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Title: A Place In The Sun
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1201001h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: February 2012
Date most recently updated: February 2012

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A Place In The Sun


Fred M White


Published in The Windsor Magazine, Vol. LI, Jan 1920, pp 158-164

THE master-miracle had exploded like a blinding bomb before Barwick's dazed vision, and he was gazing at it blindly still with eyes that saw not and a mind struggling dimly back to consciousness. Had Chance been superlatively good to him, or was it only another phase of the old hideous nightmare?

If things were real, if the world had suddenly turned turtle, or Armageddon had gone up in an explosion that shook the universe, then he was free. On the wall opposite was a calendar, peeled to the bone almost by the daily shedding of a leaf, and the date staring him in the face was November 11, 1918—a blazing scar on the heart of history, had he only known it.

He knew—though, for the life of him, he could not have told why—that he was seated in a big resounding beer-hall in Dammer Strasse, which was just off the Wilhelmstrasse, and that the man by his side had been a prisoner of war, too. And now they were free. A few hours before the prison doors had been flung open, and a German gaoler, who actually smiled, had told them that they could go where they liked. Barwick had gathered that something or other had been signed, and that Berlin was in the hands of the mob. And so he had gone forth like a caged bird that seeks the light. He was a homing pigeon with a broken wing, and the prevailing instinct in him bade him to turn his face towards the sea, and perhaps in time he might taste the salt lick of the brine on his lips again.

Now, this man had been a prisoner at Ruhleben for something like three years. He had been picked like a fly from an island in the Southern Seas, where his life lay and his work had held him, and he bad come thence by a U-boat to Zeebrugge, from which port he had been brought to Germany.

For they had wanted him—wanted him badly. There was a secret that he could tell them—a secret that the Wilhelmstrasse had heard, fourteen thousand miles away, back in the early days of the century—in 1913, to be exact—a secret in connection with the extraction of heavy oils from marine refuse, and the Great General Staff had been interested in that. So that his name had been on the secret ledger of the Devil's lieutenants what time Barwick modestly regarded himself as a humble individual seeking a becoming fortune for his wife and child, waiting for him patiently enough in Eastbourne.

So they had brought him back carefully in a fugitive U-boat that had survived the destruction of the Emden, and dropped him finally at Ruhleben, to be attended to in due course and his secret forced from him, only, unhappily, an obtuse sentry, not in the confidence of his superiors, had shown his patriotism and his sense of Deutschland über Alles by bashing Barwick over the head with a rifle—probably the one instance of brutality ever genuinely regretted by a German official, because from that moment Barwick ceased to take any interest in most mundane things, and the secret was safe.

He was getting over it now. He didn't know how he had got into the café, he didn't understand the sullen, indifferent crowd and the red flags that had broken out like a rash. In a hazy way he missed the clicking of heels and the brutal commands of gold-laced authority; but he was beginning to comprehend that he had found a friend, and that the individual opposite him was an Australian sailor-man called Van Cutting, lately a resident at the Spandau prisoners' camp.

So they sat there, drinking beer out of pewter-topped stone mugs—a queer couple, the one clad in fragments of sacking and boots bound up with ropes of hay, the other in khaki breeches, tattered sweater, and a poacher's cloth cap. There were Germans of all classes around them, officers without their badges or with badges roughly torn from their shoulders, who sat in moody groups with listless eyes, listening without astonishment to the two men freely talking English there without let or hindrance. Oh, yes, the super-miracle had come all right.

A waiter, polite—indeed, almost courteous —refilled the mugs at a sign from Cutting, and gazed with something like awe upon a ten-shilling Treasury note that the Australian had put into his hand. Barwick regarded him with the dawn of a smile oh his face. Gradually, very gradually, he was coming back to the kingdom of his mind, till the dark curtain of the past black years rolled away, and his mental focus resolved itself into a cool and sane perspective.

He was beginning to enjoy it; he was beginning to realise that Germany was beaten, and that the people around him were slowly coming to a realisation of the truth. It was almost incredible, all the same, to a man who had passed five years of his youth on the left bank of the Rhine. For Barwick had been a student at Bonn, and he knew what the soul of Germany had been in those days. It faintly amused him to see an infantryman, with a white band round his arm, swaying drunkenly on a table and singing the "Marseillaise" at the top of his voice. And this incredible thing was happening in Berlin!

"What do you think of it?" Cutting asked.

"I'm only just beginning to think," Barwick replied. "But never mind about that. The question is, what are we going to do? We can't stay here."

"That'll be all right," the Australian said. "These chaps are down and out. We're safe enough, and, after all, it's only a matter of money."

"Is that all?" Barwick asked, with a smile—the first genuine smile on his face for two years. Cutting tapped the side of his coat and shed a wink.

"I've got it," he whispered. "I've had it all the time—between the soles of my boots. When I went to the Front, I put a wad or two there, half expecting something of this sort; and when those swine got hold of me, I hid the boodle under a brick in my cell. I've got over fifty pounds here. It'll take us over the frontier all right—? plenty for both of us."

"But you don't know me," Barwick protested.

"Yes, I do. I was in the Australian coasting trade before I joined up. You are the chap who was running that queer joint at Shinti amongst the cannibals. Had a German partner called Oppner. Some dodge for getting oil out of seaweed. Saw you once, though you never spotted me. But say, partner, was that stunt of yours a good egg?"

Barwick nodded vaguely. The muttering roar of the restaurant was in his ears; from outside came the hum of a city that resembled the noise made by a hive of angry bees. Then he pulled himself together again.

"It was all right," he said. "It was all right from the first. I tried it when I had finished my course at Bonn, eight years ago. I tried it in London. Heavens, I tried it till I hadn't a shilling of capital left! Mind you, Cutting, I didn't know they were watching me, but they must have been doing so before I left Germany. And I suppose that's why they followed me half across the world, after the War broke out, and got me at last. I couldn't get anybody in England to take it up; I couldn't get the stuff I wanted for my purpose. I knew where it was, I knew that there were millions of tons of it down there off the Solomon Isles— Shinti, to be exact. It's a big oily sort of weed that grows in the lagoons and up the rivers as far as the tides run. So I scraped together all I could, and went out there with Oppner. He believed in it—he couldn't help it. So we set out from the Fanto Group in a motor-boat we got hold of, and landed at Shinti with some scrap machinery and a case of Winchester rifles. It was a desperate venture, because we knew what we had to face; but we trusted to our rifles to put the fear of the Lord into the hearts of the niggers, and, by George, they did. We made friends with one of them—the only one who would come near us—and precious useful he was. You see, we fed him and gave him presents, and whenever there was any treachery on foot he always let us know, so that we were ready. And there, for two years before the War, we hammered out our primitive machinery and turned out the stuff. I tell you, Cutting, there's no better heavy oil in the world, and any amount, too, for the making."

"Sounds good," Cutting murmured, "especially just now, when there's a world shortage of that sort of thing, and likely to be, for that matter."

"There's a fortune in it," Barwick said. "And it's cheap to make. Why, Oppner and myself, with our comic machinery, made a couple of tons a day easily."

"Ah, then he knew all about it?"

"Oh, no, he didn't." Barwick smiled. "He knew how to work the plant, but I never told him the formula. It's a mathematical formula, and if you don't get it exact, your stuff is worth little. It took me nearly two years to get those figures on a workable basis. I knew them by heart once, but now I am as ignorant of them as you are. I suppose I shall get over that clout over the head in time, but, you see, if I begin to think, my head gets stuffed with cotton-wool, and I'm good for nothing for days. And that's the trouble."

"Sounds like a hefty proposition."

"Well, it might be, but it isn't. You see, the formula is in a safe place where I hid it when the trouble came, and if I were in Shinti I could put my hands on it in five minutes."

"Better tell me the whole story," Cutting said.

"All right. We'll go back to some three years ago—about that, more or less—at any rate, it wasn't long after the War began. Mind you, I didn't know there was a war on. I got no letters, and nothing came near us except some wandering tramp to fill its water-casks. But Oppner knew. Heaven only knows how, but he did, and the beastly swine never said a word to me about it. In his spare time he was mucking about with a primitive sort of wireless arrangement, though it never occurred to me at the time to ask him where he got his material from, but I found out afterwards that a U-boat, waiting on a cruiser, had landed the stuff on the island. I suppose by that time we had eight or ten tons of oil. Then one day off the island there comes a strange-looking craft, something between a big tramp and a cruiser, and lands a boat's crew. I was lying up at the time with a touch of malaria, and precious bad, too, so I suppose Oppner thought I didn't count. But the wind was right, and I heard what they were saying. And what do you think that boat was?"

"Oh, give it up," Van Cutting said.

"My friend, it was the Emden. And she was after our oil. She came on purpose, and Oppner had fetched her up with that comic wireless of his. You see, I know German almost as well as I know my own language, so I heard everything. I knew the War had been in progress for months, I knew that the Boche had been smashed on the Marne, and I knew that Germany looked like being in a tight place for petrol and heavy lubricants, and I knew that they wanted me over in Germany to work my invention on spent minerals, such as coal and slag. And I could have done it, too."

Barwick took a long pull at his mug.

"Well, that was the game. The Emden couldn't stop then—got wind of some big trouble, perhaps—and she was off in an hour, with a promise to come back later. If she couldn't manage that, she'd send a U-boat for me."

"What happened then?" Cutting asked.

"Well, I just lay low. I saw my danger, and played the game of Brer Rabbit. I had some queer accidents, too. First of all, when I was out by myself one day, cutting seaweed, I lost the motor-launch—at least, that's what I told Oppner. But I ran her up into a creek and hid her under a heap of mango roots, where she is probably safe to this day. Then the oil caught fire and wrecked the whole of my plant. After that I took a little fireproof safe of mine and locked the formula away in it, and sank the thing in the middle of a deep lagoon, where I can find it if necessary. They were terrible misfortunes, but they seemed to worry Oppner a good deal more than they did me. And then, about a month later, the Emden came back."

"The same old game, I suppose?" Cutting said.

"Oh, no, there was no disguise this time. They were vastly polite to me, because von Müller is by way of being a gentleman, but they took me on board, and I was with them for the best part of six weeks. I knew that Germany was my destination, and what I was expected to do when I got there, but I said nothing till the real trouble began. I said nothing then because they put me on a U-boat, as I expected, and von Müller went off, hell for leather, for there was trouble sitting on his tail, and it wasn't very far off. And that's about all."

Van Cutting turned the matter over slowly in his mind. He was no longer sitting in the heart of a great nation's tragedy, collecting nightmares—he was thinking of the practical side of things. He was thinking, for instance, of that old battered steamer of his, tied up to a wharf somewhere in an Australian port, in connection with the possibilities of what Barwick had been saying. And it seemed to him that it was good.

"It's a big thing you've got, mate," he said. "Not that it means strolling along on a golden strand and filling our pockets with nuggets. But it's big because you've got what the world wants badly, and with a year or two's work it ought to be through. I've got the boat and I've got some machinery, and if you want a few hundred pounds—"

"I want nothing." Barwick said, "except your assistance, and there's half of the profits waiting for you."

"Van Cutting rose to his feet.

"It's a bet," he said briefly."

* * * * *

They had worked their way out of Germany back, to the British lines, and from thence, in a few days, to London; and when Cutting had boasted that he and Barwick would be on the high seas, bound for the Southern Cross, within a fortnight, he had said a true thing. For he was known in the Port of London, where masters were eagerly awaiting crews, and they might have picked their own ship, half a dozen times over. They had come at length to Melbourne on a fast steamer through the Canal, and a few days later they were on their way across the Southern Seas, with a scratch crew, bound for Shinti. They had taken on board all that was needed, including a couple of machine-guns, which had been picked up at scrap price now that the War was over, and one fine morning they warped into a little bay, land-locked and palm-fringed, with an oily, oozy stream running back into the heart of the island. And here for two days they lay, talking over their plans until they were ready to push up the river in one of the ship's boats in the direction of a big lagoon fringed with trees, lying there like some sinister mirror, dark and mysterious, almost as if it were a scene that Dante had pictured. And here it was that they picked up the motor-boat Barwick spoken of, hidden and half buried in rotten vegetation, but heavy with oil, so that it only needed to be cleaned and the petrol taken on board for the voyage to the shallow waters where the precious seaweed lay, all ready for the work to come. They had gone up with only two of the crew besides themselves, for the rest were not to be trusted in that silent land, where danger lay behind every bush, and where the cannibals would be waiting for them at the first opportunity. So they sped on, a day or two later, the boat moving almost noiselessly in the oily waters, with the machine-gun grinning in her bows.

They came at length to a shelving beach on the side of the big brackish waters, where a hut had been built, backed by a sheer cliff, so that, in case of an attack, the defenders could not be approached from the rear. It was here that Barwick and Oppner had worked for the best part of two years, taking watch, turn and turn about, with a Winchester rifle and a box of cartridges handy. It was in this way that they had kept the demon of fear alive in the hearts of the natives.

Barwick lay back in the stern of the boat and wiped the blinding sweat from his eyes.

"Here we are," he said. "And there's the stuff, floating on the face of the lagoon, millions of tons of it. That's the hut we built, and there, away to the right, you can see what remains of our machinery."

"It doesn't look so derelict, either," Cutting said.

"No, it doesn't," Barwick admitted. "And if that isn't smoke coming out of the hut, I'm greatly mistaken."

Beyond question a thin spiral of smoke went up from the chimney of the hut. Barwick looked about him with alert suspicion. If his eyes did not decefve him, the machinery which he had carefully destroyed had been repaired, for he could see parts of it glistening in the sunshine, and noticed certain ancient receptacles standing in a row on the beach. He was conscious, too, that something was moving in the brush; it seemed to him that he could see the outline of more than one naked black figure. Then something whizzed over the bow of the boat, and a spear, flung by a muscular arm, plopped into the water. Immediately afterwards came the unmistakable crack of a rifle-shot from somewhere on the edge of the scrub, followed by one from the door of the hut, for Barwick could distinctly see the tiny wisp of smoke that hung there.

"There's somebody in the shack," he whispered excitedly—"somebody who's working that machinery, and another somebody who is in trouble with the natives amongst the scrub. We've come just in time, Cutting. If our friends fall into jhe hands of those devils—cannibals to a man— well, I'll leave you to imagine it. Here, turn that machine-gun round and spray a belt along that bank of scrub."

The machine-gun coughed its rapid message, spraying the scrub from end to end, followed here and there by howls of anguish and a quick stampede of ebony-black figures in the direction of the big wood behind the scrub. Then another figure emerged, a tall figure of a man, armed with what appeared to be a Winchester rifle, and clad only in a loin-cloth. He had been hit, probably with a spear, for he limped across the open painfully, glancing round from time to time, much like a man who is walking in his sleep.

Barwick's eyes opened widely.

"Memsambo!" he cried. "Memsambo!"

The man, looking across the open, evidently heard, for he paused irresolutely as he looked in the direction of the boat.

"And who might Memsambo be?" Cutting asked.

"Our one friendly native," Barwick explained. "He came over to us the first week we were here. Did you ever see a lot of rooks pecking one of their colony to death—sort of court-martial arrangement?"

"Saw it once," Cutting said. "They weren't rooks, but Australian crows. Funny sight."

"Well, that was what was happening to Memsambo. Oppner and I came across the ceremony just at the right time. They were chipping pieces out of the poor wretch with their spears, preparatory to making a feast of him, no doubt. But a few rounds from the Winchester stopped that, and, as Memsambo daren't go back, he stayed with us ever after. But what the mystery was, I never could understand. Even when we had taught him some sort of English he wouldn't explain. Hi, Memsambo!"

The big native hesitated in the direction of the boat, crawling on his hands and knees, touching the ground with his forehead over and over again. He knew something of white men and their ways, as the Winchester rifle which he dragged after him showed, but the machine-gun was clearly new magic to him, and the big man was sore afraid. Still, he came on till he grovelled almost at the feet of the two white men, and looked up at them with a dumb pleading in his eyes like that of a dog.

"Don't you know me, Memsambo?" Barwick asked.

"It is the white lord who makes fire out of the sea come back," Memsambo said reverently. "It is well that the great man who plays, with the fire returns to us, for there has been a great killing, and many feasts there in the woods, and they would have killed me, too, but for the magic that you make with that little thing that coughs like a sick monkey."

They dragged Memsambo into the boat and bound up his wounds. There was nothing serious the matter—flesh wounds, for the most part, caused by the spears of the cannibals—and very soon the big native was sitting up again and examining the machine-gun with all the pleasure of a child with a new toy.

"Sit down, Memsambo," Barwick said, "and tell us all about it. Whom have you got over there in the hut? And who started my machinery again? Come, there's nothing to be afraid of. I don't think those black brethren of yours will trouble us any more, now they have learnt what a machine-gun can do. What have you been doing the last two years?"

"I stayed with my friend," Memsambo said, not without dignity. "To those blinking black niggers who eat one another's flesh I could go back no more. The white man is my brother, and his ways are my ways. So I stay because he is good to me and because them other feller kill me an' eat me if I go back. And so, when my lord Barwick go away in the big ship, I stay a long time with my lord Oppner."

"Oho!" Barwick said softly. "Oho!"

"Yes, boss," Memsambo went on more confidently. "My lord Oppner tell me you go away to fight in a great war for your country, and he stay to look after your shop. Then we get the devil engine to go again, and we make the fire-water out of the sea. But they fight us, those black niggers, they fight us day and night, until the fire for our guns is all gone. For they know, the black niggers, they know. And in the hut yonder there are just three bullets, and two I have in my loin-cloth. If you not come with the other white lord, then to-morrow we die, and they make big feast here on the beach."

"Come on, Cutting," Barwick said. "Let's get to the bottom of this business. You stay here, Memsambo, and if you see any more of your old friends prowling about, just turn that handle. We're going up to the hut."

Barwick spoke quietly enough, but there was rage in his heart and a lambent flame in his eye as he strode across the beach in the direction of the hut, followed by Cutting. Inside, in the gloom, they could make out an emaciated figure lying on the mat in the entrance, with a Winchester rifle grasped in a hand as skinny as a bird's claw, and as Barwick looked down upon the human wreck prostrate there, he knew that he was face to face with Oppner again.

"Well," he said, "I've got back, you see."

"So I observe," the German said drily. "It doesn't matter. I'm a dying man, Barwick, and I can't last another week. I'm full of fever. My medicine and quinine are all gone, and the strain has taken all the life out of me. We're down to our last handful of cartridges, and those demons know it. You can kill me, if you like—I almost wish you would."

"You served me a scurvy trick," Barwick said sternly. "I suppose you planned this from the first?"

"It was for my country," Oppner said. "You should not have patented your invention in Germany. If you had known the War was going to break out, I don't suppose you would. But we knew, and we watched, so that nothing should escape us that was likely to be useful to my country."

"And you are not ashamed of yourself?" Barwick asked.

"Ashamed? Why should I be? Ah, you English are different from us—you will never understand our German mentality."

"Oh, never mind that!" Barwick said angrily. "I ought to know, for I have had over two years in that accursed country of yours; but they got nothing out of me."

"So?" Oppner smiled. "Then why so bitter? Ah, I knew you would come back. That is why I managed to repair the machinery and reconstruct that formula of yours, which I did after a year's work on it. I knew you would come back and be my partner again, and forget what a patriot did for his country, because this is a big thing of ours, and there is a fortune for us yet. Then the War is over—it must be, or you would not be back here—the War is over, and Germany is mistress of the world!"

"Say, where have you been sleeping?" Cutting drawled. "Mean to say that you've heard nothing, boss?"

"Not a word for two years," Oppner said.

"Oh, yes, the War is over," Barwick laughed, "and I can afford to forgive you now, because Germany is beaten to the world. Her fleet is in an English port, the Mad Dog of Europe that you used to call the Kaiser is a fugitive in Holland, and a million of Allied troops are occupying German territory. Oh, yes, the War's over right enough, with a republic in Berlin, and your people thankful for the food we send them. And because of that, and because you have done me no real harm, after all, I am going to show you what an Englishman is capable of."

But Oppner, lying there, said never a word. They fed him and tended him for the next few days, during which time he never spoke, and at the end of the week they buried him deep under a grove of mangoes, after which they went back to the hut in silence. It was Cutting who uttered Oppner's epitaph.

"I suppose the poor beggar had a soul somewhere," he said, "but the beastly thing they used to call Kultur has stifled it. We're a forgiving lot, Barwick, and that's a fact. And now let's get back to business again."


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