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   Chapter 13 THE SCENE OF THE FINAL DRAMA

Hell's Hatches By Lewis R. Freeman Characters: 22304

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


We spent the night at the hotel and went together to call on Rona at the Mission the following morning. The change in the girl was startling, far too great to be accounted for by the baggy Mother Hubbard that had replaced the close-clinging sarongs and sulus in which I had grown accustomed to seeing her at Kai. Her face was thinner and the former peach-like bloom of her cheeks had given way to a dusky sallowness. The curve of her lips had flattened-and hardened; hard, too, was the fixed stare of her great sloe eyes. To a stranger the pucker of concentration between her eyebrows might almost have suggested sullenness. The lines about her eyes and mouth, which spoke to me of suffering, might have seemed to another as stamped there by hate. She was still beautiful, but in a new way. It was a wild, fluttered sort of loveliness that haunted rather than allured. The woman before me could never "sit Buddha," I told myself; those dreamy spells of repose had not punctuated her present life with intervals of Oriental peacefulness.

Decidedly reserved in her manner toward Allen, Rona tried to be warm in her greeting to me, but quickly showed signs of restraint and embarrassment. She became even more ill at ease when "Slant," after genial old Dr. Oakes invited him out to see a new saddle horse that had just arrived from Singapore, excused himself and left us alone. She sheered off so sharply from my first mention of the name of Bell, and became so palpably nervous at a couple of attempts I made to lead round to him by degrees, that I gave up trying to induce her to speak of him out of sheer pity. Even my inquiry after the health of "Peeky" of the embroidered shawl drew only a weary little smile and a sad shake of her riotous tumble of blue-black hair.

She was ready enough to talk about the picture, though even in that connection I was at once conscious of a lack of real enthusiasm on her part. She seemed anxious to get it started, however, and said she supposed we would be going to live on the schooner in a day or two. She even confessed to having worried a good deal for fear the Cora would be broken up by a storm before the picture was made. When I told her that we would not need to live on the schooner, and perhaps would not have to make more than one or two short visits to it, she appeared a good deal put out for a few moments. She scowled angrily and started to speak; then thought better of it, bit her lip and held her tongue. She appeared a bit mollified when I said we would make our first visit, to plan the picture, just as soon as the quarantine people would disinfect the schooner for us. (That this had not been done yet I had already learned through 'phoning to the Station the night before.) She observed impatiently that she thought disinfection was a needless precaution, and I had to explain that it was not a matter of precaution at all on our part; that it was against the law for anyone to board a ship that had carried plague until it was disinfected, and that if we tried it on the Cora the whole lot of us would probably be clapped in jail and quarantined afterwards.

She softened a little as I got up to go, and her "Next time I show you 'Peekie,' Whit-nee-'Peekie' is a ver-ee sick bird," sounded almost like old times. The hand she gave me was hot and dry but unshaking, and the almost cutting grip of it tense with nervous force. I noticed that her finger nails, though trimmed closer than of old and no longer stained, were still of unusual length.

I found Allen, his face flushed with enthusiasm, putting the doctor's new colt up and down the sward before the Mission chapel in sharp bursts of terrific speed. The animal, Oakes explained to me, had been given to him by a petty Rajah of the Federated Malay States as a token of his appreciation of the doctor's success in removing a troublesome appendix from a favourite dancing girl some months previously. It was a chunky bay gelding, only his small head, full neck and a certain trimness of hock bearing out Oakes' claim that he was out of a Mameluke imported direct from Bassorah by the Sultan of Johore. For the rest he favoured his Timor dam, and looked built for endurance and handiness rather than speed. The instant Allen was on his back, however, his sure instinct told him that the powerful little beast had swiftness as well as staying powers, and he was already itching to put his judgment to the test. A week later, having quietly entered him in the race of the day-the Planters' Handicap-at the Townsville midsummer meet, he rode the gelding himself and gave the local betting public the worst jolt in North Queensland track annals by winning at two-hundred-to-one. Every pound that the wily Allen cleaned up on the race went to build the good Doctor Oakes, shortly transferred to Fiji, the largest and best equipped Medical Mission in all of Polynesia. The full story of what the winning of that race meant to the game old missionary with the sporting blood has yet to be written.

My plan of visiting the Cora to make a preliminary study of the "Black-birder" met with an unexpected check. The quarantine people had readily consented to give the schooner a rough disinfection, one that would make it quite safe for us to board her as long as we kept clear of the holds, which would require more drastic treatment. Before the formaldehyde squad got away, however, several cases of smallpox were reported in the native quarter, and all the available disinfecting apparatus was called upon for use there. It would be at least a week or ten days, we were told, before an outfit would be free for the Cora.

Personally, I didn't mind the delay in the least; for one reason, because Rona's strange mood had quenched my initial surge of ardour for the picture, and, for another, because I had still to find a suitable place in which to work. Allen seemed to be worrying very little over the forced wait. "I've laid my bets to win or lose, and I'll be there to cash in after the finish," he said philosophically. He spent most of the time in the saddle, getting out mornings at daybreak to give the "Missionary Colt" (as he called the Oakes gelding) workouts on the quiet. As far as I could observe, he saw very little of Rona.

It was the girl who really chafed under the inaction of waiting. Two or three times she sent for me to urge that we disregard the quarantine regulations and go off to the schooner. Allen mentioned that she had also begged him to take her out for a look-see at the Cora on the quiet. How she spent her time I did not know. Oakes told me that she went out for long walks every day, sometimes going toward the hills and sometimes along the shore. I found freshly picked tiger-lilies on Bell's grave the day I visited it, and it occurred to me that the gathering of these might have furnished the motive for the solitary walks. But if she was still devoted to Bell's memory, why wouldn't she speak of him?-and why the plan to go off to the Islands with Allen? The girl's conduct was quite beyond my understanding. That was one thing I was sure of, at least.

Meanwhile I went ahead looking for a place I could turn into a studio. It had been Allen's idea that the suburban bungalow he occupied after coming out of quarantine would be suitable, but I was compelled to veto it on account of the poor light-a consequence of the dense tropical growth surrounding it. The same difficulty-light-ruled out a number of other attractive places that were offered me, and I was about to close with a rather squalid little shack near the beach as a last resort, when Allen got wind of a temporarily vacant house on a big sugar estate, some miles from town.

This little gem of a hillside bungalow had been built by the sugar people for a sub-overseer of the plantation, who had gone to Melbourne to meet and marry a girl from home. As the lucky chap had been given a three-months holiday for a honeymoon in New Zealand, the local manager of the sugar company decided that there could be no objection to my occupying the nest in the interim; in fact, he was sure his directors would be highly honoured to have their property used by so distinguished an artist, and for so laudable a purpose. He hoped I would not hesitate to call upon him for help at any time. He would see to it that the servants already hired against the return of Borton and his bride reported at once, and that Borton's trap and saddle horses were placed at my immediate disposal.

I was greatly pleased with my find for a number of reasons besides the fact that it had a large and well-lighted living-room that could be made all I could ask to work in. Not the least of these was its location. Several hundred feet above the sea, its wide verandas caught cool currents of the Trade wind that the sultry lower levels never knew. Infinitely refreshing, too-both in fact and in suggestion,-I found the splendid stream which circled close under the rear wall, forming, where a mossy ledge reared a natural dam, a deep, clear pool to which I could jump from my bedroom window. The revitalizing effect of an early morning plunge, I had found by long experience, was beyond comparison the best antidote against the insidious absinthe poisoning paralyzing body and brain at the end of the night.

A couple of hundred yards further down the stream took a swift run through a verdant tunnel of fern fronds and overhanging palm leaves, before it leaped in a fine compact spout of green and white over the verge of a creeper-clad cliff, to a lucent hyacinth-lined basin thirty feet below. From there, quieter of mood and mind after its hillside gambols, it meandered by pleasant reaches across a broad belt of shimmering sugar cane, beyond which it disappeared in tangled growth of primeval bush. By dark ways and devious, broadening and deepening in the lower levels, it finally lost itself in the mangrove swamp that fringed the sea fifteen miles to the northward.

I mention this stream particularly because of the part it was destined to play in the final act of the drama of the Cora Andrews. For a similar reason it may be in order to say a few words about the great flume, which took off from the stream at the pool below the waterfall and led down to the big central sugar mill on the shore of the first deeply indented bay north of Townsville. It was built, following the successful Hawaiian practice, for the purpose of floating the cut cane from the fields to the mill, a method which, wherever the natural conditions were suited to it, had proved both cheaper and more expeditious than the old system of transporting the succulent stalks by tramway and bullock carts.

The flume itself was built of imported Oregon pine planks, and was carried on a trestle of rough-hewn blue-gum and jarra trunks. In section, the box of the flume was about four feet wide by three feet deep. The water it carried-about a quarter of the normal flow of the stream that fed it-varied in depth according to its velocity. The latter, of course, depended upon the grade of the flume, this varying from two or three per cent. in the broad uppe

r valley to all of fifteen per cent. in a couple of short steep pitches near the coast.

I was interested in this flume from the first time I saw it. In the course of a visit to Hawaii some years previously, I had found no end of sport in what was called "sugar-fluming"-riding from the mountainside plantations down to the mills seated on a water-propelled bundle of sugar-cane. On my inquiring of the local manager if the highly diverting stunt was practicable here, he had answered with a most emphatic negative. "You could go down the flume all right," he said, "but the volume of water is so great that you could not stop yourself by holding to the sides even where the grades are the slightest. On the sharp inclines, where the flume runs down to the mill, a team of bullocks couldn't hold you back. Only one man ever tried the feat deliberately, and we were picking fragments of him out of the bagasse for a month. Also spoiled a lot of sugar-everything from the juice in the vats to the unfinished article in the centrifugals had to be thrown away. Same thing has had to be done on the several occasions coolies have fallen into the flume while at work. Jolly costly accidents for the company. I hope that you're not contemplating...."

I hastened to assure him that, after what he had told me, I most certainly had ceased any contemplations I might have allowed myself to indulge in up to then. Still I couldn't help picturing in my mind what sport could be got out of the thing if only some sort of buffer were rigged up at the lower end. That prompted me, a day or two after I was settled in the bungalow and while time was still hanging on my hands, to put my horse down the bridle-path along the flume when I went out for a ride in the cool of the afternoon. After that I lost all interest in "sugar-fluming" as a sport. It was just conceivable that a man of great strength and agility might stop himself by gripping the sides of the flume at several points in the first five or six miles, but from where the sharp descent to the coast began I was inclined to agree with the manager's statement, that the drag of a man's body in the pull of the racing stream would take a team of bullocks off their feet.

I dismounted and leaned over the edge of the flume where it ran through a narrow cut in the rock at the brow of the great basaltic cliff that followed the curve of the beach of the bay. This was the upper end of the first of the two sharp drops and the water, which was running within a foot of the top of the flume a hundred yards above, and here flattened down to a scant six inches in the bottom, grey-green and solid like a great endless belt of flying steel. The butt of my riding-whip was all but jerked from my hand as I touched it lightly to the speeding water, and a curving fan of spray was projected up into my face and over the sides. The evidence of such a solidity of kick in running water seemed almost beyond belief, until I recalled having heard how a jet escaping from the pressure pipe of a hydro-electric plant somewhere in the American West had penetrated a man's body, cleanly, like an arrow.

My desire to ride the flume died then and there, though even yet I couldn't help regretting that there wasn't a level stretch above the jump-off, where a man could check his headway and crawl out. It would have been rattling good sport down to there, but beyond-sheer suicide. There was, it is true, a couple of hundred yards of perhaps five per cent. grade between the first steep pitch over the edge of the cliff, and a second one, even steeper, that seemed to run almost directly upon the roaring, churning mass of cane-crushing machinery that began at the upper end of the big mill. Even there the water was lightning-swift, however, so that a man, once over the edge of the first pitch, looked to be less than a thousand-to-one shot in bringing up before going on into the second. And that would have been-how was it the manager put it?-more "spoiled sugar"-another "jolly costly accident for the company."

The bridle-path I had been following continued on along the flume to the mill, but, desiring to strike the main highway to Townsville as quickly as possible, I put my sure-footed little Timor mare down what appeared to be an abandoned road graded into the face of the cliff. When I finally came out in the rear of what was plainly the remains of an ancient water-driven cane-crushing mill, I realized that the old grade by which I had descended must have been the bullock-cart road from the plantation. The mill was a picturesque old ruin, with its mossy water-wheel, crumbling roof and sprawling pier, and I made mental note of the lovely little cove as a place well worth returning to with paintbox and easel when opportunity offered.

Returning through the town, I had the good luck to be hailed from the sidewalk by my bluff old friend, Captain "Choppy" Tancred. He was southbound with the Utupua again, he said, but she was going to go to drydock immediately on arrival in Sydney and he was going to command the Mambare-a new steamer just turned out on the Clyde for the company-and start north the following day. It was hard luck missing his week at home with the wife and nippers at Manley, but his promotion to a ship on the Singapore run was some consolation. He would be back in Townsville again in a little over a week, and, as he had a lot of sugar to load for the Straits, hoped to have the time for a good yarn with me. It must have been more from habit than anything else (for the old boy should have read enough about me in the papers by this time to be convinced that I was not a fugitive from justice), that he repeated his injunction that I must not fail to let him know if there was ever anything he could do for me-"ye'll ken wha' I mean, lad." And, equally from habit, I assured him that I "kenned wha'," and would not fail to call upon him in my extremity.

As I had nothing but what I had brought with me on the steamer to move, and as the house was practically ready for occupancy, I was comfortably settled in my hillside bungalow at the end of the third day after our arrival from the south. A Chinese cook and house-boy, a Hindu groom, a couple of New Hebridean blacks as roustabouts, and Ranga as general factotum, gave me a very tidy and self-contained establishment. Ranga I had taken to at once. He was quick-minded and quick-handed, extremely good-natured, and ready to do anything at any time of the day or night. I resolved to keep him with me indefinitely as a personal servant-that is, if it fell in with his own inclinations after he had given me a fair trial.

I made a number of rather successful studies of Ranga by way of getting my hand in again, and that suggested that it might be profitable to put in the days of waiting by trying what could be done along the same lines with the others who were to figure in the picture. Allen, although busy with his secret training of the Oakes colt (all unknown even to the good missionary, by the way, who thought that "Slant" was merely borrowing the gelding for his morning ride), found time to come up and give me several sittings. It was easy to see that he hated the whole thing, and was only going through with it as a part of the bargain with Rona. The latter, after promising me faithfully to come, was reported missing on all of the three occasions I sent the trap for her. As her whim was at the bottom of the whole mad plan, I was not a little mystified at the girl's action. Also, as it was she whom I was most anxious to do full justice to in the picture, I was a good deal annoyed. Allen had no explanation or excuse to offer for her, saying the girl had him pocketed at every turn anyhow, but volunteered to try and round her up for me himself as soon as the Planters' Handicap was out of the way, and he had a bit more time on his hands. For all of his light way of speaking, I knew that he was as hard hit as ever, and had thrown himself into the training of the "Missionary Colt" only to give him something else to think about.

Two unostentatious acts of kindness on the part of Allen in the course of the week which followed added fresh refulgency to his halo of popularity. Townsville had gone madder than ever about him following his sudden and unexpected return from the south, and the same appeared to be true of the rest of the country. In all sincerity, he had tried to do both of the things I have referred to strictly on the quiet, and that they became public was only a consequence of the zeal of the fresh army of "war correspondents" that had been rushed north again to camp upon the hero's trail.

One of Allen's little kindnesses was an appeal, in his own name, to the Governor of Western Australia to have dismissed the proceedings that had been instituted to bring "Squid" Saunders back to be locked up for the twenty-three and a half years which still remained to be served of his original twenty-five-year sentence. This appeal was accompanied by a promise to send the ex-convict, immediately he was released, back to the Islands at Allen's expense.

Doubtless the momentary magic of Allen's name had something to do with the Westralian Governor's complaisance. In any event, "Squid" Saunders was out of jail and off as a first-class passenger on one of the Solomon Island boats inside of a week. Allen, the correspondents were not long in learning, had bought the ticket, footed all of the very sizable telegraph bills, and given the purser of the steamer a hundred pounds in gold to be handed to "Squid" when he was disembarked at Bougainville. The correspondents, long baulked of any real "Allen stuff," went to that story like hungry hounds.

But scarcely was the "Squid" Saunders story onto the wires before it was followed by the news of Allen's astonishing win of the Planters' Handicap with the rank outsider, Yusuf, at two-hundred-to-one. That win was spectacular enough in itself, but when, on the heels of it, was flashed the word that not only the thousand-guinea purse hung up for the race, but approximately twenty-five hundred pounds paid to Allen by the "tote" as well, had been donated to the owner of Yusuf to forward the realization of his long-cherished dream-the erection of a modern medical mission in Fiji-the climax was capped. Australia echoed anew with acclaim of the "philanthropist hero" (it was now), and press and pulpit moralized and maundered afresh on the Hon. Hartley Allen's goodness of heart and greatness of soul. The clamour of the people of the country to see their idol in the flesh fused the Townsville wires from every direction. It was all very well that the incomparable heroism of the saving of the Cora Andrews should be perpetuated upon canvas, but why should the pushful American artist drag the hero off before his own people had a chance to do him homage? Let the artist rise to the occasion with a display of that famous "Yankee hustle" they had heard so much about and get the job over "right quick." It was the man himself they wanted; let the picture wait if it couldn't be finished straightaway!

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