Sheldon shook his head.
“I’m as good as a man,” she urged.
“You really are needed here,” he replied.
“There’s that Lunga crowd; they might reach the coast right here, and with both of us absent rush the plantation. Good-bye. We’ll get back in the morning some time. It’s only twelve miles.”
When Joan started to return to the house, she was compelled to pass among the boat-carriers, who lingered on the beach to chatter in queer, ape-like fashion about the events of the night. They made way for her, but there came to her, as she was in the midst of them, a feeling of her own helplessness. There were so many of them. What was to prevent them from dragging her down if they so willed? Then she remembered that one cry of hers would fetch Noa Noah and her remaining sailors, each one of whom was worth a dozen blacks in a struggle. As she opened the gate, one of the boys stepped up to her. In the darkness she could not make him out.
“What name?” she asked sharply. “What name belong you?”
“Me Aroa,” he said.
She remembered him as one of the two sick boys she had nursed at the hospital. The other one had died.
“Me take ’m plenty fella medicine too much,” Aroa was saying.
“Well, and you all right now,” she answered.
“Me want ’m tobacco, plenty fella tobacco; me want ’m calico; me want ’m porpoise teeth; me want ’m one fella belt.”
She looked at him humorously, expecting to see a smile, or at least a grin, on his face. Instead, his face was expressionless. Save for a narrow breech-clout, a pair of ear-plugs, and about his kinky hair a chaplet of white cowrie-shells, he was naked. His body was fresh-oiled and shiny, and his eyes glistened in the starlight like some wild animal’s. The rest of the boys had crowded up at his back in a solid wall. Some one of them giggled, but the remainder regarded her in morose and intense silence.
“Well?” she said. “What for you want plenty fella things?”
“Me take ’m medicine,” quoth Aroa. “You pay me.”
And this was a sample of their gratitude, she thought. It looked as if Sheldon had been right after all. Aroa waited stolidly. A leaping fish splashed far out on the water. A tiny wavelet murmured sleepily on the beach. The shadow of a flying-fox drifted by in velvet silence overhead. A light air fanned coolly on her cheek; it was the land-breeze beginning to blow.
“You go along quarters,” she said, starting to turn on her heel to enter the gate.
“You pay me,” said the boy.
“Aroa, you all the same one big fool. I no pay you. Now you go.”
But the black was unmoved. She felt that he was regarding her almost insolently as he repeated:
“I take ’m medicine. You pay me. You pay me now.”
Then it was that she lost her temper and cuffed his ears so soundly as to drive him back among his fellows. But they did not break up. Another boy stepped forward.