In the King's Service,

Some Episodes in the Life of A Beach Comber

by Louis Becke

I.

The white cloud mantle that had enwrapped the wooded summit of Lijibal was slowly lifting and fading before the red arrow-rays of the tropic sun—it was nearly dawn in Lla Harbour. A vast swarm of sooty terns, with flapping wing and sharp, croaking note, slid out from the mountain forest and fled seaward, and low down upon the land-locked depths of Lela a soft mist still hovered, so that, were it not for the deadened throbbing beat and lapping murmur of the flowing tide, one might have thought, as he looked across from land to land, that the high green walls of verdure in whose bosom the waters of Lela lay encompassed were but the portals to some deep and shadowy mountain valley in a land of utter silence, untenanted by man.

But as the blood-redness of the sun paled and paled, and then changed into burnished gold, the topmost branches of the dew-laden trees quivered and trembled, and then swayed softly to the sea-breeze; the fleecy vapours that hid the waters of the harbour vanished, and the dark bases of the mountains stood out in purest green. Away out seawards, towards the hiss and boil of the tumbling surf, tiny strips of gleaming sandy beach showed out in every nook and bay. And soon the yellow sunlight flashed through the gloomy shadows of the forest, the sleeping pigeons and the green and scarlet-hued parrakeets awoke to life amid the sheltering boughs, and the soft, crooning note of one was answered back by the sharp scream of the other. Along the mountain sides there was a hurried rustling and trampling among the thick carpet of fallen leaves, and a wild boar burst his way through the undergrowth to bury in his lair till night came again; for almost with the first call of the birds sounded the hum and murmur of voices, and the brown people of Lla stepped out from their houses of thatch, and greeted each other as they hurried seaward for their morning bathe—the men among the swirl and wash of the breaking surf, and the women and children along the sandy beach in front of the village.

Out upon the point of black and jagged reef that stretched northward from the entrance to the harbour was the figure of a young boy who bathed by himself. He was the son of the one white man on Strong's Island, whose isolated dwelling lay almost within hail of him.

The father of the boy was one of those mysterious wanderers who, in the days of sixty years or so ago, were common enough on many of the islands of the North Pacific. Without any material means, save a bag of silver dollars, he had, accompanied by his son, landed at Lla Harbour on Strong's Island from a passing ship, and Charlik, the king of the island, although at first resenting the intrusion of a poor white man among his people, had consented to let him remain on being told by the captain of the ship that the stranger was a skilful cooper, and could also build a boat. It so happened that many of the casks in which the king stored his coconut-oil were leaking, and no one on the island could repair them; and the white man soon gave the native king proof of his craft by producing from his bag some of a cooper's tools, and going into the great oil shed that was close by. Here, with some hundreds of natives watching him keenly, he worked for half an hour, while his half-caste son sat upon the beach utterly unnoticed by any one, and regarded with unfavourable looks by the island children, from the mere fact of their having learned that his mother had been a native of a strange island—that to them was sufficient cause for suspicion, if not hostility.

Presently the king himself, attended by his mother, came to the oil shed, looked in, and called out to the white man to cease his work.

"Look you, white man," he said in English. "You can stop. Mend and make my casks for me, and some day build me a boat; but send away the son of the woman from the south lands. We of Kusaie (Strong's Island) will have no strangers here."

The white man's answer was quick and to the point. He would not send his child away; either the boy remained with him on shore or they both returned to the ship and sought out some other island.

"Good," said Charlik with cold assent, and turning to his people he commanded them to provide a house for the white man and his boy, and bring them food and mats for their immediate necessities.


An hour or two afterwards, as the ship that had landed him at Lla sailed slowly past the white line of surf which fringed the northern side of the island, the captain, looking shoreward from his deck, saw the white man and his boy walking along the beach towards a lonely native house on the farthest point. Behind them followed a number of half-nude natives, carrying mats and baskets of food. Only once did the man turn his face towards the ship, and the captain and mate, catching his glance, waved their hands to him in mute farewell. A quick upward and outward motion of his hand was the only response to their signal, and then he walked steadily along without looking seaward again.

"Queer fellow that, Matthews," said the captain to his mate. "I wonder how the deuce he got to the Bonins and where he came from. He's not a runaway convict, anyway—you can see that by the look in his eye. Seems a decent, quiet sort of a man, too. What d'ye think he is yourself?"

"Runaway man-o'war's man," said Matthews, looking up aloft. "What the devil would he come aboard us at night-time in a fairly civilised place like the Bonin Islands as soon as he heard that the Juno, frigate, was lying at anchor ten miles away from us there. And, besides that, you can see he's a sailor, although he didn't want to show it."

"Aye," said the captain, "likely enough that's what he is. Perhaps he's one of the seven that ran away from Sir Thomas Staine's ship in the South Pacific some years ago."

And Mr. Matthews, the mate of the barque Oliver Cromwell was perfectly correct in his surmise, for the strange white man who had stolen aboard the ship so quietly in the Bonin Islands was a deserter from his Majesty William IV.'s ship Tagus. For nearly seven years he had wandered from one island to another, haunted by the fear of recapture and death since the day when, in a mad fit of passion, he had, while ashore with a watering party, driven his cutlass through the body of a brutal petty officer who had threatened, for some trifling dereliction of duty, to get him "a couple of dozen."

Horror-stricken at the result of his deadly blow, he had fled into the dense jungle of the island, and here for many days the wretched man lived in hiding till he was found by a party of natives, who fed and brought him back to life, for he was all but dead from hunger and exposure. For nearly a year he lived among these people, adapting himself to their mode of life, and gaining a certain amount of respect; for in addition to being a naturally hard-working man, he had no taste for the gross looseness of life that characterised nine out of every ten white men who in those days lived among the wild people of the North Pacific Islands.

Two years passed by. Brandon—for that was his name—realised in all its bitterness that he could never return to England again, as recognition and capture, dared he ever show himself there, would be almost certain: for, in addition to his great stature and marked physiognomy, he was fatally marked for identification by a great scar received in honourable fight from the cutlass of the captain of a Portuguese slaver on the coast of Africa. And so, in sheer despair of his future, he resolved to cast aside for ever all hope of again seeing his native land and all that was dear to him, and live out his life among the lonely islands of the wide Pacific.

Perhaps, as he looked out, at long, long intervals of years, at the sails of some ship that passed within sight of the island, he may have thought of the bright-faced girl in the little Cornish village who had promised to be his wife when he came home again in the Tagus; but in his rude, honest way he would only sigh and say to himself—

"Poor Rose, she's forgotten me by now; I hope so, anyhow."

So time went by, slowly at first, then quicker, for the young native woman whom he had married a year before had aroused in him a sort of unspoken affection for her artless and childlike innocence, and this deepened when her first child was born; and sometimes, as he worked at his old trade of boat-building—learned before he joined the King's service—he would feel almost content.

As yet no fear of a King's ship had crossed his mind. In those days ten years would go by, and save for some passing merchantman bound to China by the Outer Route, which would sweep past miles away before the strong trade wind, no ship had he seen. And here, on this forgotten island, he might have lived and died, but that one day a sandal-wooding brigantine was becalmed about four miles away from the island, and Brandon determined to board her, and endeavour to obtain a few tools and other necessaries from her captain.

With half-a-dozen of his most trusted native friends he stepped into a canoe, and reached the brigantine just as night began to fall. The master of the vessel received him kindly enough, and gave him the few articles he desired, and then, suddenly turning to him, said—

"I want another man; will you come? I'm bound to Singapore with sandal-wood."

"No, thank you, sir. I can't leave here. I've got a wife and child."

The seaman laughed with good-humoured contempt, and sought to persuade him to come, but Brandon only shook his head solemnly. "I can't do that, sir. These here people has treated me well, and I can't play them a dirty trick like that."

After some little bargaining the natives who had come with Brandon agreed to return to the shore and bring off some turtle to the ship. It was still a dead calm, and likely to continue so all night, and Brandon, shaking the captain's hand, got into the canoe and headed for the island.

As they ran the bow of the canoe upon the beach Brandon called loudly to his wife to come out of the house and see what he had brought from the ship, and was instantly struck with alarm at hearing no answer to his call. Running quickly over the few hundred yards that separated his house from the beach, he lifted up the door of thatch and saw that the house was empty—his wife and child were gone.

In a moment the whole village was awake, and, carrying lighted torches, parties of men and women ran along the path to seek the missing woman, but sought in vain. The island was small and had but one village, and Brandon, puzzled at his wife's mysterious disappearance, was about to lead another party himself in another direction to that previously taken, when a woman who lived at a house at the extreme end of the village, suddenly remembered that she had seen Brandon's wife, carrying her child in her arms, walking quickly by in the direction of a point of land that ran far out from the shore on the lee side of the island.

In an instant he surmised that, fearing he might go away in the ship, she had determined to swim out to him. The moment he voiced his thought to the natives around him, the men darted back to the beach, and several canoes were at once launched, and in the first was Brandon.

There were four canoes in all, and as that of the white man gained the open sea, the crew urged him not to steer directly for the brigantine, "for," said they, "the current is so strong that Mhia, thy wife, who is but a poor swimmer and knows not its strength, hath been swept round far beyond the point—and, besides, she hath the child."

For nearly half an hour the canoes paddled out swiftly, but noiselessly, the men calling out loudly at brief intervals, and every now and then Brandon himself would call.

"Mhia! Mhia! Call to us so that we may find thee!"

But no answer came back over the dark waters. At last the four canoes approached each other, and the natives and Brandon had a hurried consultation.

"Paranta," said the steersman of the nearest canoe, "let us to the ship. It may be that she is there."

The man who sat next to the speaker muttered in low tones, "How can that be, Kariri? Either the child hath wearied her arm and she hath sunk, or—the sharks."

Plunging his paddle deeply into the water, Brandon, brought the head of the canoe round for the ship, the faint outlines of whose canvas was just showing ghostly white half a mile away through the thin morning haze which mantled the still unruffled surface of the ocean.

Urged swiftly along by the six men who paddled, the white man's canoe was soon within hailing distance of the brigantine, and at the same moment the first puff of the coming breeze stirred and then quickly lifted the misty veil which encompassed her.

"Ship ahoy!" hailed Brandon. "Did a woman and child swim off to you during the night?"

Almost ere the answering "No" was given, there was a loud cry from one of the other canoes which had approached the vessel on the other side, and the "No" from the brigantine was changed into—

"Yes, she's here; close to on the port side. Look sharp, she's sinking," and then came the sound of tackle as the crew lowered a boat that hung on the ship's quarter.

With a low, excited cry the crew of Brandon's canoe struck their bright red paddles into the water with lightning strokes, and the little craft swept swiftly round the stern of the brigantine before the just lowered boat had way on her.

There, scarce a hundred yards away, they saw Mhia swimming slowly and painfully along towards the ship, to the man whom she thought had deserted her. With one arm she supported the tiny figure of the child, and Brandon, with a wild fear in his heart, saw that she was too exhausted to hold it many seconds longer.

"Quick! Quick, man, for the love of God!" came in loud, hoarse tones from the captain of the brigantine, who stood on the rail holding to the main rigging, and drawing a pistol from his belt he sent its bullet within a few feet of the feeble swimmer.

Only another ten yards, when, as if aware of the awful fate that awaited her, Mhia half raised herself, and with dying strength held the child out almost clear of the water. And then, as her panting bosom wailed out her husband's name for the last time, there pealed out upon the ocean a shriek of mortal agony, and he saw her drop the infant and disappear in a swirl of eddying foam. Ere that awful cry had ceased to vibrate through the morning air, a native had sprung from the canoe and seized the drowning child, and the agonised father, looking down into the blue depths, saw a running streak of bubbling white five fathoms beneath. Again the native dived, and followed the wavering track of white, and presently, not fifty feet away, they saw him rise with the woman on his arm, her long black hair twining around his brawny neck and shoulders.

"By God, he's saved her!" cried the mate, as both his boat and Brandon's canoe reached the native simultaneously, and they reached out their hands to take hold of the motionless figure.

"Paranta, turn thy eyes away," said a native, and flinging his arms around the white man, he forced his face away as the diver and his burden were lifted into the boat.

A shuddering sob stirred the frame of the mate or the brigantine when he saw that only the upper half of the woman's body was left.





II.

With the captain of the sandal-wooder, the broken-hearted wanderer, had taken passage, and one day, as he watched the movements of his child as it frolicked with the rough seamen of the brigantine, the haunting fear of discovery returned to him in all its first force of three years before. A kindly remark made by the rough but good-natured skipper led him to reveal his story, and the seaman's face fell when the deserter asked him if he thought it possible he could ever return to England with safety.

"No, I don't. You might but I can tell you that a man with a figure like you—6 ft. 1 in. if you're an inch, and with a cut across the face—wouldn't miss being found out. And look here, 'tisn't even safe for you to come to Singapore. There's many a King's ship around these parts, and the chances are that some of the company of any one of 'em would recognise you—and you know what that means. If I were in your place I would try and get away in an American whaler. Once in America you'll be safe enough. The best I can do for you is to put you ashore at the Bonin Islands. There's bound to be whalers in there next season, making up northwards to the coast of Japan and Tchantar Bay."

One day they sailed slowly into a little land-locked harbour in the Bonin Islands, and Brandon, grasping the kind-hearted skipper's hand, bade him goodbye, and went ashore. Here, among the strange hybrid population of natives, half-bloods, runaways from whale-ships, and Portuguese, he found employment at boat-building, and for another three years lived contentedly enough, working hard, and saving what little money he could. Then came the Oliver Cromwell and reported that an English frigate which was at anchor a few miles away at another harbour would be at his then refuge on the following day.

Without saying a word of farewell to his rough and wild associates, he had taken his bag of honestly-earned money, and going on board the barque at night, besought the master to give him and the boy a passage away to any island in the Caroline or Marshall Groups at which the vessel could conveniently land them.

At noon next morning the barque was under way, and as she rounded the point the lofty spars of the frigate showed up scarce a mile distant, and Brandon, with a pistol in the bosom of his shirt, sat and trembled till the Oliver Cromwell was well away from her, and the frigate's white sails had become hull down.

For week after week the barque sailed past many a palm-shaded isle, with its belt of gleaming beach within the fringe of beating surf, and the brown people came out from their dwellings of thatch and shouted and bawled to the men on the passing ship; but at none of these would the captain land the deserter, for the natives were reputed to be savage and treacherous to the last degree.

At last the green peaks of Kusaie which shadowed the deep waters of Lla Harbour were sighted; and here once more the wandering man sought to hide himself from the world.





III.

The sun was high now, and the boy Harry, now a strong, sturdy-limbed youngster of seven, as he splashed about, called loudly to his father to come and bathe too.

"Come, father," he called. "See, the sun is between the big and little peaks, and to-day it is that you and I go to Utw in the new boat."

At the sound of the boy's voice Brandon came to the door of his hut, and stroking his bearded chin, smiled and shook his head.

"Aye, aye, Harry. Come in, boy, and eat something, and then let us away to the king's boat-shed. To-day the people of Utw shall see the new boat, and Charlik goes with us."

"Father," asked the boy, as he ate his food, "when shall we go away from this place? Kanka, the priest, said to me yesterday that by and by the king would build us a new house in the village—when you had finished another boat."

Brandon shook his head. He had found Charlik a hard master during the time he had lived on the island; for although both he and the boy were well treated in some respects, the savage and avaricious chief kept him constantly at work, and Brandon was beginning to weary of his existence.

Just as the trade wind began to whiten the tops of the long, sweeping ocean rollers, the new boat built by the king's white man slid out from the wooded shores of Lla, and, under a great mat sail, sped down the coast towards the native village called Utw.

Seated beside Brandon was the grim-faced Charlik, who was in high good humour at the speed shown by the boat, and promised to build him a new house within a few weeks. For nearly two hours the boat spun southward along the line of thundering breakers on the eastern shore, till Brandon hauled to the wind and ran inside the narrow passage to Utw Harbour. And there, right before them, lay at anchor the very frigate he had so narrowly escaped at the Bonins!

Before the astonished king could prevent him the deserter had run the boat ashore on a shelving patch of reef, and seizing his boy in his arms, sprang out and made for the shore.

He would escape yet, he thought, as he sprang from ledge to ledge of coral rock, until he gained the beach. In the thick forest jungle he would at least be safe from pursuit by the ship's people.

Taking the boy by the hand, he set out at a run past the line of native houses which dotted the beach, and to all inquiries as to his haste he made no answer. Suddenly, as he turned into a path that led mountain-wards, he found his way blocked by an officer and a party of blue-jackets.

"Halt!" cried the officer, covering him with a fowling-piece. "Who are you, and why are you running like this?"

"That is my business, sir," he said. Then the officer sprang at him.

"Surrender, you villain! I know you—you are one of the men we want."

He turned like lightning, and, with the boy in his arms, sped back again towards the beach in the hope of getting a canoe and gaining the opposite shore of the island. But his pursuers were gaining on him fast, and when the beach was reached at last he turned and faced them, for every canoe was gone.

The officer motioned to his men to stand back.

"Brandon, there is no chance for you. Do not add another crime to that which you have already committed."

"No, sir; no. I shall do no more harm to any one in the King's service, but I will never be taken alive."

He pressed the muzzle of his pistol to his heart, pulled the trigger, and fell dead at their feet.