SCHUMER’S STORY

They rowed back across the lagoon to the camp, and there Schumer set to
on the construction of his dredge.

Floyd had suddenly found an object of interest on the island almost as
absorbing as the oyster bed, and that object was Schumer.

Schumer had seemed to him at first a simple trader bound up in trade,
one of a class that swarms in the Pacific. Bound up in trade he
undoubtedly was, but there was all the difference in the world between
him and the others of his class that Floyd had come across in his
wanderings.

Perhaps the hardest thing in the world to put one’s finger on is
personality, or the power that tells in a man’s appearance, actions,
and speech. Its essence lies in complexity, and is born of all the
multitudinous attributes that form spirit.

Floyd watched Schumer working on the dredge, and wondered at his
ingenuity and power over metal and wood. He had but little material to
his hand–cask hoops and old ironwork from the wreck, and so on–yet he
made the most of it, and did not grumble. He explained the mechanism of
the thing when he had finished. He had set Isbel to work stitching the
canvas bag which was part of the dredge, and she sat mysterious as a
sphinx, working and listening to him as he talked.

Then, later on, as they smoked after supper and watched the stars break
out over the lagoon, Schumer went on talking, now of trade and the wild
work he had seen here and there in the Pacific.

He was vague, rarely giving the names of islands or places, contenting
himself with such wide terms as “It was an island south of the
Marshalls,” or “It was down in the Solomons.” It was down in the
Solomons that he had got the scar on his arm which he showed to Floyd.

“That’s fifteen years old,” said he; “it missed the artery or I
wouldn’t be here now. I was only twenty then and new to the islands,
new to the sea also. I’d taken passage in a big schooner; two hundred
and fifty tons she was, captained by a Yankee skipper, and manned by
the biggest crowd of rascals that ever sailed out of Frisco to meet
perdition.

“We put in at a big island southeast of Manahiki. I went ashore with
the old man, the first mate, and two of the hands that could be
trusted. We were all well armed, and lucky for us we were.

“It was the bos’n who started the trouble–a big, black-bearded chap,
half Irish, quarter Scotch, with a tar brush somewhere in his family.
Not a good mixture by any means.

“We hadn’t been ashore ten minutes when this chap took the schooner.
There were no preliminaries. She had a big brass swivel gun, and he
turned it on the beach and let fly. He’d loaded her with a bag of
bullets, and the first shot smashed the boat we’d landed in, smashed
the only canoes in the place, and tore up the sand as if it had been
plowed. Fortunately we had seen his game and scattered, but two natives
were killed, and the rest took to the bush.

“So did we, and under cover of the leaves we watched what was going on
in the schooner.

“They seemed pretty satisfied with themselves. They were sure against
attack; they had smashed our boat and the canoes, and they were pretty
certain we wouldn’t try to board them by swimming, for the lagoon was
full of sharks. They brought up grog and took to dancing on deck. Their
object, of course, was to get away with the schooner and all the trade
on board, change her name, and make for some port on the South American
coast, and sell schooner and cargo and all. There was money aboard,
too–the ship’s money and some coin of the old man’s, and fifty British
sovereigns of my own hid in my bunk, though the beggars did not guess
that.

“Yes, they should have knocked the shackle off the anchor chain and
got to sea at once; they chose instead to drink and dance, celebrating
their victory. You see they did not know whom they were dealing with.

“From where we lay we could have picked them off like crows with our
rifles. Of course, that would have meant they would have gone below
and hid, and then at dark they’d have gone away. It would have sobered
them, too, and I did not want that.

“So we let them be, putting our trust in the bottle, and we set to and
made a raft with the help of some of the natives who were hiding in the
bush with us.

“There was a little creek hidden from the schooner by a cape of coconut
and pandanus trees, and we made the raft there, and a rotten raft it
was; but it served our purpose, and when dark came down we shoved off,
us four and two natives.

“The tide was with us; it was running out of the lagoon. The natives
had canoe paddles, but they scarcely used them. Not a soul was on deck;
they were all in the saloon drinking, and the noise was worse than a
tavern on the Barbary Coast of a Saturday night. They wouldn’t have
heard us coming alongside if we had come blowing trumpets–which we
didn’t.”

Schumer paused to refill and light his pipe. The lagoon was now a sheet
of stars, and not a sound came but the murmur of the reef and the
splash of a fish jumping in the lagoon.

“We came alongside, and in a minute we were over the rail–she had a
low freeboard–every man of us. We didn’t trouble about the raft, and
she went out to sea on the tide.

“The saloon hatch was off, and there they were all crowded like bees
in a bottle fighting and playing cards and drinking and smoking, and
there as they sat we began to plug them with our Winchesters. We got
six before the smoke of the firing hid them, and then we fired into
the smoke and stood by to down them as they came up the companionway.
They were plucky, but mad with drink, and they had no arms to speak of.
One of them had a bottle in his hand, the only thing he could find to
fight with; when he tumbled over into the lee scuppers he still held it
unbroken, and I guess he went before his Maker with it like that.

“We settled them all with the exception of the bos’n. He skulked
below, and I went down to find him. The saloon was clear of smoke and
the swinging lamp was burning; dead men were lying everywhere, but no
bos’n. He’d taken refuge in the old man’s cabin and had barricaded
the door, so that I couldn’t kick it in–only managed to crack the
paneling; so I began firing through it with my revolver, and then out
he came with two bullets in him and a sheath knife in his hand.

“He gave me this cut before we had done with one another.

“The upshot was that every man of them was given his dose, and we took
the schooner out of the lagoon, us four, with four Kanakas who joined
the ship, and we had good luck all the rest of the voyage, though my
arm inflamed so that I nearly lost it.

“So you see a trader’s life out here is not all trading; one has to
fight sometimes for what one gets, and to keep what one gets.”

Floyd could not help thinking that Schumer’s part in the recapture of
the schooner had been more than he had stated.

“What’s made you take to trading out here?” he asked. “You’re a sailor,
aren’t you? At least I made the guess yesterday that you were a sailor
first and a trader after.”

“Yes, I began as a sailor. I served my two years before these new
topsail yards made reefing child’s work. I served in a Hamburg ship.
What made me a trader? Well, I suppose it was the common sense that
made me give up sailoring. I do not like hard manual labor. As I
told you before, it was on the cards that I might have cast my lines
in the newspaper world. Books interest me, written books; the world
interested me, and I might have been the correspondent of newspapers.
I am a fair linguist, and I can write simple English and picture fairly
well what I see in words; yet I am a trader. I do not know why I am a
trader in the least. It is the way of life that has come to me.”

He ceased, and they sat in silence for a moment.

Floyd, looking round, saw that Isbel had vanished; she had slipped off
to bed somewhere in the bush–slipped off like an animal. It was her
characteristic that she was one of the shipwrecked party, yet remained
apart. She helped in cooking and boat sailing and in other ways;
but she lived her own life as an animal lives it, thinking her own
thoughts, keeping her own counsel, speaking little. There was nothing
about her of the childish and the light-hearted that stamps so many
Polynesians, which is not to say that she was gloomy or too old for
her years. She was just a creature apart, and had always the air of a
looker-on at a game in which she helped, but which did not particularly
interest her.

“The girl’s gone,” said Floyd.

Schumer looked round.

“Crept off to sleep; she’ll sleep anywhere–in a tree or in the bush.
I can’t make out Kanakas. I’ve read a lot of stuff written about them,
but there’s always something behind that no one can get at. They
are right down good in a lot of ways, and right down bad in others.
Missionaries civilize them and varnish them over, but there’s always
the Kanaka underneath; they make Christians of them, but it’s only on
the outside. Look at that girl–she’s only a child, of course, but a
missionary has had the handling of her, and in the time we’ve been here
she has turned right in on herself and gone back to her people, so
to speak. She’s not bad, but she’s a savage, and nothing will make a
savage anything else than a savage, except, maybe, on the outside.”

“She seems pretty faithful and helps us all she can,” said Floyd.

“Oh, she’s not bad,” yawned Schumer; “and she’s a good deal of use in
her way, and she’s company of a sort, same as a dog or a cat. Well, I’m
going to turn in.”

He rose up and stretched himself, and looked at the starlit lagoon.

“It’s funny to think there’s maybe a fortune in pearls under all that,”
said he, “no knowing–but it will take some getting.”

“We’ll get it if it’s there,” said Floyd.