from her slender pink-tipped toes to her crown of indigo-black hair coils.

In my own mind I harboured the theory that the girl was a "by-product" of the harem of one of the innumerable petty Sultanates of Malaysia, among which I knew were to be found girls of all the tribes and races of the Moslem world. In no other way could I account for the fl

aming spirit and the physical perfection of her. Not even descent from that strange Hindu remnant of the lovely island of Lombok, just east of Java (a theory which I had also turned over in my mind), quite satisfied on both these scores. As to what sort of a centrifugal impulse might have operated to spin her forth to the clutches of the currents of the outside world, I had not speculated very deeply. But-well, I knew something of the strange currencies in which Malaysian potentates paid their debts to Singapore rug and jewel merchants!

In spite of the increasing warmth of Bell's friendship for me, my way to Rona's confidence proved far from easy sledding. This was partly because I had got in bad at the outset by starting to sketch that capricious lady at her reef-side bath in the face of her very outspoken disapproval of anything so unseemly, and partly because she was slow in making up her mind that I did not necessarily classify with the predatory males against whom her whole life had unquestionably been an unrelieved defence. Obsessed by the desire to paint her, I had not improved my standing with the girl by asking Bell (after she had refused me pointblank) to intercede to get her to sit for me. Indeed, that faux pas on my part seemed to have put an end for good to any chance I might have had of getting her to pose. Rona was openly indignant that I should have presumed to regard her own decision as other than final in the matter, while Bell, though perfectly good-natured about it, was no less decided in his disapproval.

"No, sah, I'm not fo' it in the least, ol' man," he drawled decisively. "Lil' Rona's 'bout the neahest thing to a true, lovin' an' lawful wife I evah had, awh evah will have, fo' that mattah. So you must see that it doan quite jibe with mah sense o' what is right an' propah unda the ci'cumstances fo' me to aid an' abet a proceduah that might culminate in huh appeahin' on the wall o' somun's bathroom as a spo'tin nymph awh a wallowin' mumaid. Nothin' doin', ol' man; not with mah blessin'."

That ended it, of course. From then on I had to content myself with the hopeless "sketches from memory," in not the best of which was I able to catch more than a suggestion of what I sought. I could not have failed more utterly had I set myself to do a "character portrait" of the "Green Lady" herself.

But on the personal side it was not long before I began to make an appreciable gain of ground with Rona. First she ceased avoiding me when I dropped in for a mid-afternoon yarn with Bell; then she began to assume a sort of "benevolent tolerance" by coming and sitting on the mat as we talked; finally she started taking an active interest in the conversation, coming out of her Buddha-like trances every now and then to cut in with some trenchant comment in fluent bêche-de-mer jargon, or perhaps a shrewd question phrased in carefully chosen and enunciated English.

At last, one memorable afternoon, she came (quite on her own initiative, he assured me) with Bell to call at the little thatch-roofed, woven-walled hut I was calling home at the time, wearing in honour of the occasion her most treasured possession, the "peacock" shawl. It was this astonishingly fine piece of Cantonese embroidery which Bell had mentioned as having made up, with the little Malay kris, the sum total of the dower Rona had brought him. It was the first time I had had a chance to examine it at close quarters and I saw at a glance that, however it had come into her possession, it had once been a priceless thing, a real work of art, a treasure fit for the trousseau of a princess.

The body of the shawl was amber-coloured silk of so close a weave that it would have shed water as it stopped light. A rubber blanket would not have thrown a blacker shadow when held against the sun. Yet so sheer and fine was the fabric that a twist of it streamed from one hand to the other as brandy pours out of a flask. The peacock itself, done in a thousand tints and shades of delicate floss, was all of life-size in body and something more than that in tail. Stitching and matching, stitching and matching-you could almost see the artist growing old before your eyes as you thought of the years he must have bent above his glacially-growing masterpiece.

With this rainbow-bright rectangle of shimmering silks worn folded over the shoulders in the ordinary way the peacock must have been considerably telescoped and distorted. It was doubtless for this reason that Rona always wore it Malay-fashion, as the Javanese women wear their sarongs. This displayed the jewel-gay bird in all his pride, the bright breast swelling over Rona's own and the coruscant cascade of tail (you could almost hear the rustle of it) falling about her limbs like the feather mantle of an early Hawaiian queen.

I have said that this shawl had been a priceless thing. As a matter of fact it still was such. So lovingly had it been cared for, not only by Rona but by the many owners it may well have had before her (for Canton had done no such work as this for half a century at least), that not a corner was frayed, not a one of its countless thousands of stitches started. In texture it was scarcely less perfect than the day it was finished. The only thing wrong with it was that the colours were a good deal dulled, not by age (for the old Cantonese dyes are as deathless of hue as ancient Ph?nician glass), but by grease. This had happened, I suspected, largely during Rona's stewardship, for the tiare-scented coco oil she used so freely as a hair-perfume often found its way to her arms and shoulders-and so to the shawl. All the latter needed to restore it to its pristine freshness and refulgency was a good "dry-cleaning."

"Even Rona does not dream of the brilliance of colour under that grease," I said to myself. "Oh, for a can of naphtha!" Then the fact that my benzine would do the same trick flashed into my mind. I was all but out of it, I reflected, with replenishment uncertain; but I could at least contrive to spare enough to make a start with. Pouring a teacupful of the pungent solvent out of the scant pint I found still on hand, I saturated a clean rag with it and, without a word of explanation to the girl, walked up to her and started washing the bird's face and hackle. For an instant she stiffened angrily, evidently under the impression that my solicitude for the embroidery was only a thinly veiled excuse for chucking her under the chin. (Indeed, she confessed to me later that "gentlemen" could always be counted on to employ such indirect methods of approach, and that she found them rather more difficult to combat than the straight cave-man stuff of the less sophisticated beach-comber). But as the first glad flash of brightening colour caught the corner of a suspiciously-lowered eye, the innocence-even the laudability-of my purpose shot home to her quick mind. With a twirl of thumbs and a twist of shoulders, she came out of the shawl as a golden moth spurns its cocoon, and, leaving it in my hand, darted over to a peg and purloined an old smoking-jacket to take its place.

"Bath heem good, Whitnee," she chirruped, giving her slipping sulu a hitch with one hand as she thrust the other into an arm of the jacket. "Makee heem first-chop clean. He too much dirtee long time."

That she lapsed thus into "pidgin" was a sure sign of the girl's ecstatic excitement. Usually her English-especially when she had time to ponder and polish it in advance, as when she put questions-was much better than that.

Sopping gently to avoid pulling the delicate stitches, I managed to "bath heem good" from his saucy crest, down over the royal purple hackle, and well out upon his comparatively sober-coloured breast before my benzine came to an end. A slightly more vigorous dabbing beyond the embroidery line "alchemized" a patch of clouded amber to a halo of lucent gold, against which the bird's haughtily-held head stood out like the profile of a martyred saint on an old stained-glass window. Thus far would the precious contents of that teacup go, and no farther.

Rona was in raptures. What though there was a blotchy high- (or rather low-) water mark where the dabbing had ceased near the base of the erupting splash of tail-feathers, what though the magic liquid had come off second best in its bout with an indurated gob of egg-yolk drooling across one wing, what though the worst of our Augean labours-the cleansing of the mighty green tail-had yet to be tackled-just look at the glory already wrought!

Crooning with pleasure, the girl stroked and petted the renovated iridescence of the lordly neck-until I called her attention to the fact that the still unevaporated benzine was dissolving her finger-nail stain. It was an ill-advised remark on my part, for it turned her attention to the still unreclaimed tail and set her begging for "just nuff fo' one-piecee featha, Whitnee; he need it vehry ba-ad."

She had her way, of course, and would have finished my benzine then and there had not Bell come to my rescue. Laughing and muttering something about "thustiness" (not drinking whisky myself, I had none in stock), he took Rona by the arm and started off on the homeward path. Strutting and preening she went, the very reincarnation of the royal bird upon her bosom, the very living, breathing spirit of "peacock-iness."

She might just as well have finished the job-or rather the benzine-at once, though, for she got it all in the end. Every day or two-sometimes with Bell, sometimes alone-she began paying calls. Always she was in gala dress and always, after more or less "finessive" preliminaries, she made the same plea.

"Just one mo' featha, Whitnee," she would coo ingratiatingly, putting a long-nailed finger-tip on the "eye" of the particular quill next in line for renovation. "Ple-ese, Whitnee.... 'Peakie' has been one veh-ry good fella bird too-dayee. Pu-retty ple'ese, Whitnee."

Of course that always got me, and incidentally the benzine-as long as it lasted. I had remarked to Bell once or twice how his soft Southern drawl was beginning to creep into Rona's English, and how fetching a combination it made with her "pidgin-bêche-de-mer" blend. Getting wind of this, the sly minx played the card to the limit. That "one mo' fetha, Whitnee," had me fated, and she knew it. I was completely out of benzine for three weeks, and at a time when I was in especial need of it in connection with my experiments in colour-mixing; but Rona's friendship was cheap at the price. When I finally got hold of a five-gallon can of naphtha from Suva (sent up to Bougainville by Burns, Phillip packet, where one of Jackson's cutters picked it up), the dry-cleaning the two of us gave old "Peakie" was the best fun I'd had since I used to scrub my Newfoundland pup as a kid.

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