― 75 ―

Benson's Flutter for a Fortune.

“I was in Townsville when a letter addressed to Cairns was forwarded on to me containing only one sentence—‘Dear Benson—If you have any capital you are willing to risk in a flutter for a fortune, wire, and I will be with you in less than a week.—Yours, etc., Abe Stanson, P.O., Port Douglas.’

“Now I had just sold my sugar plantation near Cairns, disgusted with the deportation of my kanaka boys, pretty well assured I should come a cropper with white labour under the present conditions, and was on the look out for some investment of the money at the bankers.’ Moreover, the severance from the monotony of a planter's life had acted like a tonic. My old craving for adventures, for excitement, had rebounded into new activity. Stanson's letter opened prospects for a surfeit of them. He was essentially a man of new ideas—always poking about unexplored parts, loving desperate ventures for their own sake. I first met him some 15 years ago in the Johnsonian Club, Brisbane, and accompanied him on his Bellinder Ker expedition, during the trials of which a firm friendship sprang up between us. In conventual parlance Stanson was a ‘white man.’ When I went in for canegrowing near Cairns I seemed to drift out of his hail. His letter, therefore, in every sense was an exhilarating surprise.

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Without hesitation I wired to him, ‘Yes; waiting you here. Benson, Great Northern Hotel, Townsville.’

“I pass over our meeting and the subsequent confab incidental to the coming together of confidential friends after a gap of years. Beyond a further thinning down of his long, lean, fibrous figure, a grizzling of his short-cropped hair, a skin more tightly drawn and coloured like old parchment, and the scissored trimness of his once luxuriant blonde moustache, beyond these changes and a certain reflective expression in his eyes subduing their peculiarly bright blueness, Stanson's appearance was the same as when I last saw him. He wasted no time, but got down to business immediately after dinner on the day he arrived. At that time I knew nothing of the pearl fisheries, and his plunging headlong into the subject confused me. He checked my questions as to why and when he had become a shelldiver with ‘No time for that now, Jim, old man. Listen!’ And I listened.”

‘There was a Jap diver named Dhu in Port Kennedy, for whom I once did a little service in a gambling saloon. Dhu had a withered arm, and was helpless against a knuckleduster and a knife. I cross-buttocked the Manila man, and punched the other, a Malay, through the window, and snapping the blade tossed his knife after him. Though Dhu never so much as thanked me at the time his heart must have been strangely touched, for when he died a few months after,

  ― 77 ―
his son, called Jhin, or some such name, brought me a pile of papers carefully sealed up, which he said his father had put aside for me. After several days' wrestle with an atrocious handwriting and the worst English I ever came across I felt a bit hazy. The sudden prospect of wealth to a man dead broke has a queer effect. He wonders at first if he has gone daft, or is the victim of a hoax. After all the facts have filtered down into his mind, and are knocked into ship-shape, he either flies off at a tangent or recoils into a shell of wariness and caution. In my case there was no room for doubt. There was the chart, and everything regarding the treasure painfully detailed in watery ink. I had the joker and couldn't play it. I needed a little money. I had no friends up there, and fell back on you.’

‘And the treasure?’

‘Is heaped up in a cul-de-sac within reach. Dhu had discovered a quartz reef outcropping from the seabed, having a blind channel rich in shell, workable at certain seasons. There's a fortune screaming for an owner.’

‘But why didn't Dhu snap it?’

‘Ask me something easy. That's where the mystery comes it. And why hasn't Jhin collared it, for he knows all about it? I've pondered it over, and made enquiries about Dhu. He had tried and he failed. Why? Don't know. No one knows but Jhin, and he

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won't speak. There's a provision for him, by the way. A certain commission on the output has to go to him. Dhu paid me the compliment of trusting me to comply with that request. Dhu made two trips and returned each time with a son a corpse. Jhin was his last child, and the old man shut down on the venture, leaving it to me. He spread the report his sons went off in paralysis, which is a lie, for the shell is only in 15 fathoms. I thought at first it might have been a knifing business, for two divers on a lugger are like cat and dog. But when Jhin, before whom I placed the whole matter, and about which he seemed to know everything, having accompanied his father on both trips, when he closed up, refusing to have anything to do with it, I saw I was wrong. A few words scrawled on the back of the chart in Dhu's handwriting then set me thinking. They ran:—‘Death for me and mine, saith Fate.’ Now, these little Japs. are fatalists to the finger tips. What is to be will be, and you can't help it. The shell is not for him and his kin—'twas Fate. But it may be for me and mine. Who knows? Fate. Try and see. Thus a Jap will argue.’

‘Perhaps sharks ——’ I hazarded, as Abe paused reflectively.

‘Sharks only attack machine divers in story books. Reef-eels, snakes, and ox rays are more to be feared. There's some danger that has spelt death for Dhu's

  ― 79 ―
sons, and perhaps others. Something that's frightened Jhin from the work. But look, Jim, this won't affect you. I take all personal risks. At the worst, you may lose a little in the turnover with the lugger and equipment when you sell it. It's a chance in a man's lifetime. The shell is there all right. I stake my davey on that.’

‘Haven't you any idea then what kind of danger this is?’

“Any other man than Abe would have come under my stern suspicion. I couldn't help fancying that perhaps even he might be withholding some conjecture for obvious reasons.”

‘None other than the trouble is below surface, I think.’

‘And where is this shell, Abe? Enlighten me a little. I know nothing about this diving business.’

“Whereupon he entered into a description of the pearlfishery at some length. I learned that the divers followed the course of the current-borne spat from south-east to north-west for the beds of shell; that it depended on the density of water how deep they could go; that at 25 fathoms and below they were liable to paralysis; that here and there on the seabed were reefs containing straights, where the sucked in spat formed valuable banks, unworkable through cross tides; and that, finally, this treasure of shell was accumulated in

  ― 80 ―
one of these, a veritable cul-de-sac, under comparatively still water at certain seasons—a rare phenomenon.”

“Long before he finished I had made up my mind: ‘I'm on, Abe. Let's get to figures.’

“Before many days we were in Port Kennedy—that hive of pubs, stores, and gambling saloons—and were the owners of a lugger and at sea with a colored crew. As the season was not yet quite favorable for our venture, we put in time on the grounds diving for shell. I say we, meaning Abe. I was merely a spectator.”

“I had determined, however, to take my full share of the work when we settled in earnest, and was only waiting to get into touch with my surroundings before donning the dress. But the slow drifting over the beds and the beating back in that warm blue sea with its shallow patches of vivid green, domed by a sky of bluish haze, soon grows wearisome. Fortunately on board was an old diver, whom Abe addressed as Uncle, who seemed anxious I should know everything connected with the work, otherwise the time would have hung heavily. There is a deadly monotony about this pearling business, exasperating to a man accustomed to the free and varied life of the bush. Ever the same expanse of ruffled sea, with perhaps a bob and splash of a shark and the sprint over the waves of escaping flying fish, or may-be an inquisitive sea bird wheeling

  ― 81 ―
around the lugger with a dreary cry at intervals; ever the same persistent sun with burning feelers on your hands and neck; ever the same roll of the lugger, with a splug and spatter of water at the gunwales, the snore of wind in the cordage, the clatter of blocks in the sheaves, the jabber of Japs on the deck, and the pants of the pump. And at night ever the same stuffy heat in the bunk that swarmed with cockroaches, the same sickening effluvium of decayed shellfish, the same swing like a cradle to the rattle of pots in the rack, the banging of doors, the squeaking of straining planks. And yet (such is one's dread of the unknown) the monotony of those days, the annoyances of those nights, became suddenly very dear to me when Abe adjusted the tackle and screwed on the glass front of the helmet, and I sat astride on the gunwale ready for my first descent to the seabed. The feeling of utter loneliness is indescribable. I shall never forget the chill of horror shooting through the spine when I let go of the ladder, and opened the valve, and sank, closing it again almost immediately with a nausea at the suffocating smell of indiarubber, and the thump in my ears of the air through the tube, and the wonder of that rapid slide as through a curtain of satin, with the white sand sailing up to meet me. I felt a pinching at the wrists, heard a buzzing, saw a dance of clots that gradually ceased under the now muffled pulsation of

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the pump. Then I journeyed across black chasms, gliding as though on air; across what appeared like white perforated cliffs that made me scramble; through coral forests, smashing their branches like icicles; with visions of beds of sponges green as grass or red as poppies, of jungles of weed swaying as to a constant wind, of stretches of glistening sand lonely as a desert, of avenues upon avenues of coral more delicately carved than a Greek statue and streaming with hues more gorgeous than a sunbow's, of grotesque fish with eyes like shining carbuncles staring in thousands, of sand tunnels hard as cement that seemed to smoke when my feet touched them—all swathed in solemnity and sealed with a deathlike stillness vitally emphasized by the measured throb of the air pump in the helmet. Even now the memory of that journey on the seabed is vivid. Though I frequently afterwards went down with the net after shell, familiarity with the marvels of the sea never dimmed the glow of my first trip.”

“The south-west monsoon had been now succeeded by beautiful calm weather, for which we had waited. We shipped a week's stores from the tender in attendance of the fleet of luggers, to which we delivered our shell, and proceeded to the site of our treasure trove, marked on Dhu's chart. None of our crew really knew the object of our trip. Not that it would have mattered much if they had. They seemed a harmless

  ― 83 ―
set, were very picturesque with their warm, brown bodies scantily attired, indolent of movement, only exhibiting interest when playing cribbage. I fancy Uncle was aware we had some definite object in view other than prospecting for chance tracks of spat. He glanced curiously at me when he heard that I should accompany Abe to the bottom, leaving him in charge. I had taken a liking to the old saturnine Jap, having learned much from him about the dangers below. He was proud of the depths to which he had been that had caused his swollenness of throat. He feared nothing but paralysis, resulting through rapid changes of pressure, the twist or snap of the air tube. I must confess, however, my uneasiness regarding the unknown danger we had to encounter was increased by his yarns. It had become more mysterious thas ever.”

“As Abe had said, Dhu's sons could not have met their death through paralysis. And it was not likely Dhu abandoned a fortune through fear of the common enemies of the divers after shell he was liable to meet anywhere on the seabed. The more I thought of this mysterious danger that had spelled death for two or more expert divers, the less I relished my coming trip under the surface. But my word was pledged for it—though certainly against Abe's desire—and my sense of fairplay as co-partner in the undertaking, with that determination not to be frightened off what promised

  ― 84 ―
to be a peculiarly unique and perilous adventure, that is the bane of so many of us, overrode all other considerations.”

“When I came on deck that disastrous morning and glanced around, never surely was there a scene more enticing to a diver. There was the calm, blue sea on a voluptuous heave beautifully soft and satin-like, studded with lazy jelly fish of the bluest blue; there was the sky of cerulean depth kindling beneath an imperious sun; there was Point—on the starboard side, mellow and mild in its green garniture, with a tangled string of white long-beaked birds just sailing across it. And there was our coloured crew softly moving about the halliards and the freshly scrubbed deck, their lithe brown limbs and wild grace and bearing, the tameless fire lighting up their black dreamy eyes ever now and again at some witty sally in their own language, touching with a harmony of human interest the brilliant picture. And there, too, was Uncle helping Abe into his rubber dress and big brass-toed boots, and then adjusting the 561b. weights to his chest and back. As two of the crew step to the pump wheel, with a glance at the red rubber tube, ere Uncle clamps the helmet over Abe's head, I hear ‘Jim,’ and in two strides am by Abe's side. ‘Remember what I told you, old man.’ The helmet is on, and as the glass goes up to be screwed in its front, ‘Good-bye.’

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Had he some presentiment at that moment? The honest, bright blue eyes gazed at me through the glass. He was smiling. In another minute the wheel was revolving, the pump panting, and the silver bubbles dancing to the surface. He was gone, and I was soon ready to follow. I cannot say I felt other than what I usually feel when entering into danger—cool, collected, determined. Perhaps the clear sunshine appeared precious when the water lapped over the glass, and I sank through its silky depths; but once on the bottom and my wits were keenly alert.”

“Following Abe's instructions I moved cautiously in his wake. Across a sandy patch with its ridgy curl here and there betraying shell; across a plain green as with the weeds of a swamp I journeyed, raising a sort of fog with my feet, through which shoals of fish glimmered like flying bats. Then I sank deeper, with the monotonous beat of the pump becoming fainter, the fish more bladderly in appearance. Sometimes I fancied they were following me with scrutinizing eyes. One moment they were around me in hundreds; another, and I was moving alone. All at once something bulky seemed to slip down alongside of me. I halted startled, with my hand tightening on the lifeline. With his huge, spotted body, his goliath shoulders, his ugly flat head, yawning mouth, and coldly staring eyes, the brute appeared formidable.

  ― 86 ―
With a hideous grin he leisurely sailed around me, as though enjoying my discomfiture. I jerked my wrist, and the air flew from it across his path like a discharge of polished steel cones, and lo, he was gone. ‘So much for Mr. Carpet Shark,’ I thought moving on.”

“Gradually I became aware I was approaching what looked like the loom of a mountain. A current began to drag at my feet like the noose of a lassoe. Splintered peaks of rock shining like enamel were pinnacled above me. Terraces of caverns shagged with pulpous weed gloomed on either side. For some time I had seen no fish, and wondered. Deeper yet, and (if I may so designate that cloudy sullenness gathering about my path), into a monstrous twilight, I moved. Whither was I going? Slowly my eyes became accustomed to the obscurity, and I could now see the stationary outlines of Abe's figure ahead, and that it was a gigantic gallery into which we had entered. And then —— Heavens! That shell. There was nothing else but shell to be seen, and my heart leaped. But stay! What is that? Again the length of horror moved, and I watched it with growing terror. The bravest man would have quailed at the sight of that heaving, miss-happen abortion of crab and fish. First a mouth like that of a filthy sewer, then a scaly incarnation of everything abominable and evil, weaponed with spikes, that are slowly erected as the dull, loathsome eyes

  ― 87 ―
fastened on me. The spines lash out, and I spring back just in time. God! The whole gallery is full of the monsters. Everywhere they are crawling—down the walls, over the shell—the very floor is beginning to lift. The water is curdling beneath myriads of threshing tentacles. And Abe? With the sweat of fright blinding me I leaped over the whipping nightmare in my path, possessed by one impulse—to get to him. How I escaped the poisonous scourges of that smiting hellspawn I never knew. I've a vivid recollection of two greenish eyes pressed like slimy bags against the glass, a tug, a burst of sparks. I knew no more till I lay gasping on deck, with Uncle's dark face bending over me. A shriek made me sit up, glancing to whence it came. There was Abe lying on his back with a group of brown men doing something to him.”

‘Stone-fish done it—him dry up soon like dead tree,’ remarked Uncle quietly, helping me to my feet. Though brandy was poured down Abe's throat like water his teeth chattered with cold. His cries of agony were dreadful. The deadly blue welts on his poor limp hands had explained everything to the crew. Well might Jhin fight shy of that awful gallery, with its colony of stone-fish of monstrous proportions—the most dreaded of all enemies by the divers of shell, the stroke of one of whose spikes on a naked limb can blast it for ever.”

  ― 88 ―

“Our venture ended in disaster. No mortal man will ever possess that treasure of shell. For fear, however, some reckless fool, dazzled by a delusive dream, might sacrifice his life did he know its exact site, I purposely withhold it. Dhu had his arm withered and lost two sons in the attempt to get that wealth. Had not Uncle, alarmed at the depth to which we had sunk—far beyond that chronicled in Dhu's account of the blind channel—had he not hauled us both to the surface our lives would also have been lost. As it is, Abe is a cripple for life, and I a victim to nightmares more dreadful than Dante's visions of Hell.”