THE FIRST OF THE TWO PEARLS

He came back to the beach.

Schumer had left him two boats, the dinghy and the boat of the
_Cormorant_. They were both on the beach, and as the dinghy was the
easiest to launch single-handed, he used it and pushed off to the
fishing ground.

The gulls started after him from the reef opening, and now their voices
came singly, mewing and miauling, the very voice of desolation itself.

Looking back as he rowed, he could see the figure of Isbel; she was
putting things straight about the house, and just at that moment, as
if stirred by the loneliness and the voices of the gulls, his heart
went out to her. She was the only live thing in all that place for him.
There were living things–fish in the lagoon and Kanaka laborers on the
reef–but Isbel was the only warm spot for his mind to cling to.

The child had differentiated herself from her surroundings. By some
extraordinary magic she had, without effort and almost without speech,
pushed the image of Schumer to one side, and the forms of the Kanakas
to the other.

Schumer, despite his powerful personality, seemed a dead thing beside
Isbel, and the Kanakas, powerful and brawny as they were, seemed
puppets–things of mechanism–fantoccini. What was the magic property
that gave her the ascendency in the mind of Floyd?

For one thing, Isbel, despite her silence, her self-isolation, and the
other-world atmosphere with which she surrounded herself, had always
proved herself sterling.

Never had she failed them in any least particular, every humble duty
that had fallen to her she had carried out honestly, and no paid
servant could have worked more industriously in their interests.

Like Schumer, she had a strong personality that spoke in her actions
and her movements. Unlike Schumer, her personality remained with
one even in her absence. She was a good memory and a living memory.
Schumer, in his absence–despite his wonderful personality–was only
the recollection of a strong man absent.

That is all the difference between the mechanical and the vital,
between the grip of iron and the grip of flesh.

Then she was a woman, or at least the germ of a woman; she was
graceful, she was pretty as a wild flower, and, above all, she was an
unknown factor, a hint of strangeness, the suggestion of a being from
another star.

As he rowed, widening the distance between himself and the camping
place, he was considering Isbel in all her aspects; the absence of
Schumer and the loneliness and isolation of his own position had thrown
her, so to speak, into the arms of his mind. He was considering also
the fatal effect that had followed on the sight of the hanging. She had
never been the same since that. The deed had stricken division between
them, had called up all the barriers of race which she had expressed in
those memorable words: “I have no rest here. I wish to go back to my
own people.” When he reached the fishing ground, he found the work in
full swing under the supervision of Sru.

That gentleman was seated on a coral lump, smoking, and the lagoon,
close to the shore, was occupied by what might have seemed, at first
sight, a bathing party.

They did not use a boat now; they had constructed a raft, and all round
the raft bobbed the heads of the pearl fishers, while on the raft
itself several more were stretched, sunning themselves and smoking. All
were stark naked and seemed happy as children.

Sru alone was garbed, and his simple dress consisted of a G string.

Sru saluted Floyd as the boat approached, and left his seat to help
in beaching her; then he stood by Floyd as the latter inspected the
few shells that had been taken already that morning. Sru was the only
one of the working party who could talk in English, and though his
conversation was as scanty as his G string, he could make himself
understood.

As Floyd conversed with this man, he experienced a new sensation.
Schumer had done the overseeing of the overseer up to this; Floyd
had never come closely in contact with the men, and now, as he stood
on the burning beach, almost in touch with Sru, he felt as though he
were standing in touch with some man of the stone age and the silurian
beaches.

The whites of Sru’s eyes had a yellow tinge, and the glint of his teeth
as he raised his lip was like a gleam of ivory reflected from a million
years ago, the scars on his breast and arms, seen close to like this,
had a deep significance, and the smell of him, hot, gorse-like, and
faintly goatlike, was the smell of all fierce and savage things, hinted
at and vaguely expressed. The John Tan plug he was smoking lent its
fierce perfume to the natural scent of him, and he spat between his
teeth and grumbled in his throat when he was not talking.

Sru was a revelation when you found yourself close to him like this,
under the sun on a desolate beach, and with civilization thousands of
miles away.

After a while Floyd ordered the raft to be brought to the beach edge,
and, getting on to it, pushed out to inspect the work of the divers.

Oysters do not lie flat at the bottom of the sea; they lean with mouths
agape at an angle of twenty to twenty-five degrees with the sea floor.
The great clams do likewise. Floyd, looking down, could see the men who
had just dived groping along the bottom, skylarking as they worked.
One fellow who was in the act of rising with a couple of shells which
he had secured, was caught by the foot by a companion. He dropped the
shells and retaliated, the pair coming to the surface, bursting with
want of air and suppressed laughter.

As Schumer said, they were like children, and their work had a large
element of play in it. Still, they worked after their fashion, wet
hands continually seizing the raft edge and depositing the dripping
shells on it.

Although the quickest way of dealing with oysters in the mass is by
rotting them, the search for pearls can be conducted on oysters fresh
from the sea, and Floyd, as he sat on the raft, amused himself by
opening some of the shells with his pocketknife, choosing the largest
for this purpose. He found no pearls, but plenty of surprises. Nearly
every large oyster in the southern seas gives shelter to a “messmate.”
A little crab, a small lobster, a worm, or a shrimp, lives in the shell
along with the host. In some fisheries, as down in Sooloo, lobsters
are only found, but here, as Floyd opened shell after shell, there was
always something new–now a crab, now a worm, now a harmless creature,
half shrimp, half crawfish.

Tiring of the business at last, he put ashore and turned his attention
to the heap of shell “ripe” and gaping, putrid from exposure to the
air, and waiting to be searched for pearls. He had got so used to the
business now that it was scarcely unpleasant. Sru and one of the hands
assisted him, and the work went forward without result for an hour, not
even a seed pearl appearing in all the slimy mess carefully washed out
in the trough of the canvas.

Schumer seemed to have taken the luck away with him. They knocked off
for a rest and a smoke, and then went at it again with, as a final
result of their morning’s labor, a baroque pearl about the size of a
sixpence, and a pearl of indifferent luster and weighing about ten
grains.

“No good,” said Sru, with a grunt of dissatisfaction; “heap few, heap
big work.”

“Heap plenty, maybe soon,” replied Floyd, turning away. He felt
depressed without the least reason for being so. No one knew better
than he the uncertainties of this work, and how much it approximates
to gambling. It was, perhaps, the feeling that Schumer had taken the
luck away with him that caused the depression. Want of success is never
inspiriting; actual defeat is a better tonic for the mind. He placed
the morning’s catch in the box he carried for the purpose, and, getting
in the boat, rowed back to the encampment.

Work was never carried on during the middle of the day, and it was not
till three o’clock in the afternoon that he returned.

Isbel had prepared his midday meal for him, and he left her behind,
putting things in order. He had scarcely spoken to her, judging that in
her present humor it was better to say nothing and trust to time and
the absence of Schumer to soothe her feelings. He knew little of the
mentality of Isbel. Arrived at the fishing grounds, he set to with Sru
on a heap of shells that lay awaiting treatment.

The size of the oysters to be dealt with varied considerably. Nothing,
indeed, varies much more than the size of the pearl oysters as taken in
the different fisheries of the world. In some places the oysters are
so small that from three to four thousand go to make a ton; in others
they are so large that a ton weight of them only runs to four or five
hundred. Occasionally gigantic specimens are obtained, weighing from
fourteen to sixteen pounds, bare shells.

The largest of these oysters being handled by Floyd and Sru would
have scaled a thousand to the ton, perhaps, and the medium size about
fifteen hundred.

The afternoon work was scarcely more fruitful than the morning. It
began with the capture of two small, but almost perfect, pearls,
globular in shape, but weighing, perhaps, less than fifteen grains.
These were taken in the first fifteen minutes, and then for the next
three hours nothing showed but slush and slime.

The oysters one after the other were cleared out into the canvas trough
with a sweep of the finger. Each pair of shells were then examined for
adhering pearls or blisters, and flung aside if showing neither. Then,
when sufficient putrefying matter had been collected in the troughs, it
was carefully washed away and searched.

The shells cast aside were collected by two of the men and stored.

It was just at sunset, and at the washing of the last lot, that Floyd,
groping in the seaweed-colored and viscous mass in the trough, felt his
fingers closing upon a pebble. From the size of the object, he fancied
for a second that it was a pebble. Instantly, and before he had brought
it to light, he knew it to be a pearl.

It was. A perfectly round pearl, of enormous size, at least enormous
in comparison with all the pearls he had hitherto seen. But it was not
till he had cleansed it of slime in the bucket of water which Sru held
for him that he saw what a prize he had obtained.

It was near sunset, and the golden light, mellow and tremulous, that
was illuminating the sea and turning the west to flame, lit the
treasure lying in the palm of his hand.

It was a pink pearl, exquisite, lustrous, and almost, one might say,
luminous. It was the size of a marble. Not one of those enormous
glass marbles with colored cores which we all remember as objects of
worship, but an ordinary, practicable, play-with-able marble of full
size.

“Good Lord!” said Floyd.

Sru grunted.

To Sru all this lust for pearls was an inexplicable business. If it had
been a hunt for colored beads, he could have understood it, but pearls
to him had no more beauty than cod’s eyes, and far less beauty than
colored shells. Coming from a district where pearling was unknown, he
had no idea, either, of the value of these things.

But even to Sru the new find was pleasing, because of its color, the
vague luminous pink, the luster, the semi-translucency, and the perfect
shape of the thing pleased him.

But they did not excite him. He could not understand that the lump of
colored nacre that weighed, perhaps, two hundred grains, and was worth,
perhaps, five thousand pounds, was the equivalent of mountains of plug
tobacco, shiploads of cotton stuff, knives, guns, and ammunition,
oceans of gin.

Floyd, after his momentary exclamation, controlled himself, turned the
thing over in his hand as though it were some ordinary object, and then
put it in the pearl box, carefully covering it with the cotton wool. He
put the box in the pocket of his coat, which lay near by, and turned
again to the searching of the last remnants of stuff in the trough.
Nothing more showed, and, having washed his hands in the canvas bucket
which Sru held for him, he put on his coat, and, having given him some
directions as to the storing of the shell, returned across the lagoon
to the house.

He knew that what he had in his pocket was worth all the stuff they
had taken from the lagoon. Schumer had educated him on the subject of
pearls, but even Schumer, with all his knowledge, could not have fixed
the value of this splendid find, perfect in all parts, and weighing at
least a hundred grains.

After supper he took it out of its box and examined it by the light of
the fire. It was even more beautiful by the glow of the burning sticks
than by the glow of the sunset.

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