Revenge by Louis Becke
On that fever-stricken part of the coast of the great island of New Britain, lying between the current-swept headland of Gape Stephens and the deep forest-clad shores of Kabaira Bay, there is a high grassy bluff dotted here and there with isolated coco-palms leaning northward to the sea beneath, their broad branches restlessly whipping and bending to the boisterous trade wind. On the western side of the bluff there is a narrow strip of littoral, less than half a mile in width, and thickly clothed with a grove of betel nut, through which the clear waters of a mountain stream flow swiftly out oceanwards across a rocky bar.
Near where the margin of the grove of straight, grey-boled betels touch the steep side of the bluff, there may be seen the outline of a low wall of coral stones, forming three sides of a square, and bound and knit together with vines, creepers, and dank, ill-smelling moss--the growth, decay, and re-growth of three score years. The ground which it encloses is soft and swampy, for the serried lines of betel-trees, with their thick, broad crowns, prevent either sun or wind from penetrating to the spot, and the heavy tropical rains never permit it to dry. It is a dark, dismal-looking place, only visited by the savage inhabitants when they come to collect the areca-nuts, and its solitude is undisturbed save by the flapping of the hornbill's wings as he carries food to his imprisoned mate, or the harsh screech of a white cockatoo flying overhead to the mountain forest beyond.
Yet sixty years ago it was not so, for then on the shore facing the bar stood a native village, and within the now rained wall were the houses of three white men, who from their doorways could see the blue Pacific, and the long curve of coast line with cape and headland and white line of reef stretching away down to the westward in the misty tropic haze.
Walk inside the old, broken walls, and you will see, half-buried in the moist, steaming, and malarious ground, some traces of those who dwelt there--a piece of chain cable, two or three whaler's trypots, a rotten and mossgrown block or two, only the hardwood sheaves of which have resisted the destroying influences of the climate; a boat anchor, and farther towards the creek, the mouldering remains of a capstan, from the drumhead holes of which long grey-green pendants of moss droop down upon the weather-worn, decaying barrel, like the scanty ragged beard that falls on the chest of some old man worn out with poverty and toil.
That is all that one may see now; for the dense, evergrowing jungle has long since hidden or rotted all else that was left.
* * * * *
The three men were named Ford, Adams, and Stenhouse. They were beche-de-mer fishers, and for nearly a year had been living in this savage spot--the only white men inhabiting the great island, whose northern coast line sweeps in an irregular half-moon curve for more than three hundred miles from Cape Stephens to within sight of the lofty mountains of New Guinea. In pursuit of their avocation, death from disease, or from the spears or clubs of the treacherous, betel-chewing, stark-naked cannibals among whom they dwelt was ever near, but to the men of their iron resolution and dauntless courage that mattered not. Two years' labour meant for them a large sum of money--enough to enable them to return with their wives and families and native dependents, to those more restful islands in the Western Carolines whence they had come a year before.
All three men were employed by one firm in Singapore, whose ship had brought them with their families and some thirty or forty natives of Yap to New Britain. Nine months after their landing, a small schooner had called to replenish their supplies, and ship the cured trepang, which by the most assiduous labour and daring enterprise they had accumulated; and when this story opens, the schooner had been gone some weeks, and they and their native workers were preparing their boats for another cruise along the great barrier reef of New Britain.
Two of these men, Adams and Stenhouse, were old and tried comrades, and in their rough way, devoted to each other. Stenhouse, the elder of the two, had some ten years previously, while sailing along the Pelew Island, found Adams adrift in an open boat--the sole survivor of a shipwrecked crew of sixteen men, and had nursed him back to life and reason. Later on, Adams had married one of Stenhouse's half-caste daughters. Ford, too, who was an American, was connected by marriage with Stenhouse, and nearly every one of the thirty or forty male and female Caroline Islanders who worked for the three white men were more or less allied to their wives by ties of blood or marriage, and there was not one of them who would not have yielded up his or her life in their defence.
Stenhouse, who was the leader of the adventurous party, was a man of about forty-five years of age, and, like his two comrades, an ex-sailor. He was nearly six feet in height, and possessed of such powers of strength and endurance that his name was known throughout the Western Pacific to almost every white man, but his once handsome features were marred by such a terrible disfigurement, that those who came to know the man and his sterling character always thought or spoke of him with genuine and respectful pity. What had caused this cruel distortion was known to but three other persons besides himself--the mother of his children, his son-in-law, Thomas Adams, and the man who had inflicted the injury; and to spare the reader's feelings as much as possible, it need only be said that the left side of his face had been so injured by violence of some kind as to be pitiful to look upon, the more so as the eye was missing.
* * * * *
Late one evening, just as Stenhouse and his son-in-law, Adams, were smoking their last pipes before tarning in, their comrade entered the house hurriedly, accompanied by one of their native employees, who had been away on a fishing excursion.
"Here's news! There's a big full-rigged ship just anchored under Cape Stephens. Masik boarded her, and had a yarn with the mate."
"Where is she from?" asked Stenhouse, turning his one eye upon the native, Masik.
"I know not, master. But she is a great ship with many men on board--some white, and some yellow, with shaven heads.
"Ah, a Calcutta-Sydney ship, most likely," said Stenhouse to his comrades. Then turning to Masik--"Why came she here? Didst ask?"
"Aye," replied the man in his native tongue; "the ship came here because there be many sick, and two dead men on board. It is a strong sickness."
"Didst speak of us white men here?"
The man nodded. "Aye, and the mate said that the captain would like thee all to come to the ship; but to hasten, for when the two men are buried to-morrow the ship will sail And the mate gave me these for thee."
Adams eagerly extended his hand for a bundle of newspapers which Masik carried wrapped up in a piece of old sail-cloth.
"This is a god-send," said Adams, as he opened the packet and tossed some of the papers to Stenhouse and Ford, "only about six months old. Hallo, here's the name of the ship and captain I suppose, on one of them:
Roger Fullerton, Esq., Ship Ramillies------"
It was Stenhonse who spoke, and his usual cheerful voice now sounded cracked and discordant, as with an oath he tore the paper from his comrade's hand, read the name, and then sat down, with one hand pressed to his sightless orb, his whole frame trembling from head to foot.
"What is the matter, Ted?" asked Ford anxiously.
Slowly he turned his face towards his comrades. It was white.
"Send them away," he said, "but tell them to call the others and get ready. I am going down to the cape to-night, to that ship. I am going to kill a man."
Ford looked at him wonderingly. Adams, who understood, spoke a few whispered words to the natives, who quickly left the room.
"Are all the women and children asleep?"
Adams nodded, and Stenhouse silently motioned to him and Ford to be seated. He remained standing.
"Jim Ford," he said quietly, "look at me"--he drew his hand down the distorted side of his face--"and tell me what you would do to a man who made you look like this."
"I would have his life if I swung for it."
"Well, I am going to have this man's life. I shall not be hanged for it, but if I am killed, I look to you, Jim, and you Tom, to stand to my wife and children."
Ford put out his hand impulsively: "All that I have I owe to you, Ted. I will stand to 'em, so help me God."
"I knew you would. Now, only three people in the world besides me--Tom Adams, my wife, and the man who did it--know what made me the blarsted scarecrow I am; but as I may be a dead man by this time tomorrow, I'll tell you."
He paused, and with his forefinger still pressed firmly on the name on the newspaper, said slowly:--
"This man, Roger Fullerton, was a passenger on the Mahratta, East Indiaman. I was his servant. We were bound to Sydney from Table Bay. He was going out to be Commissary-General or something of that kind in New South Wales. We had a rough, mutinous crew on board, and one night there was a fight between them and the officers and passengers. They burst into the cabin, and would have captured the ship but for the mate, who shot one man dead and cut another down. I had nothing to do with them--as God is my witness--for I was only a lad of nineteen, and would have stood to the captain and officers like a man, but I was made prisoner by the mutineers early in the fight. After the row was over, Mr. Fullerton missed his watch and a hundred sovereigns which were in a writing case in his cabin. He accused me of stealing them, and when I hotly denied the charge, knocked me down on deck and kicked me so savagely in the face that I should have been killed if I had not been dragged away from him. As it was, he broke my jaw and destroyed my left eye. But that was not all. When he reached Sydney he charged me with the theft. I got a heavy sentence and was sent to the coal-mines at Newcastle; but after two years of hell I escaped by stowing away in a Dutch barque bound to Samarang. And now my turn has come."
"Are you sure he is the man?" asked the American.
"Quite. He settled in the Colony and married there. I have heard of him from time to time for many years."
* * * * *
Before midnight the three white men, with twenty-five of their native followers armed with muskets and cutlasses, were following the coastline in the direction of Gape Stephens. The night was dark and rainy, but the route was familiar to both Adams and Stenhouse. All night they marched steadily onward, and only when daylight broke did they halt on the banks of a stream to rest and eat. Then, crossing the stream, they struck a native path which led to the shore.
"There she is," said Ford.
The ship lay about a mile from the shore. Stenhouse looked at her earnestly, and then abruptly told his comrades his plans, which were daring but simple. He would await the landing of the boat bringing the dead men ashore for burial, and take them prisoners. In all probability the captain would be in charge, and it was Stenhouse's intention to hold him and his boat's crew as ransom for the man he wanted. He intended no harm to them, but was determined to achieve his object if he had to carry his prisoners off to the mountains, and keep them there till Fullerton was given up to him.
Immediately after breakfast, the watchers saw two boats leave the ship, and pull in towards a creek which debouched into a sandy cove situated immediately under Gape Stephens. The coastline here was uninhabited, and except for the banks of the creek, which were heavily timbered, presented a succession of rolling, grassy downs, and here and there clumps of vi (wild mango) and cedar trees, and Stenhouse felt pretty certain that the burying party would pick upon one of these spots to inter the bodies, and that he could easily cut them off from the boats.
Swiftly and silently they took up a position on the banks of the creek, Stenhouse with his two friends keenly watching the advancing boats from behind the buttressed roots of a giant Indian fig-tree. In a few minutes, the leading boat, in which were six men and an officer, entered the creek, but the water being shallow, grounded on the bar, and the crew got out. The second boat contained four seamen, and three or four persons who were seated aft, and she too took the ground, and then, as her crew stepped out into the water, Stenhouse gripped Adams by the shoulder.
"See, Tom, there he is! The man himself. Look! that big fellow with the white whiskers, sitting between the others." He held a hurried consultation with his comrades, and quickly decided on his course of action.
Both crews were now endeavouring to drag the boats across the shallow bar into the deeper water beyond, but the task was too much for them, and presently the captain, who was in the second boat, ordered them to cease, and said something to the big, white-whiskered man, who nodded his head in approval.
Four seamen then lifted two coffins from the first boat, and, followed by four others carrying their own and their shipmates' arms and some spades, began wading through the water to the shore, directly to where the unseen watchers lay awaiting; and the remainder of the party, leaving the boats with two men on guard, came slowly after them.
Stenhouse pointed to the two boat-keepers, and said something to Ford, who, with half-a-dozen natives, quickly disappeared.
In a few minutes the bearers of the coffins reached the shore, and placed their burdens on the ground to await further orders.
"We shall find clear ground, sir, within a few yards from the bank," began the captain, addressing the tall man, who with bared head and slow step walked by his side, when suddenly there came a rush of a score of half-naked figures, who threw themselves silently upon the party, and overcame them almost without a sound.
"Surrender, or you are all dead men," cried a hoarse voice.
There was no need for the stern summons, for not only were the astonished sailors terrified by the extraordinary suddenness of the attack and the savage appearance of their captors, but their captain, the surgeon, and the big man had their pistols taken from their belts so quickly that resistance was utterly out of the question, covered as they were by half-a-dozen muskets pointed at their breasts.
Then Adams stepped out and addressed the captain. 804
"No harm will be done to you and yonr men, but you must remain our prisoners for awhile. Then your arms will be returned to you, and you can go back to your ship. Your boat-keepers are secured."
"What in God's name does this mean?" cried the unfortunate officer.
"Silence, if you value yonr life," cried the same stern voice that had called upon them to surrender.
The captain turned and sought to discern the speaker, but the muzzle of a pistol was placed menacingly against his chest, and he was again ordered to be silent.
Then at a sign from Adams all the crews' and officers' arms were carried off to the boats by two natives, and the wondering seamen were bidden by Adams to lift the coffins and follow him.
"Do not attempt to escape," he said, speaking to the whole party generally; "if you do you will be shot down without mercy."
As he spoke Ford, with five armed natives, silently joined the rest of the captors. Follerton, the captain, and the surgeon all looked at him curiously.
"March, gentlemen," he said, pointing with his drawn cutlass to the bearers of the coffins, who were now, guided by Adams, pushing their way through the timber, surrounded by their native guards with muskets cocked.
In ten minutes the belt of timber had been passed through, and captors and captured emerged upon a grassy sward.
Again that hoarse, strange voice sounded from somewhere near, and the seamen shuddered as they gently laid their burdens on the ground.
"Bury your dead, sir, and have no fear," said Adams to the captain.
Then he and Ford spoke to their followers, who silently drew back and permitted the seamen who carried shovels to advance. The ground was soft and moist, and their task was soon accomplished, and the coffins lowered into their graves.
Then the captain, followed by the surgeon and Roger Fullerton, advanced, prayer-book in hand, and read the burial service, and Adams and Ford wondered somewhat when, at its conclusion, a heavy sob burst from Fullerton.
Quickly the earth was shovelled in, and soon two mounds showed on the sward. Then came the clank of arms, and the mourners were again surrounded by their half-nude guards.
"Follow," said Adams shortly.
He led them for a distance of about a hundred yards, then halted, and the prisoners found themselves in a hollow square.
"Are you going to slaughter unarmed men?" cried the surgeon, who was terrified at the very appearance of the wild-looking Caroline Islanders and their grim, silent leaders.
Adams shook his head, but made no reply.
A heavy footstep sounded in the jungle near them, and Stenhouse, carrying two cutlasses under his arm, strode into the square and stood before Fullerton.
For a moment or two their eyes met, and then Stenhouse raised his hand and touched his distorted face.
"You know me, Mr. Fullerton?"
"I know you. You have come to kill me."
"Yes, unless you kill me." He drew a cutlass from its leather sheath and held its hilt out to the man he hated. Fullerton folded his arms across his chest.
"Take it," said Stenhouse slowly, "or, by Heavens! I'll cut you down as you stand."
"As you will," replied the old man steadily, "but fight you I will not. My life is in your hands. Take it. I am not afraid to die."
Stenhouse drew his cutlass slowly, his one eye shining with a deadly hatred.
"For God's sake, man, whoever you are, whatever your injuries may be, do not shed the blood of an old man on his son's grave!" and the captain sprang forward with outspread, appealing hands.
"His son!" and the point of the gleaming weapon drooped.
"His only son. Have mercy on him, as you hope for mercy yourself."
"Stop, Captain Marsland. Do not ask for mercy for me. I did this man a grievous wrong. My life is his. Let him have his due."
Stenhouse threw down his cutlass with an oath, turned his back on his enemy, and put his hand to his forehead.
Then he faced round sharply, and once more he looked into Fullerton's unmoved face.
"Go," he said.
And without another word he strode away, followed by his comrades and his savage companions.