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- Cumner & South Sea Folk, v5 - 1/5 -
CUMNER'S SON AND OTHER SOUTH SEA FOLK
by Gilbert Parker
A PAGAN OF THE SOUTH
When Blake Shorland stepped from the steamer Belle Sauvage upon the quay at Noumea, he proceeded, with the alertness of the trained newspaper correspondent, to take his bearings. So this was New Caledonia, the home of outcast, criminal France, the recent refuge of Communist exiles, of Rochefort, Louise Michel, Felix Rastoul, and the rest! Over there to the left was Ile Nou, the convict prison; on the hill was the Governor's residence; below, the Government establishments with their red-tiled roofs; and hidden away in a luxuriance of tropical vegetation lay the houses of the citizens. He stroked his black moustache thoughtfully for a moment, and put his hand to his pocket to see that his letters of introduction from the French Consul at Sydney to Governor Rapont and his journalistic credentials were there. Then he remembered the advice of the captain of the Belle Sauvage as to the best hotel, and started towards it. He had not been shown the way, but his instincts directed him. He knew where it ought to be, according to the outlines of the place.
It proved to be where he thought, and, having engaged rooms, sent for his luggage, and refreshed himself, he set out to explore the town. His prudent mind told him that he ought to proceed at once to Governor Rapont and present his letters of commendation, for he was in a country where feeling was running high against English interference with the deportation of French convicts to New Caledonia, and the intention of France to annex the New Hebrides. But he knew also that so soon as these letters were presented, his freedom of action would be restricted, either by a courtesy which would be so constant as to become surveillance, or by an injunction having no such gloss. He had come to study French government in New Caledonia, to gauge the extent of the menace that the convict question bore towards Australia, and to tell his tale to Australia, and to such other countries as would listen. The task was not pleasant, and it had its dangers, too, of a certain kind. But Shorland had had difficulty and peril often in his life, and he borrowed no trouble. Proceeding along the Rue de l'Alma, and listening to the babble of French voices round him, he suddenly paused abstractedly, and said to himself "Somehow it brings back Paris to me, and that last night there, when I bade Freeman good-bye. Poor old boy, I'm glad better days are coming for him. Sure to be better, if he marries Clare. Why didn't he do it seven years ago, and save all that other horrible business?"
Then he moved on, noticing that he was the object of remark, but as it was daytime, and in the street he felt himself safe. Glancing up at a doorway he saw a familiar Paris name--Cafe Voisin. This was interesting. It was in the Cafe Voisin that he had touched a farewell glass with Luke Freeman, the one bosom friend of his life. He entered this Cafe Voisin with the thought of how vague would be the society which he would meet in such a reproduction of a famous Parisian haunt. He thought of a Cafe chantant at Port Said, and said to himself, "It can't be worse than that." He was right then. The world had no shambles of ghastly frivolity and debauchery like those of Port Said.
The Cafe Voisin had many visitors, and Shorland saw at a glance who they were--liberes, or ticket-of-leave men, a drunken soldier or two, and a few of that class who with an army are called camp-followers, in an English town roughs, in a French convict settlement recidivistes. He felt at once that he had entered upon a trying experience; but he also felt that the luck would be with him, as it had been with him so many times these late years. He sat down at a small table, and called to a haggard waitress near to bring him a cup of coffee. He then saw that there was another woman in the room. Leaning with her elbows on the bar and her chin in her hands, she fixed her eyes on him as he opened and made a pretence of reading La Nouvelle Caledonie. Looking up, he met her eyes again; there was hatred in them if ever he saw it, or what might be called constitutional diablerie. He felt that this woman, whoever she was, had power of a curious kind; too much power for her to be altogether vile, too physically healthy to be of that class to which the girl who handed him his coffee belonged. There was not a sign of gaudiness about her; not a ring, a necklace, or a bracelet. Her dress was of cotton, faintly pink and perfectly clean; her hair was brown, and waving away loosely from her forehead. But her eyes--was there a touch of insanity there? Perhaps because they were rather deeply set, though large, and because they seemed to glow in the shadows made by the brows, the strange intensity was deepened. But Shorland could not get rid of the feeling of active malevolence in them. The mouth was neither small nor sensuous, the chin was strong without being coarse, the figure was not suggestive. The hands--confound the woman's eyes! Why could he not get rid of the feeling they gave him? She suddenly turned her head, not moving her chin from her hands, however, or altering her position, and said something to a man at her elbow--rather the wreck of a man, one who bore tokens of having been some time a gallant of the town, now only a disreputable citizen of a far from reputable French colony.
Immediately a murmur was heard: "A spy, an English spy!" From the mouths of absinthe-drinking liberes it passed to the mouths of rum-drinking recidivistes. It did not escape Blake Shorland's ears, but he betrayed no sign. He sipped his coffee and appeared absorbed in his paper, thinking carefully of the difficulties of his position. He knew that to rise now and make for the door would be of no advantage, for a number of the excited crowd were between him and it. To show fear might precipitate a catastrophe with this drunken mob. He had nerve and coolness.
Presently a dirty outcast passed him and rudely jostled his arm as he drank his coffee. He begged the other's pardon conventionally in French, and went on reading. A moment later the paper was snatched from his hand, and a red-faced unkempt scoundrel yelled in his face: "Spy of the devil! English thief!"
Then he rose quickly and stepped back to the wall, feeling for the spring in the sword-stick which he held closely pressed to his side. This same sword-stick had been of use to him on the Fly River in New Guinea.
"Down with the English spy!" rang through the room, joined to vile French oaths. Meanwhile the woman had not changed her position, but closely watched the tumult which she herself had roused. She did not stir when she saw a glass hurled at the unoffending Englishman's head. A hand reached over and seized a bottle behind her. The bottle was raised and still she did not move, though her fingers pressed her cheeks with a spasmodic quickness. Three times Shorland had said, in well-controlled tones: "Frenchmen, I am no spy," but they gave him the lie with increasing uproar. Had not Gabrielle Rouget said that he was an English spy? As the bottle was poised in the air with a fiendish cry of "A baptism! a baptism!" and Shorland was debating on his chances of avoiding it, and on the wisdom of now drawing his weapon and cutting his way through the mob, there came from the door a call of "Hold! hold!" and a young officer dashed in, his arm raised against the brutal missile in the hands of the ticket-of-leave man, whose Chauvinism was a matter of absinthe, natural evil, and Gabrielle Rouget. "Wretches! scum of France!" he cried: "what is this here? And you, Gabrielle, do you sleep? Do you permit murder?"
The woman met the fire in his eyes without flinching, and some one answered for her. "He is an English spy."
"Take care, Gabrielle," the young officer went on, "take care--you go too far!" Waving back the sullen crowd, now joined by the woman who had not yet spoken, he said: "Who are you, monsieur? What is the trouble?"
Shorland drew from his pocket his letters and credentials. Gabrielle now stood at the young officer's elbow. As the papers were handed over, a photograph dropped from among them and fell to the floor face upward. Shorland stooped to pick it up, but, as he did so, he heard a low exclamation from Gabrielle. He looked up. She pointed to the portrait, and said gaspingly: "My God--look! look!" She leaned forward and touched the portrait in his hand. "Look! look!" she said again. And then she paused, and a moment after laughed. But there was no mirth in her laughter--it was hollow and nervous. Meanwhile the young officer had glanced at the papers, and now handed them back, with the words: "All is right, monsieur--eh, Gabrielle, well, what is the matter?" But she drew back, keeping her eyes fixed on the Englishman, and did not answer.
The young officer stretched out his hand. "I am Alencon Barre, lieutenant, at your service. Let us go, monsieur."
But there was some unusual devilry working in that drunken crowd. The sight of an officer was not sufficient to awe them into obedience. Bad blood had been fired, and it was fed by some cause unknown to Alencon Barre, but to be understood fully hereafter. The mass surged forward, with cries of "Down with the Englishman!"
Alencon Barre drew his sword. "Villains!" he cried, and pressed the point against the breast of the leader, who drew back. Then Gabrielle's voice was heard: "No, no, my children," she said, "no more of that to-day--not to-day. Let the man go." Her face was white and drawn.
Shorland had been turning over in his mind all the events of the last few moments, and he thought as he looked at her that just such women had made a hell of the Paris Commune. But one thought dominated all others. What was the meaning of her excitement when she saw the portrait--the portrait of Luke Freeman?
He felt that he was standing on the verge of some tragic history.
Barre's sword again made a clear circle round him, and he said: "Shame, Frenchmen! This gentleman is no spy. He is the friend of the Governor-- he is my friend. He is English? Well, where is the English flag, there are the French--good French-protected. Where is the French flag, there shall the English--good English--be safe."
As they moved towards the door Gabrielle came forward, and, touching Shorland's arm, said in English: "You will come again, monsieur? You shall be safe altogether. You will come?" Looking at her searchingly, he answered slowly: "Yes, I will come."
As they left the turbulent crowd behind them and stepped into the street, Barr$ said: "You should have gone at once to the Hotel du Gouverneur and presented your letters, monsieur, or, at least, have avoided the Cafe Voisin. Noumea is the Whitechapel and the Pentonville of France, remember."
Shorland acknowledged his error, thanked his rescuer, enjoyed the situation, and was taken to Governor Rapont, by whom he was cordially received, and then turned over to the hospitality of the officers of the post. It was conveyed to him later by letters of commendation from the Governor that he should be free to go anywhere in the islands and to see whatever was to be seen, from convict prison to Hotel Dieu.
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