WILLATOPY: PILOT

They drew away from the South American Coast and headed for New Zealand
and the Coral Sea beyond. And as Robert Ching pored over the chart of
the Coral Sea it was borne in upon him that the navigation of those many
spiked waters would, in the absence of a pilot, be as big a job as he
wanted. The _Humming Top_ drew no more than ten and a half feet of
water, and was specially guarded under her keel by six inches of solid
teak–Ching had demanded the false, protective keel before he would
consent to take the yacht to the Torres Straits–but she was big enough
to tear herself to pieces on those frightful coral teeth if permitted to
swerve only by a little from the tortuous channels.

“I shall have to do without a pilot most of the time,” said he. “There
is a large regular trade and not enough pilots to supply wandering
yachts. We must go back to the methods of Drake and Cook–keep the lead
going by day and lie up at night. A sailor can smell his way along
anywhere if he is not pressed for time.”

Madame promised him all the time that there was–she was enjoying
herself and in no hurry to get at grips with the problem of the
Twenty-Eighth Baron of Topsham. Every week which passed at sea made the
purpose of her voyage seem more bizarre and incredible. Yet she was
constantly reminded of its reality. Though they knew it not, here were
Ching and Ewing, together with some two dozen officers and men, at a
cost which ran into hundreds of pounds a week, steaming to the ends of
the earth solely for that bizarre and incredible purpose. Madame had
made her own position luminously clear. She was going with no plan and
under no promise. She was not going to smother Willatopy or tip him into
the sea–which would have been of little use since he swam like a
dolphin. She was not going to poison his food or even to kidnap him. She
was simply going to see what this half-caste Baron looked like and to
order her movements in accordance with her impressions. She talked with
Ching and Ewing upon every subject in earth or heaven except this one.
The Family Secret must remain secret until the day arrived when secrecy
should avail nothing. When that day would dawn Madame had no idea. To
anyone except Sir John Toppys–and curiously enough Roger Gatepath–the
whole expedition would have seemed a ridiculous waste of money. But both
of them were at their wits’ end, and both of them had a childlike faith
in Madame Gilbert’s lively intelligence and resource. Something striking
would result from the voyage, of that they felt convinced; though what
it would be they had no conception. Neither had Madame. Yet she went.
The Family Misfortune intrigued her, and she wanted to see it at close
quarters, and to make it crawl to her feet and eat out of her hand.

When at last they warped up at Auckland Ewing himself sounded the fuel
tanks in the _Humming Top’s_ double bottom. He had sworn by his holy
gods–the twin high-speed Parson-cum-Denny geared turbines–that the
yacht would run from Panama to Auckland, via Lima and Valparaiso, on the
230 tons of fuel oil which she bore away from the Canal Zone. She had
done it, and the Chief was curious to see by what small margin his
judgment as Engineer had been saved from derision. The margin was just
nine tons, say 270 miles of steaming at eleven knots.

“Thirty miles to the ton or thereby,” murmured he, “and very good
wor-r-k too. Yon’s a useful figure to bear in one’s heid.”

At Auckland he filled up chock a block, side bunkers and ballast tanks,
and felt confident that he could go up to Thursday Island, toddle about
at low speed in the Straits so long as it pleased Madame to toddle, and
then make his way back to the Auckland tanks while, so to speak, some
shots remained unburnt in his locker. But the price of oil at the
Antipodes struck horror to his thrifty heart. Suppose–it was an awful
suppose–Sir John Toppys, obdurate to the wheedlings of Madame, who had
promised to do her utmost to make the owner waive his share, should
insist on debiting the cost of the voyage to that “owner’s share” of the
illicit profits. It was a dreadful supposition. Ewing thrust it from his
consciousness; even the Idle Rich could not be so utterly soulless.

At Auckland in addition to the stores of oil fuel they shipped trading
goods for the Islands, and stowed them carefully away in the empty
cabins and in the snug wee hold which had already served the
adventurers so well. These saleable commodities were designed to give to
the wandering yacht a commercial status, and might possibly, almost
certainly, add some few dollars of profit to their bursting treasury.

“One can never make too much profit,” explained Ewing, “especially when
one doesn’t pay any excess taxes to an extortionate English Government.
Cash, in American dollars, tells no tales.”

Ewing had already decided that the _Humming Top_ should look in at an
American port on the way home, and that the boodle should be deposited
out of harm’s way under the protection of the Stars and Stripes. A dread
lest the tax gatherers of England might yet grab some of it possessed
him. In his management of the Auckland stores his genius for finance
rose to lofty heights.

“We will invest the alleged share of Sir John Toppys in this Island
trade,” declared he. “If we make a loss–and it is not a business which
I vairy clearly comprehend–then the loss will fall upon the Owner of
the yacht. Which is just. Idle and rich owners must take some risk; that
is what they are for. If we realise a profit–and my friends here say
that the Islands are stripped and will buy anything ravenously–if we
realise a profit, of course it belongs to us who have airned it. To me
and Ching,” he added hastily, lest Madame should intrude with a claim.
“Sir John’s share will be put back, untouched; we are honest men.”

When Madame hinted that righteous dealing had not quite been given a
full rein, Ewing protested sorrowfully that as an operation of business
what he proposed was spotless, white as driven snow on the bonny hills
of Scotland.

“Sir John is a capeetalist,” said he. “He would not wish his funds to
lie idle in yon safe. He would wish that they should be employed in the
reconstruction of the British Empire. That’s what we are going to do
with them. Would you leave his money fruitless just because we are
twelve thousand miles away and cannot ask his permission to employ it?
Would you be baffled by a formality like yon? Capeetalists always love
to tur-r-n their money over. We will tur-r-n Sir John’s over for him. We
will make it skip. It’s going to belong to us anyway–you have promised
to see to that, Madame–although for the moment we are holding it for
him. Do you not reflect also, Madame, that a whole five per cent. of Sir
John’s share is going to the officers and crew and I have got to make
good the grievous loss which your Socialism has brought upon me. I have
to carry that feckless Ching on my back too. He would give the lot away
like a pound of mouldy tea if I were not at his elbow to keep him
heedful of the future. I am not what you could exactly call a man of
business, but I have grasped the inherent principles of the job.”

“You grasp the principles–and most other things,” said Madame, smiling.
Her joy in Ewing never failed, and between the pair had grown up a very
close affection. She liked the simple, kindly, unselfish Ching, but as a
study in humanity he could not compete in interest with the great
Alexander.

Ching made no mystery of the sea craft in which he was a master. He took
Madame and Ewing wholly into his confidence, and earned their full
confidence in return. The yacht was about to sail in waters where
destruction awaited eagerly any slip by a careless navigator, and Ching
was not taking any risks which could be avoided.

“I am not going to see more of the coral reefs than I’m obliged,” said
he, during the first dinner out of Auckland. “We shall get our bellyful
of them in the Straits, especially if Madame here has a fancy for
uncharted channels. I am taking the _Humming Top_ by the outer passage,
as far east of the Great Barrier as I can get, and then come down to
Thursday Island by the Bligh Entrance. You’ve heard of _Bounty_ Bligh,
Madame; he was a masterful man, and always stirred up a mutiny wherever
he commanded. There is a well-known inner passage between the Barrier
and the Queensland Coast; it is sheltered and lighted like the Strand,
but as it isn’t much wider I’m not taking any of it. I couldn’t look at
the passage without a pilot, and there might not be one to the _Humming
Top_. She’s a vagrant yacht, not a real ship.”

“She is an Island trader,” corrected Ewing with dignity.

“Humph,” replied Ching. “A ton or two of frippery doesn’t turn a yacht
into a ship. We are a rich man’s toy, and don’t count for much on the
high seas. Our burgee and Blue Ensign look consequential at Auckland,
but an ancient Island schooner would make more stir in the Straits.”

“Wait till they see our engine-room,” cried Ewing. “There’s nothing like
it outside the King’s Navy.”

“Humph,” replied Ching again. “They wouldn’t look at our engine-room if
there was a dirty craft alongside which would load up their copra and
_beche de mer_. Trade must run both ways to be taken seriously. I take
it that we are not going to carry copra to the English soap boilers or
smoked sea slugs for the Chinese soup market. And if we don’t do both
the Island trade has no use for us and no interest in us.”

“You make us feel humble,” said Madame, smiling. “I had become proud of
the _Humming Top_.”

“She’s a fine craft, but a yacht isn’t a real ship, Madame.”

“She was a real enough ship when you and I ran her in at seventeen knots
under the guns at Zeebrugge to pick up the Navy boys in the watter,”
shouted Ewing.

“That was another Service,” returned Ching stolidly. “She was a ship
then. Now she’s a yacht. I’m proud to command her now, as I was then;
but I want to make you see that as a yacht she has no status on the
seas. If pilots are scarce we shall have no call on one. We’ve got to
run our own risks by ourselves and to make them as small as we know how.
Is that clear?”

“As crystal,” said Madame. “Also humiliating. And I thought I was rather
a swell cruising about the world in a yacht which was practically my
own.”

“You always would be a swell anywhere,” said Ching politely. “But on the
high seas the mistress of a yacht doesn’t count for a row of beans.”

“Don’t heed him, Madame,” cried Ewing. “He’s only a demobbed Commander
R.N.R. Your friend Alexander Ewing will stick up for you. I was an
Engineer Lieutenant, and the engine-room ranks much higher than the
bridge nowadays, though it may not sport so many rows of gold lace. It
is my deliberate opeenion, arrived at by careful consideration of all
the circumstances, and after giving full weight to the observations of
my commanding officer, that we shall get on quite nicely without a
pilot, thank you. I am not exactly what you could call an experienced
navigator, but give me a well-found vessel of light draught, with six
inches of teak fender to her hinder end, a diligent crew heaving the
lead at discreet intervals, all the eyes on the bridge looking sprightly
for promiscuous breakers, and I would con the _Humming Top_ myself. The
mair especially if I could be in two places at once and be in chairge of
my bonny engines at the same time as I strolled majestically about the
bridge. There is no real deeficulty about navigation, Madame. Yon’s not
like to the management of high-speed geared turbines. Yon’s child’s
wor-r-k with Admiralty charts spread about ye. But since I cannot be,
like the fabulous bir-r-d, in the two places at once, I will leave the
bridge to our deefident friend Ching. Go ahead, dead slow, among the
prickly reefs, and if you should just butt on the ground give the
wor-r-d to me by the engine-room telegraph and I will whip her off on
the revairse. That is the grand advantage of geared turbines, Madame.
One has the full power on the revairse. What did you go for to put teak
to the bottom of us, Ching, if you didna expect to find a use for it?”

“It was a precaution,” said the Skipper, “like a fender. One doesn’t
bang the sides of a ship against a stone wharf because one has fenders.
I have seen a fender break through the plates before now when used
without judgment.”

“You are a careful man, and we trust you, Ching,” said Ewing
encouragingly. “Go ahead, pilot or no pilot. And if you should get into
trouble deeper than your brains can penetrate, there is always the voice
pipe handy. Take counsel of Alexander Ewing. He will stand by ye.”

“I will,” returned the Skipper, “I will ask you how to run my ship when
you ask me how to manage your engine-room.”

“Alexander,” said Madame severely, when the Captain had left the saloon
for his own duties, “if Captain Ching were not a sweet-blooded angel he
would kick you hard. I should. Don’t you see, you thick-headed Scotch
mechanic, that the Captain is worried, and when a sailor like that is
worried, the danger must be considerable. I am ashamed of you,
Alexander.”

“It was just pairsiflage, Madame,” said Ewing. “A wee bit of vairy
humorous pairsiflage. I know my place. Though I have mair gude Scots
brains in my finger than all the soft West Country porridge stuff in
Ching’s head, I would never interfere with the bridge. A Chief Engineer
is a man of science, not a rule of thumb navigator.”

“You had better not,” quoth Madame. “Ching is slow and quiet. He has no
small talk, and, it must be confessed, is sometimes a bit heavy on hand.
He is not a lively companion like our Alexander. But in a misspent life
I have learned something of men, and I bank on Ching. Mar-r-k my
wor-r-ds, Sandy. He will bring us through the reefs without scraping our
false keel, and if you chaff him at a moment when he is really anxious
he will chuck you into the Ditch. The Scotch are a great people, but
they are not conspicuous for tact.”

It was well into May when, far up in the Gulf of Papua, Ching swung the
_Humming Top_ to the westward, and began the hazardous unaided
penetration of the coral barriers which lay between him and Thursday
Island. The weather was perfect and could be depended upon. It was the
season of the regular south-east trade, the sunny rainless season of the
Torres winter. The wind would gather strength every morning to a half
gale at noon and then as evenly decline to a calm after sunset. The
tides ran very strongly, between three and four knots, and gained in
speed as the Straits narrowed, but to judge their tidal drift, and the
variable leeway due to the rise and fall of the trade wind, was child’s
play to a seaman of Ching’s quality. Upon his chart were marked all the
islands–many of them loftily volcanic, others low coral atolls–and the
sandbanks, known locally as cays. He could work by taking bearings of
the more conspicuous island features, and by calculating his horizontal
danger angles with a generous margin. He assumed that every island had
an inner fringing reef and an outer barrier–though many of them had no
barrier–and that every turf-swept cay shelved slowly into the depths.
Time was not his master, and Ching was a cautious man. When one evening,
just after sunset, he raised the beacon on the Bramble Cay, and found
the position of the yacht very near to his dead reckoning, he patted
himself on the back and went to dinner with a mind temporarily at ease.
He dropped his anchor off the Black Rocks at the exact point for which
he had aimed–the Bligh Entrance to the North-East Channel.

“Now the fun is about to begin,” said he, smiling. Madame plied him with
broad flattery, and the Chief did his rather clumsy best to support her.
Now that the yacht was actually in the Straits, Ewing had enough of good
sense to attend to his own job, and to leave Ching unharried to attend
to his. Both Madame and Ewing were well pleased to see the Captain
smile.

Navigation on the following day would have been less hair-raising if the
chart had been half as wise as it pretended. But since most of its
features were based upon surveys of some half a century earlier, and the
coral polyp is an industrious creature, there was a wide margin of
conjecture left to the hardy sailor. The channels were deep
enough–Ching sometimes had fourteen fathoms and usually not less than
ten under his forefoot–but there were so many of them, and they were so
liberally cut into by what in trench warfare were called traverses, that
running a vessel through them was very like threading an imperfectly
remembered maze. Still the Skipper’s eye for water held true, he could
generally tell by the look of the surface if the reefs were closing in
upon him, and the lead which was freely kept going warned him off the
sandbanks. He ran dead slow all through the day, except when the tide
setting against him called for half speed. More than once he was obliged
to stop and back out of a _cul de sac_, but, as I have said, there was
usually plenty of water under foot, and a timely warning by eye or lead
when obstructions were reaching up towards the broken surface. All
through the day the _Humming Top_ never touched once, and Ching began to
feel that he needed but a licence to rate himself a pilot of the
Straits. But his self-satisfaction was not destined to last very long.

It was about five o’clock, and for an hour past the Skipper had noticed
a fully decked yawl, sailed apparently single-handed, following on his
own course about a mile to leeward. With the tide under her, and sailing
on a beam wind, this thirty-foot yawl was moving rather faster than the
big yacht which she was gradually overhauling. The yawl pulled in more
and more to the south-west, and passing astern of the _Humming Top_,
reached out towards a group of islands which Ching judged to be away
from his own channel. He himself bore off almost due west, and the gap
between the steam yacht and the yawl opened out rapidly. That was at
about five o’clock. Ching was therefore surprised half an hour later to
see the yawl come flying out of space with the wind behind her, and
steering direct for his own port bow with apparently a complete
disregard for the intricacies of the coral channels. He put up his
glass. The yawl was, as he had judged, sailed single-handed. Her
skipper, a small white figure with a bare black head, was sitting by the
tiller, and, as Ching looked, he seemed to be waving one hand. There
could be no doubt that the yawl was making for the yacht, so, with
sailor courtesy, Ching ran off his engines and waited for the little
craft to arrive.

She came with a rush and swirl which showed at least, high courage in
her solitary navigator. She passed the bow of the _Humming Top_ at about
a hundred yards distance, swung under the lee of the yacht, and
skilfully used the flow of the tide as a brake upon her progress. The
white figure sprang up, let the yawl swing with flapping sails into the
wind, and then in thirty active seconds had lowered and roughly stowed
mainsail, jib and foresail. He left the spanker standing set on the
small mizzen aft. The whole manoeuvre was so accurately timed that the
yacht had lost her way when she arrived close beside the _Humming Top’s_
counter. In a moment more the visitor had caught a line which was deftly
thrown to him from the yacht, reeved it through a ringbolt by his
bowsprit, hauled his little vessel half round, and sprang, active as a
monkey, up the seven feet of freeboard to the _Humming Top’s_ rail. His
deserted yawl trailed away at the end of the line, and her late skipper
and crew, now aboard the _Humming Top_, strolled forrard grinning
capaciously. It could now be seen that though clad in the white Palm
Beach trousers, and fine cotton shirt of an Englishman, he was a
dark-skinned, frizzy-haired Melanesian. His feet were bare and his head
was bare; the shirt and trousers seemed to comprise his entire wardrobe.

He moved forrard looking curiously and eagerly at the yacht’s equipment.
He mounted the steps of the shade deck on which were stowed four
lifeboats, a small dinghy, and a twenty-foot motor launch. His eye ran
closely over all of them; the motor boat seemed specially to please him.
He passed the yellow funnel, and peered into the smoke-room, a pleasant
structure in which Madame Gilbert spent much of her time on deck. She
was within at the moment knitting her ninth jumper–she caught a
glimpse of a dark grinning face, and started slightly at the contrast
between the brown of the face and the bright blue eyes which looked
eagerly out of it. It was the face of a boy of some twenty years. Madame
saw him for a brief instant, and wondering who he was, and how he had
reached the yacht–she had not witnessed his masterly boarding
operation–came out on the boat deck to see more. An unexpected incident
is very welcome indeed on a long voyage unbroken except by smuggling
operations and the knitting of jumpers. The boy reached the chart-room
and wheel-house above which was built the bridge, with its engine and
steering telegraphs. Ching from the bridge looked down upon the boy, and
the boy looked up at Ching. The visitor waved a hand at the Captain.

“Cheerio, Skipper,” cried he. “You are a bit off your course, aren’t
you?” His voice was not unpleasing and his English was surprisingly good
for a coffee-coloured native–dark coffee, too.

“That depends on what the course is,” replied Ching shortly. He was
frowning, and his genial eye had gone cold.

What I have described did not occupy more than a very few minutes,
during which time the yacht, with her engines stopped, was idly drifting
under the influence of wind and tide.

“At present,” said the boy, showing his fine white teeth as he grinned
broadly, “you are bound for the Warrior Reefs. That was why I boarded
you.”

Ching spoke briefly to a sailor who was with him on the bridge, and then
dropped down to the chart-room beneath. The boy mounted the bridge
ladder, and took a comprehensive look round. What he saw did not please
him. His blue eyes hardened–they were bright steely blue, very unusual
eyes even in an English face, and incredible in a native of the Torres
Straits–and going straight to one of the engine-room telegraphs pulled
the lever over to half speed astern. The bell clanged.

As a wounded tiger bursts open-mouthed and raging from its ravished
retreat in the jungle so Ching furiously burst from the chart-room at
the sound of that bell. And for my part I would sooner face a wounded
tiger in the jungle than a mild-mannered Devonshire ship captain upon
whose engine-room telegraph I had set my lawless hand. The Skipper
sprang on the bridge pushed the boy away so roughly that he sprawled
over the weather cloths, snapped the telegraph back to STOP, and roared:

“Chuck this nig–young feller into his boat and cut him adrift.” It says
much, very much, for the inherent kindliness of our Robert Ching that
even under stress of an unparalleled trespass upon his prerogatives as
commander, he bit back the offensive word “nigger.”

The sailor sprang at the boy, who evaded the rush with lithe ease. He
was quite calm, and still grinned cheerfully.

“Wait,” cried he, in a tone so gleefully significant that the sailor
stopped, and even Ching looked up curiously. “Wait,” cried the boy,
holding up his hand. They waited until one might count perhaps ten, and
then that for which they waited befell:

G-RRR-H, G-RRR-H, G-RRR-H!

The _Humming Top_ took the hidden reef with a slow grinding crash which
made her shiver, and under pressure of wind and tide she bit deeper and
deeper into the coral. It was well for her at that moment that between
her steel plates and the reef there interposed the faithful baulks of
previsionary teak.

The boy, with a heedless courage which to me seems almost sublime–after
all a skipper is a skipper and a very great man on his own bridge–the
boy pushed past the Captain of the yacht, laid his brown sacrilegious
hand once more on the engine-room telegraph, and banged the lever over
to FULL SPEED ASTERN.

“Go,” he said sharply to the amazed sailorman. “Jump into my yawl, and
fend her off as we go astern.”

I am afraid that when that crash came the Chief Engineer laughed. He had
seen nothing of the incidents on deck, but the sudden grounding of the
yacht, after the strange vacillations of the telegraph, suggested that
Ching had blundered badly. And Ewing, as a platonic rival with Ching for
the favours of Madame Gilbert, was not disposed to cry over the
Skipper’s troubles. He gave full speed astern with a will and under the
hefty pull of the twin screws the yacht was dragged off within a few
seconds. The tide happily was flowing.

“Keep her _so_,” ordered the boy, indicating the correct course with his
hand, and the Skipper, to his own surprise, kept her so. There was an
intimate local knowledge and a masterful confidence about this intrusive
Melanesian which made him irresistible.

From that moment, extraordinary as it may seem to the reader, that
strange boy took charge. He set the backward course, and kept the
_Humming Top_ at full speed astern for more than three miles. Ching had
overshot a hidden turning in the channel; he had run into a narrow byway
in which there was no space for so long a vessel to turn round. She was
230 feet over all. The new pilot quite evidently needed no chart, and
possibly would not have understood one had it been spread before him.
Every reef and bank was as familiar to him from constant sailing by them
as are the streets of one’s native town. He conned the _Humming Top_ by
movements of his hand, for though he understood the uses of an
engine-room telegraph, that other telegraph which controlled the wheel
below was apparently strange to him. He gave his orders by signs and the
rightful skipper humbly obeyed. It was a triumph of intensive local
experience over professional training.

When he had backed the yacht a sufficient distance to satisfy his own
judgment this boy sent her forward once more–not at poor Ching’s
cautious dead slow or half speed, but at a ramping eleven
knots–following the windings of the deep waterways with consummate
assurance. Now and then, when it seemed to the eye of Ching that he was
running straight upon surf-broken dangers, a sailor would be ordered
forward with the lead, but the result was always the same. The depth was
never less than ten fathoms, and the broken water was an innocuous tide
rip.

This went on for more than an hour, the evening drew on, and Ching, at
last convinced that he was in the hands of a master of the Coral Sea,
spoke. Hitherto he had obeyed the signs of the boy, obeyed though
savagely reluctant, yet had said nothing. Now he spoke.

“Are you a pilot, boy?”

“Oh, no. I am no pilot. I am very rich and do not work. I was sailing
down to Thursday Island in my yawl–to see my banker and collect my
money. I have much money. When I saw you running this nice ship on the
Warrior Reefs I sailed across to show you the proper way. No pearl
raking pilot can teach me anything. They are no good, no good at all.”

“You seem to know the channels,” assented Ching.

“All of them,” said the boy. “Not these only for a big big ship, but the
little ones too. I do not sail in and out as I am taking you now. I cut
across wherever I please. There is always water to be found if one knows
where to look for it.”

“It is getting dark,” said Ching, “and there is a short twilight in
these latitudes. Can you see or shall we anchor now?”

“I can see. I can steer you all through the night if you please. But if
you and the white lady, the beautiful white lady with the hair so red,
would wish to anchor, I will take you to a safe place.” His hand waved
here and there; the growing darkness made no difference to him, and
presently the _Humming Top_ was riding quietly at her anchor in the
lagoon of a low coral atoll. The boy had conned her through the barrier
reef and laid her up in the smooth water within. Ching gasped as the
yacht slipped in through a narrow gap in the reef little wider than her
own 30 feet of beam. It was like pushing a Rolls-Royce in between two
threatening motor lorries.

“Boy,” said Ching slowly, when the anchor had splashed into the warm
quiet sea. “I meant to throw you overboard and you jolly well deserved
it for monkeying with my telegraph. But I will say that you are a daisy
of a pilot.”

As they came down from the bridge they met Madame by the smoke-room.

“Who is that?” she enquired. “A native pilot?”

“No,” replied the boy, before Ching could speak. “I am no pilot. I am
very rich and do no work. I am going to Thursday Island to see my banker
and get my money. I am Willatopy.”