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Title: Âmona; The Child; And The Beast; And Others (1902)
Author: Louis Becke

From "The Strange Adventure Of James Shervinton and Other Stories"



ÂMONA; THE CHILD; AND THE BEAST
THE SNAKE AND THE BELL
SOUTH SEA NOTES




ÂMONA; THE CHILD; AND THE BEAST


Âmona was, as his master so frequently told him--accentuating the remark
with a blow or a kick--only "a miserable kanaka." Of his miserableness
there was no doubt, for Denison, who lived in the same house as he did,
was a daily witness of it--and his happiness. Also, he was a kanaka--a
native of Niué, in the South Pacific; Savage Island it is called by the
traders and is named on the charts, though its five thousand sturdy,
brown-skinned inhabitants have been civilised, Christianised, and have
lived fairly cleanly for the past thirty years.

Âmona and Denison had the distinction of being employed by Armitage, one
of the most unmitigated blackguards in the Pacific. He was a shipowner,
planter, merchant, and speculator; was looked upon by a good many people
as "not a bad sort of a fellow, you know--and the soul of hospitality."
In addition, he was an incorrigible drunken bully, and broke his wife's
heart within four years after she married him. Âmona was his cook.
Denison was one of his supercargoes, and (when a long boat of
drunkenness made him see weird visions of impossible creatures) manager
of the business on shore, overseer, accountant, and Jack-of-all-trades.
How he managed to stay on with such a brute I don't know. He certainly
paid him well enough, but he (Denison) could have got another berth from
other people in Samoa, Fiji, or Tonga had he wanted it. And, although
Armitage was always painfully civil to Denison--who tried to keep
his business from going to the dogs--the man hated him as much as he
despised Âmona, and would have liked to have kicked him, as he would
have liked to have kicked or strangled any one who knew the secret of
his wife's death and his child's lameness. And three people in Samoa did
know it--Âmona, the Niué cook, Dr. Eckhardt, and Denison. Armitage has
been dead now these five-and-twenty years--died, as he deserved to
die, alone and friendless in an Australian bush hospital out in the
God-forsaken Never-Never country, and when Denison heard of his death,
he looked at the gentle wife's dim, faded photograph, and wondered if
the Beast saw her sweet, sad face in his dying moments. He trusted
not; for in her eyes would have shown only the holy light of love
and forgiveness--things which a man like Armitage could not have
understood--even then.

She had been married three years when she came with him to Samoa to live
on Solo-Solo Plantation, in a great white-painted bungalow, standing
amid a grove of breadfruit and coco-palms, and overlooking the sea
to the north, east, and west; to the south was the dark green of the
mountain-forest.

"Oh! I think it is the fairest, sweetest picture in the world," she said
to Denison the first time he met her. She was sitting on the verandah
with her son in her lap, and as she spoke she pressed her lips to his
soft little cheek and caressed the tiny hands. "So different from where
I was born and lived all my life--on the doll, sun-baked plains of the
Riverina--isn't it, my pet?"

"I am glad that you like the place, Mrs. Armitage," the supercargo said
as he looked at the young, girlish face and thought that she, too, with
her baby, made a fair, sweet picture. How she loved the child! And how
the soft, grey-blue eyes would lose their sadness when the little one
turned its face up to hers and smiled! How came it, he wondered, that
such a tender, flower-like woman was mated to such a man as Armitage!

Long after she was dead, Denison heard the story--one common enough.
Her father, whose station adjoined that of Armitage, got into financial
difficulties, went to Armitage for help, and practically sold his
daughter to the Beast for a couple of thousand pounds. Very likely such
a man would have sold his daughter's mother as well if he wanted money.

* * * * *

As they sat talking, Armitage rode up, half-drunk as usual. He was a big
man, good-looking.

"Hallo, Nell! Pawing the damned kid as usual! Why the hell don't you let
one of the girls take the little animal and let him tumble about on the
grass? You're spoiling the child--by God, you are."

"Ah, he's so happy, Fred, here with me, and----"

"Happy be damned--you're always letting him maul you about. I want a
whisky-and-soda, and so does Denison--don't you?" And then the Beast, as
soon as his wife with the child in her arms had left the room, began
to tell his subordinate of a "new" girl he had met that morning in Joe
D'Acosta's saloon.

"Oh, shut up, man. Your wife is in the next room."

"Let her hear--and be damned to her! She knows what I do. I don't
disguise anything from her. I'm not a sneak in that way. By God, I'm not
the man to lose any fun from sentimental reasons. Have you seen this
new girl at Joe's? She's a Manhiki half-caste. God, man! She's glorious,
simply glorious!"

"You mean Laea, I suppose. She's a common beacher--sailor man's trull.
Surely you wouldn't be seen ever speaking to _her?_"

"Wouldn't I! You don't know me yet! I like the girl, and I've fixed
things up with her. She's coming here as my nursemaid--twenty dollars a
month! What do you think of that?"

"You would not insult your wife so horribly!"

He looked at Denison sullenly, but made no answer, as the supercargo
went on:

"You'll get the dead cut from every white man in Samoa. Not a soul will
put foot inside your store door, and Joe D'Acosta himself would refuse
to sell you a drink! Might as well shoot yourself at once."

"Oh, well, damn it all, don't keep on preaching. I--I was more in fun
than anything else. Ha! Here's Âmona with the drinks. Why don't you be a
bit smarter, you damned frizzy-haired man-eater?"

Amona's sallow face flushed deeply, but he made no reply to the insult
as he handed a glass to his master.

"Put the tray down there, confound you! Don't stand there like a
blarsted mummy; clear out till we want you again."

The native made no answer, bent his head in silence, and stepped quietly
away. Then Armitage began to grumble at him as a "useless swine."

"Why," said Denison, "Mrs. Armitage was only just telling me that he's
worth all the rest of the servants put together. And, by Jove, he _is_
fond of your youngster--simply worships the little chap."

Armitage snorted, and turned his lips down. Ten minutes later, he was
asleep in his chair.

*****

Nearly six months had passed--six months of wretchedness to the young
wife, whose heart was slowly breaking under the strain of living with
the Beast. Such happiness as was hers lay in the companionship of her
little son, and every evening Tom Denison would see her watching the
child and the patient, faithful Âmona, as the two played together on the
smooth lawn in front of the sitting-room, or ran races in and out among
the mango-trees. She was becoming paler and thinner every day--the Beast
was getting fatter and coarser, and more brutalised. Sometimes he would
remain in Apia for a week, returning home either boisterously drunk or
sullen and scowling-faced. In the latter case, he would come into the
office where Denison worked (he had left the schooner of which he was
supercargo, and was now "overseering" Solo-Solo) and try to grasp the
muddled condition of his financial affairs. Then, with much variegated
language, he would stride away, cursing the servants and the place
and everything in general, mount his horse, and ride off again to the
society of the loafers, gamblers, and flaunting unfortunates who haunted
the drinking saloons of Apia and Matafele.

One day came a crisis. Denison was rigging a tackle to haul a tree-trunk
into position in the plantation saw-pit, when Armitage rode up to the
house. He dismounted and went inside. Five minutes later Amona came
staggering down the path to him. His left cheek was cut to the bone by
a blow from Armitage's fist. Denison brought him into his own room,
stitched up the wound, and gave him a glass of grog, and told him to
light his pipe and rest.

"Àmona, you're a _valea_ (fool). Why don't you leave this place? This
man will kill you some day. How many beatings has he given you?" He
spoke in English.

"I know not how many. But it is God's will. And if the master some day
killeth me, it is well. And yet, but for some things, I would use my
knife on him."

"What things?"

He came over to the supercargo, and, seating himself cross-legged on the
floor, placed his firm, brown, right hand on the white man's knee.

"For two things, good friend. The little fingers of the child are
clasped tightly around my heart, and when his father striketh me and
calls me a filthy man-eater, a dog, and a pig, I know no pain. That is
one thing. And the other thing is this--the child's mother hath come to
me when my body hath ached from the father's blows, and the blood hath
covered my face; and she hath bound up my wounds and wept silent tears,
and together have we knelt and called upon God to turn his heart from
the grog and the foul women, and to take away from her and the child the
bitterness of these things."

"You're a good fellow, Âmona," said Denison, as he saw that the man's
cheeks were wet with tears.

"Nay, for sometimes my heart is bitter with anger. But God is good to
me. For the child loveth me. And the mother is of God... aye, and she
will be with Him soon." Then he rose to his knees suddenly, and looked
wistfully at the supercargo, as he put his hand on his. "She will be
dead before the next moon is _ai aiga_ (in the first quarter), for at
night I lie outside her door, and but three nights ago she cried out to
me: 'Come, Amona, Come!' And I went in, and she was sitting up on
her bed and blood was running from her mouth. But she bade me tell no
one--not even thee. And it was then she told me that death was near
to her, for she hath a disease whose roots lie in her chest, and
which eateth away her strength. Dear friend, let me tell thee of some
things... This man is a devil.... I know he but desires to see her die.
He hath cursed her before me, and twice have I seen him take the child
from her arms, and, setting him on the floor to weep in terror, take his
wife by the hand----"

"Stop, man; stop! That'll do. Say no more! The beast!"

"_E tonu, e tonu_ (true, true)," said the man, quietly, and still
speaking in Samoan. "He is as a beast of the mountains, as a tiger of
the country India, which devoureth the lamb and the kid.... And so now I
have opened my heart to thee of these things----"

A native woman rushed into the room: "Come, Âmona, come. _Misi Fafine_
(the mistress) bleeds from her mouth again."

The white man and the brown ran into the front sitting-room together,
just as they heard a piercing shriek of terror from the child; then came
the sound of a heavy fall.

As they entered, Armitage strode out, jolting against them as he passed.
His face was swollen and ugly with passion--bad to look at.

"Go and pick up the child, you frizzy-haired pig!" he muttered hoarsely
to Amona as he passed. "He fell off his mother's lap."

Mrs. Armitage was leaning back in her chair, as white as death, and
trying to speak, as with one hand she tried to stanch the rush of blood
from her mouth, and with the other pointed to her child, who was lying
on his face under a table, motionless and unconscious.

In less than ten minutes, a native was galloping through the bush to
Apia for Dr. Eckhardt. Denison had picked up the child, who, as he came
to, began to cry. Assuring his mother that he was not much hurt, he
brought him to her, and sat beside the lounge on which she lay, holding
him in his arms. He was a good little man, and did not try to talk
to her when the supercargo whispered to him to keep silent, but lay
stroking the poor mother's thin white hand. Yet every now and then, as
he moved or Denison changed his position, he would utter a cry of pain
and say his leg pained him.

Four hours later the German doctor arrived. Mrs. Armitage was asleep; so
Eckhardt would not awaken her at the time. The boy, however, had slept
but fitfully, and every now and then awakened with a sob of pain.
The nurse stripped him, and Eckhardt soon found out what was wrong--a
serious injury to the left hip.

Late in the evening, as the big yellow-bearded German doctor and Denison
sat in the dining room smoking and talking, Taloi, the child's nurse
entered, and was followed by Amona, and the woman told them the whole
story.

"_Misi Fafine_ was sitting in a chair with the boy on her lap when the
master came in. His eyes were black and fierce with anger, and, stepping
up, he seized the child by the arm, and bade him get down. Then the
little one screamed in terror, and _Misi Fafine_ screamed too, and the
master became as mad, for he tore the boy from his mother's arms, and
tossed him across the room against the wall. That is all I know of this
thing."

Denison saw nothing of Armitage till six o'clock on the following
morning, just as Eckhardt was going away. He put out his hand, Eckhardt
put his own behind his back, and, in a few blunt words, told the Beast
what he thought of him.

"And if this was a civilised country," he added crisply, "you would be
now in gaol. Yes, in prison. You have as good as killed your wife
by your brutality--she will not live another two months. You have so
injured your child's hip that he may be a cripple for life. You are a
damned scoundrel, no better than the lowest ruffian of a city slum, and
if you show yourself in Joe D'Acosta's smoking-room again, you'll find
more than half a dozen men--Englishmen, Americans and Germans--ready to
kick you out into the _au ala_" (road).

Armitage was no coward. He sprang forward with an oath, but Denison, who
was a third less of his employer's weight, deftly put out his right foot
and the master of Solo Solo plantation went down. Then the supercargo
sat on him and, having a fine command of seafaring expletives,
threatened to gouge his eyes out if he did not keep quiet.

"You go on, doctor," he said cheerfully. "I'll let you know in the
course of an hour or two how Mrs. Armitage and the boy are progressing.
The seat which I am now occupying, though not a very honourable one,
considering the material of which it is composed, is very comfortable
for the time being; and"--he turned and glared savagely at Armitage's
purpled face--"You sweep! I have a great inclination to let Eckhardt
come and boot the life out of you whilst I hold you down, you brute!"

"I'll kill you for this," said Armitage hoarsely.

"Won't give you the chance, my boy. And if you don't promise to go to
your room quietly, I'll call in the native servants, sling you up like
the pig you are to a pole, and have you carried into Apia, where you
stand a good show of being lynched. I've had enough of you. Every
one--except your blackguardly acquaintances in Matafele--would be glad
to hear that you were dead, and your wife and child freed from you."

Eckhardt stepped forward. "Let him up, Mr. Denison."

The supercargo obeyed the request.

"Just as you please, doctor. But I think that he ought to be put in
irons, or a strait-jacket, or knocked on the head as a useless beast. If
it were not for Mrs. Armitage and her little son, I would like to kill
the sweep. His treatment of that poor fellow Amona, who is so devoted to
the child, has been most atrocious."

Eckhardt grasped the supercargo's hand as Armitage shambled off "He's a
brute, as you say, Mr. Denison. But she has some affection for him. For
myself, I would like to put a bullet through him."

Within three months Mrs. Armitage was dead, and a fresh martrydom began
for poor Amona. But he and the child had plenty of good friends; and
then, one day, when Armitage awakened to sanity after a long drinking
bout, he found that both Amona and the child had gone.

Nearly a score of years later Denison met them in an Australian city.
The "baby" had grown to be a well-set-up young fellow, and Amona the
faithful was still with him--Amona with a smiling, happy face. They came
down on board Denison's vessel with him, and "the baby" gave him, ere
they parted, that faded photograph of his dead mother.



THE SNAKE AND THE BELL


When I was a child of eight years of age, a curious incident occurred in
the house in which our family lived. The locality was Mosman's Bay, one
of the many picturesque indentations of the beautiful harbour of Sydney.
In those days the houses were few and far apart, and our own dwelling
was surrounded on all sides by the usual monotonous-hued Australian
forest of iron barks and spotted gums, traversed here and there by
tracks seldom used, as the house was far back from the main road,
leading from the suburb of St. Leonards to Middle Harbour. The building
itself was in the form of a quadrangle enclosing a courtyard, on to
which nearly all the rooms opened; each room having a bell over the
door, the wires running all round the square, while the front-door bell,
which was an extra large affair, hung in the hall, the "pull" being one
of the old-fashioned kind, an iron sliding-rod suspended from the outer
wall plate, where it connected with the wire.

One cold and windy evening about eight o'clock, my mother, my sisters,
and myself were sitting in the dining-room awaiting the arrival of my
brothers from Sydney--they attended school there, and rowed or sailed
the six miles to and fro every day, generally returning home by dusk. On
this particular evening, however, they were late, on account of the wind
blowing rather freshly from the north-east; but presently we heard the
front-door bell ring gently.

"Here they are at last," said my mother; "but how silly of them to go to
the front door on such a windy night, tormenting boys!"

Julia, the servant, candle in hand, went along the lengthy passage,
and opened the door. No one was there! She came back to the dining-room
smiling--"Masther Edward is afther playin' wan av his thricks,
ma'am----" she began, when the bell again rang--this time vigorously. My
eldest sister threw down the book she was reading, and with an impatient
exclamation herself went to the door, opened it quickly, and said
sharply as she pulled it inwards--

"Come in at once, you stupid things!" There was no answer, and she
stepped outside on the verandah. No one was visible, and again the big
bell in the hall rang!

She shut the door angrily and returned to her seat, just as the bell
gave a curious, faint tinkle as if the tongue had been moved ever so
gently.

"Don't take any notice of them," said my mother, "they will soon get
tired of playing such silly pranks, and be eager for their supper."

Presently the bell gave out three clear strokes. We looked at each
other and smiled. Five minutes passed, and then came eight or ten gentle
strokes in quick succession.

"Let us catch them," said my mother, rising, and holding her finger
up to us to preserve silence, as she stepped softly along the hall, we
following on tiptoe.

Softly turning the handle, she suddenly threw the door wide open, just
as the bell gave another jangle. Not a soul was visible!

My mother--one of the most placid-tempered women who ever breathed, now
became annoyed, and stepping out on the verandah, addressed herself to
the darkness--

"Come inside at once, boys, or I shall be very angry. I know perfectly
well what you have done; you have tied a string to the bell wires, and
are pulling it. If you don't desist you shall have no supper."

No answer--except from the hall bell, which gave another half-hearted
tinkle.

"Bring a candle and the step-ladder, Julia," said our now thoroughly
exasperated parent, "and we shall see what these foolish boys have done
to the bell-wire."

Julia brought the ladder; my eldest sister mounted it, and began to
examine the bell. She could see nothing unusual, no string or wire, and
as she descended, the bell swayed and gave one faint stroke!

We all returned to the sitting room, and had scarcely been there five
minutes when we heard my three brothers coming in, in their usual way,
by the back door. They tramped into the sitting room, noisy, dirty,
wet with spray, and hungry, and demanded supper in a loud and collected
voice. My mother looked at them with a severe aspect, and said they
deserved none.

"Why, mum, what's the matter?" said Ted; "what _have_ we been doing
now, or what have we not done, that we don't deserve any supper, after
pulling for two hours from Circular Quay, against a howling, black
north-easter?"

"You know perfectly well what I mean. It is most inconsiderate of you to
play such silly tricks upon us."

Ted gazed at her in genuine astonishment. "Silly tricks, mother! What
silly tricks?" (Julia crossed herself, and trembled visibly as the bell
again rang.)

My mother, at once satisfied that Ted and my other brothers really knew
nothing of the mysterious bell-ringing, quickly explained the cause of
her anger.

"Let us go and see if we can find out," said Ted. "You two boys, and
you, Julia, get all the stable lanterns, light them, and we'll start out
together--two on one side of the house and two on the other. Some one
must be up to a trick!"

Julia, who was a huge, raw-boned Irish girl, as strong as a working
bullock, but not so graceful, again crossed herself, and began to weep.

"What's the matter with you?" said Ted angrily.

"Shure, an' there was tirrible murders committed here in the ould
convict days," she whimpered. "The polace sargint's wife at Sint
Leonards tould me all about it. There was three souldiers murdered down
beyant on the beach, by some convicts, whin they was atin' their supper,
an' there's people near about now that saw all the blood and----"

"Stop it, you great lumbering idiot!" shouted Ted, as my eldest sister
began to laugh hysterically, and the youngest, made a terrified dart to
mother's skirts.

Ted's angry voice and threatening visage silenced Julia for the moment,
and she tremblingly went towards the door to obey his orders when the
bell gave out such a vigorous and sustained peal that she sank down in
a colossal heap on the floor, and then went into violent hysterics. (I
assure my readers that I am not exaggerating matters in the slightest.)

My mother, who was a thoroughly sensible woman, pushed the whole brood
of us out of the room, came after us, shut the door and locked it. _She_
knew the proper treatment for hysterics.

"Let her stay there, boys," she said quietly, "she will hurt the
furniture more than herself, the ridiculous creature. Now, Ted, you and
your brothers get the lanterns, and the little ones and myself will go
into the kitchen."

We ran out into the stables, lit three lanterns, and my next eldest
brother and myself, feeling horribly frightened, but impelled to show
some courage by Ted's awful threats of what he would do to us if we
"funked," told us to go round the house, beginning from the left, and
meet him at the hall door, he going round from the right.

With shaking limbs and gasping breath we made our portion of the
circuit, sticking close to each other, and carefully avoiding looking at
anything as we hurried over the lawn, our only anxiety being to meet
Ted as quickly as possible and then get inside again. We arrived on the
verandah, and in front of the hall-door, quite five minutes before Ted
appeared.

"Well, did you see anything?" he asked, as he walked up the steps,
lantern in hand.

"Nothing," we answered, edging up towards the door.

Ted looked at us contemptuously. "You miserable little curs! What are
you so frightened of? You're no better than a pack of women and kids.
It's the wind that has made the bell ring, or, if it's not the wind,
it is something else which I don't know anything about; but I want my
supper. Pull the bell, one of you."

Elated at so soon escaping from the horrors of the night, we seized the
handle of the bell-pull, and gave it a vigorous tug.

"It's stuck, Ted. It won't pull down," we said.

"Granny!" said the big brother, "you're too funky to give it a proper
pull," and pushing us aside, he grasped the pendant handle and gave a
sharp pull. There was no answering sound.

"It certainly is stuck," admitted Ted, raising his lantern so as to get
a look upwards, then he gave a yell.

"Oh! look there!"

We looked up, and saw the writhing twisting, coils of a huge carpet
snake, which had wound its body round and round the bell-wire on top
of the wall plate. Its head was downwards, and it did not seem at
all alarmed at our presence, but went on wriggling and twisting and
squirming with much apparent cheerfulness.

Ted ran back to the stables, and returned in a few seconds with a
clothes-prop, with which he dealt the disturber of our peace a few
rapid, but vigorous, blows, breaking its spine in several places. Then
the step-ladder was brought out, and Ted, seizing the reptile by the
tail, uncoiled it with some difficulty from the wire, and threw it down
upon the verandah.

It was over nine feet in length, and very fat, and had caused all the
disturbance by endeavouring to denude itself of its old skin by dragging
its body between the bell-wire and the top of the wall. When Ted killed
it the poor harmless creature had almost accomplished its object.



SOUTH SEA NOTES


I


That many animals, particularly cattle and deer, are very fond of salt
we all know, but it is not often that birds show any taste for it, or,
if so, the circumstance has not generally been noted. In 1881, however,
the present writer was residing on Gazelle Peninsula, the northern
portion of the magnificent island of New Britain in the South Pacific,
and had many opportunities of witnessing both cockatoos and wild pigeons
drinking salt water. I was stationed at a place called Kabaira, the then
"furthest-out" trading station on the whole island, and as I had but
little to do in the way of work, I found plenty of time to study the
bird-life in the vicinity. Parrots of several varieties, and all of
beautiful plumage, were very plentiful, and immense flocks of white
cockatoos frequented the rolling, grassy downs which lay between my home
and the German head-station in Blanche Bay, twenty miles distant, while
the heavy forest of the littoral was the haunt of thousands of pigeons.
These latter, though not so large as the Samoan, or Eastern Polynesian
bird, formed a very agreeable change of diet for us white traders, and
by walking about fifty yards from one's door, half a dozen or more could
be shot in as many minutes.

My nearest neighbour was a German, and one day when we were walking
along the beach towards his station, we noticed some hundreds of pigeons
fly down from the forest, settle on the margin of the water, and
drink with apparent enjoyment. The harbour at this spot was almost
land-locked, the water as smooth as glass without the faintest ripple,
and the birds were consequently enabled to drink without wetting their
plumage. My companion, who had lived many years in New Britain, told me
that this drinking of sea-water was common alike to both cockatoos and
pigeons, and that on some occasions the beaches would be lined with
them, the former birds not only drinking, but bathing as well, and
apparently enjoying themselves greatly.

During the following six months, especially when the weather was calm
and rainy, I frequently noticed pigeons and cockatoos come to the salt
water to drink. At first I thought that as fresh water in many places
bubbled up through the sand at low tide, the birds were really not
drinking the sea-water, but by watching closely, I frequently saw them
walk across these tiny runnels, and make no attempt to drink. Then
again, the whole of the Gazette Peninsula is out up by countless streams
of water; rain falls throughout the year as a rule, and as I have said,
there is always water percolating or bubbling up through the sand on
the beaches at low tide. What causes this unusual habit of drinking
sea-water?

Another peculiarity of the New Britain and New Ireland pigeon is its
fondness for the Chili pepper-berry. During three months of the year,
when these berries are ripe, the birds' crops are full of them, and very
often their flesh is so pungent, and smells so strongly of the Chili, as
to be quite uneatable.

* * * * *

On all of the low-lying islands of the Ellice, Kings-mill and Gilbert
Groups, a species of snipe are very plentiful. On the islands which
enclose the noble lagoon of Funafuti in the Ellice Group, they are to
be met with in great numbers, and in dull, rainy weather, an ordinarily
good shot may get thirty or forty in a few hours. One day, accompanied
by a native lad, I set out to collect hermit crabs, to be used as fish
bait. These curious creatures are to be found almost anywhere in the
equatorial islands of the Pacific; their shell houses ranging in size
from a pea to an orange, and if a piece of coco-nut or fish or any other
edible matter is left out overnight, hundreds of hermits will be found
gathered around it in the morning. To extract the crabs from their
shells, which are of all shapes and kinds, is a very simple matter--the
hard casing is broken by placing them upon a large stone and striking
them a sharp blow with one of lesser size. My companion and myself soon
collected a heap of "hermits," when presently he took one up in his
hand, and holding it close to his mouth, whistled softly. In a few
moments the crab protruded one nipper, then another, then its red
antennae, and allowed the boy to take its head between his finger and
thumb and draw its entire body from its shell casing.

"That is the way the _kili_ (snipe) gets the _uga_ (crab) from its
shell," he said. "The _kili_ stands over the _uga_ and whistles softly,
and the _uga_ puts out his head to listen. Then the bird seizes it in
his bill, gives it a backward jerk and off flies the shell."

Now I had often noticed that wherever hermit crabs were plentiful along
the outer beaches of the lagoon, I was sure to find snipe, and sometimes
wondered on what the birds fed. Taking up two or three "hermits" one
by one, I whistled gently, and in each case the creature protruded the
nippers, head and shoulders, and moved its antennæ to and fro as if
pleasurably excited.

On the following day I shot three snipe, and in the stomachs of each I
found some quite fresh and some partly digested hermit crabs. The thick,
hard nippers are broken off by the bird before he swallows the soft,
tender body.

*****

In a recent number of _Chambers's Journal_ the present writer was much
interested in a short paragraph dealing with the commercial value of the
skin of the shark, and, having had many years' experience as a
trader and supercargo in the South Seas, desires to add some further
information on a somewhat interesting subject.

In all the equatorial islands of the North and South Pacific, shark
fishing is a very profitable industry to the natives, and every trading
steamer or sailing vessel coming into the ports of Sydney or Auckland
from the islands of the mid-Pacific, always brings some tons of shark
fins and tails and shark skins. The principal market for the former is
Hong Kong, but the Chinese merchants of the Australasian Colonies will
always buy sharks' fins and tails at from 6d. to 11d. per lb., the fins
bringing the best price on account of the extra amount of glutinous
matter they contain, and the which are highly relished by the richer
classes of Chinese as a delicacy. The tails are also valued as an
article of food in China; and, apart from their edible qualities, have a
further value as a base for clear varnishes, &c.; and I was informed
by a Chinese tea-merchant that the glaze upon the paper coverings of
tea-chests was due to a preparation composed principally of the refuse
of sharks' fins, tails, and skins.

All the natives of the Gilbert, Kingsmill, and other Pacific equatorial
islands are expert shark fishermen; but the wild people of Ocean Island
(Paanopa) and Pleasant Island (Naura), two isolated spots just under the
equator, surpass them all in the art of catching jackshark. It was the
fortunate experience of the writer to live among these people for many
years, and to be inducted into the native method of shark-catching. In
frail canoes, made of short pieces of wood, sewn together with coco-nut
fibre, the Ocean Islanders will venture out with rude but ingeniously
contrived _wooden_ hooks, and capture sharks of a girth (_not_ length)
that no untrained European would dare to attempt to kill from a
well-appointed boat, with a good crew.

Shark-catching is one of _the_ industries of the Pacific, and a very
paying industry too. Five-and-twenty years ago there were quite a dozen
or more schooners sailing out of Honolulu, in the Hawaiian Islands, to
the isolated atolls of the North Pacific--notably Palmyra and Christmas
Islands--where sharks could be caught by the thousand, and the crews,
who were engaged on a "lay," like whalemen, made "big money"; many of
them after a six months' cruise drawing 500 dollars--a large sum for a
native sailor.

The work is certainly hard, but it is exciting, and the writer will
always remember with pleasure a seven months' shark-fishing cruise
he once had in the North Pacific, the genial comrades--white men and
brown--and the bag of dollars handed over to him by the owners when the
ship was paid off in Honolulu.


II


It is not generally known, except to scientists and those who are
acquainted with the subject, that a large percentage of the various
species and varieties of sea snakes are highly venomous. These snakes
must not be confounded with the very numerous species of sea eels,
which, though exceedingly savage and armed with strong needle-pointed
teeth, are all non-venomous, though their bite produces high
inflammation if not at once properly attended to and cleansed by an
antiseptic. The sea snake is a true snake in many respects, having
either laminated scales or a thick corduroyed skin resembling
rudimentary scales. The head is flat, and the general structure of the
body similar to that of the land snake. Whether any of them possess the
true poison glands and fangs I do not know, for although I have killed
many hundreds of them I never took sufficient interest to make a careful
examination; and I was told by a Dutch medical gentleman, long resident
on the coast of Dutch New Guinea, and who had made some investigation on
the subject, that he had failed to discover any poison sacs or glands in
any one of the several snakes he had captured. Yet in some instances he
found what at first appeared to be the two long front teeth common to
venomous land snakes, but on detailed examination these always proved to
be perfectly solid; nevertheless a bite from one of these sea serpents
was generally regarded by the natives as fatal; in my own experience
I know of two such cases, one at the island of Fotuna in the South
Pacific, and the other in Torres Straits.

In Sigavi Harbour, on Fotuna, there is a rock to which vessels
occasionally make fast their stern moorings. In the boat which I sent
away with a line to this rock were several boys, natives of the island,
who went with the crew for amusement. One of them, aged about ten,
jumped out of the boat, and in his hurry fell on his hands and knees,
right on top of a large black and white banded sea snake, which at once
bit him savagely on the wrist, causing the blood to flow from a score of
tiny punctures. The boy at once swam on shore to be treated by a native;
in the evening I heard he was suffering great agony, in the morning the
poor little fellow was dead.

The second instance was near Raine Island, in Torres Straits. A stalwart
young Kanaka, one of the crew of a pearling lugger, was diving for clam
shells on the reef, when a snake about three feet in length suddenly
shot up from below within a foot of his face. In his anger and disgust
he unthinkingly struck it with his hand, and was quickly bitten on the
forefinger. A few hours later he was in a high fever, accompanied with
twitchings of the extremities; then tetanus ensued, followed by death in
forty-eight hours.

Although these sea snakes are common to all tropical seas, they are most
frequent about the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. On any smooth
day they may be seen disporting themselves on the surface, or rising
suddenly from the depths, erect their heads and some inches of their
bodies clear from the water, gaze at the passing vessel, and then
swiftly disappear. In nearly all the Pacific Islands the natives hold
them in detestation and horror, and when one is seen lying coiled up on
a rock sunning itself or crawling over the surface of the reef in search
of food, a stone, accompanied by a curse, is always hurled at it. In the
Ellice Oroup, when catching flying-fish at night, one (or more) of these
horrid serpents is sometimes swept up in the scoop-net before it can be
avoided. They range from six inches to nearly four feet in length, and
all have one feature--a blunted tail-end.

Quite recently much further light has been thrown on the subject by Sir
James Hector, of the Philosophical Society of Wellington, New Zealand.
At one of the Society's meetings, held in April last, Sir James showed
several specimens of _hydrida_, some from Australasian Seas, others
from the Atlantic. The usual habitat of sea snakes, he said, were the
tropical seas generally, but some had been captured in the comparatively
cold waters of the New Zealand coast, at the Catlins River. These latter
were all yellow-banded; those from the islands of the Fijian Oroup were
black-banded, and those taken from the Australian coast grey-banded.
There were, he said, no fewer than seventy species, which, without
exception, were fanged and provided with glands secreting a virulent
poison. In some of the mountainous islands of the South Pacific, such as
Samoa, Fiji, &c, there were several species of land snakes, all of which
were perfectly harmless, and were familiar to many people in Australia
and New Zealand, through being brought there in bunches of island
bananas--it was singular, he thought, that the sea snakes alone should
be so highly venomous. "They were all characterised by the flattened
or blunted tail, which they used as a steer oar, and were often found
asleep on the surface of the water, lying on their backs. In this state
they were easily and safely captured, being powerless to strike." The
present writer, who has seen hundreds of these marine snakes daily
for many years, during a long residence in the Pacific Islands, cannot
remember a single instance where he has seen one of these dangerous
creatures asleep _on the water_, though they may frequently be found
lying asleep on the coral reefs, exposing themselves to the rays of a
torrid sun. They usually select some knob or rounded boulder, from the
top of which, when awake, they can survey the small pools beneath and
discern any fish which may be imprisoned therein. In such case they will
glide down into the water with astonishing rapidity, seize their prey,
and after swallowing it, return to their sun bath. The natives of the
Paumotu Archipelago informed me, however, that they are most active
in seeking their prey at night-time, and are especially fond of
flying-fish, which, as is well known, is one of the swiftest of all
ocean fishes. The sea snakes, however, seize them with the greatest
ease, by rising cautiously beneath and fastening their keen teeth in the
fish's throat or belly. A snake, not two feet six inches in length, I
was assured, can easily swallow a flying-fish eight inches or ten inches
long.

With regard to their habit of lying asleep on their backs on the surface
of the water, it may be that Sir James Hector is alluding to some
particular species, but whether that is so or not Sir James's statement
must of course be considered authoritative, for there is, I believe, no
higher authority on the subject in the world. Apropos of these venomous
marine serpents I may mention that the Rev. W. W. Gill in one of his
works states that he was informed by the natives of the Cook's Group
that during the prevalence of very bad weather, when fish were scarce,
the large sea eels would actually crawl ashore, and ascend the _fala_
(pandanus or screw-pine) trees in search of the small green lizards
which live among the upper part of the foliage. At first I regarded this
merely as a bit of native extravagance of statement, but in 1882, when
I was shipwrecked on Peru (or Francis Island), one of the Gilbert Group,
the local trader, one Frank Voliero, and myself saw one of these eels
engaged in an equally extraordinary pursuit. We were one evening,
after a heavy gale from the westward had been blowing for three days,
examining a rookery of whale birds in search of eggs; the rookery was
situated in a dense thicket scrub on the north end of the island, and
was quite two hundred yards from the sea-shore, though not more than
half that distance from the inside lagoon beach. The storm had destroyed
quite a number of young, half-fledged birds, whose bodies were lying on
the ground, and busily engaged in devouring one of them was a very large
sea eel, as thick as the calf of a man's leg. Before I could manage to
secure a stick with which to kill the repulsive-looking creature, it
made off through the undergrowth at a rapid pace in the direction of the
lagoon, and when we emerged out into the open in pursuit, ten minutes
later, we were just in time to see it wriggling down the hard, sloping
beach into the water. Instinct evidently made it seek the nearest water,
for none of these large sea eels are ever found in Peru Lagoon.

Many of the rivers and lakes of the islands of the Western Pacific are
tenanted by eels of great size, which are never, or very seldom, as far
as I could learn, interfered with by the natives, and I have never seen
the people of either the Admiralty Islands, New Ireland, or New Britain
touch an eel as food. The Maories, however, as is well known, are
inordinately fond of eels, which, with putrid shark, constitute one of
their staple articles of diet.

In the few mountainous islands of the vast Caroline Archipelago, in
the North-western Pacific, eels are very plentiful, not only in the
numberless small streams which debouch into the shallow waters enclosed
by the barrier reefs, but also far up on the mountainsides,
occupying little rocky pools of perhaps no larger dimensions than an
ordinary-sized toilet basin, or swimming up and down rivulets hardly
more than two feet across. The natives of Ponapé, the largest island
of the Caroline Group, and of Kusaie (Strong's Island), its eastern
outlier, regard the fresh-water eel with shuddering aversion, and should
a man accidentally touch one with his foot when crossing a stream he
will utter an exclamation of horror and fear. In the heathen days--down
to 1845-50--the eel (tôan) was an object of worship, and constantly
propitiated by sacrifices of food, on account of its malevolent powers;
personal contact was rigidly avoided; to touch one, even by the merest
accident, was to bring down the most dreadful calamities on the offender
and his family--bodily deformities, starvation and poverty, and death;
and although the natives of Strong's Island are now both civilised and
Christianised, and a training college of the Boston Board of Missions
has long been established at Port Lelé, they still manifest the same
superstitious dread of the eel as in their days of heathendom. I well
remember witnessing an instance of this terror during my sojourn on the
island when I was shipwrecked there in 1874. I had taken up my residence
in the picturesque little village of Leassé, on the western or "lee"
side, when I was one evening visited by several of the ship's company--a
Fijian half-caste, a white man, and two natives of Pleasant Island. At
the moment they arrived I was in the house of the native pastor--a
man who had received an excellent education in a missionary college at
Honolulu, in the Hawaiian Islands--instructing him and his family in the
art of making _taka_, or cinnet sandals, as practised by the natives
of the Tokelau Group. Just then the four seamen entered, each man
triumphantly holding up a large eel: in an instant there was a united
howl of horror from the parson and his family, as they made a rash for
the door, overturning the lamp and nearly setting the house on fire. In
vain I followed and urged them to return, and told them that the men had
gone away and taken the _tôan_ with them--nothing would induce them to
enter the house that night, and the whole family slept elsewhere.

One singular thing about the eels on Strong's Island is that they
hibernate, in a fashion, on the sides or even summits of the high
mountains, at an altitude of nearly two thousand feet. Selecting, or
perhaps making, a depression in the soft, moss-covered soil, the ugly
creatures fit themselves into it compactly and remain there for weeks or
even months at a time. I have counted as many as thirty of these holes,
all tenanted, within a few square yards. Some were quite concealed by
vegetable _débris_ or moss, others were exposed to view, with the broad,
flat head of the slippery occupant resting on the margin or doubled back
upon its body. They showed no alarm, but if poked with a stick would
extricate themselves and crawl slowly away.

In the streams they were very voracious, and I had a special antipathy
to them, on account of their preying so on the crayfish--a crustacean
of which I was particularly fond, and which the natives also liked very
much, but were afraid to capture for fear their hands might come in
contact with the dreaded _tôan_.

One afternoon I was plucking a pigeon I had just shot by the margin of a
mountain stream. After removing the viscera, I put the bird in the water
to clean it properly, and was shaking it gently to and fro, when it was
suddenly torn out of my hand by a disgustingly bloated, reddish-coloured
eel about four feet in length, and quickly swallowed. That one pigeon
had cost me two hours' tramping through the rain-soddened mountain
forest, so loading my gun I followed the thief down stream to where the
water was but a few inches deep, and then blew his head off.



THE END




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