Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership

John Corwell, Sailor And Miner; and, Poisonous Fish (1901)
Louis Becke



"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 talk.

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. Corwell."

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

"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

"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 gaolers.

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

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

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 consented.

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 Seas.

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 three days!"

"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
appointed mate.

"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 to listen.

"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 throats.


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 looked

"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,

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 to us."

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 approach."

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 is dawn."

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
then ceased.

"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 house."

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

"Not for long, sir. But if we start at once we may get aboard afore it
starts again."

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 God,Mallet!"

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
swimming ashore.


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

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.



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 never met.

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

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

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

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.


This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia