SAILOR and MINER
and POISONOUS FISH
By Louis Becke
T. Fisher Unwin, 1901
CORWELL, SAILOR AND MINER
POISONOUS FISH OF THE PACIFIC ISLANDS
JOHN CORWELL, SAILOR AND MINER
"Am I to have no privacy at all?" demanded the Governor irritably as the
orderly again tapped at the open door and announced another visitor. "Who
is he and what does he want?"
"Mr. John Corwell, your Excellency, master of the cutter Ceres,
from the South Seas."
The Governor's brows relaxed somewhat. "Let him come in in ten minutes,
Cleary, but tell him at the same time that I am very tired—too tired
to listen unless he has something of importance to say."
The day had indeed been a most tiring one to the worthy Governor of the
colony of New South Wales, just then struggling weakly in its infancy, and
only emerging from the horrors of actual starvation, caused by the utter
neglect of the Home authorities to send out further supplies of
provisions. Prisoners of both sexes came in plenty, but brought nothing to
eat with them; the military officers who should have helped him in his
arduous labours were secretly plotting against him, and their spare time—and
they had plenty—was devoted to writing letters home to highly-placed
personages imploring them to induce the Government to break up the
settlement and not "waste the health and lives of even these abandoned
convicts in trying to found a colony in the most awful and hideous desert
the eye of man had ever seen, a place which can never be useful to man and
is accursed by God." But the Governor took no heed. Mutiny and discontent
he had fought in his silent, determined way as he fought grim famine,
sparing himself nothing, toiling from dawn till dark, listening to
complaints, remedying abuses, punishing with swift severity those who
deserved it, and yet always preserving the same cold, unbending dignity of
manner which covered a highly-sensitive and deeply sympathetic nature.
But on this particular day, fatigue, the intense heat, which had
prevailed, a violent quarrel between the intriguing major commanding the
marines, and many other lesser worries, had been almost more than he could
bear, so it may well be imagined that he was more inclined for rest than
Ten, twenty minutes, and then the thin, spare figure raised itself wearily
from the rude sofa. He must see his visitor. He had promised to do so, and
the sooner it was over the better. He called to the orderly.
"Tell Mr.—Corwell you said?—to come in."
A heavy step sounded on the bare floor, and one ot the finest specimens of
manhood Governor Arthur Phillip had ever seen in all his long naval career
stood before him and saluted. There was something so pleasant and yet so
manly in the handsome, cleanshaven and deeply-bronzed face, that the
Governor was at once attracted to him.
"Be seated, Mr. Corwell," he said in his low, yet clear tones. "I am very
tired, so you must not keep me long."
"Certainly not, your Excellency. But I thought, sir, that you would prefer
to hear the report of my voyage personally. I have discovered a
magnificent harbour north of the Solomon Islands, and——"
"Ha! And so you came to me. Very sensible, very sensible of you. I am
obliged to you, sir. Tell me all about it."
"Certainly, your Excellency; but I regret I have intruded on you this
evening. Perhaps, sir, you will permit me to call again to-morrow?"
"No, no, not at all," was the energetic reply. I am always ready to hear
anything of this nature.
"I knew that, sir, for the masters of the Breckenbridge and another
transport told me that you were most anxious to learn of any discoveries
in the Pacific Islands."
"Very true, sir. I am looking forward to hear from them and from the
masters of other transports which I am inducing to follow the whale
fishery on their return voyage to England via Batavia. But so far I
have heard nothing from any one of them."
Encouraged and pleased at the Governor's manner, the master of the Ceres
at once produced a roughly executed plan and a detailed written
description of the harbour, which, he asserted with confidence, was one of
the finest in that part of the Pacific. A broad, deep stream of water ran
from the lofty range of mountains which traversed the island north and
south and fell into a spacious bay, on the shores of which was a large and
populous native village, whose inhabitants had treated Cornell and the few
men of his ship's company with considerable kindness, furnishing them not
only with wood and water, but an ample supply of fresh provisions as well.
During the two weeks that the Ceres lay at anchor, Corwell and two
or three of his hands unhesitatingly trusted themselves among the natives,
who escorted them inland and around the coast. Everywhere was evidence of
the extraordinary fertility of the island, which, in the vicinity of the
seashore, was highly cultivated, each family's plantation being enclosed
by stone fences, while their houses were strongly built and neatly
constructed. The broad belt of the slopes of the mountains were covered
with magnificent timber, which Corwell believed to be teak, equal in
quality to any he had seen in the East Indies, and which he said could be
easily brought down to the seashore for shipment owing to there being
several other large streams beside the one on whose banks the principal
village was built.
The Governor was much interested, and complimented the young seaman on the
manner in which he had written out his description of the place and his
observations on the character and customs of the inhabitants.
"Such information as you have given me, Mr. Corwell, is always valuable,
and I give you my best thanks. I wish I could do more; and had I the
means, men, and money to spare I should send a vessel there and to other
islands in the vicinity to make further examination, for I believe that
from those islands to the northward we can obtain invaluable food supplies
in the future. The winds are more favourable for making a quick voyage
there and back than they are to those groups to the eastward; but," and
here he sighed, "our condition is such that I fear it will be many years
ere His Majesty will consent to such an undertaking. But much may be done
at private cost—perhaps in the near future."
The young man remained silent for a moment or two; then with some
hesitation he said, as he took a small paper packet from his coat pocket
and handed it to the Governor, "Will your Excellency look at this and tell
me what it is. I—I imagine it is pure gold, sir."
"Gold, gold!" and something like a frown contracted the Governor's pale
brows; "ever since the settlement was formed I've been pestered with tales
of gold, and a pretty expense it has run me into sending parties out to
search for it. Why, only six months ago a rascally prisoner gulled one of
my officers into letting him lead an expedition into the bush—the
fellow had filed down a brass bolt—" he looked up and caught sight
of the dark flush which had suddenly suffused his visitor's face—"but
I do not for a moment imagine you are playing upon my credulity, Mr.
He untied the string and opened the packet, and in an instant an
exclamation of astonishment and pleasure escaped as he saw that the folds
of paper held quite three ounces of bright and flaky water-worn gold.
"This certainly is gold, sir. May I ask where you obtained it?"
"I made the voyage to Sydney Cove to tell your Excellency of two
discoveries—one was of the fine harbour, the other was of this gold,
which my wife (who is a native of Ternate) and myself ourselves washed out
of the bed of a small stream; the natives helped us, but attached not the
slightest value to our discovery. In fact, sir, they assured us as well as
they could that much more was to be had in every river on the island."
"Your wife was it, then, or yourself, who first recognised what it was?"
"She did, sir. She has seen much of it in the hands of the Bugis and Arab
traders in her native country."
The Governor moved his slender forefinger to and fro amid the shining,
heavy particles, then he pondered deeply for some minutes.
"Tell me frankly, Mr. Corwell—why did you make a long voyage to this
settlement to tell me of your discovery?"
"In the hope, sir, that you would advise and perhaps assist me. My crew
are Malays and Chinese and would have murdered me if they knew what I
knew. Will your Excellency tell me the proper course to pursue so that I
may be protected in my discovery? I am a poor man, though my ship is my
own, but she is old and leaky and must undergo heavy repairs before she
leaves Sydney Cove again; my present crew I wish to replace by half a
dozen respectable Englishmen, and——"
The Governor shook his head. "I will do all I can to help you, but I
cannot provide you with men. The island which you have visited may have
been discovered and taken possession of by France, two of whose exploring
ships were in these seas a few years ago, and even if that is not the case
I could not take possession of them for His Majesty, as I have no
commissioned officer to spare to undertake such a duty. Yet, if such an
officer were available, Mr. Corwell, I would be strongly tempted to send
him with you, hoist the British flag, and then urge the Home Government to
confirm my action and secure to you the right, subject to the King's
royalties, to work these gold deposits. But I am powerless—much as I
wish to aid you."
A look of disappointment clouded the young captain's handsome features.
"Would your Excellency permit me to endeavour to find three or four seamen
myself? There is a transport ready to sail for England, and I may be able
to get some men from her."
"I doubt it. Unless you revealed the object of your voyage—which
would be exceedingly foolish of you—you could not induce them to
make a voyage in such a small vessel as yours to islands inhabited mostly
by ferocious savages. But this much I can and will do for you. I will
direct Captain Hunter of the Sirius, the only King's ship I have
here, to set his carpenters to work on your vessel as soon as ever you
careen her; I will supply you at my own private cost with arms and
ammunition and a new suit of sails. Provisions I cannot give you—God
knows we want them badly enough ourselves, although we are not now in such
a bad plight as we were ten months ago. Yet for all that I may be able to
get you a cask or two of beef."
"That is most generous of you, sir. I will not, however, take the beef,
your Excellency. But for the sails and the repairs to my poor little
vessel I thank you, sir, most heartily and sincerely. And I pledge you my
word of honour, as well as giving you my written bond, that I will redeem
my obligations to you."
"And if you fail I shall be content, for I well know that it will be no
fault of yours. But stay, Mr. Corwell; I must have one condition."
"Name it, sir."
"You too must pledge me your honour that you will not reveal the secret of
your discovery of gold to any one in the settlement. This I do not demand—I
ask it as a favour."
Then the Governor took him, guardedly enough, into his confidence. With a
thousand convicts, most of them utter ruffians, guarded by a scanty force
or marines, the news of gold having been found would, he was sure, have a
disastrous effect, and lead to open revolt. The few small merchant ships
which were in port were partly manned by convict seamen, and there was
every likelihood of them being seized by gangs of desperate criminals,
fired with the idea of reaching the golden island. Already a party of
convicts had escaped with the mad idea of walking to China, which they
believed was only separated from Australia by a large river which existed
a few hundred miles to the northward of the settlement. Some of them died
of thirst, others were slaughtered by the blacks, and the wounded and
exhausted survivors were glad to make their way back again to their
Cornell listened intently, and gave his promise readily. Then he rose to
go, and the Governor held out his hand.
"Good evening, Mr. Cornell. I must see you again before you sail."
One evening, three weeks later—so vigorously had the carpenter's
mates from the old frigate Sirius got through their work—the
Ceres was ready for sea. She was to sail on the following morning,
and Corwell, having just returned from the shore, where he had been to say
goodbye to the kind-hearted Governor, was pacing the deck with his wife,
his smiling face and eager tones showing that he was well pleased.
He had reason to be pleased, for unusual luck had attended him. Not only
had his ship been thoroughly and efficiently repaired, but he had replaced
six of his untrustworthy Malays by four good, sturdy British seamen, one
of whom he had appointed mate. These men had arrived at Sydney Cove in a
transport a few days after his interview with the Governor; the transport
had been condemned, and Corwell, much to his delight, found that out of
her crew of thirty, four were willing to come with him on what he
cautiously described as a "voyage of venture to the South Seas." All of
them had served in the navy, and the captain of the transport and his
officers gave them excellent characters for sobriety and seamanship. Out
of the sixty or seventy pounds which still remained to him he had given
them a substantial advance, and the cheerful manner in which they turned
to and helped the carpenters from the frigate convinced him that he had
secured decent, reliable men, to whom he thought he could reveal the real
object of his voyage later on.
Two years before Cornell had been mate of a "country" ship employed in
trading between Calcutta and the Moluccas. The Ternate agent of the owners
of the ship was an Englishman named Leighton, a widower with one daughter,
whose mother had died when the girl was fifteen. With this man the young
officer struck up a friendship, and before six months had passed he was
the acknowledged suitor of Mary Leighton, with whom he had fallen in love
at first sight, and who quickly responded to his affection. She was then
twenty-two years of age, tall and fair, with dark hazel eyes, like her
English mother, and possessed of such indomitable spirit and courage that
her father often laughingly declared it was she, and not he, who really
managed the business which he controlled.
And she really did much to help him; she knew his weak, vacillating, and
speculative nature would long since have left them penniless had he not
yielded to her advice and protests on many occasions, Generous and
extravagantly hospitable, he spent his money lavishly, and had squandered
two or three fortunes in wild business ventures in the Indian Seas instead
of saving one. Latterly, however, he had been more careful, and when
Corwell had made his acquaintance he had two vessels—a barque and a
brig—both of which were very profitably engaged in the Manila-China
trade, and he was now sanguine or mending his broken fortunes.
Isolated as were father and daughter from the advantages of constant
intercourse with European society, the duty of educating the girl was a
task of love to her remaining parent, who, before he entered "John
Company's" service, had travelled much in Europe. Yet, devoted as he was
to her, and looking forward with some dread to the coming loneliness of
life which would be his when she married, he cheerfully gave his consent
to her union with John Cornell, for whom he had conceived a strong liking,
and who, he knew, would make her a good husband.
They were married at Batavia, to which port they were accompanied by Mr.
Leighton, who, during the voyage, had pressed Corwell to leave his then
employment and join him in a venture which had occupied his mind for the
past year. This was to despatch either the barque or brig, laden with
trade goods, to the Society Islands in the South Pacific, to barter for
coconut oil and pearl shell.
Leighton was certain that there was a fortune awaiting the man who entered
upon the venture, and his arguments so convinced the young man that he
On arrival at Batavia they found there the officers and crew of a
shipwrecked English vessel, and one of the former eagerly took Corwell's
place as chief mate, his captain offering no objection. A few weeks after
Mr. Leighton hired the Ceres to take himself, his daughter, and her
husband back to Ternate, eager to begin the work of fitting out one of his
vessels for the voyage that was to bring them fortune. He, it was
arranged, was to remain at Ternate, Mary was to sail with her husband to
the South Seas.
But a terrible shock awaited them. As the Ceres sailed up to her
anchorage before Mr. Leighton's house, his Chinese clerk came on board
with the news that the barque had foundered in a typhoon, and the brig had
been plundered and burnt by pirates within a few miles of Canton. The
unfortunate man gave one last appealing look at his daughter and then fell
on the deck at her feet He never spoke again, and died in a few hours.
When his affairs came to be settled up, it was found that, after paying
his debts, there was less than four hundred pounds left—a sum little
more than that which Corwell had managed to save out of his own wages.
"Never mind, Jack," said Mary. "'Tis little enough, but yet 'tis enough.
And, Jack, let us go away from here. I should not care now to meet any of
the people father knew in his prosperity."
Cornell kissed his wife, and then they at once discussed the future. Half
an hour later he had bought the Ceres from her captain (who was
also the owner), paid him his money and taken possession. Before the week
was out he had bought all the trade goods he could afford to pay for,
shipped a crew of Malays and Chinese, and, with Mary by his side, watched
Ternate sink astern as the Ceres began her long voyage to the South
After a three weeks' voyage along the northern and eastern shores of New
Guinea the Ceres came to an anchor in the harbour which Cornell had
described to the Governor. The rest of his story, up to the time of his
arrival in Sydney Cove, the reader knows. *****
Steadily northward under cloudless skies the high-pooped, bluff-bowed
little vessel had sailed, favoured by leading winds nearly all the way,
for four-and-twenty days, when, on the morning of the twenty-fifth,
Corwell, who had been up aloft scanning the blue loom of a lofty island
which lay right ahead, descended to the deck with a smiling face.
"That is not only the island itself, Mary, but with this breeze we have a
clear run for the big village in the bay; I can see the spur on the
southern side quite clearly."
"I'm so glad, Jack, dear. And how you have worried and fumed for the past
"I feared we had got too far to the westward, my girl," he said. Then
telling the mate to keep away a couple of points, he went below to pore
over the plan of the harbour, a copy of which had been taken by the
Governor, As he studied it his wife's fingers passed lovingly through and
through his curly locks. He looked up, put his arm around her waist, and
swung her to a seat on his knees.
"I think, Mary, I can tell the men now."
"I'm sure you can! The sooner you take them into your confidence the
Corwell nodded. During the voyage he had watched the mate and three white
seamen keenly, and was thoroughly satisfied with them. The remainder of
the crew—three Manila men and two Penang Malays—did their duty
well enough, but both he and his wife knew from long experience that such
people were not to be trusted when their avarice was aroused. He resolved,
therefore, to rely entirely upon his white crew and the natives of the
island to help him in obtaining the gold. Yet, as he could not possibly
keep the operations a secret from the five men he distrusted, he decided,
as a safeguard against their possible and dangerous ill-will, to promise
them double wages from the day he found that gold was to be obtained in
payable quantities. As for the mate and three other white men, they should
have one-fifth of all the gold won between them, he keeping the remaining
four-fifths for himself and wife.
He put his head up the companion-way and called to the man whom he had
"Come below, Mallett, and bring Totten, Harris, and Sam with you."
Wondering what was the matter the four men came into the cabin. As soon as
they were standing together at the head of the little table, the captain's
wife went quietly on deck to see that none of the coloured crew came aft
"Now, men," said Corwell, "I have something important to tell you. I
believe I can trust you."
Then in as few words as possible he told them the object of the voyage and
his intentions towards them. At first they seemed somewhat incredulous,
but when they were shown some of the gold their doubts vanished, and they
one and all swore to be honest and true to him and to obey him faithfully
whether afloat or ashore, in fair or evil fortune.
From his scanty store of liquor the captain took a bottle of rum, and they
drank to their future success; then Corwell shook each man's hand and sent
him on deck.
Just before dusk the Ceres ran in and dropped her clumsy,
wooden-stocked anchor in the crystal-clear water, a few cables' length
away from the village. As the natives recognised her a chorus of welcoming
shouts and cries pealed from the shore from five hundred dusky-hued
A blazing, tropic sun shone in mid-heaven upon the motionless waters of
the deep, land-locked bay in which the Ceres lay, with top-mast struck and
awnings spread fore and aft. A quarter of a mile away was the beach,
girdled with its thick belt of coco-palms whose fronds hung limp and hot
in the windless air as if gasping for breath. Here and there, among the
long line of white, lime-washed canoes, drawn up on the sand, snowy white
and blue cranes stalked to and fro seeking for the small thin-shelled
soldier crabs burrowing under the loose débris of leaves and fallen
palm-branches to escape the heat.
A few yards back from the level of high-water mark clustered the houses of
the native village, built on both sides of the bright, fast-flowing stream
which here, as it debouched into the sea, was wide and shallow, showing a
bottom composed of rounded black stones alternating with rocky bars. Along
the grassless banks, worn smooth by the constant tread of naked feet, grew
tall many-hued crotons, planted and carefully tended by their native
owners, and shielded from the rays of the sun by the ever-present
coco-palms. From either side of the bank, looking westward towards the
forest, there was a clear stretch of water half a mile in length, then the
river was hidden from view, for in its course from the mountains through
the heavily-jungled littoral it took many bends and twists, sometimes
running swiftly over rocky, gravelly beds, sometimes flowing noiselessly
through deep, muddy-bottomed pools and dank, steamy swamps, the haunt of
the silent, dreaded alligator.
At the head of the straight stretch of water of which I have spoken there
was on the left-hand bank of the river an open grassy sward, surrounded by
clumps of areca and coco-palms, and in the centre stood a large house,
built by native hands, but showing by various external signs that it was
tenanted by people other than the wild inhabitants of the island. Just in
front of the house, and surrounded by a number of canoes, the boat
belonging to the Ceres was moored to the bank, and under a long
open-sided, palm-thatched shed, were a number of brown-skinned naked
savages, some lying sleeping, others squatting on their hams,
energetically chewing betel nut.
As they talked and chewed and spat out the scarlet juice through their
hideous red lips and coaly black teeth, a canoe, paddled by two natives
and steered by Mallet, the mate of the Ceres, came up the river.
The instant it was seen a chorus of yells arose from the natives in the
long hut, and Mary Corwell came to the open doorway of the house and
"Wake up, wake up, Jack!" she cried, turning her face inwards over her
graceful shoulder, "here is Mallet."
Her voice awoke her husband, who in an instant sprang from his couch and
joined her, just as Mallet—a short, square-built man of fifty—stepped
out of the canoe and walked briskly towards them, wiping his broad, honest
face with a blue cotton handkerchief.
"Come inside, Mallet. 'Tis a bit cooler in here. I'm sorry I sent you down
to the ship on such a day as this."
Mallet laughed good-naturedly. "I didn't mind it, sir, though 'tis a
powerful hot day, and the natives are all lying asleep in their huts; they
can't understand why us works as we do in the sun. Lord, sir! How I should
like to see old Kingsdown and Walmer Castle to-day, all a-white with snow.
I was born at Deal."
Mary Cornell brought the old seaman a young coconut to drink, and her
husband added a little rum; Mallet tossed it off and then sat down.
"Well, sir, the ship is all right, and those chaps aboard seem content
enough. But I'm afeared that the worms are a-getting into her although she
is moored right abreast of the river. So I took it on me to tell Totten
and Harris to stay aboard whilst I came back to ask you if it wouldn't be
best for us to bring her right in to the fresh water, and moor her here,
right abreast o' the house. That'll kill any worms as has got into her
timbers. And we can tow her in the day after to-morrow, when there will be
a big tide."
"You did quite right, Mallet. Very likely the worms have got into her
timbers in spite of her being abreast of the river's mouth. I should have
thought of this before."
"Ah, Jack," said his wife, with a smile, "we have thought too much of our
gold-getting and too little of the poor old Ceres."
"Well, I shall think more of her now, Mary. And as the rains will be on us
in a few days—so the natives say—and we can do no more work
for three months, I think it will be as well for us to sail the Ceres
over to that chain of lagoon islands about thirty miles from here. I fear
to remain here during the wet season, on account of the fever."
After further discussion it was decided that Jack and Mallet, with some
natives, should make an early start in the morning for their mining camp,
six miles away, at the foot of the range, and do a long, last day's work,
returning to the house on the following day. Meanwhile a message was to be
sent to Harris and Totten to bring the vessel into the creek as soon as
the tide served, which would be in forty-eight hours. Then, whilst she lay
for a week in the fresh water, so as to kill the suspected teredo
navalis worms, which Mallet feared had attacked her, she was to be
made ready for the short voyage of thirty miles over to a cluster of
islands enclosing a spacious lagoon, where Corwell intended to beach her
till the rainy season was over, when he would return to work a very
promising stream in another locality. Already he and his men, aided by the
natives, had, in the four months that had passed since they arrived, won
nearly five hundred ounces of gold, crude as were their appliances.
"Jack," said his wife, "I think that, as you will be away all day and
night, to-morrow I shall go on board and see what I can do. I'll make the
men turn to and give the cabin a thorough overhauling. Marawa, the chiefs
wife, has given me a lot of sleeping-mats, and I shall throw those old
horrible flock mattresses overboard, and we shall have nice clean mats
instead to lie on."
At daylight Mallet aroused the natives who were to accompany him and the
captain, and then told off two of them to make the boat ready for Mrs.
Corwell. Then he returned to the house and called out—
"The boat is ready, sir."
"So am I, Mallet," replied Mary, tying on her old-fashioned sun-hood. Then
she turned to her husband. "Jack, darling, this will be the very first
time in our married life that I have ever slept away from you, and it
shall be the last, too. But I do want to surprise you when you see
our cabin again."
She put her lips up to him and kissed him half a dozen times. "There,
that's a good-night and good morning three times over. Now I'm ready."
Corwell and Mallet walked down to the boat with her and saw her get in.
She kissed her hand to them and in a few minutes was out of sight.
A light, cool breeze, which had set in at daylight, was blowing when Mary
Corwell boarded the Ceres. Totten and Harris met her at the
gangway, caps in hand. Poor Sam, their former shipmate, had died of fever
a month before. They were delighted to hear that she intended to remain on
board, and Harris at once told Miguel, the scoundrelly-faced Manila cook,
to get breakfast ready.
"And you must have your breakfast with me," said Mary, "and after that you
must obey my orders. I am to be captain to-day."
As she and the two seamen sat aft under the awning, at their breakfast,
Selak, the leading Malay, and his fellows squatted on the fore-hatch and
talked in whispers.
"I tell thee," said Selak, "that I have seen it. On the evening of the day
when the man Sam died and was buried, I was sitting outside the house. It
was dark, and the Tuan Korwal thought I had returned to the ship. I crept
near and listened. They were speaking of what should be done with the dead
man's share of the gold. Then I looked through the cave side of the house,
and—dost remember that white basin of thine, Miguel?"
The Manila man nodded.
"The white woman, at a sign from her husband, went into the inner room and
brought it out and placed it on the table. It was full to the brim with
gold! and there was more in a bag!"
His listeners drew nearer to him, their dark eyes gleaming with avarice.
"Then the Tuan said, 'None of Sam's gold will I or my wife touch. Let it
be divided among you three. It is but fair.'
"They talked again, and then Mallet said to the Tuan, 'Captain, it shall
be as you wish. But let it all go together till the time comes for thee to
give us our share.'
"I watched the white woman take the basin and the bag, put them into a
box, and place the box in a hole in the ground in her sleeping-room. Then
I came away, for my heart was on fire with the wrong that hath been done
He rose to his feet and peered round the corner of the galley. Mary and
the two seamen were eating very leisurely.
"Three of them are here now and will sleep aboard to-night. God hath given
them into our hands!"
"And what of the other two?—they are strong men," asked a wizen,
monkey-faced Malay, nicknamed Nakoda (the captain).
"Bah! What is a giant if he sleeps and a kriss is swept across his throat,
or a spear is thrust into his back from behind? They, too, shall die as
quickly as these who sit near us. Now listen. But sit thou out on the
deck, Miguel, so that thou canst warn us if either of those accursed dogs
The cook obeyed him silently.
"This it is to be. To-night these three here shall die in their
sleep, silently and without a sound. Then we, all but thou, Nakoda, shall
take the boat and go to the house. Both the Tuan and Mallet sleep heavily,
and"—he drew his hand swiftly across his tawny throat.
"And then?" queried Nakoda.
"And then the gold—the gold, or our share of which we have been
robbed—is ours, and the ship is ours, and I, Selak, will guide ye
all to Dobbo in the Aru Islands, where we shall be safe, and become great
"But," muttered another man, "what if these black sons of Shaitan here of
the Island turn upon us after we have slain the white men?"
Selak laughed scornfully. "The sound of a gun terrifies them. They are
cowards, and will not seek to interfere with us."
Night had fallen. The two white seamen, tired out with their day's work,
had spread their mats on the poop, and were sound in slumber. Below in the
cabin, the captain's wife lay reading by the light of a lamp; and Selak,
standing in the waist, could see its faint reflection shining through the
cabin door, which opened on to the main deck. Sitting on the fore-deck,
with their hands clutching their knives, his companions watched him.
At last the light was lowered, and Mary closed her eyes and slept.
The Malay waited patiently. One by one the remaining native fires on the
shore went out; and, presently, a chill gust of air swept down from the
mountains, and looking shoreward he saw that the sky to the eastward was
quickly darkening and hiding the stars—a heavy downpour of rain was
He drew his kriss from its tortoiseshell sheath and felt the edge, made a
gesture to the crouching tigers for'ard, and then stepped lightly along
the deck to the open cabin door; the other four crept after him, then
stopped and waited—for less than a minute.
A faint, choking cry came from the cabin, and then Selak came out, his
kriss streaming with blood.
"It is done," he whispered, and pointing to the poop he sprang up.
"Hi, there! what's the matter?" cried Totten, who had heard the feint cry;
and then, too late, he drew his pistol from his belt and fired—as
Selak's kriss plunged into his chest. Poor Harris was slaughtered ere he
had opened his eyes.
Spurning Totten's body with his naked foot, Selak cursed it. "Accursed
Christian dog! Would I could bring thee to life so that I might kill thee
again!" Then, as he heard the rushing hum of the coming rain squall, and
saw that the shore was hidden from view, as if a solid wall of white stone
had suddenly arisen between it and the ship, he grinned.
"Bah! what does it matter? Had it been a cannon instead of a pistol it
could scarce have been heard on the shore in such a din."
Ordering the bodies of the two seamen to be thrown overboard, Selak, the
most courageous, entered the cabin, took a couple of muskets from the
rack, and some powder and ball from the mate's berth, and returning to his
followers, bade them bring the boat alongside.
"Throw the woman after them," he cried to Nakoda, as the boat pushed off
into the darkness, just as the hissing rain began. "We shall return ere it
Nakoda would have sprung over the side after the boat, but he feared the
sharks even more than Selak's kriss; so running for'ard, he crept into his
bunk and lay there, too terrified to move.
Mallet and Corwell, with the natives, worked hard till near sunset, and
"There's nearly five ounces in that lot, Mallet," said the captain,
pointing to two buckets of wash-dirt. "Let us have a bathe, and then get
something to eat before it is too dark."
"The natives say we ought to get back to the house, sir, instead of
sleeping here tonight. They say a heavy storm is coming on, and we'll be
washed out of the camp."
"Very well, Mallet I don't want to stay here, I can assure you. Tell them
to hurry up, then. Get the shovels and other gear, and let us start as
quickly as possible. It will take us a good three hours to get back to the
By sunset they started, walking in single file along the narrow, dangerous
mountain-path, a false step on which meant a fall of hundreds of feet.
Half-way down, the storm overtook them, but guided by the surefooted
natives they pressed steadily on, gained the level ground, and at last
reached the house about ten o'clock.
"Now that we have come so far we might as well go on board and give my
wife a surprise," said Corwell to Mallet. "Look, the rain is taking off."
"Not for long, sir. But if we start at once we may get aboard afore it
Two willing natives, wet and shivering as they were, quickly baled out a
canoe, and in a few minutes they were off, paddling down towards the sea.
But scarce had they gone a few hundred yards when another sudden downpour
of rain blotted out everything around them. But the natives paddled
steadily on amid the deafening roar; the river was wide, and there was no
danger of striking anything harder than the hanging branch of a tree or
the soft banks.
"I thought I heard voices just now," shouted Mallet.
"Natives been out fishing," replied Corwell.
As the canoe shot out through the mouth of the river into the open bay the
rain ceased as suddenly as it began, and the Ceres loomed up right
"Don't hail them, Mallet. Let us go aboard quietly."
They clambered up the side, the two natives following, and, wet and
dripping, entered the cabin.
Corwell stepped to the swinging lamp, which burnt dimly, and pricked up
the wick. His wife seemed to be sound asleep on the cushioned transom
"Mary," he cried, "wake up, dearest. We—— ... Oh my
He sprang to her side, and kneeling beside the still figure, placed his
hand on the blood-stained bosom.
"Dead! Dead! Murdered!" He rose to his feet, and stared wildly at Mallet,
swayed to and fro, and then fell heavily forward.
As the two natives stood at the cabin door, gazing in wondering horror at
the scene, they heard a splash. Nakoda had jumped overboard and was
Long before dawn the native war-drums began to beat, and when Selak and
his fellow-murderers reached the mouth of the river they ran into a fleet
of canoes which waited for them. They fought like the tigers they were,
but were soon overcome and made prisoners, tied hand and foot, and carried
ashore to the "House of the Young Men." The gold was taken care of by the
chief, who brought it on board to Corwell.
"When do these men die?" he asked,
"To-day," replied Corwell huskily; "to-day, after I have buried my wife."
On a little island just within the barrier reef, she was laid to rest,
with the never-ending cry of the surf for her requiem.
At sunset, Corwell and Mallet left the ship and landed at the village, and
as their feet touched the sand the war-drums broke out with deafening
clamour. They each carried a cutlass, and walked quickly through the
thronging natives to the "House of the Young Men."
"Bring them out," said Corwell hoarsely to the chief.
One by one Selak and his fellow-prisoners were brought out and placed on
their feet, the bonds that held them were cut, and their hands seized and
held widely apart. And then Corwell and Mallet thrust their cutlasses
through the cruel hearts.
POISONOUS FISH OF THE PACIFIC ISLANDS
Many years ago I was sent with a wrecking party of native seamen to take
possession of a Swedish barque which had gone ashore on the reef of one of
the Marshall Islands, in the North Pacific. My employers, who had bought
the vessel for £100, were in hopes that she might possibly be floated,
patched up, and brought to Sydney. However, on arriving at the island I
found that she was hopelessly bilged, so we at once set to work to strip
her of everything of value, especially her copper, which was new. It was
during these operations that I made acquaintance with both poisonous and
stinging fish. There were not more than sixty or seventy natives living on
the island, and some of these, as soon as we anchored in the lagoon, asked
me to caution my own natives—who came from various other Pacific
islands—not to eat any fish they might catch in the lagoon until
each one had been examined by a local man. I followed their injunction,
and for two or three weeks all went well; then came trouble.
I had brought down with me from Sydney a white carpenter—one of the
most obstinate, cross-grained old fellows that ever trod a deck, but an
excellent workman if humoured a little. At his own request he lived on
board the wrecked barque, instead of taking up his quarters on shore in
the native village with the rest of the wrecking party. One evening as I
was returning from the shore to the schooner—I always slept on board—I
saw the old man fishing from the waist of the wreck, for it was high tide,
and there was ten feet of water around the ship. I saw him excitedly haul
in a good-sized fish, and, hailing him, inquired how many he had caught,
and if he were sure they were not poisonous? He replied that he had caught
five, and that "there was nothin' the matter with them." Knowing what a
self-willed, ignorant man he was, I thought I should have a look at the
fish and satisfy myself; so I ran the boat alongside and clambered on
board, followed by two of my native crew. The moment we opened the fishes'
mouths and looked down their throats we saw the infallible sign which
denoted their highly poisonous condition—a colouring of bright
orange with thin reddish-brown streaks. The old fellow grumbled
excessively when I told him to throw them overboard, and then somewhat
annoyed me by saying that all the talk about them being unsafe was bunkum.
He had, he said, caught and eaten just the same kind of fish at Vavau, in
the Tonga Islands, time and time again. It was no use arguing with such a
creature, so, after again warning him not to eat any fish of any kind
unless the natives "passed" them as non-poisonous, I left him and went on
board my own vessel.
We had supper rather later than usual that evening, and, as the mate and
myself were smoking on deck about nine o'clock, we heard four shots in
rapid succession fired from the wreck. Knowing that something was wrong, I
called a couple of hands, and in a few minutes was pulled on board, where
I found the old carpenter lying writhing in agony, his features presenting
a truly shocking and terrifying appearance. His revolver lay on the deck
near him—he had fired it to bring assistance. I need not here
describe the peculiarly drastic remedies adopted by the natives to save
the man's life. They at first thought the case was a hopeless one, but by
daylight the patient was out of danger. He was never able to turn to again
as long as we were on the island, and suffered from the effects of the
fish for quite two or three years. He had, he afterwards told me, made up
his mind to eat some of the fish that evening to show me that he was right
and I was wrong.
A few weeks after this incident myself and a native lad named Viri, who
was one of our crew and always my companion in fishing or shooting
excursions, went across the lagoon to some low sandy islets, where we were
pretty sure of getting a turtle or two. Viri's father and mother were
Samoans, but he had been born on Nassau Island, a lonely spot in the South
Pacific, where he had lived till he was thirteen years of age. He was now
fifteen, and a smarter, more cheerful, more intelligent native boy I had
His knowledge of bird and fish life was a never-ending source of pleasure
and instruction to me, and the late Earl of Pembroke and Sir William
Flower would have delighted in him.
It was dead low tide when we reached the islets, so taking our spears with
us we set out along the reef to look for turtle in the many deep and
winding pools which broke up the surface of the reef. After searching for
some time together without success, Viri left me and went off towards the
sea, I keeping to the inner side of the lagoon. Presently in a shallow
pool about ten feet in circumference I espied a small but exceedingly
beautiful fish. It was about four inches in length, and two and a half
inches in depth, and as it kept perfectly still I had time to admire its
brilliant hues—blue and yellow-banded sides with fins and tail
tipped with vivid crimson spots. Around the eyes were a number of dark
yellowish or orange-coloured rings, and the eyes themselves were large,
bright, and staring. It displayed no alarm at my presence, but presently
swam slowly to the side of the pool and disappeared under the coral ledge.
I determined to catch and examine the creature, and in a few minutes I
discovered it resting in such a position that I could grasp it with my
hand. I did so, and seizing it firmly by the back and belly, whipped it up
out of the water, but not before I felt several sharp pricks from its
fins. Holding it so as to study it closely, I suddenly dropped it in
disgust, as strange violent pains shot through my hand. In another two
minutes they had so increased in their intensity that I became alarmed and
shouted to Viri to come back. Certainly not more than five or ten minutes
elapsed before he was with me; to me it seemed ages, for by this time the
pain was excruciating. A look at the fish told him nothing; he had never
seen one like it before. How I managed to get back to the schooner and
live through the next five or six hours of agony I cannot tell. Twice I
fainted, and at times became delirious. The natives could do nothing for
me, but said that the pain would moderate before morning, especially if
the fish was dead. Had its fins struck into my foot instead of my hand I
should have died, they asserted; and then they told the mate and myself
that one day a mischievous boy who had speared one of these abominable
fish threw it at a young woman who was standing some distance away. It
struck her on the foot, the spines penetrating a vein, and the poor girl
died in terrible agony on the following day. By midnight the pain I was
enduring began to moderate, though my hand and arm were swollen to double
the proper size, and a splitting headache kept me awake till daylight. The
shock to the system affected me for quite a week afterward.
During many subsequent visits to the Marshall Group our crews were always
cautioned by the people of the various islands about eating fish or
shell-fish without submitting them to local examination. In the Radack
chain of this widely spread out archipelago we found that the lagoons were
comparatively free from poisonous fish, while the Ralick lagoons were
infested with them, quite 30 per cent, being highly dangerous at all times
of the year, and nearly 50 per cent at other seasons. Jaluit Lagoon was,
and is now, notorious for its poisonous fish. It is a curious fact that
fish of a species which you may eat with perfect safety, say, in the
middle of the month, will be pronounced by the expert natives to be
dangerous a couple of weeks later, and that in a "school" of pink rock
bream numbering many hundreds some may have their poison highly developed,
others in but a minor degree, whilst many may be absolutely free from the
taint. In the year 1889 the crew of a large German ship anchored in one of
the Marshall Islands caught some very large and handsome fish of the bream
kind, and the resident natives pronounced them "good." Three or four days
later some more were taken, and the cook did not trouble to ask native
opinion. The result was that eight or nine men were taken seriously ill,
and for some time the lives of several were despaired of. Two of them had
not recovered the use of their hands and feet at the end of ten weeks, and
their faces, especially the eyes and mouth, seemed to be permanently,
though slightly distorted. All the men agreed in one particular, that at
midday they suffered most—agonising cramps, accompanied by shooting
pains in the head and continuous vomiting to the point of exhaustion,
these symptoms being very pronounced during the first week or eight days
after the fish had been eaten.
That kind-hearted and unfortunate officer, Commodore J. G. Goodenough,
took an interest in the poisonous and stinging fish of the Pacific
Islands, and one day showed me, preserved in spirits of wine, a specimen
of the dreaded no'u fish of the Hervey Group—one of the most
repulsive-looking creatures it is possible to imagine out of a child's
fairy book. The deadly poison which this fish ejects is contained in a
series of sacs at the base of the spines, and the commodore intended to
submit it to an analyist. By a strange coincidence this gallant seaman a
few months afterwards died from the effects of a poisoned arrow shot into
his side by the natives of Nukapu, one of the Santa Cruz group of islands.
This no'u however, which is the nofu of the Samoans, and is
widely known throughout Polynesia, and Melanesia under different names,
does not disguise its deadly character under a beautiful exterior like the
stinging fish of Micronesia, which I have described above. The nofu
which is also met with on the coasts of Australia, is a devil undisguised,
and belongs to the angler family. Like the octopus or the death-adder (Acanthopis
antarctica) of Australia, he can assimilate his colour to his
environment. His hideous wrinkled head, with his staring goggle eyes, are
often covered with fine wavy seaweed, which in full-grown specimens
sometimes extends right down the back to the tail. From the top of the
upper jaw, along the back and sides, are scores of needle-pointed spines,
every one of which is a machine for the ejection of the venom contained at
the root. As the creature lies hidden in a niche of coral awaiting its
prey—it is a voracious feeder—it cannot be distinguished
except by the most careful scrutiny; then you may see that under the
softly waving and suspended piece of seaweed (as you imagine it to be)
there are fins and a tail. And, as the nofu has a huge mouth, which
is carefully concealed by a fringe of apparently harmless seaweed or other
marine growth, he snaps up every unfortunate small fish which comes near
him. In the Pacific Islands the nofu (i.e., "the waiting one
") is generally a dark brown, inclining to black, with splashes or
blotches of orange, or marbled red and grey. In Australian waters—I
have caught them in the Parramatta river, Port Jackson—they are
invariably either a dark brown or a horrid, dulled yellow.
Despite its poison-injecting apparatus this fish is eaten by the natives
of the Society, Hervey, and Paumotu groups of islands, in the South
Pacific, where its flesh is considered a delicacy. It is prepared for
cookery by being skinned, in which operation the venomous sacks are
removed. In 1882, when I was living on the island of Peru in the Gilbert
Group (the Francis Island of the Admiralty charts), a Chinese trader there
constantly caught them in the lagoon and ate them in preference to any
other fish. Here in Peru the nofu would bury itself in the soft
sand and watch for its prey, and could always be taken with a hook. And
yet in Eastern Polynesia and in the Equatorial Islands of the Pacific many
deaths have occurred through the sting of this fish, children invariably
succumbing to tetanus within twenty-four hours of being stung.
A little more about poisonous fish, i.e., fish which at one time of
the year are good and palatable food and at others deadly. In the lagoon
island of Nukufetau (the "De Peyster Island" of the charts), where the
writer lived for twelve months, the fish both within the lagoon and
outside the barrier reef became highly poisonous at certain times of the
year. Flying-fish (which were never caught inside the lagoon) would be
safe to eat if taken on the lee side of the island, dangerous, or at least
doubtful, if taken on the weather side; manini, a small striped
fish much relished by the natives, would be safe to eat if caught on the
reef on the western side of the island, slightly poisonous if taken four
miles away on the inside shore of the eastern islets encompassing the
lagoon. Sharks captured outside the reef, if eaten, would produce symptoms
of poisoning—vomiting, excessive purging, and tetanus in a modified
form; if caught inside the reef and eaten no ill effects would follow.
Crayfish on one side of the lagoon were safe; three miles away they were
highly impregnated with this mysterious poison, the origin of which has
not yet been well defined by scientists.