MOSTLY ABOUT PEARLS

It took them a fortnight to get the main posts up and the planking
started.

Joe proved himself an invaluable worker, with initiative enough to
oversee the others, so that both Schumer and Floyd could leave him and
give their attention to the fishery and the pearl getting. Sru, despite
his looks and his scars, was shaping well also as an overseer, and the
pearls were showing in a satisfactory manner. The pearls taken hitherto
by Schumer and Floyd working alone were all free pearls contained in
the substance of the oyster or lying loose under the mantle; now began
to come in pearls attached to the shell and shells presenting blisters.

It was well that Schumer had some practical knowledge of pearling, or
these blistered shells might have been cast with the others.

Now a blister on a pearl shell looks exactly like the bleb raised by a
blister on the human skin. It is caused by some foreign body getting
into the oyster, causing irritation, and a consequent extra secretion
of nacre which covers the foreign body over. But it must never be
forgotten also that a pearl lying in the shell may cause sufficient
irritation to stimulate this extra secretion of nacre, and that, as a
result, a blister when opened may be found to contain a pearl.

At the end of a month, when the house was nearly finished, they had on
their hands two dozen of these blistered shells and a hundred and four
pearls as the result of the month’s fishing, besides eighteen shells to
which pearls were adhering.

On paper that would seem to make a good show, but the practical results
were not so rosy, though fair enough in all conscience, considering the
cheap price of labor.

To arrive at a true estimate of the take one must disregard Schumer’s
rough statement as to values for something more precise.

The most valuable of all pearls are those that are _perfectly round_.

A perfect pearl must have this shape, and it must have four other
qualities. It must be either pure white or pink; it must be partly
transparent; it must be free from all specks or blemishes, and it must
have the true pearl luster.

Next to the perfect comes the Bouton pearl, flat on one side and convex
on the other; lastly comes the drop or pear-shaped pearl.

All these belong to the first class, and if they conform to the four
cardinal rules as to transparency, _et cetera_, they are valuable, the
value of each depending upon the weight in grains.

Then come the second class, consisting of imperfectly shaped pearls of
good luster and quality and perfectly shaped pearls of imperfect luster
and quality.

Lastly we have the baroque pearls.

These are sometimes of very large size, but of extraordinary and
irregular shape. They are really masses of nacre that have been formed
around large, rough foreign bodies that have got into the oyster. They
are sometimes hollow, and then they are known to jewelers under the
French name _coq de perle_.

Now of the hundred and four free pearls taken in the month’s fishing
only six were absolutely perfect and only two of these of large size.
Yet these two alone well repaid the labor of getting them. Of the
other ninety-eight there were twenty baroques of small value, and of
the remaining seventy-eight, twenty were estimated by Schumer to be
worthless, the last fifty-eight varying in value from half a sovereign
to four pounds.

Taken altogether, the catch was good, especially when the blistered
shells were split, for in two of the twenty-four blisters a pearl
was found of fair quality. The cavities of the remaining “blisters”
revealed nothing but some discolored water that smelled horribly.

Beside the pearls taken the value of the shell had also to be reckoned.
The shell was that known to commerce as golden-edged, and its value
might have been anything from fifty to a hundred pounds a ton.

When I spoke of twenty of the pearls being worthless I referred less to
the pearls than the remains of pearls; every healthy pearl is of some
value, even down to the tiny seed pearl, but the pearl, no matter how
large, that loses its beauty by disease is worthless.

It is the grief of pearl fishing to come across things that a year ago
may have been worth anything from a couple of hundred to a thousand
pounds and that to-day are worthless. Things as ugly as dead cod’s
eyes that, a year ago, were fit to be the symbols of beauty, and it is
impossible to say exactly what causes this decay. There may be several
causes, diseases that attack the pearl as well as the oyster; but the
result is there as a proof of the vandalism of nature.

Among the trade of the _Tonga_ had been some parcels of surgeons’
cotton wool. Schumer rooted a parcel of this out, and, turning the gold
and papers from the cash box, lined it with a sheet of the wool. He
placed the baroque and lesser-valued pearls on this sheet and covered
them with a single layer of wool; on this layer he placed the pearls of
the second order. All those of the first class he kept apart in a small
wooden box, each pearl packed separately in its own nest of wool.

The few shells with pearls attached to them he placed in a cocoa box,
each shell in a jacket of wool.

“We can’t cut the pearls off those shells,” said he. “It’s jeweler’s
work, and we are only carpenters at the business. They’ll keep till we
get them to Europe.”

A fortnight later the roof was on the house, a roof thatched with palm
leaves bound down with coconut sennit, and the pearls and all their
other valuables were placed in the smaller of the two rooms.

The indefatigable Schumer, immediately the main door was in its place,
set his men to work making a table. The two deck chairs were brought
from the _Southern Cross_, also a spare saloon lamp and some drums of
paraffin oil. Otherwise the schooner was left intact.

“Those Hakluyts would be sure to make a disturbance if we touched any
of the saloon furniture,” said Schumer. “They’d swear, maybe, we had
looted the ship, and it’s my ambition to bring her into Sydney harbor
with everything standing and without a scratch on her that a Jew could
swear to.”

“Schumer,” said Floyd, “I’ve been thinking of that. When do you intend
that we should take her to Sydney?”

“Well,” said the other, “now we have things fixed the sooner we make a
move the better. At first glance one might say keep her here till we
have finished with the lagoon and then shin off in her with all the
pearls we can get. That’s what a fool would say, and that’s what a fool
would do. Where lies the folly? This way.

“To keep her like that would mean to steal her, and, as I said before,
you can’t steal a ship these days without being caught. Suppose, even,
we were to give all the ports in the world good-by and wreck her,
where would we be with our pearls on some desolate shore, or if on a
civilized shore, where would be the customs officers?

“No. Pearls aren’t worth two cents without a market for them, and we
must get to Sydney, not only to claim salvage on the schooner and maybe
to get the Hakluyts to let us rent her, but to make the beginning of
a market for our stuff. We’ll _have_ to bring some one else into the
affair. I wish we hadn’t. I’ve been figuring on every means of getting
out of it, but I can’t find a way.”

“How are we to leave the fishery here to itself while we go to Sydney?”

“We can’t do that; one of us must stay to look after things.”

“Well,” said Floyd, “if that is so I know which is the one that will
have to stay–and that is myself.”

“It’s a strange thing,” said Schumer rather grimly, “but I had come to
the same conclusion. I don’t undervalue you in the least, as you very
well know. I try to attach the right values to all things and people.
It’s the only way to arrive at success–but your value as a negotiator
of this business is negligible simply because you have no knowledge of
trade, and–if you will excuse me for saying so–no stomach for it. If
Hakluyt is the man I imagine him to be he’d turn you inside out, pearls
and all, inside two minutes, gobble the pearls and throw away the skin.
No, I must go and deal with him personally, and you must stay here and
look after the fishing, but I don’t propose to start yet, till we have
the thing more fully in hand.”

“Look here,” said Floyd, “why not take the schooner back to Sydney,
sell what pearls we have got there, and then, with the money they bring
and the money we have already, charter another schooner for our work.
In that way we would keep the matter in our own hands.”

“One would think,” said Schumer, “from the way you talk, that pearls
were to be sold as easy as dairy produce. Sydney is the last place
I would sell pearls openly in, and the very last place I would try
to sell them secretly in. Paris is the market for pearls, or London.
Besides, you must remember that Sydney is a sort of center for pearling
in the Australian Pacific, and if wind got about of our island, we
would be dogged to a certainty.

“No, we simply have to get help, and it’s better to have one man with
money as our partner than half a dozen interlopers crying: ‘Share
up, or we’ll give the business away.’ Of course,” finished Schumer
meditatively, “we could use our guns against them, but those sorts
don’t go unarmed, and we are only two, for the natives don’t count.
As like as not, they’d turn against us from the first, and they’d
certainly do so if they saw us being beaten.”

They had been sitting under a tree as they talked, close to the nearly
completed house, and, as Schumer finished, Floyd saw Isbel coming
across the lagoon from the fishing grounds in the schooner’s dinghy.

The dinghy of the _Southern Cross_ was a tiny affair, even for a boat
of this type. It held two at a pinch, and its lines were the lines of a
walnut shell. It was a dainty little boat, and had evidently belonged
to a yacht at some time or another, to judge by its fittings, or what
was left of them.

Isbel was standing up and sculling with a single oar from the stern.

“I say,” said Schumer, “what has that girl been doing over at the
fishing ground?”

“I don’t know,” said Floyd, shading his eyes; “didn’t know she had gone
there. She must have gone to the schooner and taken the dinghy.”

“Well,” said Schumer, “that won’t do. I don’t want her palling up with
those labor hands; they are her own people, and she knows a lot too
much about us and our affairs to let her get thick with them. She knows
where all the trade is cached, for one thing. Besides, she hasn’t been
the same for a long while. I can’t get a word out of her.”

“She has been different ever since you hanged that chap,” said Floyd.

“Well, she’ll have to change her tune, or she’ll see the rough side of
me,” replied the other. “I’m not going to stand any Kanaka tricks, and
I’ve shown them that already.”

“Seems to me,” said Floyd, “that all you have done by that hanging
business is to turn Isbel against us.”

Schumer did not reply. He was walking down to the lagoon edge at the
point where the little boat was preparing to beach.

“Hi,” cried he, “what have you been doing in that boat?”

“Been to the fishing grounds,” replied the girl, as the dinghy took the
sand and she stepped out into a foot of water and helped Schumer to
haul the boat up; “been to see the men; they are my people.”

“Oh, they are your people, are they?” said Schumer. “Well, you mustn’t
go to them; we want you here. And it seems to me we are your people,
too. You have been with us long enough on the island to make you one of
us, and yet you go off at the first chance to your people, as you call
them.”

She said nothing; she did not look in his face.

Floyd, standing by, watched her. She had brought the scull ashore; she
was holding it in her hand, and, as she stood there in the scanty white
cotton garment that fitted her with the grace that only comes from the
wearer, he thought what a pretty picture she made against the blazing
lagoon and far-off reef.

“Remember,” went on Schumer, “that you are one of us, and belong to the
island, that we have helped you just as you have helped us, and that
though you have always been treated with kindness, I can punish those
who disobey me.”

Floyd, as he listened and watched, thought that he perceived the
faintest curl of her lip at this latter clause, but he could not be
sure; that inscrutable, yet childish, face was very difficult to read,
and more especially now as she raised her eyes to those of Schumer.

“I will not use your boat again,” said she; “it was only the little
one. Do you want me any more now?”

“No,” said Schumer, turning away. “I have nothing more to say.”

She put the scull back in the boat, shaded her eyes, and looked over
the lagoon toward the fishing ground, as though at some place where her
heart was, but her body could not be.

Floyd, as he went off to superintend the house-builders, shook his head.

The three of them had been almost a little family before this had
taken place. The pearls were dividing them already. Isbel had become a
stranger to him, and to-morrow Schumer might be his enemy.

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