Wednesday the Tenth, A Tale of the South Pacific (Illustrated)by Grant Allen
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On the eighteenth day out from Sydney, we were cruising under the lee of Erromanga—of course you know Erromanga, an isolated island between the New Hebrides and the Loyalty group—when suddenly our dusky Polynesian boy, Nassaline, who was at the masthead on the lookout, gave a surprised cry of ""Boat ahoy!"" and pointed with his skinny black finger to a dark dot away southward on the horizon, in the direction of Fiji.
I strained my eyes and saw—well, a barrel or something. For myself, I should never have [pg 10] made out it was a boat at all, being somewhat slow of vision at great distances; but, bless your heart! these Kanaka lads have eyes like hawks for pouncing down upon a canoe or a sail no bigger than a speck afar off; so when Nassaline called out confidently, ""Boat ahoy!"" in his broken English, I took out my binocular, and focused it full on the spot towards which the skinny black finger pointed. Probably, thought I to myself, a party of natives, painted red, on the war-trail against their enemies in some neighboring island; or perhaps a ""labor vessel,"" doing a veiled slave-trade in ""indentured apprentices"" for New Caledonia or the Queensland planters.
To my great surprise, however, I found out, when I got my glasses fixed full upon it, it was neither of these, but an open English row-boat, apparently, making signs of distress, and alone in the midst of the wide Pacific.
Now, mind you, one doesn't expect to find open English row-boats many miles from land, [pg 11] drifting about casually in those far-eastern waters. There's very little European shipping there of any sort, I can tell you; a man may sometimes sail for days together across that trackless sea without so much as speaking a single vessel, and the few he does come across are mostly engaged in what they euphoniously call ""the labor-trade""—in plain English, kidnaping blacks or browns, who are induced to sign indentures for so many years' service (generally ""three yams,"" that is to say, for three yam crops), and are then carried off by force or fraud to some other island, to be used as laborers in the cane-fields or cocoa-nut groves. So I rubbed my eyes when I saw an open boat, of European build, tossing about on the open, and sang out to the man at the wheel:
""Hard a starboard, Tom! Put her head about for the dark spot to the sou'-by-southeast there!""
""Starboard it is!"" Tom Blake answered cheerily, setting the rudder about; and we [pg 12] headed straight for that mysterious little craft away off on the horizon.
But there! I see I've got ahead of my story, to start with, as the way is always with us salt-water sailors. We seafaring men can never spin a yarn, turned straight off the reel all right from the beginning, like some of those book-making chaps can do. We have always to luff round again, and start anew on a fresh tack half a dozen times over, before we can get well under way for the port we're aiming at. So I shall have to go back myself to Sydney once more, to explain who we were, and how we happened to be cruising about on the loose that morning off Erromanga.
My name, if I may venture to introduce myself formally, is Julian Braithwaite. I am the owner and commander of the steam-yacht Albatross, thirty-nine tons burden, as neat a little craft as any on the Pacific, though it's me that says it as oughtn't to say it; and I've spent the last five years of my life in cruising in [pg 13] and out among those beautiful archipelagos in search of health, which nature denies me in more northern latitudes. The oddest part of it is, though I'm what the doctors call consumptive in England—only fit to lie on a sofa and read good books—the moment I get clear away into the Tropics I'm a strong man again, prepared to fight any fellow of my own age and weight, and as fit for seamanship as the best Jack Tar in my whole equipment. The Albatross numbers eighteen in crew, all told; and as I am not a rich enough or selfish enough a man to keep up a vessel all for my own amusement, my brother Jim and I combine business and pleasure by doing a mixed trade in copra or dried cocoa-nut with the natives from time to time, or by running across between Sydney and San Francisco with a light cargo of goods for the Australian market.
Our habit was therefore to cruise in and out among the islands, with no very definite aim except that of picking up a stray trade whenever [pg 14] we could make one, and keeping as much within sight of land, for the sake of company, as circumstances permitted us. And that is just why, though bound for Fiji, we had gone so far out of our way that particular voyage as to be under the lee of Erromanga.
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