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   Chapter 5 A SHIP OF DEATH

Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 24975

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


With a good many days of my life to which I cannot look back without a blush of shame, I write deliberately when I say that the one ushered in by the raucous grind of the Cora Andrews' chain running through its hawse-pipe as she let go anchor a couple of cables' lengths off Kai beach, stands alone in the horror and the painfulness of its memories. It is characteristic of all but the most degraded of beach-combers-doubtless their general contempt of life has much to do with it-that "once in a while" they "can finish in style"; that, on a showdown, they are usually there with the goods. I had always felt sure that, in a pinch, I could force myself to come through in the same way-the thought had gilded many a slough of despond for me. Well, this day, I had my chance and funked it-funked it clean, as a yellow dog slinks from a fight with its tail between its legs, as an underbred hunter refuses a jump. Oh yes, I had an excuse. "Seeing green" is next thing to "seeing yellow." Almost anyone knows that. But I had thought that there was enough red blood left in me to make it possible for me to take the bit in my teeth and finish like a thoroughbred at the last. But there was not. That was the thought which had made the ghastly tragedy even more tragical to me, which made a mockery of the triumph which I might otherwise have felt when, first Australia and then Europe, acclaimed me as the greatest marine painter of the decade.

For several days previous to the coming of the Cora Andrews I had been slipping up pretty badly on my "absinthe reform" program. It was largely the fault, I think, of a positively infernal spell of weather. The ozone-laden trade winds, falling light after a spell of low barometer, had finally failed altogether. Kai was lapped in sluggish moisture-saturated airs that clung like a wet blanket. The Gargantuan popcorn-like piles of the trade clouds were replaced by strata of miasmic mists which awakened all the latent fevers in a man's body and mind. The sea, slatily slick of surface, heaved in oily, indolent smoothness, sliding over the reef without sound or foam. The brooding, ominous sullenness was all-pervading, oppressive with sinister suggestion.

Everyone on the island was drinking heavily, and mostly alone. No tipsy choruses boomed out from under the sounding-board of Jackson's sheet-iron roof. Even "Slant" Allen failed to appear for his wild end-of-the-afternoon dashes up and down the beach. Rona dropped in languidly one afternoon to say that Bell was tilting the bottle more frequently than she had ever known him to do before, and that for three days he had missed his early morning plunge from the reef.

"Too much walkee with Jo'nnee Walkah, Whitnee," she punned in a feeble flicker of pleasantry. "I veh-ry much worree along Bel-la."

She needn't have worried, though. He, at least, had the stuff in him for a proper finish.

It was only to be expected that I should seek solace in a time like this by snuggling closer than ever into the enfolding arms of the "Green Lady." That fickle jade was at her best-and her worst. Never had she winged me to loftier pinnacles of sensuous delight; never had she dropped me to profounder depths of horror and despond. The night before the Cora came marked a new "high"; also a new "low." I dropped like a plummet straight from a pea-green grotto full of lilies of the valley, maiden's hair ferns and ambrosia-breathed houri to the fire-scorched cliffs ringing the mouth of the Bottomless Pit. I knew that Pit of old. Most of the early hours of my mornings for the last five years had been spent in trying to keep from being pushed into it.

But this time, though, it looked as if they were going to get away with it. Failing to break my grip (I always managed to hang on somehow), they had tried new tactics. They were pushing in the side of the Pit itself so as to carry me with it. I felt the relentless creeping of the ledge on which I struggled to maintain precarious footing. If I could only push back into the rock ... through it ... out to the air! Nothing could stand against the mighty heave I gave with my shoulders. The cliff parted with a great rip-roar of rending, and I reeled back, back, straight through-the pandanus siding of my hut. An instant before a nigger had knocked off the shackle of the Cora's anchor chain. The unchecked run of forty-odd fathoms of rusty iron links through a hawse-pipe is very like in sound to the rending of a rocky cliff-that is, to a man in an absinthe nightmare.

That violent awakening did not bring me straight back to normal by any means. You never come out of the "green horrors" that way, unless, of course, you fall into water, or set fire to the house, or do something else that calls for instant action. You usually come out by gradual stages, each successive one marked by a shade more of the earth-earthy than the last.

In this instance my fall only changed the spirit of my nightmare. I was by no means out of the woods, either. I had backed away from the Mouth of the Pit all right, but what brought that Ship of Death-black and sinister she was against the bloody redness of the infernal sunrise-unless it was to take me there again? I knew that it was a real ship. I knew those black things festooned along its rails were real dead men. I knew that the horrible reek which presently came pouring in over the oily water to penetrate my contracted nostrils was the real smell of rotting flesh. I knew that I was looking out at Kai lagoon, and from the door of my own hut. I knew these things, just as I knew it was real blood I saw and tasted when I bit my finger to prove that I knew them.

But it was still as in a dream that I became aware of an erratically rowed whaleboat pulling away from the Death Ship and making for the beach. It was with an agreeable sense of relief that I noted that it was apparently heading for the quay rather than in my direction. Drawing near, it sheered away from the weed-slippery landing and went full-tilt for the beach. A man-a big man, bare of legs and of chest, wearing only a red sulu-ran down to meet it. It seemed no more than a perfectly natural development of the ghastly pantomime that the big man should raise a revolver and shoot one of the black rowers when the latter jumped over the gunwale of the whaleboat and started to bolt up the beach. I saw the flash from the revolver, saw the fugitive crumple and fall, and the sharp report, impacting on the side of my sheet-iron rain-water tank, slammed against my ear-drums with a shattering "whang."

That close-at-hand shot had the effect of shocking me back a notch or two more nearer normal; but, nerve-shattered as I always was at the end of a night, it was something very akin to the abject terror that gripped me as I backed away from the Brink of the Pit which now impelled me to "back away" from the new menace. Seizing my painting things from sheer force of habit, I slunk off through the long early morning shadows of the coco palm boles, not to stop until I came out upon the broken coral of the steep-shelving leeward beach of the island. It was as far as I could go without swimming.

Here Laku, my Tonga boy, found me toward noon. The coffee from the flask he brought was the first thing to pass my lips since I had poured my last drink the night before. It steadied me somewhat, but my nerves still refused to react. The shock of the morning had been too much for them. I realized that Kai had a mighty knotty problem on its hands with that shipload of dead and dying niggers in the lagoon (Laku had told me it was the Cora, and something of what the trouble was), and it took a lot of screwing before I got my courage up to a point where I could force my reluctant feet to carry me back to shoulder my share of the responsibilities.

I was still streaking and dabbing at my canvas at three o'clock, and it must have been nearly an hour later before I packed up and started back toward the village. I burned that bizarre rectangle of colour-slashed canvas on the very first occasion (which was not until a day or two later) that I had a chance to stand off and look at it objectively. There was revealed in it too much of the utter unmanliness which marked my conduct on this most shameful day of my life to make it a pleasant thing to have around. For me to have kept it would have been like a man's framing and hanging the excoriation of the judge who had sentenced him for some despicable crime.

What had transpired in the village up to the moment of my return at the end of the afternoon I must set down as I learned of it later. Everything considered, it seems to me that Kai-with one or two notable exceptions-behaved very creditably in an extremely trying emergency. Awakened when the Cora's anchor was let go, a number of men had run out to the beach, from where their glasses quickly gave them a pretty good idea of the state of affairs aboard the luckless black-birder. Then they got together at Jackson's-the lot of them in their pajamas or sulus, just as they had tumbled out of their sleeping mats-to decide what was to be done. The majority at first seemed inclined to stand by their predetermined plan of shooting the first, and every man from a plague-infested ship that tried to land on the beach. But at this juncture Doc Wyndham, calling their attention to the fact that a whaleboat had already put away from the Cora, suggested that they wait and learn just how things stood before starting off gunning.

"I'm with you as far as shooting any nigger that tries to break quarantine goes," he said, "but I'm dam'd if I'll stand by and see anyone take a pot shot at Mike Grogan, or any other sick white man, for that matter. Old Mike nursed me through a spell of 'black-water' once at Port Darwin, and if he is in that boat I dope it it's up to me to tote him home to my shack and do what I can for him. If he can't clamber out I'm going to wade in and carry him back to the beach, so you'll have to shoot the two of us if you shoot at all. But I don't think you will. I'm not asking any of you chaps to have anything to do with the stunt. You needn't touch him. I'll take him home and swear not to budge from there till the thing's over one way or the other. After that I'll put myself in a ten-day quarantine. Moreover, I won't be expecting attention from any white man or nigger on the island in case the luck goes against me and I catch the pest myself. It's my own little game and I won't stand for any interfering in it."

That was the gist of Doc Wyndham's remarks as Jackson outlined them to me the next day. They met with hearty assent from all of the dozen or more present, except on the score of letting the Doc have the job all to himself. He turned down every one of the volunteer nurses, however, saying it was his own kettle of fish and that he'd have to stew it in his own way. He even insisted on meeting the boat alone, urging that there was no use in multiplying the points of possible "plague contact."

So it must have been the distinguished surgeon from Guy's that I saw shoot the bolting black that morning. Had I continued to watch, instead of bolting myself at that juncture, I would have seen him wade out, lift a man tenderly from the stern-sheets of the whaleboat, and start carrying the limp body up the beach to where a spreading bread-fruit tree shaded the door of the sheet-iron shack which he was wont humorously to refer to as his "professional, social and domestic headquarters for Melanesia." Following that, I would have seen a bunch of motley-clad figures prance down and start menacing the irresolute boat-pullers with flourished revolvers, forcing the frightened blacks to back off and begin splashing their wobbly way out to the Cora.

Wyndham's conduct all through struck me as rather fine, especially for a man who was a convict of three continents and two hemispheres. Disappointed in finding his friend Grogan in the whaleboat, on learning that the latter and his mate were already dead, Doc just as cheerfully set about paying to the Agent the debt he felt he owed to old Mike. Before entering his house, he called to his girl-a saucy little Samoan named Melita, who had gone right on sleeping through all the racket-ordering her to make a hurried departure by the back door and not to return until he sent for her. The Doc was never a man to let sentiment interfere with business, Jackson opined.

Making th

e doomed man as comfortable as possible in his own canvas folding bed, Wyndham deferred giving an opiate until he had gained such information as he could of how things were on the Cora. Then, after communicating (from a safe distance) what he had learned to a delegation from executive headquarters at Jackson's, he nailed a red sulu to his front door as a danger signal and disappeared behind the bars of his self-imposed quarantine.

I may as well state here that Wyndham-thanks, doubtless, to the precautions which he, as a medical man, would have known how to take-side-stepped the plague completely, quite as completely, indeed, as he sidestepped the Thursday Island customs authorities a year or so later, when a half season's shipment of pearls from Makua Reef, Limited, disappeared as into thin air.

Of the information Wyndham gleaned from the Agent before giving the latter a shot of morphine to relieve his agony and mercifully hasten the inevitable end, the most important as affecting Kai's action was that something over a hundred blacks had been battened down in the schooner's forecastle and 'midships hold for seventy-two hours, with nothing but a couple of stubby wind-sails feeding them air. The dead had all been cleared out before this was done, but there were a lot of bad cases among the living who were driven or thrown down the hatches. By the stench, the Agent knew that some of these had already died; but that many still had life in their bodies he judged by the unabated vigour of the howling.

The most reassuring news passed on by the dying man was that Ranga-Ro, Grogan's gigantic Malay Bo'sun, had remained in charge of the Cora, and that he appeared to have the black crew (only three or four of them, luckily, had succumbed to the plague so far) well in hand. That brightened the outlook a good deal, for what Kai had feared above all else was a general breakout and stampede, which might inundate the island with plague-infected niggers, crazy beyond all possibility of control.

Ranga, who claimed to have had at one time or another every tropical disease on record, was-or believed himself to be-a plague immune. He was not in the least worried over the responsibilities that had fallen on him, and could be counted upon, the Agent thought, to see the game through. The only trouble was that he couldn't navigate, so that if the Cora was going to be taken to a port where any real relief could be obtained, she would have to have at least one competent white officer. Would Kai furnish that officer? was the question up before the meeting called at Jackson's to decide what should be done with the ill-fated black-birder.

This was rather a larger assemblage than the one which had gathered at dawn, called up by the rattle of the Cora's anchor-chain. The latter was mostly made up of the "inside push," "Jackson's Own," as they were sometimes alluded to, and that they were a dead game bunch of sports was attested by the way in which they had volunteered in a body to nurse for Doc Wyndham. The later and more representative meeting was hardly up to the earlier one on the score of quality. There were a few out-and-out rotters on the island, and about the worst of these was a typical Wooloofooloo larrikin from Sydney, whose name I have forgotten. As foul of tongue as of face, he was as sneaking and cowardly as a wild Malaite pup reared in a black-birder's galley. He it was who, with a smirk on his tattoo-defiled face, got up and suggested that the simplest way out of the difficulty was to "blow up an' burn the bloomin' 'ooker w'ere she lies. Cook the bloody niggers to a frizzle, pleg an' all." Give him a few sticks of dynamite and he'd pull off the bally job himself.

The leering wretch, in his eagerness, pushed right out in front of gaunt-framed old Jackson, who was "presiding." "Wi'out battin' a blinker," as he told me later, that old Kalgoorlie outlaw took the proper and necessary action. His straight-from-the-hip kick doubled the miscreant up, breathless, speechless, upon the floor-the only floor of sawed boards in all Kai. He rather favoured that method when he had to throw a man out, Jackson explained, on account of the convenient parcel it made of him when lifted by the back of his belt.

When Jackson called the meeting to order again and explained what word Wyndham had sent as to the lay of things on the Cora, "Froggy" Frontein, one of the escapes from Noumea, his Gallic soul aflame, popped up and volunteered to sail her to any non-French port in the Pacific. That brought a cheer for "Froggy," but the enthusiasm died down a bit when it transpired that the only ships the gallant ex-counterfeiter had ever boarded in his life were the steamer which deported him from Marseilles and the cutter in which he-buried under copra in its hold-had escaped from New Caledonia.

More competent volunteers were not lacking, however, and several of these were trying to urge their respective claims at once when "Slant" Allen's magnetic glance drew the eye of the chairman and he was given the floor.

Calling several of the more insistent of the volunteers by name, "Slant" asked if it had occurred to them that the nearest port which had quarantine facilities equal to handling more than a dozen cases of infectious disease was in Australia-probably Townsville, but possibly Brisbane. They admitted that they hadn't thought that far ahead.

"In that case," Allen cut in with, "it may be in order for me to point out that there's not a one of the whole mob of you young hopefuls that wouldn't be pinched and clapped in the brig just as soon as they saw your face and recollected what it was you sloped for in the first place."

That shot made some impression, though "Crimp" Hanley seemed to think he had countered not uneffectively when he asked: "Who in hell thinks he's going to last long enough to get her there?"

What "Slant" had got up to say, he went on without deigning to engage the logical "Crimp" in argument, was that there was one first-class sailor in Kai against whom nothing was booked in Australia, a man, moreover, who had been known to be looking for a command for a number of months. He referred to Captain Bell, who, he regretted to say, had not been summoned to their meeting. If it was agreeable to those present, he would be glad to wait upon Captain Bell and acquaint him with the facts in connection with the emergency which confronted them all. In the event that Captain Bell should see fit to assert his claim to this place of honour, as he had no doubt would be the case, he-"Slant"-was in favour of giving that claim precedence over all others, both because of Captain Bell's well-known ability as a navigator (his late slip, they would all admit, was due to circumstances quite beyond his control), and because he was the only competent man available who would not have to step out of the frying pan into the fire on making port in Australia. What was more, in case Captain Bell felt that he needed a mate for a voyage which could not but be beset with much danger and many difficulties, he-"Slant"-wished to take the occasion to put in his claim for that berth. He had been in bad in Sydney, he had to admit, but it was nothing very serious, and he felt assured that, in a pinch, there were certain influences which could be counted upon to get him clear. No fear that he would not be seen in the Islands again in due course.

Considering what "Slant" was really driving at, you'll have to admit that this was put with consummate adroitness. The meeting voted by acclamation to allow him to carry out his suggestion, adjourning in the meantime to await developments. It was significant, in the light of what transpired later, that Allen flatly refused the offer of Jackson and two or three others to go along to Bell's with him and "make a delegation of it."

No suspicion was aroused by the fact that Allen, on the way to Bell's shack, stopped in at his own for five or ten minutes. Indeed, nothing that he did at any time awakened anybody's suspicions-among the beach push, I mean.

When "Slant" came out of Bell's at the end of half an hour, he was accompanied by the American, the latter apparently leaning heavily on the Australian's shoulder. This occasioned little surprise, as Bell, who had hardly been seen for the last three days, was believed to have been drinking heavily. Instead of returning round the curve of the beach to report at Jackson's, as it had been assumed he would, "Slant" led the way to a little dugout canoe lying in the shade of the coco palms in front of Bell's and started pulling it down to the water's edge. When it was seen that the slender Australian was doing most of the tugging, while the big American seemed to be blundering about to small purpose, it was remarked at Jackson's that Bell, for the first time since he hit the beach of Kai, appeared to have stowed enough booze to submerge his "Plimsol" and affect his trim. At the same time it was admitted that the Yankee was a wonderful "weight-carrier"-nothing like him ever seen in the Islands. It was thus that they mixed nautical and racing idiom at Jackson's Sporting Club.

When the little canoe was finally launched, Bell, helped by Allen, stumbled forward and slithered down in the bow. The Australian plied his paddle from the stern. It was remarked that the dugout's progress was very slow, but "Slant's" leisurely paddling was attributed to the care he had to take on account of the trim Bell's lopsided sprawl gave the cranky craft.

By the time the canoe slid in alongside the Cora, Bell appeared to have collapsed completely. Lifting carefully by the shoulders, Allen was seen to raise the inert body in the bow enough for a hulking yellow giant-easily recognizable as the lusty Ranga-Ro-to throw a mighty arm around its waist. Then, with his other arm looped round a stanchion, he swung his burden high above the rail and into the arms of two of the black crew. Thereafter nothing was seen of the Cora's new skipper for an hour or more.

"Doosed smart loadin'," was Jackson's laconic comment on the teamwork Allen and Ranga had displayed in hoisting Bell's husky frame out of a wobbling canoe and up over the Cora's four feet of freeboard topped by five strands of "nigger wire."

Allen did not go aboard, but continued to lie alongside for ten or fifteen minutes, evidently giving extended orders to the Malay bos'n. Immediately the canoe pushed off, great activity was observable among the crew, who were evidently rushing preparations for getting under way before the ebb began to race through the passage.

The rate at which Allen paddled back to the beach was in marked contrast to his leisurely progress on the way out. Grounding the canoe on the beach near where it had been launched, he made directly for the door of Bell's house and bolted inside. Reappearing almost immediately, he came on along the beach at a more deliberate gait.

At Jackson's he told them that Bell had jumped at the chance of taking the Cora to Townsville.... Said it might be the means of getting his master's certificate back in case he pulled it off all right. But he-"Slant"-couldn't allow a white man to tackle a job like that alone. He had only landed to pick up his kit and a few things Bell wanted. He was going to get back aboard the Cora before they began to shorten in. It was going to be a ticklish job, fetching the passage from where she lay in those fluky airs.

Leaving Jackson's, Allen went to his own (or rather "Quill" Partington's) house, where, according to what I heard from Mary Regan a couple of days later, he took several drinks but did not do anything toward throwing his things together. A half-hour later he was seen hurrying along the beach to Bell's again, and when he came out from there it was in the company of a girl-plainly the "Peacock." Paddled by a third party, who came upon the scene at this juncture, these two went off to the schooner, boarding her just as she filled away on the first tack of the almost dead beat to the entrance of the narrow seaward passage. For all they knew on the beach, Allen was carrying out his program (with the little incidental of Rona-doubtless taken along at the last moment by way of a surprise for Bell-thrown in), just as he had outlined it to them. They were not hurt by his failure to say good-bye. They were not strong for the gentler amenities in the Islands, anyhow.

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