What is a pearl? The substance of a sensation — the consolidation of discomfort on the part of an oyster or other nacre-secreting mollusc. It is a globular deposit of carbonate of lime, with a very small proportion of water, generally enclosing a trifle which is its cause and core and, so to speak, is a waste product of the body’s chemistry. In the restricted, scientific sense, “true pearls are bodies consisting of calcareous material with an organic basis.” Similar bodies having cores of sand grains or other foreign substance are known as “blisters.”
Science, which peers and probes into the innermost affairs of oysters, and speaks of them in terms of uneasy familiarity, asserts that pearls are frequently caused by a parasite to which they are subject.
It would ill become one who has no scientific pretensions to suggest other definitions, though he may claim to be among the few who have been privileged to observe a pearl in the making, or, rather, to watch Nature’s finishing touches.
In the case of the oyster the radical home cure for the living irritant or insoluble substance which had gained entrance between its valves is an encasement of pearl-film. If this encasement is globular or pear-shaped, or takes the form of a button and is lucid, lustrous, flawless, and of large size, it may be of almost inestimable worth.
Does the proud beauty who glories in the possession of a pearl condescend to imagine that she flaunts on her bosom just so many tombs containing the dust of the germs of a parasite? Does she not rather love to think of the gems as emblems of almost celestial purity, and to dwell on the fable of the Persians rather than the audacious modern fact?
Addison has set the fable in imperishable gold: A drop of water fell out of a cloud into the sea, and finding herself lost in such immensity of fluid matter, broke out into the following reflection: “Alas! What an inconsiderable creature am I in this prodigious ocean of waters; my existence is of no concern to the universe; I am reduced to a kind of nothing, and am less than the least of the works of God.” It so happened that an oyster which lay in the neighbourhood chanced to gape and swallow it up in the midst of this its humble soliloquy. The drop, says the fable, lay a great while hardening in the shell, until by degrees it was ripened into a pearl, which, falling into the hands of a diver after a long series of adventures, is at present that famous pearl which is affixed on the top of the Persian diadem.
Though one may count his pearls by the score, the hoard may be valueless. Upon such examples entertaining, if not valuable, experiments may be made without affectation or giving hostages to fortune. In all the little deformed specimens thus dissected the core has been found to consist of a foreign substance, generally what seemed under a microscope of limited power a speck of dirt. The heart of one was a blob of mud, which gave off a most baleful vapour. This was the result of the house-cleaning of a common, edible rock oyster, and the pearl, dirty green and lustreless, merely a thin casket, for the noisome mud had not solidified. The care with which the impurity had been rendered innocuous demonstrated the correct ideas of the oyster on sanitation. No doubt the germ of the special form of tape-worm which troubles oysters, irritates to pearl-making, and passes through other transformations in other hosts, and completes its cycle in the body of a shark, would be too minute for inexpert detection. The fact that molluscs do intern foreign and obnoxious substances is testimony to their decency and love of cleanliness, and so may the pearl be still accepted as the embodiment of purity. Though all its little soul be dirt, the pearl is pure, and but for the dirt or the germ of a filthy ailment it would not be pearl.
So many molluscs produce pearls that it would be absurd for the great oyster family to set up exclusive rights. They do not, for your oyster is ever humble even when tenanted with a rivalless pearl. On the coast of North Queensland, within the Great Barrier Reef, pinnas of at least two species are among the producing agents, which, covering a wide range, seem to meet in two distinct genera, far apart in appearance and habit. There is the frail, flat, translucent “window-shell” (Placuna), the valves of which fit so closely that the poor little inhabitant is squeezed to a wafer, a film, a fragment of muscle. Yet in some localities nearly every individual has a pearl, pretty in tint, but too minute to be of value. An allied species is common on the coast of China, where the pearls are collected for export to India, to be reduced to lime by calcination for the use of luxurious betel-nut chewers. These almost microscopic pearls are also burnt in the mouths of the dead who have been influential and wealthy.
Coal-black pearls occur in one of the pinnas, the interior of which is sooty, shot with iridescent purple, and since the pearl, whether produced by oyster, mussel, pinna, or window-shell, is generally more brilliant than the containing shell, that of the black pinna, with the high lights of its environment concentrated, may be a gem of surpassing novelty and beauty. But the habitual product of this pinna is small, dull, mud-tinted or brown, and of no value whatever. Another of the genera grows “seed” of excellent lustre, corresponding with the azure brightness of the shell.
The chief source of orient pearls on the coast of North Queensland is the gold-lip mother-of-pearl PINCTADA MAXIMA, while the black lip PINCTADA MARGARITIFERA occasionally yields fine and flawless specimens of a silvery lustre. One which is still lovingly remembered was of pale blue and wonderfully lighted. The commonest of the giant clams TRIDACNA GIGAS sometimes betrays evidence of past internal trouble by the presence of a concretion of porcelain whiteness and of porcellaneous texture, but such are not to be described as pearls and to be prized as rarities only.
That some huge molluscs produced pearls before man, with his faculty for admiration, came on the scene is proved by their existence as fossils in chalk. Hemispherical specimens have been found on the inner surface of a shell which has no living representative — viz., the Inoceramus (some of which attained a length of two feet)— and spherical ones of the same prismatical structure occur detached in the chalk. It were curious to let the imagination run over the fact that the hosts of these uncommended gems died ages before the advent of man. The best of modern prizes may be puny in comparison with those which caused distress to the giant molluscs of the age when the Ichthyosaurus, Plesiosaurus, and Pterodactylus were the aristocrats of the animal world. Such gems have gone for ever, and even during this age of insatiable and adventurous search man does not secure a tithe of the ocean’s tribute, for, since a pearl is a source of discomfort to its host, the unceasing effort of the animal is towards expulsion. The greatest and possibly the most magnificent are cast out as rubbish on the ocean floor, or are retained within the valves when the animal dies of old age.
So-called pearls have been found in elephants’ tusks and semi-adherent to the bones of fish, and concretions — hard, smooth, and round, and of the flat hue of skimmed milk — in coconuts and in the cavities of bamboos; but in the production of the real gem neither oyster nor mussel nor pinna need fear the rivalry of anything on the earth’s surface. The pearl belongs to the sea.
Completely spherical pearls can be formed only loose in the mantle or soft parts of the body of the animal; but intrusions incite a deposit of nacre in the form of a projection on the interior, which projection, often a mere bubble, but sometimes semi-detached, may take the shape and dimensions of the foreign substance. Or an inoffensive mollusc may be goaded by the piercing of its shell from the exterior to create that for which men venture into the depths of the sea. If a pearl-secreting oyster be inherently robust, its defence against assault from without may consist of the strengthening of the interior at the point of attack by deposits of nacre. Thus, a slight protuberance arises which becomes the base of a blister or button or the starting-point of a pear-shaped gem. Many a lovely gem is, therefore, nothing more than the imperishable record of aggression on the part of a flabby sponge on a resourceful oyster. Occasionally valuable pearls are found within huge blisters. Such pearls originate, no doubt, in the ordinary way, but, becoming an intolerable nuisance on account of increasing size, are confined in nacre.
One of the accompanying illustrations shows the fate which befell an infant chiton upon intrusion on a small black-lip oyster, and coincidentally the origin of a blister. The chiton family being notorious for stolidity, the infant could not have realised the risks of its trespass until the strait-jacket made its retirement impossible. The nacre has reproduced the details of the chiton’s exterior with the fidelity of a casting, and further reveals the fact that it was alive when entombed, for its struggles to escape are solidified.
This deliberate act of the oyster may not stand comparison with the stone of Pyrrhus’s ring, which had the figure of Apollo and the nine Muses in the veins of it produced by the spontaneous handiwork of Nature without any help from art. The marvellous stone belonged to the fabulous past; the imprisoned chiton to the prosaic present.
Another illustration is that of an accumulation of nacre which has assumed accidental resemblance to a miniature shark. It was found in a gold-lip pearl shell in Torres Straits. The like quantity in globular shape would represent a pearl of great value.
On a calm and luminous day I waded, disrobed, in shallow water as limpid as the fictitious stream which legend says King Solomon improvised at the foot of his throne when the Queen of Sheba attended his court. Lifting her robes — for she imagined the crossing of the water to be a ceremonial device — the gorgeous Queen displayed her shapely calves. The water resting on the verge of the lovely Isle was as delusively clear, but was not deceptive.
It revealed living coral, good to avoid by the barefooted; clams with patterned mantles of various tints — grey, slate-blue, sea-green, brown, and buff; anemones in many shapes, some like spikes of lavender, and irritant and repellent to the touch; some platter-shaped and cobalt-blue; some as living vases with the opalescent tints of Venetian glass, which, abhorring the hand of man, retreat into the sand until only an inconspicuous fringe of neutral tint is visible. Sea-slugs in almost endless form and variety of hue, and many other strange sea things, were among the inhabitants of the reef — a closely packed arena of never-ceasing slaughter.
In the middle of a clump of brown seaweed, which had fallen apart like the neatly dressed hair of a woman, was a black streak, signifying the gape of a wedge-shaped mollusc known as a pinna. The gape was about as long as the parting of a woman’s hair and about thrice as wide. As I crouched to note the functions of the animal, my shadow intervened and the caution of the creature was roused, the valves closing so that no sign of the presence of the shell was distinguishable among the slightly wavering, minute particles of alga. Changing my position, so that the pinna might not be deprived of its share of the rays of the sun, the valves soon furtively opened. A slight movement on my part and they closed again, without having revealed any hidden charms.
After a few minutes, a certain confidence being established between us, the pinna emerged from its retirement, in so far as such creatures are permitted by Nature. The mantle of this particular species is shown as a delicate fringe of lace in old gold and black. It ripples along the upper edges of the confining valves, which are intensely black with a pearly lustre. The pretty movements of the mantle — like the swinging of the skirts of a well-apparelled damsel — attracted admiration, and on peering into the shell a glimpse of something precious was obtained.
Tossed and twirled about just below the old gold fringe was a black pearl about the size of a pea. The prize was safe. Without risk of loss it could be watched in its unceasing revolutions. It seemed as if the animal, with automatic perseverance, attempted to eject the incubus, the weight of which kept it about an inch below the aperture of the valves. Such motion would naturally tend to perfection. Whatsoever its lustre, it would certainly be a sphere. Besides, it was a pearl in the making. As long as it remained within the pinna and it could not be voluntarily rejected, its size would inevitably increase. It was the rolling stone to which time and the secretions of the animal would add weight and, peradventure, beauty.
Was mortal ever before privileged to watch over the growth of a black pearl? The activities of the mantle, a blending of enticing colour and poetic motion, were slow, free, and light-attracting. The ancients believed that some pearls were constituted by flashes of lightning playing on bubbles within the oyster. A relative of the family here seemed to be wooing the tropic sun of its beams, if not to vitalise, at least to burnish its treasure.
Close scrutiny showed that the pearl was not absolutely free. It was enclosed in a transparent membrane, the merest film, which confined it to a particular position in the mantle, while it seemed to possess independent actions — vertical and revolutionary. Perhaps the rays of light which fell unequally on it through the water created the illusion of revolutions, but it is certain that the pearl seemed to be playing a game of hide-and-seek.
Was it possible for human nature to deny itself so easily gotten and pretty a prize? I confess, though the possibility of the pearl increasing in size and loveliness was obvious, that the fact that pinnas are subject to ills, chances, and mishaps, was also recognised. Left to be slowly tossed about, the pearl would become greater; but size, though an important feature, is not the only desirable quality. And while it grew might not another barefooted beach-comber discover it? Or might not one of the many unintelligent admirers of the pinna itself find entrance by drilling or by the violent crushing of the valves, and, ignoring the treasure, destroy the organs and the substance by and from which it was being delicately elaborated? Suppose, I argued, I remove the gaping shell, I shall no longer be able to enjoy the rare, the unique pleasure of presiding over the gradual perfection of a pearl, an aesthetic advantage to which I alone had been made free. Could present possession of a little sphere of carbonate of lime, polished and sooty black, compensate for the continuance of the chaste joy of watching one of the most covert and intimate processes of Nature? Balancing the immediate material gain against the inevitable moral loss, I was almost persuaded to self-denial, when, with a sudden impulse, begot of the consciousness of rightful acquisition, the pinna was forcibly yet carefully drawn out of the sand in which it was deeply embedded and in which it was anchored by toughened byssus. Directly the valves were prised apart the pearl fell into my hand. Never before had I seen one so loosely retained within its shell. Generally, in the case of the pinna, pearls are embedded in the muscles or soft parts, and are not primarily discernible, but have to be sought for by passing the “meat” through the fingers. On this occasion all previous experience had been set at naught, so that it might seem that the prize had been presented by the animal as its perfect and most opulent work.
The engaging theory of the ancients that pearls were made of glutinous dewdrops condensed by the sun’s heat does not take into account the fact that some of the rarest, though not the most valuable, have assumed contrary and fantastic shape. Fish, crabs, and marine insects have proved a common origin of pearly developments while they have been regarded by some as almost miraculous conceptions on the part of the afflicted mollusc.
Hamed of Jeddah, the stubby Arab who deals in fish and oysters, and who professes to have groped over in his youth a considerable extent of the Red Sea for coral and pearls, relates many experiences in which the popular gem takes pride of place. Oriental that he is, he loves exaggeration, and while lending a propitious car to the stories in which he enshrines his prime, when he could dive deep and long, and when the precious red coral was “thick” and every shell contained a pearl, it is discreet to disregard obvious breaks and bulges along the prim path of truth. The very crudeness of his embellishments invests with kind of comic relief some of his fables, which end invariably with insipid uniformity. All the pearls which have slipped through Hamed’s rough hands have been valued at five hundred pounds, never more or less. It is not for me to rub the gilt off the innocent inventions of the emotional Arab, but merely to relate one of his time-beguiling tales, and one which, probably, is of clean-cut truth.
A huge gold-lip, found four fathoms deep, where the sea grass sways indolently long, contained a tinted pearl like:
“That fella sitting down along a tree and sing out along night time.”
“Flying fox?” I guessed grimly.
“No!” snapped Hamed indignantly. “‘Nother fella.”
“That bird which says ‘chump, chump, chump?’” I meekly asked.
Again Hamed sneered ironically. “No bird. No bird carn get along oyster. Little fella-green like leaf. Sing out ‘Ko-rog, ko-rog, ko-rog!’”
“Yes. Like frog. Me call him ‘ghouk’ along my country. That fella inside gold-lip. One inch long. Leg, hand, mouth, eyes all asame. I bin get five hundred pounds for that fella.”
Azure pearls in the similitude of tiny fish can be vouched for by people far more careful of their facts than Hamed — fish which have intruded themselves on the oysters and have been encased in nacre. Probably the rarity which fell into Hamed’s hands was the pearly presentment of a crustacean, for marine frogs are infinitely rarer than pearls. Several molluscs admit tenants, one particular species a rotund crab; but in the case in point the wrong mansion was entered and, so to speak, the obtruder was transformed.
A common and neat industry in China is the production of fraudulent pearls, pretty and in accordance with submitted design, in which the co-operation of the obedient but frail mussel is necessary. If a round pearl is desired, a naked shot is introduced between the valves so much to the discomfort of the animal that it proceeds to cover it decently with layer after layer of pearl-film, the bulk of which depends upon the length of life granted to the mussel. Sometimes little josses are stamped out in thin uncorrosive metal, which, being presented to the mussel, are faithfully modelled, the thrifty Chinese obtaining in course of time quaint pearly gods — as potent as the best — without money and without price.
Not so long as a quarter of a century ago a spirit-bottle full of pearls — buttons, blisters, and chips of all sorts, sizes, and shapes — was purchased in North Queensland by one who had but the crudest ideas as to the value of such gems. The vendor was a whity-brown man, thin, and thinly clad in cotton. The complexion of the buyer was ruddier than the cherry, for the tropic sun had beamed ardently on his peachy Scotch skin, proclaiming him a new-chum, a bright and shining new-chum. Because he was new he was alert to the value of money. Had he not come, as all new-chums do, to Tom Tiddler’s ground to pick up gold and silver? Hence, when the hatless, spare, whity-brown man in soiled cotton offered for sale the odd-shaped beads in a besmeared whisky-bottle for five pounds, his national trait expressed itself in a scoff.
The whity-brown man’s seriousness, his confidentiality, his keen desire to sell, his mysticism and misty English, the ruddy young man interpreted as manifestations of the arts and wiles by means of which innocent strangers from far away lands are tempted into bankruptcy bargains. The seller, anxious to dispossess himself of ill-gotten gains prejudicial to his love of liberty, pursued the Scotch youth almost tearfully, until the bottle changed hands, but at a considerable reduction on the price originally demanded. Shortly after a friend enlightened the youth as to the probable value of the collection, and gave him some cheap advice, especially on the desirableness of secrecy. The youth accepted the advice so literally that the story ends. No one ever knew how, when, where, and for what consideration, he disposed of his embarrassments. Fresh from the land of his birth, and with the text of Burns’s poetic letter in his mind, he kept that something to himself.
The days of such sensational deals are past. The primal crop has long since been harvested. Science is now bidden to stimulate the docile oyster, for the rage for pearls is as the rage of the heathen. Is it not the wish of every woman, old and young, to possess pearls? And while subject man, flushed with hope, ventures to the “utmost port, washed by the furthest sea,” for such merchandise at the caprice of woman, Science plods sedately after man, beguiling him with the hope of some less risky and laborious means of acquiring the gems, while at the same time she soothes the irrepressible passion of every damsel with strings of artistic counterfeits manufactured from the scales of silvery fish, and as pleasant to glance at as many an orient.
The Spaniards say that a paper cigarette, a glass of water, and the kiss of a pretty girl, will sustain a man for a day without eating. But what is a man to do who has no tobacco, only stale water, who is separated from the nearest girl by seventy miles of perilous seas forlorn, and whose appetite sickens at the sight of the coarse fare of a béche-de-mer boat? There is but one resource for such a martyr. He must do “a perisher.” That is precisely what the master of a lonely boat in an odd angle of the Coral Sea was doing when a joyful sail appeared — a dove-like messenger from civilisation and shops. It was a pitiable famine. No one had had a smoke for a week. The black boys had broken up their nicotine-saturated clay pipes and masticated them to pulp, and still treasured the quids, while the “Boss” pondered cigars during the day and dreamt them at night. But relief was at hand. The master of the strange craft, though well stocked, was not disposed to be generous, until tempted by the sight of a lovely yellow pearl, about the size of a small marble and of satiny lustre — sweet to look upon, sweeter still to possess. Aware of the other man’s agonising needs, he drove a hard bargain, and the gem became his at the cost of a box of tobacco. He hugged himself for joy, and after a decent lapse, during which he acted the part of the virtuous who had relieved another’s necessities out of sheer goodwill (for the pearl was only a curio, was it not?), he set sail for the nearest port.
Certain that fortune had at last beamed upon him, he laid up his lugger, wound up his affairs, and hurried off to Sydney, secretly, to dispose of his prize first-hand. An expert weighed the treasure, scrutinised it shrewdly through a microscope, and handed it back with a casual remark that it was a pretty curio, but that its market value was about half a crown. “It has been exposed to great heat, and may crumble to pieces at a change of temperature. Get me one like that uncooked and I’ll give you twelve hundred pounds.”
Some time after, the grasping man discovered that the pearl had been found in the “meat” of a “helmet” shell which had been roasted by a hungry and tobaccoless boy.
Without appearing to suggest anything beyond a trifling blemish in this story, replete as it is with edifying illustrations of the frailties of human nature, it would be well to remember that the helmet shell (CASSIS FLAMMEA) is not nacreous and could not therefore produce a true pearl, but merely g porcellaneous concretion, which, however, might possess a most attractive tint, possibly pale salmon or orange. Such a gem might be valuable.
Great pearls are not generally found on shallow reefs. He who would search for them systematically must dive, and if he does not possess the proper costume and accessories his trips below are but brief, and not always profitable. When a diver boasts that he can remain under water two or three minutes — and the boast is very common — he has gauged his endurance by his sensations, not by the clock. Once an expert was timed, a coloured gentleman who had great repute among his companions, all capable divers. He made a special and supreme effort, and though the watch recorded barely seventy seconds, he was much distressed. Recovery was, however, speedy; of ten subsequent minutes he spent more than half out of sight. It is not argued that human beings cannot remain voluntarily under water more than seventy seconds, but the feat is so rare that those who accomplish it are not usually pearl-divers.
The natives of some parts of Borneo declare that the valves of the oysters containing the largest pearls are always open, and that by peering into the water the pearls may be seen. They tell a story of a gigantic pearl which was thus discovered by the men of old and actually brought while within the oyster into a canoe, but had slipped from the fingers of a careless holder into deep water.
Spencer St. John, author of “Life in the Forests of the Far East,” had among his friends a chief who ventured most of his possessions in a pearling cruise. Disaster attended the enterprise, but without subduing his faith in luck; mortgaging everything, even to his wife and child, he went out to woo fortune again. His slave-boy was preparing to dive one day when he started back, touched his master’s hand, and with signs of great emotion pointed into the water. The chief looked, and there, seven fathoms below, lay an oyster with an enormous pearl distinctly visible. Without a moment’s reflection he plunged in, and, diving with skill and speed, reached the shell before it closed, his fingers being caught between the valves. He quickly rose to the surface, and was helped into the boat by his anxious follower. Upon the oyster being forced open, a pearl, unsurpassed in size and of extraordinary beauty, was revealed. Returning to his native village, the chief sold all his smaller pearls, and having redeemed his wife and child, set sail for Manila, where lived an English friend who advanced him money, to whom he said: “Take this pearl, clear off my debt, give me what you like in return. I shall be satisfied.” The author adds: “The merchant took the pearl, gave him what he considered its value — at all events enough to make Sulu ring with his generosity — and sent the pearl to China; but what became of it afterwards I could never distinctly trace; but I learned that a pearl in Bengal called ‘The Mermaid’ originally came from China, and as the one found in Sulu was said to be shaped like a woman’s bust, it is probably the same.”
Possibly the golden age of the pearl is passing as the golden age of the reptile has passed, for can it not be imagined that, in those far-back days when oysters attained a length of two feet and better deserved the title of Tridacna (three bites) than the present clams, pearls of corresponding magnificence of size were produced? Or are robust pearlless oysters to be accepted as the type of the strong era, and small oysters and pearls merely as signs of degeneracy? The largest of modern pearls measured two inches long by a circumference of four inches and weighed eighteen hundred grains. The containing shell may have been big only in comparison with its contemporaries. A very small man has been known to be afflicted with a disproportioned goitre, and there are some who argue that the goitre may be but the prototype of the pearl.
Is fact or fable to claim the most glorious of pearl stories? Some verily believe that Cleopatra did quaff the costliest beverage the world has ever known. The incident is so faithful to the character of “that rare Egyptian” that all sober record shall not discount delight in its transcendent sumptuousness. Though the pearl may have been worth eighty thousand pounds of our money, though Cleopatra was gay, though her extravagance was impious, she was a glorious woman, and she had at least one glorious, if nauseating, drink. The pearl decoction was merely an episode in her policy, which was to fascinate Antony — Antony who had called her to account for having aided his enemies in their war against him. And what was an eighty thousand pound bauble in the high affairs of State? “She was at the age when a woman’s beauty is at its prime, and she was also of the best judgment. So she furnished herself with a world of gifts, stores of gold and silver, and of riches and other sumptuous ornaments as is credible she might bring from so great a house and from so wealthy and rich a realm as Egypt. But yet she carried nothing with her wherein she trusted more than herself, and in the charms and enchantment of her surpassing beauty and grace.”
And then the supper following the magnificent pageant! Anything less than an eighty thousand pound pearl would have been an anti-climax, a mean and clumsy culmination of a “gaudy night.” That soul-delighting gem which vanished in foam told of a superb Cleopatra’s “calm felicity and power.”
Some say that, the jewel — cast away so majestically was one of a pair which Cleopatra wore as ear-rings, and that when Antony restrained his hostess from a repetition of the draught, she presented the now matchless pearl to him. Another version implies that the ear-ring^ had been originally one monster pearl, which Cleopatra had caused to be sawn in two to gratify her lust for unique and lavish ornament.
It is said, too, that the pearl was dissolved in wine. By a simple practical test and at the sacrifice of a small quantity of baroque, proof was obtained that ordinary culinary vinegar is a solvent of pearls. The experiment also yielded these notable conclusions — that either the wine of Cleopatra’s age was much more corrosive than the vinegar of ours, or that the costly beverage was prepared beforehand, or that the stately banquet was long-drawn-out while the inestimable gem spluttered and simmered in the goblet. The dissolution of such a large pearl must have been slow, and the product far from nice, but it was one of the effects by which a sovereign woman conquered the “most courteous lord” of his day.
A curious superstition prevails in some parts of the East Indies, it being believed that if gold and pearls are placed by themselves in a packet they will certainly decrease in quantity or number, and in the end totally disappear; but, if a few grains of rice are added, the treasure is safe. Rice is thought not only to preserve the original number of pearls, but to actually cause increase.
Tarnished pearls are occasionally submitted to the process of “skinning”— the removal with fine steel files under a magnifying glass of the outer ‘layer, on the chance of the existence of a better underneath. The ancients treated lustreless gems differently, placing them before doves, under the belief that they could be polished by being pecked and played with by the gentle birds.
In some respects pearls are superior to all other gems. They are emblematic of serenity, and serenity is often power in the highest manifestation. None ever said an unkind word of pearls; no dubious legend clings to them, making the timid afraid. They come to us perfectly fashioned. No coarse handiwork has touched them, no soulless machine ground them to conventional pattern. The last diamond may be, the. last pearl never, until the sea gives up more than its dead, its very being. Pearls may begin and end in foam; but the beginning is now and always, and the ending rare, for the Cleopatras are gone. Emblems of purity, refinement, and peace, they are truly the gems for woman. Queenly or demure, they become her, and she bestows on them a quality hard to define, but singularly sweet and acceptable. Gold and precious stones may occupy billions of years in the making, or may be the product of —
“The war of elements,
The wrecks of matter, and the crash of worlds.”
Once we find these hard, cold things and take hold of and seize them, we know that we have, to use a homely simile, eaten our cake. The supply of pearls is continuous, and under the control of the cruel ingenuity of man they grow to an ordinary size in less than a decade.
Many years ago an opinion was expressed that the increasing knowledge ‘of the mollusc and its habits would enable man literally to sow the sea with pearls as he sows a field with grain, and that the harvest would be certain. Under natural conditions not one oyster in a hundred is troubled with a pearl, and not one pearl in the hundred is of any real value. It is demanded that unsuspecting oysters shall be inflicted with a kind of plague, so that there shall be not one but several pearls in every suffering individual, and in the greater number chance will contrive a larger proportion of orients. Every oyster has its potentialities; Science seeks to convert potentialities into certainties.
Such merchandise has ever provoked the spirit of adventure in hardy, healthy men, and pearls have claimed the lives of the best among them. The health and figure of the friend who beguiled many an evening were sacrificed to the lustrous gem so prized of women. A model of stalwart manhood of the Viking strain, he died early, worn out with the stress with which he sought the most serene of personal adornments. There may have been some slight exaggeration in the popular belief that he had walked along the bottom of the sea from one end of the Great Barrier Reef to the other, a stretch of over one thousand miles; but that he had accomplished more than that distance in the aggregate of his submarine wanderings may be quite credible. Probably there was no human being who possessed such intimate knowledge of the character of the ocean floor within the living bounds of the Great Barrier; and since he was silent, reserved, and self-contained to all save friends of long standing, was never guilty of boasting, and ever reluctant to tell of his adventures, the world is little the wiser from his work, though at the best time of his life most of his days were spent under water in fairyland-like scenes. It may seem absurd to associate fairyland with the depths of the sea; but the shy explorer of many a coral grove has been heard to say that the scenes fulfilled his ideals of what the realms of the fairies might be like.
Pearl-divers are more susceptible to the charms of wayward Fortune than those who have not realised tile thrill of expectancy with which a huge goldlip, encrusted with coral and swathed with seaweed, is seized. It may contain a gem worth a king’s ransom, or but an animal which, though it may be crossed in love, is not engaging in appearance or in any feature or quality commendable. There is the chance; and it appeals to most rational men. Secretive Fortune lures on, promising the bubble pearl ‘and proffering that which satisfieth not, until the stress and perils of the avocation tell on the enthusiast, who finds himself not exuberant as wont; that Fortune has been tricking him; that in the pursuit of pearls Chance is oft repellent; and that the prize which seemed impossible to avoid has eluded the most devoted seekers.
It may be that my captain did not seek his pearls with zeal beyond that which is common to the calling the world over; but that his enthusiasm beguiled him into remote and odd parts of the Barrier, that he became familiar with rare scenes (denied to all save submarine adventurers in tropical waters), that he was oft in peril of his life, and that he could pause in the midst of strenuous, nerve-racking work to watch the never-ceasing hostilities of the denizens of the sea, may not be questioned.
Not long before he passed away he told of one of his adventures in a few hurried words, after the manner of one who loves not to dwell on personal reminiscences, save as a text for the rectification of popular error in respect of sensational happenings. The story is here repeated, for it throws light on an incident which sent one ship of warfare on dubious patrol, and reveals the manner of the men who sought pearls in the old days.
“Have you found that pearl?” he asked smilingly; for we had often talked of the possibility of being rewarded with a fortune-bestowing gem.
“Yes, indeed, I have; and a real beauty. I very much doubt if you, for all your experience, ever saw such perfect shape and fine lustre. Here is an instance of the perversity of Chance. You, tied up in a rubber bag, rake the floor of the Barrier, fighting sharks and being hustled by turtle, and never find anything out of the way. I stroll about the beaches, and see what Fortune bestows!”
The size of a small marble, it lay swathed in white wadding. Minute furrows sculptured the surface in radiating lines from pole to pole, enhancing rare radiance.
The captain took the little casket in his hand that he might gloat over the treasure, as, his eyes shining, he said:
“You lucky fellow! Where did you get it? I never saw a finer pearl, and I have seen a few in my days. Fair numbers have passed through my hands; but — you fraud!”
He lifted it, revealing a counterfeit, which had once ornamented a hatpin.
In good-humour he settled down on a lounge and gradually drifted into reminiscences.
“About two years before what I am going to tell you happened, I heard of a patch of shell off an island Sud-Est way; I kept the tip to myself, determined to work the spot on my own account if ever I got the chance. I waited till I saved a few pounds, and, taking in a mate, fitted out a craft, and with a crew of very fair boys sailed away. I found the spot all right; but — my usual luck — someone had been there before me. Strange to say, the spot was by no means worked out, though it was fairly good ground and easy working, and the shell large. We did good business for a while, until one day I got a proper start. The life-line fouled on something, and I found that it had taken a turn round the bowsprit of a wreck. I got on top pretty quick, and, having had a talk with my mate, went down again. Very soon I knew the boat. It was the —— and she had belonged to a man I had known very well. The strange part about the business was that the boat had been burned. Her deck was gone; she had burned to the water’s edge and had sunk, and there she rested on her keel. I knew that the owner had left port some months before on a secret cruise. Someone must have given him the. tip, too. He was well known and liked, and generally did good business. My mate and I talked over the business. We wanted to clean up that patch, so decided to remain a few days longer before clearing out to report. I was convinced that murder had been committed-that the natives of the island had massacred the party and had sunk the lugger.
“While I was below next day an urgent message came down. I bobbed up pretty quickly. A boat was sneaking out from the beach, apparently with the plan of cutting us off from our lugger, which was anchored some distance off, with only a couple of boys on board. You bet, we got up steam pretty quickly. When we got on board we reached for our rifles, and then felt safe.
“The boat was then making straight for us, and it appeared to be crowded with darkies. We had been off the island for four days, and had not seen the sight of a native. I knew there were plenty, and the fact that they had kept away had made me a bit suspicious. As the boat came along I was sure they meant mischief, and was determined, no matter how friendly they wanted to be, not to let one of the beggars on deck.
“About half a mile away we saw one of them, who appeared to be a bit lighter in colour than the rest, stand up in the bow and wave a kind of message. He kept one arm going like a semaphore. Then we saw that he carried under the other arm a basket — a peace-offering of yams and fruit, no doubt. He had only a shirt on, and still he kept his right arm working. When he got within hailing distance, the man in the bows shouted my name. He was a brawny chap. I thought to myself that if it came to a row I would pot him first, for he was ringleader.
“All the rest were naked. His scanty uniform marked him out. Probably he got that shirt from the owner of the sunken lugger. I wetted my lips with my tongue as I thought it might be my duty to wipe him out. Then my name was shouted out again, and, recognising the voice, I discovered the man in the shirt to be a well-known character who goes under the name of ——.
“I’ve got something nice for you, captain! Don’t look so nasty with that rifle to an old friend!’
“Still keeping our rifles ready, we let the boat come alongside and the tinted man passed up the basket, It was native-made, and all the top was covered with green leaves. Thinking of fresh yams and fruit, I pulled off the leaves, and there — poof! — the head of a man-an old man who must have died a violent death about two days before.
“The man in the shirt laughed loud and long at the disgust in my face, and, coming on board, soon told of the tragedy of which the awful head was a symbol of retaliation.
“The owner of the sunken lugger had fitted her out with unusual care. His crew consisted of natives of the island off which we were lying. As a special inducement to one of the boys, whose name was Massai, he had promised a rifle, but designedly withheld the gift until towards the end of the term of agreement. Massai had persistently begged for the rifle, and it having become necessary for the Boss’ to take a trip to the port, he had definitely, promised to bring it with him. Again he designedly forgot. Massai became morose. Things went on calmly enough until one day, when the mate was below, the ‘Boss’ was suddenly thrown overboard. As he floundered on the surface one of the boys struck at him with a tomahawk, and then he must have realised that his life was at stake.
“Diving until well clear of the boat, he swam off to the lugger, about a quarter of a mile away. As his master came up, Massai leaned over the side, his master’s rifle in his hand.
“‘Don’t shoot me, Massai,’ he shouted. ‘I give you good rifle belonga yourself.’
“Massai shouted back, ‘Me catch ’em plenty riple! You no good!’ and fired. The bullet splashed over the man’s head. The next struck him fair in the forehead, and he sank.
“In the meantime Massai’s confederates were sporting with the diver, hauling him up to the surface, pumping sufficient air to keep him alive, shutting it off until he must have been nearly suffocated, reviving him with fresh supplies, and with joy prolonging life until the fun of the thing ceased; then they had cut the pipe so that he might drown.
“The lugger having been ransacked, she was fired, and she had sunk at her anchorage.
“A few days after the man with the shirt arrived at the island, and since these simple children of Nature cannot keep their doings to themselves, he very soon was made a confidant, learning the whole details of the tragedy by pidgin English and expressive pantomime, and obtaining as proof the coat of the reckless man who had made a promise to Massai which, possibly, he had never intended to fulfil. The plot of the revenge and murder had been hatched out ashore at the instigation of Massai’s mother.
“Fortified with full information, he sailed away to a neighbouring port, where he exhibited the coat of the murdered ‘Boss.’ Being impressed, the official representing the majesty of the law gave some vague commission to the man, who now wears other clothes than a shirt, and he sailed away for ports unknown.
“Interpreting his commission to make further inquiries very broadly, he appeared off the island, and received a cordial welcome, for he was ‘Hail fellow well met’ with the inhabitants of many a remote isle. He made himself very friendly, and the frank natives rather gloried than otherwise in the recitation of evidence which condemned them.
“Then he made plans for unauthorised punishment. Having disarmed suspicion — just as the boat’s crew had done in the case of his friend — he waited, and one dark night surrounded the village with a well-armed, hostile force. These Papuan villages are fortified in a certain sense. Some of the exits are set with traps and spring spears, and none but those in the secret dares venture along a track when the village has been made secure for the night.
“The man with the shirt posted his forces so that the exits were commanded, and waited for dawn, his instructions being that no demonstration was to be made until he gave the signal. Before the designed time a shot was fired, and the conscience-stricken community fled, all save one old man and infant, who met their fate.
“The village was spoiled and fired, and thus retributive justice done to those who had wantonly murdered two white men and destroyed their property.
“Once again,” said the captain, “my luck was out. Goodness knows! There might have been a big pearl in that patch. We didn’t wait to find it!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50