“‘Twenty,’ says I, for my bid. ‘Twenty-five,’ says the little girl. ‘Thirty,’ says I. ‘Forty,’ says she. ‘Fifty,’ says I. ‘Fifty-five,’ says she. And there I was stuck. ‘Hold on,’ says I; ’wait till I see my owners.’ ‘No, you don’t,’ says she. ‘It’s customary,’ says I. ’Not anywhere in the world,’ says she. ‘Then it’s courtesy in the Solomons,’ says I.
“And d’ye know, on my faith I think Burnett’d have done it, only she pipes up, sweet and pert as you please: ’Mr. Auctioneer, will you kindly proceed with the sale in the customary manner? I’ve other business to attend to, and I can’t afford to wait all night on men who don’t know their own minds.’ And then she smiles at Burnett, as well—you know, one of those fetching smiles, and damme if Burnett doesn’t begin singing out: ‘Goin’, goin’, goin’—last bid—goin’, goin’ for fifty-five sovereigns—goin’, goin’, gone—to you, Miss—er—what name, please?’
“‘Joan Lackland,’ says she, with a smile to me; and that’s how she bought the Martha.”
Sheldon experienced a sudden thrill. The Martha!—a finer schooner than the Malakula, and, for that matter, the finest in the Solomons. She was just the thing for recruits, and she was right on the spot. Then he realized that for such a craft to sell at auction for fifty-five pounds meant that there was small chance for saving her.
“But how did it happen?” he asked. “Weren’t they rather quick in selling the Martha?”
“Had to. You know the reef at Poonga-Poonga. She’s not worth tuppence on it if any kind of a sea kicks up, and it’s ripe for a nor’wester any moment now. The crowd abandoned her completely. Didn’t even dream of auctioning her. Morgan and Raff persuaded them to put her up. They’re a co-operative crowd, you know, an organized business corporation, fore and aft, all hands and the cook. They held a meeting and voted to sell.”
“But why didn’t they stand by and try to save her?”
“Stand by! You know Malaita. And you know Poonga-Poonga. That’s where they cut off the Scottish Chiefs and killed all hands. There was nothing to do but take to the boats. The Martha missed stays going in, and inside five minutes she was on the reef and in possession. The niggers swarmed over her, and they just threw the crew into the boats. I talked with some of the men. They swear there were two hundred war canoes around her inside half an hour, and five thousand bushmen on the beach. Said you couldn’t see Malaita for the smoke of the signal fires. Anyway, they cleared out for Tulagi.”
“But why didn’t they fight?” Sheldon asked.
“It was funny they didn’t, but they got separated. You see, two-thirds of them were in the boats, without weapons, running anchors and never dreaming the natives would attack. They found out their mistake too late. The natives had charge. That’s the trouble of new chums on the coast. It would never have happened with you or me or any old-timer.”