The trade winds blowing off the Coral Sea were warm and sweet, evocative reminders of faraway places that whistled through the rigging of the ketches and sloops riding at anchor in the sun-spangled Rabaul Harbor, and flapped the heavy skirt of Miss India McKnight’s sensible serge traveling outfit.
“Very sorry, mum,” said the middle-aged Hindu trader who stood before her, his short legs splayed wide against the weathered dock’s unpredictable pitch, “but help you I cannot.”
India McKnight, spinster, Scotswoman, and travel writer of some renown, was accustomed to meeting—and overcoming—resistance. When the trading captain made as if to go around her, India simply shifted her weight until she was once more in his path. Since the man was short and slight, and India stood five feet ten in her stockings, the maneuver brought him to a stand again. “I was told your ketch is for hire,” she said, softening the overt belligerence of her blocking tactics with a smile.
The Hindu’s head rocked back and forth on his shoulders in a motion that looked like no, but actually meant yes. “It is. But you don’t want to go to Takaku. Not to the southern bay.”
“On the contrary,” said India, her voice calm and even, “I assure you that I most definitely do.”
“It’s dangerous. Very dangerous.” The Hindu’s eyes bulged out as he leaned forward and dropped his voice in the manner of one imparting a terrible secret. “Cannibals, you know. A man from the London Missionary Society went there last year. The Takakus listened to him read his Bible, and they let him pray over them, and then they had him for dinner. As the main course.”
“I am not a missionary, and I am not asking you to accompany me on my expedition up the slopes of Mount Futapu. All you need do is anchor in the bay, convey me ashore in your dinghy, and wait some four or five hours until I return.”
“The channel through the reefs at the southern tip of the island is dangerous.” The Hindu squinted off across the brilliant azure water of the harbor. In the misty distance, far beyond Rabaul’s golden shoreline and wav- ing coconut palms, the jagged outline of the island of Takaku, with its towering volcanic cones and dark secrets, was just visible. “Very dangerous,” he said again. “Rocky and narrow.”
India tightened her grip on her large traveling reticule in a way that drew the trader’s attention. “I’ll pay you double your normal fee.”
He licked his salt-cracked lips. “You want to go to Takaku? I take you to the northern end of the island, to the French port of La Rochelle. It’s pretty. Very pretty. And no cannibals.” An enthusiastic smile beamed, then dimmed. “Lots of French, though.”
India shook her head. “It is the Faces of Futapu I wish to study, and they are far easier to approach from the southern bay than by an overland expedition from La Rochelle.”
The Hindu stared at her, his full-cheeked, flat-nosed face becoming thoughtful. “Now I remember why I thought I had heard of you. You’re that crazy Englishwoman writing a book about the Polynesians. There are no Polynesians on Takaku. Only black men. Headhunters.” He paused. “Hungry headhunters.”
“I am Scots, not English.” India’s tone was rapidly becoming less calm, less controlled. Near the end of the dock, a British naval captain standing with two other officers had turned his head and was studying her intently. “I know there are no Polynesians on Takaku now,” she said, carefully lowering her voice. “But there are Polynesians on the island of Ontong Java, and on Tikopia, and if it’s true that—”
“You want to go to Ontong Java? The steamer will take you there. It stops at many islands, Neu Brenen and Ontong Java and Fiji, before going on to Samoa and the Marquesas and the Sandwich Islands.”
“I plan to visit many of those places eventually, but at the moment it is Takaku I must see.”
“Not from my ketch,” said the trader, and before India realized what he was about, he darted sideways and was around her, the intense tropical sunlight gleaming on his sweat-sheened brown cheeks as he threw a panicked look back at her and trotted toward the shore.
“Blast it,” muttered India beneath her breath, for he was the fourth trader she had approached, and she was running out of options.
At the end of the dock, the British naval captain nodded to his associates and began to walk toward her. He was a tall, big-boned man who looked to be in his early thirties, with attractive, even features and pale gray eyes that crinkled at the corners. “I beg your pardon, madam,” he said, touching one hand to the brim of his hat as he came abreast of her. “But you are Miss India McKnight, aren’t you? The travel writer?”
India felt herself glow warmly with pleasure. The Hindu copra trader had heard of her, too, of course, but his opinion of her had obviously been less than flattering. “Why, yes. I am.”
An open smile spread across the captain’s suntanned face. “I’m Simon Granger. That’s my ship out there, the Barracuda.” He nodded toward a sleek corvette riding at anchor in the sun-drenched blue waters of the harbor. “I’m afraid I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation, and I must say, I don’t think you’re likely to find anyone here in Rabaul willing to put in to the southern bay of Takaku.”
India met his engaging smile with one of her own. “You’re going to tell me it’s dangerous. The pass through the reef is narrow and rocky, and the natives there have reverted to their old habit of solving their problems by eating them.”
He gave a startled laugh. “That’s about what I was going to say, yes.”
“Then I am all the more determined to go there. In my experience, the most fascinating and rewarding places to visit are always those I have been expressly warned to avoid.”
He laughed again, then sobered as he stared thoughtfully into the distance. “There is someone who might be willing to take you to Takaku, if you truly are determined to go there. His name is Ryder. Jack Ryder. He knows the reef around Takaku better than most, and he’s not afraid of cannibals.”
India looked at Captain Granger with interest. “Why not?”
“Perhaps because he lived with them for two years.”
India sucked in her breath. “He lived with cannibals? An Englishman?”
“He’s not an Englishman, exactly. He comes from Queensland, in the Australian Colonies.”
“I see,” murmured India, for it explained much. They had quite a reputation for lawlessness, the Australians. Not as bad as the island headhunters, of course, but bad.
“He has a small start-up copra plantation on Neu Brenen,” the captain was saying. “There’s a steamer leaving first thing in the morning that could drop you there.”
“He lives on Neu Brenen? But that’s a German island, isn’t it?”
The captain’s gently molded lips tightened. “The Germans think it is. And their gunboat in the harbor is the main reason Ryder settled there.”
India knew a tremor of apprehension that mingled, contradictorily, with a quiver of interest. “He’s a buccaneer, is he?”
“Not exactly. But he is a rough character. You need to understand that.”
“Not too dangerous, surely, or you wouldn’t have told me about him, now would you?” She held out her hand to him. “Our meeting was fortuitous, Captain. I appreciate your information.”
Captain Granger clasped her hand in his, but shook his head. “There are many who would say I have done you a disservice, that I should have warned you to stay far away from the likes of Jack Ryder. And that I should have tried harder to talk you out of going to Takaku.”
“That you could not have done.”
Amusement deepened the crinkled edges of his eyes. “No. I don’t think I could.” He started to turn away, then paused to glance back at her, his brows drawn together as if by a worrisome thought. “If you do decide to look up Jack Ryder, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to mention my name.”
“You are old enemies?”
He showed his teeth in a smile that struck India as cold and fierce and far from charming. “On the contrary. We were the best of friends. Once.”
Excerpted from Beyond Sunrise by Candice Proctor. Copyright © 2003 by Candice Proctor. Excerpted by permission of Ivy Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.