THE GREAT FIGHT

No fires were lit on the fishing beach that evening, nor did the wind
from across the lagoon bring any sound of singing from the fishermen.

Floyd remained at the lookout post while Isbel, returning to the house,
put everything in order and gave a last touch to the defenses and a
last look around. Then she returned and took her place beside him.

The moon, stronger to-night, yellow and brilliant, hung in the
apple-green dusk of the eastern sky. It looked exactly like the quarter
of a crystallized orange; then, as the sky steadily and swiftly
darkened, it lost its yellow tinge and became a sickle of frosted
silver.

The light was powerful enough to sparkle up the whole lagoon and show
the reef like a curving gray road set on either side with the lagoon
water and the foam of the sea.

The fishing beach showed clearly, and the grove, even the tents could
be made out as gray flecks against the darkness of the trees, but sign
of life there was none.

“I would like it better if we could see more of them,” said Floyd.
“They are a lot too quiet.”

“They will come to-night, I think,” said Isbel. “They are hiding now
and talking. Sru will lead them.”

Floyd laughed. “He led them finely on the beach over there this
afternoon,” said he, “lying on his stomach all the time!”

“That is why I fear him,” said Isbel. “He is very clever; the others
are not clever, but they are good to fight. Sru is the head; they are
the hands. Sru is a devil.”

“You did not know what Sru was that time you left me and went back to
them,” said he.

“No,” replied Isbel; “I thought he was good then. He said to me: ‘Why
not come back to your own people?’ The words he said to me grew in my
mind like seeds in the ground. I did not know you then. I thought you
were the same as Schumer.”

“You know me now.”

“Yes,” replied Isbel, “I know you now.”

He could see her profile against the stars and the line of her
delicately shaped head. She was sitting with her hands about her knees,
in just the same position as on the day when, drawing near the beach,
Schumer had stood to receive him, and Isbel had sat watching, seemingly
indifferent, gazing at him with those eyes whose gaze held so much of
the unknown.

She wore a flower in her hair that day, and she wore a flower in her
hair to-night, a perfumed blossom plucked as she was passing through
the grove. The scent of it came to him with a trace of the hot,
gorse-like perfume of her hair, and for a moment he forgot Sru, the
island, the fight on the beach, and the whole desperate position. For a
moment only. As they sat beneath the stars, watching the moonlight grow
stronger upon the lagoon water and the reef, suddenly from away out
there came a cry like the sudden clamoring of sea fowl. A sound fierce
and sharp and with the ring of triumph in it. The invisibility of the
enemy and the absolute silence they had maintained up till now lent the
sound a weird significance.

“They are starting,” said Floyd.

Isbel nodded. She said nothing; she was listening. Then she said: “They
will have been talking, all sitting round as they were to-day. Sru will
have been making plans to come here and kill us. Then when all their
minds went together like men with spears they shouted like that and
jumped to their feet and started.”

She spoke like a person who was watching it all in some magic glass,
slowly and in a dreamy manner and with a detachment as though what she
were viewing had nothing to do with them.

“They’ll start more before I have done with them,” said Floyd viciously.

The events of the day, the tension of waiting, and that shout, cruel as
a barbed spear coming out of the night, had raised the fierce fighting
spirit of his race, a spirit all the more potent and terrible from the
underlying sobriety that tempers its fierceness and levity.

“It’s funny to think we may be knocked out before the sun rises again,”
said he. “What do you think happens to a man when he’s dead, Isbel?”

“I don’t know. It is, I think, all the same as before he is born. He
doesn’t know.”

“That’s what I have often thought myself,” said he. “Look! What is
that?”

Away toward the far end of the reef they saw moving points upon the
coral. Huge insects seemed crawling here and there, aimlessly at
first, and now approaching nearer.

“They are coming,” said Floyd, seizing a rifle. “They are spreading
themselves out, and that confounded coral gives them good sheltering
places. We must stop them if possible.”

He stood up, and, putting the rifle to his shoulder, aimed it at the
nearest moving spot and fired. He continued blazing away till the
chambers were empty. The movement ceased, but almost immediately it
recommenced, and now they could see the brown figures crouching and
crawling, spread out fanwise, taking cover at every projection, and
always advancing closer.

It was almost impossible to fire effectively, owing to the uncertain
light and the fact that at the first flash every figure fell flat or
dodged behind cover.

Between the rough coral and the point where they stood lay forty yards
or so of smooth ground, across which the final rush would be made.

“It seems we can’t stop them,” said Floyd as he emptied the contents of
the second rifle, while the girl reloaded, “and once they get near the
edge of that smooth bit they’ll rush us. Get everything together when I
give the word and make back for the house. Ah, I had one then!”

A shriek following the shot he had just fired told of a hit, but
it did not stop the advance. On the contrary, the wretches had now
reached the psychological point, the point where instinct told them
collectively that a rush must surely succeed, and where optimism told
them individually that it was the next man who would be hit.

They left cover boldly, and, heedless of the rough coral, of the
pitfalls and sharp edges, leaped to the attack like bounding kangaroos.

Floyd bagged two of them with his two last shots; then calling to
Isbel, who had also been firing, he led the way through the trees
toward the house.

Isbel, with forethought, had lit the lamp in the main room, and the
glow of it shining through the loopholes in the walls showed them their
way. Once inside, they barred the door, placed the guns on the table,
and began to reload.

They did not speak a word. Coolly and swiftly they shoved the
cartridges in their places, and then, each with a rifle, stood at
attention to the hell of voices from outside.

Never could Floyd have believed that human beings were capable of such
sounds of ferocity and malevolence. Only in the long boo-hoo of the
storm that had torn the bones of the _Tonga_ to pieces had he heard
anything like this outburst.

Fists and feet were thundering at the door, spear points poking through
the openings in the walls, but all that was nothing to the uproar of
the voices. The calling of monkeys and the shrieks of parrots seemed
mixed with the howl of hyenas, and more terrible than these came an
incessant, fierce whistling, harsh as the whistling of steam.

Floyd was less a philosopher than a man of action, yet even so, and
though he had no time for philosophy in such a crisis, his mind for a
moment was held by one stupendous fact–these fiends storming the house
were not devils just let loose from the infernal regions; they were the
“hands.”

The men he had worked with and overseen, pleasant and childlike
creatures full of fun and laughter, most of them. It is true that many
of them had, when in repose, that hard, set expression which seems to
have come from ages of watching across the sun blaze on the sea, but
their faces could express good humor, one might say, fluently, and as
they had always been well treated on the island they had never cause to
express anything else.

When Floyd had seen them first on the day that he and Schumer had
boarded the _Southern Cross_ they had struck him as a very hard lot,
and a good deal of that expression had come from the shell nose rings
and the slit ear lobes distinguishing most of them; as he got to
know them better that impression became less vivid. Yet it had been
the right one. The shell nose rings and split ear lobes were surely
“features” inasmuch as they spoke of ages and ages of savagery, blood,
and darkness.

Yet the second impression had been right in its way. Despite all their
savagery these people were human, had in them a certain bonhomie and
sense of humor, and possessed many of those traits which we associate
with the word “gentleman.” The latter curious fact had been impressed
on Floyd several times in his dealings with them. Sru, for instance,
the worst of the lot, though he had probably dined off his enemy in his
time, and though he had planned and plotted murder, would not have hurt
your feelings for the world by word or gesture. Floyd, having reloaded,
disregarding the door toward which the main attack seemed directed,
chose loopholes near the ones through which the spear points were being
thrust, and fired with effete, to judge by the sounds that followed
the shots. Isbel, crawling and creeping close to the walls, seized on
the spear shafts, and, using all her weight, broke them off.

She managed to break three like this, and then returned to the loading.
Dark, cool, swift, and absolutely fearless, she seemed in these
mad minutes the very spirit of destruction. They had ammunition in
abundance, and when she was not engaged in reloading for Floyd she
used one of the revolvers herself. The smoke of the firing blown back
through the loopholes made a haze round the steadily burning lamp, near
which, from the ceiling, a big spider was swinging from his thread,
laying his nets utterly undisturbed by the sounds and fumes of the
fight.

Then gradually the attack died down. The gentry outside had exhausted
themselves mostly by yelling; they had done no damage and had received
several injuries. Had they possessed a single firearm they might
have made the position untenable, but they had nothing, and they
had evidently come to recognize the fact that poking spears through
loopholes was useless work, besides being dangerous.

Floyd wiped his brow with his coat sleeve.

“The fools have never thought of forcing the door,” said he; “they
might have done it with that crowbar. You remember the piece of iron I
used to break open the big clamshell. They never thought of that. They
came with spears only, and there is nothing over on this side they can
use to force the door with. Let’s hope they won’t remember about it.”

“Listen!” said Isbel.

Sounds were coming from the grove at the back of the house, sounds
more of a jubilant than a warlike nature.

Floyd knitted his brow; then his face cleared.

“I know what it is,” said he. “They have got at the cache.”

The fragment of moon low down in the west lit the beach, and very soon
Floyd’s suspicion was justified. Peeping through the loopholes of the
front wall, they saw the whole band of the enemy debouching on the
sands away to the left, and every man laden with loot.

Some were carrying bolts of cloth, and others cases of provisions and
boxes of tobacco.

They thought themselves beyond rifle range, and, like children, they
wanted to examine their treasures. Floyd, assured that none of them had
remained behind, opened the door, and, rifle in hand, stood watching
them. Then he opened fire, and they scattered, leaving their treasures
on the sand. Some ran along the lagoon edge, toward the reef opening;
one dashed right into the water and swam in the same direction, while
the main body made back for the shelter of the grove.

Not one of them was hit as far as he could see, and the men who had
made toward the reef opening would return by the seaward side of the
reef.

“I almost wish I had left them alone,” said he. “It will only make them
more vicious. The sight of that stuff lying there will keep them going.
However, it is too late to bother now.”

He turned back to the house and shut the door. He had been speaking to
Isbel, and fancied her to be just behind him. She was not. She was at
the table, quietly preparing some food. He noticed now for the first
time that the flower was still in her hair. It looked dark purple in
the lamplight. And now for a moment a strange sensation stole over
him, as though the whole of the business were a fantastic dream, a
sensation of unreality that infected even his own being. It passed,
and, coming to the table where the food was now lying beside the rifles
and ammunition, he drew one of the chairs up and sat down sideways to
the board.

Isbel remained standing, and as they ate they talked, and what they
said had little to do with the main business in hand. It was not
a thing to be talked about. The situation was hopeless, if ever a
situation was hopeless, and no plan had yet appeared to either of them
by which their position could be bettered.

Ideas had come to Floyd only to be dismissed as useless, the idea, for
instance, of making a dash from the house and taking to the dinghy,
which they could easily push off. That would not help them in the
least, since there was no place of safety to which the dinghy could
take them. Their assailants would not expose themselves to rifle fire
by day, and by night they would attack as they had done before.

The only spot where they could put up a defense for any time would be
the pierhead at the break on the opposite side of the reef, and there
they would be cut off from all food supplies.

“It’s a good thing we have plenty of food here and water,” said Floyd.
“We have water enough for a week and food for a fortnight. I expect
those fellows will get back to the fishing camp to-morrow and leave us
alone.”

He said it for the sake of saying something, but Isbel shook her head.
She knew the men they had to deal with.

“They will never leave us till we kill them or they kill us,” said she,
clearing the things from the table. “Or,” she finished, “till we kill
Sru.”

“Yes,” said Floyd, “he’s the center of the whole business. Well, we
will do our best to nail him.”

He rose up and went to one of the loopholes by the door. Peeping
through, he could see the trade goods still lying on the sands, but not
a sign of the enemy.

One of the most disturbing things in this fight was the manner in
which the attackers would suddenly efface themselves, as after the
first fight over on the fishing beach. They had vanished now as though
annihilated, leaving neither outpost nor sign to hint of what plan they
might be brewing.

The moon was very low down over the western reef. It was close to dawn,
and soon the sun would be flooding the world with light. If another
attack was in preparation it would not be long delayed, yet not a sound
came to indicate an approach to the house.

“All the same they will come,” said Isbel, “and they will come before
day.”

“You think so?” asked Floyd.

Isbel nodded. She had taken a seat on one of the chairs, and was
sitting with her hands clasping her knees. Floyd, who had taken his
seat at the table, was leaning his arms upon it and following with his
eyes the graining of the wood.

The spider overhead, who had finished making, or maybe repairing, his
net, had just fallen on luck; a long-legged fly that had been flitting
about the rafters was his prisoner.

The fly, caught by a few strands of the infernal web, was making a
fierce resistance. It was caught by one of its legs and by the body.
The wings were free, and the buzz of their vibration made Floyd look up.

Then, for something to do, he rose and examined the thing more closely.
Isbel rose, too.

The spider was quite patient about his work, and horribly scientific
in his methods. The buzzing wings did not disturb him in the least. He
ascended to the rafter which was his base, and then came down again,
fixed a thread to one of his victim’s legs, and reascended. He was
binding the legs together, making everything absolutely secure before
the final assault and the moment when he would bury his fangs in his
prey and suck its blood.

Watching the little tragedy, Floyd and Isbel for a moment almost forgot
their own position. Then Floyd, with a laugh, raised his finger and
broke the strands of the web, releasing the fly.

“It was in about as bad a position as we are,” said he. “Maybe it’s an
omen.”

Isbel did not know what the word “omen” meant, nor did she ask, for at
that moment, as they stood in silence watching the released one trying
its wings again, a sound coming from the back of the house made them
turn.

A soft, stealthy sound, as though people were creeping close to the
wall, and now and then the sharp snap of some stick of the undergrowth
trodden upon and broken.

Floyd, springing to the table, seized a revolver and began firing
through the loophole of the back wall. He fired six shots at random;
then he paused to listen.

The sound continued. The men outside were evidently crouching at
whatever work they were on, and so were safe and below the level of the
loopholes.

“Brutes!” said he. “There is no chance of reaching them, but what on
earth can they be about?”

Isbel, who had been peeping through one of the chinks near the door,
came toward him.

“The day has broken,” said she.

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