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A rick brant sgience-adventure story, No. 6 - старонка 2

CHAPTER II



Noumea

BARBY was in a seventh heaven of delight. It made Rick and Scotty feel good just to see how much she was enjoying the trip.

Even the long plane ride hadn't been boring for her. She promptly made friends with the crew and the passengers, and, since people were getting off the plane and new ones getting on at every stop, she always had someone different to talk to. She had heard the life stories of a strange assortment of travelers ranging from a Fiji Islander returning home after studying in the States to a missionary en route to a remote island near the Solomons.

No sooner did the plane let them off at New Caledonia, than Barby found another friend. He was a Kanaka taxi driver, over six feet tall and muscled like a blacksmith, with sooty skin and hair turned yellow from many applications of lime, a standard native treatment for lice. He chewed betel incessantly, which Barby thought was fascinating, since it turned his tongue and lips the color of a ripe tomato. His name, he said in wonderfully bad English, was Henri. He pronounced it "On-ree."

Henri's taxi was a relic, an ancient touring car with doors that flew open every time he rounded a corner, which he always did on two wheels. As Rick whispered to Scotty, he drove as though he had a grudge against the old jalopy. The boys sat in back. Barby sat up front with Henri and talked with him in high school French almost as bad as his English.

New Caledonia was a beautiful island, and a big one. The mountains were rugged, as though a part of the Rockies had been transplanted to the South Seas. The seacoast, however, was tropical, with palms and huge banana plants shading occasional native villages with houses of whitewashed boards. Now and then the car passed people who weren't at all like the stalwart, friendly Kanakas. They were more like Chinese.

"Tonkinese," Scotty explained. "From Indo-China. They're imported as laborers to work in the mines."

"What kind of mines?"

"Nickel."

The touring car reached the outskirts of Noumea now, and Rick looked around him with astonishment. It was a real city, and obviously French. It reminded him of the French Quarter in New Orleans. The architecture was the same. All the street signs were in French. There was an air of quiet drowsiness about it. Henri wheeled the car around a corner with a scream of tires and jerked to a stop in front of a two-story frame house.

" 'Otel," he announced.

Rick and Scotty got out as Henri ran around and gallantly held the door for Barby. She smiled her thanks, like a queen nodding to a faithful subject.

"Isn't he cute?" she whispered to Rick. "He promised to bring his children around so I can see them. He has seven."

Henri stacked their suitcases one on top of the other. All together, they weighed close to two hundred pounds, but he handled them as though they were filled with air.

In the lobby, nothing stirred. The only sign of Me was a tan dog of uncertain ancestry that slumbered on a straw mat. Scotty banged the bell on the counter.

The dog looked up, growled a mild protest, and went back to sleep. Somewhere upstairs a door slammed and a sleepy voice called, "Un moment, s'il vous plait!"

A round little man appeared at the top of the stairs, slipper-clad and tucking his shirt into his trousers. Then, still blurred with sleep, but presentable, he slippered down the stairs and beamed at them. "Ah! Messieurs Brant and Scott, and Mademoiselle Brant? A pleasure! Your cable was received. Your rooms are ready. Also, I have a cable for you." He ran to the counter and found it.

Rick tore it open. Scotty and Barby read it over his shoulder.

"Arriving Noumea thirty-one about ten AM. Warren."

"On the thirty-first," Rick said. "That's tomorrow.

We really timed it right. Well, let's get cleaned up and change clothes, then we can go see the town and get some lunch. I'm hungry."

Scotty changed a few dollars into French francs, then paid Henri. Rick ran upstairs with the proprietor to examine Barby's room. He had slept in small hotels in far places before, and, although he didn't particularly mind discomfort for himself, he wanted to be sure it was all right for Barbara. There was a bare minimum of furniture and a grass mat on the floor, but it was clean and airy and the windows were screened.

His and Scotty's room was next door. It looked about the same. He went downstairs to help with the bags, but a drowsy Javanese boy already had the situation in hand. He glanced at his watch.

"Thirty minutes from now we start looking for chow. Time enough, sis?"

"I'll be ready in half that time," she said.

Henri approached them as they left the hotel and asked hopefully, "You want car?"

"Not now," Rick answered. "We'd rather walk. Let's go, sis."

The center of the town was lovely. There were many trees, and an even greater number of flowering shrubs. In the very center of the city was a large park.

"That's the Place des Cocotiers," Barby explained. "The proprietor told me. There's a restaurant on the other side called Le Bagnard.

They entered the park and walked along a shaded path. Barby stopped at every other shrub to admire a new species of flower. As they rounded a corner of the path, they heard what could only have been an American voice, raised in anger.

"I told you no, you old bum! Keep out of my way or I'll have you locked up!"

A big man in a crumpled white sharkskin suit faced an oldster who might have stepped right out of the pages of a story about castaways. The old man was stooped with the weight of more than eighty years. His great mane of hair was snow white, and he was clad only in a torn shirt and a pair of trousers cut off just below the knees. His feet were bare.

Before Rick and Scotty knew what was happening, Barby was facing the big man like a small fury.

"How dare you speak to an old man like that!" she fumed.

The man stared at her in astonishment. He was taller even than Scotty, and inclined to stoutness. His face was beet-red from the sun. But there was a look about him that spoke of plenty of money. Even his suit, crumpled as it was, looked expensive.

He said, "Well, miss! You're an American, aren't you?"

"Yes," Barby said. "And you ought to be ashamed of yourself, using such language to an old man!"

The big man laughed heartily. "Perhaps I should," he admitted. "But every time I walk through here he stops me to beg for money. I get a little tired of it. Why should I support him?"

"You don't have to," Barby said coldly. "But you could at least be polite."

"I admit my guilt," the man said jovially. He looked at the old man. "Sorry, grandpop. And my apologies to you, miss." He nodded and walked away.

Rick and Scotty watched him go, then looked at each other. Rick knew what Scotty was thinking. A good thing the man had been amused at Barby's interference. Otherwise, they might have had a battle on their hands. Rick decided that he would have to lecture her on minding her own business while in foreign lands. The old man bowed. "Thank you, ma'mselle." Barby looked at him critically. "You're hungry, aren't you?

"Yes. I do not like to beg, but how can such an old one as I work? What is there for me to do? I spoke only to that man because I knew he was very rich. I thought he would not miss a few centimes."

Barby beckoned to Scotty. "Let me have some francs, Scotty, please."

Scotty handed her a few bills and she tucked them into the old man's hand.

"I give my thanks and my blessing," he said with dignity. "I ask your name, so I may know in whose debt I will forever be. I am called Barthelemi."

"My name is Barbara Brant, and this is my brother Richard and my friend Scotty."

Old Barthelemi bowed. "You will be here for long?"

"Only until our ship comes," Rick said. "The Tarpon. She's due in tomorrow."

Barthelemi sucked in his breath. "No! You must not go aboard that ship!"

"Why not?" Scotty asked quickly.

"It was in the newspaper/' the old man said shakily. "I picked it up on a bench where someone had left it, and I read of this ship. She goes to Indispensable Reef and Nanatiki Atoll. Messieurs, believe me, I implore you! You must not take this lovely girl-child into those waters! If you do not think of your own safety, I implore you to think of hers!"

"But why?" Rick said, bewildered. "I don't understand."

The old man looked up and down the path, as though to make sure they were alone. He bent close, and Rick read fear in his eyes.

"For the best of reasons. Between Nanatiki Atoll and the Indispensable Reef--that is the lair of the one we call Le Requin Fantome!"

CHAPTER III



The Dutchman and the Aussie

BABTHELEMI would say no more. He wouldn't even stay to talk. He hurried off down the pathway while the three young people watched in astonishment.

"He's cracked," Scotty muttered.

"He is not!" Barby said indignantly.

Back didn't think so, either. "The Phantom Shark," he mused. "Sounds interesting. Wonder if it's supposed to be a real shark or a ghost?"

"Well ask someone else," Scotty said. "Come on, no point in standing here. I'm hungry."

As they resumed walking, Bick squeezed Barby's arm. "Listen, girl-child, I want a word with you."

"I only seem like a child to him because he's so old," Barby said gravely. "I understand him perfectly."

Bick smothered a grin. "All right. Only don't jump to the defense of strangers like that without thinking. If that man had misunderstood, we might have had a fight on our hands."

Barby's nose went into the air.

As they came out of the park, the sign Le Bagnard was visible across the street. The restaurant was in an old stone building almost completely covered with vines.

"It's pretty," Barby exclaimed.

"Hope the food is edible," Rick said. "Let's go see."

It was dim after the bright sunlight. They stood in the doorway for a moment and let their eyes adjust. Then Barby said, "Oh! There's Mr. Van der Klaffens!"

Van der Klaffens was a rotund, jolly little Dutchman with whom Barby had struck up a conversation on the plane. He had gotten aboard at Suva, in the Fiji Islands, and by the time the plane landed at New Caledonia, Barby had his biography well in hand. He was originally from Batavia. He was an independent copra buyer. Van der Klaffens visited every port in the islands regularly, traveling as far north as Manila, as far east as Honolulu, and as far west as Penang. He had an interest in a Noumea firm.

He saw the trio almost at the same moment they saw him, and he rose and hurried toward them.

"Ah! Miss Barbara! And Mr. Brant and Mr. Scott. You care for lunch? Fine. You must join me." He had only a trace of accent. He seated them at his table and beckoned to a Chinese waiter. "For lunch today is an excellent soup and an omelet you will enjoy. Sorry, there is no choice. Now, tell me. How do you like Noumea?"

"Beautiful," Barby said enthusiastically. Rick and Scotty agreed.

Van der Klaffens nodded. "It is without doubt the best port in the South."

"We met a couple of inhabitants," Rick said. "A big American and an old man by the name of Barthelemi."

"An American? And big? I suppose he had a ... how do you say it ... a florid face?"

"That's the man," Scotty said. "Do you know him?"

"I know who he is. He is the representative of an American industrial firm. Even, I think, he is a vice president or something equally important. At least, people tell me he spends francs as though they were centimes. His name is, let me see ... yes, I am sure. It is Walter Jerrold."

"What is he doing out here?" Rick asked.

"I am told he is making arrangements for raw materials for his industries in America. In New Caledonia, he negotiates for nickel shipments. Also chromite. In the Philippines he buys silver. In Nauru and Ocean Islands he bargains for phosphates. I am told also he is a big buyer of copra, quite out of my class."

"He sounds dull," Barby remarked. "I'd rather hear about old Barthelemi."

Van der Klaffens smiled. "He is picturesque. You realize that he is one of the last of a vanishing group? He came to Noumea as a convict more than half a century ago. It was a French prison colony in those days. The prison itself was called Le Bagne, and was located on that big island in the bay. You will see it. It is called He Nous. The custom was that certain prisoners, as a reward for good behavior, were set free and permitted to farm. They were called liberes, or bagnards. This restaurant was started by one."

"But Barthelemi couldn't have been a convict," Barby objected.

"I'm afraid he was. No one is sure about his crime. But I assure you that only dangerous criminals, or political ones, were sent here. Barthelemi was not a political prisoner. All of them returned to France long ago. The prison no longer exists, of course."

The Dutchman stopped as the light from the doorway was blotted out. Rick turned to see a long, loose-jointed man enter. He was clad in white shirt and trousers, and he wore a seaman's cap.

Van der Klaffens hailed him. "Well! Kenwood!"

Kenwood walked to the table and smiled at them. He reminded Rick of rangy Texans he had met, but when he spoke, his voice was pure Australian.

"Cheer-o, Van. How's the stinkin' copra business? Your pardon, miss."

Van der Klaffens introduced the newcomer and invited him to draw up a chair. Evidently the two were old friends.

"I've been running into this old pirate up and down the islands for twenty years," Van der Klaffens said. "He's a scavenger. Deals in such oddments as crocodile hides, sharkskins, lumber, shell, and trepang."

Rick could see that Barby was enthralled. A copra dealer, and now a beachcomber!

"Have you been combing beaches for long, Mr. Kenwood?" Barby asked.

The two men burst into laughter.

"Lord stone the crows!" Kenwood exclaimed. "Lass, I'm no beachcomber. I'm a respectable bloke, I am. I get my Oscar Ashe strictly yakka, and that's the dinkum oil."

Barby stared. "Do you?" she said hesitantly.

Rick and Scotty, who had heard Australian slang before from Digger Sears, one-time mate of the Tarpon, broke into chuckles.

"I'd better translate," Scotty said. " 'Lord stone the crows' is just an expression. Oscar Ashe is hard cash. Yakka is hard work. And dinkum oil is gospel truth."

"Well stonker me!" Kenwood exclaimed. "Here's a lad who's been to Aussie!" He shook hands again with Scotty.

Barby sighed. "Will someone translate that?"

"Never mind," Kenwood said. "We'll stick to murderin' the king's English without Aussie talk."

"Do you trade up and down the islands by ship?" Rick asked.

"Schooner," Kenwood explained. "My own, a ruddy beaut. She's at the dock now. Come on down and take a look. If I do say it, she's a witch for sailing, and so easy to handle even a couple of Collins Street squatters could sail 'er."

"And what are Collins Street squatters?" Barby wanted to know.

"Australian equivalent of drugstore cowboys," Scotty explained "But what is trepang?"

"Sea cucumbers, also known as beche-de-mer," Van der Klaffens replied. "The natives get them on the sea bottom. They're boiled, then dried and smoked. The Chinese prize them for making soup. Good soup, too, I might add."

Kenwood smiled at the three youngsters. "Now it's my turn to rack up a little info. What brings you to Noumea?"

"We're joining the Tarpon here," Rick said. "She's a survey ship. A converted trawler. We're going somewhere to look for new fishing grounds."

"Shouldn't be much trouble. Plenty o' fish in these waters. Any idea where you're sailing?"

"We just heard," Barby put in. "It was in the paper. We're going to places with wonderful names. Nana-something Atoll and Indispensable Reef."

"Nanatiki Atoll," Rick added. "Do you know where they are?"

"Only by the chart. I've never been there. Nanatiki is due west of Esperitu Santo in the New Hebrides, and about five hundred miles northwest of here. Indispensable is about a hundred and fifty miles north ol Nanatiki."

"Ever hear of the Phantom Shark?" Scotty inquired. The two men looked at each other, each waiting for the other to answer.

"Can't say I have," Kenwood said. "You, Van?"

"Not I," Van der Klaffens replied. "Is this Phantom Shark a real one?"

"We don't know," Rick said. He remembered old Barthelemi's frightened eyes as he warned them, and he refrained from mentioning the old man's name.

"It's just a name we heard," Scotty explained. "Mr. Kenwood, I should think trading around the islands would be a lot of fun."

The Australian grinned. "Used to be. When I was a younker, I thought it was real derring-do to sail the islands. The abos were still takin' heads then. But it's old stuff to me now. And sometimes it's a fair cow."

Scotty saw Barby's bewildered look. "Abo is Australian for aborigine," he told her. "It's what they call the natives. Fair cow is Aussie slang for pretty punk." To Kenwood, he said, "I suppose it takes a few weeks to make the round trip."

"Yes. I usually leave here, go right up through the Hebrides and the Solomons as far as Rabaul. That's on the tip of New Britain. Then, if business hasn't been too good, I sometimes go as far up as the Admiralties. About twice a year I go across to Brisbane to pick up trade goods and drop off some of the choice stuff I've picked up. Too bad you can't make the trip with me. I'm leaving at dawn tomorrow."

"When did you get in?" Van der Klaffens asked. "You weren't here when I went up to Suva."

"Got in four days ago. I don't stay long. Just offload my cargo, pick up new goods, and start back again."

Lunch over, the group separated. Rick, Barby, and Scotty returned to the hotel. Van der Klaffens and Kenwood went their own ways.

At the hotel, Rick wondered aloud, "Any good swimming beaches near here?"

"But yes!" the proprietor said. "Out at Anse Vata, only a short way from here, is one of the best beaches in the Pacific. You enjoy the swim? Henri can take you. I will send for him."

"It's a little soon after lunch, but I guess we can loaf on the beach for a while," Scotty said.

"Good. I will bring you fresh towels to take to the beach with you."

As they went upstairs, the proprietor bustled off. He rapped on the door while Rick and Scotty were undressing.

Rick opened the door. "Come in. Thanks very much for the towels."

"You undress here?"

"Putting on our suits under our clothes," Rick explained.

"Ah. American system, I think."

"Strictly American," Scotty said, smiling. "Incidentally, have you ever heard of anything called the Phantom Shark?"

The man's reaction was astonishing. He turned white, crossed himself, then cast a quick look at the door as though afraid someone might be listening. "Monsieur," he whispered, "have the favor not to mention that name in my establishment. Ma foil Have you no fear?"

Rick's eyes widened. "Fear? Of what?"

"Of ... of what you said. Name of a dog! If you have no consideration for your own hides, think of mine. I have a family, monsieur!"

"But what are you afraid of?" Scotty demanded. "Is it a man?"

The proprietor bowed. "If you need anything else, please call me. Henri is waiting downstairs." He hurried away.

Rick and Scotty finished dressing and went downstairs, very thoughtful. By unspoken agreement, they said nothing to Barby of the proprietor's reaction to the name. Then, in the sheer joy of swimming in the clear water, they forgot the whole affair. They alternately swam and toasted on the beach, collected sea shells, and explored outcroppings of coral.

After the long afternoon in the sun and salt air, they were glad to eat a light dinner at a near-by restaurant and turn in. Barby went up to her room. Scotty and Rick delayed in the lobby long enough to ask the proprietor to wake them early, because the Tarpon was expected in and they wanted to be at the dock to meet her.

The man nodded. He seemed to have overcome his fears. "I will send up breakfast from my own kitchen."

As they thanked him and started up the stairs, Kenwood came into the hotel.

"Halloo," he greeted them. "You staying here? So'm I." He walked up the stairs with them. Then, at their door, he scratched his head thoughtfully. "Invite me in and I'll tell you something."

"Sure," Rick agreed. "Come on in."

The lanky Australian trader took a seat on one of the twin beds. "About this noon. Remember you asked about the Phantom Shark?"

Scotty stopped in the act of stripping off his shirt. "You mean you know something?"

"Not much, but enough to know it's no folk tale. Before the war, when Rabaul was the pearl center for this part of the world, the Chinese pearl buyers used to whisper about a bloke who would appear, always in the dead of night, with the best pearls they had ever seen. No one ever saw his face. He used to identify himself with a shark's tooth, mixed in with the pearls. And when the Chinese buyers saw that, they knew that they had better pay up and at top price, even if it meant no profit."

"Suppose they didn't?" Rick asked.

"Some didn't, at first. They were found with their throats cut. With a knife made of shark's teeth. Ever see one? Ruddy awful. Can't miss the marks it leaves."

"Where did the pearls come from?" Scotty inquired.

"That's another thing. Down through the islands there were wild yarns about a huge silver shark. He would park on the bottom until some poor Kanaka boy found a good one, then up he'd come and upset the canoe. If the boy was lucky, he got away with his life. But not his pearl. If he wasn't lucky, they'd find his body later, with the mark of the Phantom Shark on it."

"Do you believe any of it?" Rick asked curiously.

Kenwood shrugged. "I don't know. I've had no evidence, and the idea of a shark lyin' in wait until someone finds a pearl sounds like a fairy tale. But in my time I've found that 'neath all the smoke may be a bit of fire." He rose and walked to the door. "Didn't want to mention it in front of Van. For all his years in the islands, he's no believer in tales. I didn't want to be laughed at."

Rick and Scotty walked to the door with him.

"Thanks for the story, Mr. Kenwood," Rick said. "You said you heard all this before the war. Nothing since?"

"Nothing since."

Scotty rubbed his chin. "But if this Phantom Shark does exist, why should he hang out near Nanatiki and Indispensable Reef?"

Kenwood looked up and down the hall. "I thought you knew that." He lowered his voice. "I thought you knew that between Nanatiki and Indispensable lie some of the richest deep-water pearl beds in the world!"

2014-07-19 18:44
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