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Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 20711

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Although "Slant" Allen had "retired" to Kai on three or four occasions previous to my arrival, his latest sojourn-the one which ended with his enforced departure on the Cora Andrews-began about a month after I took up my residence there. Two questions which Jackson asked of the man who told him "Slant" had landed on the beach the night before have always struck me as especially illuminative. One was: "Did 'e fetch a 'awse?" and the other-even more laconic-was: "Gin, Kanak, Jap or Chinee this croose?"

And equally illuminative was his comment when told that Allen had come across in a catamaran, bringing neither girl nor horse. "Then 'e musta sloped in a 'ell uv a rush," said the old trader with finality.

Kai was frankly disappointed that "Slant" had come without his "stable," for the "beach race meets" which had made his name a byword throughout the Islands were always productive (it was universally agreed) of no end of sport and excitement. Allen, it was claimed, had transported ponies about the South Seas by every known craft that plied their waters, from a steam packet to a Papuan head-hunting canoe. Once, in Fiji, he had even swum a horse across the flooded Rewa in order to get it to Suva in time to run for the "Roku's Cup." Of course he won out. "Slant" always did that-by hook or by crook-whether with a horse or a woman. Thus Kai, in discussing Allen's advent.

It was characteristic of that hard-hit bunch of "gentlemen and sportsmen" (a phrase often on the lips of the post-prandial speakers at their "race-banquets") that they should hasten to tell me that Allen had once owned a Melbourne Cup winner-"came jolly near riding the gelding himself, too"-while the fact that he had killed more of his fellow-creatures than any man of twice his age in the South Seas was only a matter of casual mention. You had to credit the frank minded and mouthed rascals for running true to form in that touch of na?veté, though. To them the Melbourne Cup was the greatest thing in the world beyond any possible comparison: a human life was just about the least. But they were quite as careless about their own lives as of those of others, and that alone always raised them in my eyes far above the pettiness of lesser if more conventionally moral men.

Although there was not a horse on the island at the time of Allen's arrival, within a week he had wangled it somehow to have a bunch of Solomon ponies brought over from Malaite, and at the end of a fortnight had pulled off the first Kai "Grand National." "Slant" called it that, he said, because, like the great Liverpool classic from which he borrowed the name, it was to be a steeplechase. The half-wild little beasts were brought over on the deck of a trading schooner, travelling in such restricted quarters in the waist that they had to be thrown and held down to let the foreboom go over every time she was put about.

A bit stiff in the knees but uncurbed of spirit, the vicious quartette clambered out on the beach, shook off the water soaked up during their swim from the schooner, laid back their ears and stood ready to fight all-comers with tooth and hoof. As a consequence, naturally, the preliminaries of the "Grand National" were more in the character of broncho-busting contests than speed trials, and it was in one of these that the mighty Bell had won the plaudits and the respect of the "beach" by breaking the spirit of a wild-eyed lump of a cayuse which had just managed to give the momentarily overconfident "Slant" a nasty spill.

The "Grand National" was run round the curve of the beach, with two "water-jumps," the "stonewall" of the quay, and three hurdles in the form of old dugout canoes to be negotiated. Bell declined to accept a mount, and, in any event, his weight would have told prohibitively against him in competition with any one of at least a dozen lighter men, all of whom had had more or less actual racing experience.

Allen was the only one to go the full route at the first running of the "National," all three of his rivals falling out at the water-jumps. When one of the defeated riders limped in and started to attribute "Slant's" win to the fact that he had picked the best-broken if not the speediest mount, that imperturbable sportsman cheerfully agreed to ride the race over mounted on any one of the ponies the judges cared to designate. Again he had a walkaway. It was all a matter of sheer horse-mastership; the speed of the beast had little to do with it.

Finally, just to prove that the running was all on the square, "Slant" rode the race on each of the two remaining ponies, one of which had strained a tendon and rasped most of the hide off one side of him in trying to jump through the coral blocks of the quay instead of over them. We gave the laughing centaur a great ovation when he brought even the cripple-dripping blood and sweat it was, but still responsive to the magic of the hand that imposed its will at the pressure of a bridle rein-under the wire a half-breach-length winner.

And still more wildly we cheered him when "Quill" Partington-a broken-down and broken-out (from jail, I mean) newspaper writer, late of Melbourne and formerly of Calcutta and London-chivvied up an ancient tortoise that Jackson used to keep around his shop as a pet, and, mounting "Slant" on the ridge of its shell, offered to back the pair at catch-weights against anything on the island. "Quill," a most engaging character, was the poet and minstrel of Kai. He did not, however, figure in the Cora Andrews affair, save that he later wrote some rather spirited verses in celebration of it, or rather of what little he knew of it.

If the feeling in Kai had been one of disappointment when it was first reported Allen had landed without a horse, that awakened by the still more astonishing intelligence that he did not have a girl with him was somewhat different-rather more akin to apprehension, it seemed to me. "Slant" was no more of a laggard on the love-path than the race-track, and the gay gossip of his amazing amours was sipped with the tea of effete Apia and Papeete with scarcely less gusto than when it sauced the salt-horse of the pearling fleets of Port Darwin and Thursday Island. The lightning of his love was likely to strike anywhere, you were told, sometimes in the most unexpected places. There was that vixen of a gin-a straight Australian aboriginal black-whom he had risked his life for in cutting across a corner of the "Never-Never" when he ran away with her, only to have her turn and knife him later in Deli out of jealousy of a half-caste Portugee Timorese who had caught his fickle fancy. And-to take the other extreme-there was that little golden-haired doll of a niece of the Governor of Fiji, who fell heels over head in love with "Slant" after seeing him play polo in Suva, and who, when they packed her off for home to break up the disgraceful affair, made what was described as a really sincere attempt to go over the rail of the Auckland-bound Union packet. Then there was "Slant's" affair with that notorious pearl-pirate "Squid" Saunders' girl-the one the missionaries adopted and tried to reclaim, and who promised for a while to be such a credit to their teaching-with its ghastly sequel. And so it went.

It was said that "Slant" boasted of having a son (he never kept track of girls, he said) and a saddle in every group west of the "hundred and eightieth." I daresay this was true, though those who put it island instead of group doubtless exaggerated. I had landed at several islands myself where I had been unable to borrow a saddle.

Most of the little unpleasantnesses that disturbed the dolce far niente atmosphere of Kai had their roots in the fact that the male population of the island was always a good jump ahead of the female, that there were not, in short, enough girls to go round. Under these conditions the advent of so notorious a "feminist" as Allen could not but be provocative of a certain anxiety, especially on the part of those who were (to use Jackson's terse if inelegant expression) "'arborin' 'igh-class 'ens."

"Don't you coves make no mistake," Jackson was quoted as saying; "'Slant' 'll be tykin' a myte stryght aw'y. Only question is 'oo's myte 'e's goin' to tyke. If it was any bloke but that squar'-jawed Yank w'at 'ad 'is grapplin' 'ooks slung into the plumage uv that perky peacock pullet, I'd 'ave no doubt w'at bird 'Slant' ud be baggin' an' draggin' 'ome to broil. But-layin' low as 'e is fer a bit-I'm thinkin' it ain't that presarve 'e'll be gunnin' in just yet aw'ile."

"Stryght dope" again from old "Jack." Allen had his own reasons for not wishing his presence in Kai to be called too forcibly to the attention of the authorities in the British Solomons, where his latest escapade (something to do with the forcible recruiting of blacks) came pretty near the line where they were likely to ask for a gunboat from the Sydney station to aid in bringing him to book. Allen was by no means inadept of his fellow men, and he must have known that a showdown with a man of Bell's stamp-even though he had the best of it and copped the most desirable thing he ever set eyes on for his very own-could hardly fail to prove a clash that men would like to talk about, the inspiration of a tale that would shudder itself from Yap to Tasmania in delirious beach-comber jargon, setting tongues wagging about him at a time when publicity was quite the last thing that he wanted.

Pipped as he was by the pullet's pulchritude (his own expression-he admitted as much to Jackson offhand) the cool-headed if hot-blooded Allen evidently decided to ride a waiting race for at least the first half or three-quarters, and so have something to draw on for the straightaway. "Easy starter but a hell of a finisher," was the popular appraisal of "Slant's" way of winning with a horse, and it was but natural that he should pin his faith to similar tactics where a woman was in the running. There's a lot in common between the two, and it is rarely indeed that a man who has a way with the one comes a cropper with the other.

It has occurred to me, too, that a very wholesome respect for Bell as a man may have had a good deal to do with Allen's failure to force the running at the start in the matter of Rona. The steel of his own hard purposefuln

ess could not have but struck sparks on the flint beneath the American's mask of suave reserve at their first meeting, and the Australian was far too intelligent not to sense that in Bell's Jovian spirit there was a force more compelling than anything in his own. Moreover, at riding, fighting and shooting-all that carried much weight when they judged a man in the Islands-Allen must have known that if the balance inclined either way, it was in the American's favour.

It may well have been the sheer rugged, manly forcefulness of Bell that gave Allen pause, at least in those early weeks before the Australian's infatuation for the girl became an obsession in which his reason had no part. For years he had been taking life and property out of downright contempt for his victims. "I'm the better man, and therefore the more deserving," was sufficient excuse in his own mind for his most high-handed outrages. But in Bell-for almost the first time perhaps-he had met a man who had an "edge" on him-even his soaring ego could not prevent his recognizing that. This must have been plain to him even when he measured the Yankee with the yardstick of his own primitive code. Yes, I really think that Allen, in his innermost mind, rated Bell as a man who, like himself, had a "right" to the best of everything. I am even convinced that, for a while at least, he even tried to respect Bell's right to Rona.

But do not let me leave the impression that there was one iota of physical fear of Bell in this attitude of Allen's. From what I had seen, and was to see, of the cool-eyed Antipodean that was unthinkable, even though he knew that the powerful ex-athlete could come pretty near to staving in his ribs with a single punch, and though he may have suspected that the Yankee was the deadlier man on the draw. I honestly believe that "Slant" Allen had no fear in his heart of anyone or anything under heaven. At that time, I mean; what came to him later is another matter.

"Slant" ran true to Jackson's "dope sheet" in the matter of "tykin' a myte," though, but it was done quite decently and in order-that is, as such things go in the Islands. He put up with "Quill" Partington (an old pal) for a fortnight, and then, when "Quill's" lyric spirit led him to run over to Malaite in search of a queer native banjo that someone had told him the bush niggers of the interior of that island made, strings and all, from the wild boar, "Slant" simply stayed on to "look after the pigs and chickens" (as he told them at Jackson's) and, incidentally, Mary Regan. Mary came from Norfolk Island, and claimed lineal descent from the mutineers of the "Bounty." Certainly she looked the part-of a descendant of mutineers, I mean. She had specialized in unhappy love affairs, and showed it. She had a thin, bony, angular frame, a voice like the wail of a cracked fog-horn, and a temper "calid enough for cooking purposes," as "Quill" described it. "Quill," who had developed a taste for curries and hot seasonings while living in India, claimed that the reason he had put up with Mary for so long was because of the saving she enabled him to effect in paprika.

How "Slant"-straight meat-eating and unpampered of palate as he was-hit it off with the mercurial Mary no one seemed to know. At any rate, I feel sure that he found her "condimental" disposition useful as a counter-irritant against the rising fever of his passion for Rona, something which, though he kept it under astonishingly good outward control, had been burning with increasing heat from the very first time he saw her. He confessed that to me later. Curbed passion, like wounded pride, if it cannot find outward expression, bites inward. With all his despicable record well in mind, I still cannot help thinking with a certain admiration of the game bluff the rascal put up during those six or eight weeks that the enchantment of Rona worked within him, of the gay, devil-may-care smile that so successfully masked the writhings of his racked spirit. First and last, there was something about the fellow-I think it must have been his flaming courage-that attracted me strongly in spite of all that I knew, and all that I came to hold, against him.

Since Kai held no regular intercourse with any of the surrounding islands, the news that the plague-a pernicious form of bubonic-had broken out and was making terrible ravages among both the bush and saltwater niggers of the Solomons was received with no especial interest on the beach, save perhaps by those who were wont now and then to take a flyer in "black ivory." The labour-recruiting trade-itself almost the only medium through which the pest had been spread-was hard hit of course; indeed, had there been anything like adequate control of the pernicious traffic at this time, it would have been suspended entirely until all of the islands from which blacks were being taken, or to which they were being returned, were able to present something approximating clean bills of health.

Since this was not done, however, the only check on the movement of blacks-infected or otherwise-was the possible reluctance of the masters of ships engaged in the trade to take the risk of carrying them. And since the average black-birding skipper lived as a matter of course with a gun in one hand, his life in the other, and the devil's tow-line between his teeth, it was hardly to be expected that a little thing like the spectre of the "Black Death" looming up on the windward horizon was going to make him reef much canvas. The "Black Death" in another form would ambush him sooner or later anyhow. With niggers waiting to settle accounts with him in every bay it was only a matter of time at the best. Why worry about a few cases of a disease that might not kill him even if he did get it? Heave in and get under way! That was about the way the black-birder looked at it, and he went right on scattering infected niggers around the South Seas like a cook stirring raisins into a pudding.

But in the secluded and peaceful haven of Kai lagoon they reckoned that they had little to fear from the epidemic whatever happened elsewhere. Let the plague and the heathen rage for all they cared. They were their own quarantine officers, and, until the "Black Death" ceased to stalk in the neighbouring islands, "No Visitors" was the order of the day. All very simple and efficient-in theory. Covered every possible contingency-just about.

I had spent several colourful days once-getting about from island to island in the New Hebrides-with red-haired old Mike Grogan on the Cora Andrews, and had heard from that hard-fisted giant's own lips something of the grim balances checked against his life in practically every black-birding island of Melanesia. A black's home bay holds a labour-recruiting skipper responsible for the man's safe return at the end of his contract time, and if he does not come back they figure that the only fair way to even up the score is by killing the captain of the ship which took him away. Grogan calculated that he would have to be killed something like one hundred and forty times to make a clean sheet of all the accounts thus reckoned against him. He took a sort of grim pleasure in running over the items of the various tallies, but always ended with: "B'gorra, the devils'll be gittin' me yit!" He was convinced that it would be a "cutting-out" party that would do for him in the end, and I have no doubt that he fought over in his mind that final bloody showdown every night he stood the "graveyard" watch alone. A sudden volley from the bush, his whaleboat caught in a swarming rush of blacks, his crew disabled or deserting, and himself alone battling it out single-handed with the niggers at the last.... It was something like that he expected for a grand finale, and all the "fighting Irish" in him yearned for it as a sunflower turns to the setting sun.

"An' it ain't as if I won't be givin' the spalpeens a run for their money, me bhoy," he had cried one afternoon, clapping me on the shoulder where I swayed with him to the plungings of the Cora in a nasty cross-swell. "An', b'gorra, it's a way to die after a man's own heart-shootin' an' clubbin' into a mob o' niggers out under God's own sky!"

Full as my mind was of other things on that accursed day of which I am about to write, I could not help but think of these words when they told me at Jackson's that old Mike's fighting spirit had passed on a windless midnight, and while Mike himself was jack-knifed over the Cora's wheel, spitting blood and curses, and imploring the devil to quit tying knots in his tortured guts with a red-hot pitchfork.

What little we heard of how things came to go wrong with the Cora in the first place fell from the blackening lips of her "Agent" (as the recruiter is called), who managed to reach the beach of Kai in a whaleboat, and who did not go into a delirium until a half-hour before he died that evening. She was packed to the hatches with "return" boys from Samoa. Although the plague had been claiming a very heavy toll among the Melanesian blacks of the coco plantations of Upolou, Grogan decided to take a chance at making the Solomons with a load which, on account of the risk, was offered him at double rates. They would have made it all right, the Agent thought, had not the southerly gale which blew them a long way out of their course been followed by many days of calms and alternating winds. Grogan's softness in trying to doctor the first case of plague-instead of following the customary practice, cruel but effective, of shooting the infected black (doomed anyhow) and throwing the body to the sharks-was probably responsible for the ghastly sequel. The blacks fell sick by dozens, until at last the Skipper-doubtless already in the first throes of the disease himself-ordered every living man except the surviving members of the crew driven below and battened under hatch. Grogan died that night and the mate the following morning.

The only white man remaining was the Agent, and he, obsessed with a life-long horror of being buried at sea, steered the best course he could for the nearest island. The Cora, luckily heading into the treacherous reef-beset passage at the turn of the tide, dropped her hook in Kai lagoon in the first flush of the dawning of the next day.

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