Short Stories/The Blackbird
If Paul Dane were alive now he would be called a "bounder"—probably with good strong double-barreled prefixes to it; but what the sharks left of him is floating about amongst the coral beds somewhere in the New Britain group of islands.
It was long ago.
There were two women: one of the two was Paul Dane's wife, the other wasn't.
Women are queer about men, especially about "bounders"; I dare say you have noticed that. I remember an awfully pretty woman once who had the pick of Melbourne to choose from, but she bolted with a cock-eyed Yankee "drummer," and went barmaiding eventually at Spiers and Ponds in Piccadilly. That was in the early seventies; then she died.
I could tell you of lots of other cases where the "bounders" got the best of it, but they have nothing to do with Paul Dane, so maybe I'll tell you some other time, or perhaps I won't.
There was nothing extraordinary in my first meeting with Dane. I was loafing around Darling harbor watching the ships loading wool for home. I had been roaming over the colonies for some years, and hoped I might pick up a billet round the wharves; but my luck was out and so was my money. I had not even the price of a screw of tobacco on me.
A little tops'l schooner at one of the wharves attracted me; she looked so smart, with taut spars and such a clean entrance and run I could not help standing watching her.
She was a vessel of about a hundred and fifty tons, with a lot of room between decks, where a couple of men were stowing away cases of "Yankee notions"; bales of Manchester goods and cheap German cutlery filled up her lower hold. I noticed particularly how beautifully clean below she was, all newly lime-washed; on deck, although alongside the wharf, she was as clean as the proverbial new pin.
To a sailor there is something fascinating about the lines of a pretty vessel, and the little schooner was as neat a model, for a trader, as one could wish to see.
Seated aft on the cabin top a man was smoking—a dark-haired, swarthy man—powerfully built, with sleeves rolled up over a pair of muscular arms clasped round his left knee, which was drawn up almost under his chin. The other leg hung down over the cabin top, and I could not see it, as I was on the port side and he sat on the starboard. I knew be wasn't the mate (mates don't have time to loll around and smoke), so I supposed he was the captain.
A fringe of black hair around his face made him pretty ugly, and he had little black, beady eyes that seemed to glitter, and didn't add to his beauty. It was the captain; I learned afterwards that his name was Dane—Paul Dane. He had the reputation of being one of the smartest traders in the South Seas—which is saying a good deal for his capacities, both in business and by way of seamanship.
There was no steam there amongst the islands; Burns, Philp & Co. had not swallowed the trade, and good pickings were to be got by smart men who could keep their vessels off the coral reefs and knew their way about. Admiralty charts in those days weren't of any use at all amongst the islands. The best paying trade, in fact the chief one, was "blackbirding." Now blackbirding in the South Seas isn't the innocent amusement of our school days. In plain English it means stealing natives from the Islands and "contracting" them for labor.
The government has stopped it all now, but in those times the trade had full swing, and Paul Dane was the smartest man at it. He had been very successful, made money, bought his own schooner, married quite a pretty little woman, "Promwooloomooloo," who wasn't very particular, not more so than most of her "lady friends" in that district, that is to say.
Shipping clerks and agents used to give him the time of day as they passed on the quay. Altogether Paul Dane was quite "somebody" along the water front of Sydney; amongst the Islands, he was a "terror."
I stood and looked at him, and he, puffing away at his pipe, squinted at me. I was rather a likely lad in those days, and as for sailoring—my heart was in it. From the hour I first put foot on board the old "Conway" in the Mersey, and in spite of many successes in other walks of life, will remain true to the sea till the day it stops beating. There is no life like the sea—none harder, none more thankless, none more precarious—but none so fascinating. I know lots of men who understand what I mean, and can say it better than I can; you may read all about it in their books (and the best sea books are those written by sailors), then you will know, too—and believe me, it is something worth knowing.
I think sailors get nearer to God than people ashore; I mean the real God, without all the trimmings and extras that fence him around on land; we haven't any churches and few parsons at sea.
I remember one old skipper I was with in a large passenger ship being worried by three different parsons in the second class, all different denominations, as to which should read the service on Sunday in the saloon. Each stood out for his own particular creed, and the "old man" at last lost his patience—and roared out: "I'll not have a second-class parson praising God in my first-class saloon, dam'me; gentlemen, I'll read the prayers myself!" And he did. We were under the Union Jack, and so the "old man" rolled out as best he could the service of the Church of England. It may or may not be the best in the world, but it is the one sailors are used to, and they don't care for new-fangled notions as a rule, whether they have to do with ships or God.
I was not thinking all these things while I watched the captain. I was wondering if he wanted a hand—a wonder soon brought up with a round turn by that worthy himself.
"Looking for a ship?" cried he.
"Yes," said I.
"Come aboard, then!"
The brawny arms unclasped; the left leg unbent to its full length; he took the pipe from his mouth, knocking the ashes over the side, gave a grunt and rose to his full height, about five feet ten.
I scrambled down the ladder which served for a gang-plank on to the schooner's deck, walked to where he stood and touched my cap. "I'm Captain Dane," said he; "this is my schooner. Going away tomorrow. If you want a berth I'll sign you on for six months—wages of the port—bring you back to Sydney."
"I've a mate's certificate, sir," I answered.
"Don't want any mates; only carry one, got him." This he said indicating a man at the hatchway who was superintending the taking in of cargo.
"Where are you bound, capt'n?" I asked.
"South Sea Islands."
"Right. I'll go, sir!"
"Meet me at the shipping office at noon tomorrow; bring your dunnage on board; we cast off early next morning. If this wind holds we'll get clear of the heads and make an offing by noon. Want any money?"
"Right; I'll give you a month's advance when you sign, and here's five bob to clinch the bargain."
I took the five shillings and felt like a millionaire.
"Paul!" Rather a sweet-toned voice came up from the schooner's cabin.
"Breakfast!" cried the voice. I smelt it—not the voice but the bacon.
Captain Dane turned aft, and as he went down the companion looked my way and said:
"No larks now! You'll come—sure?"
"Sure, sir," said I.
"So long!" and he disappeared.
I climbed the ladder, took a hurried survey of the schooner, and walked away to break my five bob with a good square meal and a pint of beer. By Jove I wanted them—badly.
I was in high spirits.
Having been third mate of a big ship, I never dreamt of having to go before the mast. But that didn't bother me so much, and my thoughts ran helter-skelter till I got dreaming of blue seas and skies—bright coral reefs—fairy-like islands clad with tropical trees—dusky men and women familiar to me in pictures, and a thousand wonders, that, to my imagination, seemed the most desirable things to have seen and known on earth. Isn't youth gorgeous!
A youngster just going to sea from the old "Conway" writes to me now and then; he is crazy about the sea as I was at his age (as I am now!), all eager anticipation to see the sights I have seen, to go where I have been. I shall have a "real good time," as our Yankee cousins say, when that boy comes home from his first voyage and we get together and yarn about it all.
Looking back on life—all the follies of it—all the tragedies—the ups and downs—and the ins and outs—the pleasures and pains—I wonder if I had to live over again whether I would change any of it! We all say we would!
"If I could only start at twenty with the experience I have now!" a man said in my hearing the other day.
"What an insufferable prig you'd be," replied the other.
I suppose we all should be "insufferable prigs" under those conditions.
Bah! what is the use of youth if we are all to be wise before our time! Of what use the hot blood—the light heart—and the little-thinking lighter head! It is all very well to speculate on what we should have gained—but just think, for one moment, what we should have lost! Think of a sturdy young life tempered with the limpness of age! Think of it! Impulse without the "Imp" or the "pulse"! And where the deuce would youth be, especially without the "Imp"!
But heavens! why am I moralizing (or immoralizing perhaps would be the better word) when my pint of beer is losing its head and my square meal getting cold!
Work-a-day, toiling Sydney passed and repassed the little "pub" where I sat overlooking the glorious harbor, but it all meant nothing to me. My mind was centered on the schooner and her captain. I longed for the night to pass and noon tomorrow to come. I longed to go down to the shipping office, sign on, and go aboard.
"Got a ship, sonny?" said the old woman who owned the weatherboard cottage where half a dozen of us pigged together.
She saw me cramming the few things I had into a canvas bag. Poor old soul! she was a real good sort. Why she ever trusted any of us for a penny God only knows; but she did, and I don't think any of us sold her.
There was a story of a man once who had, but, as she said, "he come from furrin parts," and the story didn't end well for the "Dutchman." Everyone who isn't a Dago is a Dutchman at sea, if he doesn't happen to be English or a Yank.
"Yes, mother"—that was her nickname amongst us.
"That's good news, sonny!"
"I've shipped on the schooner bound for the Islands."
"Ho! 'ave yet? Well, I wish yer well of 'er, my son."
"Why, mother; what's wrong with her?"
"Ho! there ain't nothin' wrong with the schooner, my son."
With what then, mother?"
"Well, they do say that Paul Dane knows 'is was about them h'islands—and 'as got a wife as knows 'er way about Wooloomooloo; but 'e don't take 'er along, they do say."
"Well, that's his affair mother, not mine—is it?"
"No—it ain't your'n, sonny. It ain't your'n—for sure!"
Mother hobbled way about her work muttering, and for a moment I thought of the smell of bacon and the pretty voice from the schooner's cuddy calling Captain Dane to breakfast.
In my heart I hoped the captain's wife was not going to sea with us. I sailed once in a ship with a captain's wife aboard; she was not only wife, but captain too! That ship was a regular hell. I don't know how it was managed, but she got every one on board quarreling. Men seem to get along together all right until a woman comes among them; then it all goes wrong. Yet women are nice enough things as they go. I can't account for it. Noon came at last. My appointment was kept at the shipping office—I signed on—took a "month's advance," carried my bag down to the schooner, stored it away for'rd in the little fo'c'sle—lit my pipe and went ashore again with orders to be aboard ready to heave out from the wharf at daylight. The mate gave me the orders. I noticed him—his face struck me by its frankness and almost feminine beauty. I noticed, too, that he spoke with a slight accent, which I afterwards found was Scandinavian.
Every one called him "Mr. Chris," his full name, I believe, was Christian Christiansen.
Poor Chris! We became great friends. He's dead, too! How they all seem to die but me! I suppose there is a "little cherub" with an eye on me somewhere "up aloft." But I cannot help thinking there are a lot of good men gone before their proper time—or anyway long before their job was half done.
We were all fond of Chris on board the schooner—all but the captain—for somehow Mr. Chris fell in love with the captain's wife, and that's a great mistake on board ship—or on shore either if it comes to that—at least they say so. I don't think the captain knew it—not really—but anyway there was no cordiality between the two men. We had trouble on board the schooner, though it did not begin with Mr. Chris, but with the captain's wife and another girl they called the "Blackbird"—her name really was "Loalia."
Nearly all the names amongst the Islands are soft-sounding and beautiful. I often wonder people don't use them for their children instead of "Harriet," "Susan," or the common or garden "Jane." Jane! Great Scott! say it over to yourself twice out loud and listen!
Loalia had been caught on a former voyage by the skipper before he married his Wooloomooloo wife. She was enticed to the schooner's side by a tempting red shawl, took the bait, but instead of being sold for labor, Captain Dane installed her as his wife pro-tem, and established her on one of the islands in the New Britain group, where a child was born to her and there were no missionaries.
So Loalia was happy.
She was a beauty, passionate—fond of Paul, but, like her kind, jealous and revengeful.
That's how things stood when I joined the schooner, though I did not know this until after we had reached New Britain.
Well, we warped out, and as there was a fair slant of wind down the harbor the old man didn't bother about a tug, but sheeted home his topsail, set all the fore and aft canvas, and stood for the heads. As we passed through we could see that the clouds low down were banking up in the southeast, so we stood well out from the land, and that night got what we expected, eased our booms forward, canted the yards a little to starboard and stood to the northward with a pretty breeze and a gentle sea on our quarter. It was beautiful weather, with a clear moon almost at the full, and the schooner made good way with everything up aloft "asleep."
I had the deck, and was leaning over the weather rail forward, yarning with a young fellow who had been picked by Mr. Chris along with myself to serve in his watch. Between the puffs at his pipe he was telling me about the "last voyage"—for he had sailed in the schooner before.
"Old man's got his wife aboard this time."
"So I see," I replied, noticing at the same time that he smiled curiously.
"Well—there'll be fun."
"How?" I asked.
"Wait till we get to New Britain."
"What is there up there?"
"Oh—not much-only he's got another of 'em up in the Islands."
"Why, another Missus."
"Well, there ain't any missionaries up there—and there wasn't any fuss or sing-song over it—but she's his missus up there right enough."
"Is that so!"
"Right o'! and there's a kid, too."
"Well! What's he want to take this one up there for then?"
"I dunno—some game he's got, you take your colonial oath!"
Our conversation broke off as four bells struck, and I lay aft to relieve the wheel. From where I stood, the weather side of the wheel, I could see down into the schooner's cuddy, and I noticed that there was a large cabin on each side of the companion ladder, and beyond that the saloon. I supposed these after rooms were the captain's. A light in the little saloon—under the skylight—lit up the place sufficiently to make all clear down below. I saw the port cabin door open, and the captain's wife in a loose flowing white wrapper come into the saloon—go to the swinging tray and pour out some water from the carafe that stood there surrounded with glasses.
Mr. Chris heard the click of the glasses, and looked down the skylight. Then a strange thing happened.
Mr. Chris was just going to speak to the woman, when she hastily put her finger to her lips as if to command silence—and her eyes glanced quickly at the starboard cabin door.I wondered what it meant. Had they met before? Of course they must have done so—for I had seen her on board-—or rather heard her voice the day I agreed to ship and had the conversation with Captain Dane.
My curiosity was awakened, and I watched. Mr. Chris stood looking down the skylight with a smile on his face. The woman "blew" him a kiss with her hand, and then returned abruptly into the cabin, and I heard the click of the handle as she closed the door. Mr. Chris seemed unable to tear himself away, and it wasn't until I struck eight bells that he roused himself, gave aaloft—looked all round the horizon—and then stood leaning over the rail gazing to windward.
"Heave the log," he cried out, and the two other hands in the watch lay aft and hove it before the skipper came up to relieve the deck—for Mr. Chris was an "only mate."
"Seven knots, sir," replied the man with the log.
"Seven knots," replied Mr. Chris.
The wheel was relieved. I saw the captain come up the companion. He and Mr. Chris spoke a few words together, and then the mate went below. I turned in wondering!
We worked easily up the coast for the next few days, up inside the Great Barrier reef—through the lovely scenery of the Whitsunday passage—in and out amongst the islands, and along the gloriously beautiful Queensland coast, until finally we rounded Cape Tribulation, and stood in for Cooktown, where we were to call and fill up with water and fresh provisions before proceeding on our voyage.
The road down to the little wharf where we lay dwindled off into a narrow track that wandered away amongst the tropical vegetation around the base of the mountain that formed the southern boundary of the harbor.
Captain Dane had been on deck most of the time, coming up amongst the Islands, and turned in early for a good rest before tackling the rest of the passage north, which is the most difficult navigation inside the reef. We were to sail next day, and he made up his mind to get all the sleep he could now.
His wife in the cool of the evening went for a stroll ashore. Mr. Chris thought he would like to stretch his legs, so after seeing everything cleared up he went over the side, and I, feeling the same way, followed soon after.
There was little to interest me in Cooktown after I had taken a look at the stone marking the supposed spot where Captain Cook hove down the Endeavour, after running her on to one of the sunken reefs off the mouth of the harbor; and, passing two or three open-doored grog shops full of noisy niggers, I wandered back to the schooner, but before boarding her followed the track I had seen in the daylight trending round Mount Cook. The moon was bright, and the view over the bay—the distant ranges on the other side—the entrance to the Endeavour river and Cooktown itself, circled by the range that follows the entire coast line of Queesland—made an enchanting picture.
I was lying on a great boulder of stone to which I climbed, had lit my pipe and was enjoying the beautiful view, when I heard voices approaching from beyond me, and presently, along the path below, I saw a man and a woman advancing slowly. To my amazement I recognized the voice of the man. It was that of Mr. Chris. Who was the woman, though! As they drew near I saw and recognized the captain's wife.
I didn't quite know what to do—whether to make my presence known to them or not. I did not wish to embarrass them, so I lay still on the top of the rock which overhung the path. On they came, talking very earnestly.
"It's no use, Chris, talking like that. I know you love me—loved me long before I ever met him. Can't you be content? I wouldn't marry you, with only a coasting mate's pay—now, could I? You men are so unreasonable."
"You make me mad, woman. I don't know what I'm doing sometimes. I feel I could kill him."
"Ha! ha! you talk like a great big baby, Chris. They'd hang you, Chris, and you wouldn't have me after all. And I'd be a widow—and the schooner and all would be mine. That would be fine, wouldn't it?"
"You don't love him, then" I could hear the strain in the mate's voice from where I was.
"Love him? Don't be so, Chris. I had to look out for myself, and he was willing to marry me—most men wouldn't do it."
"I would. By God! I would!"
"Ah!—you say so now—"
"I said so before—"
"Oh! what's the use, Chris? You can't now, so there's an end. Be sensible. I'm going on board again. Come on."
They passed on. I thought to myself, there was a nice little comedy—or tragedy—going on aboard the schooner. But there, it wasn't my picnic; so I knocked the ashes out of my pipe, jumped down off the rock, and strolled quietly and slowly back to the schooner. When I got aboard all was silent, but I noticed the light in the mate's room was not yet out.
Next day, after taking in stores and water, we let go from the wharf about noon, and getting a good slant of wind, stood out to sea and headed north. Captain Dane headed for Lizard Island, and then through one of the breaks in the Great Barrier reef, with which he seemed quite familiar, and instead of coming our way through the coral we soon found ourselves breasting the broad roll of the Pacific, which thundered behind us as it broke with terrific force and grandeur on the barrier. With glorious weather and a fair wind we stood to the northeast, and made an uneventful passage amongst the islands of those seas that make up the great fairyland of the Far East.
No one who has not seen the South Pacific can realize the beauty of it from reading books. So I will not attempt in my little way to describe those southern glories. To me every hour of daylight was a joy, though I own the anxiety of keeping clear of the sunken coral at night was intense. By day one hand was always aloft looking out for the coral, which could be easily detected by the apparent change of color of the water into pale green where it shallowed. But Captain Dane and Mr. Chris seemed to know every reef and exactly where it was, and the schooner never touched a bit of coral all the way.
We were to anchor first in the New Britain Group, and stop over night, ship a quantity of copra, and then proceed to the Ellice group, "blackbirding." In the second dog watch, just before it got dark one evening, the lookout hailed the deck with the welcome cry, "Land on!"
It was the island we were bound for, and from aloft could be seen, as a thin dark line just above the horizon that looked no bigger than a ship's "biscuit."
It was almost calm. The schooner forging ahead slowly, pushed along almost by the send of the swell and the weight of her canvas as it flapped forward, rather than by any real wind there was. Captain Dane took the bearings of the land, and that night we drifted quietly towards it, daylight finding us about five miles off the shore, which shone in the sun against a background of dark tropical vegetation and great palm trees.
I was at the wheel, and I could not help noticing that the captain got fidgety as we neared the island. His wife was lying in a chair under the temporary awning we had rigged up for her—looking towards the island as we neared it.
"Oh! Isee a lot of canoes!—and people!" she said.
"Fishing!" muttered the skipper.
"There's one little canoe with only one fisher in it—oh, a long way nearer to us than the others."
"Man or woman?" asked the captain.
"How stupid you are? How can I tell at this distance? They all look alike."
Dane took the glasses from his wife—a bit roughly, I thought—and raised them to his eyes. He looked steadily, and long—and then holding the glasses out to his wife to take—without looking at her—walked forward a little and stood with his back to her, gazing up aloft.
"What do you make out?" she asked.
"You've got good eyes."
"I know what to look for."
"Men—got nothing on—women wear a bit of a grass girdle."
"Oh!" said the wife. "Is that all?"
Then there was silence for a while.
"The woman is paddling the little canoe towards us," she said presently, with the glasses up again.
Dane didn't seem interested.
"Yes! She's waving a red rag of some sort."
"The devil!" said Dane, and then turning suddenly to his wife he said, "I want to talk to you a minute down below."
He did not wait to see if she followed him down the companion.
The woman rose wonderingly, placed the glasses in her chair and followed. I noticed Mr. Chris, who was on watch, edged up near the skylight. I don't say he was listening, but it looked that way, though all the time he kept his eyes up aloft, as if he was watching the sails. As there wasn't any wind it didn't seem a necessary thing to do.
I heard voices down in the captain's cabin. They seemed angry—there was no mistake about the words which sounded shrilly even through the bulkhead. "You blackguard!"
Then all was quiet. The captain came out of the cabin, and locked the door after him.
"Let me out!" screamed the voice from within. "Let me out, will you?"
"No, I won't. It's no use making a d——d fuss about it. Keep quiet!"
Then he came up on deck and spoke to the mate.
"Look here, Mr. Christian, I don't want to lose any time in this damned place—you understand? Get everything on board as quickly as you can and get away again."
"Afraid we shan't get any wind, sir, just yet," answered the mate.
"Damn the wind! There never was any damned wind when you want it here. We must work her in through the reef the best way we can. If we can't do anything else we must tow her."
"Aye, aye, sir!" And the mate went forward and helped clear away the boat, which was hoisted over the side and passed aft so she would tow astern. The little canoe was slowly nearing us, but was yet a good distance away. I saw a thin black line on the water astern of us, and presently a puff of wind ruffled the sea and the schooner began to fill and gather away. The woman in the canoe waved her red rag and shouted, but the schooner stood on and swept passed her quite close—and I noticed there was a little piccaninny in the bottom of the canoe amongst a lot of bananas, yams, and a dead pig.
Dane waved his hand to the woman, and then turned all his attention to the schooner, which he piloted through the opening in the reef and brought to anchor a few hundred yards from the shore in perfectly still water, so clear that you could easily see the seaweed and the white sand of the bottom.
"Man the boat, Mr. Christian!" called out the captain.
"Three hands lay aft there!"
"Don't allow a soul aboard, d'ye hear?"
"Aye, aye, sir!" Then turning to me the mate said, "That'll do the wheel! That'll do the wheel, sir," and I walked forward.
As I passed along the alley-way, a hand came out of one of the cabin windows and caught me by the leg. "Has the captain gone ashore?"
I was so surprised I scarcely knew what to do, but stammered out "Yes'm." I heard the captain's wife mutter, "Curse him!" as I passed, and then I walked forward.
One event followed quickly on another. First, when we had been anchored about half an hour, the little canoe we had passed at sea came in through the reef and made straight for the schooner. As it shot alongside the woman made fast to the main chains and prepared to spring on board. She was an extremely handsome specimen of the native islander, and almost as clear-skinned as a Samoan girl. In the boat with her sat the little child, which clearly was not a full-blooded native.
The mate stopped the girl from coming on board, and she was evidently furious. She kept calling "Captain, Captain!" and Mr. Chris pointed to the shore, where the captain's boat could be seen hauled up on the beach. The woman's face lit up with joy, and she turned to climb down into the canoe again. As she did so, however, her eyes became fixed on one of the windows of the cabin, and she pointed at it and turned eagerly to the mate. Following the indication of her arm, he looked and saw the captain's wife gazing fixedly at the woman.
"What woman's that?" she asked of the mate. "What woman's that? Can't you answer?"
"I don't know, M'm," answered Mr. Chris.
"You lie, you lie!" screamed Mrs. Dane, from the cabin. "You know well enough. Let me out of this! Do you hear? Let me out!"
"The captain is ashore, m'm; he has taken the key with him."
The native woman still hung to the side, staring at Mrs. Dane. At length an idea seemed to strike her, and she jumped down into the canoe, and, picking up the child, held it high above her head and yelled out, "Captain! Captain!"
Then dropping down, she placed the child safely in the bottom of the canoe, and, seizing the paddle, made her way with vigorous strokes to the shore.
"Now the fat's in the fire!" It was the same lad spoke who had told me of the captain's native wife the night we left Sydney.
"There'll be the devil to pay you see," he continued.
And he was right; there was the devil to pay before morning.
We found afterwards that the captain's wife had taken a bayonet out of the stand of arms in the after-cabin and wrenched the lock off the door. She came up on deck in a towering rage and demanded to be put ashore.
Poor Mr. Chris pointed out to her that he could not get the longboat out, the only one left, and that however much as he wished to please her he could not do what she wanted.
She seized the glasses, and sat down in her chair watching the shore. It so chanced that the woman with the canoe had just reached the beach, where the captain stood in a group of natives, evidently bargaining with them about a lot of copra piled up to be shipped.
The native woman snatched up the child and rushed with him to the captain, throwing her arms about him. He looked for a moment towards the schooner, and then taking up the child marched off into the undergrowth, which on all these islands comes almost down to the water's edge.
The captain's wife lowered the glasses, stood up rigidly for a moment, and then crossing to Mr. Chris, she hissed at him—
"Chris, if you don't revenge me on that man—you need never speak to me again."
"Oh! for God's sake—"
"Remember—Never! never!! so help me, God; I mean it!"
Towards evening the boat came back, and several large canoes plied back and forth from the shore bringing copra to the schooner. Our own boat took our water-kegs and filled up, returning several times to the shore until our tank and water butts on deck were full.
Mrs. Dane made no attempt to go ashore, nor (that I saw) did she speak again to Mr. Chris, who was hurrying about the decks for the rest of the day.
Towards evening the glass began to fall, and a low bank of dark clouds appeared along the horizon. Mr. Chris looked at it several times, and seemed very uneasy. At last he sent word to the captain by the water-boat, drawing his attention to the change, and got word back to haul the schooner outside the reef and have everything ready for sea.
"I'm not going below tonight," Mrs. Dane said to the mate, after she had watched us haul out, and the anchor was down.
It was stiflingly hot, and the atmosphere seemed leaden and thick. "I'll have my bed brought up on deck under the awning."
"Very well, m'm," said the mate.
It was getting dark rapidly, but as yet there was no sign of the captain. Mrs. Dane went below and changed to a thin white wrapper, and then came on deck and lay down on her mattress and apparently fell asleep—for when at last the captain did come on board she never stirred, nor did she wake with the noise of our getting our boat in over the side.
"You'd better get under weigh and out of this place as soon as you can, Mr. Chris."
"Aye, aye, sir" The mate came forward and we soon had the chain hove short and set our canvas aft. Then we hove up, cabled the anchor and got the jib and staysail on her, but she made no way through the water and hardly steered.
It was my wheel. The captain looked at his sleeping wife, and then stretched himself out in her deck-chair and was soon asleep himself. Mr. Chris stood leaning over the rail just forward of the main rigging, and everything was quite still. The bank of cloud had risen half way up the heavens, but above all was clear and the stars were bright. I could hear the sea astern of us as it broke, but beyond that there was no sound. Every now and then a bright gleam in the water showed where some huge fish in the depth below was chasing its prey. The sea was thick with sharks; we had seen them all round us during the day. I thought once I heard the dip of a paddle, but looking in the direction of the sound saw nothing. I don't know how long I had been standing at the wheel; there was not a breath of wind. I suppose I had been leaning over the spokes and dreaming, but suddenly I was called to my senses by an appalling shriek! At the same moment I saw Captain Dane leap to his feet and grapple with a dark figure that stood over his wife with a long native knife raised in the air. It was the native woman I had seen in the canoe.
She flung her arms round the captain with a cry I shall never forget, at the same time throwing the knife from her to the deck. Even in that light I could see the crimson stain of blood upon the white wrapper the captain's wife had on.
Then an awful thing happened. The two swaying figures were wrestling together on the top of the little cabin, when suddenly with a long sigh and wail the wind came tearing along, and her main boom swung over from the port to starboard with a crash, sweeping the captain and the woman over-board into the sea together, as the vessel heeled over gunnel under. There was no time to think. Instinctively, I put the helm down, but she wouldn't come up. I was just in time to shove it hard over to leeward when shepaired off and righted.
We lowered our peaks and handed the canvas, and then held her before the wind the best way we could. Just as the schooner gathered way I heard a horrible shriek, and looking over the quarter saw a smother of phosphorescent light in the blackness of the water and the rushing fins of several sharks which made trails of light similar to the streaks of a match when struck on the wall of a dark room. I knew what that meant, and that the schooner had seen the last of Captain Dane.
The captain's wife lay senseless on the mattress, but she was not dead. The knife had entered her breast high up and evidently gone deep. Mr. Chris got her below—half dragging, half carrying her—and did what he could to stop the bleeding. Once he came the companion way and said to me—"Will she run before it?"
"I'll keep her as long as! can, sir," I answered,—but the sea was getting up quickly, and I knew he would have to heave-to, sooner or later.
"There's nothing in your way—run her all you can."
"Run her all I can, sir? Aye, aye, sir!"
He went below again.
The seas began to follow too fast, and after about an hour of hard sailing I was afraid they would smother her. I yelled out to Mr. Chris, and he came up on deck looking dazed and ten years older.
Mechanically he set about heaving the schooner to. She was a little beauty to handle, and came up to the wind like a bird, and rode on the gale quietly with a tarpaulin seized in the main rigging and her stern staysail hauled well to windward. I lashed the helm and then set about helping the mate.
"The captain's gone, sir!" I said.
"I know. Yes, I know," his mind seemed wandering. "It's awful—awful!"
"How is she, sir?"
"I don't know. She isn't conscious, but she isn't dead. How's the barometer?" It was not low—and had even risen a little.
"Thank God!" muttered the mate. Then after a pause, he put his mouth close to my ear and shouted: "I must get south—the nearest doctor's is Cooktown—I mustsouth."
Then he seemed to ponder. Presently quite abruptly he bawled out: "You've a mate's ticket, haven't you?"
"Yes, sir," I yelled back.
"Well, you'll have to be mate now—and come aft with your dunnage."
"Aye, aye, sir!" I felt a glow of exultation at being mate even of a little schooner. The gale was short-lived and soon we were staying our course to the southward with a couple of reefs down, and making good way.
I came aft and took up my quarters in the mate's old room, he moving his gear into the skipper's.
Poor Mr. Chris! He nursed that woman as tenderly as anyone could do, watching her night and day. No one but myself knew the secret he kept hidden away as he thought to himself.
We had crawled slowly down, beating against the southeast wind and were well clear of the islands, and standing in for Cook's passage again in the Great Barrier reef. Mrs. Dane asked to be brought on deck, and so we put up an awning and fixed mattresses on top of the house on which we placed her. She was terribly changed. Death was written clearly in her face, which was bloodless, and her voice was scarcely audible. She looked helpless about—and a faint smile flitted over her lips as she recognized me.
"You've come aft—haven't you?" she whispered.
"That's good!" Then after a little pause—
"I'm captain of the schooner now, you know. She belongs to me."
"You can stay with Mr. Chris, if you like."
"Thank you, m'm."
"Mr. Chris!" In an instant he was kneeling by her—his eager eyes straining at her face—"where"—she seemed very faint as she spoke—"When—we—get—to Sydney—you'll be captain—I'll make you captain."
Tenderly he took her hand as he spoke to her, "There! Don't think of that now. You must not talk too much. It isn't good for you to talk."
"Chris, Chris!" her voice was very low.
The tears welled up in the poor fellow's eyes, as he looked at her.
"I haven't been a good woman, Chris, you—know—that.
The man groaned and buried his head in his hands.
"Chris—there's a God, pray! A salvation army woman came to me once and told me all about Him,—and I laughed. Chris, do you hear? I laughed!"
"I know, dear, I know!" The tears were trickling down the man's face.
"She told me—all would be right—if I repented—and prayed—Chris, I'm—sorry—" She paused and looked into the sky—then slowly and very earnestly repeated the words—"I—am—sorry!"
We knelt by her silently. Presently she spoke again. "Chris, can't you—pray? I never learned how. I never knew—how."
He looked helplessly up at me.
I thought of the words of De Profundis, and repeated them gently—"Out of the depths, O Lord, have I cried unto Thee. Lord hear my voice."
A tear rose in each of her eyes as she put her thin white hands together and whispered after me: "Out—of—the—depths,—O, Lord,—have—I—cried—unto—Thee!—What comes next?"
"O Lord, hear my voice!"
The words seemed to die away upon her lips; her hands fell apart upon her lap; her eyes were fixed upon the infinite blue, and a faint smile played about her parted lips. She was dead!
Poor Mr. Chris He felt it frightfully. We buried her quietly at sea next day, and he sobbed his great heart out over her when we finally sewed her up in some nice clean canvas, and took her out on deck. It was all very sorrowful—very pitiful—and a gloom settled down over the schooner.
Chris never got over it. We stood on for Sydney but before we reached the Barrier reef I could see his mind unhinged. At length it became evident to everyone on board that he was no longer responsible for what he did, and we held a council at which it was determined that I should take command of the schooner. We let him roam about the vessel, which he did in a harmless way; he never seemed to wish to interfere with anything.
One night I heard him sobbing in the cabin which used to be hers, and the words came out to me—"Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord; Lord hear my voice."
There was yet one more tragedy on the schooner before we reached Sydney Heads.
No one knew how or when it happened, but the next morning Mr. Chris was not on board.
I brought my first command safely into Sydney, where I saw her sold a few weeks later at public auction.
I never went "blackbirding" again.