Page:A Lady's Cruise in a French Man-of-War.djvu/296

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very important item in the harvest of these seas, and one which affords a living to a multitude of white men and brown. There are four different sorts, of which the black is the largest. It resembles a gigantic leech, and grows to a length of about thirty inches. It is a gregarious animal, and is found in companies of brother-slugs wherever the water is clearest and most perfect peace prevails. It is supposed to be blind, and its movements are so slow as to be imperceptible. It has a red cousin, which seems to enjoy tumult and noise as much as the black kind loves calm. Its favourite home is on the outer edge of the coral-reef, where the mighty breakers are for ever raging.

The bêche-de-mer fishers have on the whole rather a pleasant sort of gipsy life. Having chartered a small vessel, they engage a set of natives, both men and women, to work with them for so many moons; and as it is just the sort of occupation which comes natural to these men, they generally have a cheery time of it. They anchor at some favourable spot, probably a desert island, and build a cluster of palm-leaf huts for themselves, another in which to smoke, and so cure the fish and slugs, and to act as storehouse. However rude may be their own shelter, the fish-houses must be made water-tight, lest the heavy rains should beat through, and destroy the precious store.

The men carry with them a store of yams and cocoa-nuts, and trust to their luck for a daily fish supply, which rarely, if ever, fails, and has the charm of considerable variety, including most of the finny tribes, turtles and their eggs, clams, cockles, and other shell-fish—occasionally sea-birds' eggs are added to the feast. Whatever is caught is supposed to go to be handed over to the native overseer for equal division, that none may hunger. So when the day's work is done, a delicious bathe is followed by a cheery supper, and then the men lie round bright wood-fires, indulging in never-ending talk or songs, or else dancing quaint savage mékés in the moonlight.

Every morning they start at early dawn armed with long many-pronged forks, to collect the treasures brought in by the tide. If the sea is calm they go to the outer edge of the reef, in search of