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Five Skull Island by Alexander Montgomery

 

IT was in Batavia I met him--at the Hôtel des Indes--the leather--visaged, stormy-voiced ruin of a very powerful man. I shall call him Thurston. He laughed when I spoke of Five-Skull Island.

"Where they found the five skeletons?" he said. "I see you've made the Aru voyage. Or was it the Ké? Lived in Ké once myself!"

"Yes! Would he take anything?"

He would, and did--then did again, and expanded.

"You're a young chap to have gone poking down into that out-of-the-way corner. Not trade, I can see! Money to throw away, eh? Or was it Science? Never mind! About this Five-Skull business! People here will tell you I'm the man that sailed a prahu single-handed from Ké to Celebes. Well--I didn't! Six of us left Ké--the others stopped half-way--at Five-Skull Island. Don't care if I tell you!"

And here--a little dramatized--is what he did tell me.


"The wind at last!" said Thurston, and sat up. "Také!"

Také wasn't beside him. The edge of dawn made that clear enough, and the white man got sleepily to his feet.

"Gone for water, perhaps!" The bamboo-joint jars had been left beside the hole, and there Thurston found them. But he found no Také. With the men, amongst the pandanus, was she? No men were there! Thurston rushed out into the clear again and looked to where the prahu should have been moored. Well-away nor'-westward, a shadow upon the dimness showed him where she was now.

The deserted laughed--a fearful sound in that portentous loneliness--and walked back to look for his rifle, not expecting to find it. He didn't!

Mechanically he lit his pipe. "Tight place this time, Jim Thurston!--unless you can hang it out on water! Water? Why, they've got none!" and off he rushed to count the tubes at the hole. All there!--forgotten in the sneaking hurry.

Thurston's teeth snapped together with the significance of this. He glanced at the fierce-faced sun, already peering into a remorselessly cloudless ether. "No rain! They must come back! But, curse it! they've got my Winchester!"


Thurston had come to the Archipelago with theories about the Child of Nature. Most of these he dropped in Borneo, and the few he carried with him to the Moluccas were fewer still when he started again south-east. Down in Ké, amongst the Papuans, he parted with them all but one--but that one he took away with him. He also took Také. Také was the theory--Savage Fidelity, bound in dingy brown.

Také had nursed him, fever-stricken; Také had warned him of the intended raid upon his pearl-shell; and when, for certain guns and gongs, kerchiefs and axes, Také's father would have made her over to a Bali trader, it was under Thurston's wing the mop-headed damsel sheltered herself. The white man's Winchester was an unanswerable argument. The Baliman, minus goods and girl, departed, cursing; the Ké-man, plus the goods, lay low for the girl--and Thurston. Thurston, warned, took boat and brevet-wife and faded away in the night.

Cohered, throughout, without a shred of metal, and up-ended, fore-and--aft, like the Maori war-canoes--the plank-built prahu of the Kés made steady westing for three days before the east monsoon, but, then, for yet the other three that should have sighted Bonthain, she crawled with sweeps across a poor half-hundred miles of sweltering equatorial ocean, before--somewhere between the Turtles and the Lucapins--this unexpected islet had given water and salvation.


For three intolerable hours the parching runaways toiled back over the half-dozen miles they had run in forty minutes--the two big Papuans grinning hideously as they sweated; the Sassak pulling grim and silent; Sondur jerking his head round every half-minute, with a curse, to measure the distance.

Sondur was a Banda-man--part Portuguese, part Arab; and in Také, too, was Portuguese blood--the rest Malay, with just enough Papuan to crisp her hair and take the brightness out of her brown. And Sondur, while the white man slept, had caught the ear of beauty with a fairy-tale. They would not kill!--unlucky, that, at the beginning of a new voyage. But they would leave this white hog snoring, and with his boat, and pearls, and tortoise--shell, they would sail away north to Banda the beautiful! The rest were "in it"--would she come?

She would, and did--and now, here she was, going back to the "hog" who had believed in her!

Low water now. They tore the sponges from the bottom as they scraped through the passage in the circling reef. The island lay lifeless in the glare, and silent, but for the surf-boom from the windward side. The white man must be sleeping still amongst the screw-pines in the hollow. Quick!

The nutshell of a boat was dropped over, and three men got in--leaving one of the Papuans with the girl. The black man flopped upon his stomach on the deck; Také watched the water-fetchers dodging through the big white boulders, for the island was of coralline limestone--worn away all round into a mushroom edge, that cleared the surface, as the tide was now, by half a fathom.

From beneath this stony canopy slipped noiselessly out the white man. With a dozen strokes he reached the prahu, clambered up by the rudder, jumped inboard, and grabbed his rifle from the top of the after-house; left there because--though Sondur understood well enough a normal musket--the Winchester was for him an awful mystery. The Ké-man sprang up and stood ready for a jump overboard. Také turned, found herself looking into the rifle-barrel--shut her eyes, and waited for execution.

Thurston lowered the piece. "Woman," he said, "for whom was this? Not for this black beast--nor for the other? Nor for Amil the Sassak? Sondur, was it?"

Také spat at him--the Fidelity by whom he had sworn! "Ay, Sondur! Now shoot!"

The boat came off, deep-loaded now with men and water. Thurston levelled at the Banda-man's head. "Stay in the boat!" he said--"all three! Hand up the bamboos one by one!" Sondur's pea-soup face went lead--colour. Without a word he passed the water-tubes up to the black man.

"Ashore again, now--you three!" The levelled rifle emphasized the order; they paddled to the rock, clambered out, and stood there, gaping, while Thurston and the Papuan got the foresail up. Také crouched upon the deck. "What a fool this man was. He was going to spare her, after all, and take her with him--herself and the black man only!"

The prahu had no anchor down; the big mat foresail canted her head round to seaward, and Thurston stecred her for the reef-passage, deepening now with the first of flood. Outside, the breeze came fresher, and Také held the tiller while Thurston and the black man swayed the mainsail up and set the cotton-canvas jib. Then Thurston, laughing a little, came aft, put down his rifle, and took Také suddenly by her plump, brown elbows. His deadly eye told her--she struggled fiercely, but in a moment, with a shift of one hand to her cotton skirt, he had hove her overboard.

"Swim back now to thy Sondur!" he called after her, as he kept the broaching prahu off the wind again. Stooping then for his rifle, he held the tiller with his knees and levelled at the astounded black man.

"Thou, too!" he said. "Jump, dog, jump!"--and the Ké-man jumped.


Said this unblushing buccaneer: "'Twas an easy swim, but there was nothing on the place to eat, and those limestone islands never hold surface--water long. There's your five skeletons for you, right enough!"

 
 
 

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