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Title: The Shifting Sands
Author: Fred M White
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Language: English
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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Shifting Sands
Author: Fred M White




The Shifting Sands.


By


FRED. M. WHITE.


Published in the Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1895 - 1954), Saturday 19
April 1919. Also in the Bowen Independent on 31 May, 1919 as 'A Neat Plot'.



The spirit of adventure, like that of jealousy, mocks the meat it feeds
on, though there are certain captious critics who rend that familiar
Shakespearean quotation in another form. But be that as it may, the
fact remains, and so it came about that after a considerable pause
the Gentle Buccaneers found themselves going again quite two thousand
miles from their base. Things had been quiet enough since the episode
of the Grey Raider, so that our adventurers were glad to be on the
wing again. Now, everything was fish that came to their net, especially
since Graydon had hit upon the happy idea that the Gehenna should
establish herself as a central organisation for Red Cross funds.
In other words, all the loot vicariously gathered in those golden
seas henceforth would be transmitted anonymously to the American Red
Cross Society. It was a sort of Robin Hood combination and a salve to
conscience at the same time.

Therefore, when the Gehenna fetched up alongside a certain island in
the South Pacific and Endellion came in contact with a wily Oriental
called Jim Shi and listened to his flowery tale about pearls and other
gilt-edged articles of commerce, he was disposed to fall in with the
suggestion of the Chinaman that they should visit the place called
Shara and try their luck in the most strictly preserved piece of water
in the world. It was Japanese water, that same, and usually carefully
patrolled by a destroyer or two, but just now, with the big war on, and
the traffic in pearls more or less at a standstill, these sacred covers
were likely to be loosely guarded. Here, therefore, was an adventure
after the heart of the Buccaneers, wherein personal danger and large
areas of valuable loot were impartially distributed.

Apparently Jim Shi knew all about it. He had evidently given the matter
his careful consideration, and, indeed, he said frankly enough that
he regarded the coming of the Gehenna as a direct interposition of
Providence, or the Chinese equivalent for that same manifestation.

Jim Shi was a wealthy Chinaman, and a sometime mandarin, who hinted
pretty broadly that he had either left his country for his country's
good, or that he had found the atmosphere of Peking not so salubrious
as it had been at one period of his picturesque career. Therefore, he
had retired from China, taking his loot with him, and, at the same
time, accompanied by his daughter Lota, the vivacious and fascinating
young woman who had learnt a great deal of Western diplomacy and its
equivalent during a three years' residence in San Francisco.

She was quite young, pretty, and fascinating, and, to say the least
of it, liberal-minded. She presided gracefully and tactfully over
her father's luxurious establishment on the little island, which
practically belonged to him, and she was a great favorite with the
Gentle Buccaneers. To begin with, she spoke English quite as well as
they did, she played and sang divinely with a strong leaning towards
the musical comedy and ragtime type of harmony which is almost the
second nature of the Western girl. She was learned on the subject of
cocktails, flippantly familiar with the sort of conversation that
usually revolves round the "morning after the night before," in fact, a
man's woman to her finger tips, so that before long she and the Gentle
Buccaneers were the best of friends. It was she, as a matter of fact,
who suggested the expedition, an enterprise that she had expressed her
firm intention of joining.

"Oh, I am coming along, Mr. Endellion," she said. "On that you can bet
your bottom dollar. I want adventure, and, like the little boy in your
soap advertisement, I shan't be happy till I get it."

All this with a laugh and a twinkle in her eye, which were very
alluring, especially when the words were uttered by a Chinese girl,
dressed in picturesque costume, with a Turkish cigarette between her
red lips, and a dry Martini within reach of those dainty hands with the
henna-dyed finger nails. Endellion was a professed woman-hater, but
that solemn ritual of his certainly did not extend to the fascinating
Lota, whom he regarded more as a colleague than a weaker vessel.

"Yes, Lota will certainly come along," Jim Shi said to Endellion as
the preliminaries were arranged. They were sitting out on the broad
verandah in the moonlight, and the whole of the Buccaneers were
gathered there, for they were sailing on the morrow for a more or less
unknown destination nearly two thousand miles away. "Lota will never
consent to stay behind."

"She won't," Lota said emphatically.

"Oh, well, that's settled, then, anyhow," Shacklock remarked. "But,
say, who's the pilot?"

"Oh, I have the pilot all right," Jim Shi murmured. "And remember, I
have been to the little island of Shara before. I have seen the wonders
of the place, and I know the treasure that lies there. And since the
war began there has been no pearl-fishing in the bay at all."

"Yes, but who's the pilot?" Wallace insisted.

"Ah, he is a Japanese in my employ. A diver. He has been working there
for years. And it is he who will be our pilot. You leave it to me,
gentlemen."

So, in the fullness of time they set out on board the Gehenna with
a pilot, and made their way leisurely through those glorious seas
to their destination. They were carrying a rather larger complement
than Endellion liked, a dozen or so of Kanakas and perhaps a score of
Chinese coolies that had appeared as if by magic almost as soon as the
expedition had begun to take shape. They made rather a crowd on board
the yacht, but they were fine sailors for the most part, and seemed
to stand in considerable awe of Jim Shi. There was a workmanlike air
about them, an unusual discipline that did not fail to show itself to
Wallace, otherwise known as the Brigadier.

"Now, where did the old man pick them up?" he asked Endellion. "They
ain't any ordinary lot of Chinks. If those chaps haven't been in the
Chinese navy, I'll eat 'em. Do you notice how familiar they are with a
rifle?"

Endellion lounged along the deck with his glass in his eye and a
cigarette in his mouth, and shrugged his shoulders indifferently. For
the time being, at any rate, he was little more than a passenger on his
own ship, and therefore not in the least disposed to interfere.

"Oh, what the devil does it matter?" he asked. "Besides, it will be all
to the good if we have any trouble with some nosing Japanese destroyer.
It's nothing to do with me. We're out here on a fine excursion with a
bit of danger in it, and if it turns up trumps, why, it ought to mean
at least twenty thousand to the American Red Cross. Be a patriot, old
man, be a patriot, and if you can't be a patriot, don't be an ass."

All the same the Brigadier was not entirely convinced. He went about
from day to day with his eyes wide open, like "a chiel's amang
them takin' notes." It rather disturbed him to see how Jim Shi had
practically taken possession of the Gehenna, Jim Shi in a British
naval uniform, no less, and evincing a knowledge of seamanship that
was rather strange in a man who had spent most of his life ashore. And
if Jim Shi was enthusiastic about anything, it was over the merits
and beauties of the Gehenna. If he had a yacht like that, he said,
before long he would he king of the South Pacific. But he lacked the
couple of hundred thousand pounds or so necessary for the purchase of
such a craft, and, that being so, he had to content himself with the
role of temporary owner and Captain.

It all sounded innocent and friendly enough, but the Brigadier was
far from satisfied, though he would have found it difficult to put
his suspicions into words. And so the time went on until one golden
afternoon the Gehenna passed between two high cliffs of basaltic
rock that shut in a long, narrow tongue of water that represented
the finest pearl-fishing ground in the world. This shiny isthmus was
flanked on either side by beaches of golden sand, and at the further
end was locked in again by a rampart of the same black rock. There was
not too much room for the Gehenna to enter, for there was a big
sandbar across the mouth of the bay, with a deep channel only on the
lee side. Nobody but an experienced pilot who knew every inch of the
way could have steered the yacht safely to her anchorage ground.

"Um," Endellion said as he looked around him. "I don't know that I am
particularly enamored with this. It may be the finest pearl-fishing in
the world, but there's not enough elbow-room for my taste. If we get
caught here, we shall be like rats in a trap. We shan't even have a
fighting chance."

Jim Shi smiled reassuringly.

"Oh, that will be all right, Mr. Endellion," he said. "We can keep a
watch post on top of the cliff yonder much more efficiently than you
could from the deck of the boat. And we could warp out in an hour.
And given the Gehenna half a league, there's not a gunboat in the
Japanese navy that could touch her."

All of which was perfectly true, so that Endellion did not contest the
point. Therefore, he resigned himself cheerfully to the hands of his
guide, and for the next day or two spent a good deal more time in the
company of the fascinating Lota than is consistent with the shibboleths
of a hardened woman-hater.

Meanwhile, the pearl-fishing proceeded in earnest, and continued for
the best part of a fortnight with quite lamentable results so far as
the Red Cross was concerned. Day followed day with not more than a mere
handful of pearls recovered from the vasty deep, and those of a quality
not likely to cause any sensation on the market.

Jim Shi shook his head and professed not to understand. It was here,
he said, that he had seen enough pearls harvested in a month to supply
the markets of Europe for years. Perhaps there had been an epidemic
amongst the pearl oysters, perhaps some other enterprising adventurer
had forestalled them. And again, there had been high seas running out
in the open, accompanied by heavy gales, and perhaps this had disturbed
the fishery. But, anyway, the pearls were not there.

To all of which Wallace listened with a certain grim cynicism. He
was the one of the Buccaneers who understood more of the language of
the coolies and the Kanakas than all the rest of his colleagues put
together. So one evening after dinner, when the rest of them were
seated over their coffee and cigarettes in the cabin, he sneaked
forward with a bottle of rum, and proceeded to open the hearts of a
couple of the Kanakas who had been helping in the diving operations.

They were shy enough at first, reticent and suspicious of the white man
who asked many questions, but gradually as the generous spirit warmed
them they became more communicative.

"No pearls, here, master," the bigger of the Kanakas volunteered. "Been
no pearls here for years. Just a few of 'em, but not worth coming all
this way for. China master, he know that as well as we do."

"Oh, he does, does he?" Wallace said softly.

"Just so, boss. We came with him two year before, an' find nothing. All
gone to American man, and Japanese man all finished. No doing, master."

A few minutes later Wallace crept away, turning over this problem in
his mind. Now, what the deuce was that wily Chinaman about? Why had he
dragged the Gehenna and her crew all this way on a wild-goose chase,
and practically imprisoned them in this rock-bound lagoon? And why had
he talked so glibly about the dangers of the expedition and the perils
of Japanese destroyers unless it had been with the desire to appeal to
their innate love of adventure? Unless, perhaps, he had designs on the
yacht.

Ah, that was it, no doubt. It came to Wallace like a lightning flash.
Ever since the Gehenna had first bulked largely on the ex-Mandarin's
vision he had talked about nothing else. He never lost an opportunity
to get on board, he had studied the yacht with loving intention from
her funnels to her keel. And had he not more than once declared that he
would gladly sacrifice all he possessed to call himself the owner of a
boat like the Gehenna?

The more Wallace thought over the matter the less he liked it. He
reflected that the Buccaneers knew little or nothing of the Chinaman,
and that there would probably have been no particularly friendly
intercourse between them had it not been for Lota and her manifest
charms. And then again Wallace thought of those well-trained,
well-drilled coolies who were quite at home on board the craft. And he
thought more especially of the little Japanese called Li, the taciturn
Oriental who had hardly spoken a word since he came on board, and had
taken over the Gehenna in the character of pilot.

These suspicions Wallace confided to his companions an hour or so
later, when Jim Shi and his daughter had retired and the Gentle
Buccaneers had the cabin to themselves. At first Endellion was disposed
to make light of what Wallace said, but gradually his arguments went
home, and for a few minutes an uneasy silence reigned in the cabin.

"But what do you make of it?" Endellion asked.

"I'm dashed if I know," Wallace said. "At any rate, you can see for
yourself that there are no pearls here, and those Kanakas were telling
the truth when they said the fishing-ground had been worked out years
ago. The question for you chaps who have got more brains than I have
is, why did the Chinaman bring us here, and what does he expect to gain
by it?"

The Buccaneers looked from one to the other doubtfully.

"Can any of you chaps see where the catch comes in?" Endellion asked.
"For I am hanged if I can. Still, there must be one somewhere, and I
think the best thing we can do is to get out of it as soon as possible.
So I'll tackle Jim Shi in the morning."

Jim Shi was blandly regretful, profusely apologetic, but at the
same time, raised no objections. He was almost like a Frenchman in
his profuse apologies. He himself had been deceived, and so, he was
quite sure, had his daughter. And Lota sighed and simpered with many
sentimental glances from those fine eyes of hers, though she was
cheered by the reflection that she had had quite a good time in the
company of the Buccaneers. She would see them again some day, perhaps,
and so forth and so on, to the great delight and comfort of most of the
party with the exception of Endellion, who was still worried.

He was worried all the more when he discovered how slack had been the
watch which had been kept on the top of the cliff, and he was inclined
to curse himself roundly when he regarded the big basalt rocks on
either side and realised, perhaps for the first time, what a rat-trap
he was in if anything happened to prevent the Gehenna from putting
to sea. So, without saying anything to anyone, he made arrangements to
get up anchor the following morning, and daybreak saw the nose of the
yacht turned to the open.

And that, sad to relate, was as far as she went. The pilot came on the
bridge an hour later with a serious face and announced the fact that
the narrow channel by the side of the sandbar had entirely silted up.
There was not sufficient room, so the Japanese averred, to warp out a
barge. What had happened he did not know, but the fact remained that
the yacht was a prisoner as securely fixed there as if she had been
towed by a submarine into a German harbor.

Naturally enough, in the exciting pastime of pearl-fishing, nobody
had noticed what had been going on, and, in any case, nobody could
have expected it. But here they were landlocked in that long tongue
of shining water with the high cliffs on three sides of them. If they
could not get away, and that appeared to be absolutely impossible, then
they would have to hang on there until the provisions were exhausted
and slowly starve to death. That was unless help came along, which was
extremely problematical.

At the suggestion of Li, the pilot, Endellion went out himself in one
of the ship's boats to assure himself that the catastrophe had not
been exaggerated. Half an hour convinced him that Li's statement was
no more than the truth. Then, for the next few hours, something like
consternation reigned on the deck of the Gehenna.

True to his caste, Jim Shi was imperturbable enough, and so, too, was
his daughter. If it was the will of the gods of the lagoon that they
should all perish, then they must. With which Jim Shi helped himself to
another cigar and sat himself with great comfort on the deck.

"It is fate, Mr. Endellion," he said. "Some hidden trick of the sea,
perhaps a slight earthquake somewhere. We shall have to pole the boats
over the sandbar and leave the Gehenna here. She may be still in
the lagoon when we get back, but I very much doubt it. If one of those
Japanese gunboats comes along they'll blow her all to pieces. I hope
that she is properly insured."

"Not for a bob," Endellion said. "If you can tell me where I can insure
what is practically a pirate ship, then I shall be greatly obliged."

"Mayn't I be permitted to do it myself?" Jim Shi asked suavely. "As I
got you into this mess, I feel that I must do my best to get you out
of it. I ask you to sell me the yacht as she stands, of course, at a
speculative price, and if I can manage to get her off again, then it
will be all the better for me. It is a fair offer."

"So it seems," Endellion said drily. "But I should like to consult the
others first."

Endellion went off coolly enough, but he was raging inwardly. That some
diabolical trick was being played upon himself and his companions by
this wily Oriental he did not doubt for a moment.

"But what is it?" he asked the others. "How is it worked? That channel
is silted up all right, and we are prisoners. Now I don't believe that
Jim Shi and his coolies could have carried the sand there, and it
certainly wasn't there when we got inside. I believe that blackguard of
a pilot could tell us if he liked."

"By gad, he shall," Wallace cried. "Now you leave him to me. I can
speak enough of his language."

An hour before dawn Wallace, revolver in hand, walked into Endellion's
cabin with Li following reluctantly behind. Wallace closed the door.

"Now, then, spit it out," he said.

"Jim Shi is my master," Li suggested.

"Something more than that, isn't he?" Wallace said encouragingly.
"Don't be shy."

"My master," Li repeated doggedly. "I work for him for two year. He pay
me little, so little that I can hardly live, and then, excellencies----"

"You borrowed a bit," Wallace prompted.

At this point Li found his tongue.

"Two hundred of your pounds," he said. "To escape to my own country.
For I was not so much a servant as a slave. And that great fat devil,
he found out, and he threaten to lock me up in the prison house. Since
that date he pay me nothing, he beat and starve me, so I have hardly
no food till the big white yacht comes along, and then the fat devil
grows kind. Because I know the secret of this place. Because I can
make the channel to close himself and shut in the great white yacht so
that she goes to sea no more. And then Jim Shi he buys the boat at his
own price, and then when the times comes and the white men from the
west are gone the channel he open to himself again and behold the ship
belongs to my master."

"Oh, so that's the game, it it?" Endellion said softly. "Now, my
friend, how much?"

"Oh, don't you worry about that," Wallace chipped in. "I have settled
with our friend here. Now, Li, I am going to lock you in my cabin till
the morning. Not that I mistrust you, but I want to be on the safe
side. After breakfast you and I and the skipper are going up to the top
of the lagoon on a little shooting expedition. You are going to show us
where we can find a seal or two. And, incidentally, you are going to
show us something else."

"That's so, master," the impassive Li agreed. "You pay me and I serve
you well. Give me money to get back to my own country, and I'll show
you everything."

"Oh, that's all right," Wallace said. "Come along."

With that he shepherded the little Jap in his own cabin and returned to
Endellion again.

"Let's have it," the latter said.

"Well, the whole thing's an ingenious plant," Wallace explained. "We
were lured here on purpose. That greasy old Chink wants the yacht, and,
but for a bit of sheer luck, I guess he would have got it. Now, this
game has been played before on a smaller scale, though it has only
been possible since the pearls gave out. I didn't know what the game
was in the least, but I have had my eye on our friend Li for a day or
two and I didn't quite like the way he was shaping. So when the bottom
fell out of everything this morning I thought I'd tackle him, and I
did. I couldn't frighten him--you can't frighten a man who looks upon
Hari Kari as a sort of luxury--so I dropped that tack and tried bribery
instead. I told the little blighter that I knew there was a trick
somewhere and offered him five hundred of the best and a passage to his
native land if he would give the show away. You see, I knew he must
know all about it, being the pilot. Then, by gad, he nearly wept on my
neck and cursed Jim Shi by a thousand gods. Then I got the whole thing
out of him. It's all right, old man."

"Oh, is it?" Endellion said dubiously. "Then perhaps you had better
tell me. This is the time when even my friend, Marcus Aurelius, is a
little wanting."

"I tell you it's all right," Wallace protested. "We can't get off
to-morrow quietly with the Jap, then you'll see for yourself. I don't
want to spoil your pleasure."

Whereupon Endellion ceased his questions and retired to spend a
sleepless night. They got off in the morning in one of the boats and
pulled up under the head of the lagoon on the sand at the foot of the
big frowning cliff. The tide was beginning to make, and already the
sea was forming at the mouth of the caves along the cliff. Into one of
these Li made his way, followed by his companions until he reached the
dripping weed-clad wall at the far end. Then he stooped down and did
something with a long rusty bar that appeared to be a lever, and as if
by magic a hole appeared at the back of the cave showing a wide expanse
of sea and wave and sky beyond. An immense fragment of rock balanced on
its slippery base had turned sideways, and Endellion gasped as he began
to grasp the inwardness of it all.

"I think I begin to understand," he said. "Now, I wonder who hit upon
that ingenious dodge? What clever adventurer found out the secret of
that rocking stone?"

"So you have tumbled to it?" Wallace asked.

"I think so," Endellion said. "At half tide this cave is full of water,
and so long as there is no outlet for the current the sand on the bar
at the far entrance begins to silt up. With the strong tides running
here the sand would silt enough in a week to keep the Gehenna here
for ever. But in a long tongue of water like this directly that hole
was made the strong tide would suck all that sand away in the course of
a week. Isn't that right, Li?"

"Quite right, master," Li said. "We leave him big hole open and in two
or three days' time the bar is clear again. Ah, this is not the first
time this what you call game has been played here. Chinamen he know the
secret since nearly a century ago, and when I was diver here I learnt
him, and because I thought it would please Jim Shi, I told him, too.
And when the white excellencies come along with a big beautiful yacht
Jim Shi tells me the story of the pearls, and they come here to see
for themselves, and they come to stay as you'd say. But Jim Shi he no
good. Much cruel man who care nothing for poor Japanese so long he make
use of him. And when the excellency there with the glass in his eye
promised me five hundred of your pounds and a passage home, then I tell
the truth. And why, because I don't care damn for Jim Shi any more."

This fairly lucid explanation being satisfactory, a seal or two was
dispatched by way of giving proper local color to the expedition, and a
quiet, thoughtful, though absolutely satisfied shooting party returned
to the yacht. To one by one, in the seclusion of his cabin, was told
the secret by Endellion.

At any rate, there was no interference now with the natural flow of
the tide that ran through the cave under an arm in the big cliffs, and
for the next two or three nights the Gentle Buccaneers sat down to
dine with their Oriental guests with an easy mind and the comfortable
assurance that the fourth day would see them well out to sea again.

It was a case of gathering roses whilst they might, a sort of false,
reckless gaiety with the fear of starvation before their eyes, a kind
of philosophy that Jim Shi openly applauded. He could afford to wait
till the time came to drive a hard bargain with Endellion and therefore
he was more than usually friendly.

So, also, was the fascinating Lota until she came smilingly on deck
just before breakfast on the fourth morning, followed by her father.
But the smiles disappeared from the faces of both of them as if by
magic when they found that instead of being still at anchor in the
lagoon, they were moving smoothly and noiselessly over a golden sea as
smooth as a mirror. Just for a moment Jim Shi's face changed, and there
was a murderous gleam in his eye as he turned his head in the direction
of the rigid Li, who was engrossed at the wheel. Lota smiled blandly
at the Buccaneers, then turned away with a request that her breakfast
might be brought to her in her cabin. With his glass firmly fixed in
his eye and his hands in the pocket of his immaculate duck jacket,
Endellion approached his guest.

"A nice little surprise for you, I think," he said. "How gratified you
must be, my friend, to think that you have not brought disaster upon
those people for whom you entertain so high a regard. No explanations
are necessary, a fact that I need hardly dilate upon. Now listen. I am
going to put you on the first tramp steamer that comes along, together
with your charming daughter. It is an exceedingly fortunate thing
for you that she is here, because otherwise I should have had great
pleasure in taking you by the scruff of the neck and throwing you into
the sea. Now, then, come to breakfast."



THE END.


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