فصل 13

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فصل 13

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Three weeks had passed.

I stood on the quarter-deck watching a shoal of porpoises swimming around the ship. There was a dead calm, with no cloud in the blue above and no breath of wind upon the blue below. The only sound was the slow creaking of the masts as we swayed on the swell, and an occasional flap of the hanging sails.

Most of the crew lay fast asleep under an awning that they had stretched across the foredeck. The man Bill was at the tiller, but he had so little to do that from time to time he took a little turn around the deck. At last he moved close to me and leaned on the rail at my side.

“Boy,” he said suddenly, “this is no place for you.”

“I know,” I said. “But the captain said he’d put me ashore at the end of this trip.”

“What else did he tell you?” asked Bill, lowering his voice.

“He said he was a trader, and told me he’d give me share of the profits if I joined the crew.”

Bill scowled.

“He lied when he said that” he began, and was interrupted by a shout from the lookout.

“Sail ho!”

“Where away?” cried Bill, springing to the tiller.

“On the starboard quarter, hull down!”

The crew were stirring, startled by the sudden cry. The captain came on deck and climbed into the rigging to peer towards the horizon.

“Take in top-sails,” he bawled, and swung himself back to the deck.

The men sprang into the rigging and went aloft like cats. All was movement and bustle. Topsails were taken in and stowed, the watch stood by the sheets and halyards, and the captain gazed anxiously for the breeze which was rushing towards us like a sheet of dark blue. A minute later it struck the ship. She trembled, then bent gracefully to the wind, cutting through the waves towards the strange sail. Within half an hour we were close enough to see that she, too, was a schooner, and from the clumsy look of her masts and sails I judged her to be a trader. She did not seem to like the look of us, for the instant the breeze reached her she crowded all sail and showed us her stern. I could see, however, that we would soon overhaul her. When we were within half a mile we hoisted British colours, and the captain called for a shot to be put across her bows.

In a moment, to my surprise, a large portion of the bottom of the boat amidships was removed, and in the hole so exposed appeared an immense brass gun.

I gaped. I could hardly believe my eyes. The gun worked on a swivel and was raised by machinery. It was loaded and fired. A cannon-shot struck the water a few yards ahead of the ship we chased, then ricocheted into the air and plunged into the sea beyond.

It was enough. The ship ahead backed her top-sails and hove-to, while we ranged up and lay to about a hundred yards from her.

“Lower the boat,” the captain ordered.

The boat was lowered and manned by a dozen of our men, all armed with cutlasses and pistols. As the captain walked past me, he said: “Jump into the stern-sheets, Ralph; I may want you.”

I was surprised, but obeyed him. In less than ten minutes we were all standing on the stranger’s deck, staring at her ragged crew. Every one of them was a black man all unarmed, and all quite clearly scared. Their captain was a tall, middle-aged man, dressed in a white cotton shirt, a swallow-tailed coat, and a straw hat, while his legs were bare below the knees.

He swept off his straw hat and made a low bow to our captain.

“Where do you come from? What cargo are you carrying?” our captain asked.

“We come from Aitutaki,” was the answer. “We were going to Rarotonga. We are a native missionary ship, called the Olive Branch. The cargo is two tons of coconuts, seventy pigs, twenty cats, and the Gospel.”

Our men roared with laughter at this, but the captain silenced them with a frown.

“Step into the cabin,” he said to the missionary. “I want to have a talk with you.”

The two were in the cabin for about a quarter of an hour, and shook hands in a friendly way when they came on deck once more. The captain ordered us into our boat, and we returned to the schooner. Within half an hour we had left the other ship far behind.

That night I went on deck and found Bill at the helm alone.

“Tell me,” I said to him, “is this ship really a trader?”

“Yes and no,” he answered. “She does some trading, but she’s just as much a pirate. She trades when she can’t take by force, and she takes by force whenever she can. I’ve seen some pretty murderous things done on this deck.”

“Then why did the captain let that ship escape this afternoon?”

“Because he wouldn’t harm a missionary. He knows, like everybody else, that the only places in the South Seas where ships can put in without having trouble with the natives, are those where the people are Christian. The missionaries are useful, because they tame these wild islanders. In the untamed state they’re a pretty savage lot, as you might find out, my lad.”

Our track after this lay through a cluster of small islands, and a careful watch was kept, for we were not only in danger of being attacked by savages but we also ran some risk from the coral reefs that rose up in the channels between the islands.

We were becalmed one day close to a small island. Since we were in need of fresh water, the captain ordered the boat ashore to bring off a cask or two, and told me to go with the men.

We were quite close to the shore when a crowd of naked natives came pelting out of the trees and gathered at the water’s edge, waving spears and clubs in a threatening manner. We, of course, stopped rowing, while the mate stood up and made signs to the savages. They replied with a shower of heavy stones, one or two of which struck some of our men, cutting them rather badly. Instantly we levelled our muskets, but before we could put a volley over the savages’ heads the captain hailed us from the ship.

“Don’t fire! Pull off to the point behind you!”

We pulled away from the shore, now crowded with about five hundred shrieking savages. We had gone a couple of hundred yards when a loud roar thundered over the sea and the big brass gun on the schooner sent a hail of small-shot right into the living mass on the beach, mowing them down and cutting a wide lane right through them.

Those who were left alive let out a yell of terror and fled for the woods. Heaps of dead men, however, lay upon the sands. Among them I could see the wounded writhing and twisting in agony, while here and there one or two tried to stagger towards the woods and fell before they had taken a few steps.

My blood curdled at the horror of the things I saw. The captain’s voice carried over the water.

“All right, lads. Pull ashore and fill your water-casks!”

We obeyed, all of us breathing hard, but I could feel that even the men were shocked by this ruthless act. We came to the mouth of a rivulet and found it streaming with blood. I was sickened by the thought of the many who were now dead and who had so recently been standing on its banks.

One body, which had been washed down, was jammed between two rocks, with staring eyeballs turned towards us and black hair waving in the ripples of the blood-red stream.

No one tried to stop our landing now. We carried the casks to a pool higher up, filled them, and pulled back to the ship. A breeze sprang up soon afterwards and carried us away from the dreadful spot-but nothing, I felt, would ever take away from me the memory of what I had seen.

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