THE RED DISC

VANCE PALMER August 1 1924

THE RED DISC

VANCE PALMER August 1 1924

THE RED DISC

VANCE PALMER

"YOU’D better go in the boat, doctor,” said the captain, handing over his binoculars. “There’s been an outbreak of some sickness, sure enough. What do you think?” “The same old tale, I suppose,” said Willard, yawning. “Blackwater fever, and no quinine.”

The captain grunted assent, tugging at his short, pointed beard with impatient fingers and keeping his wind-wrinkled eyes fixed on the flagstaff ashore, from which fluttered a white pennant with a red disc in the centre—the international code signal of distress. The engines had stopped, and the boat with a slight way on it cut through the water with a gentle, swishing sound.

"We can’t afford to wait more than an hour or so, confound them,” muttered the captain. “As it is, we’re behind our scheduled time. If I’d only kept out another few miles where I couldn’t have seen their infernal signals . . . . ”

His voice rumbled away into incoherence, for there was a certain exasperation in the thought. If he had not seen the signals there would have been nothing to trouble his conscience. As it was he must stop, and try to make the time up afterwards by an extra expenditure of coal. It seemed absurd to him that a little isolated plantation should have power to stop the Minotaur, a steamer of 1,500 tons burthen, loaded down to the red lead of her waterline with important freight.

“What do you make of it?” he asked the doctor.

Willard was standing by the rails with his binoculars trained on the shore. There was nothing unusual in the scene that presented itself to him. A large bungalow crowned the green knoll that rose from the beach, and to the right of it were copra sheds and native compounds, separated from the house by a grass fence. Below on the beach was the boathouse, and a shark-proof palisade, evidently meant for bathing. The whole clearing made a vivid splash of light green against the darker green of the jungle behind.

“I can’t see anything wrong,” said Willard. “Nothing, that is, except the infernal red disc. There are niggers

moving about at their work—cutting cane-grass in the jungle. Some people would hold up a ship to get a cure for toothache.... I’ll go, anyway, and see what the damage

A BOAT had been lowered from the davits, with the mate in the bows, and a little later Willard clambered over the side and dropped into it, his medicine case in his hand. He was as annoyed as the captain himself at the interruption, for he had been drowsing in his canvas-chair under the awnings of the poop, the typewritten pages of the report he was preparing on tropical diseases having slipped to the deck beside him. A big man of about thirty-five, with a shaven face and steel-grey eyes, he liked to be left in peace on those rare occasions when he had surrendered to the enervating spell of the tropics— and this trip home was his one rest in three years.

The Kanakas sent the boat spanking over the smooth water, the slanting afternoon sun gleaming on the polished copper of their naked shoulders. Willard, sitting with the mate in the bows, kept his gaze fixed on the plantationbungalow, his eyes wrinkling against the glare.

“It’s a mystery,” he said. “There’s no sign of murder, plague, or armed revolt. If they’ve stopped us for something trivial they deserve to be mulcted for heavy damages.”

The mate, an easy-going young fellow with a bronzed, open face, gave a grin that showed he was not going to let any responsibility rest on his shoulders.

“Oh, don’t worry,” he said, “it’s one of the Dulacca Co.’s plantations. That means we can bung in a claim for anything we lose by delay. They’re so rich that it don’t matter to them how much they shell out.”

“H’m,” muttered the doctor, “so much the better,

you know the place, then?” “Only as a landmark,” responded the mate. “We’ve never passed so close in before. And after this it’s not likely we will again.”

There was no one down to meet them on the beach, and although a faint hum of work arose from the plantation the big bungalow was silent. Curiosity began to stir in Willard’s mind. Were the white men who managed the place dead, or merely asleep? There seemed something uncanny about the big, empty house with its wide verandas and its tall, white-painted flagstaff, from which fluttered the white pennant with its red disc.

Leaving the mate behind to look after the boat, he went up the path that had been covered with gravel and broken coral, and opened the wicker gate. The scent of frangipanni hung heavy on the windless air, and affected Willard as unpleasantly as a drug. He took off his helmet and wiped his forehead, which the slight exertion had covered with perspiration.

“Confound it!” he muttered. “It’s like an island of the dead! Not a sign of life anywhere.”

'T'HE woman who had been watching him from behind -*■ the rattan blinds of the veranda made a slight movement, and having gained control of herself came forward to meet him. Since his boat grated on the powdered coral of the beach her eyes had been fixed on him in puzzled scrutiny, the muscles tightening round her heart as she recognized his big figure and familiar features. But the necessities of the moment were so urgent that they swamped any personal emotions, and when she appeared at the head of the steps in her loose gown of flowered muslin there was nothing but relief in her face.

“You!” said Willard, pulling himself up with a jerk.

She hardly seemed to notice his amazement.

“Yes,” she said, “I had to get help somehow. . . . You were the last person on earth I thought would come.”

“I should think so,” said Willard, trying to regain his poise. “It was unlikely, to say the least. . .. But what’s the trouble?”

“Fever,” she said. “Frank’s nearly dead with it. And

those brutes set on him when he was making his rounds—stabbed him badly. If it hadn’t been for one of the bossboys that Frank had been kind to.... ”

“Frank?” he interjected, trying to get a grip of things.

“My husband,” she corrected a little stiffly. “We were alone on the place. Lingard, the other white man, had gone off in the recruiting-ketch. And the coolies had been sulky for a long time, and seized their chance.”

The horror of her predicament burst upon him.

“Good Lord!” he said. “And do you mean to say you’ve been alone here with a sick man and a crowd of mutinous niggers? How long has this been going on?”

“Three days,” she told him, “but there’s no need to trouble about me. I can look after myself. I had to get a doctor somehow, though.”

Willard muttered something inaudible and followed her to the room where Delavel was lying. At first the sick man looked like a shell from which the spirit had gone. The bronzed skin was stretched tight over his high cheekbones and rounded skull, and his face had the stillness of something moulded in wax, but the sweat of fever stood out on it in small nodules. He was either unconscious or asleep, for his eyes did not open at the tread of feet. To Willard the man had always been rather like a ghost, for though Delavel’s image had often risen before his eyes he had only seen the lean, fastidious face once before, and then circumstances had given it a sinister twist in his imagination.

T EFT alone with him, he examined

1' him with professional thoroughness and impersonality. There were knifewounds in his neck and side, and it was only some inherent toughness in him that had allowed him to survive thus far the drain on his thinned blood. That, and perhaps some sub-conscious exertion of will! If he had any grip on reality at all he must have recognized that it was only a fear of his power that protected the girl he had married from those hordes of savage coolies recruited in the jungles of Malaita.

Willard went back to her, a sudden decision having formed in his mind.

“He’ll get better—perhaps.” he said. “There’s an even chance, any way. Meanwhile you’ve got to take the steamer that’s waiting now and go to the nearest civilized port.”

“I?” she said indignantly. “Do you think it’s likely?”

“It’s common sense,” he said. “You can’t stay here. It’s no place for a woman.”

“And who’s to look after—him?”

“I suppose that’ll have to be my job,” he said moodily. “It’s a nuisance, but it can’t be helped. He couldn’t be shifted now, and anyway someone would have to stay and look after the plantation. Probably these niggers of yours would loot the place and decamp if left to themselves.”

“That’s so,” she assented. “Lingard won’t be back with the ketch for three weeks at least.... If you can stay, so much the better. Of course I’m going to stay anyhow.”

The steady glance of her clear, blue eyes thrilled Willard, in spite of himself. She was a very wonderful woman, he reflected, and life had merely brought out the fineness of her courage and temper. He could not tell how much she had had to endure since she had come here to live with Delavel; but he guessed she had not found Elysium.

“They’re waiting for me at the beach.” he said; “I’ll go back to the steamer and get my things. I’d arranged to catch a San Francisco boat at Sydney, but —well, never mind.”

"YIJHEN he came back over an hour later the planta* ' tion-bell was sounding out the order to stop work for the day, and the coolies were trooping back to the huts of the compound. Willard watched them as they squatted round the cooking-pots, wolfing the sweet potatoes that had been boiled for them, and an involuntary shudder passed through him. They were Melanesians, and their shapeless, atavistic faces, scarred and hung with shells and trinkets, were not pleasant to behold; they brought to Willard a disturbing vision of the jungle.

“And this is the life he’s given her!” be reflected bitterly. “My God, if she’d loved me I could have done better than that!”

Sitting opposite her that night in the dusk of the trel-

lised veranda he learnt all there was to be known of the incidents of the last few days. Delavel had felt the first touch of fever the night Lingard left in the recruitingketch, and had striven to conceal his weakness from the coolies. But, conscious that his iron will was relaxing, he had overplayed his part. A harsh threat of the whip had caused a sullen Malaita boy to leap at him suddenly with a knife, and when once the initiative had been taken halfa-dozen others joined in the attack. It was his cry that had brought Nina to the wicker-gate with a revolver, and the boss-boys had helped her to restore order and carry the wounded man into the house.

Behind the smooth flow of her quietvoice Willard could divine something of what she had lived through in the last few days. He knew that she must have spent sleepless nights listening to the pad of sleepless feet on the veranda, and that her frank eyes must have faced the possibilities of a rush she could not stem. An emotion that he could not control made his voice thick and jerky.

“You’re a marvel, Nina,” he said. “I always thought you’d nerves of steel—but this.... You’ve no right to be here at all. No woman has. It’s unthinkable.”

“This sort of thing doesn’t happen twice in a lifetime,” she replied. “The plantation-boys are human, after all. I’ve never had reason to be afraid of them before.”

“Once is enough,” he said with a grunt. “I don’t think you realize, even now, what you’ve been up against. What could you have done if they’d really attacked the place?”

“Oh, I’d thought it all out,” she said carelessly, “even down to the ultimate way of escape.”

T ^LTILLARD winced. His imagination was vivid, and ’ ' there were pictures he could not banish from his mind. He felt that life could not be altogether satisfying to her if she could face the prospect of leaving it with such equanimity.

Somewhat curiously he explored the normal background of her days. The house itself was comfortable enough, and books and magazines were strewn about the long, narrow sitting-room, while in a corner was a grand piano, evidently brought with much expense from Sydney. Even in the old days at Manila she had got a deeper pleasure out of music than most people. But it was in the matter of human society that her life here was so utterly bare and desolate. Except for her Samoan girl, and the wife of the missionary at Varoa, there were no women within a day’s sail, and in the last three years she had hardly left the plantation to which Delavel had brought her.

Lying awake that night Willard listened to the fronds of the pandanus palms trailing on the tin roof and

thought of this mysterious woman he had once loved. He told himself that he had no longer any personal interest in her; that all emotion for her had died that night when he came back to Manila and found she had married Delavel. She had been domineering and perverse, and had never given him a chance to recall the few words he had spoken in anger at the way she flirted with Delavel on the night of the French residents’ ball. But he did not know, even now, whether she had married the man from love or from pique.

The one obvious thing was that her character had deepened, all her high-spirited qualities seeming to concentrate in the steady courage that had so amazed him.

“Even her face has changed,” he thought. “It’s harder and softer at the same time.”

And he wondered again whether Delavel had been responsible for this.

npHE sick man was no better by the morning. He lay still on his back, with the sweat of fever on his skin, and when he opened his eyes they were as opaque as if covered with a film. Obviously he was not in a condition to recognize Willard, who hovered about him, dressing his wounds with a practised dexterity. The cut in Delavel’s neck was slight, but that in his side was more serious.

“H’m,” muttered Willard, “there’ll be a danger of internal hemorrhage if I don’t keep him still. . . And he’s the sort of man that never has kept still.” His attitude of mind was professional, but he could not help studying his companion’s face, and making a diagnosis that was not purely medical. The thin, sensitive features looked as if they had been moulded by a cold egotism, and the small mouth that the black, pointed moustache left uncovered had hints of cruelty in its lines. A narrow, seh-centred man, thought Willard, his eyes spanning the bony forehead. He would not spare anyone who crossed his temper or injured his pride. Probably the natives who had seized their chance to spring upon him had not acted without provocation!

When he came out to breakfast in the long cool livingroom Nina was strolling up from the beach, her towel over her shoulder. There was a new springiness in her figure, a lightness in her step. His eyes fastened on the short, crisp curls that covered her head, as if he was suddenly seeing her from a new angle.

“I was wondering what had changed you,” he said casually. “It’s your hair, of course. You were wearing a scarf yesterday.”

A touch of color came to her face, and she smiled.

“The usual thing—fever,” she said. “I was proud of my hair once.”

“Fever?” he questioned. “How long ago?”

“About four months. It had to be cropped short. . . . Some people think it suits me better like this, though. What’s your opinion?”

In the light challenge of her eyes there was just that trace of personal intimacy that he felt was dangerous.

“Oh, I’m a doctor,” he said with a brusque laugh. “I can only give medical opinions.”

TT WAS the attitude he intended to preserve unflinch-

ingly. In the circumstances he could not afford to relax by a hair’s-breadth, or go back to the past even in memory. He had no illusions about himself, and knew fairly accurately the bounds in which he could keep control of his will.

But it was the power of the woman’s will that won his admiration. Going round the plantation in the heat of the noonday sun he saw exactly what a miracle she had achieved, unaided and alone. The dumb eyes of animals seemed to stare at him out of the jungle where the natives were cutting the long cane-grass—sullen savages who had been recruited by force or guile, and had a bitter hatred for the white man and all belonging to him. It only needed a spark to set their smouldering passions aflame,-and if Nina had flinched for as much as a moment that morning when she had seen Delavel struck down there would have been no chance of recovery.

But she had not flinched, either then or since. .She had kept control over the situation by the power of her personality, giving orders to the boss-boys with decision, and seeing that the bell for work was rung at the proper time—asserting her mastery in a thousand little ways, and hiding the seriousness of Delavel’s plight from all but the Samoan girl.

Continued on page 41

The Red Disc

Continued from page 25

“It would have been an achievemeut for a man,” thought Willard. “But a woman....!”

He switched at a tuft of grass with his cane, and stared out at the blue sea that was hardly broken by a ripple. About as isolated a spot as he had seen in all his wanderings, he thought, scanning the wide horizon!

There were minor things to occupy his mind in the days that followed. He bathed in the shark-proof palisade, and rowed over to the reef at low tide to fish for tuna and albicore. In the evenings, sitting smoking on the veranda, he listened to Nina playing Batiste’s “Adante in G,” and tried to forget the associations that the haunting air revived in his memory.

will take you over to Varoa as soon as it comes back. You can pick up a BurnsPhilp boat there that will take you to Sydney.”

Was it fancy, or did the life really fade out of her eyes at the thought of her normal life swallowing her up again? There was a moment’s awkward silence, and then he said with a touch of feeling:

“You mustn’t let Delavel keep you here too long. It isn’t the sort of place you were meant for. Life’s so short that we can’t afford to throw the best part of it away.”

She averted her eyes, and looked out to sea.

“Yet we always do—generally in one handful.”

BUT, try as he would, he could not keep from speculating on the relations between Nina and the man she had married. Never by word or look did she give him a hint that her life had been unbearable, but there were things he divined from the impersonal twist of her phrases. She had a way of pulling herself up suddenly when their talk had drifted to abstract matters, and switching abruptly to some detail of the life around them. Once or twice he fancied that he saw her lower lip tremble slightly, and it flashed across his mind that if he exerted his full power he could make her suffer as he had suffered himself. But he was not the sort of man to play with fire.

On the tenth day the fever left Delavel, and after that it was merely a question of building up his strength. He looked like a ghost as he lay on his narrow bed, watching the big figure of Willard with fixed, lethargic eyes as if it awakened some memory in him that he had not energy enough to pursue to its origin. Willard, for his part, could not conquer a secret repulsion for this man whose life he had set himself to save. It grew in him daily for he was convinced that there was something sinister and brutal behind Delavel’s thin, fastidious features, and that Nina’s life with him was a dark tragedy that she was trying to hide.

Lying awake during the long, hot nights he told himself that it was not his affair, but emotions that he thought were dead awoke and troubled him. He knew that for his own peace of mind he must get away as soon as the necessity for his presence was over.

“I suppose I really can get away before long?” he asked Nina, with a quizzical laugh.

“Oh, yes,” she assented. “The ketch

THEY said nothing more, but after that it was evident that the barriers between them had broken down. When they met, the woman’s flying glance, resting on his eyes, told him everything that could not be put into words. It did not matter that they should admit the reality now, he felt. They were not children, and could face the facts of life without wincing. In a few days he would be away, and they were not likely to meet again.

As a matter of fact the culmination came sooner than either of them had anticipated. Willard had just finished attending to the sick man one afternoon, and was coming out of the room lighting a cigarette, when Nina met him, a queer tensity about her face.

“Good news for you!” she said with a twisted smile. “Your term of exile’s over!”

“What?” he said. “Has it come back?” “It’s just making the entrance through the reef now.”

She handed him a telescope, and resting it against the scantlings of the veranda he brought the ketch close to him. It was folding its wings as softly as a white bird, and making an anchorage on the inside of the reef where there was three fathoms of water, even at low tide. He had put the telescope down and was wondering if the native bo’sun could be trusted to sail the ketch over to Varoa if Lingard was left behind, when he noticed Nina’s face beside him. All the blood had gone from it, and her hands were resting on the railings in front of her as if she found the necessity of support. His instinct told him that in the last few weeks she had been labouring under an intolerable strain.

“Nina!” he said swiftly. “You’re not well. All this has been too much for you.”

“It’s nothing,” she said, controlling the muscles of her face. “I’ll be myself again when you’re gone.”

“When I’m gone?”

There was an irony he could not suppress in his tone. Her eyes met his pleadingly.

“It’s brutal of me to say that, I suppose,” she said. “I can’t help it, though. You will be gone tomorrow, and I’ll have settled down to face my own life again. . . It’s all right so long as I don’t remember.”

WILLARD put his hands on her shoulders as if to steady her, and though the pulses were drumming in his forehead he told himself that it was his part to see that neither of them gave way now.

“Nina!” he began....

It was the action, and not the words, that aroused madness in the man watching from the window. Delavel had sat up in bed with an effort, and glancing out to the veranda with strained eyes had taken in the situation. For the last three weeks he had been living in a world of phantoms, and even now his mind was not clear, but a haze seemed to dissolve from around the doctor’s face so that it became vivid to him, and he remembered suddenly where he had seen it before.

This, then, was the man who had won Nina’s heart in youth so that his own love could not touch her! The thin, vehement flame of passion in Delavel that had made life a purgatory for those around him gave him strength now to throw off the light bed-clothes and stag-

ger over to the polished escritoire in the corner. He pulled open a small drawer with fingers that were feeble as a child’s. There were a pair of automatic revolvers in it that he always kept loaded in case of emergencies, but this was hardly the emergency he had anticipated.

For a few moments he stood swaying uncertainly, looking dazedly at the shining weapon in his hand. More than once his life had depended on the accuracy of his aim, and he seemed to be bracing his nerves now. But there had been no clear idea behind his sudden movement to the drawer. It was merely the blind groping of a violent man toward the instruments of violence. He did not know which of the three lives within his range he intended to strike at, and as he stood there in a dream the world spun round him, and he clutched at the escritoire....

Willard heard the crash and came hurrying in.

“Good Heavens, man!” he began. “It’s as much as your life’s worth to stir from your bed... Hallo!”

He bent down over the crumpled heap on the floor, and suddenly he guessed the truth. Lifting the dead man gently on to the bed he released the undischarged weapon from his clutching fingers.

“Well; it’s Fate!” he thought, wiping his forehead. “Thank God, all three of us have easy consciences.”

He stood watching the red disc spread on the white silk of Delavel’s pajamas in the region of his opened wound, as if he had suddenly seen a new significance in the symbol that had brought him there.