RISK OF WAR

“You can’t get pearls from oysters till the oysters are rotten,” said
Schumer next morning, as they sat after breakfast consulting on the
day’s work. “Of course, you could take every individual fresh oyster
and hunt under its beard; but you know how an oyster sticks to its
shell even after it is opened, and you can fancy the work it would
be. Once they are decayed they are mushy, and the work is easy though
it’s not pleasant. But it’s surprising how quick you get used to it.
We worked pretty hard yesterday, and I propose to take it easy this
morning, and then a bit later on I want to have a regular overhaul of
the saloon and trade room of the old _Tonga_. We have cleared the way
pretty well, but I’ve been so busy catching stores in the bush that
I’ve never had time for an overhaul. You see there was only Isbel and
me to do the job. I expect the oysters we laid out yesterday will be
fit to work on to-morrow.”

“You’ve done this pearl business before,” said Floyd.

Schumer laughed.

“I have helped in pearling, if that’s what you mean, but I have never
had any luck. I once had my hand on a fortune in pearls, but it did not
come off.

“There was a French island in these seas, no matter where–it wasn’t
a thousand miles from the Marquesas. It was a double lagoon island,
shaped like an hourglass; no use to look at, not enough trees to give
any amount of copra. It had done a little business in sandalwood in
the old days, but that was all gone. But the place wasn’t deserted.
There was an old Frenchman in charge; he had rented it under the French
government, and he lived there with his two sons, and seemed happy
enough, though doing next to no trade.

“I was in the outer lagoon twice as supercargo of a trading schooner;
once we put in for water, and the second time we called on the chance
of picking up a little copra. Lefarge was the old man’s name, and he
was a great fisherman; said he lived there mostly for the fishing and
to have an easy life.

“Yet somehow he struck me as a man who would not be content to spend
his time fishing and sitting in the sun, and his two boys struck me the
same.

“When I wanted to explore the island and get round by the reef to the
main lagoon he said that was forbidden, the natives held it taboo to
white men, and so on.

“Then I began to suspect, and the only one thing I could suspect was
shell, and maybe pearls.

“The more I thought of it the more sure I was; but, of course, I could
do nothing; the place was his, and whatever it held, and we were
peaceful traders, not pirates. So, when we had loaded with all the
copra he could give us, out we put, wishing him good health and good
luck in his fishing.

“Two days from the island we met a mail brigantine, and she signaled
us that war had been declared between France and Germany, and our
captain–Max Schuster was his name–began to swear, for we were bound
for the Marquesas, which are French, and we’d have to alter our course
and lose consignments and trade, and he sat down on a mooring bit, and
cursed war and the French till I took him by the arm and led him down
the saloon and explained what was in my mind.

“I told him of my suspicions about the island, and he pricked up his
ears. Then, when I had been talking to him about ten minutes and
explaining and arguing, he suddenly took fire.

“It’s surprising how a dull man will refuse to be convinced–_won’t_
see, till all at once, when he does see, he’ll rush at what you show
him harder than the best.

“Schuster, when he saw fully the advantage of his position, little
risk, and everything to gain, rushed up on deck. In less than five
minutes the schooner was showing her tail to the Marquesas and making a
long board for the island.

“Our crew were mostly Swedes, Kanakas, and an Irishman, and when they
heard the news that Schuster had to tell them they were his to a man.
The French were not much in favor just then; they had Noumea tacked
on to their name, and the ordinary sailor loves a bit of a fight or
any break in the monotony of sea life. We had plenty of trade rifles,
Albinis–not the best sort of rifle, but good enough for us–and plenty
of ammunition.

“We lifted the island at dawn on the second day, and were anchored in
the lagoon a few hours later.

“Old Lefarge was on the beach tinkering a canoe. He didn’t seem
surprised to see us come in with the German flag flying at the peak,
nor did his sons, who came out of the frame house set back among the
bushes. They thought we had sickness or something on board, for they
made no offer to put out to us. We lowered a boat on the port side,
which was the side away from the beach, and got our men in and the
rifles, and then rowed ashore.

“When they saw us landing they took fright, but our men covered them
with their rifles, and Schuster and I came up to the old man and his
sons and told them that war was declared, and that they were prisoners.

“They could do nothing, and they just gave in. We had them taken on
board the schooner, and then we went to the frame house, and there,
sure enough, in a big safe, were the pearls. We had searched the
prisoners and taken their keys from them. The key of the safe was among
them, and we opened it easily. There were twenty thousand pounds’ worth
of pearls, so we judged.

“Schuster was a man who always held tight by the law. I pointed out to
him that since we were at war with France all French property belonged
to us by rights, and that the best thing we could do was to land the
prisoners and take the pearls. We did not want prisoners. I pointed
out to him, also, that we were acting in the nature of privateers, but
without a letter of marque, and that consequently our prize would go to
the government, and we would get nothing.

“I pointed out that since this was French property it would be much
better just to take it and be thankful, and say nothing. He said that
would be piracy.”

“So it would,” said Floyd.

“Well, maybe it would; but what is war if not piracy legalized? You
have a letter of marque and you are a privateer, you have none and you
are a pirate.”

“But even privateering has ceased,” objected Floyd.

“Well,” said Schumer, “if it has it ought to be renewed in war time;
it breeds fine men, as you English ought to know, and it’s every
bit as legitimate as fighting behind naval guns. However, Schuster
thought different about our case. He said he would take the whole lot,
prisoners and pearls, to the nearest German island, and claim a share
of the proceeds, and be within the law.

“So off we set, and it took us nearly three weeks to reach the island
we were in search of, between head winds and calms. When we got there
it was getting on for night, so we held off and on till morning, and
when the pilot came aboard we gave him news of the war, and several
canoes that had put out shot back to land with it; so that when we
entered the harbor the place was decked with flags, and we were cheered
right from the harbor mouth to the quay.”

Schumer paused for a light, and went on:

“We landed our prisoners and the pearls, and the governor had laid a
big spread for us, baked pig and lager beer, and so on, and Schuster
was in the middle of a speech when the sound of a gun brought us all
out on the beach, and there, entering the harbor, was the German
cruiser of the station.

“The captain landed and asked us what we were doing with the flags, and
when we explained he told us that there was no war, only a lying rumor.
He had the latest European news from San Francisco, and he gave it to
us.

“It was worth going through the whole of that business to see
Schuster’s face. He said nothing, and the governor said nothing, and
it was fortunate they held their tongues, for the cruiser only waited
four hours to water and put off again.

“When she had gone the governor bundled old Lefarge and his sons on
board our schooner and the pearls, and he gave us orders to take them
back to their island and dump them there, and he sent an armed guard
to see that it was done. He judged, and judged rightly, that Lefarge
would make no trouble afterward, simply because he would not want to
advertise the existence of his island. He made them a present of a few
cases of California champagne and some cigars, and old Lefarge was so
glad to be out of the business and get back his pearls that he insisted
on opening the champagne, and Schuster brought out some trade gin, and
they all got drunk.

“There was a big moon that night, and they enjoyed themselves, Lefarge
singing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland ├╝ber alles,’ and the governor the
‘Marseillaise.’

“Then they started fighting, and then they got sick.

“Men are strange things, once they let themselves go, and they are all
pretty much alike when they are drunk.”

“You took them back to their island?” said Floyd.

“Yes, and then we had to return and bring back the armed guard.
Schuster lost nearly two months over the business, to say nothing of
the provisions and loss of trade. He said he wanted to sink the mail
brigantine that had given us the lie; but you can’t sink a ship by
wanting to. Well, let’s get to work.”

They rose up and crossed the coral to the wreck. She was lying at a
slant that made it just possible to walk her decks without holding on
to anything; her copper was already dull green, and the barnacles,
long dead, showed up like bosses on the copper green like it, as
though the verdigris had invaded them. The sun had boiled out the pitch
of the planking, and the decks were warping, the planks bursting up
from the dowels.

The great “dunch” she had received from the coral in beaching
had shaken everything loose; the bowsprit had sprung up from the
knightheads; all forward of the great breach in her side the planking
was loosened from the ribs, and only wanted another storm to break away
and give the sea a clean sweep of the interior of the hull.

But leaving aside the ravages of the sea, the work of ruin was going
steadily on under the influence of weather and sun. A ship out of water
is dead, and death means corruption. On the reefs and beaches of the
ocean you will see wrecks, carcasses of ships, skeletons with the blue
sky showing through their ribs. They have been eaten by the weather
more than by the sea.

They reached the deck of the _Tonga_, and made their way down the
companionway to the main cabin.

There was plenty of light through the broken sides of the vessel, and
the sunshine from the outside world showed up the interior and was
reflected by the varnished pine paneling and by a strip of mirror still
absolutely intact. The table in the center was still standing, and
above it the swinging lamp all askew, an empty bird cage lay in one
corner, and all sorts of raffle littered the floor.

The captain and chief mate’s cabin lay aft, and Schumer, opening the
doors and fixing them so, began a thorough overhaul of the contents.
He had already salved the ship’s money and papers, the nautical
instruments, charts, and books; what remained was mostly private
property, and there was not very much of it. Some clothes, underwear,
and boots and shoes made up the pile, together with native curios,
cheap novels, some writing materials, and two revolvers with ammunition.

“It’ll all come in handy some time or another,” said Schumer, “and I
propose that we stuff the lot back into the old man’s cabin; they’ll be
as safe there as anywhere, unless another big storm comes and makes a
clean sweep of everything. Now let’s have another go at the cargo.”

They had no need to enter the hold by the main hatch. The damaged side
gave them ample means of entry. The confusion was appalling.

Schumer had already salved a quantity of canned stuff. Unable to move
the boxes and crates, he had broken them open with an ax and removed
the contents piecemeal; but, having only Isbel to help, and no very
urgent incentive to the work, he had done comparatively little. Now,
with the prospect of remaining on the island and the necessity of
feeding possible labor when the time came for working the lagoon, it
was a different matter.

Floyd, however, did not see it in the same light as Schumer, and when,
after an hour’s work carrying stuff across the coral, they knocked off
for a rest, he put his ideas before the other.

“Look here,” said he, “it’s all very well breaking our backs over this
business, but we haven’t got the labor to feed yet; we’ll have to go
to Sydney or ‘Frisco to get the money raised, and it may be six months
after we are taken from here before we can get back, maybe longer.
Then the chap that finances this business will do the provisioning of
the expedition. I don’t see the point in harvesting this stuff under
the trees, especially as it’s safe enough in the wreck.”

“Now, see here,” said Schumer, “if you are not prepared for everything
in this world you never get anywhere. You say the stuff is safe enough
on the wreck; I say it isn’t. First, there’s the heat of the sun, which
doesn’t improve it. Secondly, there’s the chance of a hurricane making
a clean sweep of everything. The tail end of a big storm landed her
where she is; the front end of another may finish her. You say that it
may take us six months or more before we can start on our business–who
knows? Who knows that a likely ship may not call here with some man in
charge of her who would join us in the venture? I would sooner have
a decent shipowner in it than some American or Australian financier.
You never know what may occur, and here is a lot of stuff that may
save the situation when the time comes. No, we have got to get it
safe, and get it safe we will, not only provisions, but as much of the
trade as we can manage. It’s all money, and you can do nothing without
money, either in these seas or in Europe. So we’ll just stick to this
business, and we’ll cover the cached lots over with sailcloth–we
have lots of that. We had better stick to it for a week right on and
get it over. I’ve been thinking about it ever since this morning, and
something tells me that we’d be fools to bother about the lagoon, which
is safe as a bank, while the stuff that will help to raid that bank is
in danger.”

“Suppose there are no pearls in those oysters of any account?”

“There’s always the shell,” replied Schumer, “and there are sure to be
pearls. You are of the disbelieving sort.”

“Not a bit–only–well, perhaps you are right. I’m not going to shirk
any work that may be useful–and when do you propose to examine those
oysters we fetched up yesterday?”

“I’ll leave them a week,” said Schumer; “the longer they are left the
more rotten they’ll be, and the easier to work. Besides, if we found
no pearls, it would take the heart out of us, and, more than that,
the hope of finding pearls when we do go will put the heart into us.
Nothing is better to make one work than a pleasant prospect not quite
assured in front of one. It’s the gambling instinct–a big instinct.”

Floyd laughed. There was something about the man Schumer that held
him more and more and compelled belief and the admiration that all
men have for strength and foresight. Schumer did a lot of thinking as
well as working. He had said nothing up to this moment of abandoning
the oyster business for a week and putting all their energies into
the salving of provisions and trade–he had been thinking out the
whole plan in silence. He disliked the labor of the salvage business
as much as Floyd, but he imposed it on himself as means to a distant
end, and Floyd, though he did not see the end in the same light as his
companion, was not the man to hold back when another was working.

“I am with you,” said he. “It will give us exercise, anyhow, and it’s
better than diving. Come on and let’s get at it.”

He revenged himself by outvying Schumer in energy. They worked stripped
to the waist.

They had set themselves a herculean task. It was not only a question
of conveying small goods piecemeal in extemporized baskets; it was a
business also of carrying heavy stuff, bolts of cotton, and so forth
that could not be divided up.

There was not only the conveying to be done, but the storing. In this
nature helped them. The reef, or, rather, the island that formed this
part of the atoll had a big sink in it amid the grove at the back of
their encampment. Schumer thought that in ancient days natives must
have made this hollow by artificial means for some reason or other,
possibly as a big rain pond, though that supposition seemed negatived
by the existence of the natural well that lay in the western border
of the grove. However, it had been formed there. It was almost a pit,
a hundred yards long, shelving toward the ends and densely protected
by trees to seaward. Schumer calculated that owing to this density of
vegetation and the fact of the ends having drainage into the lagoon,
this trench would not fill up, let the rain come heavy as it might. On
the fact that the waves from the heaviest sea could not reach it he was
assured by the configuration of the outside reef.

He had fixed on a week’s work, and at the end of that time, though they
had done much, they had not done all; still, he seemed satisfied, as
well he might be.

They had cached all the provisions, they had salved a fair portion of
the perishable trade, and covered this portion of the salvage with
sailcloth, and of all their work this was the most laborious and
trying. They had removed the rifles, fifty in number, from their cases,
and stored them with the ammunition in a separate cache; they had
four navy revolvers of the Colt type, and these with the ammunition
for them they kept in the tent. Last, but not least, there was the
liquor–cases of trade gin, and a few cases of wine.

Schumer did not bother to cache these–he dealt with them in another
fashion.

“It’s waste of money,” said he, “but I have been thinking it out. This
square face is no use to man or brute; it’s only good to sell, and we
have no customers for it, and don’t want them. It’s dangerous stuff to
have about. The wine is different; there’s not much of it, and it may
turn in useful, but the gin has to go.”

He opened the cases, and they smashed the bottles, heaving them on
to the raw coral beyond the wreck, so that the glass might not be in
the way. The air stank with the fumes of the filthy stuff while the
smashing went on. Isbel helped, the instinct for destruction that lies
in human nature, and especially in children, seemed to have wakened up
in her to its full.

She laughed over the work. Floyd had never seen her laugh before,
and as he looked at her shining eyes and flashing teeth it seemed to
him that despite all the labors of the missionary here was an atom
of fighting and destructive force, useful for good or evil, and only
waiting on events for its development.