FICTION

IN PRAISE of a TRADER

JAMES CLIFTON PETERS June 15 1933
FICTION

IN PRAISE of a TRADER

JAMES CLIFTON PETERS June 15 1933

IN PRAISE of a TRADER

JAMES CLIFTON PETERS

THE MAN was a hero. He had just rescued the yellow-bearded trader from a rather horrible form of death. He had all but lost his own life in performing the deed. It was the sort of spectacular, heroic act which stirs all men to their inmost depths.

Every lip sang his praises, every hand itched to shake his. Like a piece of driftwood a wave of us bore him to the club verandah. He was installed in the best chair—it was none too good—and a dozen voices clamored for the privilege of signing for his drinks.

The matter was finally settled and the group quieted. It solidified about its taciturn centre. The hot flush of excitement and acclaim dissipated like the froth on boiling syrup. Voices lowered, gestures grew more restrained. Our guest seemed much to prefer this attitude, to be more at his ease. He leaned back in his chair and sipped his drink. There was a vaguely familiar cast to his face, but none of us could quite place him. He had come into the harbor just before sundown on a trim, white-hulled schooner. His crew seemed to be mainly Fijian. They were down in the village now, attending the hula. We listened to the peculiar rhythm of the drums throbbing across the dusk. There were guitars also, and an accordion. We could see the pulsing gleam of the flaring cocoanut-frond torches.

On the verandah we sat in the gloom. The eye could just make out the glimmer of faces and of white clothing. Cigars and cigarettes glowed like tiny red-hot eyes. They waxed and waned leisurely, like the visible beating of hearts.

Ice clinked on glass. Save for such tiny sounds, we sat in quietude. Afar off, the rollers cut the dark with a dim white bar as they broke on the reef. Their

long-echoing roar was dim, a part of the woven fabric of the night. The rushing wind had died with the sun, but faint breezes stirred with air as warm and soft as the tropic sea.

It was a difficult thing to break the spell of that silence, and though it grew weighted and strained none of us quite dared be the first to speak. It remained for the hero of the occasion to relieve the tension. His voice startled us as it cut through the gloom. It was a deep voice and smooth, vibrating like the tone of an old violin.

“You know,” he said, and his tones were thick with embarrassment, “you chaps have been making an awful fuss over nothing. Any of you would have done what I did if you’d been right on the spot. Of course I’m grateful and all that, but I’m anything but the hero you’re trying to make me out.”

Someone grunted. We knew each other here in the club; knew, each of us, his neighbor better than he knew himself. And it is a disillusioning thing to know a man too well. You become very sceptical about him.

But the strained silence had been broken, and the warm breeze passed over us like a sigh of relief. Talk began. Island gossip. Traders' chat. Somehow it seemed flat and meaningless tonight. The silence began to steal back upon us. The terrible silence . . . When no one talks you begin to think, to remember. Sometimes you go mad.

Garste was afraid of the silence. He would go a score of miles to hear someone talk. Anyone. It was better to drink and talk than to sit alone and think. He began to draw the stranger out.

“So you think any of us would ’a’ risked his life to save a man from the sharks like you done, eh?”

The stranger rose to the bait.

“Of course. Most men are potential heroes. Even the most unlikely. All it needs is the correct combination of circumstances to make them show their worth.”

“I can’t imagine any of this bunch here doin' what you done. Too careful of our skins we are. Though what we got to live for, Lord only knows. But traders is like that.” “Then you think that no trader is a really brave man?” “I didn't say that.” Garste retorted quickly. “Maybe vou’re a trader yourself?”

“No.”

“Well, I been in the Islands for close on to twentyfive vears, and in that time I never knew a trader to

do a real unselfish, life-riskin’ act. Oh. they’re brave enough, I admit. In their own way. But when it comes to takin’ a chance with their lives for somethin' that offers ’em not a shadow of a reward well, I just don’t think it’s in the breed."

“And yet." the stranger remarked softly, “the bravest, most self-sacrificing fellow I ever knew was a trader. What do you think of that?”

“It must have been some chap off his nut.”

"No, he was quite sane. And brave—well, you think I did a courageous thing this afternoon. 1 risked my life. This chap sacrificed his. Lost it in the most horrible fashion to save the life of a rank coward. And, mark you, did it deliberately.”

“Let’s hear about it." Garste suggested. "They say there’s always somethin' new in the Islands. Maybe this’ll prove it again."

“Right you are. I’ll tell the story. It’s worth hearing."

“Another drink?” suggested Garste. “Talkin's thirsty work.”

question of tropical diseases and their possible cures. I believe he thought it rather a joke on the missionaries that one of them should accompany an abhorred trader on his rounds. The young fellow would probably be unfrocked, he thought. And a good job. too.

“They got on very well together, did Ingham and Oag. They liked each other. And they discovered that they had a good many things in common. There grew up between them a mutual respect for each other’s abilities. Oag felt certain that his passenger was the man destined to wipe out the scourge of disease that was sweeping the Islands. And so the voyage passed pleasantly enough. They struck a period of fine weather and the days slid past in an uninterrupted stream.

"They visited many islands and Ingham saw strange sights, things he had never dreamed existed. And terrible sights. He marked the inroads and ravages the white men’s diseases made on the simple Polynesian folk. He saw the horrible, lingering death-in-life of leprosy. He could see a life’s work ojxming up before him.

on a reef. They were being carried straight toward it. and presently they could make out the long lines of shattering waves. There was nothing they could do. Paddling or attempting in any way to guide their frail craft would be sure suicide. They could only sit tight and hope that some freakish whim of wave or current would throw them clear over the reef, with its tumult of vicious backwash and windflung foam and lurking, knife-edged coral.

“They were lucky. A sea came. A mountain of water that lifted them up and up until the reef seemed to dwindle into a bottomless gulf. Then it raced them forward. There was a boom and a roaring in their ears, their eyes were blinded and their senses confused. They swooped down through a welter of foam, and the white fangs of coral slashed at them. Then there was a crash as the canoe was hurled headlong against some obstruction. It splintered like matchwood and they were flung clear. They were struggling in thin froth and a sucking rush of water. The air they breathed was thickened and half-liquid with spray. It strangled. They clutched grimly at the solid surface on

"No. thanks. 1 would like a cigar though. Thank you." A match Hared, bursting a hole in the dark. The stranger s tanned face sprang into the circle of light like a sharp carving. He puffed the cigar alight. The match went out. We sat quietly, waiting for him to begin. The hula down on the beach was in full swing, and the noise of it pulsed maddeningly through the night.

"You say you’ve been in the Islands for twenty-five years," the stranger began, speaking directly to Garste. "Did you ever know a trader named Oag? Adam Oag?” A rustle, a stir of movement. But no answer. The glowing ends of cigars and cigarettes waxed suddenly bright. After a moment of waiting the stranger resumed:

OAG HAD a little schooner. The Spray he called it. His headquarters were in Papeete. From there he made the usual rounds all of you know them. He was pretty well-to-do. He owned his ship and a cottage, as well as one or two plantations. And he had a wife a white wife and two fine young children. A boy and a girl. I'm telling you this so tliat you'll understand that he had everything to live for.

"This was just about twenty years ago. Some of you may remember that at that time there was more than the usual rivalry between the traders and the missionaries. They fairly hated one another. So it was rather astonishing that Oag was willing to give passage to a young missionary named Ingham, who approached him one day in Papeete and explained that he wanted to survey the field and thought he could do it best from the deck of a trader's schooner. But Oag was willing, and the young missionary went with him on the Spray's next trip.

"This Ingham was in his middle twenties. He was not a particularly keen missionary. Doctoring was his game. He was interested in tropical diseases, and became a missionary only because it offered him an unparalleled opportunity for first-hand study.

"It didn't take long for Oag to find out all that. He was a very keen judge of men. And he, too. was interested in the

"Oag spoke of all these things. The trader had a sensitiveness rare among his kind. There was a great pity in his heart for the suffering of these ordinarily happy, brownskinned people. And that. too. was a rare thing. Ingham admired him for it. Often they spoke together, pointing out crying needs and planning vaguely how a measure of all this suffering might be relieved.

“At other times they played cards together. Cribbage and casino and poker. At cards Adam Oag was unbeatable. There was nothing he could not do with the slips of pasteboard. I Iis slim-fingered hands wove magic. When he chose he could deal the cards in whatever fashion he desired. There were card sharps in the Islands who had learned to their cost that Adam Oag was immeasurably beyond them in skill. Yet the man was scrupulously honest. Not once in all his games with Ingham did he take advantage of the legerdemain he had mastered.

"Well, perhaps I should amend that. He did cheatonce.

‘A ou chaps know the Paumotos. You know how quickly a hurricane can blow up there. A dead calm one minute and in the next a hell of wind and spray and wave. A world gone mad.

"Oag and Ingham were fishing beyond the reef in an outrigger when one of those gales caught them. The canoe was whirled away like a straw. There was a scream of wind in their ears, and their eyes and nostrils were clogged with driven spume. They could not see. could scarcely breathe. The outrigger was unmanageable: they could only bale like mad and watch the welter of tom. foam-streaked ocean, expecting every instant to see one of those tortured rollers collapse upon them.

"But the endless minutes became hours, the grey daylight was suddenly black night, and still they were afloat. They dared gradually to hope. A full moon shone fitfully through the th ing scud so that they caught momentan.’ glimpses of the bleak, terrible seas which bore them on. The highpitched whine of the storm dropped gradually. But they could see that for hours yet there was no hope of taking the control of the outrigger into their own hands. They could only b;ile and bale and shiver when the wind cut through their soaked, thin clothing with knives of ice.

"Just before dawn they heard the menacing roar of surf

which they lay. The water ran Ihinly away from them, left them high and dry. But they dared not rise: not for many minutes. They could not tell at what moment another wave might break over them and sweep them from their precarious safety. Miracles do not often come in pairs.

"But the minutes crawled by and nothing happened. The thunder of breaking waves was loud in their ears, and spray drenched them endlessly. It was all behind them. Hope stole into their numbed and battered minds.

“The night waned and dawn seeped into the sky. The sky became grey as the sea. soft as a pearl. Long shafts of watery sunshine felt their way through the flying scud. Rainbows glittered above the reef. They moved their cramped limbs and stiffened bodies. Sat up. They stared about them.

“They were on a flat islet inside the reef. Their escape had been miraculous. The great rollers still beat against the reef behind them and exploded in gouts of foam and a long-draw’n roar of sound. They were smaller rollers now' and the wind had died. The sky w'as almost cleared of driven scud. The sun shone hot and grateful.

“They were very weary, their bodies racked w'ith strain. Salt was crusted on their skin, on their lips. Their mouths were dry and salty. They knew thirst. There was no fresh water on their tiny islet, neither water nor fruit nor shade. Only naked coral that w'ould soak up the heat of the sun until it was like the top of a red-hot stove.

“It did not matter. At their feet was the calm, blue-green shimmer of the lagoon. A bare sixty yards of it. Then a beach of white sand and the glossy green palms. So near they could almost touch it. Sure to be water there. Water and food. Their parched lips could almost savor the cool touch of a running stream.

“ ‘Let's go.’ said Ingham impatiently. ‘It's an easy swim.’

"His companion nodded. They walked to the edge of the islet. A yard below them the lagoon laoped and lapped against the coral. Ingham raised his hands, started to dive.

"And then a grip of steel clamped on his arm and dragged him back.

" 'Look.’ was all that Adam Oag said.

The lagoon was very clear. Like crystal. It was easy to see the long, grey body of a great shark as it balanced there. Its tail moved gently, and the tiny eyes stared up at them with a cold ma’ignancy.

" 'W e'll have to wait till that fellow moves on.’ Oag said.

"He knew sharks, that trader. He had studied them for years. Scientists might say what they chose about the harmlessness of the breed. Adam Oag knew better.

“ ‘We’!! just have to wait.’ he repeated.

“They waited. Hours passed and the sun slanted up and up into the scorching vault of sky. The coral grew hot to the touch. Waves of heat shimmered up from it. Their lungs gasped in the fiery air. The sweat streamed out of them, until a time came when their pores were dry as dust. Torture came then. They could feel the sun sucking the very juices out of their bodies. Their tongues were swollen and cottony, their lips cracked, their eyelids became agonizingly granular. There was no ease to be found anywhere on that patch of coral. Only the torture of dry, crackling heat.

“Nor was that the worst of the torment. It was bad enough, but the stark agony of the position was when their eyes gazed across the lagoon. The trees there were so green and cool, so inaccessible. Flowers flamed among

'But you’re right about our bein’ too weak to swim it if we wait much longer.’

“ ‘What’s to be done, then? We can’t drive the thing away. I've tried. Thrown lumps of coral and such at it. It won’t budge.’

“Oag shuffled the cards and dealt himself another layout . His brown fingers flickered as they moved.

“ ‘No chance of our bein’ picked up either.’ he said. ‘An’ the island's not inhabited. Leastways no one’s answered all our yellin’. Guess, then, it’s strictly up to us to get out of this by ourselves.’

“Ingham nodded his agreement.

“ if I had a knife—’ the trader muttered. He shrugged. 'But I ain’t. Well, guess w^e’re agreed that if anythin's to be done it’s got to be done today. Now. Tomorrow we'll be too weak even to swim across the lagoon. ’

“ ‘That’s so.’

“ ‘There’s a way out. Just one w-ay.’

“Ingham waited. Oag played stolidly through the deck. ‘Well?’ Ingham asked at length.

their branches and clusters of ripe fruit dangled maddeningly. The air was scented with their tantalizing odors. And, though the ear could not hear it through the booming of the surf, the imagination supplied the tinkle of a running brook. Indeed, one sparkled in among the brown tree trunks. That was the quintessence of all torture.

“And the hours dragged past and that cursed fish would not go. It shifted its position once or twice and swam slowiy back and forth along the length of the islet. But it went no farther. And often, as the two men peered at it, they found its cold eyes fixed on them with an unwinking stare.

“ ‘It’s waitin’ for us,’ Oag said once. 'Sometimes the bloixly things have a brain like a man. This one has. It knows that we’ve got to swim thefagoon sometime an’ it’s willin’ to wait. It know's it’ll get us sooner or later.’

AFTER THAT he looked no more at the ^ patrolling shark. Instead he played solitaire. Even marooned on a coral island, he managed to be in possession of a pack of cards. They came from an inner pocket of his shirt, a pocket with a button. He always kept a deck of cards in that pocket. Now he took them from their receptacle and spread them out in the sun to dry. Then he began to play game after game of solitaire.

“Ingham could not sit dowm. He prowled here and there about their tiny prison, seeking some solution to their dilemma. He found none. But he became conscious of a great weakness that was stealing through his veins and muscles like a dark flood. Agony was gradually giving way to an enveloping lassitude. That frightened him. He sat down beside Adam Oag. He told the trader how he felt. Oag nodded.

“ ‘That’s how it goes,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow you won’t be able to walk at all. And your brains’ll boil in your skull. You’ll go stark mad an’ you’ll jump into the sea. Then he’ll get you. Me too.’ And he nodded toward the black triangle of fin.

“ ‘A few more hours like this,’ Ingham muttered, ‘and we won’t even have the strength to swim across the lagoon. Not even if that brute goes off and leaves us.’

“ ‘Which he won’t,’ Oag assured the other man.

“Then he glanced sideways at Ingham.

“ ‘It’s a question,’ said Oag, ‘of the shark gettin’ both of us by this time tomorrow, or gettin’ one of us now.’

“His voice was incredibly calm.

“Ingham understood. 'It's a ridiculous idea.' he snapped.

“The trader shrugged. '1 know,’ he said, ’but I can't see any other way. Like this, one of usil get away. If we don’t do it, Mister Shark will have the pair of us tomorrow. You know that as well as 1 do.'

“Ingham’s hands were icy. What Oag said was true enough. There was only the one way out. And that way was open to only one man. The other would have to sacrifice himself that his companion might live. It was a terrible choice. Until that moment he had counted himself a brave man, now he knew that he was a coward.

“Oag’s bright eyes were fixed upon him. ‘It ain’t a nice thought, is it?’ he remarked. 'I'm just as scared of it as you are. But we got to look at this with a bit of common sense. One way we both die; the other, one of us can get away. Go on livin’. It’s a fair swap, eh !’

NGHAM could see that. He said so. ‘But I don’t know if

I’ve got the nerve to go through with it,’ he said. ‘Guess l must be a rotten coward, but the thought of deliberately throwing myself into the jaws of that brute ’He shuddered.

“ ‘Me, too,’ the trader confessed. ‘It ain't a pleasant way to die. But that’s exactly what one of us has got to do. There ain’t no other choice. So do we play ’em that way?’

“And Ingham, his mouth as dry as desert sand, nodded.

“Oag stacked his cards together with steady fingers.

“ ‘Which one of us is it to be?’ he said.

‘“It’s like this,’ Oag went on. ‘You’re young, you’ve got a lifetime ahead of you. And, bein’ a doctor, you can do a lot of g(xxl, especially if you carry out some of the ideas we’ve talked over together. An’ I think you'll do that. Me, I'm no doctor, I ain't much use and well. I'm an old codger who's pretty well lived his life.' His forehead was seamed with the effort of intense thought.

“ ‘You’re good for thirty years yet,’ Ingham pointed out to him. ‘And you've got a wife and family dependent on you. I’ve nobody. There are other doctors who'll do the work I planned on doing.’

“Oag’s brow cleared as the lines went out of it. He seemed to have come to some decision. There was a strange light in his faded blue eyes.

“ ‘My family can get along without me,’ he said. 'I’ve set by enough to keep them for ever an’ a day. But you an’ I might go on arguin’ like this all our lives an’ never decide a thing. What say we leave it to the cards? One hand of poker, eh?’’

“Ingham nodded dully.

"Oag picked up the cards and began to shuffle them. He talked.

“ ‘The loser of this one hand.’ he said, ‘wall march straight down to the far end of this patch of coral an’ jump in. That shark’ll be after him like a streak. While it's—busy, the

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other man can jump in here an’ swim like fury across the lagoon. He’ll get clear all right. Got that straight?’

“He began to deal. His brown fingers dickered and the cards slipped from them in a stream that the eye could not follow. And Ingham, watching those magic fingers, felt a sudden icy chill surge down his spine. For he had abruptly remembered what skill lay in them, had remembered that there was nothing Adam Oag could not do with the cards. And he knew, as though a voice had shouted it in his ear, the black treachery in the other’s mind. Fie sat as though paralyzed.

“Oag turned his cards face up upon the white coral. And Ingham, watching him. saw his face grow white beneath its bronze, saw him bite his lips until the blood ran. Ingham’s own glance dropped slowly to the five upturned cards.

“They were an ace and four queens. No need to look at his own cards. That hand was all but unbeatable. His own five cards were not the ones that would win from it. He knew that.

“His brain burst then and a red mist came down like a cloud across his eyes. He was on his feet in one vivid flash. Oag was on his feet, facing him.

“‘You cheat!’ Ingham screamed. T might have known you’d do this. You card sharper! You suggested a choice by cards because you knew you couldn’t lose. But I'll show you.’

“Mad with rage, he leaped forward. His mouth was a white snarl and his fists were drawn back to strike.

“But Adam Oag stood coolly. He faced that frenzied rush and struck out with his fist. Struck once. Ingham went down into surging blackness.

WHEN Ingham’s vision cleared again, Oag was standing at the far edge of the coral strand. He had thrown off his clothing, and his white skin gleamed in the sun. Naked he was. naked flesh to bait the hungry shark. He looked back as the other man tottered to his feet.

“ ‘Get ready to swim,’ he shouted.

“The fever of madness had gone out of Ingham. His mind was clear and sane again. “ ‘No,’ he cried. ‘No. You mustn’t.’

“ ‘I got to.’ Oag replied. ‘Look at your cards. An’ remember, you’re to go ahead with your doctorin' schemes. That’s a promise.’

“And. as Ingham began to run toward him. he turned and dived headlong into the clear lagoon.

“Ingham stopped dead. He saw the white foam of the trader’s thrashing arms. He saw the torpedo-like rush of that black fin. And then, with a sob bursting in his throat.

he turned and threw himself into the water.

"He crossed the narrow strip in safety and stood on the beach of glistening sand. He looked back at the islet. He saw nothing. The surface of the lagoon was fiat and glassy. Nothing broke its smoothness. Nothing at all.

“Then he looked at the five cards he had snatched up and thrust into his pocket. One by one he examined the five bits of soaked pasteboard. And, suddenly, he flung them to the ground and a rush of scalding tears blinded his eyes.

“For his hand contained four kings!

“And he knew then that, for once in his life. Adam Oag had cheated at cards. Had cheated deliberately to save a man’s life.

“That is all the story, gentlemen. Ingham was picked up in due course and he kept his promise. He became a specialist in tropical j diseases. His private means were sufficient to equip a hospital in which, I think, he has done much good. But the debt he owes to Adam Oag is one that can never be paid.”

WE STIRRED then and drank uneasily.

The revelation of a man’s past is always an embarrassing experience. No one could think of an appropriate remark. Again it was Garste who broke the heavy silence.

“You’re Ingham, of course?” he remarked. “I thought I’d seen you before. You run the big lepers' hospital over on Malai. Doin’ some mighty fine work. too. I hear.”

“Thanks,” the other man said grimly. We knew the place to which Garste referred. The Oag Foundation it was called. The doctor in charge of it was spoken of as the kindest and bravest man in all the Islands. We knew now that that was true.

“You came mighty close to payin’ your debt in full today,” Garste went on.

“You mean the chap I hauled out of the harbor? That was nothing.”

“But the sharks mighty near got you just the same.” Garste persisted.

“Perhaps so. But I couldn’t complain. I’m living on time bought for me at the cost of another man's life.”

“Well, you practically dared them sharks to take you. An’ I guess that clears you of all debt to Oag.”

“Why should it?” the other man asked I idly.

“Because the chap whose life you saved” —and Garste paused impressively—“is Adam Oag's son.”

Once again silence fell over us like a soft cloud. There was only the murmur of the breeze in the stiff fronds of the palm trees and the distant rumble of the reef and the, sound of the hula down on the beach.

And we, every one of us. silently thanked j God that the night was too black for us to j see the emotion on a man’s face.