Lost Island/Chapter 12

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It was during his stay on the Mary Ellen that Dave first learned, under the personal supervision of Captain Grummitt, who spent most of his time on the bridge, the art of taking a trick at the wheel. And during those watches in the little, boxlike wheel-house the boy also learned many other things appertaining to the ways of ships, for Captain Grummitt took a great interest in the lad. The time was not far distant, moreover, when Dave was to be thankful for such lore as he gathered from the portly old sea-dog.

Life on the tug was by no means devoid of its adventurous side. There were days and nights when the water was as calm as the proverbial mill-pond, and when the work of the Mary Ellen could be carried on without excitement; but there were also times when nerves of iron were needed. Picking up casual sailing craft which needed a tow was child's play compared with the Mary Ellen's task of taking a ship under its sheltering wing on a dirty night. The worse the weather was, the more likely the tug was to be needed outside the entrance to the harbor, and the skipper took a grim pleasure in riding out a gale when other craft found it prudent to take shelter.

One wild night, when Dave had been on the tug bout a month, even the skipper was thinking of getting under the shelter of the Bluff, for the Mary Ellen was tossing about so heavily that her crew could barely keep their feet, and more than one hissing comber had deluged the deck. Rain was falling in sheets, and it was the darkest hour of the night. Dave was on duty with Grummitt in the little wheel-house. The tug was right in the track of all incoming vessels, but few passed, except one or two dark forms of steamers laboring along like gray ghosts of the ocean.

"It's a rare night for trouble," Captain Grummitt said, "but I think this is where we get under the lee of the land for a spell."

Still he kept his hand off the engine-room telegraph. Once or twice during the last quarter of an hour he had been peering through his night glasses away to the southeast.

"Blow me if I did n't see a light down that way," he muttered. "Mebbe I'm beginning to fancy things in my old age. If only this rain would ease up for a minute— Gosh! There it is again. Now what in thunder is up?" he said, suddenly moving the lever over to the signal "Full speed ahead."

The Mary Ellen plunged forward, rolling over at a terrific angle as the heavy seas struck her port beam.

"What do you make of it, Cap'n?" Dave asked.

"Dunno." Captain Grummitt was scratching his pate in perplexity, "She does n't seem to have shifted for a long while, so I guess we 'll just find out."

Ten minutes' run brought them near enough to see what was happening. A large Swedish sailing ship, with poles bared, was riding uneasily at the stern of a tug. Apparently they were making no progress.

"Great mackerel, if that is n't the Dolphin, bitten more off than she can chew!" Grummitt said, scrutinizing the tug carefully. "I 'll hate to butt in here, because Jim Cross is a pal of mine, but I allus told him them hawsers he bought would go back on him when the pinch came."

"Is Jim Cross the skipper of the tug?"

"Yes, and he's part owner, same as I am. He bought three new hawsers this year, thinking he was getting a bargain just because they only cost him half as much as they ought to have done, but I warned him. Now I bet he's wishing he'd paid double," the skipper went on grimly, manœuvring his tug around all the time. "There is n't a tug in these waters with more powerful engines than the Dolphin, and now Jim Cross dare n't set 'em going at full speed, because he knows he'd bust the cable. A ship that size is a tough proposition to haul along in calm weather, but when you 've got both sea and wind running against you it takes a proper cable to stand the strain. He's playing foxy now, going easy till the wind shifts."

By this time the Mary Ellen was within hailing distance of the Dolphin.

"Want any help!" Grummitt bawled through a megaphone.

"No, thanks." The words came back faintly, almost drowned in the gale. At the same time the Dolphin began to forge ahead.

"We 'll see," commented Grummitt. For five minutes he kept going, a trifle astern of the tug, until a savage swirl of wind caught the sailing ship simultaneously with a hungry wave. The Dolphin shot forward perceptibly, and Grummitt edged in nearer the Swedish ship.

The cable had parted.

"Slip down on deck," Grummitt said sharply to Dave. "This ain't going to be no picnic."

Steering with consummate skill, Grummitt brought the tug close alongside the Swede, and the boy heard fragments of a conversation between the two captains, from which he gathered that that was the second cable that had broken. A young giant stood by the rail of the Mary Ellen, poised ready to hurl a coiled lanyard across. It was a hazardous moment, for the slightest error in steering would have brought about a collision. At exactly the right second the rope flew out. The wind carried it aside, but some one on the sailing ship managed to grab the end. Eager hands drew the end of the Mary Ellen's finest hawser across, and a moment later the tug was moving ahead. While this operation was in progress the Mary Ellen was plunging wildly, and Dave was almost knocked into the scuppers by a sea while giving a hand.

He found Captain Grummitt singing a sailors' chanty merrily when he returned to the wheel-house. The skipper had a habit of doing that when he had fought a hard battle and won.

"I'm sorry for Jimmie Cross," he said to the boy, "but he should n't try to use rotten gear in a howling gale. It might have cost a pile of lives to-night!"

An hour or two later they had rounded the Bluff, chugging along in comparatively smooth water, and the Swedish ship was berthed without further mishap.

The tug remained at her own berth in Sydney until the following day, and during that time Tempest again made inquiries about the boat he and Dave were waiting for to take them into the South Seas. He discovered that the Manihiki was due to leave in fifteen days.

"Well, I don't blame ye," said Captain Grummitt, when he heard their plans. I don't know a trip that I'd enjoy much better myself. There's something about the South Seas that gets you—a sort of mystery. By the way, Dave, I don't want you to think I 've forgotten that little thing you did for me when I toppled over into the dock." His hand went towards his pocketbook, where he always kept a roll of bills, but a look of dismay came into the boy's face.

"That was nothing. Anybody would have done it," Dave said.

"It may have meant nothing to you, my boy," Captain Grummitt replied with a grin, "but I still feel powerfully obliged, if it's all the same to you, and I'd like you to keep something of mine as a souvenir." Acting on a happy impulse, he drew from his pocket a plain silver watch and handed it to the boy. "It is n't the value of the thing I want you to remember, lad, so much as the idea of the thing. It's a mark of an old sailor's gratitude."

The delicate spirit in which the gift was made pleased Dave even more than the watch.

"Thanks, Cap'n," he said. "I 'll always be proud of that watch."

"An' if ever you come back to Sydney and want a job," said the skipper, "don't forget to look up Lightning Grummitt. If I have n't got room on board for you, I 'll make room, see?"

The captain of the Manihiki was a middle-aged man named Peters, whom Tempest had met before, and neither Dave nor his friend had any difficulty in joining the ship. The Manihiki was no flyer. She had been built for her own particular trade, and did not draw too much water, so that she could be navigated in places where the captain had to rely more on common sense and experience than charts, for those who engage in trading with the islands must pick their way gingerly between treacherous reefs, often gaging the depth of the water by its color only. Usually, the Manihiki jogged along at a comfortable ten or eleven miles an hour, with a slight reserve of speed in hand in case of an emergency.

From Sydney she had a run of nearly two thousand miles before reaching the neighborhood of Fiji, and then began the part of the journey which interested Dave most. From one wondrous beauty-spot to another they went, sometimes lying at anchor off an island and sending a dory ashore to do the trading, and sometimes poking their nose so close to the land that it was possible to tie up against a tree. In some places a white man had established himself and did a thriving, if lonely, business by accumulating copra and other native products and driving a hard bargain with Captain Peters. One man in particular Dave remembered. He had built a wooden bungalow facing the sea, and the chief article of furniture it contained was a wheezy old harmonium on which its owner played comic songs, ten years old, extremely badly. In response to a pressing invitation Captain Peters and some of the men, including Tempest and Dave, paid a visit to the bungalow and took coffee there. One of the crew fetched an accordion from the ship, and for the first time in history a concert was held on the island, before a rapturous audience of fifty or sixty niggers who crowded around the bungalow.

"It's the accordion they 're listening to," the trader explained. "The beggars thought the harmonium was a sort of magic when I first got it, and I had no end of a game with 'em, but familiarity breeds contempt. I remember the time when they used to bring any one who was sick, an' let 'em listen to the strains of a vaudeville ditty that Sydney and New York had forgotten, and 'pon my word the patient used to get well again straight away. They 're funny creatures, natives. They 've only got to make up their minds that they 're going to die and even 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay' on the old wheeze bag won't save 'em."

In some places the natives displayed a keenness for bargaining which would not have disgraced a dealer in second-hand clothes. The Manihiki had passed beyond the Fiji Islands and was working among the Tonga group when an incident occurred which might have led to serious consequences but for the prompt action of Captain Peters.

No boat had called at this particular island for nearly a year, and the natives had an exaggerated notion of the value of their accumulated wares. After a good deal of haggling between Captain Peters and the dusky traders, conducted in fragments of English and disjointed words in the native lingo, a bargain was struck, and all hands set to work on the task of stowing the copra away. While this was being done, however, the natives set up a noisy chattering among themselves, a disagreement having arisen, apparently as to what they were to get in exchange.

Two members of the crew stood guarding the knives, brightly colored cloth and ornaments which had been selected as the "price" of the copra, the last of which had just been put into the hold, when the chattering developed into a howl, and there were signs of an ugly rush.

Scenting danger, Captain Peters gave a quick signal for the anchor to be heaved.

"Push off those canoes there," he ordered quietly, at the same time producing a small revolver from his hip pocket. "Hi, you, Johnson," he added to one of the men who had seized a marline spike and assumed a threatening attitude, "if you hit one of those chaps I 'll put you under arrest. Remember some other boat is coming here some day, and if we have a rumpus now they 'll get ready for regular trouble next time." The propeller was revolving, and the Manihiki was slowly sliding away from her anchorage. "A bargain is a bargain, you squint-eyed lump of mahogany," the captain went on, leaning over the side and hurling his words at the chief, who was brandishing his arms, "even if it is between a gentleman in command of a first-class trading steamer and a low-down, sneak-thief Kanaka."

Then, as the canoes dropped behind, he waved his hand to their occupants, afterwards taking his place on the bridge to conduct the delicate operation of navigating his way through a mass of jagged rocks and cross currents.

This was almost the only occasion, however, on which the Manihiki encountered trouble with the natives. As a rule they had learned by experience that it paid best to come to some understanding and stick to it. There was probably a good deal of squabbling among themselves, after the steamer had left, on the question of a fair division of the spoil, but that was not Captain Peters's affair.

On the whole, the cruise promised to be a very satisfactory one, and the Manihiki was favored with ideal weather week after week, running under azure skies on an ocean that looked as though it must have been painted.

"A penny for your thoughts," Tempest said early one morning when he came upon Dave leaning over the taffrail, staring out at the beautiful picture. The gray sky in the east was just becoming tinged with red, stained with the promise of the sun, and little wisps of mist floated in vague shapes, like scenes from Fairyland.

"It looks like—like a dream," Dave said.

"Does n't it?" Tempest agreed. "One of the queer things about these waters is that mist, which looks so dreamy, can become a regular nightmare before you know where you are. One has to navigate with brains instead of charts hereabouts, and the skipper does n't take quite the same view of fog as you do. He's been grumbling for two days about it. It was pretty bad while we were down below in our bunks last night, and he had the engines running at half speed for some hours."

"But there's plenty of water where we are, is n't there?" Dave asked.

"Cap'n thinks so, evidently, because he's pounding away at top speed, but it's mighty tricky work, because the current will carry you a mile off your course in no time."

Usually the mist melted and disappeared soon after the sun peeked over the horizon, but this morning it hung obstinately and grew thicker, looking like a vast curtain of down spread over the water. Before midday the captain slowed the engines again, and crept forward for several hours. As near as he could reckon, they were within a mile or two of an island marked on the chart, which he wished to see so that he could make doubly sure of his bearings.

Dave was below, in his bunk, fast asleep, when a peculiar, grating noise startled him.

"What's that?" he said, rubbing his eyes.

Again the grating, accompanied this time by a distinct bump.

"The old man's done it now!" a sailor exclaimed, jumping out of his berth and hastening into some clothes. "Bless my soul if he ain't tryin' to scrape seaweed off'n the rocks with the keel!"

Dave was on deck in less than sixty seconds. The engines were stationary, and the captain was barking out sharp orders. Instead of rising and falling gently, the Manihiki was firm as a rock at the bow and canting over slightly, while her stern hung a foot too low in the water.

"Some plates are stove in for'ard, sir," Dave heard a voice shout, "and the sea's coming in through a big hole!"

Four or five gulls hung gracefully overhead, as though waiting for the pickings.

Dave saw Tempest coming toward him.

"Shall we be able to back off, do you think?" the boy asked.

"I hope not," said Tempest. "If she slips off that rock, she 'll sink in about three minutes."