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Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 22838

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Rolling out of bed at the end of twelve straight hours of sleep, I found the Trades blowing fresh and strong again, and the air-after the soddenness of the past week-almost bracing. A plunge from the reef and a piping hot breakfast of fried clams and duck eggs-my first solid food in over thirty-six hours-bucked me up astonishingly. For almost the first time since I came to the island, I was out before ten o'clock-and well in hand, too. I had to be.... There was much that it was up to me to learn-and perhaps to act upon.

That which I most desired to get some line upon was what Allen had been driving at in drugging Bell, or even, possibly, trying to poison him. What was kor-klee? (of which Rona appeared to be so terrified), and how did it act? were questions which I wanted especially to find the answers to. Was it a drug with a delayed action, following a preliminary stupefaction of comparative mildness? If so-no, there was nothing that could be done for Bell in that case; but, as a friend of his, I might do what I could to square the account later on. There was no lack of confidence that morning. The reaction (which had eluded me completely the day before) was strong upon me, and I felt quite equal to any situation that might arise. I still blushed with shame at the thought of the contemptible figure I had cut from dawn to darkness of the day previous, but I was ready to make such atonement as was humanly possible. It was merely one of my "high" moods coming three or four hours ahead of time. I could have slung my colours with telling effect that morning, if there had been a chance for me to get at canvas.

From one and another at Jackson's I gathered a fairly connected account of what had happened during the hours I was away on the leeward side of the island. The salient incidents of this I have already set down. None of them knew much of anything about kor-klee, but all agreed that Doc Wyndham would be sure to be an authority upon it. I dropped the subject for the moment, as I did not care to be pressed for an explanation of why I sought the information. The next day I slipped quietly over and had a long-distance interview with the learned Wyndham.

The Doc had buried the Cora's recruiting agent the night the schooner sailed, doing everything except the digging of the grave with his own hands. He had then returned home and shut himself in for his ten days of solitary quarantine. Solitary is hardly the word, though. Wyndham was far from being alone. Unlike Bell, he was a "spree drinker" rather than a speedy tippler. It was his habit (as he put it himself) to accumulate aridity during five or six months of the most rigorous teetotalism, and then blow up the dam and make the desert blossom like the rose under the stimulus of a generous flood. The breaking up of the Monsoon and the culmination of Doc Wyndham's biennial sprees were bracketed together in the Islands' list of seasonal disturbances.

The desert was hardly due for its wetting at this time, but Wyndham, shaken by his unsuccessful fight to save the Agent's life, was loath to face the ordeal of the confinement ahead of him without company. So (as he explained after he had halted me a dozen paces from his door with a revolver flourished from the window) he called in the only dead sure plague-immune he knew-his old friend John Barleycorn-and raised the floodgates. The last thing he had impressed upon his brain before putting Barleycorn in charge was that he must rigidly confine his desert reclamation project to his own wastes. On no account was he to leave his own house, and, on no account, was anyone to be allowed to enter it. "Strict quarantine's the word," he had repeated to himself many times before he started drinking, and "Strict quarantine's the word" was the greeting-and the warning-I heard when I stepped into the shadow of the big breadfruit tree in front of his door.

Solemn as an owl, Wyndham had been catching purple shrimps (or something of the kind) with a butterfly net and putting them under his microscope for examination. The big brass instrument was set upon a table pulled up to the window, while the shrimps were being harvested from the bosky depths of a patch of elephant-eared taro just outside. It was his favourite hunting and fishing preserve, that taro patch, the Doc had confided to me once, and the rarity and variety of the specimens captured there were rather remarkable. I don't remember many of them, but a sea-cow and a sabre-tooth tiger were among the commonest he had made slides of. Everything went under the microscope, of course. His captures were small in size during the first few days, starting with mere animalculae, but bulked steadily bigger as the desert blossomed to a jungle. It required a microscope with a great latitude of adjustment to handle such a wide range of subjects-but his was a most excellent instrument ... most excellent. Thus the Doc.

Pretending to ignore my approach completely, Wyndham continued squinting through the eye-piece of his microscope until I crunched over the dead-line he had established. Then he flourished the revolver, barked out his quarantine formula, and asked what I wanted. "When I replied that I had come to inquire respecting the effects of a drug called kor-klee, his manner changed instantly. By some queer psychological process quite beyond me to fathom, he started at once speaking French, or rather what he thought was French. It was a weird jargon he had picked up in the Marquesas, where he had spent a year in research work when he first came to the Islands, and where (it was said) only his passion for collecting pearls-other people's-had prevented his winning to international fame for his all-but-successful efforts to isolate the bacteria responsible for the dread fe-fe or elephantiasis.

"Kor-klee-mais oui, mon ami. Je comprend him fella kor-klee too much. Parfaitement. C'est la liqueur essential de la ficus-ficus-nom d'un chien-ficus what-dyucalum. C'est la aphrodisique le plus exquite, le plus fort, en tout le monde. Prenez vous comme ca-whouf!"-and he made a great pretence of inhaling the contents of his shrimp net to show how the drug was administered for that particular purpose.

"Encore-quand-quand eat'm like kai-kai!" he floundered on learnedly; "quand eat'm kor-klee il fait-mak'm mort-dead-tres vite."

Here he interrupted himself to ask for which purpose it was I intended to use the stuff.

"Neither," I denied stoutly. "I was merely asking out of curiosity."

"Parle that talkee a la marines," he scoffed. "Le meme chose talkee parle 'Slant' Allen. Je voudrais connoce ou-ou in hell you fella catch'm kor-klee. I'd like to get my fist on some of the blooming elixir myself," he trailed off into English.

Save for that one lapse, Wyndham, in spite of my reiterated appeals that he speak straight English, rattled on in his impossible Franco-bêche-de-mer from first to last. That which I have tried to render does it scant justice. Most of it was quite unintelligible. At the end of a rather trying half-hour (though it would have been amusing enough had I been less anxious for information that might throw light on the mystery I had set myself to unravel), about all that I had been able to gather was that kor-klee was the name given in the Dutch Indies to several preparations made from the latex of the wild fig of New Guinea. A crude infusion of it was employed by the Papuans in stupefying fish in their rivers. More elaborated extracts were distilled for their narcotic and other properties. One of these, vapourized and inhaled, was much prized by the Rajahs of Malaysia as a quickener of the languid pulse, a restorer of youth. Another-the most powerful extract of all-was a deadly poison-very neat and incisive in its action.

I also understood Wyndham to say that the use of the drug in any form acted as a great exciter of the cravings for alcohol and narcotics on the part of those addicted to these habits. "If that's the case," I said to myself as I turned home, "God pity poor old Bell's teetotal resolutions! It would have been hard enough without anything further in the way of a 'thust aggravata.' I'm afraid he'll be having to exchange r?les with 'Slant' after all-to let the latter be the 'soba Mate of a drunken Skippa.'" Now that I had a chance to think about it, I didn't have any great faith in Bell's ability to refrain from drink for any length of time-certainly for not more than a day or two at the outside. He'd probably see the thing through, I admitted, but not as a "soba Skippa."

Turning over all I had picked up at the end of a couple of days, I felt that I could come pretty near to reconstructing in my mind those scenes of the drama of which there had been no witnesses save the actors themselves. Allen's infatuation for the girl had undoubtedly got the better of him the instant the turn of events suggested a plan which promised to give him undisputed possession of her. To this end he had plotted to get Bell off on a voyage from which there was no more than a negligible chance of his ever returning, while he himself remained behind to enjoy the spoils.

Considering that Allen's plan was evolved upon little more than a moment's notice, there could be no question that it was laid with consummate cleverness and carried out without a hitch-save, of course, for that final fatal slip-up which undid all the rest. To make sure of Bell and disarm his suspicions, Allen had assured the American that he himself would also go on the Cora. That he had tried to poison Bell, I had my doubts. I had not learned enough of how the drug acted to make my speculations on that point of much use. At any rate, with Bell unconscious on the schooner, it had clearly been the Australian's plan to return to the beach and remain there until she sailed, at the turn of the tide. That the Cora should get under way at that time had already been arranged between the unsuspecting Ranga and himself. The pretence that he had missed the schooner while engaged in getting his own and Bell's kits together would save his face with his friends on the beach. This latter consideration, it appears, was something the rascal never lost sight of. In the improbable event that Bell ever returned-but that bridge need not be crossed until it was in sight.

Allen's cropper at the last jump was directly due to his cool assumption (natural enough, considering his success with South Sea ladies generally) that the girl, once Bell was out of the way, would fall into his lap like a ripe mango. That, and his long-curbed passion for her, led him to rush in search of Rona the moment he landed from his first visit to the schooner, and, missing her then, to return before the Cora had got her anchor up. The consequences of his finding her in on this latter occasion I had seen something of myself. How that slip of a girl got the drop on the most notorious bad man in the Islands I could only conjecture. Probably, with Allen, it was the old story-prudence going out of one door as passion entered at the other. I didn't reckon that Rona had ever read the story of Delilah; yet I felt pretty confident that the point of that little Joloano kris had found its way to the pulse of "Slant's" jugular some time after the girl's arm had gone round his neck in what he thought-for a second or two at least-was a warm embrace. Ro

na's uncanny faculty for getting away with everything she went after-from having her peacock shawl dry-cleaned to boarding a schooner which was all of "two jumps" beyond her reach-had greatly impressed me. And well it might have....

Even allowing that Allen had not tried to poison Bell outright, the fact remained that he had played the worst kind of a low-down trick on the American in treacherously attempting to railroad the latter out of the way and deprive the girl of his protection. That much was plain, and it was dead against the shifty Australian. In "Slant's" favour was the game manner in which he had stood the gaff at the last, when Bell left the way wide open for him to return ashore without even going over the side of the plague-infested schooner. He had not hesitated an instant in staking his life in what he had very fairly characterized as the short end of a hundred-to-one shot. There must be redeeming qualities in a man who could do that, no matter how shot through with infamy his past record had been. It occurred to me as just possible that Bell's magnanimity had struck a responsive chord in Allen's sense of sportsmanship-that the latter was going to play whatever remained of that grim game on the square. If the Cora was lost, or if Allen and Bell and the girl all died of the plague (one or both of which contingencies seemed practically inevitable), the whole slate would be wiped clean anyhow. If not-if the Cora won through with any of those three surviving-some hint of what had transpired on the voyage would certainly be obtainable at Townsville, or whatever port the schooner succeeded in making. In any event, I told myself, it was up to me to get on to Australia at the earliest possible moment.

The fact that my Exhibition would be sure to have opened in Sydney by the time I reached Australia, really had nothing to do with my decision. In spite of the bluff I had tried to put over on Bell, I had had no intention of leaving Kai for a number of months to come. Nor, even after I began getting ready to go, did I attempt to ignore the fact that there might be duties for me to carry out in Townsville, the performance of which would be more likely than not to interfere seriously with my freedom of action for a good deal longer than the art world of Sydney would be inclined to pay homage to my marines.

No, my coming show had nothing to do with my resolve to hurry south, although, naturally, I fully intended to take it in if things shaped so as to make it possible. Since my daubs had been making good with the connoisseurs of Kai-men who knew at first hand the things I was trying to paint,-I had little fear that the more sophisticated critics of civilization would not fall for them. I hadn't any worry on that score. I knew I had been doing good work. But-well, an artist who isn't interested in the way his work will react on his fellow-beings is lacking in a very important stimulus to success.

Kai manifested its usual sympathetic interest in my preparations for departure, but, with characteristic delicacy, asked no questions. Well off the steamer routes, and with only the most infrequent comings and goings of pearling and trading craft, the problem of reaching Australia with any dispatch seemed, at first, a hopeless one. For a while it looked like the best I could do would be to accept "Slim" Patton's kindly offer to run me over in his pearling sloop to Thursday Island, where I could count on getting a south-bound China-Australia liner inside of a fortnight. As Patton was known to be in bad for several little things at Thursday Island, his offer did more credit to his heart than to his head, and I was a good deal relieved when Jackson figured out a plan that promised to make it possible for me to reach my goal by another route. After thumbing a greasy sheet of Burns, Phillip sailings for the best part of an afternoon, the old outlaw suddenly announced he had found reason to believe that, with luck, a cutter getting away from Kai that night could intercept the Solomon-Australia packet at Samarai, off the easternmost tip of New Guinea. To be sure that the thing was done properly, he would take one of his own cutters and sail her himself. As my impedimenta consisted of little beyond a few changes of drills and ducks, my painting kit, and a case of absinthe, and as Jackson used neither paint nor absinthe and wore a flowered sulu in place of ducks and drills, we had little difficulty in getting away on schedule.

Jackson's carefully tabulated calculations-you can do that kind of thing in those latitudes when the southeast Trades are blowing steady and you know your boat-were only wrong by an hour. That is to say, we would have missed the Utupua by something like that had we pushed right in to Samarai. Old "Jack," however, sighting a bituminous smear trailing off above the tufted tops of the coco palms that line the inner passage, promptly shook out all his reefs, hauled up four or five points, and headed away on a course calculated to converge with that of the outgoing steamer a couple of miles to seaward. It was only after an abrupt greening of the tourmaline depths of the passage we had been threading suggested a sudden shoaling that it occurred to him to unroll and study his chart.

"Five 'undred fathom-three 'undred fifty fathom," he read laboriously as his tarry forefinger cruised along the tiny rows of dots and figures indicating soundings. "Three 'undred fathom-two 'undred fifty fathom-one bloody fathom! By Gawd, W'itney, we're 'igh an' dry already! This bally chart says they's only one fathom uv water on this kerblasted coral patch, an' the cutter draws two feet mor'n that."

But he never luffed her, never altered her course a fraction of a point. "More she 'eels the less she draws," he muttered philosophically, sitting down on the weather rail of the cockpit and starting to whittle at the end of a stick of tobacco with his clasp-knife. "Save a lot of wig-waggin' if we do pile up," he continued presently, rolling the shaved-off blackjack between his palms. "Ol' 'Choppy' Tancred never giv' the go-by to even a nigger dugout he could len' a han' to." Then he lighted his pipe, whoofed two or three whirling jets of blue smoke to leeward as he brought it to a proper draw, and settled comfortably back in puffing contentment. Ten minutes later he unrolled the chart again, produced a greasy stub of pencil from the band of his koui-leaf hat, and wrote with great care the letters "P.D." across the dotted expanse where curving lines of figure "1s," like the graphic representation of telegraph lines on a bird's-eye map, indicated six feet of water where the eight-feet-draught cutter had just crossed without a bump.

"As I figger it," Jackson observed drily, rolling up the chart and tossing it down the companionway as a thing whose usefulness was ended,-"as I figger it, a bloke's only manifestin' proper conserv'tism w'en 'e marks as 'Position Doubtful' a reef that ain't tangibl' enuf to stop 'im w'en 'e 'its it." Then, presently, between puffs, as he stretched himself and sidled along to take the wheel as the cutter began to close the slowing steamer: "Wonder 'oo the bally cove'll be 'oo bumps a mis-charted reef w'en 'e thinks 'e's got four 'undred fathom uv brine 'tween his keel an' the bottom uv the Pacific." The notorious inaccuracy of the South Sea charts is a continual source of amusement or wrath-according to whether a misplaced shoal or passage has spelt comedy or tragedy to him-for the man who sails their reef-beset waters.

It was Captain Tancred himself who came tumbling down from the Utupua's bridge to greet me as I clambered up the Jacob's ladder thrown over from the forecastle head. Hearing of him often before, this was the first time I ever set eyes on one of the best-loved characters in the South Pacific. He was a red-faced, blue-eyed, sandy-haired Scot, with a heart as big as his fist, and as soft as his voice was rough. Square himself as his own broad shoulders, and strictly law-abiding personally, he was credited with an amiable weakness for befriending every man who had run afoul of the statutes. I had heard them yarn by the hour at Kai of the way he had smuggled this one out of Australia, and that one into New Guinea; of how he had all but bumped South Head while standing-off-and-on in a "Southerly Buster" one night, on the off chance of picking up a jail-breaker, whose only claim upon Tancred had been that the latter had once before performed a similar service for the reprobate when he had forced his way out of the jug in Suva. Several of the push at Jackson's claimed actually to owe their lives to the bluff old Scot; many of them their liberty. "Choppy" Tancred-so called from his sun-washed red-brown mutton-chop side whiskers-was the nearest thing to a patron saint Kai ever had-that is, until the Rev. Horatio Loveworth hove up on their skyline some years later and converted the lot of them (just about) with the knuckles of his brawny fists.

The last thing Jackson had said, as he steadied the ladder for me to swarm up the Utupua's side, was to the effect that I ought to consider myself dead lucky to be stacking up with "Choppy" Tancred; "or, leastways," he qualified, "you would be if you was in any kind uv a mess 'e could fish you out uv."

"Don't give up hope, Jack," I chaffed back, clawing round a projecting ventilator; "I may land in a mess yet."

"Then don't be forgettin' ther'll allus be a refooge for the errin' on the banks an' brays uv Kai Lagoon," he sang back, taking in the mainsheet as the cutter came up to the wind; "an' that 'Choppy' Tancred'll be the cove to give you a first leg-up on the way back there."

Except for his very evident disappointment over the fact that I disclaimed any need of his help in getting ashore in Australia, Captain Tancred seemed not in the least put out over being stopped and boarded so high-handedly. He had carried many queer birds in his time, so that a man eccentric enough to take a case of drinkables with him on the return trip from the Islands didn't worry him as much as it might have some others. He was also kindly charitable about my "exclusiveness" of evenings (when all normal beings expand and grow sociable at sea), and even good-naturedly tolerant of my weakness for having breakfast in my cabin. I made it up to him to the best of my ability in my "quickened" hours of the afternoon, and we became good friends.... Really good friends. I felt that I could count upon him in a pinch.

The grounding of the company's Port Moresby steamer somewhere along the Barrier Reef was responsible for the fact that the Utupua, this voyage, had been ordered to pick up freight at both Cooktown and Cairns, instead of proceeding direct to Townsville on her regular schedule. This set her back two days, and brought us into the offing at Townsville twenty-four hours after-instead of twenty-four hours before-a sun-blistered, foul-smelling labour-recruiting schooner, with a dead Captain and a score or more of dying niggers, was brought to anchor off the Quarantine Station by the Mate, who, immediately the hook was let go, collapsed on the deck and went to sleep. The empty hulk of the Cora Andrews, swinging lazily to the turning tide, was one of the first things to catch my eye as the Utupua steamed in and tied up to her buoy.

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