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Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 24522

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

As a matter of fact, however, there had been a very considerable slip-up in "Slant's" carefully doped slate. That was plain from a number of little things which sunk into even my absinthe-addled brain in the few minutes I spent in his and Rona's company while paddling them off to the Cora. How staggering a slip-up it must have been for him I was not able to figure until I got my nerves under control the following day.

I was still far from pulled together when I came back to the village after my day of hiding (for that's what it amounted to) on the other side of the island. With my head twanging like an overstrung banjo, I was feverishly anxious to get home and seek relief in the only thing I knew would relax the tension of my breaking nerves. I had told Laku to "putem littl' fella pickaninny in rock-a-bye belonga him" just as soon as he got back to the shack. This was a long-standing joke between us, and I knew that he would interpret aright this bêche-de-mer order to "put the baby in its cradle" as a strict injunction to lay a certain long green bottle in a little basket of porous coco husk, which, dampened and hung in a draught, answered the purpose of a crude refrigerator. The vision of the slender green trickle I should shortly pour from the dewy fresh lip of that bottle was drawing me on as the thought of the oasis with its fountain draws the thirsting desert traveller.

Between horrors fancied and real-from my struggle at the mouth of the Bottomless Pit to the coming of the Ship of Death-my nerves had suffered a number of trying shocks since the dawning of that accursed day; but the one that came nearest to bowling me over I had still to receive. I had known there was a Bottomless Pit; I had known there was a Death Ship; I had known they were shooting niggers on the beach. As each of these horrors was projected upon my vision in turn I had accepted their reality as a matter of course. Didn't I see them with my own eyes? Didn't I continue to see them after I had bitten my finger? But Rona, with her arm and her peacock shawl thrown over "Slant" Allen's shoulder, coming out of Bell's house.... No, that wouldn't do.... That was one thing they couldn't put over on me. My eyes must be playing tricks on my brain. I must be in even worse shape than I thought. Never before had my fancy conjured up a thing so utterly, impossibly absurd. Wide-eyed and open-mouthed, I pulled up and started kicking the shin of one foot with the toe of the other. That was another little trick I had of proving whether or not I saw what I "saw."

At the clink of the broken coral under my shuffling feet the girl turned her head in my direction, but, far from releasing "Slant's" neck from her embrace, she only drew the lanky Australian closer with her right arm, while with her left she beckoned me imperiously.

"Whitnee, come alonga this side, washy-washy!" Her thin clear voice cut the air like the swish of a rapier.

It was, strangely enough, the fact that she lapsed into the vulgarest of bêche-de-mer, rather than the eagerness of her gesture, that drove home to my wandering wits the fact that Rona was confronted with difficulties, that she needed help. Verging on nervous and physical collapse as I was (and as I knew I would continue to be until I had gulped my first steadying draught from the cool green bottle), the realization that something concrete was demanded brought me instantly out of the half-trance in which I had walked since dawn. Still a sorry enough specimen, I was at least sufficiently in hand not to need any more finger-bitings or shin-kickings to know the difference between what seemed real and what was really real. Letting my easel go one way and my paint box the other, I hastened forward in answer to Rona's summons.

"Katchem washy-washy one piecee boat," Rona began as I came up, her heaving breast, flushed face and flashing eyes revealing the emotion that held her in its grip.

"Man-man; my word, what name this fella thing you do?" I interrupted between breaths, blurting mixed pidgin and bêche-de-mer English of a brand to match the vile blend the girl had discharged at me.

"I too much cross this fella 'Slan','" she started to explain. "Him too much-"

"You'd think she was cross with me, Whitney, if you could see the way she's sticking me in the neck with her hat pin," Allen cut in, the half-sheepish, half-amused grin he had worn from the first broadening as he spoke.

That was the first "straight" English to be spoken, and the words had the effect of reminding Rona that she had been speaking nothing but low jargon from the outset. For weeks she had been taking the greatest pains to avoid both of the weird volapuks in all her chats with me. Pulling herself together with an effort, she strove again to be a purist.

"'Scuse me, Whit-nee," she chirruped, paying "Slant" for his sally with a prod that made him duck like a prize-fighter avoiding a straight-arm punch; "'scuse me, but I'm veh-ry mad. This bloody boundah he put kor-klee in Bel-la's drink. He take Bel-la to schoonah. Now we all go off to schoonah. If Bel-la he dead, then I keel this boundah, 'Slan'.' You will do us the paddl'?-ple-ese, Whit-nee."

There was a deal more that I would fain have been enlightened about, but my brain was clear enough now to understand the urgent necessity of getting off to the Cora without delay. A drugged man (or a poisoned one-it was not until later that I learned how that strange essence of the wild Papuan fig might be expected to act) on a plague-infested black-birder looked like just about the last word in hopelessness; but (I told myself) if there was anything I could do for my friend, it was up to me to try to do it. Rona seemed to have some sort of plan in her head, though just what she was taking Allen along for I didn't quite twig at the moment.

The funny part of it was that the Australian didn't seem particularly averse from going off to the schooner. Indeed, it was he who cut in to call Rona's attention to the fact that they were rushing preparations on the Cora for getting under way, adding: "If you don't want to be left at the post I might suggest you whip up a bit." Even as he spoke the throbbing wail of a chantey came to our ears across the water, and I could just make out the blur of motion on the forecastle where a knot of niggers was circling round the capstan.

"Washy-washy! Quick! quick! Whit-nee," implored Rona, leading the way, with Allen's head still in the crook of her arm, to the canoe; "we must make the great hur-ee."

Luckily, the dugout, although Allen had left it pulled well up on the beach when he landed, was half awash through the rising of the tide, now just about to ebb. I launched it without difficulty. Still with her knife at "Slant's" neck, Rona made him enter ahead of her and crouch in the bottom of the canoe, well forward, while she seated herself on the sinnet-wrapped thwart immediately behind his hunched shoulders. When the unabashed rascal coolly leaned back and started to make himself comfortable with an arm thrown over her knee, the girl stiffened with a start of repulsion. It was more than a prick she gave him this time, for I saw the sudden swell of his jaw muscles wipe out the lines of his grin as his teeth set over a repressed oath.

Pushing off, I slid gingerly along the port weatherboard until the canoe heeled just enough to bring a gaping hole in the starboard bow clear of the water that started to pour through it, and began to paddle cautiously inside the outrigger, the only place I could get at from where I sat. Our progress was, of course, slow as to speed and wobbly as to direction. Even at that, a good deal of water kept slopping in, and I couldn't blame Allen, who was sitting in it, for asking Rona if she minded if he baled a bit with his sun-helmet.

Her only reply was another prod with the needlepointed kris. (I knew it was the little Jolo dagger, for I had seen it as she adjusted her shawl on sitting down). "Hur-ee, Whit-nee," she urged, quiveringly tense, and continued to keep her flaming gaze riveted on the schooner, where the latter, foot by foot, was moving up on her shortening chain.

About halfway out Rona gave a start and a glad little cry. "I see Bel-la," she laughed. "He stand up by wheel. By jingo, he look-he look like he lick his weight in wile cats!"

That had been the big Southerner's favourite expression when, glowing with the reaction from his deep, eye-opening dive from the reef, he would come prancing back to his door of a morning. The sight of his bare muscular torso, white as marble against the dingy folds of the half-hoisted mainsail, must have called up in the girl's mind the picture of Bell breezing in from his bath, and brought the tersely quaint phrase to her lips. As a matter of fact, there was no saying at that distance how Bell looked; but it was good to see him on his feet, at any rate. Probably Rona had been mistaken about the poisoning.

"I told you he was all right," Allen remarked drily, shifting a few inches to get clear of the water that was beginning to swish about his knees. "He was drunk-dead drunk; that's all. He began to buck up an hour ago. Looked through my glass and saw them dousing him with water. First thing he did was to take a drink (plenty of it aboard)-saw him tilt the bottle. Then he must have made them open up the hatches. There's more than the crew lining the rail there for'ard; besides-you don't think the slop-chute from the galley spills out the bait that's drawing those black fins, do you? I won't need to tell you they don't belong to chambered nautili out for an afternoon sail. There's a man-eating shark under every one of them. Can I lend you my binoculars?"

He started to slip the strap of the powerful racing glasses over his neck, but desisted when Rona refused to clear the way by lifting the point of her dagger. Save for maintaining that one important little point of contact, she ignored him completely, and "Slant" seemed rather to resent the latter more than the former.

"Well, if you don't want to use it, I suppose you won't mind if I have a bit of a look-see," he went on in half-assumed petulance. Rona replied with the usual prod, but interposed no further objection when he raised and began focussing the glasses.

"Clubbing niggers on the fo'c'sl'," he commented presently, as signs of commotion were visible forward. "Skipper don't want 'em too thick on deck while he's getting under way, most likely."

Then, a minute later: "Looks like you'll need an ice-breaker to clear a passage through those sharks, Whitney; or perhaps we can walk across their backs from the edge of the jam. Seem to be thick enough to give good solid footing."

And again, shortly: "Chain almost straight-up-and-down, Whitney. Mudhook going to break out in a couple of minutes. Can't accelerate that 'long, long pull' of yours, can you? Looks as if they weren't planning to wait for us."

It was a gruesome passage, that last hundred yards. The sharks were hardly as thick as Allen's picturesque hyperbole might have led one to believe, but there were undoubtedly more than a score of triangular dorsals slashing about in swift circles. But the sharks, for the most part, gave us a good berth. It was the things that didn't get out of the way that came near to flooring me at the last-black, bloated bodies, floating face down, like logs awash, till the canoe struck them, then to roll shudderingly over and sweep you with the sightless gaze of their wide, staring eyes as you fended with the paddle. Rona, her flashing glances running back and forth over the schooner (following Bell, who appeared to be lending a hand now and then on sheet or halyard), seemed not to see the floating horrors around us. Allen's steely eyes met the corpses stare for stare, and looked them down. But upon me the horrors which passed the others by descended with full force. How I kept going is more than I can guess. But I did it. At last the loom of the Cora's blistered starboard quarter cut off the seaward view, and I steadied the dugout in close to the upper line of her weed-foul copper sheathing.

Apparently no notice whatever had been taken of

us up to this time. Short-handed as he was, Bell was doubtless too busy to keep a lookout, while to the few niggers watching us through the wire the sight of a dugout carrying "two fella white marsters and one fella Mary" was of indifferent interest. All they cared about was getting away from the Death Ship, and they didn't need to be told that this "pickaninny boat" hadn't come to help forward their desires in that direction. Besides, the guard walking up and down behind them with a Lee-Enfield over his black shoulder had undoubtedly given them to understand that the first one to start over the side would be shot.

It must have been the guard who reported us finally. Burning with impatience, Rona was just prodding up Allen and ordering him to clamber aboard and tell "Mistah Bell" she wanted to speak to him, when I heard the shout of "'Vast heavin'!" ring out, and presently a familiar tousled head was poked over the top of the barbed wire. (I should explain, perhaps, that three or four strands of "nigger wire" are run all the way round the rail of every labour-recruiting ship. This is done with a double purpose-to make it difficult for the blacks aboard to bolt, should the spirit move them, and to serve as a partial protection while at anchor against the always imminent attacks of the treacherous shore natives.)

There was a look in Bell's face I had never seen there before. The old familiar furrows of dissipation showed deep around the mouth, but if he had been drinking heavily, there was nothing to indicate it. What struck me at once was his air of determination-I might almost say exaltation. His head was held high, his shoulders were thrown back, and he might have been treading the deck of a battle-ship as he swung up to the rail. Everything about him betokened the man who has taken a great resolve, and means to see it through if it kills him.

Although I had heard no word of it up to that moment, I understood at once that Bell had taken command of the schooner, that he was going to try to sail her to some port where the plague-stricken blacks could be given medical attention and kept under control. It was like Bell to take on a job like that, I said to myself; but he would do it as a matter of course. It would never occur to him that there was any alternative, just as with an order in the Navy. There must be something more to account for that air of high resolve.... I couldn't help thinking that, and I was right. He let out what it was shortly.

"It's right nice of you to come off to say good-bye, honey-and of you, too, Whitney," Bell called down genially; "but, as we'ah not quite what you'd call fixed fo' cawlahs, you'd bettah do it from wheah you a'. You, Mistah Allen, if you have fin'ly made up youah mind in the mattah of signin' up for the voyage, I reckon we can find accommodation fo' you. But fust, let me say that if you've got any mo' of that dope you put in my whisky stowed about youah puson, you'd best scuppah it befo' you climb abo'd. I doan quite twig what you did it fo', unless it was to dodge out of goin' yo'self, afta you had promised to help me see the job through. But now, seein' you've come off of youah own free will, I reckon I can fo'get that lil' slip, providin' it ain't repeated."

Although Rona could hardly have known the exact meaning of "free will," she caught the drift of Bell's remarks readily enough. "This rotten boundah" (bounder was the worst name she knew to call a man in "pure" English) "not come himself," the girl cut in shrilly, speaking for the first time. "I fetch him. See!" and she threw back the folds of the peacock shawl to reveal the bright wavy blade of her little kris boring into the hollow between Allen's right shoulder-blade and the corded column of his sinewy neck.

"From the reef I see you an' this fella 'Slan''" (Allen's shoulder quivered under her designative prod) "go off to schoonah in boat," Rona went on, avoiding as well as she could in her excitement the jargons she knew Bell disliked so much. "Bime-by I see 'Slan'' come back-you stop schoonah. When I go home I smell'em kor-klee. You no sabe kor-klee, Bel-la. I sabe him too much long time. I smell kor-klee in one glass-not in othah. Pu-retty soon this boundah 'Slan'' come house. He say: 'Bel-la go off in schoonah. Now I stop with you all time!' Then I sabe what for kor-klee veh-ry queeck. So I katch'em this fella by neck an' fetch'm off schoonah. I say myself: 'If Bel-la dead, I keel this boundah; if Bel-la not dead, he keel him.' Heah he is, Bel-la-you fix him pu-lenty. Then we go home-side."

"So that's what upset the appl'-ca't?" There was nothing of the wrath of the jealous male in Bell's deep, chesty laugh. "Well, I'm not blamin' Mistah Allen fo' fallin' in love with you, honey. No propah man could quite help doin' that, as I see it. Just the same, I can't quite approve of his way of goin' about it, no' the occasion he took fo' it, eethah. So you brought him off fo' me to execute, honey. That's right rich. Youah a brick, you shuah a'. But I won't be killin' him, honey-no, hahdly that. I'm just goin' to sign him on as Fust Mate of the Cora Andrews, just as he 'lowed he do at the beginnin'. Of co'se I won't be goin' home with you, honey. Doan you see I'm in command of this heah ship?"

A sudden shiver shook Rona's tense frame at those last words. Half rising, she started to speak, but Bell cut her short with lifted hand and went on himself.

"Mistah Allen," he said, addressing himself now to the huddled figure in the bottom of the canoe; "I said I was goin' to sign you on an' take you with me. Let me qualify those wuds just a trifle. I'll pumit you to go if you'll agree in advance to my tums. I might explain that theah's two dif'rent views in the mattah of the best way of avoidin' catchin' the pleg. One is, that you must keep strictly soba-straight teetotal; the otha-diametrically opposed to the fust-is that you must keep dead drunk-pif'ucated. Now I reckon that it's goin' to take at least one white man to sail this hookah all the way to Australyuh; that is to say, at least one white man must steah cleah of the pleg fo' the entahprise to be crowned with success. But as theah ain't no suah data as to which is the safe an' sutin way to 'complish this, I figa theah's nothin' else to do but sta't with two white men, and let one of 'em try the fust purscripshun an' the otha the second.

"Now (tho' I must admit it's a bit high-handed on my pa't) I've already picked the one I'm goin' to take; so, if you elect to sign on, Mistah Allen, you'll have to take the otha. Theah's a dozen cases of whisky abo'd-not Jawny Wakah, to be suah, but still fayah to middlin' cawn jooce-an' I had to toss off a tumblah o' two of it as an antidote fo' that dream-provokin' dope you wished onto me. But"-Bell's head was up and his shoulders back again-"that's the last." His square jaw snapped shut on the words like a sprung wolf-trap. Now I understood. That was his Great Resolve.

Bell paused, and in the waiting silence I became aware for the first time of the low rumble of groaning from the bowels of the ship.

"So you'll see, Mistah Allen"-the corners of his mouth relaxed into a smile as Bell resumed-"that since the Skippah's plumped to try the 'soba man' preventative, theah's nothin' left for the Mate to do but to fight off the pleg by the 'drunk man' method. Theah'll only be two of us, you see, an' it's theahfo' up to us to hedge ouah bets an' play safe. But you won't be havin' to go if you ain't hankerin' after it. I'm not (in spite of what the way you've been 'shanghaied' by-by Miss Rona might lead you to think) runnin' a press-gang. It's entiahly up to you as to whethah o' not you want to sail as the drunken Mate of the soba Skippah of a black-birdah full of pleg-rotten niggahs. You see, Mistah Allen"-the whimsical grin broadened-"you see I'm not tryin' to luah you on by paintin' the picture any brightah than it is. 'Drunk Mate of a soba Skippah'-do you get that?"

Allen made no reply, that is, not directly. Raising his hand to fend the expected prod from Rona, he wriggled halfway round and started to speak to me, where, in the stern, I still paddled the canoe gently against the turning tide and held it close alongside the schooner. For an instant I was puzzled with the look on the side-face he presented, but almost at once saw the reason for it. For the first time in my recollection the thin upper lip was uncurled by its mocking smile. By that, I thought I could gauge something of the extent of his slip-up. Yet-if I could have read the man's mind-I would have known that it was something even deeper than the wreck of personal hopes that had sobered "Slant" Allen. What it was I learned later.

"Whitney," he began, the words coming huskily from the dryness of his throat; "I don't dope a man's chances for finishing inside the distance flag in this little Handicap of Captain Bell's as better than a hundred to one. That's long odds to be on the short end of when a man's life is his stake. I don't give a damn about my life. Anyone will tell you that. I've thrown it into the pool on worse than a hundred-to-one shot a good many times before this. But-well, I'd rather appreciate it if-if you could see fit to make a point of not telling my friends on the beach that-that I had any help in-in volunteering-volunteering to lend Captain Bell a hand in getting this hooker on her way."

Rona, sensing that her responsibilities, so far as Allen was concerned, were at an end, raised the kris from his neck and thrust it into the knot of her sulu. The Australian lifted himself lightly to his feet and looked Bell straight between the eyes. "Lead me to your whisky," he said in a steadied voice.... "By Gawd, I need it!"

Poising an instant on the middle of a forward thwart of the canoe, he sprang to the rail, clambered smartly to the top strand of the barbed wire, and swung lightly down to the deck on the main backstay.

It was at this juncture that I went through the feeble motions of trying to act the part of a man myself. I pointed out to Bell that I had knocked about on yachts a good deal, and, while I couldn't claim to be much of a hand with niggers, was probably as good a navigator as Allen was. I also said something about three men standing a better chance than two of pulling off the job, and even added, half jocularly, that I was about ready to go to Australia anyway, as I had had word that an exhibition of my pictures was due to open in Sydney in a fortnight. I only hope my words didn't sound as hollow to Bell as they did to me-for they were the last ones I was ever to speak to him.

Bell's gentlemanliness-nay, rather, his gentleness-came home to me more in what he refrained from saying in his reply than in what he said. He did not say that he had no absinthe aboard, and that, as a consequence, I would be only more useless and undependable than if he had. He did not say that his hands would be full enough looking after crazy niggers without having a crazy white man to keep an eye on. He even refrained from recalling to my mind a story I had told him of a French official in New Caledonia whose absinthe supply had run out while he was at an isolated post, and who, unable to stand the deprivation to the end of the three-days' run in to Noumea in a trading cutter, had taken a header over the side almost in sight of port-and relief.

All he did say was: "Nonsense, ol' man.... Quite out of the question.... Nothin' doin'." Then, as though to soften the curtness of his refusal: "'Twouldn't be propa, Whitney, to set a man that can slap colour on canvas like you can to herdin' sick niggas. Besides, I'm countin' on you to stick 'roun' Kai an' be a sort o' fatha an' motha' to Rona while I'm gone. Youah the only man on the island I'd ca'ah to trust with that job."

There was nothing more to be said after that, I told myself; nothing more to be done. I gave up limply and relapsed into wondering how long it would take me to paddle Rona ashore and traverse the quarter of a mile of coral clinkers between the place where she would land and the long green bottle cooling in its breeze-swept swing beneath my coco leaf jalousies.

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