THE CHINESE RING
NORMAN REILLY RAINE
THE clock face in the tower of the city hall glowed like a moon in the purple night. A vagrant breeze drifted up a narrow street below the tower, carrying with it a hint of summer days to come.
Lights beamed behind latticed windows in opal, yellow and murky orange, silhouetting slouching figures within, and in the open doorways.
Forms moved with scuffling feet, back and forth across the road, or lounged against poster-daubed, gaily painted buildings, gossiping in liquid vowels, and smoking long-stemmed pipes with bowls of brass.
Street lights shone dimly on high cheek-bones and narrow, elusive eyes. From the shops came a faint, sickly smell of the Orient.
A man turned the corner from Queen street, walking close in the shadow of the buildings. He lowered his head to the gleam of the street lamps and halted once or twice to glance back over his shoulder. In the gloom of a blue-trimmed doorway he stopped, and lit a cigarette. When the glow of the match was out he turned swiftly, and sbpped down a few dirty wooden steps to a panelled door. He rapped twice, then again, and the door swung open.
Within was a shop, lighted by one faint bulb and littered with the fantastic wares of the Far East. Golden dragons writhed over backgrounds of colored silk, to form a setting for uncouth boxes of mud-encased eggs. Lichee nuts were heaped in a hammered bowl, and over the counter hung strings of withered pork or various other kinds of meat.
The shopkeeper, a waxen-faced Chinese, was sunk in a deep chair by a smoking kerosene heater. As the visitor entered he looked up, and his narrow eyes flickered almost imperceptibly, but he did not move. Only his lips parted in quiet greeting.
“Hello, Montreal,” he said.
The other grunted, and his quick eyes swept about the room. Then he became seated on a tea hamper wrapped in split reed. His face showed vaguely in the faint light. The hawk-like eyes were veiled, and his mouth was marked with .vicious lines. Every detail of his supple figure revealed strength and a capacity for uncanny swiftness.
They sat thus, for some time, silent and motionless. Then the Chinese spoke again, and his voice was suave and even, his English perfect. As he talked he motioned with one delicate-veined hand, on the middle of which glowed a ruby ring of exquisite fire, engraved in tiny characters, and set in filigree.
“I think,” said he, “that we had better not play to-night, my friend.”
“You be damned, Chong!” the other retorted. His tone held a suggestion of the patois of Quebec. “It is too late to come that game now! You’ve bled me^for three thousand bucks, and by. . . . !”
His eyes glittered angrily and he jumped from his seat.
The other checked him with one of his quiet gestures. Reaching backward he drew out a small table of ebony and mother of pearl, and placed it between them. Then, from a lacquered box, he took a deck of Chinese playing cards, shaped like a woman’s fingers and marked in red and black. Montreal cupped a match to a cigarette with tobacco-yellowed hands, and they settled down to play.
T?OR hours there was no sound except ^ for quiet breathing and the occasional scrape of feet. The clock in the city hall boomed two. then three. The play went on.
Chong Sun’s face was impassive, but as the hours wore by tiny points of sweat broke through the parchment skin. His forehead shone in the dim light. He was losing steadily, and the ruby on his finger trembled with malignant fire. During the intervals of play, the French-Canadian’s eyes were fastened on the jewel. Before him on the table was a pile of yellowbacked bills. A few lay unheeded on the floor.
Four o’clock! Big Ben again boomed.
Chong Sun leaned back. His eyes were pin pricks of hell, but his manner gave no hint of the calamity that had overtaken him.
“I am through,” he said calmly; “the place is yours.” His fingers shook, however, as he lit a cigarette. Even an Oriental cannot see the work and savings of a lifetime vanish without emotion.
For a moment his opponent did not answer. His eyes were still on the ruby. For long weeks he had coveted it—coveted it for its fire—its beauty and value—and for the power it gave to the possessor. Chong Sun was hated and feared by his compatriots, and to his cruelty and ruthlessness many a transplanted coolie paid slaving tribute, but his word was law in the Chinese quarter, and his influence was said to lie in the liquid jewel. Men cringed before that flaming symbol and paid reluctant homage. All this the gangster knew, and when he spoke his voice sounded very thick, and strangely unsteady.
“Your ring!” he said huskily. Caution tugged at his brain, but the lust of the born gambler stamped it down. He smacked his palm swiftly on the heap of bills before him, then flung it wide to indicate the room. IJis thin lips curled and his eyes snapped.
“Your ring against the pile!” he challenged again, and sat With shaking knees.
Chong Sun met the gage with smiling mockery.
“No!” he said softly. “There is not money enough in Toronto to buy that ring. Its value is beyond your comprehension, my friend, because of what it means!”
Montreal shook himself out of his trance and laughed nastily.
“You’re afraid, you dirty rat!” he sneered.
The Chinese flushed beneath the dull skin, and measured his man for a moment between lids a hair-breadth apart. Then—
“I’ll take you!” he breathed.
Thirty minutes later, Chong’s left hand, which grasped his cards, went white under the polished nails. At the same moment, his other crept almost imperceptibly toward the waist of his pongee blouse.
A/ïONTREAL was absorbed in the play, an exultant smile in the corners of his thin lips. He looked up suddenly and then threw
himself bodily backward, chin!
Quick as he was, he was ripped from cheek to
“You yellow swine!” he screamed and struggled to his feet, his practised hand dropping to his hip. His automatic coughed.
The heavy bullet caught Chong Sun in the throat. He crumpled in a bubbling heap upon the floor. The oil stove, kicked over by his fall, spread a pool of flame about him, and licked up the scattered bills with greedy tongues.
The gangster stepped swiftly forward, kicked a long, ivory-handled knife from his enemy’s clutching fingers, and tore the ring away. He hesitated just a moment, and his eyes were polished steel, as the potentialities of the jewel beat like a hammer-blow upon his brain. Then he slipped like a shadow from the burning room.
Three days later, a long freight train rumbled Westward over the prairie. Riding the rods of a boxcar was a lean, powerful figure, with hawk-like eyes that were filled with grit. His face was black over a livid cut, and his limbs were numb with cold, but' on a string hung over his heart was a ruby ring of exquisite fire, engraved in tiny characters and set in filigree. •
TT WAS barely sunrise, but the market A place of Papeete swarmed with the polyglot population of a Pacific paradise. Islanders from all the South Seas rubbed bare, brown shoulders with Javanese pearlers, smallpox-pitted coolies from the China coast, Australasian adventurers and lean-muscled warriors from Palawan. The early light touched tawny skins, flashing teeth, and flower-bedecked heads, and a score of strange and alien tongues wove the fantastic pattern of bartering conversation.
Stepping from the shade of a gaudily painted Chinese cafe, a young girl threaded swiftly through the crowd. The sun, growing imperceptibly hotter, caught with glossy lights her long black hair, and touched with brightness the crimson and white of her pareu. Small, even teeth laughed between coral lips as she greeted her acquaintances, and her dark eyes shone under a crown of sweet hibiscus blossoms. Clothed in but the single garment, her lithe young body moved with marvellous grace, and she picked her small, bronzed feet daintily over the littered roadway.
A stalwart Islander of the far-off Torres Straits, still drunk from the previous night’s debauch, jostled roughly toward her. Clad only in a yellow breech-clout, with pierced nose and ears, and his black, file-pointed teeth showing in a vicious grin, he was the epitome of ruthless savagery. He grunted as he pushed forward, and his swine-like eyes were fastened upon the lovely face of the native girl. Reaching her, he grasped her slender wrist and spoke rapidly in his own tongue. The girl could not understand the words, but his drunken leer was sufficient. She jerked her arm loose and with eyes flashing, dealt him a ^tinging blow upon the mouth. He laughed exultantly and pulled her toward him, one huge hand grasping the smooth skin under her chin.
At that moment, a strong form thrust itself between them. There was the smack of a fist on hard, black flesh, and the savage toppled backward under a stall, metal ornaments jingling as he fell. He was on his feet in an instant, and, with a keen pearling knife in his hand and fighting blood rampant, leaped for the newcomer. The latter, a white man, met the cannibal’s rush with a practised smash and sent him flying into the gutter, where he was surrounded by a group of jeering Tahitians, one of whom flung his knife out into the Place.
The rescuer turned to the girl, his hooded eyes resting on the reddened fingermarks of her neck. As he presented his back to the Islander, the latter leaped to his feet, seized a cocoanut from a basket and brought it down upon the white man’s head. Then he
jumped like a leopard through the crowd. His victim crumpled in the dirty road.
Voluble gendarmes came forward, and a white-clad French soldier or two, but after a glance at the ragged, prostrate figure they turned away. They are accustomed to violence in the Islands, and he was a common fellow—a drunken sailor no doubt—and the walk to the Bureau was dusty and warm.
The girl knelt and stanched the man’s gaping wound with her pareu, then, assisted by the people about her, he was lifted and carried from the marketplace to her home.
MONTREAL, otherwise Guy de Tournier, jailbird, forger, and dangerous gunman, badly wanted by the police of North America, and now a Tahitian beachcomber, opened his eyes, then, as a blade of pain shot through the pupils, closed them again. He lay still for a time on a bed of matting, his aching head resting on an ebony block. Outside, the sun beat in pitiless heat, white rays cutting through the chinks in the walls and across the cool, shadowed room. A beetle clicked its way over the floor. A slight breeze stirred the palm fronds, and in a nearby taro patch a native sang monotonously. A tiny copra bug, of a royal polished blue, crawled over the man’s hairy arm. Otherwise, no sound nor movement. Montreal, shuttlecock of circumstance, drifted into easy slumber.
When he awoke it was evening. A soft scuffling of naked feet caught his attention. By the light of an orange lamp he saw the girl as she passed smoothly about the room, re-touching objects here and there with slim, deft hands. Her movement drew his observation to the details of the apartment, and a feeling of amazement succeeded his idle gaze.
The room, about thirty feet square, was outfitted in a way suggestive to the crook’s mind of a movie set of the Orient.
On the polished floor were rugs that breathed quality. Light, silken panels divided the frail walls. A low bamboo table held a pile of rolled parchments, heavily sealed in red and black. Set in a wall recess, and visible only when the wind swayed its exquisite hangings, was a Buddha of flawless jade, with a heavy base and a cap of pitted gold.
Hearing his slight movement, the girl turned her soft eyes toward Montreal, then, noiseless, left the room. It seemed to the Canadian that he had but closed his lids and opened them, yet above him loomed a form that certainly had not been there a moment before. The light touched the edges of a richly brocaded gown, and outlined the powerful figure of the man gazing down at him. It showed too, a face, in the half shadow, round and bland, with twinkling almond eyes behind square spectacles, with heavy metal rims. As the Chinese turned toward the light, Montreal saw that his expression was one of kindly benevolence. The folds of flesh about the puckered mouth were set in sympathetic lines, and as he leaned over to readjust with skilful fingers the bloody bandage about the stranger’s head, his touch was strangely gentle.
He spoke, first in soft Tahitian, then in fluent French. His tone was low and even, with a background of quiet dignity.
“Monsieur,” he said, “my name is Cha Fun and you are a guest in my house. My daughter and I welcome you with deep gratitude, and are grieved that you have been injured so. I beg that you will consider this your home, for as long as you wish to stay.” Montreal’s eyes narrowed. He had an instinctive distrust of fine words, particularly from the lips of Chinese, for his experiences with them in the drug traffic of Canadian cities had filled him with dislike and a huge contempt. Something of this was evident in the ungracious grunt with which he answered his host’s assurances.
Cha Fun dressed the wound with swift precision, then washed his hands in the bowl the girl held for him. It made a picturesque tableau—the white man, wan and bloody, upon the floor, the bulk of the old Oriental casting weird shadows on the swaying drapes as he wiped his glistening fingers, and the slim, golden-skinned beauty of the girl. The Chinese spoke again.
“You will tend him well, Ata-ea, my Sea Flower,” he instructed. “In the morning I will come again and speak with the youth.” He moved silently from the room.
Sea Flower brought food, and lifting the outcast’s head fed him with her own dainty fingers. When he had done she smoothed his face with a cool, damp cloth, then crouched native fashion at his feet and played with the blossoms that shone like stars in the cloud of her tumbled hair. Montreal slept again. He awakened once or twice in the night. The light was almost out, but the form of Ata-ea showed dimly in the shadows, and he caught the soft beam of her eyes as she leaned forward to his movement, then settled back again.
Ç^NE month later, Montreal, convalescent, leaned against the doorpost of Cha Fun’s home and gazed through the palms to the smoking barrier reef. Far beyond the burning lagoon Moorea arose, emerald and amethystine in the distance. Outside the ring of surf, island traders crawled under a sky toward the harbor gap of Papeete. Naked brown children played in the shadows of the breadfruits, or dipped in the turquoise sea.
Not ordinarily given to introspection, the Canadian’s hawk-like features were set in
grim and bitter lineé, and there was mad revolt in his soul. There are times in the lives of wastrels, when the incoherent longings of squandered years leap unbidden into the throat. In the past few weeks Montreal had learned many things. For instance, he had learned that there did exist true gratitude, which insisted upon requital for its own sake. He learned too, that a yellow skin and slanting eyes did not of necessity mean cunning, avarice and vice, but that it might also represent a goodly life and a kindly philosophy, and, for the first time in his career, he experienced genuine care— solicitude for him, Montreal, pariah, gambler and crook. The novelty of it had sponged away his cynicism. Deep in his soul the old suspicion lingered, but logic forced admission of the truth, resulting, oddly enough—or naturally, as one views these things—in his present nostalgia. And then there was the girl.
IN MONTREAL’S previous life women had borne no part, except as he had used them in various shady jobs, then cast them aside. He was utterly without feeling regarding them—and yet, through his hybrid makeup, ran a strain of subconscious idealism which was but now coming to the surface. In the days of his convalescence, Ata-ea had been constantly at his side, his gentle servingmaid, her heart filled with a gratitude that had turned to flaming love. It found its answer in the soul of the man, but in the light of his new-found scruples he had determined to stamp out the emotion that daily wrapped him more closely about, and neither by word nor sign did he give hint to the girl of his feelings. Rather, he repulsed her with studied coldness.
Sea Flower was not as the other Island women. She was too fine, too pure, and when, to himself, in the fragrant dark he had given rein to hisMmaginings, there arose before him the picture of a fresh spring night in a teeming city and of a stark-eyed yellow man who bubbled out his life in a burning room. Came, too, a later vision, of a day in mid-Pacific, when the coolie cook of the schooner upon which he had shipped from Frisco had glimpsed on a string about his neck the gleam of the ruby ring. He thought of the fellow’s popping eyes and the livid hate that leaped into them, and, later, the grope of his murderous fingers in the black and stinking fo’castle as he sought the gangster’s life. Montreal had laid him out, near dead, and in retaliation was left by the skipper upon the beach at Papeete. After that he hugged the sinister jewel to himself, not daring to exhibit it for disposal, but its possession was a curse and a constant reminder. No, he decided, Ata-ea, dear, gentle little maid, was not for such as he.
In the long nights of his recovery, after the old Chinese had won his reluctant confidence, they had sat in a quiet group on the broad paepae, with the breeze rustling the tamarinds and the dull gleam of Bougainvillea blossoms in the velvet dark. Sea Flower was at the old man’s feet, her eyes upon his face, and her parted lips red and moist as the lips of a child, while he told of a black deed on a burning beach, and of how he had made her his daughter.
Ata-ea’s father was a famous Tahitian pearlfisher named Toka-tamu, who was known through all the Southern Ocean. He and Cha Fun were partners and friends, About twelve years before, Toka-tamu, who had gone ashore at Nukahiva in the Marquesas to negotiate for pearls, was found at dawn murdered on the sand. His partner took ashore with him three men to track the killers, and in their absence the balance of the crew put out to sea with the vessel and her store of pearls. They were never again heard from. Cha Fun returned to Tahiti, and adopting the daughter of his dead friend began life afresh. He had no equal in the Islands in the judging of pearls and soon recuperated his losses. Periodically he visited his home in Hankow on the muddy Yangtze, and occasionally was gone on mysterious missions, entailing months of travel in the reef-broken waters of the farther archipelagos. Of these voyages, however, he did not speak. From him the girl absorbed a knowledge of the legends of the Islands, and her responsive nature repaid his care with a deep and grateful love. He was a tender father to her, and guarded her jealously against intrusion. She had grow'n with the years beautiful in mind and body, and the fame of Ata-ea, the Sea Flower, was sung on the rolling Pacific, in airy birdcage houses, and on the beaches of the Coral Atolls. Ata-ea, daughter of Cha Fun!
/"\F ALL this the beachcomber thought, as he stared with unseeing eyes upon the clouded horizon. Then he turned at the sound of bare pattering feet in the shadowed room behind him. The slim, rounded form of Ata-ea, clad only in the white and scarlet of a diminutive pareu, slipped like a wind-blown flower through the doorway, and stood full in the sun, her satin arms spread wide. Then she turned quickly to him, and her white teeth flashed in a ripple of laughter.
“Ah, man with the iron lips!” she mocked, “will you come again with Sea Flower to her garden?” Without awaiting a reply, she ran toward the beach, her smooth limbs flecked with sun-gold as she flitted through the palms. He gazed after her with tightened lips, and longing tugging his heartstrings—a longing that grew daily more intense.
Continued on page 43
Continued from page 21
A few days later, while swimming together in the lagoon, Montreal saved the girl from the attack of a giant ray, and her vehement gratitude precipitated a crisis] After the great fish was driven off, they stumbled through the shallows, cutting their feet upon the coral, and stood at last with shaking limbs upon the sand. Ata-ea clung to him sobbing. Suddenly his love broke in a wave of protecting tenderness that swept through the gangster’s soul like fire. He drew her warm, wet body close to him and crushed her in his arms. Her trembling lips met his for one long mad second. Then, without reading the gladness in her burning eyes, a sudden revulsion seized him. He freed her and fighting down his emotion, wheeled abruptly and returned to the house. That night he announced to Cha Fun his determination to return to the town. The old philosopher, about to expostulate, glanced keenly at his guest, then, deep in the wisdom of centuries, quietly acquiesced. Ata-ea did not appear for the rest of the day, and, despite his longing, Montreal was glad.
THEIR last meal together was a gala affair. The native servants were dressed in snowy pareus with Tahitian love blossoms twined in their hair. Shaded lights were on the table amid a heaped-up wealth of mountain flowers, and outside in the perfect night a great moon scattered filtered silver through the mango leaves. On the broad veranda native musicians with soft, stringed instruments crooned songs of love, and sun, and surf, life and red death in the wastes of the Coral Seas.
Sea Flower appeared like an apparition from an inner room, clad as a native dancer in white and yellow pareu, her dark head crowned with a ring of fragrant jasmine. The subtle perfume crept through the room, and turned the blood to wine. Montreal caught his breath in tribute to her beauty. She avoided his gaze and glided to a place next to her guardian, who had assumed the dress of his rightful station—that of a Mandarin of his native land. It well became his quiet dignity.
Afterward, they went to the veranda, and crouched, native fashion, upon their heels. The musicians, deep in the shadow of the vines, broke into a quick, sighing melody that breathed of centuries of warm night winds blowing in from the beating sea. They tapped the ryhthm with shiny brown heels against the floor, their eyes half closed. Free arms moved in undulating motion, and the theme of the melody rose and fell with the throb of their savage blood. Ata-ea’s tiny foot beat time, and her eyes held stars. She glanced eagerly at Cha Fun who nodded and smiled.
THE girl rose to her feet, and her gaze sought that of the beachcomber for one hot, fleeting second. Then she danced, like a moving dream, the upaupahura—the Tahitian Singing Dance of Love! The moonlight dwelt on her lovely face and slipped from her rounded young breasts. It caressed the curves of her perfect limbs, and painted a silver poem on the sheen of her satin skin. Her coral lips flung laughter, and her eyes held a dare of the Gods. She was an essence, a charm, a song—and a damnation! In a twisted maze of peerless grace she moved. She dragged out the heart of the man she loved and mocked it, then melted, and her love was the love of a slave! The music quickened! Like a flash, her eyes sought those of the white man, and her movements took added beauty. Her glance held coals of tropic fire, and the glide of her matchless body drove the wild blood throbbing to his temples. The natives sang now, sudden, barbarous, strong as the surging combers, mad as the boiling reefs! The Canadian was desperate with longing for this wonderful golden flower. He could see the yearning in her eyes, through the fringed shadow of her lashes as she sought his lips for a message he dared not speak. The savage music beat into his brain. Cha Fun leaned to him, a question on his lips, and his hand rested on the white man’s knee. Montreal looked down with burning eyes, then— “Oh, my God!” screamed Montreal, and white fear twisted his soul. He leaped to his feet, one hand grasping madly at his breast, but his gaze was
riveted on the middle finger of Cha Fun’s hand, where glowed a ruby ring of exquisite fire, engraved in tiny characters and set in filigree!
A moon’s broad ray stretched along the strip of sand which fringed the smooth lagoon. In the deep shadow of the cocoa palms land crabs scuttled, rustling the withered fronds. The artillery of the barrier reef rolled in incessant drumfire, and a high-voiced tropic bird stirred uneasily in the night wind. Beyond the rim of sand and perched on two slender palm boles was a native birdcage house, and between house and water was the black bulk of Montreal, stretched drunk upon the sand.
THE moon swept the sere arc of sky, with stars like diamonds on a fold of purple velvet, and the shadow of the Canadian shifted. The moon sank, pale, behind the mist-wrapped fangs of Orohena and Montreal staggered to his feet. With bloodshot eyes and reeking breath he stumbled through the palm grove to the road. The land crabs rustled to their holes, watching the rake’s progress with shoe-button eyes. They heard his wavering step upon the coral, then returned to their marauding. The beachcomber passed the copra compound, skirted the tamarind-sheltered “Cercle,” and walked along the Quai du Commerce which bordered the lagoon. He stretched out on a wooden bench before the post office and fell asleep again. At dawn, he plunged into the sea, clothed as he was in the white drill remnants of his dinner trimness of three nights before. Refreshed but again tortured by thoughts which caused him to grip his palms for control, he returned to old Teti-pao and his birdcage home.
Late that evening he came forth again, and took the road to a maze of native dives which clustered around the quay. From every open doorway came song and rippling laughter. The town was more than ordinarily crowded, for a liner was in port. As he walked the poorly lighted streets, he watched cynically the movements of a bevy of white-clad passengers as they dipped chaste noses into a stinking native den, then hastily withdrew at the occupants’ ribald shouts of greeting. Some of the men, however, detached themselves from the party. They had been drinking, and re-entered the place with sensuous longing to see the far-famed hula, and then, insufficiently shocked, withdrew again.
Montreal, turning in to the place, sent one licentious pilgrim spinning with a thrust of his lean shoulder. The man made indignant outcry, but became suddenly meek when he saw the hell in the outlaw’s livid face. He scraped in apology and backed out. Montreal slumped into a chair and called for a drink. The place was crowded with the riff-raff of the South Pacific. Guano hunters and stalwart-chested divers from the pearling beds drank, sang, and fought. The air was rotten with stale tobacco and cheap drink, and crude oaths in a dozen fuddled tongues exploded over spilled wine.
HOURS later he raised his dripping head to the sound of a name that beat his clouded brain like the sharp tap of a drum. It seemed unreal—a reflex of his thoughts—yet, as he listened, he heard it repeated. The den had grown quiet. A dozen patrons snored in obscene slumber under the tables. The rest had gone to their kennels beneath_ the mangoes and the palms—all, that is, but the gross-bellied Kanaka proprietor who, steeped in his own potations, was stretched behind a chest, and three others who sat at a table a yard or so away from the gangster, engaged in earnest talk. Occasionally they glanced at his sodden figure, but Montreal feigned sleep, his cheek in the reeking kava spilled on the table top.
The leader of the trio, a bull-necked Australian blackbirder with a nasty twist to his lips, and cold, dead eyes did most of the speaking. He was eagerly seconded by a jaundiced French overseer,
' from the convict settlement at Noumea, whose flabby chin shook when he spoke, and who sucked the absinthe remnants in his dirty glass, mute appeal for re-
plenishment in his faded eyes. The third had the least to say. He sat, dumbly sullen, but his black eyes gleamed. He was a half-caste shell poacher—Barley Skape, they called him—spawn of a New Hebridean pearlfisher and the Slavic stewardess of an itinerant brigantine, and his cold cruelty filled even the lawless scuts of the beach with awe. He was handsome, in a dark, exotic fashion, with finely caustic features marred by the thickness of his lips, but his huge body was superb in its animal strength. He had been known to pull a wild mountain pig limb from limb, in sheer bravado, and devour a mouthful of the quivering flesh. Than these three, the Islands could not have produced a more sinister combination. They talked now, heads together, steeped in mischief, and the Canadian was unable to hear more. A few minutes later they left the place together. As they passed Montreal, the half-breed grasped him by the hair and twisted his head to look into his face. Seeing only drunken stupor, he flung it back upon the table.
As soon as the door closed, Montreal got to his feet. Soft as a cat he followed, cursing to himself as the moon threw his shadow on the coral. He crept to the corner, and heard the steps of the trio as they left the road. Rounding a vessel canted on the beach, they boarded a small island schooner made fast to the rickety wharf. Montreal slipped like a shadow to the cover of a spile. He knew there was no possibility of concealing himself upon the deck, but, as always in emergency, he found himself thinking with crystal clearness. What he had heard drove every wisp of dullness from his brain. He crept closer and looked through the port, then drew back as the Digger came on deck, sniffed the night and glanced at the stars. Barley Skape took the tiller, and they cast off and made sail. Like a water-rat Montreal was in the warm lagoon, and clinging to the rudder gudgeons.
The breeze was light, but the little vessel stirred the water to phosphorescence as she heeled to it, and fled like a ghost toward the coral bed beyond the harbor gap, a small bone rippling under the bows. Parallel with the break in the reef, the Australian raised a lantern, and flashed it twice to sea. From far out was an answering glow of a ship that showed no running lights. They negotiated the coral shoals in safety, under the steady hand of the half-breed, then stood for the point, where Montreal had saved Ata-ea from the giant ray. It was about a half-hour sail from their starting point to where they brought to, and dropped the hook. Then, hauling a dinghy overside, they tumbled in and rowed rapidly ashore. As soon as they were clear, Montreal climbed to the deck, and with a few swift strokes of his knife parted the standing and running gear. Then, entering the water again, he struck out for that part of the beach which lay nearest the house of his friends.
THE home of Cha Fun and the Sea Flower lay in a dip on the landward side of a broad cocoanut grove. The marauders, through insufficient reconnoitering, had taken the long road across the sand-spit, although the house stood but three hundred yards from the lagoon, Montreal raced through the grove, bending almost double as he ran, but the raiders had too great a start, and were there before him. From cover he could see their figures, black in the brilliant moonlight as they circled the house and crept up on the checkered paepae. With a rifle he could easily have potted all three. He edged closer, moving warily over the crab-pitted ground. His heart pounded against his ribs, but his brain was cool as ice. A long-bladed knife was in his hand. Then hell burst!
The gangster rose to his feet and shouted in frenzied warning! A reed window swung open, a spurt of flame shot from it and an automatic crackled! The raiders smashed the frail door from its fastenings and stormed the house. Twice the ground before Montreal was kicked into dust-spurts as he raced for the fight, then he realized curiously that the occupants, taking him for one of the murderous crew were shooting at him. He crossed the veranda at a bound and burst through the doorway.
“Cha Fun! Cha Fun!. . . .Ata-ea!” he shouted, and there was a faint, answering cry. The room was a bedlam of shouts,
curses and revolver shots. One of ChaFun’s native boys, entering through the rear door with a heavy copra-chopper in his hand, went down with a bullet through his heart. Another who slept in the house, was slain by the Australian as he jumped in front of his master. The rest, in mad fear of this avalanche of death, raced desperately for the town. The Frenchman, who met Montreal as he plunged through the door, was pulpy with absinthe, and the Canadian smashed him to submission, twisted the pistol from his fingers and clubbed him on the head. The hoarse bellow of the Australian boomed out!
“— damn it! Grab the Buddha, somebody! Its got the pearls! Then get out! —I’ll settle the Chink.”
Guided by his voice, Montreal sprang for him, cold with fury. The Australian, seeing his leaping form, met the rush, but the Canadian sent a smashing blow to his mouth. The Frenchman’s fall had swept the gun from the gangster’s hands, but he buried his iron fingers in the Australian’s muscled throat. There was the sound of smashing wood and the room rocked to a heavy shot. Barley Skape! The Canadian felt the hot flame on his cheek, but tightened his grip. The Australian battered a knee into his groin, and the gangster dropped in writhing agony. His clawing hands again encountered a gun. As he grasped it a woman’s scream rose high above the hellish clamor! The voice of Ata-ea! Blind with pain and in a fury of desperation, he struggled to his knees. Again the Digger rushed him, but Montreal stopped him for keeps with a slug in the chest. The big man crashed like an oak, splintering the bookcase as he went down. Again that scream! Fighting against terrific nausea the Canadian stumbled toward it. Ata-ea, the Sea Flower—his Sea Flower, was in the bloody hands of Barley Skape!
Suddenly, then, Montreal realized that the house was in stillness, although the noise of combat still rang in his ears. The moonlight streamed through the shattered doorway and flooded the faces of the dead. He made for the door of Ata-ea’s room, stumbling over a body as he did so. Stooping swiftly, he dragged it to the moonlight. It was Cha Fun, blood dribbling from his forehead. He was living, however, and Montreal again made for the girl’s room and flung wide the door. It was empty! He cleared it on the run, and leaped through the open window.
UNDER the moon, against the water, Montreal saw a black figure running heavily, a burden in its arms. Skape was making for the dinghy. The Canadian, weak as he was, was too swift for him, however. All his anxiety, longing, and sweeping adoration for Ata-ea drove strength to his veins, and vengeance to his heart. The half-brèed dropped his burden and rushed for the boat, which swung to a short painter in the shallow. He had a flying shot at his pursuer as he ran, and the gangster took it in the ribs, close to his left arm. He went down in a shower of sand, but the fighting lust driving him upward he sped on, past the senseless figure of Ata-ea, past the last sparse strip of coarse beach grass, and with a final bound he landed in the dinghy. His impact sent it into deep water and threw both men to the bottom boards. The native’s ammunition was exhausted, but he tried to club his weapon. Montreal was first to attack, however, and the fighting craft of his crooked years came back to help him now. In all his lurid experience, the dreadful half-breed, terror of lonely beaches from Gambier to Ponapi, had never met such a battler. The white man’s left arm was useless, however, and he was ill from the Australian’s savage kick. He weakened suddenly. The knotted arms of the cannibal closed about the lesser man, and constricted like the folds of a great snake. His thick lips parted in a grin of triumph, and his rank breath smothered the gangster. One black hand was cupped under Montreal’s chin, forcing his head steadily backward. His face was congested and the bullet in his body was taking its toll. His eyes seemed swollen to enormous size, and he could feel his neck cracking under the cruel strain.... !
Then, through fading consciousness he heard a voice, a world of love and agonizing terror in its notes—the voice of Ataea, the Sea Flower, crying from the beach.
“Mon’real....! Mon’real....!” she wailed.
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Continued from page 44
WITH the remnants of his strength the gangster drove his right fist under the pearler’s heart. The great grip slowly relaxed. Montreal slipped unconscious to the bottomboards. The giant stepped backward, gasping, his mottled face ghastly under the waning moon. The boat careened madly and the half-breed fell over the side. The gunwale dipped under, then righted, and the dinghy rocked to stillness. A jutting black fin— then another and another—cutting the water like knives, moved in concentric circles about the place where Skape went down. The water was tinted as with a cloud, and the black fins glided off across the smooth lagoon.
Some time later, a rescue party of natives and gendarmes towed the boat ashore and carried the stricken gangster tenderly to the house. For weeks the Canadian hovered on the borderland. Long before he was able to sit on the broad veranda facing the laughing sea Cha Fun had recovered from his wound, and showed only an ugly red scar. Ata-ea had suffered no hurt at the hands of Barley Skape, and the two were unremitting in their devotion to the patient. When, at last, under the skilful doctoring of the old Chinese, Montreal was able to leave his bed for the open air, their delight was unbounded.
Late one evening when the cool night breeze swept up from behind Moorea and the cocoa-palms whispered under the Southern Cross, Cha Fun, leading Ata-ea by the hand came to the Canadian as he sat, heavily bandaged, in a great reed chair. He held a tiny ebony box, the lid inlaid with gold. This he handed to his patient and bade him open.
“It is yours, my son,” he said. “I have kept it for you since the night that you were hurt.”
Puzzled, Montreal took the box and sprung back the lid. Inside was the ruby ring for which he had killed Chong Sun. His eyes gleamed dangerously, and he looked with suspicion into the bland face of Cha Fun. His lips drew back, and sudden fear chilled his skin.
“Well....?” he snarled.
The old man gazed upon him with gentle eyes, and smiled at his alarm.
“It is all right, my son,” he said. “There is no harm in your possessing it . . but some day you will, perhaps, tell me how you came by it.”
In the sudden cessation of feeling the sick man’s eyes swam. Then, his hand held in Ata-ea’s firm grasp, and her beauty glowing beside him like a dream in the summer night, he told them all, neither sparing himself nor Chong Sun. When he had done, Cha Fun sat silent for a time. Then he spoke, his low voice rich in understanding.
“We all have sinned, my son,” he said, “and your crime is only relatively great. You are deep versed in Guild feuds and Tong wars in the great cities of North America, yet, what race is there that can claim perfect harmony? You say that when you saw upon my finger a replica of the ring of Chong Sun you feared my vengeance? Not all the fraternal insignia
of my people are of sinister portent! Let me tell you the story of the ruby rings and then you will understand.”
THE Sea Flower crept closer to her lover. Her warm, soft arm encircled his neck and her cheek was next his own. Cha Fun resumed.
“Long centuries ago, when my fathers ruled the East, there were three high virtues in the land . . Honesty . . Charity. . and Purity of deed and thought. China flourished and waxed great. Then came other days and new ways. The old order passed beneath a wavë of corruption, and our ancient virtues were as laughter in the mouths of fools. Then, when my great-grandparent’s father was a boy, the lords of old and honored families, upon whom the sun-god had shone in the days of my country’s pride, met to the number of one hundred in a secret place and formed a Guild, to which they swore that they, their retainers and successors would cleave to the old ways, and devote their lives and talents to the restoration of China’s ancient cult.
“Under our feudal system the tenants were bound by the word of their masters, and tribute was exacted to further the cause. In time, our membership formed one of the most powerful political factors in China. Our enemies were many and unscrupulous, however, and treachery brought about our downfall. Our adversaries, with their extensive following, pledged death to the wearers of the ring. So, with the years, the bloody strife of the rival Guilds spread to the far corners of the earth—but in wealth and intelligence we were always the stronger, and the wearing of the ring exacted honor, homage and tribute to the cause. The inscription on the ring means, simply, the Association of One Hundred, Banded in Virtue, that we the descendants of the makers of the compact might know when we were met. As with all such things, abuse grew out of the power of the rings and they were used to further private ends. The man, ChongSun, was one of the unworthy ones and richly deserved his fate.”
Cha Fun halted and remained for some minutes buried in thought. When he again spoke he leaned forward and patted Ata-ea gently on the cheek.
“Periodically, I cruise among the Islands where live many Chinese, followers of my teachings. I am no longer young, and although I have my daughter, I need someone else—someone strong, and fine and courageous to carry on my worldly affairs. I want you, my son, to be that one. Sea Flower loves you. and you have in her the loveliest bloom in all the wide South Seas. You will be worthy of her.”
He turned and entered the house. Montreal, purged of soul, reached out to Ata-ea, the Sea Flower, with his one good arm and she nestled into it. She held up her left hand, slender, beautiful, with its golden skin and polished almond nails, and surrendered it to his bidding. He held it for a moment then kissed it tenderly. When he released it, there glowed on the slim third finger a ruby ring, of exquisite fire, engraved in tiny characters and set in filigree.