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The Story of a Big Pearl




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LAZILY riding at anchor, in company with some half-dozen others, is a small lugger, one of a pearling fleet. It is almost a dead calm, and on the northern horizon there is a hazy suspicion of land, the coast of New Guinea. The midday spell is drawing to a close, and the coloured crew are rousing themselves from their short nap under the awning stretched amidships. In the cabin, permeated, as is all the rest of the vessel, by an ancient and fishlike smell, a couple of Malays are in earnest conference: Abdrahim, the diver, and Syed, his tender. In the bronzed hand of the former lies a lustrous and beautiful pearl, a globe of soft moonlight, such a pearl as is found but twice in a century. Both men know that it is of priceless value, and are


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eagerly gloating over it, discussing, meanwhile, the best way of disposing of their find to the greatest possible advantage. Presently Abdrahim wraps up the treasure in a piece of rag and places it in his box, which he locks; then, followed by Syed, goes on deck, and proceeds to array himself in his diving-gear. This completed, he is helped over the side and stands on the wooden rung of the short ladder, with his head and shoulders above the surface of the water, waiting while Syed and a Kanaka put on the helmet and screw in the mouthpiece. Take your last look at the bright sunlight, and inhale your last breath of the fresh sea-breeze, Abdrahim, for that pure, flawless gem has done its work.

The helmeted head disappears beneath the unruffled surface of the sea, and Syed takes his place at the pump. The nondescript crew pay little heed to his actions; again and again the life-line quivers, but Syed is lost in a pleasant dream of the future in which he wonders at the surpassing folly of his countryman in trusting his life in


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his hands just after showing him the glorious pearl hidden away in the cabin. Abdrahim, he knows well, is suffocating below the lugger's keel, but the Malay's swarthy features are calm and emotionless until he suddenly calls loudly to the others, and they drag to the surface the now lifeless form of the diver. An accident, of course—something must have gone wrong with the pump, he rapidly explains to the men as they divest the corpse of the dress, and laying it on the deck, cover it with a spare sail. Towards evening a breeze springs up, and the lugger, with the dead Malay on board, steers for Thursday Island.

The little township on the island is fast asleep, eight bells have been struck on board the E. and A. steamer at anchor in the stream, and the last sound of revelry has died away. Near an old boatshed, in whispered conversation, stand Syed and a Chinaman. The Malay is excited and eager, the Chinaman apathetic, with a cunning assumption of indifference. The


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big pearl is being extolled on one side and depreciated on the other. Subtle Hi Long is assuring Syed that he has quite overestimated the worth of his find, and the Malay is vehemently asserting its wonderful value. They part, after long dispute, Hi Long calm and confident, Syed angry and upset. He coils up in his blankets under the old boatshed, and after an hour or two of troubled tossing falls into a deep slumber that lasts until long after sunrise. When he awakes he sits up, fumbles underneath the bundle that serves him for a pillow, and draws out a common red silk handkerchief with a knot tied in one corner; glancing apprehensively around, he unties the knot to feast his gaze upon his treasure. With a yell he springs up, his eyes ablaze with fury and despair, for the big pearl is gone. He has been robbed during his late sleep. A mist of blood swims before his eyes and blots out all his dreams of wealth. Blood—that is what he wants, and he draws his knife and rushes through the door out on the beach, no longer


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a man but a beast of prey, a Malay running amok, seeking to glut his raging thirst for vengeance on the first object crossing his path. A group of coloured men are right in his way, and almost before they are aware of it he is amongst them, striking and stabbing right and left, seeing before him nothing but a crowd of grinning chinese, taunting him with the loss of his fortune. Two are knifed before they can recover from their surprise; one of the remainder has, fortunately, an axe in his hand, and before the madman can stab again he is cut down. He rises once more with the blood streaming down his face and rushes out on the boat-jetty, leaving a ruby track on the rough stones. With one last wild stab at the phantom fleeing before him, he plunges into the sea, and Syed has gone to reckon with the ghost of the murdered Abdrahim.

The E. and A. steamer going south that morning has an additional steerage passenger in the person of Hi Long, who finds he has urgent business which compels


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him to leave Thursday Island immediately.

Through the still waters, guarded by the great barrier of coral, the steamer pursues her southern course. For two nights she has had to anchor amongst the then little known dangers of the treacherous northern coast, and now, on the third, the steady pulsation of the engines tells that she is running at half-speed through a comparatively open sea. The officer on the bridge is talking to the coast pilot as they pass backwards and forwards. Unobserved a figure rises from amongst those recumbent on the fore-hatch and approaches the side. The coloured man on watch on forward happens to turn round. “Hoy, Chinaman!” he yells. Too late: there is a splash, and the two men on the bridge are just in time to see a white face gleam past the bar of light.

The telegraph rings and the steamer comes quickly round.

“One of the Chinese passengers just


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jumped overboard, sir,” says the officer to the captain when he comes on the bridge.

A boat is lowered, uselessly of course. Hi Long, after gambling away all his gains, including the big pearl stolen from Syed, has gone to the bottom.

“Why the deuce couldn't he have done it quietly?” says the captain, as the boat is being run up to the davits; “we've lost half-an-hour through him.”

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