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Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: A Tale of the Coral Sea
Author: Randolph Bedford
eBook No.: 230 .html
Language: English
Date first posted: 2023
Most recent update: 2023

This eBook was produced by: Paul Moulder and Colin Choat

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A Tale of the Coral Sea


Randolph Bedford


Decorations by C B Falls

McClure's v.37, May-Oct 1911

THE palm-fronds threshed softly; odors of frangipanni bloom, reek of seaweed and coral trash, and of the Chinaman and the incense of his joss-house mingled and were destroyed and produced again by the fitful land breeze. Nigh to midnight the land breeze became too strong for anything but the frangipanni scent; the palm-fronds threshed through the air saturated with moonlight; the red lamp on the jetty showed as a purple stain.

The last of the pilots of Torres Straits went to bed; the Grand Hotel of Thursday Island closed its bar: but the two barefoot men on the veranda still talked on the topic that had lasted since dusk—the wreck of the Pandora; and one man, Pipon, tried to soothe the other, Moresby, who talked without ceasing of the wreck and twenty thousand pounds of pearls.

"Can't we get a launch, Jim?" he asked, for the twentieth time. "A steamer or a launch?"

"I told you no," replied Pipon.

"Bear up, old man; y' can have a lugger."

"A lugger and a dead calm? It would be worse than waiting here."

"Well, quiet a bit!"

"Quiet! How can I be?—when I am in a fever to be there!"

He looked south as if trying to make out the coast of Australia, now the ghost of a shadow in the moon haze and sea blur.

"What could you do if you were there Martin? You couldn't do anything."

"I could stand by the wreck; I could—"

"You couldn't do any good. It's lucky Phil Regard is coming to-morrow. He's the British India diver. He'll do all there is to be done."

"My pearls, Tom! The big one and nine ounces of little ones. Oyley was bringing them up. What depth did the Pandora sink in?"

"Nobody knows, old man; or how she went. The skipper was a good man—exempt, too. Knew every key and every inch of reef—and there's millions of 'em."

"It was my rotten luck, Tom, to miss the Pandora by five minutes, and then pick up the Maranea to catch her here, and find, when I did get here, that she'd sunk fifty or a hundred miles south. And there's my pearls—Oyley was taking charge of 'em—and then I missed the ship. Oh, gimme a raft—gimme a kerosene-tin—and I'll start!"

"Not you! Come on; take a fool's advice and sleep. You'll wait for the morning, and then leave it all to Phil Regard. He'll be here to-morrow."

The grass trees rustled softly to the poinciana as the men went to bed; the breeze strengthened to a wind, and replaced perfume with a taste of salt; from the veranda above a man began to whimper—a man that had seen death and terror and was now dreaming it all over again and shrieking out the story in his recurrent nightmare—the one survivor of the Pandora, who had been picked up by a pearling lugger.

"She's going! Two minutes—you can't get the boats out of the chocks. Why didn't they have boat practice? You can't! You can't! Don't scream, women—dear women, don't scream—it's better to drown than—ah, my God, the sharks! the sharks!"

Druce, the pilot of Torres Straits, boarded that slow, comfortable, old-time high-pooped steamer of the tea clipper type, the Airlie, at Goode Island, and brought her up in the early dawn to the wharf at Thursday. A big, bearded, brown-eyed man was the first to land; he was a man in a hurry—in a hurry for news, at least. He waited for neither bath nor breakfast, but aroused an irritated postmaster, and begged so for telegrams that the postmaster gave him his mail long before the beginning of office hours. There were many newspapers, and he did not look at them; a dozen letters, all man-directed and official, and he put them in his pocket. A bitter disappointment settled on his face—the letter from the beloved was not there. He found new hope in the telegrams. Alas! They were as the letters; and his heart was heavy then. This diver of the sea, who knew no fear that he could not fight down, fought against this disappointment and could not conquer it.

"I telegraphed her from Darwin, and she hasn't wired a reply. She's thoughtless, not cruel, not cruel—my girl."

He took from his pocket-book a faded photograph—faded not by age but by wear; looked at it, and put it back again.

"God bless her! I'll telegraph again, and in seven days we'll be together—for a month, anyhow. But—she might have made sure of not missing the post; a letter would make me a king to-day."

He returned to duty by taking a telegram from his pockets, and a fierce resentment held him for a moment as he read it:

Pandora sunk; locate wreck; if not impossible recover gold, ship's papers. B. P. provide tug and tender; made splendid terms.

So he would not see her in a week—happiness was to be postponed again. He thought of the long two months of salvage diving in the Flores Sea. Three months since he had seen her, and now there was to be another fortnight of hunger for her!

But hope came to his comfort. "Another year and I'll have made enough to retire on, with this new chance. And then, no separation till dead finish comes!"

So he went to Burns Philip and arranged for the departure of the little steamer, hired diving tenders, and had his diving gear brought from the Airlie's hold. It was then that Moresby found him—Moresby of the drowned pearls; and the new commission made Phil Regard almost gay.

"Oyley had 'em," said Moresby. "I gave them to him to mind because I was going on a spree in Brisbane."

"Was he straight, d'ye think?"

"I think so. He put 'em in a little steel box in his trunk,—he had his own pearls in the box,—and his wife had the key on a chain round her neck."

"What was the number of his cabin, and what was he like?"

"A dark, red-mustached chap—cabin number 41-43 B, port side, near the music-room."

"You know the ship?"

"I tell you, I sailed on her from Sydney to Brisbane, and lost my passage at Brisbane through going to the races. I gave the pearls to Oyley when I was going ashore. But you will get 'em again, mate?"

"I don't know. Nobody knows where she foundered. But, if I do?"

"Five hundred pounds."

With the lack of ceremony characteristic of the latitude, every man in the bar joined in the conversation.

"Five hundred pounds!" said Druce, the pilot. "Five hundred pounds for dredgin' fifteen or twenty thousand pounds out o' the Pacific Ocean! Five hundred to find a ton of scrap-iron in eighty thousand square miles o' coral? It's worth that to find the old hulk that hit the rock somewhere, and sank on it, and jewed me out o' pilot fees."

"I thought it wouldn't be hard to find the wreck," said Moresby hesitatingly. "If—"

"Oh," replied Druce, "if your aunt had whiskers she'd be your uncle. Why, I know ten wrecks about here that no man knows the name of—ships that were never missed. You know, too, don't you, Dan'l?"

An old man, bent and wizened, replied quaveringly: "I've seen below me—when I've been down—old Spanish ships, an' old Dutch ships, an' old Portugees down below; me in twenty fathom water, an' them deep below, me man—"

"Twenty fathoms—too much," said the big diver. "I've got a girl at home, and she wants me. Fifteen fathoms is all I care to go."

"Aa-ah," said the old diver, nipping with his strong and crooked fingers the arm and leg muscles of Phil Regard, "I was as strong and straight as ye; but deep divin', an' showin' off above the other min, an' takin' no notice o' the shootin' pains in me legs—callin' it rheumatics, an' all the time 'tis the paralyzer warnin' ye. An' then twenty-eight fathom I went, an' hauled up—I was a cripple."

He laughed as he spoke, but there was in his eye a tear of sorrow for his own dead strength; and, to cover his self-pity, he said, with a feeble attempt at gaiety:

"But 'tis only here I am a cripple! Put me down in fifteen or twenty fathom and give me the pressure on me skin again an' a four-knot tide, an' I'll fly along the floorin' of the sea like a sunbird."

"And you're offering five hundred pounds for the chance of that?" said Druce to Moresby.

"Open your heart, Moresby. A mean man makes me spit blood."

"A thousand, then," said Moresby. "I want to be fair, and it's all to nothing."

"It isn't," said Phil Regard. "I've got to go below on another contract, and you think I've only got to open a cabin door and take a key from some poor, dead woman, and open a box. But that means two extra corners to go round, and the more corners the more chances of fouling. It's your pearls to my life. I want a certainty."

"Here y' are, then," said Moresby. "A hundred pounds for opening the cabin door, and I'll take your word for it; and a thousand if you bring back the pearls."

"It's a deal," agreed Phil Regard, and they shook hands on it.

The warning bell of the Airlie clanged, and Druce departed to his pilotage. Phil Regard, as yet only half resigned, saw the steamer that should have borne him south disappear down the channel, rounding the Residency, and so away to open sea. Then he resolutely put regrets behind him and went to his tug and tender to prepare for his attempt to find a few thousand tons of foundered metal in an immensity of blue.

The survivor of the Pandora had become quiet enough to talk of the horror of the wreck.

"I was steerage steward," he said, "Mister. I can't think! Stay by me, Mister—don't leave me alone."

"Hold on to my coat, if you like. I'll stand by."

"We never had a boat practice—rottin' in the chocks, the boats were. It was about eleven at night—moonlight—quiet; y' could hear the scrapin' of shovels in the stoke-hole on the flat sheets, and the noise came up the ventilators. An' not a ripple. An' there I'm smoking by the rail, waitin' till I can sneak out on the boat deck to sleep—the glory hole bein' so hot. An' then it comes. It was like a kid tearin' brown paper for fun. It seemed to get her amidships—that was because she was drawing a lot more water aft. Only one man came out of the engine-room. The man on the bridge was mad! I was mad! The quiet people in the cabins had the best death. Sharks got all the deck lot. She ran a minute or two, an' I saw the water risin' closer up—an' loosed a raft and went over. It was like hell. Mister, the howls. Her deck blew up amidships. I think she's sound aft. An' the steam jumped out of her funnel as thick as wool, an' down she goes. An' then on the raft I seen white fire cutting the water all over, crisscrossin' it. It was sharks. An' then a veil, an' more crisscrossin' of fire, o' white lightnin', an 'another yell."

"I know! I know!" said Phil Regard soothingly. "Don't think of it! Help me. Tell me where you think she went down."

"I can't help thinkin' of it. Heads o' people in the moonlight, an' then rushin' fire, an' a scream like a horse burnin', an' another head pulled under. Oh—oh! Another head gone."

"Steady! Steady! Take a pull at yourself. Where did she go down?"

"A girl of twenty or so—I heard her singing in the saloon the night before—a song about 'Mine, forever mine,' an' her husband lookin' at her as if he was dyin' for her while she was singin'. He was swimmin' with her when the sharks took him; an' I beat the sea with me 'ands, an' brought the raft close, an' I was bringin' her up to the raft—swish! comes the shark fire, an' she went too. Oh, mate, hell it was!"

The diver's eyes grew moist at that; he thought of his beloved safe at home, and the tragedy touched him nearly. But he said again:

"Where's the Pandora?"

"I drifted to an island, an' then I went mad, an' the lugger found me."

"To-day is Wednesday. When did the Pandora sink? Now, think—listen! We may pick up somebody yet. Tell me."

"She sunk on Monday night."


"We made twelve knots to Cape Grenville; then we slowed to ten to bring her in at daylight."

"What time at Cape Grenville?"

The survivor of the Pandora wrinkled his brows as if thought were a physical pain, and replied: "Twelve o'clock in the mornin'. Y' can't find her—she's got no masts, on'y hydraulic winchpoles."

Phil Regard, with the dividers in his hand, said inquiringly: "And she struck at eleven in the night?"

"It might have been later. I don't remember."

"We'll go on that. Where were you picked up?"

"The lugger came from Bushy Island."

Regard pricked off one hundred and ten miles on the chart.

"Somewhere east of New Castle Bay," he said.

Before noon he had left Thursday Island, taking the direct track with his light-draft tugboat—east between Tuesday and Horn islands; and then, after easting Mount Adolphus Island and thridding the reefs to the south of it, steering south through the turquoise of shallow water and into the sapphire of deep sea, he ran south to Bushy Island, and then east over reefs, and then north again, and then west, and then zigzag. And the next day he drove slowly over a blackness in the coral bed; a monstrous black thing surrounded by lazy sharks and darting brilliant fish that made the sea-green water alive with swaying and flashing color, like the air of a tropical jungle: the Pandora—almost on an even keel and sunk in fourteen fathoms.

With a little reluctance, Regard made the preparations necessary for such as dive in dress and helmet, and shaved clean the mustache that had grown since he had dived in Flores Seas. The growing of the mustache had been an innocent vanity for the pleasure of his wife, who objected to his professionally beardless face, just as the new suit was for her benefit and not to be worn until the day of happy meeting, that he might shine all freshly in her eyes. Then, in the warm shadow of the white awning, he stripped, and donned the many woolen undergarments and the canvas dress, with its water-tight red-rubber bands at wrists and ankles.

The tender put on his feet the great brass-toed boots of twenty-eight pounds weight; and when he had climbed to the ladder and placed his feet upon the rungs, they screwed his twenty-eight-pound copper helmet on the collar-ring, and hung thirty-eight pounds of lead upon his breast and thirty-eight pounds of lead at his back. Life-line, piping, corselet, helmet, brass boots, and leaden weight complete, the men at the pump began to turn; the tender screwed the face-glass into the helmet and tapped upon it as a signal; the pumps lifted the pressure of the weights from the diver's chest. The air thudded irritatingly into the copper prison that was the helmet; the sense of confinement, and the close smell of the natural breathing element of man unnaturally compressed, returned to Phil Regard. He thought of the wife in Sydney—the last thought of the divinity before bracing himself to work that had the chance of death in it always, though use had brought danger into contempt; then he opened the valve that he might get way to sink with, and dropped easily and gently into the caresses of the water. The sun's shimmer on the sea dimmed to a great pervading shaft of tawny light that made the sea-green lucent, as the white sand below reflected the rays of the breathing world.

The black corpse of the Pandora seemed to rise to him. He closed the valve, and sank as through a cataract of feathers. Avoiding the deck, he dropped to the bottom for a survey of the hull. The current hurried him; he might have to wait until slack water. But the lugger drifted too, and he walked rapidly on his toe-tips around the wreck. There could be no doubt of the impossibility of raising her. From the great gaping hole amidships, that extended from one side of her to the other, swam fish of all colors, playing in those puzzling tunnels. Moving lightly as a feather-weight, as if the laws of gravitation had been repealed, Regard studied the situation. All about him stretched tangles of seaweed and coral with white walks between the spongy copses and the brakes. A yellow water-snake followed his every movement with curious imitation, and white fish circled around his helmet so that a green hand must have become dizzy. From a rift in the rock wavered the tentacles of a devilfish feeling its way to crime with every cup and sucker; immense shoals of young fish were being driven to the surface by stronger bullies. Yet, with all its clamorous hunger and insolent murder, it was a world of bewildering loveliness.

Upon the ribbed sand the starfish; above, the brilliance of living coral: the great violet bouquet-shaped madrepora, its coral flowers with buff branches and petals of magenta; staghorn corals in brown and yellow and lilac and green; coral valleys of myrtle green, coral ridges of golden brown, all the glorified forms of carbonate of lime—beautiful as the fish, brilliant as the painted finch, and tinted like the Raggiana bird of paradise. Regard stepped on a branch of heliopora coral, and it broke in indigo.

Brakes of broad-bladed sca-grass grew as in a swampy meadow for the sea-cow; trepang like black cucumbers slumbered on the sand; weed-grown pearl oysters protected themselves with water made turbid by Regard's footfalls; a big blue-spoked stingray faltered by a rock; and prone on the ruffled floor lay a great skate, which is a flattened shark. Everywhere the water swarmed with strange and beautiful forms: the parrot-fish in his livery of black and gray and scarlet; the giant anemone and his galaxy of sea-stars; the peacock blue and green frills and furbelows of the giant clam shells, spotted turquoise and barred black; the grotesque tobacco-pipe fish of golden and azure spotted brown; the placid brown oxray, so blundering that it is often unintentionally malevolent, since if it once takes hold upon air-pipe or life-line it never lets go; yellow-finned and ultramarine-bodied fish; black and electric-blue fish; fish arabesqued in green and salmon and black and gray and orange and blue and yellow; fish of protective fin and tassel and little body; fish with long brown pennants growing from their heads; mad fish with upturned noses; tasseled, branded, striped, speckled, barred, spotted fish, each painted like a Carpentaria finch.

The weight of ocean pressed the diver softly in his armor of the air; his body felt as if stroked by the silky hands of the caressing sea—kindly even to the little fragile sea flowers. And then from the great tunnel in the hull of the Pandora came floating, gorged and lazy, the horrors of the deep.

Used as he was to these cruel cowards, in the light of the story of the bride who had died in the wreck, they held for him a new horror, and for a moment he was afraid. Their gorged habit, their slow, plethoric movements, their dull eyes, forgetting for a moment to be greedy, told the tale. Regard felt almost physically sick. All those eyes looked at him threateningly, contemptuously; the little fish that swam up to his face-glass and gazed at him did not seem to be frightened as quickly as usual by the movement of his hands.

The sharks came nearer, and Regard, lifting the rubber wrist-band, shot air at them in a succession of silver bullets, and the cowards became energetic and fled. A carpet-bag shark, the incarnation of filthy malevolence, hovered above him until Regard turned the escape-valve on his helmet and shot a madness of fear into the horrible thing.

He finished his survey of the hull with difficulty, attended always by the yellow sea-snake, which followed him as if it expected food from this strange monster, accompanying him to within a few fathoms of surface. For an hour Regard rested and fed; then he went to the ladder, and was loaded and imprisoned again, and sank down to the deck of the Pandora.

His retinue of enemies left him at the entrance to the saloon; but the small fish, their brilliance seeming to light the half-gloom, swam into the depths and in and out at the portholes—"like schoolboys playing a game," thought Phil Regard. Even there some little things had begun already to benefit by the fall of greatness; little pearl shells as big as a thumb-nail—born in motion from the spat, floating in the current, and sucked down by the foundering ship—had here spun their byssus to tie them to the saloon stairs, hiding their weakness in this unexpected asylum.

"All this death to make a safe hiding-place for a shell," thought Regard bitterly, as he walked on tiptoe through this silent world where all values of vision were distorted, where a waving shadow seemed to be a fish and a fish of sober hues was as shadow until the hand felt its form.

He thought hard—racking his brains inside his copper prison for the memory of the plan of the ship.

"The ship's papers will be in the captain's safe; I'll get them to-morrow. The specie-room is inside the mail-room; I'll find that." So, with due regard for the safety of air-pipe and life-line against projections and fittings, he left the saloon, its decorations already dimmed by the traveling slime of the sea, and found the mail-room, and beyond it the specie-room intact.

He talked to himself, and the words reverberated to him from the helmet: "I'll bring dynamite and a wire down and blow the specie-room open, rig a winch, and haul out the gold boxes. That'll be to-morrow. And while I'm here I'll do the horrible job—Moresby's pearls."

He went back to the saloon stairs. Above it a great gray shape hung watchfully, patiently, as if it had all eternity to wait in. Regard, with never a quickening of the pulse, fired the silver bullets from his wrist-band, and the gray shape backed and fled. Regard laughed and went on to find Moresby's pearls.

He opened a cabin door. Two fish fled through the porthole, and the body of a woman came at him in the swirl of the water. The dead face struck his helmet. Regard cried out in horror, and backed away. But in a moment he caught his courage and closed the porthole; then he shut the cabin door again and went to the next. He could not distinguish the letter denoting the corridor, nor the number either. He opened an inner cabin, and a drowned man came out and struck him. He opened another, and there were in it a dead man and a dead woman trying with her floating skirts to hide a little child from the sea. The man had tried to save another child, and that other child had fixed his teeth in his father's arm, and so had died in cruel fear of the green death that had shipped with them. Horror gripped the diver as with fingers of cold steel.

Yet his duty was to be done, and he did it. He found B corridor, and the first cabin had in it a dead girl with her hands clasped as if she still prayed. He closed the cabin reverently, and came to another in which an old man and an old woman had died in their bed places; and then to an outer cabin opposite the one he had first entered. The light was better there; he saw that this was B 41 at last, and that by a little care he might have saved himself the awfulness that had shaken him.

The lock of B 41 did not yield to the lifting of the handle, so Regard inserted the point of his small ax between the door and the beading and levered it open. Two bodies, those of a man and a woman,—the man's as if he had died standing, the woman's in the lower berth floating up against the wires of the upper berth,—moved queerly in the disturbed liquid—as if they were alive.

"Porthole closed," said Regard to himself, trying not to look at the dead for a moment. "He had the fan going—the lever's on the top speed."

He looked at the body of the man, and shudderingly turned him around in the water.

"That'll be the man Moresby gave the pearls to. Oyley was the name, and he looks it. There's the trunk under the berth. And this poor soul has the key round her neck. I cant do it... But I promised. I'll do it to-morrow... No; better now—get it done with. Forgive—whoever you are, forgive me. Young, too, and pretty." With a shaking hand and covering his face, he touched the woman's neck, and there he felt the necklet and the key.

"It's horrible. I'll have to use both hands for the fastening."

As if he were physically afraid of it he looked back at the sinister dead man floating near the porthole; then, swiftly and without looking, he unfastened the necklet and held it up—a necklet and a key. The movement floated the body from its position against the springs of the upper berth; it turned upright, floating by his head—through the little circle of the face-glass its dead eyes looked sorrowfully into his own.

And then—madness! Unbelief! Doubt! Unbelief again! And again madness! clamored through his brain. The air seemed to be withdrawn; the helmet became a mountain of copper; the weights upon his back and breast were each a ton of lead. He looked at the necklet—yes, it was so! He had given it. He released it, and it sank to the ooze upon the sodden carpet. He looked at the bracelet of opal before the mirror, and recognized it, too; and then at the dead woman gazing at him mournfully with eyes that seemed to plead: "Forgive; I have been punished, and repented so; forgive."

Still unbelieving, but stunned, he pushed the dead man through the door and out of the alleyway (evicting it as if its presence in that cabin still outraged propriety); and it floated up, bobbing queerly in the tide eddies. Then he turned back, mad but unbelieving, and re-entered the cabin. There could be no doubt—no doubt! He left her there, and fastened the cabin door behind him. And then his heart broke.

He could not live! With his last conscious instinct, he hacked with uncertain hand at the air-pipe, and missed it; then the weight of all the ocean settled on his heart and he wavered to the floor.

He had a conscientious tender. At that sudden jag upon the life-line the tender hauled carefully, and, by that luck which shames the best judgment, drew Philip Regard safely through the alleyway to the deck of the Pandora and up to sunlight.

But they might as well have left him there, for the strong man who had dived never returned to the surface.

"Beats me!" said Druce, looking pityingly at the withered wreck that sat every day, and through all the daylight hours of every day, upon the veranda of Thursday Island hospital. "Can't understand it. A fine, big, strong world-beater of a man paralyzed in fourteen fathoms. It beats me!"


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