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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesTessa - Chapter 10
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Tessa - Chapter 10 Post by :Keyser Category :Long Stories Author :Louis Becke Date :May 2012 Read :1766

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Tessa - Chapter 10

CHAPTER X

That night as the second mate and his companions were sleeping peacefully under the thatched roofs of the little native village, with nought to disturb their slumbers but the gentle lapping of the waters of the lagoon on the sandy beach, and the ceaseless call of the reef beyond, Hendry and his companion in crime were sitting in their boat talking earnestly.

The captain was steering; Chard sat on the after-thwart, facing him.

"I tell you that I don't care much what we do, Louis," said the supercargo, with a reckless laugh, as he looked into the captain's sullen face. "We've made a damned mess of it, and I don't see how we are to get out of it by going to Ponape."

"Then what are we to do?" asked Hendry in a curious, husky voice, for Chard's mocking, careless manner filled him with a savage hatred, which only his fear of the man made him restrain.

"Let us talk it over quietly, Louis. But take a drink first," and he handed the captain some rum-and-water. Hendry drank it in gloomy silence, and waited till the supercargo had taken some himself.

"Now, Louis, here is the position. We _can't go to Ponape, for Atkins will very likely get there as soon as we could, for with light winds such as we have had to-day he would soon pass us with six oars, deep as he is in the water. And even if we got there a week before him, we might not find a ship bound to Sydney or anywhere else."

"But there is a chance of finding one."

"True, there _is a chance. But there is also a chance of Atkins's boat being picked up at sea this very day, or the next, or a month hence, and he and his crowd reaching Sydney long before us. And _I don't want to run my neck into the noose that will be waiting there. Neither do you, I suppose?"

"Why in the name of hell do you keep on talking about _that?_" burst from the captain; "don't I know it as well as you?"

"Very well, I won't allude to such an unpleasant possibility--I _should say certainty--again," replied Chard coolly. "But as I was saying, the chances are against us. If we kept on for Ponape we should either be collared the moment we put foot ashore, or before we get away from there to China or any other place, for Atkins is bound to turn up there, unless, by a stroke of good luck for us, he meets with bad weather, and they all go to the bottom. That's one chance in our favour."

"His boat is certainly very deep," said Hendry musingly, as he nervously stroked his long beard.

"She is; but then she has a kanaka crew, and I never yet heard of a drowned kanaka, any more than I've heard of a dead donkey. With a white crew she would stand to run some heavy risks in bad weather, with kanakas she'd keep afloat anyhow."

Hendry uttered an oath, and tugged at his beard savagely. "Go on, go on, then. Don't keep harping on the pros and cons."

"Take another drink, man. Don't behave like a fretful child. Curse it all! To think of us being euchred so easily by Carr and Atkins! Why, they must have half a boat load of Winchester and Sniders, judging by the way they were firing.... There, drink that, Louis. Oh, if we had had but a couple of those long trade Sniders out of the trade-room!" He struck his clenched fist upon the thwart. "We could have kept our own distance from the second mate, and finished him and his crowd as easily as we did the others."

"Well, we didn't have them," said the captain gloomily; "and if we had thought of getting them, we were neither of us able to stand on our feet after the mauling we got on board."

Chard drank some more rum, and went on smoking in silence for a few moments; then he resumed:

"You have a wife and family and property in Sydney, and I feel sorry for you, Louis, by God, I do. But for you to think of going there again means certain death, as certain for you as it is for me. But this is what we _can do. We have a good boat, and well found, and can steer for the Admiralty Group, where we are dead sure to meet with some of the sperm whalers. From there we can get a passage to Manila, and at Manila you can write to your wife and fix up your future. Get her to sell your house and property quietly, and come and join you there. I daresay," he laughed mockingly, "she'll know by the time she gets your letter that you're not likely to go to Sydney to bring her. And then of course none of her and your friends will think it strange that she should leave Sydney, where your name and mine will be pretty notorious. There's two Dutch mail boats running to Manila from Sydney--the _Atjeh and the _Generaal Pel_. In six months' time, after Atkins and Carr get to Sydney, the _Motutapu affair will be forgotten, and you and your family can settle down under a new name in some other part of the world. That is what I mean to do, anyway."

Hendry listened with the closest attention, and something like a sigh escaped from his over-burdened bosom. "I suppose it's the best thing, Sam."

"It is the _only thing."

The captain bent down and looked at the compass and thought for a moment.

"About S.W. will be the course for tonight. To-morrow I can tell better when I get the sun and a look at the chart. Anyway, S.W. is within a point or less of a good course for the Admiralty Group."

He wore the boat's head round, as Chard eased off the main-sheet in silence, and for the rest of the night they took turn and turn about at the steer-oar.

In the morning a light breeze set in, and the whaleboat slipped over the sunlit sea like a snow-white bird, with the water bubbling and hissing under her clean-cut stem. Then Hendry examined his chart.

"We'll sight nothing between here and the Admiralty Group, except Greenwich Island, which is right athwart our course."

"Do you know it?"

"No; but I've heard that there is a passage into the lagoon. We might put in and spell there for a day or two; or, if we don't go inside, we could land anywhere on one of the lee-side islands, and get some young coconuts and a turtle or two."

"Any natives there?"

"Not any, as far as I know, though I've heard that there were a few there about twenty years ago. I expect they have either died out or emigrated to the northward. And if there are any there, and they don't want us to land, we can go on and leave them alone. We have plenty of provisions for a month, and will get more water than we want every night as long as we are in this cursed rainy belt. What we do want is wind. This breeze has no heart in it, and it looks like a calm before noon, or else it will haul round to the wrong quarter."

His former surmise proved correct, for about midday the boat was becalmed on an oily, steamy sea under a fierce, brazen sun. This lasted for the remainder of the day, and then was followed by the usual squally night.

And so for three days they sailed, making but little progress during the daytime, for the wind was light and baffling, but doing much better at night.

On the evening of the third day they sighted the northernmost islet of Pikirami lagoon, and stood by under its lee till daylight, little dreaming that those whose life-blood they would so eagerly have shed were sleeping calmly and peacefully in the native village fifteen miles away.

With the dawn came a sudden terrific downpour of rain, which lasted but for a few minutes, and both Chard and Hendry knew, from their own experience and from the appearance of the sky, that such outbursts were likely to continue for at least five or six days, with but brief intervals of cessation.

"We might as well get ashore somewhere about here," said Hendry; "this is the tail-end of the rainy season, and we can expect heavy rain and nasty squalls for a week at least. It's come on a bit earlier than I expected, and I think we'll be better ashore than boxing about at sea. Can you see the land to the south'ard?"

Chard stood up and shielded his eyes from the still falling rain, but it was too thick for him to discern anything but the misty outline of the palm-fringed shore immediately near them.

"We'll wait a bit till it's a little clearer, and then we'll run in over the reef just abreast of us," said Hendry; "it's about high water, and as there is no surf we can cross over into the lagoon without any trouble, and pick out a camping-place somewhere on the inner beach."

They lowered the sail and mast, took out their oars, and waited till they could see clearly before them. A few minutes later they were pulling over the reef, on which there was no break, and in another half a mile they reached the shore of the most northern of the chain of islets encompassing the lagoon, and made the boat's painter fast to the serried roots of a pandanus palm growing at the edge of the water.

Then they sought rest and shelter from the next downpour beneath the overhanging summits of some huge, creeper-clad boulders of coral rock, which lay piled together in the midst of the dense scrub, just beyond high-water mark.

Bringing their arms and some provisions from the boat, they placed them on the dry sandy soil under one of the boulders, ate their breakfast, and then slept the sleep of men mentally and physically exhausted.

When they awoke the rain had cleared off, and the sun was shining brightly. By the captain's watch it was a little past one o'clock, and after looking at the boat, which was high and dry on the beach; for the tide was now dead low, Chard suggested that they should make a brief examination of the islet, and get come young drinking and some fully-grown coconuts for use in the boat.

"Very likely we'll find some turtle eggs too," he added; "this and next month is the season. We are bound to get a turtle or two, anyway, if we watch to-night on the beach."

Returning to the camp, they picked up their loaded Winchesters and started off, walking along the beach on the inner side of the lagoon, and going in a northerly direction. The islet, although less than a mile and a half in circumference, was densely wooded and highly fertile, for in addition to the countless coco-palms which were laden with nuts in all stages of growth, and fringed the shore in an unbroken circle, there were great numbers of pandanus and jackfruit-trees growing further back. Here and there were to be seen traces of former inhabitants--depressions of an acre or so in extent, surrounded by high banks of soil, now thickly clothed with verdure, and which Chard, who had had a fair experience of the South Seas, knew were once plantations of _puraka_, the gigantic _taro plant of the low-lying islands of the South and North Pacific.

"It must be a hundred years or more since any one worked at these _puraka patches," he said to Hendry, as he sat upon the top of a bank and looked down. "Look at the big trees growing all around us on the banks. There can't be natives living anywhere on the atoll now, so I don't think we need to keep a night watch as long as we stop here."

But had Harvey Carr or any one of the native crew sat there on the bank, _they would have quickly discovered many evidences of the spot having been visited very recently--the broken branch of a tree, a leaf basket lying flattened and rotting, and half covered by the sandy soil; a necklace of withered berries thrown aside by a native girl, and the crinkled and yellowed husks of some young coconuts which had been drunk not many weeks before by a fishing party.

At the extreme northern point of the islet there stood a mound of coral slab, piled up by the action of the sea, and similar to the much larger one fifteen miles away at the other end of the lagoon. With some difficulty the two men succeeded in gaining the summit, and from there, at a height of fifty feet, they had a view of the greater portion of the atoll, and of some of the green chain of islands it enclosed. On no one of them could they discern signs of human occupancy, only long, long lines of cocos, with graceful slender boles leaning westward to the sea, and whose waving crowns of plumes cast their shadows upon the white sand beneath. From the beach itself to the barrier reef, a mile or two away, the water was a clear, pale green, unblemished in its purity except by an occasional patch of growing coral, which changed its colours from grey to purple and from purple to jetty black as a passing cloud for a brief space dimmed the lustre of the tropic sun. Beyond the line of green the great curving sweep of reef, with the snow-white, ever-breaking, murmuring surf churning and frothing upon it; and, just beyond that, the deep, deep blue of the Pacific.

"There's no natives here, Louis," said Chard confidently, as his keen, black eyes traversed the scene before them; "we can see a clear seven or eight miles along the beaches, and there's not a canoe to be seen on any one of them. We'll spell here for a day or two, or more, if the weather has not settled."

Hendry nodded in his usual sullen manner. "All right. We want a day to overhaul the boat thoroughly; the mainsail wants looking to as well."

"Well, let us get back, and then we'll have a look over the next islet to this one before dark. We may come across some turtle tracks and get a nest of eggs."

They descended the mound, and set out along the outer beach on their way back to the camp.

Had they remained but a few minutes longer they would have seen two canoes come into view about three miles to the southward, paddling leisurely towards the northernmost islet.

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CHAPTER XIThe two canoes were manned by some of the crew of the _Motutapu together with six natives of Pikirami; one was steered by Harvey, the other by Huka the Savage Islander; and as they paddled along within a few feet of each other the crews laughed and jested in the manner inherent to all the Malayo-Polynesians when intent on pleasure. That morning Harvey, tiring of the inaction of the past three days, had eagerly assented to a proposal made by Huka that they should make a trip round the lagoon, and spend a day or two away from the village,
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CHAPTER IXAll that day over a gently heaving sea the boat sped steadily onward before the soft breath of the dying trade wind, and when night fell Harvey and Atkins reckoned that they could not be more than twenty miles from Pikirami. About midnight, therefore, the sail was lowered, and the boat allowed to drift, as otherwise she might have run past the island in the darkness. Two of the natives were placed on the look-out for indications of the land, and the rest of the people, except Harvey, laid down and slept, for after one or two rain squalls early
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