FOR decrepitude, for sheer noiscsomeness, Cockroach Schooner may be identified with the New Orleans oyster luggers, the Portuguese sponge fishers, the sampans and the pinkies; but, with all her shortcomings, there is about her that quality of romance which is peculiar to fiction rather than to the humdrum facts of everyday life. Every gaping seam, every groaning timber, every musty odor glorifies her fabulous past; and the captain adds his own stentorian voice, his own sweeping gestures to tell how in the old days she carried upper and lower topsails, a fisherman’s staysail as big as her present mainsail, a ringtail and a jib topsail; how the Bishop of Polynesia would travel on no other vessel; how her skipper would carry sail until her lee rail was under green water and the spray from her bows drenched the topsails.
Now she has lost her fine feathers; in sailor parlance, she is a baldheaded schooner. Her stumpy masts carry two leg-o’-mutton sails no larger than those of a twenty-ton lugger; they will never roll her lee rail under, but they steady her, when the sailors are not busy repatching them, while she chugs along at four or five knots under the power of one of those smelly contraptions of modern ingenuity, a diesel engine.
Because vessels like Cockroach Schooner can be picked up for a song in the Antipodes, it is the policy of South Sea trading firms to buy them, sail them until the port officials refuse them clearance, then beach or scuttle them. No repairs are permitted.
Even the sails, the standing and the running rigging of Cockroach Schooner, are in sad condition; but the captain’s orders are to replace no canvas, line, or wire until the old one has carried away. To a sailor this may seem hazardous; but when he has been aboard the schooner he realizes that it makes little difference whether the gear is old or new, for if the shrouds part, the main sheet is carried away in a squall, or even if the vessel is dismasted, it means only that the sailor must look sharp to avoid falling wreckage. The old ship herself will chug along the same as ever, another remnant of her glory gone, but still a good-enough hull for picking up copra among the equatorial islands.
There is no paintpot aboard Cockroach Schooner; her masts are gray with age, her decks leak, her galley stove is a wreck. This last, though, only partially excuses the horrible food that the Samoan cook prepares: eggs broken in tepid peanut oil and left at the back of the stove to simmer till breakfast time, when they are served as ‘fried eggs’; half-cooked salt beef that has never known a parboiling; potatoes stewed and then allowed to soak for hours in their own water — many such a nauseating atrocity which, with the anthropophagous cockroaches, the pigs and chickens running loose on deck, the stench from the engine room, the rancid smell of copra, takes much of the romance from a trading-schooner voyage. And yet I would rather take passage on this odorous old vessel, despite her alarming convulsions, her fantastic slowness, than on any luxury ship that ever tossed her head above the sea.
The captain is a typical South Sea trading skipper. His navigation is as rusty as the ironwork of his vessel, but his skill and his local knowledge are profound. To be successful at this profession a captain must possess varied talents. He must have sufficient courage as well as skill to be able to take his vessel to within a few yards of a dangerous fringing reef, so that boatloads of copra may be taken aboard expeditiously. He must be a weather prophet, for a shrewd forecast of the probable shift of the wind may reduce by days the length of a voyage. He must be liked by the natives, or they will refuse to trade aboard his ship. He must have an iron constitution to tolerate the execrable food aboard ship as well as the potent, if not poisonous, homebrews which the island traders bring aboard. The captain of Cockroach Schooner is masterly in all these qualifications.
Thompsen, the supercargo, is a Dane of about thirty-five years, with the manly handsome features so common among the people of his race. He speaks English without a foreign accent, but occasional oddities in his grammar, particularly in the formation of plurals, suggest his nationality, as when he speaks of his feet as ‘foots,’ his many sweethearts as ‘womens.’ He is one of the hardest-working men on this planet, and is never satisfied unless his task is herculean. Being mate of Cockroach Schooner, as well as supercargo, he is obliged to be on deck twelve hours in the twenty-four, for this vessel adheres to the old watches of four hours on deck and four hours below. As supercargo he has charge of the traderoom and the cargo. During a single voyage as much as a thousand pounds’ worth of merchandise may pass through his hands, in little sixpenny, shilling, and florin sales. He must go ashore at each island to weigh from twenty to fifty tons of copra, all in small lots of a few hundredweight. This copra must be paid for aboard ship; then he must be on his feet, often till ten at night, taking in the money he has just paid out, cutting calico in two-yard strips, weighing rice and sugar, arguing, sometimes fighting, his eyes alert for the pilferings of light-fingered natives as he swears that his cheap rayon print is rare Chinese silk. When at last the natives are sent ashore, the traderoom must be straightened out for business on the morrow; then, if Thompsen’s watch is from midnight to 4 A.M., as it is every other night, he must go on deck to stand his watch. At four in the morning he can turn in, to sleep till seven, when he must be up for breakfast, then be ready to open the traderoom or go ashore to weigh more copra.
The other white man aft, Father Peter, a French priest, was making his yearly visit to the churches in the Tokelau Islands. I scarcely met him aboard ship, for, following the precedent set by every priest I have seen aboard the island schooners, he was deathly sick. He would sit in his steamer chair under the poop awning, day and night, his face of a greenish pallor, his slightly bulging eyes bloodshot. At times he would rise painfully to stagger to the rail; then he would slump down again, with a silent groan, the embodiment of woe. Meals he gestured away with an injured expression.
Father Peter has been in the islands for thirty years. He has made this voyage many times, as well as voyages to Wallis, Futuna, and other islands to westward. A voyage means to him weeks of agony, yet, year after year, he embarks — a truly courageous soul!
That he is courageous I knew when, during the long voyage to Samoa, we made his home island, a crumb of an atoll called Fakaofu. We came along the reef at dusk; but the captain steamed close to the breakers, took aboard a canoeload of natives, and, having lowered one of the reef boats, swung out the landing stage and had the sailors hand down the priest’s luggage. It was dark by the time Father Peter had tucked up his cassock, jammed his topee down firmly about his ears, and climbed into the boat.
‘They’ll never make it,’ I heard one of the Fakaofu natives say. ‘The reef is bad to-night.’ Put the boat was lost in the darkness by then, and anyway we were not greatly concerned, for aboard these island schooners a man by necessity becomes indifferent to danger.
The captain held the schooner as close to the reef as he dared, for if the boat capsized or foundered in the breakers we should have to pick her up, as well as the sailors and the priest. Such a mishap is not at all uncommon. The wind had died down; the roar of the combers came to us like salvos of cannon fire. Ashore we could see a solitary light twinkling among the trees. Once we heard cries from the boat: ‘Now’s the time! Give way, boys! Pull! Pull!’ Then a confusion of shouting voices: ‘Look out! Back water! We’ll capsize! Oh Lord, the breaker! Pack water, damn you, back water!’
‘They can’t make it,’ the captain muttered. ‘We’ll have to take old Prayhard round to the north side of the island.’
Sure enough, a few moments later the boat was back alongside, half swamped, the priest’s luggage washing about in the bilge. Leaning over the rail, I could make out, by the light of the landing-stage lantern, a set of scared faces peering upward. The father, huddled in the stern sheets, looked up incuriously. I could see by his deathly pallor that he was too ill to care what happened.
The captain told Father Peter and the sailors to climb back aboard, but he left the priest’s luggage to splash about in the boat, passed the painter aft, and, making it fast, steamed slowly to a long stretch of reef to northward. There the combers washed lightly across the barrier, so the boat was manned again, and, this time with a Fakaofu native aboard to con them through the shallows, they crossed the reef. In a half hour the boat was back alongside, the sailors hoisting her aboard as we headed for Atafu.
When we returned to Fakaofu the father told me that for six hours, on a sand cay about ten feet square, alone, with his soaked luggage about him, he had waited for the Fakaofu native to wade along the reef to the village and bring a canoe. It was dawn when the priest reached the village, but he had arrived in time to hold early-morning Mass.
When I first met Thompsen he would not let me enter the traderoom. For years he had been dealing with the slippery-fingered Samoan and Tokelau natives; he did not realize that we natives of the Cook Islands do not steal except when there is considerable provocation. Nowadays Thompsen lets me enter the traderoom at any time; he even gives me the keys so that I may rummage among the bolts of Japanese print, the packages of firecrackers, and the cases of trade beef, alone! This flatters me, so I never take anything without jotting it down in the book.
When I had boarded Cockroach Schooner at Puka-Puka all my luggage had been placed in this room, so, the first afternoon out, I asked Thompsen to let me remove a few things to my cabin.
‘I’m too busy,’ he said as he leaned against a boat davit, smoking a cigarette. It was one of the few times I had seen him idle.
‘You don’t seem to be exerting yourself.’
After puffing his cigarette he mentioned that something might turn up at any minute, you never could tell, and, anyway, it was his watch on deck. At the same time he reached in his pocket to bring out his keys and hand them to me.
‘You’ll be able to find your junk,’ he said, without any intimation that it might be unsafe to let me enter the traderoom alone.
I took the keys, separated the big brass one from the others, and went to the traderoom.
It was a mess inside. A number of packing cases with ‘Made in Japan’ marked on them, cases of trade beef, — or, rather, trade meat, — salmon, soap, kerosene; a few bags of coolie rice, a few of flour and sugar. At the traderoom door stood a large case, about three feet high, containing Chinese safety matches.
‘They should be called “Very Safety Matches,”’ I thought as I climbed over the case. ‘It’s only with great patience that you can light one of the damned things.’
My own luggage was at the far end of the room: two shiny tin suitcases and a camphorwood chest — ‘junk,’ as Thompsen had said. To reach these articles I had to pick my way through a tangled disorder of remnants, from the last voyage, that seemed to have been cleared from the shelves with sweeps of the arm. There were lengths of kakau, which is a kind of cheesecloth, heavily starched to make it appear substantial, ‘smell soap,’ bush knives, cheap perfumery in bottles so ancient that half the contents had evaporated while the labels had long since fed the cockroaches, fly-specked packages of sewing cotton, fishhooks, marbles, breakable combs and unbreakable hardtack: in a word, a conglomeration of the shoddiest stuff that can be bought — the usual trade goods on any island schooner. The place reeked with naphthalene, for on each voyage many pounds of it must be flung about the traderoom. It is the only way to assure that some of the dress goods, a few of the labels, will remain undevoured by cockroaches and silverfish.
Thompson’s cash registers were on the floor in their usual place: four galvanized-iron buckets. One of them was three-quarters full of silver shillings and florins, about £400, I estimated. In another bucket was some £300 in notes, while the remaining two buckets were nearly empty. It must be explained that at the beginning of a voyage Thompsen puts his entire cash in two of the buckets, from £600 to £1000, and this he uses to buy copra; but when the natives come aboard to purchase goods he deposits their money in the other two buckets — at least, he generally does, though when trade is brisk he makes mistakes. Thus, at the end of a voyage, if trading has been successful, most of the cash has been transferred from two of the buckets, through the hands of the customers, to the other two buckets; and by counting what is left in the original two buckets, and subtracting this sum from the amount of cash he started off with, he can tell the head office instantly the amount of his sales. Clever man, Thompsen: mathematical mind.
Just to have the feel of so much money once in my life, I reached into the two full buckets, one hand among the pound notes, one among the silver. It felt fine, particularly the notes, so I brought out a whole handful of them and examined their steel engravings of Maori warriors and provincial Englishmen, they being New Zealand notes.
‘Hi! What you doing there?’ Thompson’s voice came suddenly from behind me. ‘I might of knowed I could n’t trust you in here.’
I turned and grinned brightly. ‘I just wanted to see what it’s like to handle large sums of money,’ I explained.
‘I was n’t meaning the money!’ Thompsen shouted in a cutting tone. ‘Stand back! Can’t you see you’re bothering the traderoom hen?’
I was still in a kneeling position. Raising my eyes, I looked straight in front of me to meet the injured stare of a nice old speckled barnyard hen! She was sitting (or setting) as pretty as a picture, presumably on a batch of eggs, in a nest made from the rumpled outside yards of a bolt of #1689 striped shirting. Her pin-point eyes snapped. She made a clucking noise and pecked at me, but I was out of range.
‘Stand back!’ Thompsen shouted again, this time climbing on the case of Chinese safety matches in a threatening way. ‘What d’ you mean by bothering that hen? Lord, if the captain hears about it!’
‘Hears about your keeping a hen in the traderoom ? ’
As I said this it occurred to me that there was something unseemly about it all: me kneeling there with my hands full of New Zealand notes, the hen clucking and pecking, Thompsen more worried about the fowl than the money.
‘It’s not like keeping a woman in the traderoom,’ I added. ‘Not so bad, is it ? Anyway, you ’re in charge here, not the captain.’
‘It’s his hen, you idiot!’ the supercargo cried, jumping down from the case of matches and advancing toward me. ‘He’ll have a fit if he hears you have been bothering her!’ Abruptly he stopped, turned his head to the doorway, and ‘Clear out, quick!’ he whispered. ‘I hear him coming!’
Footsteps sounded along the alleyway. I started to my feet.
‘Hi!’ Thompsen growled. ‘Put that fistful of notes back in the bucket before you go! ’
Blushing like a Tolstoian hero, I hurriedly thrust the money back where it belonged; then I scrambled to the door, there to meet the captain.
Luckily he was in a fine mood. ‘Is she all right?’ he whispered to the supercargo. ‘ Sh! ’ — scowling, ‘ I heard loud voices in here. I would n’t do that. It might disturb her. This is the critical time, you know!’
The captain smiled, turned, and tiptoed back to the cuddy, followed by Thompsen. I climbed over the case of matches and hurried to my cabin, having forgotten all about the luggage.
‘ We oncet had a traderoom hen that hatched out sixteen chicks,’ the captain said that evening as we sat over our after-dinner cups of tea.
The supercargo nodded affirmation.
A sentimental note came in the captain’s voice when he added that they were as sweet little chicks as you ever laid eyes on.
‘Did you raise them successfully?’ I inquired.
The captain shook his head. ‘Every last one died,’ he said, with a sigh — ‘killed by the cockroaches!’
I stated that I could well believe it, and went on, virtually without exaggeration: ‘One attacked me last night with peculiar ferocity. It was touch and go for a while, but finally I managed to jam him between my heel and the bulkhead; then I dispatched him with the big war club Parson Sea Foam of Puka-Puka gave me. It is not at all difficult to imagine such a monster devouring a chick.’
‘Oh, you got me wrong,’ the captain explained. ‘The cockroaches did n’t eat the chicks; the chicks ate them. I suppose the cockroaches gnawed holes in their crops, or something of the kind. Anyway, I’m sure they all gnawed their way out; but the chicks could n’t stand it — they died.’
At Atafu, one of the three inhabited islands in the Tokelau Group, islands we were visiting on the voyage from Puka-Puka to Samoa, I went ashore with Thompsen; but it was only to wish myself back aboard ship again. Screaming hordes of children followed me wherever I went. There were no smiling Polynesians standing in front of their houses with cool drinking nuts or strings of shells for the stranger, such as one meets with in the eastern islands; but here were inherently mercenary natives who had learned from the Samoans the subtler arts of mendicancy. The Samoa and Tokelau people boast that they are the only Polynesians who have words for ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ To me this exemplifies their moral pattern: the Tahitians, Rarotongans, and Puka-Pukans have little use for these words; they are not beggars.
The day ashore was not entirely without amusement. Every now and then a native would approach me — abjectly, I am sorry to say — and greet me with the Samoan talofa (‘I love you’). Aware that otherwise I should be insulting him, I would express my love. Then his face would glow. ‘Ah!’ he would cry. ‘I love you and you love me! We are friends! Please give me your blue silk shirt, for I, your friend, am shirtless!’
‘I am sorry that you are shirtless,’ I would reply; ‘but I will not give you my blue silk shirt.’
‘Famolémolé!’ (‘Please!’) — the mellifluous syllables flowing off his tongue lickerishly.
‘Ah, then you do not love me,’ the native would sigh, lowering his head in complete dejection; then brightly, hopefully: ‘But perhaps you will give me your white-man’s straw hat?’
‘No; I will not give you my whiteman’s straw hat.’
‘Alas! Now I know that you do not love me!’ he would groan, his eyes gently reproachful, doggishly expressive of unrequited love and innocence. But presently, in a tone suggestive of a child capitulating, condescending, agreeing to eat the spinach so long as the cake has been forbidden: ‘But at least,’ he would say, ‘you will give me a little tobacco for my pipe which has long been cold.’
Whereupon I would demonstrate my love by taking from my pouch enough tobacco to fill his pipe. I would not hand him the pouch, knowing that he would slip it in the folds of his lavalava, murmuring that I may love him a little after all, but that I might also give him a box of matches . . . and the silver pencil he sees in my shirt pocket. It was endless. I was glad to sail from Atafu back to Fakaofu, where Father Peter has inculcated a happier condition on his followers.
There are six hundred people in Fakaofu, all crowded on a tiny reef islet of about five acres. But the place is kept spotlessly clean, the air is purified by the steady southeast trade, and a grove of coconut and breadfruit trees beats back the glaring tropic sun to leave the village obscured in shadows that are contrasted delightfully by the dashes of sunlight here and there about the brown thatched huts.
To the east lie five miles of clear blue lagoon; to the west the sea; to the north and south a continuation of the reef and shallows, broken by tiny coconut islets and sand cays. The people have chosen the nearest of the latter for their cemetery: an acre of sand, gravel, and bleached coral boulders fringed by a scanty growth of bush, and that is all. The gray coral headstones are a part of the islet itself, as are the bones of the ancient people. I wonder if there is a lonelier resting place for the dead.
I have visited well over a hundred South Sea islands, but never one remotely like Fakaofu. In the first place, it has been built up with a wall of coral slabs that gives it the appearance of a mid-ocean citadel. From the sea one crosses the reef and a hundred yards of shallow water to arrive at an unmortared wall twelve feet high, with breaks here and there where rough steps lead up to the village. On the lagoon side, enterprising villagers have built tongues of land outward from the islet, and here have made their homes, giving that side of the islet the appearance of a line of wharves. Father Peter’s home, a doll’s house eight feet wide by twelve long, stands on pilings over the lagoon, beyond the line of wharves. It is joined to the islet by a wooden footbridge. Attached to the outer end of the house is an affair that reminds one of a telephone booth. The father becomes eloquent when expounding its convenience.
Fakaofu has little of the appearance of a South Sea island; it reminds one more of a robber baron’s fortress, or the walled villages Charles Doughty described so vividly. One can almost fancy ‘ the camel pacing under us with shuffling steps in the silent and forsaken ways.’ But when the wind swings round to the northwest, squall clouds hump their backs above the horizon, and, after a few warning blasts, an equinoctial storm roars down on the island, then, I fancy, one becomes too well aware of his isolation on a crumb of land in the loneliest of oceans. The people say that when big seas come from the northwest they thunder along the reef, wash across the shallows to beat the coral wall, and fling spray the length of the islet.
The Fakaofu church, or cathedral, adds yet another quality of strangeness to the place. Occupying a large part of the seaward side of the islet, chalky white, graceless, its lancet windows boarded up, its tapering spire rising above the highest coconut trees, it harmonizes with its background of fragile green islet about as well as would a steel structure on a wedding cake. In the latter eventuality the wedding guest would worry lest the cake be wrecked; likewise, one fears that Fakaofu’s frail walls or coral blocks will bulge out and break, the islet itself will wash away, leaving the great ungainly cathedral towering, desolate, in the midst of the lonely sea, for the waves to batter, the frigate birds to make their roosting place, for tourists to ogle from the decks of passing ships — as misplaced as the Great Arch of Ctesiphon would be on Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street. Perhaps some church dignitary in England, on being informed that so much money was at hand to build a church at Fakaofu, decided, after reference to an indexed book of plans, that Type 124 B, Series G, would do, and so this monstrosity appeared.
The next day was a lazy one, drifting off the island. No copra was taken aboard, for the seas were heavy along the reef; even Thompsen could ‘hit the bunk,’ as he inelegantly put it, with one of the captain’s gory-story magazines. Sometime during the afternoon, while lying in my berth, I heard footsteps in the cuddy, the creak of a chair; then the captain’s voice: —
‘Hm! Mr. Thompsen!’
‘Yes, Captain’ — followed by footsteps from the supercargo’s cabin to the cuddy.
‘Hm! Mr. Thompsen, how is she this morning?’
Thompsen: ‘I’m a little worried, sir; she has n’t been off her nest for two days.’
Captain: ‘Ah! Maybe they’re hatching! Hens stick to their nests, you know, when the little devils are pecking out.’
Thompsen: ‘It’s about time. Hi! Steward! Go see if they’re hatching!’
‘Yes, sir,’ came from the cabin boy as his footsteps pattered along the alleyway.
There was a moment’s silence before I again heard the captain’s voice. ‘Better give her a feed, Mr. Thompsen,’ he said. ‘Take her some bully beef and biscuits.’
Thompsen: ‘Make it rice, Captain; she ain’t exercising, you know.’
Captain: ‘That’s right; curried rice, eh?’
Then the cabin boy, shouting: —
‘They’re hatched! Nine white ones and a black one!’
Captain: ‘Ha! She’s hatched ’em, eh? I knew she would!’
‘They’re all hatched but two, Captain ! ’
There followed the sound of hurrying footsteps; then the captain’s voice calling: ‘Get those chicks out of the traderoom right away, Mr. Thompsen! Asphyxeration, you know — very dangerous!’
A moment later he thrust his head in my doorway. ‘They’re hatched,’ he said, grinning from ear to ear.
That morning the hen and chicks were removed to the captain’s cabin, where they remained for three days. My cabin being next to the captain’s, I could hear the old hen clucking to her chicks, the scrape of her feet as futilely she tried to scratch bugs and things from the cabin floor, the peep of the chicks, lively at first, but feebler, I thought, after the first two days.
‘They’re not doing so well,’ the captain said, the third morning at breakfast. ‘Seem to be drooping.’
‘Have they got water?’ Thompsen asked.
The captain gave him a withering glance. ‘ What a question! ’ he growled. ‘Don’t you think I know how to bring up poultry? They got water, and they got salt beef, and they got rice and biscuits, and they got salmon bellies and pea soup and everything else a growing chick needs!’
‘How about grit?’ I suggested.
The captain sat up, brought his fist down on the table, and ‘That’s it!’ he cried. ‘They need grit!’ He glanced indignantly at Thompsen. ‘Why did n’t you bring some grit, aboard?’ he asked. ‘Don’t you know that poultry’s gotta have grit if they’re going to digest properly?’
‘There’s that bag of sand we was going to use for the decks,’ Thompsen said.
‘That’s the wrinkle!’ the captain cried. ‘To the devil with the decks! Have it brought down before you go ashore, and scatter it over the floor.
I ’m going to let the chicks out of my cabin; give ’em the run of the ship. They need more exercise.’
So the cuddy floor, the alleyway, and the cabins were well sanded, while Mrs. Hen and her chicks were allowed to run ad libitum.
The captain would shake his head as he watched a little chick trying to swallow a big cockroach. ‘It’ll be the death of them,’ he would mutter. ‘I’ve seen it happen before, and I’ve never known one to survive. If the Fakaofu natives would only take good care of them I’d send the lot ashore — but I can’t trust ’em.’
About the fifth day the first chick showed signs of trouble.
‘He’s off his feed,’ the captain muttered gloomily. ‘More’n likely one of those big cockroaches is gnawing his gizzard.’
The little fellow was huddled in a corner, disconsolate, his head sunk down in his wishbone, his eyes closed most of the time, though now and then he would open them to blink at us in complete dejection, peep feebly, then seem to huddle back more forlorn than ever.
Sadly we watched the little fellow, and we shook our heads.
‘It’s a shame,’ the supercargo said. ‘That chick’s as good as dead.’
‘Yes; he’s going fast,’ said the captain.
And so he was. Next morning he had disappeared from the ship — his little corpse had been devoured by the cockroaches, I suppose. Only nine were left to zigzag about the cabin floor, and one of them, Blackie, as the captain fondly called him, did n’t look too bright.
Drifting at sea is the best part of a South Sea schooner voyage. During the second dogwatch the captain brings the vessel close to the reef; then the engine is stopped, a single sailor is put on watch, so that there will be someone to call the skipper at midnight, and the old schooner is left to her own resources. This suits her to a T, for there is nothing she likes so much as getting her beam snugly to the trough of the sea; then wallowing and grunting and groaning, and rolling one side under the nice cold water till it laps over her back; then rolling the other side under. Sometimes she tries to roll all the way over, and though she is too fat and heavy in the bilge for that, she has a try at it anyway, with an appalling creaking of ribs and groaning of timbers. Then ‘Hold everything!’ shouts the captain, grabbing for his glass, if he has one; ‘She’ll roll her sticks out of her!’ grumbles the supercargo; ‘Can’t you keep your old scow steady?’ snarls the first-class passenger. I don’t think that a barnyard porker can get more real sensual enjoyment from a hog wallow than a South Sea schooner gets from the trough of the sea.
We were ten days at Fakaofu, drifting off the island each night, for work was slow, with the seas so heavy on the reef that on most days no more than a few boatloads of copra could be taken aboard. I spent only the first night ashore, for mosquitoes were numerous, the other nine nights aboard Cockroach Schooner, in my berth with a volume of Captain Lecky’s Wrinkles, playing cribbage with the skipper, or on deck with Thompsen.
‘Come on deck,’ the supercargo would say, with one of his most agreeable smiles. ‘It’s a fine night, and I ’ve got two steamer chairs on the port side where you can put your foots on the rail.’
So I would feel in my pockets for my pipe and tobacco, and, finding them there, I would follow Thompsen on deck, where we would lean back to stare unappreciatively at the miracle of starlight on the long Pacific swell, to swap stories of our adventures in the four quarters of the world.
‘Pretty soft,’ I said to Thompsen the last night we were drifting off Fakaofu. ‘On watch you have nothing to do but sit in a steamer chair, smoke, and look at the stars.’
‘I can’t do it except when there is passengers with me,’ he replied.
‘It’s not safe. I might go to sleep.’
‘I’ll stand your watch some night, if you wish; then you can get in a good night’s sleep.’
‘You stand my watch!’ Thompsen exclaimed. 4 Any time I can’t stand my watches I’ll go ashore and raise poultry!’
‘You don’t have to go ashore to do that.’
‘That’s right,’ he chuckled, with a sudden change of mood; then he went on: ‘The poor little devil! There’s only one left, and he’s about gone! Death’s a funny thing, ain’t it? It seems to make the whole ship gloomy the way they pass out. . . . Well, mister, it’s eight bells; I got to call the old man.’
‘And then turn in?’
‘Not a hope.’
The captain came on deck and moved to the binnacle. I could see that his face was drawn, the picture of distress. He started the engine and we steamed slowly toward the island. We could just make it out where clumps of the higher coconut trees rose in low relief above the horizon; but the great white cathedral stood out like a cliff of chalk, etiolated, looming misty white in the starlight. There was a dim red glow from her open doorway; we knew that Father Peter was holding midnight Mass for the labor gang we were to take to Samoa. Before we were halfway to the island the glow disappeared, leaving the great building as vaporous, as filmy white as the skiagraph of a tomb.
Gradually the islet rose higher above the horizon, the line of reef appeared in silver-white flashes of foam, the sea smoothed, the roar of combers came loudly across the quiet water. Then the beach appeared, a gleaming strand, the reef spread out in a foaming barrier that rose and fell and spilled itself out in the shallows. By one o’clock we were a cable’s length away. The captain rang for slow speed ahead, ordered the helm up; then he steadied her and we steamed slowly along the reef,
‘There they are!’ the lookout shouted suddenly.
Leaning over the rail and peering forward, we could make out a dozen canoes loaded with natives, while bundles, rolls of mats, chests, and baskets were piled high above the gunwales. In another moment they were alongside. Yelling men caught the ropes thrown to them, tossed luggage on the ship’s deck, clambered aboard; their canoes seemed to be in a confusion of outriggers and cross-booms that crashed against one another, flew in the air to all but upset the fragile crafts.
I watched the canoes till they were lost in the darkness; then I turned and entered the cuddy. The captain was standing by the table, his legs braced apart, his eyes lowered, his arms hanging limply by his side. When he glanced at me I could see that something was wrong.
‘What is it, Captain?’
He shrugged his shoulders, sighed, and pointed to a fuzzy little body on the floor beside him. ‘The last one,’ he muttered sadly.
We were silent for a little space; then, with a sudden flash of inspiration, ‘Never mind, Captain!’ I cried. ‘As soon as I get ashore at Samoa I ’ll send aboard a whole flock of poultry!’
‘Will you?’ he asked, turning his head and smiling a little. ‘A rooster is all I need; the hen’s still good for another batch of chicks.’ He turned, in much better spirits, and moved toward his cabin. ‘I would like to have a try at raising another batch of them,’ he said when he had reached his cabin door. ‘Make it a nice young red rooster, eh? It’ll please the old hen!’
Four days later we were in Apia, Western Samoa.
(To be continued)