THE ISLAND

About an hour before noon Floyd, relinquishing the tiller, stood up
and, supporting himself by the mast, looked around. Then, sheltering
his eyes with his hand, he fixed his gaze straight ahead.

The sea line at one point was broken, and the sky just above the broken
point had a curious and brilliant paleness.

Once before he had seen a bit of sky like that, and he guessed it at
once to be the reflection cast upward from a lagoon island.

The sight of it dried his lips and made the sweat stand out on the
palms of his hands; then, taking his place again at the tiller, he
resumed his course.

The boat was making about three knots, and he reckoned that the island
could not be more than ten miles away. Were bad weather suddenly to
spring on him Pacific fashion, he might either be driven out of reach
of the shelter before him or sunk. But the wind held fair and steady
with no sign of squalls, and now, when he looked again, he could see
the palm-tree tops raised high above the water, and–what was that–a
ship?

The masts of a ship, all aslant, showed thready near the palms. She was
wrecked–of that there could be no manner of doubt.

The shimmer of the sea cut off everything but the palm tops, the palm
stems, and the masts; they seemed based on air.

In an hour, standing up again, Floyd made out the whole position
distinctly.

The island that lay before him was simply a huge ring of coral clipping
a lagoon a mile or more in diameter, as he afterward discovered. It
was not an even ring; here and there it swelled out into great spaces
covered with palms and artus and hotoo trees. Near the break in the
reef for which he was now steering, piled up on the coral literally
high and dry, lay the carcass of what had recently been a schooner of
some two hundred tons.

She must have been sent right up by some great lift of the sea.

As he drew near he could see that the planking had been literally
stripped off her from a huge space reaching from the stern post almost
to midship; there was no rudder; the sails, he thought, had either
blown away or flogged themselves to pieces, taking with them gaffs
and booms. Then he remembered that the masts, still standing by some
miracle, would certainly have snapped like carrots had sail enough been
on her to carry away the spars like that. He could not tell. The thing
hypnotized him as he watched it, his hand on the tiller and the opening
of the reef before him.

Though the sea was as calm as the Pacific can ever be, a steady surf
was breaking on the reef. The boom of it came to him now against the
wind, and the boat heaved to the short sea made by the resistance of
the great coral breakwater.

It was like the bourdon note of an organ, and though it swelled and
sank it never ceased, for it was the tune that ringed forever the whole
four-mile circuit of the atoll.

Then as he passed the coral piers and opened the lagoon, the sound of
the surf grew less loud and the boat went on an even keel.

Before him lay the great blue pond, calm as a summer lake; the shore
surrounding it showed long beaches of salt-white coral sand and great
spaces of foliage; palms and breadfruit, mammee apple bushes and cane,
colonies of trees all moving, gently pressed upon by the warm trade
wind, whose breath made violet meadows on the broad lagoon.

It was the most extraordinary place in the world.

It had a touch of the ornamental, as though some city more vast and
wealthy and populous than any city we know of had decreed this great
space of water as a pleasure lake, ordered the white of sand and
green of foliage, emerald of shallow water and blue of deep, and then
vanished, leaving its pleasure place to the wastes of ocean.

The water at the opening of the lagoon was very deep, but inside it
shoaled rapidly, and Floyd, glancing over the thwart, saw the white
sand patches and coral lumps of the lagoon floor almost as clearly as
though he were gliding over them through air.

He swept the circular beach with a glance, flung up his hand to shade
his eyes, and then with a shout put the helm over and hauled the sheet
to port.

Away on the beach to the right something flapped; it was the sailcloth
of a rudely made tent, and by the tent, waving its arm, stood the
figure of a man; by the man, squatting on the beach sand, was another
figure, small and difficult to distinguish.

Floyd instantly connected these figures with the wreck; they were
evidently the remains of the shipwrecked crew.

As he drew closer the man on the beach showed up more clearly–a
bronzed and bearded man in dubiously white clothes, and the figure
seated on the sand revealed itself as a girl; she was almost as dark as
the man, and she was seated with her hands clasping her knees.

He unstepped the mast and took to the sculls; a minute later the stem
of the boat was grinding the sand of the beach, and Floyd was over the
side helping to pull her up.

Before they exchanged a word they pulled her up sufficiently to keep
her from drifting off with the outgoing tide. It was easy to see they
were sailors.

“She’s all right,” said the bearded man; “and where in the name of
everything have you come from?”

Floyd flung both hands on the shoulders of the other. It was not till
this moment that he had borne in on him the frightful loneliness and
the fate from which he had escaped.

“I’d never hoped to see a living man again,” said he. “Never, never,
never! You’re real, aren’t you? Don’t mind me. I’m half cracked; your
fist–there–I’m better now.”

“Wrecked?” said the bearded man.

“Yes; wrecked, burned out. The _Cormorant_ was the name, bound from
Frisco to Papeetong; drink and fire did for us—-”

He stopped short. He had been staring at the girl. She had shifted
her position only slightly, and she was looking at him with eyes that
showed little interest and less emotion–the eyes of a person who is
gazing at shapes in a fire or at some object a great distance off.

She was a Polynesian–a wonderfully pretty girl, almost a child,
honey-colored, with a string of scarlet beads showing on her neck about
the scanty garment that covered her, and with a scarlet flower in her
jet-black hair.

It was a flower of the hibiscus that grew in profusion in all the
groves of the atoll.

“That’s Isbel,” said the bearded man. “Kanaka, called after the place
she came from. Isbel Island in the Marshalls. I’m Schumer, trader
and part owner of the _Tonga_. There she is”–jerking his thumb at
the wreck. “Hove up in a gale a month ago; we’ve been here a month;
every man jack drowned but me and Isbel. I’ve salved a bit of the
cargo–foodstuffs and suchlike. What’s your name?”

“Floyd.”

“Well, that’s as good as any other name in these parts, anyhow.”

He sat down on the sand near the girl, and Floyd did likewise. Then
Schumer, taking a pipe and some tobacco from his pocket, began to
smoke. He talked all the time.

“We’ve rigged up a bit of a tent. Isbel prefers to sleep out in the
open. Kanaka. Not much between them and beasts except the hide. Well,
tell us about yourself. What’s the name of the schooner did you say
was burned?”

Floyd told; told the whole story while Schumer listened, smoking,
lolling on his back and cutting in every now and then with a question.

“Well,” said he, when the other had finished, “that lays over most
yarns I’ve heard. And what’s become of that boatload of Kanakas, I
wonder? Starved out most likely. Good for you they took their hook;
good for me, too, for now we’ve got your boat, and a boat’s a handy
thing. We can get across the lagoon easy, for there’s no getting round
on foot beyond that clump of cocoanuts on the shore edge there. There’s
a quarter mile or so of broken coral all that way; razors ain’t in it
beside broken coral. We can fish, too, and it may be handy to have
a boat if we sight a ship, though this island is clean out of trade
tracks. We were blown two hundred miles from our course.”

“What was your cargo?” asked Floyd.

“Printed stuffs, tinware, and general trade; a missionary–he was
washed overboard–and several passenger Kanakas under him. Isbel
belonged to his lot. She can talk English–can’t you, Isbel?”

“Yes,” replied the girl.

It was the first thing she had uttered, and Floyd noticed the softness
of her voice and the way she avoided the “y,” or rather the hardness of
it, without breaking the word or mutilating it.

“It was the storm of storms,” said Schumer; “there we were, running
before it with scarcely a rag of canvas set and every wave threatenin’
to be our last, every man jack on deck clinging to whatever he
could hold when the great smash came. I don’t know how I escaped.
Providence, mostlike–same with Isbel, though I guess she’s so little
account she escaped the way some did in the earthquake out in Java
three years ago. I saw a whole family flattened out under their own
roof and a basket of kittens saved. It’s that way things work in this
world.”

“Well,” said Floyd, lying on his back on the sand–there was shade here
from the trees–“I’m jolly glad you were saved. Good Lord, it’s only
coming on me now, the whole business; it’s just as if one had escaped
from the end of the world. It’s not good to be drifting about in a boat
alone.”

Schumer agreed.

Floyd had now taken stock of his new companion. He was a powerfully
built man with a bold and daring face, a trifle hard, perhaps–hard
certainly one would say in striking a bargain; he was tanned by sun
and wind, and despite his name he spoke English like an Englishman;
sometimes the faintest trace of an American accent was perceptible,
and sometimes the inimitable American cast of words lending color and
picture to his conversation.

Floyd liked him.

“Well,” said Schumer, rising up, “let’s go and have a look at the
old hulk; there’s some more stuff worth salving–not that if I had a
derrick and more boats and a ship to lade the stuff in I wouldn’t salve
the lot. By the way, what did you bring off in that boat of yours?”

“There’s some biscuits and canned stuff, and a tin box with the ship’s
papers and some money–nothing much.”

“Money, did you say–how much?”

Floyd told him.

“Well,” said Schumer, “money’s not of any use to us here–wish it was;
all the same, it’s worth having, for there’s no knowing the moment the
door may be opened for us to get out of here.”

He led the way toward the wreck, Floyd and Isbel following.

The coral islands of the Pacific may be roughly divided into two
classes: compound islands–that is to say, islands made of solid land
and surrounded by a coral ring or breakwater, and simple islands or
atolls–that is, simple rings of coral inclosing lagoons.

Then we have occasionally a third variety, an atoll island in whose
lagoon one finds several islets.

This island that Floyd had struck was of the simple variety; the lagoon
was of an irregular form, circular as a whole, yet here and there
making bays in the coral.

The coral ring had four definite areas upon which vegetation
flourished; one might say that the ring inclosing the lagoon consisted
of four islands, each joined to each by naked coral.

The _Tonga_ had been lifted by one great heave of the sea right onto
the raw coral of the northern pier of the reef. It was not so great
a feat, after all, for the reef was lower than elsewhere, and ships
before this have been lifted over atoll reefs and deposited upside down
in lagoons.

The _Tonga_ was not upside down, but she was broken fore and aft, and
the fact that her masts were still standing formed another incident in
that category of strange incidents–the story of the power of the sea.

The rudder had been plucked off and lay there like a great barn door
flung down on the coral; the pintles were gone as though they had been
torn from the wood by forceps; the planking, as I have already said,
was stripped from the port side right to midships; she lay with a list
to port, and through the great gaping wound where the ribs of the
vessel showed like the ribs of a half-devoured carcass, the contents
of the trade room and cabin could be seen half shed on the coral, half
still contained.

Bales of print, kegs and cases, burst boxes of canned provisions, bird
cages, trade gin, some cases of cheap rifles destined for the King of
Apaka, who was in revolt against German rule, and who was anxiously
awaiting the consignment–these and twenty more varieties of things lay
there festering in the sun, watched by the sea birds and blown upon by
the wind.

“Good heavens,” said Floyd, “what a spill!”

“It’s just that,” said Schumer, “and it’s not good to see so much stuff
gone to waste, especially when one’s money has paid for it, or part
paid for it. It wasn’t all my venture. There’s a man at Sydney who’s my
partner. Well, there’s no use crying over spilled goods; let’s try and
do what we can. Now you are here we may be able to salve more of the
stuff than I had hoped. First thing is to get some of the perishables
under shade. The sun doesn’t hurt rifles, but it doesn’t improve prints
and provisions.”

“I’ll help,” said Floyd; “anything’s better than doing nothing.”

“Then come along, my son,” replied Schumer. “Claw hold of the other end
of this case, and you, Isbel, follow along with that mat of rice.”

A few mats of rice had been among the cargo of the _Tonga_, and though
here on the island there was evidence of an abundance of food, Schumer
seemed to pay especial attention to the salving of provisions. Perhaps
with that keen brain of his, which had carried him so far in life
against tremendous odds, he foresaw the time when these same provisions
would be more valuable as a trade asset than minted gold.

They worked for several hours, and then knocked off and came back to
where the tent was pitched.

Schumer proceeded to light a fire, while Floyd and Isbel got together
the things for supper.

Schumer the day before had managed to catch a small turtle, and he
now set to to grill some of the flesh. He also boiled some water for
coffee, and in half an hour Floyd found himself before the best supper
he had ever sat down to.

“It’s good for us there’s water here,” said Schumer, when they had
finished. “You see, if this island had been a ring of coral hove up out
of the sea there wouldn’t have been any natural water here, but it’s
not. It’s my belief it’s more a ring of mountaintops just showing with
coral bridging between; anyhow, there’s lots of water–at least enough
for us. Well, we’ll take your boat out in the morning and have a good
look at the lagoon, and see what we can find in those bays over there.
I’ve got some fishing tackle and we can fish–shellfish makes good
bait; there’s no fishing of any account to be had on the shore edge,
but there’s big things to be done out in the lagoon.”

He filled his pipe and lit it, and they smoked for a while in silence.
The sun was setting, and from the great ring of coral came the sound
of the surf, continuous, dreamy and less loud to the ears of Floyd
than when he had first landed. In a little time he would not hear it;
or, rather, he would not notice; it was one of the conditions of life
here, a part of the strangeness of this strange place where perfect
peace dwelt forever ringed around by the murmur of the sea.

“See here,” said Schumer, after a few minutes’ silence; “what about
that money you said you had in the boat?”

“You mean the ship’s money and papers?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, they’re in the boat still,” said Floyd, rising up.

He went to the boat where she lay high and dry on the sand, and took
out the tin box.

He brought it back to where Schumer and Isbel were sitting by the
embers of the fire, and, taking his place on the sand beside them,
opened the box and took out the bag of sovereigns.

He undid the string and poured the contents of the bag onto the hard
sand of the beach.

There were two hundred and ten sovereigns–as they afterward
counted–and the moon, which had just pushed up its face over the
eastern reef edge, lit the pile which Floyd was now stirring with his
finger, while Schumer, who had drawn himself closer on his elbow,
looked on without a word. Isbel had drawn closer, too.

She had spoken very little as yet, and when she spoke it was a pleasure
to listen.

To attempt the reproduction of Polynesian speech is fatal, and the
authors who attempt it succeed in producing only a disgusting form of
pidgin English. It is impossible to reproduce the inflections, the
softness, the timbre, the soul of it. It is equally impossible to
reproduce the infantile French of the West Indies.

Isbel’s language was the human equivalent of the language of the
soft-voiced birds; more than that, the missionary who had brought her
up had guarded her from the vile “savvee” and “um” and “allee same”
that foul the speech of the lower natives.

How much the missionary teaching had bent her mind to Eastern ideals or
influenced her nature it would be impossible to say. There was a great
deal of mystery about Isbel, centuries and centuries of the unknown and
unrealized gazing from those eyes so dark and unfathomable.

“Well,” said Schumer, breaking the silence at last, “that’s a decent
pile, and what are you going to do with it?”

“Well, it’s Coxon’s,” said Floyd, “and now he’s dead it will belong to
his next of kin; he hadn’t a wife and family, so he told me, but he’s
sure to have relations.”

“Every man has who dies worth a cent,” said Schumer. “Question is how
are you to find them, and whether they’ll thank you if you do find
them, or swear that you’ve nailed half the boodle. You said the chap
that fired the schooner was Coxon’s brother-in-law; well, it ‘pears to
me you’ve suffered a good bit from his relations already, and deserve
some recompense. If I were you I’d put those papers in the fire and the
money in your pocket–however, that’s your affair, not mine.”

Floyd put papers and money back in the tin box.

“I’ll put them in the tent for the present,” said he; “there’s lots of
time to think over the matter, and little chance enough to act in it.”

“Well,” said Schumer, “you can do as you please when the time
comes–and I wish it would come. I’m about sick of hanging here doing
nothing. I’m going to turn in. I sleep in the tent, and there’s room
for you, too. Isbel has made a wigwam in the bush–the boat’s all
right; she’s high above the level of the tide.”

Half an hour later the great moon, swinging above the island, showed
nothing but the embers of the fire, the trodden sand and the tent;
the human beings whom the Fates had brought together on this lost and
lonely spot had vanished, touched by sleep, just as men vanish from the
world when touched by Death.