THE SECRET OF THE LAGOON

Floyd awoke shortly after sunup.

The gulls were shouting and flying against the blaze of the sunrise,
fleeting like snowflakes across the blue sky beyond the reef opening,
and fishing at the pierheads.

When the great lagoon was emptying or filling to the tide, the water
at the pierheads went like a mill race; at slack water it lay gently
flowing to the swell of the outside sea as now.

Floyd came from under the tent, glanced round him, stretched himself,
and then crossed the reef to the outer beach, where the breakers were
coming in–the eternal breakers of the Pacific, leisurely, monotonous,
rhythmical, filling the air with their sound and spindrift, their ozone
and life.

Nothing could be more extraordinary than the contrast between the inner
beach and the outer beach of the island. You stood now facing a great
lake, calm and colored with all the blues and greens of tropical water
that varies in depth, and now, crossing the reef, you stood on the
shore of a thunderous sea.

Floyd stripped himself of his clothes and went into the surf. When he
had bathed and dried himself in the sun, he returned to the camp, where
he found Schumer lighting the fire and Isbel preparing breakfast. They
greeted him and he fell to to help.

He felt for the moment gay; the brightness, the sense of early morning,
the sea breeze and the crying gulls all raised his spirits to the
highest pitch.

Even Schumer, older and unenthusiastic to everything but trade, seemed
more cheerful than usual.

“We’ll take the boat now,” said he, when breakfast was finished,
“and prospect the lagoon. We want to get soundings, anyhow, in case
a ship should come and may want anchorage inside. This island isn’t
charted–at least it’s not on the British admiralty charts. I have the
_Tonga_ charts in the tent, and they make it all clear water from the
spot where the hurricane took us to three hundred miles south, and we
didn’t run more than a hundred and fifty before we tripped over the
reef.

“South of the three-hundred-mile limit there’s a group of small
islands, but they are not atolls. Now we’re clear out of trade tracks
and unknown, though you may be sure whalers have been here, for there’s
nowhere in the Pacific that whalers haven’t pushed their noses, and
whalers are useless to us. We don’t want any blubber tanks showing
their dirty hulls here; if they took us aboard they would drop us again
at any decent port till after, maybe, a three years’ cruise, and then
they’d land us God knows where, crippled with work and tuppence in our
pockets. No, sir, if any dirty whalers show their faces here they’ll
get bullets before they get us on board. Well, come on and help float
the boat.”

They got the boat off, and in a few minutes were out in the lagoon,
Isbel forward, Floyd at the sculls, and Schumer in the stern sheets.

“There’s breeze enough for the sail,” said Schumer, when they were a
hundred yards or so out. “Shove the mast up, and we’ll take it easy. I
want to have a full look at the floor of this lagoon, and take my time
over it.”

Floyd took in the sculls, and, helped by Isbel, who seemed to have a
good knowledge of boat craft, got the mast stepped. Then they shook the
sail out, and the boat scarcely heeling to the gentle breeze, they made
straight across the stretch of water between them and the northernmost
beach.

The floor of the lagoon was not of equal depth; near the break in the
reef it was thirty-fathom water, shoaling swiftly to ten and five.
The whole western half of the lagoon was three fathoms and under. At
several places in this shallow zone the coral floor rose sharply and
nearly reached the surface. It was necessary, indeed, to unstep the
mast and take to the sculls, while Isbel, leaning over the bow, conned
them.

The water was so clear that the shadow of the boat showed hard on the
sand patches; looking down, the eye was held by a thousand things
beautiful and strange. Color dwells like a wizard in tropical and
subtropical waters; it seems inherent in those seas. Shells, fish, and
coral all are gorgeous, and more than gorgeous–exquisite. Here seem to
lie the remnants of a world more beautiful than any world we know–the
ruins of a paradise.

Coral alone presents to us a whole world of art; its colors and its
forms are infinite, and the artists of Paris or Tokyo make nothing
more beautiful than the million art treasures eternally being formed
in the depths and the shallows of the sea. Not only in the Pacific,
but the Atlantic, not only in the Atlantic, but the Indian Ocean, from
three-fathom water to a mile deep the construction of the beautiful is
eternally in progress, unviewed and almost unknown.

Floyd, resting on his oars now and then, looked over into the luminous
depths where flights of painted fish passed, their shadows following
them over the sand patches and brain coral.

Here and there were streaks of dead and rotten coral of a seaweed
brown, and here and there veritable gardens of color. Great shells
moved about on the sand patches, crabs scurried hither and thither,
globe-shaped jellyfish passed clear as glass, showing up for the
moment by reflected light, and then vanishing like ghosts. Schumer,
his battered old panama tilted back to protect his neck from the sun,
seemed absorbed in the things below; he spoke scarcely a word, unless
to give direction to the rower; Isbel, heedless of the sun, was equally
absorbed. Always on the lookout for the shoal water, she said nothing
except to give the direction “To the right,” “To the left,” and on the
heaving of a sudden rock up through the brilliant water, “Ah, stop
hard!”

The whole of this western part of the lagoon was very difficult water;
unless buoyed it would be utterly unnavigable by a ship even of small
tonnage.

Schumer, having explored the northernmost part of this zone, gave
directions to Floyd to pull farther south.

They had scarcely entered this area when Floyd’s attention became
attracted to his companion. Schumer, leaning over the side and holding
the thwart with his left hand, suddenly became rigid. The muscles of
his neck stood out stiff, and his hand seemed trying to crush the wood
of the thwart.

Then he turned with a great cry:

“Shell! Acres of shell–pearls! We’ve struck it!” Floyd, as excited as
Schumer, drew in his sculls and looked over.

Fortune wears many cloaks, but her ugliest is formed of oysters. As far
as Floyd could see, to right, to left, ahead, and astern, the floor of
the lagoon was an oyster bed; all beauty of coral had vanished, and the
water seemed deserted even by the colored fish that haunted the deeper
parts of the lagoon.

“Row on,” said Schumer; “let’s see how far it stretches. It is the
biggest find I ever expected to strike. I fancied there might be shell,
I was on the lookout for shell, but it was only an idea of mine, and
now it’s here, a fortune right in our hands.”

Floyd got out the sculls and the boat moved south.

Schumer was right when he had said “acres of shell.” An hour’s
prospecting gave them the fact that the whole southern area of this the
western portion of the lagoon was shell. There were three main beds
with coral between, millions and millions of oysters, tons upon tons of
shell, and no man could say the possibilities in the way of pearls.

When they had finished prospecting they beached the boat, and taking
shelter from the sun under the shade of a little grove of artus and
pura trees, set to on the provisions they had brought with them.

Right across the lagoon from where they sat they could see their
camping place and the tent, the wreck, and the opening in the reef all
in the blue weather, and beyond the opening in the reef a glimpse of
the great Pacific and the fringe of pearl-white clouds on the horizon.

“Well,” said Schumer, as they finished their meal, “the stuff is there
right enough, and it only comes now to the question of lifting it. We
have no labor, or none to speak of. Of course, we’ll dredge and dive
so as to get as much samples as we can, but we want twenty men on the
work, and I don’t see how we’re to do it without letting others into
the secret. It’s this way: Some time or another a vessel is sure to
happen along here and take us off; well, if it does we must keep mum.
Our object will be to get to Frisco or Sydney, and there get hold
of some chap with money and form a little syndicate. That’ll water
the profits considerable; he’ll want half at least. But there you
are–what’s to be done?”

“Nothing,” said Floyd; “we can’t move without labor, and even that’s no
use without a ship. To rig an expedition up at Frisco or Sydney will
cost a lot, and you may be sure any speculator who puts his money into
the thing will want to gobble most of the profits.”

“Before we’d let him into the know we’d make him sign a paper,” said
Schumer, “stating his acceptance of our terms, and then we’d make him
keep his bond with a pistol to his head. I don’t trust the law alone,
but the law backed by a derringer makes a pretty good security.”

As Schumer spoke, Floyd, who was watching his profile cut hard against
the sky, noticed for the first time the flatness of the cheek bones
and the relationship between the nose and chin.

Schumer was a very quiet man in his speech and manner, yet there was
about him an assured confidence speaking of great reserves of energy;
and now for the first time, as though the thought of being robbed of
his treasure had revealed it, there peeped out a new man; something of
the bird of prey showed in that profile, something of the desperado
found echo in his voice.

“Well,” said Floyd, “there’s no use in making plans till we have
something to go on. Let’s settle on our immediate business; we’ll have
to get oysters up and rot them in the sun to see if there’s any show
of pearls, and it seems to me that we are very well placed for that.
Suppose a ship comes into the lagoon; well, she can’t come within a
mile of this beach on account of the shoal water, and she won’t be able
to see our work. I propose we stick to our old camp by the wreck, and
come here every day to work. We can leave Isbel on guard at the camp,
and if she sights a ship she can light a fire to give us warning.”

“That’s sense,” replied Schumer, who had become himself again. “We can
rot the oysters on the weather side of the reef, and we’ll set to work
on the business to-morrow morning. Let’s get back now to the camp. I’m
going to fix up a dredge. Did I tell you I was a bit of an engineer?
I’ve had to be a bit of everything this time or that. I once edited a
paper and wrote it mostly, from the poetry column to the produce. I
guess I’d have written books if my lines had been cast in quiet waters.
Trade has always kept me going, and here where there’s palm trees and
blue water enough trade turns up in oysters.”

His eyes were fixed across the lagoon on the palms near the wreck; the
hawk-like look had vanished, and he murmured half to himself the verse
of Scheffel:

“_Zw√∂lf Palmen ragten am Meeresstrand
Um eine alte Cisterne._”

It was “_Dun Tode Nah_” he was repeating, and Floyd, who did not know
the verse, knew the language.

“You speak German?” said he.

“My father was a German,” replied Schumer. “I speak four languages and
half a dozen Polynesian dialects. One has to. Well, shall we get back?
There is nothing more to be done here for the present.”