Mauke, Manuwai And Takutea
Mauke, Manuwai, and Takutea still remained to be seen, before the Duchess could spread her wings for Rarotonga again. We sailed from one to another in the course of a few days. There was no hurry, and a day wasted here or there troubled none of us.
Sometimes the "trades" which are very fickle about here, came up and caught our towering canvas in a cool embrace; then the great hollows of the sails hummed with the music that the ocean wanderer loves, and the Duchess skimmed the rolling blue hills like a flying-fish. sometimes the wind fell, and the booms swung and creaked lazily above the burning deck; then we trolled for albacore and bonito, shrieking with savage joy when our bit of long-desired fresh food came flapping and fighting over the rail; or we watched the crew hook devil-faced grey sharks which "took charge" of the deck when captured, hitting terrible blows with their tails, and snapping stout ropes with their savage teeth; or we got old boats, and rowed them for miles between the double furnaces of the blazing sun and the glowing sea, coming back to the ship scorched into cinders, stiff fight exertion, but happy. At night the Southern Cross burned white in the velvet sky, and the coral rocks about the lagoons showed in shimmering pale blue underneath fifty feet or more of clear, moonlit water. Lying on the poop, like seals on sand, the little knot of passengers, captain, and mate, "yarned" for hour after hour - strange, wild tales of frontier life in new lands; of adventures in unknown seas; of fights, and more fights, and fights yet again - literature in the rough, a very gallery of vivid pictures wasted unseen . . . and yet, what should any man who had the rich reality care about its pale shadow. Story? "Do you care much for reading?" "Well, no," answers the bare-footed officer lying with his head in a coil of rope; "books aren't very interesting, are they?"
I, watching the mizzen truck swing among the stars, look back over the long, long trail - long both in distance and in time - that separates this small heaving deck in the midst of the tropic seas from the rush of the wintry Strand. Nights in islands of ill reputation, when I slept with "one eye open" and one hand within touch of my revolver (for there are incidents of my wanderings that I have not told, and only those who know the Eastern Pacific may guess at them); days when only a fifty-to-one chance kept the little schooner from piling her bones on a spouting coral reef in mid-ocean - rough fare, hard lodging, and long fatigue, sometimes, all to be "eaten as helped," without comment or complaint, for that is the rule of island life - the pungent taste of danger, now and then, gratefully slaking some deep, half-conscious thirst derived from fiercer creatures; the sight of many lands and many peoples - these, and to her pictures, painted themselves among the little gold stars swept by the rocking masts, as I lay remembering I thought of the pile of untouched shockers" in my cabin; of grey London and its pyramids of books and armies of writers; of the mirror that they hold up to life, and the "magic web of colours gay" they weave always looking like the Lady of Shalott, in the mirror, and seldom joining the merry rout outside, where no one cares a pin for coloured tapestries, and looking-glasses are left to half-grown girls. No, truly; "books are not interesting," when you can have life instead.
Upon which some one proposed "Consequences" in the cabin, and I made haste to climb down. Another day, gold and blue as are almost all the days of the "winter" season, and another island, burning white and blazing green, and another tumbling reef to jump, with the help of a powerful boat-holder, who stands in the midst of the surf, and drags the dinghy forward at the right moment. This is Mauke; we are getting on with the group, and begin to realise that some time or other, even in the timeless regions, will actually see us back at Rarotonga.
Mauke proves to be a pretty little place, some six miles in circumference, "low" in type, but park-like and garden-like and dainty enough to wake covetous desires in the heart of almost any traveller. It has the finest oranges in the group - growing completely wild - and we are greeted on the shore by the usual crowd of flower-wreathed natives, bearing splendid branches of rich yellow fruit, which they present to every one with eager generosity. There are only three hundred and seventy natives in the island, and much of the land lies waste, though it is exceedingly fertile. The Mauke folk take things easy on the whole, and are not keen on trading. They export some oranges, some copra, a few bunches of dried bananas, and they buy a fair amount of cotton cloth, and shirts, and cutlery, from the white trader's store. But no one, so far, has grown fat on what Mauke makes or buys. There were, at the time of my visit, only one or two whites in the place. The greater portion of the land available for planting lay unused. Probable rents, on long leases, were quoted to me as a shilling or so an acre.
The call at Mauke was short, and I saw little of the island. The natives insisted, however, that I should come up to the village and look at their church, of which they are very proud, so I headed the inevitable procession through the orange and lime and guava groves, to the little group of houses, partly thatch and reed, partly white-washed concrete, that made up the settlement. The church was, of course, much the least interesting thing in the island. South Sea churches with one or two happy exceptions, are blots in a world of beauty, monuments of bad taste, extravagance, and folly, that do very little credit to the religions they represent. In the days when most of them were built, the one idea of the missionary was the assimilation of the native to white men's ways and customs, as far as was possible, by any means conceivable - wise, or otherwise. In building churches for the new converts, the pattern followed was that set by Europeans for use in a cold climate, on sites that had a distinct money value per yard. consequently, while South Sea houses, for coolness, are made almost all window and door, or else built, native fashi8on, in such a way that the air blows through the walls, South Sea churches are almost without ventilation, and (because the style of architecture selected is that of the whitewashed barn description) quite without beauty of any kind. In most cases, they have cost the islands appalling sums to build, and continue to demand a good deal to keep them in repair. There are happy exceptions here and there. Niue, of which place I have more to say later on, possesses a church built with exquisite taste and perfect regard to convenience, and the Catholic cathedral in Samoa is designed with much consideration as to climate, and appearance as well.
Mauke's church, however, is not one of the exceptions, being exceedingly bold and ugly, and it is furthermore disfigured by the most horrible lapse of taste to he seen in almost any island church - the decoration of the pulpit and communion rails with silver dollars nailed on the in rows. I told the crowd of natives, eager to hear the praises of their wonderful church, that I had never seen anything like it in my life - which seemed to afford them much gratification. I did not add what I thought - that I sincerely hoped I might never see anything like it again. A statement made only once or twice is fairly sure to miss the observation of the average reader, so I make no apology for saying here, as I have said in other parts of the book, that I am not one of those people who are opposed to mission work, or indifferent to religion; neither am I inclined to minimise the effects of the work done by missionaries in converting and civilising the Pacific generally. That the missionaries are infallible and always wise, however, in their methods of dealing with the natives, I do deny - which is only equivalent to saying that they are human, like the people at home. Nor do I think that, in these days, the missionary who takes up work in the Southern and Eastern Pacific has any need to wear the martyr aureole which is so persistently fitted on to the heads of all who go to "labour" in the island world. We are not in the days of Cook; cannibalism, over most of the Pacific, is dead and forgotten, violence to white people of any kind is unheard of, the climates are usually excellent, the islands beautiful, fertile, and happy, and the missionary's work is much the same as that of any country clergyman at home, save for the fact that his congregation are infinitely more submissive than whites would be, and incline to regard their teacher as a sovereign, not only spiritual, but temporal. The mission house is always much the finest building on the island, and the best furnished and provided. The missionary's children are usually sent away to be educated at good home or colonial boarding schools, and afterwards return to take up their parents' work, or possibly to settle in the islands in other capacities. the life, though busy, is devoid of all stress and strain, and there is no apparent difficulty in "making both ends meet" - and overlap. In the southern and Eastern Pacific, the missionaries are conveyed from group to group in a mission steamer that is little inferior to the yacht of a millionaire, for comfort and elegance. They are constantly assisted by gifts of all kinds, and treated with consideration wherever they go, and in most cases enjoy a social position much better than that originally possessed at home. It is hard to see why a profession, which is so pleasant and profitable, should be exalted over the work of thousands of struggling pastors and clergymen at home, who too often know the pinch of actual want, and are in many cases obliged to lead lives of the greyest and narrowest monotony.
What is the moral? That one should not give money to missions? Certainly not. but if I were a millionaire, and had thousands to give in such a cause, I would give them carefully, with inquiry, directed to more sources than one, and would distribute them so that they should be used, if possible, in adding to the numbers of the Christian Church, rather than in teaching geography and English grammar and dressmaking to amiable brown people who are, and have been for generations, a good deal more Christian than ninety in a hundred whites. I believe firmly that most of the older missions in the Pacific could be continued perfectly well with the aid of native teachers, at hone-twentieth the present coast - much as the teaching of outlying far-away islands, where residence is unpleasant for white families, is carried on to-day, with the aid of a yearly visit or so. that the present system will ever be modified, however, I do not believe. the reasons for such a conclusion are too obvious to need discussion.
I have wandered a good way from the church at Mauke. but there are many points on this subject of island missions, nevertheless, on which I have not touched. Some of the men of Mauke were very busy on the shore, when our party passed down again to the boat. they made a bright picture, in their gay pareos of scarlet and yellow, and the snowy coronets of scented island flowers that they had twined about their heads. but the most picturesque thing about them was their occupation, which was neither more nor less than sand-castle building! There they sat, those big grown men, with never a child among them to make excuse for their play, building up churches and houses of the milk-white coral sand, scooping dark windows in the edifices, training green creepers up them, and planting out odd little gardens of branching coral twigs off the reef, in the surrounding pleasances. they had bundles of good things tied up in green leaves lying somewhere in the shade of the guava bushes, and they had brought a pile of husked cocoanuts down to the shore with them, to drink when they pleased. they may have been waiting for a native boat, or they may have been simply making a day of it. In any case, they were sublimely happy.
(Cold rain on the miry road; faint gold sunset fading to stormy grey; wet leaves a-shiver in the dusk - and the long, long way before the tired feet. A day of toil, a comfortless night. A handful of coppers in the pocket; food and fire that must be bought with silver; freedom, rest, enjoyment, that cost unattainable gold. the sacred right of labour; a white man's freedom. O, brown half-naked islanders, playing at sand-castles on your sun-bathed shore, with unbought food lying among the unpurchased fruits beside you, what would you give to one of the master race?)
Takutea we did not call at, since it was uninhabited, but the Duchess, under her daring little pirate of a captain, made no bones about running as close to anything, anywhere, as her passengers might desire, so we saw the fascinating place at fairly close quarters. In 1904, when I saw it, it was a real "desolate island," being twelve miles out in the open sea from the nearest land (Atiu), and totally uninhabited. Its extent is four or five hundred acres; it is thickly wooded with cocoanuts, and has a good spring of water. The beautiful "bo'sun bird," whose long red and white tail feathers have a considerable commercial value, is common on the island. No one had visited it for a long time when we sailed by; the wide white beach was empty, the cocoanut palms dropped their nuts unheeded into earth that received them gladly, and set them forth again in fountain-like sprays of green. The surf crumbled softly on the irregular fringing reef; the ripples of the lagoon laid their ridgy footsteps along the empty strand, and no Man Friday came to trample them out with a step of awful significance. I wanted Takutea very badly indeed, all for myself; but I shall not have it now, neither will the reader, for some one else has bought it, and it is to be turned into a cocoanut plantation.
Manuwai, better known as Hervey Island, is not many miles away, but we took a day or more to reach it, partly because the winds were contrary, partly because (with apologies to the Admiralty Surveys) it was wrongly charted, and could not be found, and first, in a slight sea-fog. Manuwai has changed its ownership and its use, of late, but in 1904, it was a penal settlement and a copra plantation combined, being used as a place of punishment for sinful Cook Islanders, who were compulsorily let out as labourers to the company renting the two islets of which this so-called group is composed. the islands between them cover about fifteen hundred acres, according to the estimate given me. They have no permanent inhabitant, and when first taken up for planting, were quite desolate of life. A far-away, melancholy little place looked Manuwai, under the rays of the declining sun, as we came up to the reef. The two low islands, with their thick pluming of palms, are enclosed in the same lagoon, sheltered by the reef of oval form. There were a couple of drying-huts on the beach, and some heaps of oily smelling copra, when our boat pulled in. About twenty men, some convicts, some hired labourers, were gathered on the shore, fairly dancing with excitement, and the rest of the population - one white overseer, and one half-caste - were waiting on the very edge of the water, hardly less agitated. No ships ever called except the Duchess, and she was long overdue.
I stepped on shore, and was immediately shaken hands with, and congratulated on being the first white woman to set foot on the island. Then we all went for a walk, while the native crew fell into the arms of the labourers, and with cries of joy began exchanging gossip, tobacco, hats, and shirts, bartering oranges from the ship for cocoanut crabs from the island, and eagerly discussing the question of who was going home in the Duchess, and who would have to stop over till her next call, perhaps six months hence.
Manuwai is not one of the most beautiful of the islands but anything in the way of solid ground was welcome after the gymnastics of the too-lively Duchess. The cocoanut plantations, and the new clearings, where the bush was being burned away, interested the officials from Rarotonga, and the "boulevard" planted by the overseer - a handsome double row of palms, composing an avenue that facetiously began in nothing, and led to nowhere received due admiration. We heard a good deal about the depredations of the cocoanut crabs, and as these creatures are among the strangest things that ever furnished food for travellers' tales, I shall give their history as I gathered it, both in Manuwai and other places. One must not, by the way, believe all that one hears, or even half, among the "sunny isles of Eden." Flowers of the imagination flourish quite as freely as flowers and fruits of the earth, and are much less satisfactory in kind. also, it is recognised sport to "spin yarns" to a new-comer, with the pious object of seeing how much he - or she - will swallow; and where so much is strange, bizarre, and almost incredible, among undoubted facts, it is hard to sift out the fictions of the playful resident.
However, the cocoanut crab is an undeniable fact, with which many a planter has had to wrestle, much to his loss. It must be confessed that I had expected something very exciting indeed, when I heard in Tahiti that cocoanut or robber crabs were still to be found in some parts of the Cook Group. One of the most grisly bugbears of my youth had been the descriptions of the terrible cocoanut crab that attacked the "Swiss Family Robinson" on their wonderful island. It was described, if my memory serves me, as "about the size of a turtle" and was dark blue in colour; it descended rapidly backwards down a tree and immediately went to the attack of a Robinson youth, who repulsed it at the peril of his life . . . On the whole, I thought it would make things interesting, if it really was in the Cook Group. I never was more disappointed in my life than when I really saw one. It was dead, and cured in formation, and a half feet long, lobster tail and all; it was not in the least like a turtle, and any small boy armed with a good stick could have faced it without fear, at it worst. No, decidedly the terrible crab was not up to the travellers' tales that had been told about it.
Still, it was worth seeing, for it was like nothing on the earth or in the sea that I had ever encountered. It had been excellently preserved, and looked wonderfully alive, when laid on the sand at the foot of a cocoanut palm. Its colour, as in life, was a gay mixture of red and blue. It had a long body like a colossal lobster, and two claws, one slight and thin, the other big enough to crack the ankle-bone of a man. It was an ugly and a wicked-looking thing, and I was not surprised to hear that it fights fiercely, if caught away from its hole, sitting up and threatening man or beast with its formidable claw, and showing no fear whatever. In the daylight, however, it is very seldom seen abroad. We walked through groves that were riddled with its holes that afternoon, but never even heard the scuffle of a claw. the creature lives in rabbit-like burrows at the foot of palm-trees, and the natives can always tell the size of the inmate by a glance at the diameter of the hole by which it enters its burrow. At night it comes out, climbs the nearest palm, and gets in among the raffle of young and old leaves, fibre, stalks, and nuts, and the crown, there it selects a good nut, nips the stalk in two with its claw, and lets the booty drop with a thump to the earth, seventy or eighty feet below. Then the marauder backs cautiously down the tree, finds the nut, and proceeds to rip and rend the tough husk until the nut as we know it at home is laid bare. A cocoanut shell is no easy thing to crack, as most people know, but the robber crab, with its huge claws makes nothing more of it than we should make of an egg, and in a minute the rich oily meat is at the mercy of the thief, and another fraction of a ton of copra is lost to the planter. It goes without saying that any stray nuts lying on the ground have been opened and destroyed, before the crab will trouble itself to climb.
Cocoanut crab is very good eating, and as it is mostly found in barren coral islands where little or nothing will grow but palms, the natives are always keen on hunting the "robber." Sometimes he is secured by thrusting a lighted torch down a hole which possesses two exits - the crab hurrying out at the unopposed side as soon as the flame invades his dwelling. sometimes the islanders secure him by the simple process of feeling for him in his burrow, and stabbing him at the end of it with a knife. his is decidedly risky, however, and may result in a smashed hand or wrist for the invader. A favourtie plan is the following: Slip out in the dark, barefoot and silent, and hide yourself in a cocoanut grove till you see or hear a crab making his way up a tree. Wait till he is up at the top, and then climb half-way up, and tie a hand of grass round the trunk. Now hurry down and pile a heap of rough coral stones from the beach at the foot of the tree. Slip away into the shadow again, and wait. The crab will start to come down pr3esently, backing carefully, tail first, for he has a bare and unprotected end to his armoured body, and uses it to inform himself of his arrival on the safe ground below. Half-way down the tree he touches your cunning band of grass. "Down so soon?" he remarks to himself, and lets go. Crack! he has shot down, forty fee through air, and landed smashingly on the pile of stones that you carefully prepared for his reception. He is badly injured, ten to one, and you will have little trouble in finishing him off with your knife, and carrying home a savoury supper that is well worth the waiting for. that is the native way of hunting robber crabs.
When one lives on a cocoanut plantation, on an island that contains practically nothing else, one comes in time to know everything that is to be known about cocoanuts in general. but even the manager of Manuwai could not solve for me a problem that had been perplexing me ever since I had first seen a cocoanut palm - a problem, indeed, that after several more years of island travel, remains answered yet.
Why is no one ever killed by a cocoanut?
The question seems an idle one, if one thinks of cocoanuts as they are seen in British shops - small brown ovals of little weight or size - and if one has never seen them growing, or heard them fall. but when one knows that the smallest nuts alone reach England (since they are sold by number, not by weight) and that the ordinary nut, in its husk and on its native tree, is as big as one's own head, and as heavy as a solid lump of hard wood - that most trees bear seventy or eighty nuts a year, and that every one of those nuts has the height of a four-storey house to drop before it reaches the ground - that native houses are usually placed in the middle of a palm grove, and that every one in the islands, brown or white, walks underneath hundreds of laden cocoanut trees every day in the year - it then becomes a miracle of the largest kind that no one is ever killed, and very rarely injured, by the fall of the nuts. Nor can the reason be sought in the fact that the nuts cannot hurt. One is sure to see them fall from time to time, and they shoot down from the crown of the palm like flying bomb-shells, making a most portentous thump as they reach the earth. So extremely rare are accidents, however, that in nearly three years I did not hear of any mishap, past or present, save the single case of a man who was struck by a falling nut in the Cook Islands, and knocked insensible for an hour or two. this is certainly not a bad record for a tour extending over so many thousand miles, and including most of the important island groups - every one of which grows cocoanut palms by the thousand, in some cases, by the hundred thousand.
Travellers are often a little nervous at first, when riding or walking all day long through woods of palm, heavily laden with ponderous nuts. but the feeling never lasts more than a few days. One does not know why one is never hit by these cannon-balls of Nature - but one never is, neither is anybody else, so all uneasiness dies out very quickly, and one acquiesces placidly in the universal miracle. Planters say that most of the nuts fall at night, when the dew has relaxed the fibres of the stalks. This would be an excellent reason, but for the fact that the nuts don't fall any more at night than in the daytime, if one takes the trouble to observe, and that damp, or dew, tightens up fibres of all kind, instead of relaxing them. If one asks the natives, the usual answer is: "It just happens that way"; and I fancy that is as near as any one is likely to get to a solution.
Manuwai, since I saw it, has been purchased outright by a couple of adventurous young Englishmen, who are working it as a copra plantation. Takutea has, therefore, a neighbour in the Robinson Crusoe business, and is not likely to be quite so solitary as in times past. the tour of the group was now ended, and the Government officials were conveyed back to Rarotonga with all possible despatch - which is not saying very much, after all. here followed a luxurious interval of real beds and real meals, and similar Capuan delights, in the pretty island bungalow where my lot for the time had been cast. then the Duchess began to start again, and peace was over. A sailing vessel does not start in the same way as a steamer,. she gives out that she will leave on such a day, at such an hour, quite like the steamer; but there the resemblance ends. When you pack your cabin trunk, and have it taken down at 11 a.m., you find there is no wind, so you take it back and call again next day. There is a wind now, but from the one quarter that makes it practically impossible to get out of port. You are told you had better leave your trunk, in case of the breeze shifting. You do, and go back for the second time to the hostess from whom you have already parted twice. The verandah (every one lives on verandahs, in the islands) is convulsed to see you come back, and tells you this is the way the ship always doe3s "get off". You spend a quiet evening and go to bed. At twelve o'clock, just as you are in the very heart of your soundest sleep, a native boy comes running up to the house to say that the Captain has sent for the passenger to come down at once, for the wind is getting up, and he will sail in a quarter of an hour! You scramble into your clothes, run down to the quay, get rowed out to the ship, and finish your sleep; in your cabin to the accompaniment of stamping feet and the flapping sails; and behold, at eight o'clock, the bo'sun thunders on your door, and tells you that breakfast is in, but the breeze is away again, and the ship still in harbour! After breakfast you sneak up the well-known avenue again, feeling very much as if you had run away from school, and were coming back in disgrace. this time, the verandah shrieks until the natives run to the avenue gate to see what is the matter with the man "papalangis" and then console you with the prophecy that the schooner won't get away for another week.
She does, though. In the middle of the afternoon tea, the captain himself arrives, declines to have a cup, and says it is really business this time, and he is away. You go down that eternal avenue again, followed by cheerful cries of "No goodbye! we'll keep your place at dinner, and in half an hour the green and purple hills of lovely Rarotonga are separated from you by a widening plain of wind-ruffled blue waves, and the Duchess is fairly away to Savage Island.
"Miss G--- have you nearly done your book!"
"Pretty nearly - why?" I ask, looking up from the pages of "John Herring."
We are a day or two out from Rarotonga, but not even one hundred of the six hundred miles that lie between the cook Group and lonely Niue is compassed as yet. The winds have been lightest of the light, and from the wrong quarter too, until this morning, when we have "got a slant" at last. Now the Duchess is rolling along in her usual tipsy fashion at seven or eight knots an hour, and the china-blue sea is ruffled and frilled with snow. It is hot, but not oppressively so, and I have been enjoying myself most of the morning lounging on a pile of locker cushions against the deck-house, alternately reading, and humming to myself something from Kipling about:
The pirate captain has been at the wheel for the last two hours, but I have not taken much note of the fact. Our only mate left us in the Cook Group, for a reason not absolutely new in the history of the world (a pretty little reason she was, too); and our bo'sun, who has been giddily promoted to a rank that he describes as "chief officer," is not exactly a host in himself, though he is white man. In consequence, the pirate and he have been keeping watch and watch since we sailed - four hours on and four hours off - and, as one or two of our best A-B-s declined to go down to Niue, and most of the others are bad helmsmen, the two whites have been at the wheel during the greater part of their watches. I have grown quite accustomed to seeing one or other standing aft of the little companion that leads down to the cabin, lightly shifting the spokes in his hands hour after hour. It never occurred to me, however, that I was personally interested in the matter. But we are in the south Pacific, and I have still a good many things to find out about the "way they do things at sea," here where the ocean is the ocean, and the playground for globe-trotting tourists.
And from thenceforth until we made the rocky coast of Niue, more than a week later, I spent a portion of every day with the polished spokes of the wheel in my hands, straining my eyes on the "lubber's point," or anxiously watching the swelling curves of the sails aloft in the windy blue, ready to put the wheel up the instant an ominous wrinkle began to flap and writhe upon the marble smoothness of the leaning canvas. At night, the smallest slatting of sail upon the mast would start me out of my sleep, with an uneasy fear that I was steering, and had let her get too close to the wind and I deposed most of my prayers in favour of an evening litany that began; "North, north by east, nor'-nor'-east, nor'-east by north, nor'-east," and turned round upon itself to go backward in the end, like a spell said upside down to raise a storm.
Withal, the good ship left many a wake that would have broken the back of a snake, for the first day or two of my lessons, and the native A.B.s used to come and stand behind me when an occasional se made the wheel kick, under the evident impression that they would be wanted before long. but I leaned to steer - somehow - before we got to Niue, and I learned to lower away hosts, and to manage a sixteen foot steer-oar, when we got becalmed, and spent the day rowing about among the mountainous swells, out of sheer boredom. And for exercise and sport, I learned to go up into the cross-trees and come down again by the ratlines or the back-stay, whichever seemed the handiest, wearing the flannel gymnasium dress I had brought for mountaineering excursions. It was very pleasant up there on a bright, salt-windy morning, when the Dutchess swung steadily on her way with a light favouring breeze, her little white deck lying below me like a tea-tray covered with walking dolls, her masts at times leaning to leeward until my airy seat was swung far out across the water. Having a good head, I was never troubled with giddiness, and used to do a good deal of photographing from aloft, when the ship was steady enough to allow of it. That was seldom, however, for the Duchess had been built in New Zealand, where the good schooners do not come from, and had no more hold on the water than a floating egg. More than one sailing vessel turned out by the same builders had vanished off the face of the ocean, in ways not explained, by reason of the absence of survivors, but dimly guessed at, all the same; and I cannot allow that the pirate captain had any just cause of annoyance - even allowing for a master's pride in his ship - when I recommended him to have the schooner's name painted legibly on her keel before he should leave Auckland on his next northward journey just "in case."
We were about a hundred and fifty miles off Niue, when the pirate came to me one windy morning, and asked me if I wanted to see something that had only been once seen before. There was, of course, only one reply possible.
"Then keep a look-out, and you'll see it," said the pirate. "We're going to run right by Beveridge Reef, and it's been only once sighted. What's more, it's wrong charted, and I'm going to set it right. You've no idea what a lot of wrecks there have been on that d--- that dangerous place. Not a sol ever got away from one of them to tell what happened either. They'd only know when things began drifting down to Niue, weeks after - timber and cargo, and so on - why, a lot of the houses in Niue are built out of wreckage - and then people would say that there'd been another wreck on Beveridge Reef. some fool reported it as a coral island two miles across, once upon a time, but I'll bet he never saw it. If it had been, it wouldn't have been as destructive as it is."
Late in the day we sighted it. the pirate was aloft, swinging between heaven and earth, with a glass in his hand, calling out observations to the chief-officer-boat-swain below. The crew were attending exclusively to the horizon, and letting the ship look after herself, according to the amiable way of Maories when there is anything interesting afoot. the weather was darkening down, and heavy squalls of rain swept the sea now and then. but where it was clearly enough to be seen in the intervals of the squalls, a circle of white foam enclosing an inner patch of livid green, clearly marked off from the grey of the surrounding ocean. Here and there a small black tooth of rock projected from the deadly ring of surf, and - significant and cruel sight - two ships' anchors were plainly to be seen through the glass, as we neared the reef, lying fixed among the rock, so low in the water as only to be visible at intervals.
They lowered and ---
Well, if the pirate had been a shade less determined about the number in the boat, there would have been a pretty little tragedy of the sea, that gusty afternoon. One more in the boat had certainly turned the scale. For the wind was continually getting up, and the wretched Duchess was rolling like a buoy, and the boat as she touched the water, with the captain and three men in her, was caught by the top of a wave, and dashed against the side of the ship., In a flash she was overturned, with a badly damaged thwart, and was washing about helplessly among the waves, with the four men clinging to her keel. The sea took her past the schooner like a rag. I had only time to run to the stern, before she was swept out of hearing, but I heard the pirate call as he disappeared in the trough of a wave. "Get out your camera, here's the chance of your life!" Then the boat was gone, and for a moment the mate and I thought it was all over. "The sharks will have 'em if they don't sink!" declared that officer, straining over the rail, while the Maori crew ran aimlessly about the deck, shouting with excitement.
What happened during the next half-hour has never been very clear in my memory. the wind kept rising, and the afternoon grew late and dark. the overturned boat, with the four heads visible about her keel, drifted helplessly in the trough of the seas, at the mercy of waves and sharks. (I heard, afterwards, that the men had all kicked ceaselessly to keep them away, and that they expected to be seized any moment.) the wind screamed in the rigging, and drifts of foam flew up on deck, and the Maories ran about and shouted, and got in each other's way, and tried to launch a boat under the mate's direction, and somehow did not - I cannot tell why. And right in the middle of the play, when we seemed to making some attempt to bear down upon the drifting wreck, a grey old man who had come on with us from the cook Islands, but had kept to his berth through illness most of the time, burst out on deck with an astonishing explosion of sea language, and told us that we were nearly on to the reef. Which, it seems, every one had forgotten!
After that, change grew so lively on the poop that I got up on the top of the deck-house to keep out of the way, and reflect upon my sins. It seemed a suitable occasion for devotional exercises. The white teeth of the reef were unpleasantly near, the water was growing shoal. "Put a leadman in the chains this minute!" yelled the grizzled passenger (who had been at sea in his time, and knew something of what was likely to happen when you got a nasty reef on your lee side, with the wind working up). The auxiliary engine, meant for use on just such occasions, had been sick for some time. There was a very strong tide running, the wind had shifted while the ship's company were intent on the fate of the boat, and on the whole it looked very much as if the decorations already possessed by the notorious reef were likely to be increased by another pair of best quality British made anchors - ours. A good many things happen on sailing ships - Pacific ships especially - that one does not describe in detail, unless one happens to be writing fiction. this is not fiction, so the occurrences of the next quarter of an hour must be passed over lightly. The ancient passenger took command of the ship. We got away from the reef by an unpleasantly close shave and bore down upon the boat, which the pirate captain had impossibly contrived to right by this time, paddling it along with one oar, while the men baled constantly. We got the captain and the men and the damaged boat on board, and a few "free opinions, freely expressed" - as a certain famous lady novelist would put it - were exchanged. Then the pirate, who was quite fresh, and very lively, demanded the second boat, and said he was bound to get into that place anyhow, and wouldn't leave till he did.
I rather think we mutinied at this juncture. I was sure I did, because I had been thinking over my sins for some time, and had come to the conclusion that there really were not many of them, and that I wanted a chance to accumulate a few more, preferably of an agreeable kind, before I faced the probability of decorating any Pacific coral reef with my unadorned and unburied skeleton. The grey-haired passenger and the mate mutinied too, upon my example, and the pirate, seeing that we were three to one, and moreover, that it was growing dusk, made a virtue of necessity, and went off for a shift of clothes, giving orders to make all sail at once. And so we left the reef in the growing dusk, and no man has to this day disturbed the virgin surface of its stormy little lagoon with profanely invading oar. Was there a fortune lying concealed beneath those pale green waves within the foaming jaws of the reef? I never heard. but there were some among our native crew who came from the far-off island of Penrhyn, where the pearl fisheries are, and they were strong in asserting their belief that the pirate might have been well paid for his exploration. It was just that sort of reef, said the pearl-island men, that most often contained good shell, and produced the biggest pearls, the first time of looking. An old, undisturbed atoll, where no one had ever thought of looking for shell, was the place where big pearls got a chance to grow. The first owner scooped in the prices; afterwards, the shell itself and the smaller pearls were all that any one was likely to get.
However, that might be, the talk, on the rest of the way, down to Niue, ran much on pearls and pearl-shell, and I learned a good deal about these gold-mines of the Pacific - always making allowance for the inevitable Pacific exaggeration. Any man who can live a year among the islands, and restrain himself in the latter part of his stay, from lying as naturally and freely as he breathes, deserves a D.S.O. Stripped of flowers of fiction, the romance of the pearling trade was still interesting and fascinating enough. Pearls, in the Pacific, are obtained from a large bivalve that has a good deal of value in itself, being the material from which mother-o'-pearl is made. Prices of course, fluctuate very much, as the shell is used in so many manufactures that depend on the vagaries of fashion; but the value may run to 200 pounds a ton or over. When it gets down to 40 pounds or less, it is hardly worth the expense of lifting and carrying. for the most part, however, it is worth a good deal more than this, and when it is at the highest, fortunes can be, and have been, made out of small beginnings, in a very short time. The pearls are an "extra," and not to be relied upon. There may be almost none in a big take of shell, there may be a few small ones, there may be a number of fine ones that will make the fortune of the lucky fisher. It is all a gamble, and perhaps none the less fascinating for that. Much of the best shell and the finest pearls in the Pacific, come from the Paumotus, which are French. Thursday Island, off the north of Queensland, was the great centre of the fishery until lately, but it has been almost fished out. The Solomons were reported to have a good deal of shell, and a rush took place to that part not long ago, but the yield was much exaggerated. There are a good many atolls about the Central Pacific in general, which contain more or less shell, and are generally owned and fished by Australian syndicates. Outlying reefs and islets, where no one goes, now and then turn on the wings of the seagulls from group to group, for no such place ever remains secret for more than a very short time, and then, if the owner's title is not secure (a thing that may easily happen, in the case of an island that does not lie within the geographical limits of any of the annexed groups, there is sometimes trouble. Pearl-poaching is easy and profitable, if not very safe; and who is to tell ugly tales, a thousand miles from anywhere, out in the far Pacific?
(The swift-winged schooner and the racing seas; decks foam-white beneath a burning sky; salt wind on the lips, and the fairy-voiced enchantress Adventure singing ever from beyond the prow! "O dreamers in the man-stifled town," do you hear the wide world calling?)
And so this pirate captain brought us up to Niue, and left me there, and sailed away with the ship to Auckland, where he gave over the command, and went (so it was said) to aid in the instruction of sea-going youth, somewhere further south. the cook Islands shrieked with joyous amusement when they heard of the pirate's new role as the guide and mentor of tender boyhood - but I do not know, after all. the pirate was as full of mischief as an egg is full of meat; as full of fight as a sparrow-hawk, gifted with an uncanny faculty for plunging into every kind of risk that the wide seas of the earth could hold, and coming out unscathed and asking for more. He was assuredly not to be numbered among the company of the saints, but neither is the average "glorious human boy" - and on the principle of setting a thief to catch a thief, the pirate's new role may, well have turned out a success.
We came up to Niue graced by a last touch of the piratical spirit. There was some blusterous weather as we neared the great island with its iron-bound, rocky coasts, towards which we had been making for so many days, but we swept up towards the land with every rag of canvas set, for that was the pirate captain's custom, and he would not break it. by-and-by, as I was standing on the main deck, holding on to the deckhouse, while I looked at the looming mass of blue ahead, the main square-sail gave way with a report like a gun, and began to thrash the foremast with streamers of tattered canvas. The pirate had it down in a twinkling, and got the men to bend on a new sail immediately. It went up to the sound of yelling Maori chants (for the crew liked this sort of excitement), and once more the ship fled on towards Niue with every sail straining against the gusty wind. Half-an-hour, and crack! - the new square-sail was gone too, and half of it away to leeward like a huge grey bird in a very great hurry. And the pirate, as we began to draw inshore, raged up and down the deck, like a lion baulked of its prey. to come up to Niue without every sail set was a disgrace that he had never yet encountered, and it evidently hit him hard that he had not another sail in the locker, and was forced to "carry on" as best he could without it.
Niue, or Savage Island, is no joke to approach. It is about forty miles round, and almost every yard of the whole forty is unapproachable, by reason of the precipitous cliffs, guarded by from spears of coral rock, that surround it on every side. There are one or two places where an approach can be made, in suitable weather, with care, but it is quite a common thing for sailing vessels to beat on and off as much as a week, before they succeed in landing passengers and goods. We came up on a very gusty day, with the blow-holes in the cliffs spouting like whales as we went by, but the pirate captain ran us into the anchorage below Alofi as easily as if it had been perfect weather and an excellent harbour, and we put out a boat to land our goods, including myself. The pirate had not an ounce of caution in his body, but, as an old Irishman on one of the islands declared: "The divil takes care of his own, let him alone for that, and it's not the Pirate that he's goin' to let into any houle till he lets him into the biggest wan of all - mind that!"
An extract from IN THE STRANGE SOUTH SEAS by BEATRICE GRIMSHAW, published in London by Hutchinson & Co., 1908.
Pacific Islands Radio Stations