Harold Bindloss.

For Jacinta



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Still, the long, hot afternoon dragged away, and when the sun dipped, and black darkness closed down upon the creek, the launch came clanking up to the beach. She brought two Canarios as well as Bill, the fireman, and Austin's voice was eager as he greeted the latter.

"Have you got the pump going yet?" he asked.

"No," said Bill. "Tom and Mr. Jefferson was packing something when I came away. He'd given her a spin, and found the engine blowing at a gland."

Austin asked him nothing further, but drove the launch at top speed through the blackness that shrouded the misty creek, and walked straight to where Jefferson was standing when he reached the Cumbria. The red glow from the open fire-door of the locomotive boiler fell upon him, and there were signs of tension in his face, while the red trickle from a hand he had apparently injured smeared his torn jacket. Steam was roaring from a valve beside him, and Austin could scarcely hear him when he turned to the donkey-man.

"Shut the fire-door. She'll go now," he said. "I'll let her shake down for a minute or two, and then we'll give her everything."

He walked forward towards where the light of a lamp fell upon the casing of the pump, which looked like a huge iron drum considerably flattened in. Then he touched a valve, and the machine became animate with a low pulsatory wheezing, while something commenced to hum and rattle inside it. The sound swelled into a fierce rhythmic whirring, the great iron case vibrated, and Austin could feel the rails he leaned on tremble. Jefferson turned and looked at him with a little smile, while he laid a hand, as it were, affectionately upon the pump.

"Yes," he said, "I've made her go, and she's going to earn me eighty thousand dollars. She's drawing air just now. Heave your hat down, and see if she'll take it along."

Austin, who became sensible that a little draught was shaking his duck trousers, did as Jefferson suggested, and the big felt hat rolled and flopped in a ludicrous fashion along the deck. Then it seemed to spring forward into the blackness, and groping after it, he found it glued to the iron grid which was screwed to the end of a big pipe. It was with some little difficulty he tore it loose. Then he saw Jefferson swing up one hand.

"Easy, while she's getting her first drink; then, if she's spouting full, you can let her hum," he said, and turned to Austin. "Now, come down with me."

They went down together into the musty hold, and when somebody lowered the big hose after them, Jefferson, standing upon the ladder, seized the rope, and looked up at the Canarios clustering round the hatch above.

"Where's that rake you made?" he said.

It was handed him, and Austin glanced down at the water, which glistened oilily under the light of a suspended lamp. It was thick with floating grease and strewn with fragments of rotten bags.

"Get hold and keep her clear!" said Jefferson, who thrust the rake upon him, and then waited a moment before he lowered the hose, while Austin, glancing round a moment, could see the faces of the men above them.

They were intent, and almost as expectant as his comrade's.

Then the big pipe sank with a soft splash, and shook out its loose half-coil, as if alive, while it swelled. It grew hard and rigid, and the dim, oily water swirled and seethed about the end of it. In another moment there was a rush of floating objects towards it from the shadows. Strips of bagging, handspikes, clots of oil, and dunnage wood, came thicker and thicker, and Jefferson raised his voice.

"Let her hum!" he said.

The pipe palpitated as it further straightened itself, and now a hole opened in the oily water, and half-seen things came up with a rush from the depths of the flooded hold. Hundreds of little black kernels whirled and sank in the swing of the eddy, which grew wider as a deep, resonant hum descended from the deck above. It seemed to Austin that everything in the hold was coming to the top, but as he watched the bewildering succession of odds and ends that spun amidst the froth, Jefferson's voice rose harshly.

"It's water she's wanting! Keep her clear!" he said.

Austin contrived to do it for a while, though now and then the whirling rush of bags and wood almost tore the rake away from him. He was kept busy for half an hour, while Jefferson stood leaning out from the ladder, and steadily watching the water. Then the American swung himself down, with his knife in his hand, and scratched the iron at its level.

"We'll know in another hour or two whether we're pumping out the Cumbria or pumping in the creek," he said. "If it's the latter, I've got to let up on the contract. I can't undertake to dry out this part of Africa."

Then he signed to one of the Canarios. "Come down. Ven aca, savvy, and take this rake."

They went up together, but as they passed along the deck Jefferson stopped once more to lay his hand upon the pump. It was running with a dull, rumbling roar, and the deck trembled about it.

"She's doing good work," he said. "Now we'll have comida. I daren't go back there for another hour."

They went into the deck-house, where the Spaniard who acted as steward was waiting them, but in passing, Jefferson made a sign to Tom, who stood in the glow from the fire-door, with a shovel in his hand.

"All she's worth!" he said.

They ate as a matter of duty, and because they needed all the strength the climate had left them, but neither had much appetite, and Austin knew that Jefferson was listening as eagerly as he was himself to the deep, vibrating hum that came throbbing through the open door. It was a relief to both of them to hear, the persistent jingling of a cup that stood unevenly in its saucer. The pump was running well, but there remained the momentous question, was it lowering the water? And when the meal was over, Austin glanced at Jefferson as he pushed his plate aside.

"Shall I go down and look?" he asked.

"No," said Jefferson hoarsely. "Any way, if you do, don't come back and worry me. She's full up, fore and after holds and engine room – and there are things I don't stand very well. We'll give her two hours, and then, if she's doing anything worth while, the scratch I made will be dry."

Austin nodded sympathetically. "Under the circumstances," he said, "two hours is a long while."

Jefferson smiled, a curious, wry smile. "It's hard – the toughest thing one can do – just to keep still; but if I climbed up and down that ladder for two hours I'd probably break out, and heave somebody into the creek. There are things you have to get over once for all – and do it quick."

"I suppose there are," said Austin. "Still, it's the first time I've made the acquaintance of any of them, and I shouldn't have fancied one could get a thrill of this kind out of a centrifugal pump. There is, however, of course, a good deal at stake."

"Eighty thousand dollars," said Jefferson, "and all the rest of my life. You don't usually get such chances as the Cumbria is giving us twice."

Austin found that he, at least, could not keep still, however he tried, and he went out and paced up and down the slanted deck, where he fell over things, though he now and then endeavored to talk rationally to Tom the donkey-man. He did not find the attempt a success, but he saw that he was not the only one who felt the tension, for the Canarios, in place of resting, were clustered round the hatch, and apparently staring down the opening. Jefferson was still in the deck-house each time he passed, a gaunt, grim-faced object, with a lean hand clenched on an unlighted pipe, and at last Austin sat down on the deck beside the pump. He liked to feel the throb of it, but he remembered the half hour he spent there a long while afterwards.

Then Jefferson came out of the deck-house, walking slowly, though Austin fancied it cost him an effort, and they climbed down the ladder together. The man with the rake stood on the opposite one across the hatch, and Austin felt his heart beat painfully as he raised the lantern he held and Jefferson stooped down. He straightened himself slowly, though the blood was in his face.

"Dry!" he said hoarsely. "She's lowering it. It's a sure thing, Austin. If the fever doesn't get us we'll see this contract out."

Then he turned, and they went up and back to the deck-house, while an exultant clamour broke out from the Canarios; but Jefferson's lean hand quivered a little when he laid it on the table as he sat down.

"If she has started any plates, they're not started much," he said. "Now, talk about anything you like, so long as it isn't the Cumbria. I've got to slacken down to-night."

CHAPTER XVI
ELUSIVE GUM

It was in the small hours when Austin wakened, and, listening a moment, stretched his aching limbs with a little sigh of content. The odds and ends on the table beside him were rattling merrily, and a deep pulsatory humming rang stridently through the silence of the swamps. The pump was running well, for he could hear the steady splash of water falling into the creek, and once more a little thrill of exultation ran through him. He was not in most respects a fanciful man, for in him the artistic temperament was held in due subjection by a knowledge of the world and shrewd practical sense. Still, there were times when he vaguely recognised that there might, after all, be a reality behind the fancies he now and then indulged in with a smile, and that night it seemed to him that the big centrifugal pump was chanting a song of triumph.

He had tasted toil, and what toil really is only those know who have borne it in the steamy heat of the tropics, which saps the white man's vigour; while he had discovered what, artist as he was, he had not learned before: that, by way of compensation, man may attain a certain elusive spirituality by the stern subjugation of his body, even when it is accomplished by brutal manual labour. As the Estremedura's sobrecargo he had watched the struggle for existence between man and man with good-humoured toleration of its petty wiles and trickeries, but now it was the cleaner and more primitive struggle between man and matter he was called upon to take his part in with the faith in the destiny of his species which is capable of moving mountains, and not infrequently does so with hydraulic hose and blasting charges, as well as a few odd thousand tons of iron and water in a stranded steamer. Lying still a while, he heard the great pump hurling out its announcement of man's domination to swamp and forest, and then went peacefully to sleep.

He was astir with the dawn next morning, but when they went down the ladder into the hold he knew that the change in him had reached a further stage. Whether the water had sunk or not, he was going to see that fight out, and go back triumphant, or leave his bones in Africa. It was not alone to vindicate himself in Jacinta's eyes, for that, though it counted, too, seemed of less moment now; he was there to justify his existence, to prove himself a man, which many who have won honours in this world have, after all, never really done. As a sign of it, he was wholly practical when, hanging down from the ladder, he laid the fingers of one hand upon the scratch Jefferson had made on the iron. Then he held up the hand.

"Wet to the knuckles only," he said. "Last night the water was on the thumb."

They went up, and Jefferson looked at him keenly when they stood on deck; in fact, as he had done when Austin first clambered, half naked, out of the hatch.

"Yes," he said quietly, "she is heaving it out, and you have done more than start in. You mean staying with it now?"

Austin laughed. "I'm not sure how you know it, but I really think I do."

"No?" said Jefferson, with a twinkle in his eyes. "When it's in your voice, and stamped upon the rest of you. Well, I think we're going to float her, though it's perhaps not quite a sure thing yet. We seem to have bluffed off Funnel-paint, but the trouble is, you can't bluff the fever. In the meanwhile, we'll see if she's draining any out of the engine room."

They went in, and stood on the top platform, looking down on the water, which, so far as they could discern, stood at much the same level as it had done. Jefferson gazed at it with an air of reflection.

"If the bulkhead's strained and started so the water could get in, I don't quite see why it shouldn't run out into the hold again, but there's evidently no suction that way," he said. "You see how that tool-case lid is floating. There's another point that strikes me. Those started plates don't seem to be letting very much water in."

"As you have already pointed out, there is a good deal it's a little difficult to understand about the whole thing."

"Well," said Jefferson gravely, "it doesn't matter in the meanwhile, and we'll probably find out by and by. The first thing we have to do is to lay hands on that gum, and until the water's lower we can't start in. The boys can lay off to-day. Well, what are you wanting, Bill?"

"Two of the Canariers down!" said the fireman, who appeared in the doorway. "They was looking groggy yesterday, an' one o' them's talking silly now. I think it's fever."

Austin looked at Jefferson, whose face grew a trifle grim. "Ah," he said, "it's beginning. Well, I had expected we'd have that to grapple with before very long. We'll go along and look at them."

They went, and found one of the men raving in the forecastle, while Austin, who did what he could for him and his comrade, which was very little, afterwards spent a day of blissful idleness stretched at full length on the settee in the skipper's room, with a damp-stained treatise on navigation. He had never imagined that he could peruse a work of that kind with interest, but it served its purpose, for he felt he must have something to fix his attention on. In the meanwhile the big pump hummed on, as it did for another day and night, until on the third morning Jefferson stopped it and turned steam on the winch again.

"You have got to keep your eyes open as well as hustle, boys," he said, as he stood with his hand on the lever. "There'll be forty dollars, Spanish, for whoever finds the first bag of gum."

Austin made this clear to them, and they went down the ladder, but two men who had gone with them before were not there that day. The water had sunk, and tiers of rotting bags lay, half afloat, in it, giving out a sickening smell of fermentation. They were filled with little black nuts, the oleaginous kernels of the palm fruit from which the layer of oil had been scraped off, and these were evidently worth little in their damaged condition. Austin, however, had very little time to notice them in, for the winch above him rattled, and the day of feverish toil began.

The bags burst when they dragged them into piles and laid them upon the sling, while when the winch swung them up, a rain of kernels and slimy water came pattering and splashing down. Putrefying kernels floated up into every hole they made, and now and then a man sank waist deep among the crumbling bags. Still, there was no stoppage or slackening of effort. Forty dollars is a large sum to a seaman of the Canaries, who can bring up a family on one peseta, which is rather less than ninepence, a day, while the bonus contingent on getting the Cumbria off would set up most of them for life. They remembered it that day as they floundered and waded about the stifling hold, for the work of the big pump had renewed their ardour.

Still, the task before them was one most men would have shrunk from. The heat below decks was suffocating, the smell of the steaming, fermenting mass of slime and oil and kernels nauseating. The water it swam in was putrescent, and the weight to be hauled out of it and sent up into the sunlight apparently enough to keep them busy for months ahead, though they had, as everybody knew, very little time to move it in. It was to be a grim struggle between man and inert material, for unless the Cumbria was hove off when the rains came, it seemed very probable that she would stay there until she fell to pieces.

They set about it in silence, which, in the case of Spaniards, was a significant thing; but nobody had any breath to spare, and Austin gasped distressfully as he toiled, almost naked, in their midst. His hair was filled with grease, clots of oil smeared his shoulders, and the bags that burst as he lifted them abraded his dripping skin. Still, they went up, opening as they swung out of the dusky hold, and the winch rattled on, while there could be no rest for any man while sling succeeded sling.

He was half blinded by perspiration, the wounds on his raw hands had opened again, and there were now red patches on his uncovered breast and arms. His muscles had, however, grown accustomed to the strain since the first arduous day, and he did a man's part, as their comrade, with the rest. There were no distinctions down in the stifling hold. It was a community of effort for the one result, and again Austin wondered at the forethought of the fever-wasted man above who drove the hammering winch.

Jefferson was, beyond all question, boss; but with singular clearness of vision, or, perhaps, that higher, half-conscious faculty of doing the right thing, that characterises the leader of men, he had recognised that what he called bluff was of no service here, and had gone straight to the strength there is in simple human nature. There was, those untaught sailormen knew, no labour he was not ready to bear his part in, and no command was flung at them for a show of authority. Jefferson spent his strength and dollars freely, and while he asked no more than a hundred cents' worth for the latter, he got it with interest, a hundredfold.

It grew hotter and hotter, and there were curiously mingled ejaculations of Latin prayer and imprecations that had somehow lost their sting. The man with calumniated ancestry took it as a jest, and amidst the roar of running chain and fierce rattle of the winch the work went on. The rains were coming, there was very much to be done, and human courage braced itself to the task. Hard hands were torn and bleeding, veins showed gorged on dusky foreheads, muscles rose and bunched themselves under the olive skin, and Englishman and Iberian gave freely all that was in them, the sweat of the hard-driven body and tension of controlling will. They were alone in the land of the shadow, with a deadly climate against them, but the conflict they were engaged in has been waged before by Spaniards and Englishmen in half the wilder lands.

Then the winch stopped suddenly, and Jefferson came backwards down the ladder. He alighted knee deep in water among the rotten bags, and all his observations were not recordable. He had put off conventionality, and was once more the reckless sailor and the optimistic American, so he spoke of the lower regions, and called the men who had stowed the Cumbria's cargo condemned loafers in barbarous Castilian and good American, while the olive-faced Canarios gasped and grinned at him.

"The man who packed those bags there should be hung," he said. "We can't break the bulk out until we've shifted most of them. Then I'll send you down the sling-tub, and we'll heave the stuff to – ! It's sixty dollars now for the man who finds the gum."

"No sign of it yet," said Austin. "They'd never have stowed it among the bulk kernels. They're worth something. Hadn't you better make sure of them?"

Jefferson laughed grimly. "They're worth – how do I know? Call it ?12 a ton when they're not rotten. It's the gum we came for, and I'm going to find it if I tear the ballast tanks and limbeys out of her. Clear that bag bulkhead, and then stand by for the sling-tub. We'll heave every blue-flamed kernel over."

The tub came down by and by, in fact, two of them, and those who had no shovels bailed up the slimy kernels with their hats and hands; but each time the chain swung through the hatch the tub below was full. It was two o'clock when they desisted, and some of them were waist deep in water then, while soon after they came up the big hose splashed in again. There were steampipe collars to unbolt and pack, and bolt again, before that was done; while when Austin came upon Jefferson, he held up one hand from which the scalded skin was peeling.

"I can run the – winch if I drive her with my mouth and foot," he said. "Get the comida into you, and then back into the hold again. We're going to make her hum."

Austin glanced suggestively towards the men, who stood with backs still bent with weariness, about the entrance to the forecastle.

"I suppose so," he said. "Still, the question is, can they stand it long?"

Jefferson laughed harshly. "They'll have to. We have the blazing sun against us, and the evening fever-mist; in fact, 'most everything that man has to grapple with, and the worst of all is time. Still, they can't break us. We have got to beat them – the river, the climate, and all the man-killing meanness nature has in Western Africa."

He stopped a moment, and, standing very straight, a haggard, grim-faced scarecrow, flung up his scalded hands towards the brassy heavens in a wide, appealing gesture. "When you come to the bottom of things, that's what we were made for. There's something in us that is stronger than them all."



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