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

by

Fred M. White

Cover Image

A "GENTLE BUCCANEER" STORY



Published under syndication in, e.g.:
The Chronicle, Adelaide, Australia, April 19, 1919
The Bowen Independent, Australia, May 31, 1919 as
"A Neat Plot"

This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2016



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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