55[Idriess, Ion L., 1937, Forty Fathoms Deep, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, Chapter 14]

CHAPTER XIV

A SLEEPER IN THE NIGHT

Coming jogging down the quiet residential street to the town was an old creamy pony, pulling a sulky. The pony was taking its time; it always did. Sitting straight up in the sulky was an exceptionally tall, grave, handsome man with somewhat melancholy eyes. His moustache and closely clipped beard were golden brown; he was neatly dressed. Looking straight ahead, he saw everything to right and left. Occasionally he would wave courteous greeting to a wave from a bungalow, or a salutation from the footpath; as courteous to a passing coloured man as to a pearler.

This was Davis the pearl-buyer, brother-in-law of Mark Rubin and his manager in his absences. Davis ran his business on a strict code and believed his duty to a client to be exactly as is a doctor's. Silent as the Sphinx on business matters he was trusted in consequence. He was a thinker, quick and witty when he chose, a brilliant Jew. Versed in history especially, he could carry a debating hall with him. A highly strung man, depository of many a secret, strict in his religious observances. He arrived at the office on the heels of Rubin.

"Hi, Elles! Here!" called Rubin as he banged the tin of baroque on the office table.

Noiselessly and unhurriedly a man stepped in from an adjoining work-room. He stood there with the shadow of a smile on his smooth, dark face. An excellent "poker" face had Elles the Cingalee, probably the most wonderful pearl-cleaner the world has ever known. His sensitive finger-tips seemed both to impart to and feel "life" in a pearl, his eyes seemed capable of seeing into the very heart of a gem. His fingers were worth thousands of pounds per year to Rubin, who paid him a handsome retainer.

"Here's something to keep you occupied," said Rubin. Elles smiled, softly running his fingers over the baroque. He knew perfectly well that he had to sort and class and clean anything worth cleaning off this baroque because Rubin feared that otherwise his fingers might clean a pearl for someone "privately".

"Very well, Mr Rubin," he said suavely, and took the baroque away.

Like many others, the Cingalee had come to Broome a wanderer. In his struggling days he had got in debt to the extent of eight hundred pounds.

"Go bankrupt," advised a friend.

"No. While a man has two bands he should never go bankrupt."

He went to sea in a lugger and at the end of the year paid all his debts. Now he was on the path to fortune with romance in every pound he earned, for it all came out of bringing to the light of day the wondrous glow hidden in pearls.

"That man has got a king's ransom buried in his fingertips if he only knew it," remarked Rubin.

"He does know it," replied Davis quietly.

"Hm," growled Rubin to a knock, at the door. "Come in!"

Bernard Bardwell entered, smiling pleasantly, a parcel in his pocket. Intuitively Rubin knew that Bardwell was forced to sell. Davis retired to his own office.

"Sit down, Mr Bardwell," invited Rubin busily. I know you haven't come to sell me pearls, because all Broome knows I am full up."

Bardwell took the parcel from his pocket and spread the contents on the table, a parcel of exceptionally nice baroque. "Touff!" exclained Rubin with deprecatory gesture. "'Full up I tell you. I show you."

From the, safe he brought out a parcel sorted, classed, and cleaned all ready for London. The baroque in biscuit tins at so much per carat, the pearls in clusters of rounds ' drops, and buttons at so much per grain. Bardwell's heart fairly thumped at sight of the beautiful things. Fifty-five thousand pounds' worth.

He sat back with a sigh, knowing that Rubin was deliberately devaluing his own little parcel.

"One of, these days I'll bring you in some beautiful pearls like those, Mr Rubin," he said, "and you will be eager to make a deal. Meanwhile, how much for my baroque?" "Ah!" waved Rubin deprecatingly. "How much you want? I tell you I am full up."

Rubin laughed Bardwell's price to scorn. He flung open the safe drawer and brought out another tin of excellent baroque.

"I don't give one-third for this what you ask for that rubbish!" he pointed scornfully.

Bardwell thought rapidly in an attempt to gain time. "Why don't you clean that blister?" he parried. "You gave two hundred pounds for it and you've had it in your safe for donkey's years."

Rubin frowned at the large blister that Bardwell had pointed out.

"What you know about it?" he demanded. "How you know I give two hundred pounds for this?"

"I know a lot about it!" smiled Bardwell. "I was outside when it was found. I examined it myself at sea, and I know that Mr Davis gave two hundred pounds for it."

"Abe!" yelled Rubin. "Come here at vonce."

Bardwell smiled; he had not expected his ruse to prove so successful.

The blister was still attached to portion of the shell. A magnificent blister. If there was a corresponding pearl inside, it might be worth thousands.

Davis came in, big and polite. "Yes, Mr Rubin."

"Send for Elles and make him open this blister. What for you keep my money tied up for years!"

Elles came in softly. As he picked up the shell and examined the blister, a cynical smile spread over his well-fed countenance. He carried a tiny tool in his hand. Without a word he tapped the blister in one exact spot, then laid the shell back on the table with all the feline satisfaction of a cat.

"Oh, hell!" cried Rubin and leapt up. "Look what he's done with my two hundred pounds! Look! Look what my beautiful manager has done with my two hundred pounds! Look what I pay for! Hell!"

The blister was full of mud. Rubin stormed while Elles stood complacently by, Davis standing silently, his eyes perturbed.

Rubin had made the same mistake more than once. But never would he admit such mistakes. Davis had to stand by while fierce wrath descended upon his head. Meanwhile, Bardwell was sizing up his opportunity. That blister, with the mud cleaned out by. acid and with a hatpin stuck in the hole made by Elles, would make the most magnificent hatpin in the world.

"Two hundred pounds!" shouted Rubin in hoarse exhaustion, "and not worth twopence!" He flung the shell violently on the floor.

"I'll give you one pound for the blister!" offered Bardwell.

"You will not!" cried Rubin. "And I will not buy this stuff!" He pushed the baroque contemptuously aside.

"The sooner you start buying the sooner you will make up that loss of two hundred pounds," insinuated Bardwell craftily.

Rubin was about to fly into a fury again. Instead he snorted and eventually bought the baroque, taking full advantage of his intuition that Bardwell must sell at a sacrifice. Elles was the only one who enjoyed the joke.

Routine had hardly quietened to a stormy normal when Long Jimmy James breezed in. Rubin greeted him darkly. "Why the storm clouds?" demanded James as he stretched his long frame in the most comfortable chair. "Any one would think there was a war on!"

"There soon will be a war," answered Rubin darkly; "a bigger war than you ever dreamed of."

"What on earth are you talking about?" "War. War-war-war-war!" shouted Rubin. "Rats!" replied James.

Rubin glowered, then shrugged. "All right, you'll see." "How's the pearls?" inquired James.

"I've got half a million tied up in pearls. The world does not want pearls!"

"What does it want?"

"Wool! There is going to be a war - mark my word, James - a war in two or three, perhaps four years."

"Well, what are you going to do about it?" "I'm going to buy sheep. "

"What?"

"I'm going to buy a sheep station. Perhaps more than one."

"What do you know about sheep stations?"

"I'm surprised at you, James, asking me what I know about anything!" said Rubin scathingly. "You know as well as I do you can always buy brains!"

He could. And he bought his sheep stations. He had known what it was to be without a shilling in the world. Now he was buying stations to grow wool that would help clothe troops in a great war the possibility of which was denied by almost all the world.

...

Gomez had cleaned his pearl. In the heart of his ramshackle boarding-house, within four iron walls he had stood and gazed while a coloured expert skinned the gem. Taking only three skins from it, it had unfolded as a perfect round with a soft rosae glow; a magnificent thing, warm and beautiful; a pearl of perfect loveliness putting to utter shame the corrugated walls of the dingy room.

Gomez paid the cleaner his rich commission and with a glance warned him what would happen should be speak. For past misdeeds, Gomez could have put him in jail with a word. The man nodded, and slunk away. But the pearl had entered into his soul. A pearl of great price was and always would be a gem. But this was a glory. No man, once he had seen it, could resist telling others of it, even if he did not actually long to possess the glorious thing.

Gomez locked the pearl in his safe along with others but not for long; it worried him night and day; ate into his thoughts. He took the pearl from the safe and sewed it into a tiny bag and hung it around his middle. It was always with him then, night and day. He intended to ask ten thousand pounds for it. He would sell it with other pearls when the fleets sailed in during the next lay-up season. He already had a rich little parcel in his safe. This glorious gem would sell the parcel at a great price. Gomez would retire to Manila an exceedingly rich man years before he had anticipated.

One night Gomez slept soundly. Very soundly. He had blocked his keyhole; had put a mat hard against the bottom of the door. His iron-walled room was suffocatingly hot, but this was immaterial to Gomez the cunning. In the small hours of the morning, a long, straight piece of wire was gently pushed under the carpet that sealed the tiny space under the door. And through the aperture thus made a long, thin tube was stealthily poked. And through this was blown, in noiseless puffs, a powder. In the almost hermetically sealed room, Gomez presently began to inhale that powder. That was why he slept so very soundly. Half an hour later and an ordinary iron cutter, well oiled, was cutting a round hole through the wall next the door. Through the hole came a sinewy brown hand feeling about. The bolt was drawn, the hand groped about, pulled the plug from the keyhole, inserted an oiled key.

The door opened noiselessly, admitting a naked, oiled body. The building was so quiet that the snores of sleepers sounded droningly from distant rooms; a cockroach scuttling over paper made a loud sound.

The visitor took no chances, his eyes gleamed as he held a tube to his mouth and blew a puff of powder right below the sleeping man's nostrils.

Truly, Gomez would sleep very soundly.

The visitor stepped out into the passage, closing the door. He waited a few minutes, then filling his lungs with air threw open the door and stepped again into the room. Swiftly he ran his fingers over the body of Gomez, he felt the little bag. A knife gleamed and the bag was in the man's hand. He was out in the passage again, closing the door. Not a soul had seen him; not a soul heard.

Very late next morning, Gomez awoke. Dazedly. He lay for a time staring up at the roof, his senses gradually returning. Automatically, his hands felt for the tiny bag. With a cry he leapt from the bed. Trembling in every limb he stared down at his middle, his eyes glaring, his mouth opening pathetically.

Slowly he turned towards the door. Then throwing his arms above his head, he ran screaming through the house. He ran amuck. Ten minutes later he committed suicide. Through one stolen pearl four men had already died violent deaths. And Toledo had been drowned; and old Sulu had died of heart-failure when he still might have been alive. Six men dead so soon through one stolen pearl.