THE SAILING OF THE YAWL

The days passed, no more island schooners put in for night shelter at
the entrance to the bay, and the Hedge Lawyer gained with every passing
day a tighter grip upon the vagrant mind of Willatopy. The Great Lord
made the villein work for the pleasure of seeing a white man sweat in
his service, but in the intervals of labour the two of them became host
and guest rather than master and slave. And hour by hour the cunning
hand of the lawyer, deftly kneading the soft wax of the native boy’s
intelligence, obliterated the impressions left by his father’s teaching.
Willatopy still declared at intervals that he would never go to England,
but his tone had lost much of its old conviction. The once fixed
resolution was degenerating into a verbal formula.

For awhile Clifford stuck to the first inducements of which he had
demonstrated the effective potency. White women at Willatopy’s
seignorial pleasure, white men as his humble, willing slaves, yachts and
buzz boats at his orders–Willatopy was salt to the bones. Then, as his
grip became firmer, Clifford bethought him of a further engine of
influence, and devised a means of bringing it into early operation.
Immovably bent upon the one purpose of bearing Willatopy as a helpless
fly into the spider’s web of St. Mary Axe–and of securing that junior
partnership for himself–Clifford perceived that a corrupted, degenerate
Willatopy would be a prey more profitable to the plunderers than the
healthy, shrewd sportsman of Tops Island. Wholly unscrupulous, it was
nothing to him that a brave human soul should be lost. Willatopy was in
his eyes not a human soul, but a much-desired client. After having been
won over and despoiled in the interests of St. Mary Axe, the
Twenty-Eighth Lord of Topsham might go to the Devil as fast as he
pleased. The more he could be prevailed upon to dip into the Toppys
estates–no great property by modern standards–the larger would be the
profits of Chudleigh, Caves, Caves, and Chudleigh, poachers and
speculators in law. I am no effusive admirer of Roger Gatepath, the
solicitor of peers and princes, but the dingy honesty of Gatepaths was
as driven snow in comparison with the black foulness of Chudleighs.

One morning, while running to her shark-proof creek for the customary
dip after her physical exercises–Madame never neglected P.T. under any
pressure of engagements, and to this persistence in muscular well-doing
attributed her exuberant health and appetite–one morning early, Madame
perceived that the mooring station of the yawl was empty. Upon her
return she was informed that Willatopy, accompanied as always by his
white slave John, had sailed at dawn with the first of the ebb. Ching,
who had spent the night in the escort tent, and had been early astir,
had watched through his binoculars the pair go forth towards the bar.
Madame concluded that Willie, tired of making John sweat in his garden,
had borne him off upon an island cruise for the pleasure of harrying the
white man’s stomach. John hated the heaving ocean, and had suffered
horribly on his trip from Thursday Island in the schooner. John, in
Madame’s judgment, could not have gone willingly, and would soon prevail
upon Willatopy to return. But in this view Madame was wrong. John
Clifford, bad sailor though he was, had braved the swell and tide rips
of the uneasy Straits that he might bring into operation that further
engine of influence upon whose effectiveness he placed sure confidence.

A day and a night passed, and yet another day and night. The yawl did
not return. Madame’s apprehension swelled into panic. It was, of course,
absurd to suppose that a navigator of Willatopy’s competence had
suffered a marine disaster in his own familiar Straits at the settled
season of the south-east trade. Anxiety of that kind was absent from
Madame’s thoughts. Her fears took an altogether different line. She was
obsessed by the dread lest Willatopy, under the rapidly growing
influence of Clifford, had sailed for Thursday Island _en route_ for
England. Grant, the banker, held considerable sums at the boy’s
disposal–or, rather, since Willatopy was a minor, the banker and
executor held considerable sums which he might be prevailed upon to hand
over. Even if, as was not improbable, Grant proved obdurate, the lawyer,
John Clifford, must have been provided with ample cash or credits for
traveling expenses. Ching and Ewing were both ashore, and she commanded
their attendance.

The Devonshire ship captain and the Glasgow engineer had been close
friends during half their lives, and habit had made them inseparable. In
temperament, as we have seen, they were far apart. Though sprung from
kindred races–there is no great difference in blood between the Lowland
Glasgow Scot and the West Country Englishman–they were typical
representatives of distinct branches of the British stock. The soft and
bountiful Devon produces sailors rather than engineers; the harsher and
leaner North produces engineers rather than sailors. I cannot stop now
to explain why. In association, Ching and Ewing were complementary, the
one to the other. Both of them loved Madame Gilbert, but their
affection, though sincere, was too platonic to excite serious rivalry.
They would dine together in the big saloon of the yacht–at a table
which had accommodation for twelve persons–and discuss over Sir John’s
port the merits of the gracious lady who had betaken herself to the
shore. Later on they would carry the discussion to the smoke-room where
the three had so often sat and applied their foot rules to the universe
during the long voyage out from England. Every few days, moved by a
common impulse which Ewing shamelessly avowed and Ching sought to
conceal, they would disembark and cast up in Madame’s camp. It was
understood that both remained in the yacht at their unexacting care and
maintenance duties, or both revelled in Madame’s welcome smiles. They
took their duties and their pleasures in company.

“My friends,” said Madame, smiling and affecting a levity which she
just then did not feel, “lend me your ears.

“The time has come La Gilbert said,
To give you a surprise.
To tell of yachts and reefs and tents,
Of blackamoors and peers,
And why she’s come to this far land,
And what it is she fears.”

“As a piece of impromptu poetry,” said Ewing, “yon is no so bad. If it
is impromptu, about which I have my doubts. And since my home is in
Paisley, where all the poets come from, my judgment is creetical.”

Ching shot one penetrative glance at Madame, and perceptibly paled under
his weather-beaten skin.

“Further,” went on Ewing cautiously–he could babble as gleefully and
interminably as Madame herself–“further, I question the judeecious use
of the wor-r-d ‘surprise.’ In the leeterary sense its employment is bad,
for it does not rhyme, and as a statement of fact it is erroneous. I
will not say that I cannot be surprised by anybody in the wur-r-ld,
though they that have tried to astonish me have been up against a sair
obstacle. What I assert now is that Madame Gilbert has no surprise for
me, and little enough for Ching.”

“Wait,” warned Madame, with assurance. “I have not yet spoken. The worst
of talking to you, Alexander, is that one can never wedge a wur-r-d in.”

“Go canny, lassie,” proceeded Ewing. “Go canny. Be not over boastful.
You have been a bonny actress all these weeks past, but not so bonny
that you can deceive Sandy Ewing. I had my suspeecions from the first
when that Willatopy boy revealed to as the secret of his bairth. And
since then I’ve been conning my eye over the bit registers in Thursday
Island.”

“‘Tis a wash out,” admitted Madame. “I have not seen those famous
registers myself, but I understand that they would convince a brazen
image.”

“They are as tight as a drum and as adhesive as a pepper plaster. The
joints of them are steam tight to any pressure. You could na shift them
with T.N.T. My metaphors may be a wee bit mixed, there is nothing of
confusion about those registers. If you would like to see fair copies, I
have them now in my hip pocket. Three half-crowns they cost me–for the
certeeficate of the registrar. It was a turrible expense.”

“You are a great man, Sandy,” said Madame.

“The Scots were ever a grand people, and Sandy Ewing is one of the
grandest among them. _Primus inter Pares._ But a wumman of your
perspicacity, though a foreigner and a Roman, will not have neglected to
obsairve that we are of a modesty beyond belief. We, none of us, ever
blow our own trumpets.”

“Never,” assented Madame. “You employ a steam syren.”

“Then it be all true,” groaned Ching, who had remained silent during
this interchange. Except in the speech of his profession, his tongue was
inflexible. The babble of his friends broke upon him as the sea foam on
an immovable rock. “Then it be all true. That Moor be the rightful Lord
of Topsham.”

“It is true,” said Madame gently. “We must make the best of it,
Captain.” Much as Madame Gilbert admired and respected the solid merits
of Robert Ching, she never relaxed towards him her form of address. He
was always “Captain.” The Chief Engineer had long since become the
“Alexander” of reproof or the “Sandy” of familiar converse. One may
respect, and in emergency cling to, an immovable rock. But one does not
pat it familiarly.

“Whatzimever be us vur to do?” wailed Ching, reverting in distress to
the peasant dialect of his youth.

“I do not hold,” put in Ewing, “that it is for us to do anything. I am a
Leeberal, a good Scots Leeberal. In Paisley, where my home is, and where
the poets come from, we have always been steadfast, unshaken Leeberals.
No argument can shift us. For ten years past we have done our Leeberal
best to pull down the House of Lords, and Willatopy is a damn sight
better than most of the scum of them. His skin is an accident of bairth.
If his skin had come as white as his eyes are blue he would have been a
vairy presentable Head for the House of Toppys. He has, it seems to me,
all the instincts of the Idle Rich, and what more can you Tories want?
He is a grand pilot and a very hardy sailor and sportsman. His eye for
the gur-r-ls is worthy of the loftiest aristocrat. It is nothing but the
brown epidermis which sets Ching here groaning like a gravid cow, and
Madame bewailing the undoubted legitimacy of a Topy heir.”

“Not quite,” objected Madame, though she was impressed by the Scot’s
shrewd analysis. “I admit that if Willatopy had been born white, or as
light-skinned as his sisters, his lawyers at home would long ago have
summoned him to claim his peerage. His half blood would not then have
made the Family a butt for ridicule. But to me his half blood and not
his colour is an occasion for genuine distress. It is because Willatopy
here in his own Tops Island is so artless and attractive a creature,
that I dread the effect of his transfer to England and his succession to
what still is, even in these democratic days, an eminence ringed about
with peculiar and dangerous temptations. Let me give you the opinion of
a man–one of your own countrymen, Sandy–who knew the father well, and
feels the gravest apprehensions lest the son should come to utter
wreck.” Then Madame, in the frank fashion which draws men’s hearts to
her, repeated that conversation with Grant of Thursday Island, which I
have recounted in a previous chapter. She kept back nothing. As she
spoke of the neglected deposits of osmiridium–at fifty pounds an
ounce–Ewing shrieked as a man tortured in the most tender nerve centres
of his being. As she told of the death of William Toppys, and of the
twelve-year-old son’s desperate voyage with the father’s corpse lashed
to the yawl’s deck, her hearers fell silent, and she could see that both
men were deeply moved.

“Good lad,” whispered Ching, who hated Willatopy.

“Good lad,” whispered Ewing, who liked him. As Madame proceeded and
painted in her forcible vivid English the twin demons which threatened
the half-caste boy, torn from his native island environment, the men
followed her words with grave assent. Both of them in their wanderings
over the wide world had seen men and women of the black and brown races
wither and die at the touch of white vices.

The story drew to its end.

“He was a circumspectious man, yon Grant,” said Ewing with approval. “A
good Scot and vairy intelligent.”

“He was right, Madame,” agreed Ching. “It is not the brown skin but the
unstable half-blood which is the peril. We must keep away drink and
white women from–his young lordship.”

It was a tremendous concession from a man like Ching. The “Moor” whom he
detested had become the “young lordship” from whose stumbling footsteps
must be withdrawn the perilous rocks of offence.

“But can we?” enquired Madame Gilbert anxiously. “He is a boy and very
masterful. We cannot hold him in leading strings. Already my influence
over him is waning. The seductions of John Clifford are more potent than
the friendly, almost maternal, warnings of Madame Gilbert. I could, if I
pleased, by working on his boyish virile passions, make him crawl at my
feet and eat out of my hand. But to what end, and for how long? I should
but hasten the process of corruption which the Hedge Lawyer has begun.
From me, unassailable, he would flee to others less obdurate. And they
are never far away even in the Straits of Torres. I cannot play with
Willatopy. We must do what we can, but it is already borne in upon me
that we seek to achieve the impossible. Already, these two days since,
Willatopy has gone in the yawl with Clifford. It was for that reason I
summoned you, and announced the surprise which our Alexander had so
completely anticipated. I have grave fears lest even now John Clifford
has drawn Willatopy away to Thursday Island, thence to take ship for
England.”

“For my part,” declared Ewing, “I doubt the accuracy of Madame Gilbert’s
prognostications. They do not carry conviction to my astute mind. The
change over is too sudden. That he will ultimately be prevailed upon to
depart for his English lordship I make no manner of doubt. But not yet.
He is a good boy. He has a great respect and affection for you, Madame.
He worships you, Madame, as a gracious white goddess. As we all do, we
all do. We are weak men, but there is nothing sinful in our love for
you. Ching here, says little though he thinks a lot; and I say, maybe,
more even than I think. But, believe me, Madame, we both of us love you
from your bonny red hair to your dainty feet–which twinkle so sweetly
over the sand when you come from your bath–and we would lay down our
lives to presairve you from har-r-m. Willatopy would not have gone away
to England without asking for your leave and bidding you farewell.”

Ching, of the inflexible tongue, murmured assent.

Madame Gilbert, to whom the hearts of men had so often been as toys, was
moved.

“My dear friends,” said she gently, “I believe you, and I thank you. I
have never played with your honest hearts, and I am proud that you
should have given them so freely to me.” She stretched forth a hand to
each man, and first Ewing and then Ching touched with his lips her white
fingers.

“And if not to Thursday Island whither then has Willatopy gone?” asked
Madame.

“I do not say that he has not gone to Thursday Island,” replied Ewing.
“Port Kennedy, with its tin houses and bare dusty streets, is the one
town in the Straits with any number of white folk. Clifford has played
on the boy’s white blood, and carried him off there to flaunt his
lordship before the populace. As a preliminary canter, so to speak. If
the brown Lord of Topsham meets with favour in the Island, I doubt he
will aspire to wider fields of conquest.”

“Very like,” agreed Ching, and then flung forth a speech which
astonished Madame with its sharp sailor wit. Hitherto she had rated the
Skipper as a dull dog. “Willatopy will not have sailed for England
because that would mean leaving his yawl at Thursday Island. Nothing
would induce him to risk the safety of his yawl.”

“You are right, Captain,” cried she. “That is final. The sailor, and
Willatopy is a sailor born and bred, will cast off his mistress, but
never his ship. He will return to us with his yawl. If later on he sails
for England he will leave the yawl here in safety at her moorings. Why
didn’t you think of that, my circumspectious man, Sandy?”

“I am an Engineer, not a sailor. It is engines I think of, not ships.
They are nothing to me but the case for the bonny engines.”

“Exactly,” said Madame. “That is just the difference between an engineer
and a sailor, between Devon and Glasgow. You are clever, Sandy, and as
a man of business, you soar far beyond our poor comprehension. But
Captain Ching here is the wiser man.”

It was not very subtle, perhaps, but in this fashion Madame Gilbert put
down the talkative Ewing, and exalted the silent Ching, and bound the
hearts of both men to her. More than ever she felt assured that if she
needed help–and the fracture of the laws of God and man at her
behests–Ching and Ewing would stand immovably with her.

“Madame,” said Ching, and it was to be observed that when he spoke of
the sea and his own craft, his tongue instantly loosened. “Can you tell
me when you propose that the _Humming Top_ should cast off and sail for
England?”

“I had not considered leaving. There is no hurry, is there?”

“There is no immediate urgency. But it is my duty as Captain to make
certain representations to my owner. We sailed in the middle of March,
and we arrived here after a voyage of two months, most of it in warm
weather. We have now lain for five weeks in a tropical tidal bay. The
yacht is foul, very foul. The brown boys who dive under her for bits of
silver thrown from the rail say that she trails weed four feet long. The
teak sheathing which runs from bilge to bilge, and stretches from near
the forefoot to the stern post, is uncoppered. It was attached rather
hastily, and copper was still scarce after the war. The wood is proof
against worm, but it collects weed. When we do sail–it is now near the
end of June–we must make for Singapore, and go into dock for a clean.
The Chief will tell you that though we do not lack for fuel, the foul
bottom will grievously increase our consumption.”

“That is so,” explained Ewing. “I have dived down myself, and seen the
blooming garden which flourishes under our bottom. We are a tropical
curiosity. We attract every kind of growth except coral. If we linger
much longer we shall become fir-r-mly attached to the sea floor. We lie
in six fathoms, but the weeds grow like bananas. At the consumption
which brought us here steaming eleven knots, we should not now make
eight. And if we get much more foul we shall not make six. Sir John’s
dollars will bur-r-n in grand volumes when we put out to sea. It goes
against my conscience, Madame, to waste good oil on a foul ship.”

Madame knitted her brows. “Both of you know now how I am placed. I am a
woman and curious; I want to see the drama of Willatopy unfold itself
before me.”

“So do we,” said Ching. “We do not ask you to depart until the need
grows urgent. But remember. We must dock at Singapore, and thence home
to England will occupy the best part of two months. The _Humming Top_ is
long and narrow, with a very low freeboard. The bulwarks of her monkey
fo’c’sle are not more than twelve feet above the water, and her stern is
no more than seven. She can live anywhere, but she was built for speed
and fair weather cruising; if we ram her through the autumn gales in the
northern hemisphere she will be a very wet and uncomfortable ship. The
seas will be all over bridge and charthouse and smokeroom, and you will
have to live battened down. You won’t like that, Madame, and your maid
Marie will yield up her immortal soul.”

“I am not worrying about Marie’s soul–or her stomach,” said Madame
callously. “How long can you give me?”

“Four weeks,” said Ching firmly. “If we sail towards the end of July we
should be in English waters by the middle of October at latest.”

“Make it so,” said Madame. “I promise that you shall hoist the Blue
Peter–is that right?–before the end of July. And perhaps sooner. For
at the rate at which events are moving, Willatopy may soon determine to
transport his person and fortunes to England. At the last, if all my
persuasions that he should remain here fail–and I am afraid that they
must fail–I shall offer him passage in the _Humming Top_. It is fitting
that the Lord of Topsham should enter upon his inheritance on board a
Toppys ship. Sir John Toppys will not be best pleased, but if Willatopy
insists, the haughty Family must swallow their medicine, and pretend
that they like it. _Noblesse oblige!_ So long as the _Humming Top_ is
available, Lord Topsham must not travel in a hired steamer. Besides,”
added Madame with a smile, “I shall be able to keep my eye and perhaps
my hand upon that detestable little cad, the indispensable managing
clerk. And if the sea should be very rough, perhaps a kindly Neptune
might whisk him overboard.”

“If you give the word, Madame, he shall go overboard all right,” said
Ching, the descendant of Plymouth buccaneers.

“No. I will not allow crime where I command. I am not squeamish; in my
time I have shot more men than one or two, and when I shoot to kill, a
soul is sped. But what I have done by way of duty, or in self-defence,
has not been crime. Unless he provoked me beyond endurance, I would not
slay even John Clifford.”

“If I could do a wee bit murder on the swine under the rose, and stuff
his corpse into a firebox, it would not distur-r-b my slumbers,”
observed Ewing. “But men talk, men talk. If the two of them sail with us
in the _Humming Top_, and the weather comes on sweet and dirty, we must
put up powerful petitions to an all-wise Providence. From the look of
the beast, I should judge that he has a taste for whisky. Now, whisky,
discreetly administered, might help the Divine wisdom to interpose with
an effective boost, when Clifford reeled against a lee rail. We are all
in the hands of God,” concluded Alexander piously.

“We are a sweet crowd,” observed Madame, with an air of detachment. “We
borrow the yacht of a highly respectable baronet and profiteer. On the
voyage out we convert her into a rollicking dope smuggler. We now
contemplate petitions to the Almighty that He should boost a drunken
Hedge Lawyer over our rail while on the voyage home. And withal, we are
God-fearing members of some Christian Church. I, it must be confessed,
am an indifferent Catholic. Alexander is a Scotch Presbyterian….”

“An Elder when at home in Paisley,” interjected the Chief–“and Captain
Ching is what–a Plymouth Brother?”

“Never,” declared Ching in horror. “The Church of England for me. I
will have no truck with sectarians.”

“It is a beautiful example of the essential unity of the Churches,” went
on Madame wickedly. “The Roman Catholic, the Presbyterian Elder and the
zealous English Churchman are all agreed to advise their God to
interpose for the confounding of a Hedge Lawyer. And if nothing happens,
their belief in the efficacy of prayer will get a nasty jar. Our
unanimity is at least some indication that in human judgment the little
sweep were better dead. But, my friends, reflect that worms as noxious
came through the war unscathed, while the best of Europe’s manhood
perished. Let us not bank on the discriminating taste of the Almighty,
or on the alertness of the Providential ear.”

Alexander Ewing was not unwilling to plunge into an active theological
controversy, and Ching, with a lightening of the eye, showed that he too
smelled battle. But Madame waved her hand, and forbade reply. If she
were a Catholic, I am afraid, as she herself admitted, that she was not
a very good one.

On the following evening Ching and Ewing returned to the yacht, and
three more days went by without word of the yawl, Willatopy, or John
Clifford. Then news came like the blare of a bugle summoning Madame to
the fight.

She had just returned from her morning swim, and the bathing dress,
which rapidly dried in the sun, was still upon her body. The motor boat
had just buzzed in through the passage of the bar, and brought an
officer with a message.

“The Captain’s compliments,” said he, “and I was to tell you, Madame,
that the brown boy, Willatopy, with the man called Clifford, are sitting
in the smokeroom of the yacht drinking Sir John Toppys’ port.”

“Port!” cried she. “At this hour of the day!” Her eyes flashed, and she
leapt for the tent. Upon her feet she slipped a pair of sand shoes, and
about her person buckled the linen trench coat. Then going to her
dressing case she picked out the Webley automatic which in her tent or
in her cabin was never very far from her hand. She dropped the pistol
into her right-hand pocket.

“Come,” said she to the officer. “I am ready. Willatopy is Lord of the
Island, but Madame Gilbert is Lady of the Yacht. I am going to give Mr.
John Clifford, solicitor of St. Mary Axe, a lesson in the laws of
property.”

“Shall I stand by with a monkey wrench?” enquired the officer eagerly.
He was a young engineer.

“It will not be needed,” said Madame serenely.