TOPS ISLAND

Three days later at noon the _Humming Top_, with thick oily smoke
pouring from her funnel, was getting up steam and awaiting her pilot.
Alexander Ewing, a grim happy Ewing, was down in the engine-room. For
days he had been stimulating the hunger of a market by exiguous sales at
the most appalling of prices; when money failed he graciously accepted
pearl–at his own valuation. Reflecting now upon his work, he saw that
it had been very good. And since the financial risk had been laid to
account of Sir John Toppys and all the profits were divisible between
himself and Ching, no thought of dividends payable to the Idle Rich
obtruded to mar his pure satisfaction. He had become, by exercise of his
own brains, a profiteer and a capeetalist–and the world was a very
pleasant place. But though conscious of well-doing, his great mind had
been for a while slightly disturbed by two exasperating thoughts. In a
moment of expansive generosity, while receiving the congratulations of
Madame upon his commercial abilities, he had presented her with a large
pearl. He did not grudge a present to one whom he loved–and in his
queer fashion he really loved Madame Gilbert–but it had been an
unnecessarily large pearl. A smaller one would have earned for him as
sweet a smile of thanks. Alexander hated an over-payment. And he never
could forget that five per cent. for the officers and men which Madame
had wrung from his grip. Even as he rejoiced in his gains, and counted
them over in his recollection, that five per cent.–a whole shilling in
every pound sterling–worried him dreadfully. It was as bad as an income
tax. He wondered how Madame would take a proposal that some charge under
the head of a “management expenses” should be debited against that five
per cent. If a labourer were worthy of reward for his bodily toil,
surely Alexander Ewing should be conceded some adequate remuneration for
the wor-r-k of his br-r-ains.

And while he reflected upon the flies which always will defile the most
perfect human ointment, an inspiration came to him. Only really great
business minds are favoured in this way. He saw that he might make good
the cost of Madame’s excessively large pearl, and recover no small
portion of that scandalous five per cent., by judicious wangling of the
accounts. It was an operation which promised almost infinite
possibilities, a simple operation seeing that no one except himself had
any grasp of the true principles of finance. A grievous load lifted from
his mind. God was in His Heaven–luckily a long way off–and all was
right with the world. Human happiness is so rare that one loves to
contemplate it unalloyed. I figure to myself Alexander Ewing, in his
engine-room, grimly and perfectly happy.

It was at slack water, at the moment when the tide turning began to run
eastwards through the Straits, that Willatopy’s yawl hove in sight, and
he bore down in his usual impetuous style. He had not come before, he
explained to the gloomy Skipper, because it was absurd to waste steam by
forcing the yacht against a five or six knot current. An hour or two of
delay had turned that current to one of equal velocity in the _Humming
Top’s_ favour, and he was prepared forthwith to make up, and more than
make up, for the apparent procrastination. Ching, who was sick of
Thursday Island, and had wanted to get away at daybreak whatever might
have been the state of the tide, was obliged to admit the force of so
seamanlike an explanation, but he did not love the “Moor” any better for
presenting it. In his view a coloured man’s place was the stokehole, not
the bridge, and most certainly not the cabin. He detested the favour
which Willatopy had gained on board the _Humming Top_ and scorned his
pretensions to be a member of the House of Toppys. When the fathers have
for generations played the merry three-legged game–Plymouth, Slave
Coast, West Indies, Plymouth–a black skin remains a covering for
merchandise in the eyes of the children, even in the Twentieth Century.

Fully a hundred miles interposed between Thursday Island and the “miles
and miles of shore and forest” which were the home of Willatopy. Between
lay a labyrinth of coral, for the most part uncharted, of which he alone
in the yacht had the secret. Ching might call him a Moor and detest his
presence on the sacred bridge, but Ching knew, better perhaps than
anyone else, that the safety of yacht and of all who sailed therein
rested in the brown hands of the half-caste boy. By unchallengeable
right, Willatopy conned the ship while her lawful commander glowered
below in the chart-room. If he had not put the yacht aground away yonder
on the fringes of the Warrior Reef, Ching would still have believed in
his own capacity, somehow by rule of thumb and lead, to navigate his own
vessel. Now he knew that he couldn’t, and that Willatopy could, but he
grudged the boy the skill which was denied to himself. It was very
absurd, and I am really rather ashamed of my compatriot of Devon. No
seaman can have precise local knowledge of all waters everywhere. Ching
would have subordinated himself without a murmur to an authorised pilot
in the Thames or the Scheldt. What irked him was to play second fiddle
before Madame Gilbert to a wholly unauthorised Moor. It was no
consolation to Ching to know, as did everyone else in the yacht, that
Willatopy had swum in these Straits before he could walk, and had sailed
them before he could talk. They were his own back yard, and there was
nothing specially commendable in the precision of his acquaintance with
them. He had, it is true, more than a mere accumulation of local
knowledge; he had a sure sea instinct. But that came to him by
inheritance on both sides of the house. Daily habit, inspired by
instinct, had made him the ideal pilot whom Ching should have hugged to
his bosom on the bridge instead of cursing under his feet in the
chart-room. But it was all the same to Willatopy. He had never been in
sole charge of a big steamer before, and he joyously played with the
yacht as any boy would. He loved to drive her at full speed, to tickle
her sensitive steam steering gear with his pretty little telegraph, and
to watch the whole length of her sweep round corners where a fractional
misjudgment would have ripped the bilge keels off her frames.

Alexander Ewing highly approved of the methods of Willatopy. He hated
what he called backing and filling. He liked his engines to be kept
running at a sound steady speed, and not to be perpetually bothered with
stopping and reversing and forcing the propellers to make good the
deficiencies of the rudder. With Willatopy in command, the _Humming Top_
drove along as if coral reefs did not exist, and as if the deep water
channels had been never less than a mile wide. He never ran into
difficulties, because for him there were no difficulties.

They lay up that night, and picking up the eastward current again early
in the morning, ramped up to Tops Island at a speed to which the
cautious Ching had not yet become reconciled. Madame was on the boat
deck watching the thickly wooded island rise up with the sun out of the
sea. It was no low coral atoll, but a fine volcanic lump of basalt
towering six hundred feet out of the water, and clothed with green woods
up to the summits of the hills. As the yacht approached the shores she
saw a multitude of pretty little coves bounded by rocky headlands and
fringed with white coral sand. Here and there groves of cocoa-nut palms
delicately skirted the sea edge, while patches of the devouring mangrove
ran right into the salt water, and won back to the land wide stretches
which the sea had covered. Madame had seen many islands in the Straits,
but this Island of Tops came most near to the realisation of her
imaginative dreams of the South Seas. It was in truth an Island of
Dreams, and Will Toppys, madman and saint, had chosen well when he
built his hut upon it, and pegged out his claim upon hundreds of acres
of shore and woodland. To the north-east, as they slipped along the
coast, appeared the entrance to a long narrow bay–described by
Alexander as “just a wee Scots loch”–of which the whole line of shore
to the left was owned by Willatopy.

I do not know the dimensions of the Estate of Toppys. Willatopy’s ideas
of space were as vague as his ideas of time–one was miles and miles,
the other hours and hours–but from what Madame told me it must have run
to a thousand acres at the least. There was more than a mile of shore to
Willatopy’s front garden, and the natural park at the back–called by
Alexander the policies–extended up the hillside for another mile or so.
I don’t suppose that the Honourable William Toppys paid very much for
it. Grant of Thursday Island, who has all his papers, would know.
Madame, who is much more interested in people than in their possessions,
never troubled to enquire about the property, and proved to be quite
useless as an authority upon it. Alexander Ewing, with whom I had much
intimate conversation before I ventured upon the details of this story,
declared dogmatically at first that it was “about twa squar-r-e miles.”
On cross-examination he admitted that “the policies” had no ring fence,
and that he had never explored their alleged boundaries. Though I love
to be particular, and refused to describe the _Humming Top_ until
Denny’s of Dumbarton had sent me a scale plan of her–which they very
kindly and obligingly did–I have not troubled Mr. Robert Grant. For one
thing he is too far away, and for another–before I have done, the
other reason will be clear to the discerning reader.

The narrow bay, the “wee Scots loch,” bit deep into Tops Island, and
across it had been piled up by the mountain streams a bar of mud and
sand, a low wave-swept barrier. Though the yacht could not cross the
bar, she could lie safely within the entrance to the bay, and under
shelter from the prevailing trade wind–which at that season blew from
the south-east, swelling up almost into a gale at midday and dying away
to nothing shortly after sunset. The shore of the island was very steep,
and Willatopy brought the yacht in to within a hundred yards of a thick
clump of mangroves. He let go the bow anchor.

“The tide is now near the turn,” said he, “and there is a rise of ten
feet at high water. You had better run out another anchor seawards, and
let her swing with the current.”

“Thanks,” growled Ching, rudely. “You can pilot me up the Straits, but
you can’t teach me anything about the mooring of a ship.”

Willatopy turned away, and descended to the boat deck. He inspected the
twenty-two-foot lifeboats with great care, and shook his head with
emphasis. “No good, no damn good,” said he.

“What is troubling you, Willie?” asked Madame.

“Those fool boats,” grumbled he, “have rudders. They are no good for the
surf. Look,” he pointed to where half-a-mile from them the swell broke
in huge curling rollers on the bar of Tops Island. “One can’t hold a
boat true in that surf with a bit of wood stuck on rudder pintles. If I
took you in now when there is little water on the bar in a boat like
that she would broach and roll over and over. And the sharks are
watching there for the meal that they would get. If you don’t want to be
food for sharks, Madame, you trust to Willatopy.”

“For days past,” said she, “our lives have been in your hands, Willie,
and you have not failed us. Show us what we should do.”

Willatopy beckoned to the second officer and explained that he wanted
the rudder to be unshipped from one of the lifeboats and a strong eye of
rope lashed to the top of the sternpost. It was to take a steering
sweep, and to be very, very strong. “I take Madame in through the surf,”
he added.

“The devil you do,” said the officer, gazing upon the huge foaming
rollers, whose thunder as they broke upon the bar made conversation
difficult. “Will it not be safer to wait till high water?”

“No,” returned Madame calmly. “I go now–with Willatopy.”

“If you go I shall go too. Though it seems to me just foolishness. At
high water it would be easy.”

“Yes,” assented Willatopy. “Quite easy. There is a channel inshore which
you could pass in the motor boat. It is only now at low water that the
surf breaks heavily like that.”

“No,” repeated Madame firmly. “Where Willatopy leads, I follow. Make
ready and be quick about it.”

The second officer lashed on the eye of rope himself, and tested
carefully the fitting of the longest sweep that he could find. He had
pledged himself to share Madame’s risks, but he was not going to take
more chances than he could help. When he had finished the job,
Willatopy passed it as very good.

“I could steer you over the bar of the Fly River with that,” said he,
“and the surf up north is not like those little breakers.”

The “little breakers” were rearing their heads fifteen or twenty feet
above the sea level, and crashing down in a welter of foam which
stretched as far into the bay as they could see. The little breakers
were big enough for Madame and the second officer, though Willatopy made
light of them.

The officer climbed into the boat, in which six sailors stood ready to
swing out and lower. Madame was about to follow when Willie checked her.
He looked with disapproval at her graceful white muslin dress and shook
his frizzy head.

“It will be very wet,” said he. “I go like this.”

In a moment the shirt and trousers of civilisation dropped from him, and
he stood up a bare, naked savage. When Roger Gatepath first met
Willatopy he had feathers in his hair and a bootlace about his middle;
now Madame beheld him without either the feathers or the bootlace.

“Whew!” whistled the second officer.

“I cannot quite follow your admirable example,” said Madame, smiling,
“but if you will wait a moment I will dress the part of surf bather.”

She ran down to her cabin, whipped off her clothes, wriggled into a blue
silk bathing dress, and above it buckled a light linen trench coat. In
this garb she did not mind how much water came aboard. Indeed afterwards
the bathing dress and the trench coat became her standard wear while
braving the surf of the Islands.

“Will this do, Willie?” asked Madame upon her return to the deck.

He surveyed her gravely. “My sisters would have thrown off their
petticoats.”

“But I am not your sister,” answered Madame, climbing into the boat.

Willatopy followed, and was observed to tuck the discarded shirt and
trousers carefully under the stern sheets. He had wrapped them up in a
bit of sea cloth.

The boat was swung out and lowered, and the six sailors bent to their
oars. Willatopy standing upright on a thwart firmly grasped the
eighteen-foot sweep, and flicked the boat this way and that to test her
response to his will. He appeared to be satisfied, for his lips opened
in a grin of sheer boyish enjoyment.

“Give way,” cried Willatopy.

Madame Gilbert, thorough in all that she undertook, had gone right
forward, and, seated firmly, gripped a thwart with both hands. She was
sure that Willatopy would hold the boat true in the surf, but she felt
some small apprehension lest she might herself be pitched out into the
mouths of those hungry waiting sharks. At about a hundred yards from the
bar, Willatopy cried to the men to hold up the boat and await his
orders. He was watching for the big roller which comes at fairly regular
intervals, and which was the one to sweep them forward on the furious
race through the surf.

“Now,” he roared, and the lifeboat rushed upon the bar.

Madame felt her lift, lift, lift until the boat seemed to be poised
upon a steep swiftly moving roof edge. She looked forward into the
depths of an enormous hollow; she looked back to where Willatopy stood,
naked as when he was born, his hands frozen upon the big sweep, the
happy grin upon his joyful face. Time stood still. They were travelling
at a full twenty knots, but it seemed ages before the lift of the boat
ceased, and her bows fell to the level.

“Oars,” cried Willatopy, and the men tossed them inboard.

The bows, with Madame clinging to her thwart, toppled steeply forward.
The stern rose and rose until Willatopy, standing upright, and clutching
the edge of the thwart with his bare, prehensile toes, towered over
Madame’s wet head. The surf all around boiled and roared and foamed over
the gunwale. Madame low down got the worst of it, and wished that she
had left that drenched linen coat in her cabin. The bathing dress was
enough for decency, and was meant to be wetted. Down the hill of foaming
water they raced faster, much faster, than they had climbed it, and
always the line held true. Willatopy was always ready. He had played the
game so often that his firmly planted swaying body met every jerk and
strain of the struggling lifeboat, as if he knew exactly when to expect
those desperate efforts to broach and roll over which are the obsession
of boats in surf. At the foot of the hill of water Willatopy called
again, and the men again obeyed promptly, falling to their oars, and
driving the heavy boat down the bay. For half a mile they ran, still
tossing through broken water, and Madame, picking the strands of copper
hair out of her eyes, looked out towards the sandy beach towards which
Willatopy was steering. He drove the boat right up on the sand, splashed
over the side, and ran shouting up the beach. Instantly a pale brown
figure emerged from the woods, another followed, and Willie was in the
arms of two girls, who, save for their banana leaf petticoats, were as
bare-skinned as himself. With an arm about the waist of each he marched
off towards his home amid the trees. Madame was again forgotten. She,
that proud beautiful white woman, was becoming used to being forgotten.

But presently Willatopy came back, and with him walked his mother, the
Hula woman of Bulaa whom the Hon. William Toppys had made his lawful
wife. Madame advancing looked at her curiously. Although the
half-blooded daughters wore nothing but the native petticoats, the
mother was clad in a white European blouse and skirt of cotton. She may
have put them on for the dignity of the Family, but Madame thinks that
she always went clothed.

“This is my mother,” said Willatopy proudly. Madame held out her hands,
and the native woman came to her, shyly at first, and then eagerly as
she drew courage from the sweet irresistible smile of welcome on the
most beautiful face in the world. She took both Madame’s hands and knelt
at her feet.

“No,” said Madame Gilbert. “Here,” and lifting the poor shy, humble
creature in her strong arms, she took her to the wet trench coat and
kissed her on both cheeks.

And that is how Madame Gilbert came to Tops Island. One may well ask
what Sir John Toppys, Baronet of Wigan, the entirely neglected paymaster
of Madame’s most expensive expedition, would have thought of that pretty
little scene.