THE VANISHING OF ISBEL

Next morning, when Floyd came out on the beach, he could not find Isbel.

He called to her, and there was no reply; then he started off to hunt
for her in the grove, but she was not there.

He went to the seaward side of the reef; the breakers were falling and
the gulls flying, but there was no sign of Isbel. She had vanished as
completely as though she had never been. Floyd, in perplexity, shaded
his eyes and gazed toward the sea line, as though he fancied some ship
might have come and taken her off, but the sea line was as empty as
the sea, and the only thing visible away out there was a frigate bird
sailing on the wind.

The bird was passing the island with supreme indifference, traveling
under the dominion of some steady purpose, and heading for some
destination, perhaps half a thousand miles away. It dwindled in the
blue, and Floyd, turning, took his way back to the beach.

The dinghy and quarter boat were still there, otherwise he might
have fancied that she had gone to the fishing camp; the thing seemed
inexplicable, and trying to put it from his mind, he set to on the
preparations for breakfast. He lit the fire and put some water on to
boil, opened some canned stuff, and then, having set a plate and knife
and fork, made the coffee. He did all this automatically, working by
instinct and habit, and almost heedless of what he was doing. A great
desolation had fallen upon him, and a great fear, and in the midst of
this desolation and fear something was calling out to him, a voice he
had never heard before.

With the food untasted before him, he sat with his chin on his hands,
gazing at the beach, white in the burning sunshine, and across the
water of the lagoon, blue and ruffled by the morning wind.

Isbel, from the very first, had been for him a pleasing figure, quaint
and with something of mystery about it. He did not know till now how
much of his subconscious life she had occupied, nor how much he had
really cared for her. She had grown on him till he had come to love
her; that was the fact, and a fact that he recognized now in the pain
and fear and desolation of his heart.

It was the strangest and rarest form of love, this love of his for
Isbel. The love of a lonely man for a flower, or a child, and with just
the hint of the love of a man for a woman.

She was the germ of a woman, and by just that extent did the bond of
sex hold him to her.

His life had been very lonely. Right up from his boyhood he had lived
pretty much uncared for. He had made friendships, but the wandering
life of the sea breaks ties just as it casts away lives; he had no
home, no family, and the men he had grown to care for, old chums and
messmates, were like the gulls–once parted from and lost to sight,
never to be found again.

As he sat like this, on the wind which was setting across the lagoon
from the fishing ground, came a snatch of song from the fishermen who
were at work.

He rose up, and, leaving the food still untasted, came down to the
water’s edge and, pushing the dinghy off, got into her and sculled
across to the camp.

He had some thought of telling his trouble to Sru, and some vague idea
of seeking help from him. Never for a moment had the idea come to him
that Isbel might have joined the fishing camp.

It seemed impossible for her to have got there across the rough coral
of the reef, and equally impossible across the lagoon. Yet when he
landed, the first object that caught his eye was Isbel. She was seated
in front of one of the tents engaged in shredding some coconut pulp
into a bowl, and when she saw him she did not seem at all put out.

She had gone back to her own people, literally, and to look at her he
might have fancied she had never parted from them. Floyd nodded to her.
He could have laughed aloud in the relief of seeing her safe and sound;
she nodded in return, and went on with her work. She did not seem in
the least put out or ashamed of herself for having deserted him, and
now that his fears about her were removed, he felt irritated at her
coolness.

All the hard things that Schumer had said about Kanakas rose up in his
mind–“animals dressed in human skin,” “creatures without souls,” and
so forth.

But these sayings vanished from his mind almost immediately. They had
no clutch in them, simply because they had no truth in them, and
Isbel, as she sat at work before the tent, formed their last antidote.

Never had she looked prettier than this morning, seated there on a
little mat, a fresh scarlet flower in her hair, her feet tucked away,
and her brown hands busily at work.

Floyd came up to her.

“So there you are, Isbel,” said he. “I did not think you would have
gone off and left me like that.”

Isbel made no reply; she continued her work without looking up; one
might have fancied that she had not heard him.

“Of course,” said Floyd, “if you had told me, I would not have tried
to stop you. Why should I? You are perfectly free here to do as you
please. I would even have brought you here myself in the boat. How did
you get here?”

“Along the reef,” said Isbel, without looking up.

“Along the reef–why, you must have cut your feet to pieces!”

For reply Isbel pushed a foot out from under her robe.

It was a perfect little foot, honey-colored, perfect in form, the
toenails polished like agate. He had seen it often before, but it
seemed to him that he saw it now for the first time. As he looked at it
the toes spread apart, and it was flexed and extended, as if to show
that it had sustained neither scratch nor injury. Then it vanished.

“Well, you are cleverer than I am,” said Floyd. He would not stoop to
question her as to how she had negotiated the reef. If she did not
choose to tell, why, then let her keep silent. He turned on his heel
and walked off to where Sru was waiting for him. Then, as they made for
the place where the oysters were lying ready to be examined, he glanced
back; she had vanished into the tent.

He said nothing to Sru on the matter, nor did the foreman make any
comment about the girl. They set to on their task, working an hour
without any result, and then knocking off for a rest and a smoke.

It was during the second spell, and Floyd had just turned to place the
only take of the morning, a small and nearly valueless pearl, in the
box, which he carried for the purpose, when their attention was drawn
by shouts from the fellows who were working in the lagoon.

They had been shouting and splashing at their work, but these outcries
had a new note that brought Floyd and Sru to their feet in a moment,
and down to the lagoon edge.

The dinghy, in which Floyd had come over, was lying on the sand, with
the incoming tide rippling up to her; they pushed her off, reached the
raft, and found what was the matter.

One of the workers, Timau by name, while groping along the bottom of
the lagoon, had stepped into a half-open clamshell, the shell had
closed on his foot like a trap, and he was a prisoner.

This is one of the most terrible accidents that can happen to the
pearl fisher. The great clam grows to an enormous size, and, like the
oyster, he does not lie flat on the sea floor, but tilted at an angle
of twenty-five degrees or more. The sand, if there be much sand where
he lies, tends to silt round him and hide him, and so he lies, a
veritable man-trap for the unwary.

The raft was crowded with men, all shouting, and not one of them,
seemingly, with the vestige of an idea as to how they were to render
assistance. Timau could be seen clearly; he had fallen on his back,
with his right leg bent and the knee pointing upward; the right foot
was held by the terrific shell, whose contracting muscles were powerful
as iron bands.

Nothing could be more shocking than this seizure of a man by a
shellfish, this quiet destruction of the highest form of life by the
lowest form of intelligence.

The shark moves under the dominion of will, and the cuttlefish knows
at least hunger, but the great clam is fed by the water that laves it,
and its only expression of will is to grip and hold whatever dares to
violate its sanctuary.

For a moment Floyd was as much at a loss as the others; then he saw on
the raft the iron bar used for breaking down coral formations that were
encroaching on the beds. It was about two-thirds of the thickness of an
ordinary crowbar, and measured about three feet in length.

He scrambled on to the raft, seized the bar, and dived.

He was not wearing his coat, but otherwise he was fully dressed; in the
moment between seizing the bar and diving he had thought out the whole
plan of action. The great clam, inclined to an angle of twenty degrees,
had to be pried open, and to do so the under shell had to be brought
level with the lagoon floor, so as to obtain a purchase.

The watchers above saw him thrust the bar between the shells, an act
easy enough to accomplish, as they were held four inches and more apart
by the victim’s leg. This done, he inserted his booted foot as if to
tread down the under shell, while he levered up the top shell.

He had reckoned on his weight being sufficient to press down the shell,
forgetting that a man weighed in sea water scales very much less
than a man weighed in air. Yet, even so, he managed to reduce very
considerably the angle, and with a tremendous effort managed to wrench
the two shells apart.

He rose instantly, nearly bursting for want of air, and as he rose the
fellows on the raft, courageous enough now, dived like one man to fetch
up the body of Timau.

They brought it to the raft, where Floyd was resting, and hauled it on
to the logs, while Floyd, on hands and knees, examined it.

Timau seemed a very dead man. The right foot and part of the leg was
black and lacerated; there was neither movement of heart nor sign of
respiration, and Sru, who had also bent down to examine him, rose up
with a grunt.

“Heap dead,” said Sru; “no more fishing for Timau.”

Floyd ordered them to push the raft ashore. This having been done, he
had the body laid out on the hot sand, and started to work at once with
artificial respiration.

He had to do the business alone, for not one of the hands could
understand what was required to be done, nor would they have helped had
they understood. This was witch business; the man was dead and beyond
recall; it was plainly against nature to try and bring him back.

However, back he came. Floyd had been working for some ten minutes when
the first signs of returning life showed themselves. Ten minutes later
Timau was leaning on his elbow, blinking at the world to which he had
returned, hiccuping and endeavoring to speak.

Floyd had him carried up to the nearest tent and laid on a mat. Then,
with the help of Isbel, who had suddenly appeared, he set to to dress
the injured foot. The lower end of the fibula was fractured, all the
skin over the lower part of the leg was lacerated and bruised, and
there was a nasty cut on the instep. They laid wet cloths on the
wounds, made a bandage over them of coconut sennit, and left him so far
recovered that he was able to smoke a pipe.

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