56[Idriess, Ion L., 1937, Forty Fathoms Deep, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, Chapter 17]

CHAPTER XVII

THE "KOOMBANA"

I never learnt who actually stole the pearl from Gomez. Rumour spread, particularly after the drowning of Toledo, that there was a curse upon the pearl; that he who possessed it died; and that it would return to the sea. Maybe three coloured men living could connect the particulars; but they keep the secret, superstitiously awed by the fact that the curse worked out so truly. Perhaps it is as well that the history should simply fade away. There was a lugger under close-reefed sail during a wild night in the Bonaparte Archipelago. The steersman was knifed and flung overboard, his cry but a wail in the wind. He too had sewn the pearl into a tiny bag concealed around his middle. But they guessed it was there. He was "lost at sea," and the pearl entered another chapter in its tragic story. I could only find traces here and there of succeeding chapters. Dark hints and whispers. Hence, I will pass by these shadowy episodes until we come to the last chapter.

South of Port Hedland a lugger was anchored. An early bird; for the main fleets were still in port because March is a dangerous month in the willy-willy season. A black night, quiet and still. All aboard the lugger asleep: the white master soundly so in the tiny cabin aft. Gradually, he became aware of an increasing pressure on his shoulder. Sleepily he awoke and saw eyes staring into his, a finger raised to warning lips. The visitor beckoned as he noiselessly stepped back towards the scuttle and climbed out; then his head appeared vaguely as he beckoned again. The master glanced at the opposite bunk where the diver lay sound asleep, then quietly drawing his blanket aside, he stepped on bare feet to the scuttle and climbed on deck. A Malay crew-boy stood before him, holding out his hand. The white man stared. A lovely pearl glowed within that brown palm. The glory of the thing held him speechless for seconds. "Where you get him?" he whispered slowly. "No, never mind, I know you won't tell!"

With gentle fingers he took the pearl, and saw at a glance that the Malay could not have stolen it from his own vessel: The gem was perfectly cleaned.

"Any other man longa crew know 'bout whispered.

"No."

"How much you want?"

"Two hundred pounds - gold money!"

"All right, I give. To-morrow morning-time then we sail for Broome - I sell pearl there to big buyer - I give you two hundred pounds gold money."

The Malay nodded assent. "You no tell no man," he whispered urgently. "Tell no countryman belong me, no Manilaman - no man!"

"I tell no man," whispered the master. "Only you-me know."

The Malay nodded then tiptoed away forrard.

It was the wonder pearl, the glory of the seas. And the diver at that very moment was crouching by the scuttle. He had not been asleep. He watched the white man sitting there on deck oblivious to everything but the beautiful thing in his hand. In the hurricane that was even then developing far to the north-east the diver was the only man saved in the wreck of this lugger. Otherwise this last chapter in the story of the wonder pearl would never have been written. Next morning the lugger sailed for Broome but on the way the master called at Port Hedland. It apparently occurred to him that a visiting buyer might well be there. At this small north-western port, home of a small local fleet, such was often the case. If so, he could sell the pearl with considerably less risk of any one being the wiser.

And the S.S. Koombana called too. Davis the pearl-buyer was aboard, on a business trip. Convinced that Mark Rubin's prophecy would prove correct, he had bought de Vahl sheep station, inland from Port Hedland. Swan the manager met him, and they concluded business.

"Swan, bring along your port," suggested Davis. "A little holiday will do you good, you've been working too hard. I'll pay your expenses. Come with me to Broome for a few weeks." The manager shook his head regretfully.

"I can't, Mr Davis, there is too much work."

"Nonsense! there are plenty of men on the station, and you have a capable overseer. Bring your port from the hotel."

"No, Mr Davis, I must get those rams to work." "Never mind the rams, get your port."

"You don't understand, Mr Davis. You are a pearl man, I am a sheep man. Those rams must be put to work within this coming fortnight."

"Oh, very well, but I believe you could do with a holiday. All work and no play . . . you know the old saying." Swan smiled.

"True, Mr Davis. But I'll accept your hospitality when the station is running smoothly."

Then a man wished to see Mr Davis privately. He was a pearler, had just come in from outside and had a magnificent pearl. He had fished it himself south down the coast. Davis bought the pearl in all good faith; everything apparently was all clear and above board. This was a recognized pearler selling a pearl he had fished from the seas himself. But of all the gems that had passed through Davis's hands this alone was priceless. He congratulated himself that he had arrived at Port Hedland just when the pearler sailed in.

The lugger put to sea straightway. - She only just managed to sail outside, for nasty weather was already blowing up. The Koombana was a doomed ship; a great tragedy. Yet Fate that links the lives of men deliberately prevented individuals from sailing in her. Swan had been sorely tempted to accept Davis's invitation. Sense of duty saved him. Before this, when the vessel had sailed from distant Fremantle a traveller had rushed on to the wharf just as she steamed out. He cried "I'm ruined! I'm ruined!" He should have sailed in her to take up an important appointment in the East. At more than one port up along the coast similar incidents had occurred. And now from the station country inland from Port Hedland Mick Meehan, the shearer, came riding into town.

"Why don't you sell your horses and go up the coast in the Koombana to Derby," a friend advised. "All blade shearers there. You would knock up a big cheque."

"That's a bright idea. If I can sell my horses I will." "Knock off a tenner and I'll take them," offered a prospective buyer.

"Not on your life! I'll ride the Madman's Track first." And he did. Faced the waterless track back of the Eighty Mile Beach, and was saved from a watery grave.

Tullerman the contractor came in from the bush looking for Roberts, and was told he had better hurry to the wharf for Roberts was sailing aboard the Koombana for Derby. Tullerman found him aboard as the Koombana was making ready to cast off, "Been looking for you all over the place," said Tullerman.

"I want you to put up a cattle-yard for Jack Stanley." "Blow the cattle-yard! I'm going to Derby."

"You're not!" declared Tullerman. And he seized Roberts's swag and threw it down on the wharf. Then took the man's arm and still arguing urged him to the gangway. They had to jump to reach the wharf. The Koombana (on 20 March 1912) steamed out into the teeth of a willywilly. She was never seen again, nor any soul on board.

But the life of Broome flowed on despite such incidents as stolen pearls and racial fights of coloured crews on land or sea; despite success or tragedy among the lonely vessels prospecting along the wild coast north. Despite disaster in the occasional mining ventures of her citizens too. Life went on just the same. And fortune favoured one man, frowned on another - just as usual.

On one bright day of that same year Syd Pryor was whistling like a schoolboy around his foreshore camp. He was going to Brisbane, a little trip half-way around the continent, to visit his parents. He hadn't been home for years.

"Why not cut out the blisters from these dud shells, Syd," remarked Jimmy Taylor his partner, "they make acceptable ornaments, hatpins and 'pretties' like that. You're sure to meet a girl or two in Brisbane. A blister made into a brooch is an acceptable present, you know:'

Pryor looked at the shells lying around the camp. had quite large blisters-of no value of course.

"It would take several days to chip those blisters the shells," he said doubtfully.

"Get to work then. Your female relations and friends will expect you to arrive home loaded with pearls. If you arrive with a pocketful of blisters you won't disappoint them so much."

Syd laughed.

"I'll do it. You never know your luck. I might meet something fascinating in Brisbane."

"Nothing fascinates like a pearl," said Jimmy. "And if you haven't got a pearl give her a blister."

Pryor spent several days chipping the blisters from the shells. Result: a tinful, some of which when cut and polished and set in silver and gold would make fine presents. His back ached: it was tiresome work. He gazed speculatively at a large shell that had been used as a door-jamb these last two years. A big, hard blister had grown right into that shell; it would need patient chipping to prize it out.

"You look tough," murmured Pryor, "but I may as well. You're the last."

He reached for the shell as Donald Macdonald strolled along for a yarn. Donald sat down and glanced at the blisters.

"How about giving me one., Syd," he suggested, "the one on that big shell for preference. Taylor tells me you're chipping them off to give them away."

Pryor started work on the shell.

"I won't give it away. I'll sell it to you for a pound." "Give you five shillings."

"Why man, the shell is worth two shillings and the blister may be worth ten or fifteen! Still, you may have it for ten shillings as you fancy it."

"No, five bob is my price."

"Nothing doing," said Pryor, and proceeded to cut out the blister from the shell. After careful labour he completed the job, then took a chisel and flaked away the shell still adhering to the back of the blister. And stared curiously.

For this shell showed the usual bore-hole from some shellfish, but the bore-hole, instead of penetrating the blister, apparently had gone to one side of it. With a tingling of

excitement Pryor flaked away at the blister. Macdonald leaned closer. A wonderful smile spread over Pryor's face -the bore-hole travelled right away from the blister!

"Surely not!" murmured Macdonald. But it did. Soon, all trace of the bore-hole was flaked away. The blister was solid. And in the heart of it was a fine round pearl twenty-five grains in weight.

"Oh, what a holiday!" yelled Pryor as he leapt up. "What a pearl some girl has missed!" laughed Taylor: "And I could have had it for ten bob!" exclaimed Macdonald ruefully.

Next day they sold the pearl for five hundred pounds.

With the help of southern meteorological stations the towns and fleets were learning to foretell a corning willywilly during the hurricane season and take precautions accordingly. Improved methods of working, too, were being introduced. An air-compressor was appearing on a lugger here and there. McLaughlin had been the first man to introduce an air-compressor but he had gone down in the 1908 blow. Very soon, engines would increasingly replace the hand-pump; and engines would, before long, appear in the luggers as auxiliary to sail. This would mean the beginning of the end of the mother ships (the schooners) for, with power the luggers would be independent.

The technique of diving was being steadily bettered. Soon it would be universally carried out at the "drift," the diver being suspended just over the bottom as the vessel slowly moved over the surface. Many a diver to-day is voyaging down below over the ocean floor. When he comes to a reef on which grow sponges and sea-plants he signals; the tender brings the vessel into the wind and the diver settles on the bottom to walk about and seek his shell. So much time is saved; more shell is won.

If the diver decides he is examining a valueless patch of bottom, he simply inflates his dress, rises a little, makes a loop in his life-line, sits in it, then signals the tender who sails slowly on with the diver suspended as before. Thus far greater areas of the sea bottom are "covered" than in the old style of fishing with the vessel at anchor.

And the Japanese were bringing about another great change. These men had almost displaced the Manilamen and Koepanger divers; were displacing the Malays even. In the near future nearly all divers and tenders would be Japanese. Fatalistically brave; quietly efficient; experts at learning; keen not to lose a moment; determined to make every shilling possible to take back to Japan after their term had expired; they have built up the most efficient diving service the industry has yet known.

And they are responsible for a more dangerous problem. They have come to almost man the fleets of all the pearling centres from Broome to Thursday Island - three thousand miles of coastal waters. Broome, when the events here recorded happened, was midway through forty years of prosperity. Only a very small place, it probably was (per head) one of the richest townships in Australia. Pearl-shell, with occasional lapses, kept at a profitably high price, arid there was a keen demand for Australian pearls from the world's markets.

The shell won was and always has been the basis of the industry; the pearls were the occasional plums. The Golden Lip (our mother-of-pearl shell) is the best in the world. The Black Lip comes second, Most of the pearl-shell won in other seas is Yellow Lip, with species of lesser value. A cyclone every five or six years may wreck portion of the fleets and damage the scattered coastal townships, but both will build up again stronger than ever.

"It's the luck of the game!" said Syd Pryor with a laugh. He had returned from his wonderful holiday, and in the Patience was fishing off Wallal on this beautiful twentieth day of March 1913. Taylor was back in Broome looking after the shore end of the enterprise. Pryor felt one of the happiest men in the world. "The luck of the game!" he laughed as he held aloft a shell to the sympathetic grins of the crew. Stuck to the shell was a big blister pearl which proved a hundred and twenty grains in weight.

Schaumer, of Bauer and Schaumer, bought the blister on the shell just as it was for fifteen hundred pounds, probably the highest price ever paid for a blister pearl in Broome.

Just the luck of the game. The ups and downs are often strange as they are true. J. T. C. Mackenzie, when managing director of James Clarke's fleet, forwarded a parcel of pearls to the Pearl King who was then directing his farflung activities from headquarters in Brisbane. Clarke, and George Southern his secretary, hurriedly checked the pearls and placing them in the safe turned their attention to more pressing business on hand. A few days later they were staggered to find that a fine round pearl, thirty-five grains' weight of perfect lustre, was missing from Mackenzie's parcel. The office was thoroughly searched; the carpet was pulled up. Not a trace of the pearl was found. Southern was very worried but Clarke took the loss philosophically.

Three weeks later Mrs Southern was pressing her husband's trousers. The iron came in contact with something hard in the turned-up trouser cuff. She turned down the cuff, and a lovely pearl winked out at her. Southern had been walking about Brisbane for three weeks with a pearl worth over twelve hundred pounds in his trouser cuff!

Elles, the Cingalee pearl-cleaner, was prospering, with a shop and office of his own; the craft of his finger-tips was bringing to light the liquid glow on many a "tear of the sea." Davis's lovely bungalow came into the possession of a pearler and one night he awoke to an unearthly visitant. Nothing would convince the man that a well-known figure had not stood by his bed. Word flew round town that the pearl-buyer had visited his earthly home and that pearls were buried in the garden-a belief that has persisted throughout the years and been the cause of much surreptitious treasure-hunting in the garden. Even some cement garden ornaments were broken up in the hope that the alleged pearls might be inside.

It is hard to understand why a visitor from the other world should be interested in the pearls of this one. To the pearler who owned the bungalow real pearls would have been a godsend for his fleet had gone down in the great willy-willy. He never recovered from the blow. The bungalow was eventually acquired by the Anglican Church and was henceforth known as the "Bishop's Palace," which it is to-day. The Right Reverend Dr Gerard Trower, Bishop of the North-West, took up residence there.