Louis Becke.

By Rock and Pool on an Austral Shore, and Other Stories online

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prowlers. Although not of the largest size, being only ten inches in the
shank, it was made of splendid steel, and we had frequently caught
fifteen-feet sharks with it at sea. It was a cherished possession with
us and we always kept it - and the four feet of chain to which it was
attached - bright and clean.

In the evening Allan returned, accompanied by the local pilot (a Captain
Hamilton) and the fat, puffing, master of a German barque. They wanted
"to see the fun." We soon had everything in readiness; the hook, baited
with the belly-portion of a freshly-killed pig (which the Manono people
had commandeered from a bush village) was buoyed to piece of light _pua_
wood to keep it from sinking, and then with twenty fathoms of brand-new
whale line attached, we let it drift out into the centre of the passage.
Then making our end of the line fast to the trunk of a coconut tree, we
set some children to watch, and went into the trenches to drink some
kava, smoke, and gossip.

We had not long to wait - barely half an hour - when we heard a warning
yell from the watchers. The _ta~nifa_ was in sight.

Jumping up and tumbling over each other in our eagerness we rushed out;
but alas! too late for the shark; for instead of approaching in its
usual leisurely manner, it made a straight dart at the bait, and before
we could free our end of the line it was as taut as an iron bar, and the
creature, with the hook firmly fastened in his jaw, was ploughing the
water into foam, amid yells of excitement from the natives. Then
suddenly the line fell slack, and the half-a-dozen men who were holding
it went over on their backs, heels up.

In mournful silence we hauled it in, and then, oh woe! the hook, our
prized, our beautiful hook, was gone! and with it two feet of the chain,
which had parted at the centre swivel. That particular _ta~nifa_ was
seen no more.

Nearly two months later, two _ta~nifa_ of a much larger size, appeared
at the mouth of the Vaivasa. Several of the white residents tried, night
after night, to hook them, but the monsters refused to look at the
baits. Then appeared on the scene an old one-eyed Malay named 'Reo, who
asserted he could kill them easily. The way in which he set to work was
described to me by the natives who witnessed the operations. Taking a
piece of green bamboo, about four feet in length, he split from it two
strips each an inch wide. The ends of these he then, after charring the
points, sharpened carefully; then by great pressure he coiled them up
into as small a compass as possible, keeping the whole in position by
sewing the coil up in the fresh skin of a fish known as the _isuumu
moana_ - a species of the "leather-jacket." Then he asked to be provided
with two dogs. A couple of curs were soon provided, killed, and the
viscera removed. The coils of bamboo were then placed in the vacancy and
the skin of the bellies stitched up with small wooden skewers. That
completed the preparation of the baits.

As soon as the two sharks made their appearance, one of the dead dogs
was thrown into the water. It was quickly swallowed. Then the second
followed, and was also seized by the other _ta~nifa_. The creatures
cruised about for some hours, then went off, as the tide began to fall.

On the following evening they did not turn up, nor on the next; but the
Malay insisted that within four or five days both would be dead. As soon
as the dogs were digested, he said, the thin fish-skin would follow, the
bamboo coil would fly apart, and the sharpened ends penetrate not only
the sharks' intestines, but protrude through the outer skin as well.

Quite a week afterwards, during which time neither of the _ta~nifa_
had been seen alive, the smaller of the two was found dead on the beach
at Vailele Plantation, about four miles from the Vaivasa. It was
examined by numbers of people, and presented an extremely interesting
sight; one end of the bamboo spring was protruding over a foot from the
belly, which was so cut and lacerated by the agonised efforts of the
monster to free itself from the instrument of torture, that much of the
intestines was gone.

That the larger of these dreaded fish had died in the same manner there
was no reason to doubt; but probably it had sunk in the deep water
outside the barrier reef.




_On Board the "_Tucopia_."


The little island trading barque _Tucopia_, Henry Robertson, master, lay
just below Garden Island in Sydney Harbour, ready to sail for the
Friendly Islands and Samoa as soon as the captain came on board. At nine
o'clock, as Bruce, the old, white-haired, Scotch mate, was pointing out
to Mrs. Lacy and the Reverend Wilfrid Lacy the many ships around, and
telling them from whence they came or where they were bound, the second
mate called out -

"Here's the captain's boat coming, sir."

Bruce touched his cap to the pale-faced, violet-eyed clergyman's wife,
and turning to the break of the poop, at once gave orders to "heave
short," leaving the field clear to Mr. Charles Otway, the supercargo of
the _Tucopia_, who was twenty-two years of age, had had seven years'
experience of general wickedness in the South Seas, thought he was in
love with Mrs. Lacy, and that, before the barque reached Samoa, he would
make the lady feel that the Reverend Wilfrid was a serious mistake, and
that he, Charles Otway, was the one man in the world whom she could love
and be happy with for ever. So, being a hot-blooded and irresponsible
young villain, though careful and decorous to all outward seeming, he
set himself to work, took exceeding care over his yellow, curly hair,
and moustache, and abstained from swearing in Mrs. Lacy's hearing.

* * * * *

A week before, Mr. and Mrs. Lacy had called at the owner's office and
inquired about a passage to Samoa in the _Tucopia_, and Otway was sent
for.

"Otway," said the junior partner, "can you make room on the _Tucopia_
for two more passengers - nice people, a clergyman and his wife."

"D - - all nice people, especially clergymen and their wives," he
answered promptly - for although the youngest supercargo in the firm, he
was considered, the smartest - and took every advantage of the fact. "I'm
sick of carting these confounded missionaries about, Mr. Harry. Last
trip we took two down to Tonga - beastly hymn-grinding pair, who wanted
the hands to come aft every night to prayers, and played-up generally
with the discipline of the ship. Robertson never interfered, and old
Bruce, who is one of the psalm-singing kidney himself, encouraged the
beasts to turn the ship into a floating Bethel."

"Mr. Harry" laughed good-naturedly. "Otway, my boy, you mustn't put on
so much side - the firm can't afford it. If you hadn't drunk so much
whisky last night you would be in a better temper this morning."

"Oh, if you've got some one else to take my billet on the _Tucopia_,
why don't you say so, instead of backing and filling about, like a
billy-goat in stays? _I_ don't care a damn if you load the schooner up
to her maintop with sky-pilots and their dowdy women-kind. I've had
enough of 'em, and I hereby tender you my resignation. I can get another
and a better ship to-morrow, if - "

"Sit down, you cock-a-hoopy young ass," and "Mr. Harry" hit the
supercargo a good-humoured but stiff blow in the chest. "These people
aren't missionaries; they're a cut above the usual breed. Man's a
gentleman; woman's as sweet as a rosebud. Now look here, Otway; we give
you a pretty free hand generally, but in this instance we want you to
stretch a point - you can give these people berths in the trade-room,
can't you?"

The supercargo considered a moment. "There's a lot returning this trip.
First, there's the French priest for Wallis Island - nice old buffer, but
never washes, and grinds his teeth in his sleep - he's in the cabin next
to mine; old Miss Wiedermann for Tonga - cabin on starboard side - fussy
old cat, who is always telling me that she can distinctly hear
Robertson's bad language on deck. But her brother is a good sort, and so
I put up with her. Then there's Captain Burr, in the skipper's cabin,
two Samoan half-caste girls in the deck-house - there's going to be
trouble over those women, old Bruce says, and I don't doubt it - and the
whole lot will have their meals in the beastly dog-kennel you call a
saloon, and I call a sweat-box."

"Thank you, Mr. Otway. Your elegant manner of speaking shows clearly
the refining influence of the charming people with whom you associate.
Just let me tell you this - you looked like a gentleman a year or two
ago, but become less like one every day."

"No wonder," replied Otway sullenly, "the Island trade is not calculated
to turn out Chesterfields. I'm sick enough of it, now we are carrying
passengers as well as cargo. I suppose the firm will be asking us
supercargoes to wear uniform and brass buttons soon, like the ticket
collector on a penny ferry."

"Quite likely, my sulky young friend - quite likely, if it will pay us to
do so."

"Then I'll clear out, and go nigger-catching again in the Solomons.
That's a lot better than having to be civil to people who worry the soul
out of you, are always in the way at sea, and a beastly nuisance in
port. Why, do you know what old Miss Weidermann did at Manono, in Samoa,
when we were there buying yams three months ago?"

"No; what did she do?"

"Got the skipper and myself into a howling mess through her infernal
interference; and if the chiefs and old Mataafa himself had not come to
our help there would have been some shooting, and this firm could never
have sent another ship to Manono again. It makes me mad when I think of
it - the silly old bundle of propriety and feminine spite."

"Tell me all about it, Otway. 'Twill do you good, I can see, to unburden
yourself of some of your bad temper. Shut that door, and we'll have a
brandy-and-soda together."

"Well," said Otway, "this is what occurred. I was ashore in the village,
buying and weighing the yams, the skipper was lending me a hand, and
everything was going on bully, when Mataafa and his chiefs sent an
invitation to us to come up to his house and drink kava. Of course such
an invitation from the native point of view was a great honour; and
then, besides that, it was good business to keep in with old Mataafa,
who had just given the Germans a thrashing at Vailele, and was as proud
as a dog with two tails. So, although I hate kava, I accepted the
invitation with 'many expressions of pleasure,' and felt sure that as
the old fellow knew me of old, and I knew he wanted to buy some rifles,
that I should get the bulk of a bag of sovereigns his mongrel, low-down
American secretary was carrying around. So oft went the skipper and I,
letting the yams stand over till we returned; the barque was lying about
a mile off the beach. Mataafa was very polite to us, and during the kava
drinking I found out that he had about three hundred sovereigns, and
wanted to see the Martini-Henrys we had on board. Of course I told him
that it would be a serious business for the ship if he gave us
away - imprisonment in a dreadful dungeon in Fiji, if not hanging at the
yard-arm or a man-of-war - and the old cock winked his eye and laughed.
Then, as time was valuable, we at once concocted a plan to get the
rifles - fifty - ashore without making too much of a show. Well, among
some of the women present there were two great swells, one was the
_taupo_, or town maid, of Palaulae in Savaii, and the other was a niece
of Mataafa himself. These two, accompanied by a lot of young women of
Manono, were to go off on board the barque in our boats, ostensibly to
pay their respects to the white lady on board, and invite her on shore,
so as to get her out of the way; then I was to pass the arms out of the
stern ports into some canoes which would be waiting just as it became
dark. About five o'clock they started off in one boat, leaving me and
the skipper to follow in another. I had sent a note off to the mate
telling him all about the little game, and to be mighty polite to the
two chief women, who were to be introduced to Miss Weidermann, give the
old devil some presents of mats, fruits, and such things, and ask her to
come ashore as Mataafa's guest.

"Well, something had gone wrong with the Weidermann's temper; for when
the women came on board she was sulking in her cabin, and refused to
show her vinegary face outside her state-room door. Thinking she would
get over her tantrum in a few minutes, the mate invited the two Samoan
ladies and their attendants down into the cabin, where they awaited her
appearance, behaving themselves, of course, very decorously, it being a
visit of ceremony.

"Presently Old Cat-face opened her door, and then, without giving the
native ladies time to utter a word, she launched out at them in her
bastard-mongrel Samoan-Tongan. The first thing she said was that she
knew the kind of women they were, and what had brought them on board!
How dared such brazen, shameless cattle come into the cabin! Into the
same cabin as a white lady! The bold, half-naked, disgraceful hussies,
etc., etc. And then she capped the thing by calling to the steward to
come and drive them out!

"Not one of the native women could answer her. They were all simply
dumbfounded at such a gross insult, and left the cabin in silence. The
mate tried to smooth things over, but one of the women - Mataafa's
niece - gave him a look that told him to say no more. In half an hour the
whole lot of them were back on the beach, and came up to the chiefs
house, where the skipper and myself were having a final drink of kava
with old Mataafa and his _faipule_.[16] The face of the elder of the two
women was blazing with anger, and then, pointing to the captain and
myself, she gave us such a tongue-lashing for sending her off to the
ship to be shamed and insulted, that made us blush. Old Mataafa waited
until she had finished, and then, with an ugly gleam in his eye but
speaking very quietly, asked us what it meant.

"What _could_ we say but that it was no fault of ours; and then, by a
happy inspiration, I added that although Miss Weidermann was generally
well-conducted enough, she sometimes got blazing drunk, and made a beast
of herself. This explanation satisfied the chiefs, if not the women, and
everything went on smoothly. And as it was then nearly dark, and I was
determined that Mataafa should get his rifles, half a dozen of his men
took us off in their canoes, and we went on board. The skipper and I had
fixed up as to what we should do with the Weidermann creature. She was
seated at the cabin table waiting to open out on us, but the skipper
didn't give her a chance.

"'Go to your cabin at once, madam,' he said solemnly, 'and I trust you
will not again leave it in your present condition. Your conduct is
simply astounding. _Steward, see that you give Miss Weidermann no more
grog_.'

"The poor old girl thought that either he or she herself was going mad,
but he gave her no time to talk. The captain opened her state-room door,
gently pushed her in, and put a man outside to see that she didn't come
out again. Then we handed out the rifles through the stern-ports to the
natives in the canoes, and sent them away rejoicing. And that's the end
of the yarn, and Miss Weidermann nearly went into a fit next morning
when we told her that no less than thirty respectable native women had
taken their oaths that she was mad drunk, and abused them vilely."

The junior partner laughed loudly at the story, and Otway, with a more
amiable look on his face, rose.

"Well, I'll do what I can for these people. I'll make room for them
somehow. Where are they going?"

"Samoa. They have an idea of settling down there, I think, for a few
months, and then going on to China. They have plenty of money,
apparently."

"Oh, well, tell them to come on board to-morrow, and I'll show them what
can be done for them."

* * * * *

So the Rev. and Mrs. Lacy did come on board, and Mr. Charles Otway was
vanquished by just one single glance from the lady's violet eyes.

"It would have been such a dreadful disappointment to us if we could not
have obtained passages in the _Tucopia_," she said, in her soft, sweet
voice, as she sank back in the deck-chair he placed before her. "My
husband is so bent on making a tour through Samoa. Now, do tell me, Mr.
Otway, are these islands so very lovely?"

"Very, very lovely, Mrs. Lacy," replied Otway, leaning with his back
against the rail and regarding her with half-closed eyes; "as sweet and
fair to look upon as a lovely woman - a woman with violet eyes and lips
like a budding rose."

She gave him one swift glance, seemingly in anger, yet her eyes smiled
into his; then she bent her head and regarded the deck with intense
interest. Otway thought he had scored. She was sure _she_ had.

Otway had just shown her and her husband his own cabin, and had told
them that they could occupy it - he would make himself comfortable in the
trade-room, he said. This was after the first look from the violet eyes.

* * * * *

Robertson, the skipper, came aboard, shook hands with Mrs. Lacy and her
husband, nodded to the other passengers, dived below for a moment or
two, and then reappeared on deck, full of energy, blasphemy, and anxiety
to get under way. In less than an hour the smart barque was outside the
Heads, and heeling over to a brisk south-westerly breeze. Two days later
she was four hundred miles on her course.

The Rev. Wilfrid Lacy soon made himself very agreeable to the rest of
the passengers, who all agreed that he was a splendid type of parson,
and even Otway, who had as much principle as a rat and began making love
to his wife from the outset, liked him. First of all, he was not the
usual style of travelling clergyman. He didn't say grace at meals, he
smoked a pipe, drank whisky and brandy with Otway and Robertson, told
rattling good stories, and displayed an immediate interest when the
skipper mentioned that the second mate was a "bit of a bruiser," and
that there were gloves on board; and the second mate, a nuggety little
Tynesider, at once consented to a friendly mill as soon as he was off
duty.

"Wilfrid," said Mrs. Lacy, "you'll shock every one. I can see that
Captain Robertson wonders what sort of a clergyman you are."

Robertson saw the merry light in her dark eyes, and then laughed aloud
as he saw Miss Weidermann's face. It expressed the very strongest
disapproval, and during the rest of the meal the virgin lady preserved a
dismal silence. The rest of the passengers, however, "took" to the
clerical gentleman at once. With old Father Roget - the Marist
missionary who sat opposite him - he soon entered into an animated
conversation, while the two De Boos girls, vivacious Samoan half-castes,
attached themselves to his wife. Seated beside Otway was another
passenger, an American skipper named Burr, who was going to Apia to take
command of a vessel belonging to the same firm as the _Tucopia_. He was
a silent, good-looking man of about sixty, and possessed of much caustic
humour and a remarkable fund of smoking-room stories, which, on rare
occasions, he would relate in an inimitable, drawling manner, as if he
was tired. The chief mate was a deeply but not obtrusively religious
Scotsman; the second officer, Allen, was a young man of thirty, an
excellent seaman, but rough to the verge of brutality with the crew.
Bruce, on the other hand, was too easy-going and patient.

"I never want to raise my hand against a man," he said one day, as a
protest, when Allen gave one of the crew an unmerciful cuff which sent
him down as if he had been shot.

"Neither do I," replied Allen, "I prefer raising my foot. But it's
habit, Mr. Bruce, only habit."

For five days the barque ran steadily on an E.N.E. course, then on the
sixth day the wind hauled, and by sunset it was blowing hard from the
eastward with a fast-gathering sea. By two in the morning Robertson and
his officers knew that they were in for a three-days' easterly gale; a
few hours later it was decided to heave-to, as the sea had become
dangerous, and the little vessel was straining badly. Just after this
had been done, the gale set in with redoubled fury, and when Mrs. Lacy
came on deck shortly before breakfast, she shuddered at the wild
spectacle. Coming to the break of the poop, she clasped the iron rail
with both hands, and gazed fearfully about her.

"You had better go below, ma'am," said the second mate, who was standing
near, talking to Otway, "there's some nasty, lumpy seas."

Then he gave a yell.

"Look out there!"

Springing to Mrs. Lacy's side, he clasped his left arm around her waist,
and held on tightly to the iron rail with his right, just as a vast
mountain of water took the barque amidships, fell on her deck with
terrific force, and fairly buried her from the topgallant foc'scle to
the level of the poop. In less than half a minute the galley, for'ard
deck-house, long-boat, which was lying on the main hatch, and the port
bulwarks had vanished, together with three poor seamen who were asleep
in the deck-house. The fearful crash brought the captain flying on deck.
One glance showed him that there was no chance of saving the men - to
attempt to lower a boat in such a sea was utterly impossible, and would
be madness itself. He sighed, and then took off his cap. Allen and Otway
followed his example.

"Is there no hope for them?" Mrs. Lacy whispered to Otway.

"None," replied the supercargo in a low voice. "None." Then he urged her
to go below, as it was not safe for her to remain on deck. She went at
once, and met her husband just as he was leaving their cabin.

"What is the matter, Nell?" he asked, as he saw that tears were in her
eyes.

"Three poor men have been carried overboard, Wilfrid. They were in the
deck-house asleep ten minutes ago - now they are gone! Oh, isn't it
dreadful, dreadful!" And then she sat down beside him and wept silently.

Breakfast was a forlorn meal - Robertson and his officers were not
present, and Otway took the captain's seat. He, too, only remained to
drink a cup of coffee, then hurriedly went on deck. Lacy rose at the
same time, but at the foot of the companion, Otway motioned him to stop.

"Don't come on deck awhile, if you please," he said, "and tell the
ladies to keep to the cabin."

"Anything fresh gone wrong?"

"Yes," replied the supercargo, looking steadily at the clergyman - "the
ship is making water badly. Don't you hear the pumps going? Tell the
ladies not to come on deck - say it is not safe. And if the old
Weidermann girl hears the pumps, and gets inquisitive, tell her that a
lot of water got into the hold when that big sea tumbled aboard. She's
an inquisitive old ass, and would be bound to tell the other ladies that
the ship is in danger."

Lacy nodded. "All right, I'll see to her. How long has the ship been
leaking?"

"For quite a long time. And there is fourteen inches in her, and it's as
much as we can do to keep it under."

"That is serious."

Otway nodded. "Yes, it is serious in weather like this. Now I must go.
Daresay we may give you a call in the course of the morning. Ever try a
spell at old-fashioned brake pumps? Fine exercise."

"I'm ready now if you want me," was the quiet answer.

The _Tucopia_ was indeed in a pretty bad case. Immediately after the
fatal sea had swept her decks the carpenter had sounded the well and
found fifteen inches of water, some little of which had got below
through the fore-scuttle, but the greater portion, it was soon evident,
was the result of a leak. The barque was a comparatively new vessel, and
Robertson and his officers, after two hours' pumping, came to the
conclusion that she had either strained herself badly or a butt-end had
started somewhere.

For two hours the crew worked at the pumps, taking a spell of ten
minutes every half-hour, Otway, the American captain Burr, and Mr. Lacy
all lending a hand. Then the well was sounded, and showed two inches
less.

Robertson ordered the men to come aft and get a glass of grog. They
trooped down into the cabin wet and exhausted, and the steward served
them each out half a tumblerful of good French brandy. They drank it
off, and then went on deck again to have a smoke before resuming
pumping. A quarter of an hour later the pumps choked. There were a
hundred tons of coal in the lower hold, and some of the small of it had
been drawn up. By the time the carpenter had them cleared the water had
gained seven inches, and the little barque was labouring heavily. Again,
however, the willing crew turned to and pumped steadily for another


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Online LibraryLouis BeckeBy Rock and Pool on an Austral Shore, and Other Stories → online text (page 11 of 15)