by Alexander Belyaev
1. "The Sea-Devil"
The close night of the Argentine midsummer came down on the sea. Stars pricked out in a sky that was a deep violet. The schooner Jellyfish lay quietly at anchor, with not a splash round her, not a creak on board. Ship and ocean seemed in deep slumber.
|Half-naked pearl-divers sprawled on the deck. Worn out by the day's work under a parching sun they tossed and groaned and cried out in their nightmarish sleep. Their limbs would jerk and twitch; perhaps they were fighting off sharks – their deadly enemies.
|The hot windless weather of which they were having a spell made people so tired that they couldn't even hoist the boats on board at the end of a day's work. Not that it seemed necessary: nothing indicated a change in weather. So the boats were left afloat, made fast to the anchor chain.
|Nobody had thought of tightening the shrouds or sheeting home the jib which fluttered faintly at each stray whiff of wind. From bowsprit to taffrail the schooner was strewn with heaps of pearl shells, pieces of coral, lengths of diving cord, canvas sacks for putting shells in and empty barrels.
Against the mizzen-mast stood a big water barrel with an iron mug on a chain.
|The deck immediately round was stained dark with spilt water.
Every now and then a diver struggled up and staggered along, sleep-drunk, to the water barrel. Never opening his eyes he swallowed a mugful and dropped down anywhere on his way back, as if it were not water he had drunk but neat spirit. The divers were always thirsty.
|They went without morning meals, for underwater pressure made diving on a full stomach dangerous, so they worked without eating all through the day, till it grew too dark underwater. They had their meal before turning in – and that was of salt meat.
The Indian Baltasar, right hand of the schooner's owner Pedro Zurita, had the night watch.
|In his time Baltasar had been known far and wide as an excellent pearl-diver. He could stay underwater for as much as a minute and a half or even two minutes which was about twice as long as an average diver.
"How did we do it? They knew how to train in my day and started early," Baltasar would say to the young divers.
|"Just turned ten I was. My father took me to Jose, who owned a tender, for training. There were twelve of us, all kids like me. And this is the way he trained us. He'd throw a white pebble or shell into the water and order one of us to go and get it. And each time he found deeper and deeper places.
|If one of us had nothing to show for his diving Jose'd give him a lash or two of his whip and shove him overboard to try again. And it worked. Then he started to train us to keep longer times underwater. An experienced diver'd go down and make a basket or piece of netting fast to the anchor chain.
|Then down we went to untie the knots. And we weren't allowed to come up before all the knots were undone. If we did we got the whip again.
"The amount of beating we took! Not everybody could stick it out. But it made a diver out of me – and the best in the district. And earned me a pretty penny too.".