Luck by Louis Becke
Two months had passed, and the sturdy Dolphin was lying snugly at anchor in a small, well-sheltered cove on one of the Kent's Group of islands. Less than a hundred yards away was one of the rudest attempts at a house ever seen--that is, externally--for it was built with wreckage from many ships and was roofed with tarpaulins and coarse "albatross" grass. Seated on a stool outside the building was Mrs. Lester, engaged in feeding a number of noisy fowls with broken-up biscuit, but looking every now and then towards the Braybrook Cattle, which lay on the rocks a mile away with only her lower masts standing. It was nearing the time when her husband and his men would be returning from their usual day's arduous toil. She rose, shook the biscuit crumbs from her apron, and walking down to the Dolphin, anchored just in front of the house, called--"Manuel."
A black, woolly head appeared above the companion way, and Manuel, the cook of the wrecking party, came on deck, jumped into the dinghy alongside and sculled ashore.
"Manuel, you know that all the men are having supper in the house to-night," she said, as the man--a good-natured Galveston negro--stepped on shore.
"Well, I've done all my share of the cooking--I've made two batches of bread, and the biggest sea pie you ever saw in your life, but I want two buckets of water from the spring."
"All right, ma'am. I'll tote 'em up fo' yo' right away.".
"Please do. And I'll come with you. Captain Lester and the others won't be here for half an hour yet, and I want to show you some curious-looking stuff I saw on the beach this morning. It looks like dirty soap mixed with black shells, like fowl's beaks."
The negro's face displayed a sudden interest. "Mixed with shells, yo' say, ma'am. Did yo' touch it?"
"No--it looks too unpleasant."
The negro picked up the buckets, and, followed by Mrs. Lester, set out along a path which led to a rocky pool of some dimensions filled with rain water.. "Leave the buckets till we come back, Manuel We have not far to go."
She led the way to the beach, and then turning to the left walked along the hard, white sand till they came to a bar of low rocks covered with sea-moss and lichen. Lying against the seaward face of the rock was a pile of driftweed, kelp, crayfish shells, &c, and half buried in débris was the object that had aroused her curiosity.
"There it is, Manuel," she said, pointing to an irregularly-shaped mass of a mottled grey, yellow and brown substance, looking like soap, mixed with cinders and ashes.
The negro whipped out his sheath knife, plunged it into the mass, then withdrew it, pressed the flat of the blade to his nostrils, and then uttered a yell of delight, clapped his hands, took off his cap and tossed it in the air, and rolled his eyes in such an extraordinary manner, that Mrs. Lester thought he had become suddenly insane.
"Yo' am rich woman now, ma'am," he said in his thick, fruity voice. "Dat am ambergris. I know it well 'nuff. I was cook on a whaleship fo' five years, and have handled little bits of ambergris two or three times, but no one in de world, I believe, ever see such a lump like dis."
"Is it worth anything then?"
"Worth anything, ma'am! It am worth twenty-two shillings de ounce!"
He knelt down and began clearing away the weed till the whole mass was exposed, placed his arms around it, and partly lifted it.
"Dere is more'n a hundredweight," he chuckled, as he looked up at Mrs. Lester, who was now also feeling excited. "Look at dis now."
He cut out a slice of the curious-looking oleaginous stuff, struck a match and applied the light. A pale yellow flame was the result, and with it there came a strong but pleasant smell.
Mrs. Lester had never heard of ambergris to her recollection, but Manuel now enlightened her as to its uses--the principal being as a developer of the strength of all other perfumes.
Such a treasure could not be left where it was--exposed to the risk of being carried away by the tide so the negro at once went to work with his knife, catting it into three pieces, each of which he carried to the house, and put into an empty barrel. Then he returned and carefully searched for and picked up the minutest scraps which had broken off whilst he was cutting the "find" through.
Just at sunset, Lester and his gang of burly helpers returned tired and hungry, but highly elated, for they had succeeded in getting out an unusual amount of valuable cargo.
"We've had great luck to-day, Lucy," cried Lester, as he strode over the coarse grass in his high sea boots; "and, all going well, we shall make the first attempt to pull the ship off the day after to-morrow."
"And I have had luck too," said his wife, her fair, sweet face, now bronzed by the sun, glowing as she spoke. "But come inside first, and then I'll tell you."
The interior of the dwelling consisted of two rooms only--a small bedroom and a large living room which was also used as a kitchen. It was quite comfortably furnished with handsome chairs, lounges, chests of drawers, and other articles taken from the cabin of the stranded ship. The centre of the room was occupied by a large deal table made by one of the men, and a huge fire of drift timber blazed merrily at one end. Manuel was laying the table, his black face beaming with sup-pressed excitement, and the rough, sea-booted wreckers entered one by one and sat down. Mrs. Lester bade them smoke if they wished.
"Well, boys," said their leader to the wrecking party--of whom there were thirty--"we all deserve a drink before supper. Help yourselves to whatever you like," and he pointed to a small side-table covered with bottles of spirits and glasses. Then Lucy, after they had all satisfied themselves, walked over to the cask containing her "find," and standing beside it, asked if they would all come and look at the contents and see if they knew what it was. Lester, thinking she had succeeded in catching a young seal, looked on with an amused smile.
One by one the men came and looked inside the cask, felt the greasy mass with their horny fingers, and each shook his head until the tenth man, who, the moment he saw it, gave a shout.
"Why, I'm blest if it ain't ambow-grease!"
Lester started. "Ambergris! Nonsense!" and then he too uttered a cry of astonishment as a second man--an old whaler--darted in front of him, and, pinching off a piece of the "find," smelt it.
"Hamble-grist it is, sir," he cried, "and the cask is chock-full of it."
"Turn it out on the floor," said Lester, who knew the enormous value of ambergris, "and let us get a good look at it. Light all the lamps, Lucy."
The lamps were lit, and then Manuel repeated his experiment by burning a piece, amid breathless excitement. No further doubt could exist, and then Manuel, taking a spring balance (weighing up to 50 lbs.) from the wall, hung it to a rafter, whilst the men put the lot into three separate bags and suspended them to the hook in turn.
"Forty-five pounds," cried the mate of the Dolphin, as the first bag was hooked on. "Come on with the next one."
"And thirty-four pounds makes a hundred and eighteen," said Lester, bending down and eagerly examining the dial.
"How much is it worth, skipper?" asked the tug's engineer.
"Not less than £1 an ounce----"
"No, sah," cried Manuel, with an ex cathedra air, "twenty-two shillings, sah. Dat's what the captain of de Fanny Long Hobart Town whaleship got fo' a piece eleven poun' weight in Sydney last June. And I hear de boys sayin' dat he would hab got £1 5s. only dat dere was a power of squids' beaks in it--and dere's not many in dis lot, so it's gwine to bring more."
He explained that the pieces of black shell, which looked like broken mussel shells, were in reality the beaks of the squid, upon which the sperm whale feeds. Then, for the benefit of those of the party, he and the two other ex-whalemen described the cause of the formation of this peculiar substance in the body of the sperm whale.
Lester took pencil and paper and made a rapid calculation.
"Boys, we'll say that this greasy-looking staff is worth only a pound an ounce--though I don't doubt that Manuel is right. Well, at £1 an ounce, it comes to eighteen hundred and eighty-eight pounds."
"Hurrah for Mrs. Lester!" cried Lindley, the mate.
"She has brought us luck from the first, and now she has luck herself."
The men cheered her again and again, for there was not one of them that had not a rough affection for their captain's violet-eyed wife. They had admired her for her pluck even in making the voyage to this desolate spot, and her constant cheerfulness and her kindness and attention in nursing three of them who had been seriously ill cemented their feelings of devotion to her. There was a happy supper party in "Wreck House"---as Lucy had named her strangely-built abode--that night, and it was not until the small hours of the morning that the men went off to sleep on the tug, and left Lucy and her husband to themselves.
"I'm too excited to sleep now, Tom," she said. "Come, I must show you the place where I found it. It is not a bit cold. And oh! Tom, I'm beginning to love this lonely island, and the rough life, and the tame seals, and the wild goats, and the fowls, and black Manuel, and, and--oh, everything! And look, Tom dear, over there at the lighthouse at Deal Island. I really believe the light was never shining as it is to-night. Oh! all the world is bright to me."