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   Chapter 7 RONA COMES ABOARD

Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 21501

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Well, I still think I was right on the score of the futility of further words. Nothing more that I could have said would have changed the situation; but was there nothing more that I could have done? Rona answered that question, so far as she herself was concerned, then and there, though hardly in a way that I had the wit or the will to profit by.

Bell's answer to the girl's anxious appeal that she be allowed to join him had been no less brusque and decided than that he had made to mine. "Sorry, honey. No 'commodations fo' ladies this voyage. You wun't intended to nu'se niggas, anyhow. Can't be done, honey." Then, to me: "Time to be shovin' off now, Whitney. Tide's already on the tu'n. Right sorry to have to hurry you-all this way." Not a word of farewell.... Navy training would not down.

"Bel-la, leesten to me!" There was more threat than entreaty in Rona's voice now. Beyond doubt, he had never crossed her before. That she was hurt and angry showed in every line of her tense figure, as she balanced precariously with her left foot on the outrigger and her right on the port weatherboard. "Bel-la, by crackee, I say I go with you! If you let me come on schoona, all good. If you say no, by crackee, I-I sweem! I sweem afta you. You know I good sweema, Bel-la."

Swim! I knew the girl well enough to know it was not a bluff, and Bell must have known even better. I had heard him speak many a time of her absolute lack of fear. Also, although at that moment his imagination was not quickened (as mine was) by the drunken roll a black cadaver under the counter gave as a questing nose pushed into it from below, he must have known what shrift a swimmer would have in those shark-infested waters.

Bell's mouth twitched at her words (I could just see his head and shoulders where he conned ship with a foot on the starboard rail and a hand in the shrouds of the mainmast), but he made no reply. Doubtless he counted on my doing what I could to fish her out before anything happened. Sweeping his eye fore and aft, he noted how the turning tide had swung the schooner so that she headed directly away from the passage, with the fluky puffs of the freshening trade wind coming over her port quarter. Then, cautioning the men standing by at the fore and main sheets to "take in sma't" as she gathered way, he bellowed the order to "Heave away!"

The ululant surge of the bêche-de-mer anchor chantey floated aft as the blacks resumed their rhythmic tramp around the capstan.

"What name you b'longa?

What name you b'longa?

You Mary come catch'm ride.

What name you b'longa?

Come hear my songa-

I take you to Sydney-side."

I have often wondered if the frank invitation in the swinging lines might not have been the inspiration of Rona's astonishing action.

The obligato of the incoming chain grinding through the hawse-pipe had accompanied the chantey for only a stave or two, when Allen's clear, ringing voice (he had not needed to be told where a mate belonged when a ship was getting under way) announced from the forecastle: "Anchor broken out, sir!"

"Walk lively! Get catted 'fore she hits the passage!" Bell roared back, anxious lest the great length of chain still out would make trouble where the lagoon shoaled at its seaward entrance. A moment later he came aft and relieved the man at the wheel, ordering the latter to stand by to keep the mainsheet from fouling the nigger wire. It was the gigantic Malay, Ranga-Ro, bulking mightily against the purpling eastern twilight sky, who responded with a deep-rumbling "Ay, ay, su!" and sprang to the starboard rail to clear the sagging lines running back from the unstable-minded main boom. Then the amazing thing befell.

As the schooner gathered way and began gliding ahead under the impulse of the half-filled mainsail, Rona had crouched as though for a spring at the towing whaleboat. The painter of the latter, however, made fast on the port side of the taffrail, brought the yawning double-ender too far away for anything but a creature with wings to bridge the gap. Seeing it was impossible to jump to the whaleboat, she straightened up again, swaying undulantly as the dugout bobbed about in the gently heaving wake of the schooner.

"Bel-la, I come!" There was more of anger than despair in that steel-clear cry; more indignation than resignation in the hair-trigger poise of the reed-slender figure. The instant that she hesitated on the chance that this final threat might soften Bell's resolve was all that prevented what at best could not have been other than a nasty mess for the both of us. There was no possible chance for me to intercept her before she jumped, and, once in the water, I knew she was quite equal to upsetting the canoe rather than be dragged back into it. As for help from the schooner-Bell had determined upon his course, and his eyes, like his mind, were directed ahead, not astern.

It was Ranga-Ro (deftly fending the slack of the mainsheet from the nigger wire), not Bell, who turned at the sound of Rona's cry. Whether or not he had glimpsed her during the previous ten minutes, I am not sure; but for the girl (whose eyes had been on Bell from first to last), I was certain that the big Malay had not impinged upon her vision before. Recognition of his racial characteristics must have been instantaneous. They were written for even an ethnic novice to read in the giant's straight black hair, high cheek bones, wide mouth, with its betel nut-stained teeth, and the light golden yellow skin clothing the monstrously muscled limbs. The peculiar twist of the loosely-looped sarong and a wisp of rolled leaf behind an ear would have located him even more definitely; but to Rona the fact that there was an indubitable Malay staring into her eyes from the nearest rail of the receding schooner, made the incidental of his being a Moluccan-a Spice Island man-of little moment. She was used to handling big golden-yellow men.... They had proved a deal more manageable than a certain white man she could mention.

I heard, without understanding, the swift run of her tripplingly-tongued Malay, and only the sibilant hiss of "Lekas! Lekas!" at the end told me that what she had ordered done was to be done "quickly! quickly!" Her next order-to me-was no less insistent. "Paddl' catch'n schoona, Whit-nee! Paddl' lak hell!"

The girl's imperious mood brooked no delay. My work was cut out clear for me, and, everything considered, I am not at all sure that the yellow man-on the score of zeal, at least-outdid the white man in carrying out the orders he had received. Slipping back to the stern to even up the down-by-the-head trim Rona's presence in the bow gave the cranky dugout, I plied the stubby paddle with all the strength and skill at my command. The crazy craft rode higher now with Allen out of it, but even so the speed with which I drove it threw a wave inches above the hole in the crumbling bow. The up-curling water poured through in a steady stream. My race, I saw, was against that rising flood in the bottom of the canoe quite as much as against the schooner.

There were only eight or ten yards to make up on the still slowly moving Cora, and, barring swamping or a collision with a shark or a floating nigger, I felt that I could do it easily. But what to do when we had caught her up? Ah, there was where the yellow man was to come in. Ranga was just as busily carrying out his orders as was I. "Clear away the nigger wire and stand by to pick me up," had plainly been the drift of that swift stream of Malay Rona had directed at him. Superbly disdainful of the sharp barbs that were slashing his bare palms to ribbons, he forced the whole savage entanglement down to the deck with no more apparent effort than a child would have used in collapsing a string-strung "cat's-cradle." Rove through steel stanchions set at close intervals along the rail, the wire could not be torn entirely clear. So the direct and simple-minded Ranga did the next best thing-gave a mighty heave and brought three or four of the nearest stanchions down to the deck in the tangle of wire they had supported.

An order from Bell at this juncture would probably have stopped this wholesale destruction of his protective entanglement; or perhaps I should say possibly rather than probably. One cannot be sure just how strong a force Rona had lashed into action. It has since occurred to me that the man must have been gripped with something very closely akin to the madness of amok to handle that wire with his naked hands as he did. It may be that the only one from whom he would have brooked interference was the one who had fired that savage train of energy-Rona. These points were not to be put to the test, however. From first to last Bell-although, from the wrecking of the wire almost under his very eyes, he must have known what was going on-never looked back.

What with the settling of the half-swamped canoe and the accelerating speed of the schooner, it was touch-and-go at the end. I had gained by feet at first; then by inches; and finally, with but a couple of yards more needed to bring the bow up even with the schooner's counter, I realized that I was no better than holding my own. It was the last ounce of reserve in my aching frame that I called upon for that final spurt. Rona must have sensed that I was going my limit, for she said no word ... only crouched, tense as a waiting wild-cat, for the moment of her spring.

For the first few seconds the gap closed quickly as the canoe gathered increased headway from the impulse of my wildly driven paddle; then more slowly and more slowly, until, again, I was no better than holding even. Another foot, and the jump would be safe. Bending low to make the most of my expiring strength, my eyes wandered from the goal for an instant. It was a shuddering gasp of consternation from the bow that brought them back again. The swooning mainsail, filled by the freshening puffs, was beginning to make its pull felt in earnest. The gap had widened. Instead of gaining a foot I had lost two. That dished me completely. "No good, Rona-I'm-all in," I groaned, and slid limply down into the bottom of the canoe, where the water now lapped level with the thwarts.

Half fainting though I was, the picture of that super-simian spring of Rona's is indelibly etched upon my memory. Save for that one quick gasp, she made no sound. The jump was an impossible one ... sheerly impossible. And yet- Only a swift gathering of muscles-very like the final quivering hunch of an ape that leaps from tree to tree-heralded action. Then, with a back-kick that forced the already half-submerged bow right under, she flashed up to her full height and launched h

er body into the air.

It was a good jump,-a wonderful one, indeed, considering the unstable take-off-but of course she missed the rail-and by feet. That didn't surprise me.... I had seen it was inevitable. But what I had not reckoned upon was the astonishing length of Ranga's mighty left arm. Standing by with a bight of the mainsheet gripped in his right hand to keep from overbalancing, he had sprung to the top of the rail as Rona jumped, leaning out at all of an angle of forty-five degrees, probably more. It was into the solidly pliant muscles of his great corded left wrist, extended to the full reach of the arm, that Rona clawed with the last half inch of her out-stretched fingers-clawed and held. I say clawed into, not clutched or seized. The girl's hold on Ranga's wrist was not that of an acrobat grabbing over the bar for which he has jumped (her leap was short by an inch at least of giving her a chance to do that), but rather that of a flung cat clawing into the limb or the trunk of a tree. With less strength of fingers or length of nails her hands would merely have brushed the outstretched arm and missed a hold.

Under the impact of that flying hundred and twenty pounds (in spite of her slenderness, Rona must have weighed quite that) of bone and muscle, striking, as it did, just where the greatest leverage would be exerted, Ranga was all but swung round and thrown from his footing. The hastily-seized mainsheet was hardly a scientifically-run guy for the leaning tower of his stressed frame, nor did the wreck of the barbed wire entanglement writhing over the rail offer the solidest of foundations. Back and forth he swayed, like the half unstepped mast of a grounded sloop; then steadied, quiveringly, up to his original tense slant.

The acrobatic miracle wrought by Ranga in swinging Rona's precariously hanging form inboard was the most perfect feat of strength and balance I ever saw, or ever expect to see. It looked as sheerly impossible as the jump had looked-and was accomplished scarcely less quickly. The drawing up of the extended left arm (what a marvellous rippling and bunching of golden muscles that was!) brought the girl's pendant form close in against the corrugated bulge of the giant's chest, reducing the terrific leverage by a good half. A similar doubling up of the right, with a sudden tug on the mainsheet at the end of it, did the rest. For an instant the great rangy rack of corded muscles balanced erect in the midst of the wire-tangle festooned over the rail; then jumped lightly down beyond and deposited its burden on the deck.

Hardly ten seconds could have elapsed from the instant of Rona's jump to the one in which Ranga plumped her down beside Bell at the wheel. The gap between the canoe and the schooner had widened to hardly twenty yards. I could see both the Malay and the girl quite distinctly as, with the latter still looped in the crook of his fingernail-torn left arm, he poised for a moment on the rail. Neither appeared to have turned a hair. Neither seemed in the least flustered ... might have been in the habit of doing that sort of thing every day for all the excitement they showed about it.

The first thing Ranga did, as the dropped mainsheet gave him a free hand, was to reach to the knot of his sarong and satisfy himself that the little bamboo flute tucked in there had ridden out the storm. And Rona-her first move was to gather up and stow an amber-streaming corner of the peacock shawl, which was threatening to catch in an uprearing strand of the nigger wire. Those two funny little incidentals complete my recollections of that breathless quarter-minute. Whether Rona, or Bell, or anyone else on the schooner waved good-bye in my direction I do not recall. Ranga was taking in the slack of the mainsheet when I looked again, and Bell, peering up at the flapping headsails, was grinding away at the wheel. Two or three shots rang out following a commotion forward-probably fired to check a fresh up-surge of the blacks from below.

As Bell brought her round in a wide circle, the Cora's sails were flattened in and she began to beat up toward the entrance of the passage in a series of short tacks. As she headed in past the quay, I heard a burst of cheers roll up from a knot of humanity blurring the beach in front of Jackson's. It was just a big, full-throated general whoop, that first one, but it was quickly followed by a number of other volleys of "huroars" that seemed to carry suggestions of control and leadership. The last of these was a hearty "three-times-three," topped off with a "tiger." "Cheering the parting heroes by name," I muttered to myself, and wondered who that last rousing "tiger" was meant to speed. I was still speculating when the sharp whish of a heeling dorsal, as a sheering shark avoided the submerged outrigger by a hair, awakened me to a rude realization of the fact that the swift tropic night had all but fallen and that I was drifting out with the tide in a holed and barely floating dugout.

Of all the ebbings of the tide of courage that my sorrily spent life had known, and had still to know, those next few minutes-with the Cora dissolving into the swimming dusk as she beat out through the passage, the weirdly green wakes of the sharks lacing the oily-black water with welts of phosphorescence as they assembled for their ghastly banquet, and my swamped canoe teetering in balance between positive and negative buoyancy-registered low-water mark. I have never heard of a despairing absinthe slave trying to break his bonds at the end of the day. It is invariably at the end of the night that he makes his break for liberty-at the beginning of the day he has not the courage to face. But it was the shame of the yellow in me, rather than the green, that held empire now. Rona had brooked no refusal of her demand to be taken on the Cora. Why had I? She had been ready to swim for it. Why should not I? Surely the sea, better than anything else, would wash that yellow stain from my honour and leave it white at the last. I didn't even have to screw my nerve up to the point of jumping over. Listing heavily to starboard as the half-capsized dugout was, one little inch edged to the right, and not even the leverage of the outrigger could keep it from overturning. Just the inclination of my shoulders would do the trick.... I would not even have to take the initiative to the extent of edging along. Surely-

With a quick gasp, I slid sharply to one side-but it was to the left-the outrigger side. The great starshaped welter of green luminescence, where a half-dozen wallowing man-eaters nuzzled into a bobbing witch-fire-streaked shape of unreflecting opacity, proved too much for my last unbroken filament of nerve-all that I needed to make my honour white. I had always dreaded sharks, and it was my horror of them now that checked the worthiest impulse that had stirred me that day. The momentarily eclipsed image of the cooling green bottle took shape again before my eyes, and, after that, there was nothing to do but make the best fight I could to reach it.

Proceeding with infinite caution to avoid the upset which I now feared above everything in the world, I crawled forward along the outrigger side and stopped the hole in the bow with my folded drill jacket, as a necessary preliminary to beginning to bail out with my waterproof sun-helmet. But before I turned to on what could have hardly proved other than a hopeless task, the sound of oars and voices reached my ears, and presently the bow of a hard-pulled whaleboat came pushing up out of the darkness. It was old Jackson whose strong arm reached out and dragged me in over the gunwale. When they got back their breaths lost in cheering the departing schooner, he explained, after depositing my limp form in the stern sheets, Doc Wyndham bawled over to them from "Quarantine" that some cove had been left behind in a foundered canoe. Jackson himself reckoned that the Doc was beginning to go off his nut and see things; but as several of the others seemed to have hazy recollections of something of the same kind, it was thought best to put off and investigate.

"'Ow'd you 'appen to miss c'nections?" Jackson asked sympathetically. "I spotted you paddlin' the canoe off, an' we was so sure the Skipper 'ad signed you on that we give a speshul w'oop in your 'onour. 'W'at's the matter wiv W'itney?' I bellered ('member the night you learned us that one?-time the looted fizz from the Levuka was on tap); an' the boys cum back wiv: ''E's all right!-you bet!-Ev'ry time!'"

"That wasn't the big 'three-times-three' at the end, was it, Jack?" I asked, my face burning with shame at the thought.

"Well, no; 'ardly that un," was the half-apologetic reply. "That ripsnorter was in 'onour uv 'Slant' Allen. Long time pal uv all uv us, 'e is. Slash-bangin' finisher, li'l ol' 'Slant.'... Trust 'im allus to be on 'and w'en they're liftin' 'ell's 'atches."

I knew then that I wasn't going to be tumbling over myself to tell "Slant's" friends on the beach that his volunteering to go with the Cora had been just a shade less voluntary than they reckoned. He had not pulled up dead at his first hurdle as I had, anyhow. No, until I knew more of what had transpired earlier in the day, I was not going to give the man away; and not to his old friends in any case. I would do at least that much homage to his nerve.

Seeing how dead beat I was, Jackson waved back the crowd at the quay and headed me straight for home. He knew what I needed, and I was as grateful for the bluff old outlaw's unspoken sympathy as I was for the help of his sustaining arm. With rare delicacy, he avoided being a witness to my assault on the green bottle by leaving me at the door. Like all the rest of those rough, red-blooded roysterers of Kai, Jackson felt that habitual absinthe drinking was degenerate, almost immoral.... All right for a "Froggy," of course, but not for a proper white man.... A thing that a real self-respecting beach-comber would never allow himself to be guilty of. The fact (which could not be concealed for long) that I was known to be addicted to the habit had taken even more living down than my painting, especially when they learned I was straight Yankee and not a "We-we."

I drank hungrily at first-gulping glass after glass of the cool green liquid,-but stopped just as soon as I found my nerves were steadied and before the first stage of "elevation" was entered upon. (A seasoned drinker takes some time to reach the latter.) Unspeakably tired physically, I dropped off to sleep almost as soon as the absinthe relaxed the tension on my nerves. My rest was dreamless and untroubled-or comparatively so.

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