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The Rivals: A Romance of the Chain Islands.

W. H. Macy

Flag of our Union
Vol. 24, No. 22 (May 29, 1869)
pp. 348-349

[Written for The Flag of our Union.]

A Romance of the Chain Islands.


      Our boat lay alongside the Babylon, a brig in the service of the Australian Pearl Company, which we had spoken that morning. We had communicated with her, in the hope of getting some English newspapers, and learning something of the progress of events in the civilized world from which we had been isolated for several months past. The two captains were below in the cabin, searching for newspapers, to find which, as I observed down the little skylight near which I stood, talking with the second officer in charge of the deck, it was necessary to rouse out from their easy hiding-places certain black bottles, with a comfortable British air about them, quite suggestive of good fellowship and jollity. It would take some time to find the newspapers; of that I was well assured.

      The Babylon was a stanch old brig of perhaps a hundred and fifty tons, a good traveller, too, as we had occasion to observe when in pursuit of her in the morning; but with the same rough, castellated, old-Admiral-Benbow air clinging to her which characterized the various colonial whalers with which we often came in contact at that period. It was said, jocularly, among us Americans that, aside from the inevitable salt junk and flinty hard tack compounded of "middlings" and brickdust in equal proportions, the inventory of stores necessary to the outfit of one of these vessels began and ended with the three articles, split-peas, grog and coal-tar. To this list, however, should have been appended the great antiscorbutic lime-juice, its presence on board being made imperative by special act of parliament. Coal-tar was the Alpha and Omega of the paint-locker, the mastheads and yards, as well as the hull from the bends upward, being, as a general thing, coated with this aromatic liquid.

      The brig had two nine-pounders mounted, and was manned with a crew of a dozen or more stout English seamen, with a crew of a dozen or more Lascars. She had also on board ten natives, hired at Chain Island, to dive for shells. These fellows were squatting about decks, with no other covering than a banana leaf cut into strips and tied about their loins, and having brought a partial supply of their own provisions with them, several of them were regaling themselves with the detestable sour paste called makee by the Marquesans, and known among seamen as "hurrah!" which forms a staple article of diet among the people of the tropical archipelagos of Polynesia. The odor exhaled from this composition, particularly when combined with that of the ever-present rancid cocoanut oil, forms a perfume somewhat less agreeable than any thing yet issued by Lubin.

      An immense water-butt stood "ahead" on deck, secured to the rail by a single turn of lashing, and having, as I noticed, a bunghole of extraordinary diameter; but my eyes wandered from this capacious cask to a sort of miniature burlesque upon it, in the shape of a nun-buoy, lashed up on the bow, which might, apparently, have "watched" the anchor of Sir Cloudesly Shovel's ship, in the good old days of Queen Anne. But my speculations were interrupted by a summons from the cabin-boy, inviting us into the cabin to "take something" with the two captains. Of course we were not slow to pocket the insult and swallow the grog. After enjoying a short social chat, and drinking success to each other, the second mate and I returned to the deck. As I stepped out of the companionway, I halted with one foot on the upper stair, transfixed with astonishment.

      A tawny-colored human arm of massive size and great muscular development, was extended at me from the bunghole of the large cask before mentioned, and as I stood staring fixedly at the clenched fist, it was drawn back and thrust violently forward again, two or three times, as though its owner were striking out from the shoulder, a la Tom Sayers. A wild shout issued from the interior, its multiplied echoes ringing loudly as they escaped at the narrow vent, which was nearly filled by the projecting arm.

      "What the deuce does that mean?" I demanded of the second officer of the brig, who was following close behind me on the stairs.

      "Well," said he, with a comical look on his face, "that's our Bedlam."

      "Your Bedlam!" I returned, more mystified than ever. "What do you mean by that?"

      "Why, one of these copper-colored divers ran mad," he returned, "the second day after we left Chain Island, and we were obliged to confine him. We tried to manage him with handcuffs, but we found there was danger of his injuring himself or some one else with them, and it didn't answer to lash him to one spot. Finally, the safest thing we could do, as well an the most humane was to put him into the biggest cask we had, and head him up. He has got plenty of room to stand up or sit down, bedding to sleep on, and most of the time keeps remarkably quiet. When the fits come on, he is outrageous, as you see now."

      "Well, I must say it's an original idea for a lunatic asylum," said I. "Yet, I don't see that anything better could be done, under the circumstances. It's better than confining him down under deck, putting him in irons, or tying his limbs."

      "O yes. You see the bunghole has been reamed out to the largest size, so he has plenty of air and light. His countrymen were the first to suggest this plan to us."

      "What do they suppose to be the cause of his madness?" I asked.

      "A woman, they say, is at the bottom of it. He and another man both wanted the same wah-heeny, and they fought two or three times about it. Finally, the other man, his rival, left the island, and went away in a ship; but this fellow had no better luck with her than before, and he made up his mind to banish himself too. But when he found himself out of sight of her entirely, it proved too much for his reason."

      "That is to say, I suppose, that, like many wiser men in civilized countries, they both made themselves very miserable, and became deadly enemies to each other, for tho sake of a woman who doesn't care a straw about either of them. But it's a most singular case, certainly. I didn't suppose it possible," said I, "that any of these people ever ran mad for love, I thought that sort of folly was peculiar to people of finer organizations. But what do you intend to do with him?"

      "Why, we shall land him again at Chain Island in the course of a fortnight. Perhaps the sight of his doxy will bring lack his wits again. Until then, we shall keep him snug, but treat him well in other respects."

      The lunatic, in the meantime, had become quiet after a short paroxysm, and subsided into his dungeon. Impelled by curiosity, I approached the cask, and attempted to peep in at the bunghole, but narrowly escaped a severe blow from the ponderous fist which shot out at me with a force that seemed to make the muscles crack again. Not relishing this "masked battery" style of attack, I did not venture on another reconnaissance within range. The enemy's position was peculiar; it could neither be forced nor turned.

      "Man the boat!" sung out the captain. And a few minutes found us on board our own ship, the Sagamore of New Bedford, in which I then filled the station of third mate, and jogging over the ground, close-hauled on the wind, while the pearl-hunter, under all her canvas, sped away on her course towards Bow Island.

      A few days after this, we found ourselves at daylight in the morning, quite near to one of those small, low islands, so numerous in this part of the Pacific. On nearing it, we found it to consist of a number of islets rising from a chain of coral, most of the formation being little more than a wash or flush with the surface of the sea. As usual, a barrier appeared to extend all round it, the form and direction of which were distinguishable from the masthead by the breaker wherever it rose near the surface, and even at the depth of many fathoms by the lighter color of the water. The islets, enclosed like little citadels within this circumference, though merely clumps of soil, rising but little above the general level, were covered with tropical vegetation, green and luxuriant, from the delicate shrub to the stately cocoa-nut tree. On one of the largest of these wooded clumps, a smoke was seen rising, and as we drew nearer, several human figures appeared in sight on the beach, or rather the abrupt brink of the lagoon. No other human beings were to be seen, and even these seemed to have no means of conveyance to bring them out to the ship, but made the most urgent signals to us to come ashore. Coasting along the line of the reef at a safe distance, we came to an opening or channel where the water appeared to be several fathoms deep, and the passage available even for the ship to enter the lagoon. The channel was, as in most cases, tortuous, but safe enough with a working breeze, the changes in the color of the water being boldly defined, and the limit of the breaker on the higher parts of the barrier plainly visible on either side, while the narrowest point of the passage was at the mouth or entrance of the inlet.

      We luffed to off the opening, with our head off shore, and two boats were lowered, the mate and myself being in charge of them. We did not neglect the precaution of taking firearms in the boats with us, though we had no reason to suppose there were any other inhabitants than the half-dozen whom we had seen making signals of invitation to us. We had since passed out of sight of them as we ran down towards the channel, though we of course had the islet or knoll in view, and would have no difficulty in pulling up to it, after passing into the smooth water of the lagoon. By numerous casts of the hand-lead as we slowly explored the channel, we found the depth was nowhere less than ten fathoms. The entrance and exit would be safe for a ship at all times, as under no circumstances could the sea break across the passage, with that depth on the bar. Great difficulty is often met with in landing upon the lee side of these islands, by reason of a sea rolling shoreward, in an opposite direction to the trade wind. This is perhaps an effect of the prevalent south-westerly gales of the high southern latitudes, though felt many hundred miles from the place whence it originates.

      We pulled up towards the little island, after entering the lagoon, keeping way abreast of each other, within easy talking distance. Nothing in the way of a marine view can be more beautiful than that presented in the basin formed by the surrounding rampart of coral at one of the islands, or, more properly speaking, clusters, of this chain. The sheet of water upon which we were now rowing was nearly as smooth as any pond or inland lake, and its color the most beautiful shade of blue, more approaching that of a summer sky in the Mediterranean than of the dark, fathomless ocean outside of the picturesque, natural breakwater, over which the white-capped rollers were roaring at us. A change now and then to a lighter shade of blue indicated the places where the bottom of the lagoon rose in knolls or hills towards the surface, inviting us to lie on our oars to gaze at the beautiful and varied formation of the coral, as seen several fathoms down, through the clear, translucent element.

      "Come," said the mate, "we shan't get anywhere to-day, if we stop to study coral formations. To tell the truth, I got so interested myself that I had almost forgotten the business we came on. Pull ahead! and let's get up to the island there. I think I can see two natives now coming round this way. I saw them gliding between the trees. Halloo!" he exclaimed, suddenly, "what's this? Hold water two oars – pull round three, and let's have a look at this cask. We may find something good to drink."

      The cask of which he spoke was lying close in under the bold rise of the erratic bank of coral which ran here and there inside the lagoon, forming a chain which connected the several islets, and which here, as in numerous other places, had risen above the surface, so that soil was beginning to form upon it. Having been set by an eddy into a bend of the reef, it had escaped observation until we were quite near it. It was a pipe of the largest size, and differed from those in use on board American whalers in its great swell at the bilge, and the width of its hoops, which were more like wheel-tires. I thought its capacious bunghole looked strangely familiar to me

      "No Yankee cooper ever made that butt," said the mate. "That must be the Sydneyman's lunatic asylum you were telling of."

      "It looks much like it," I replied; "but how the deuce would that get here? The Babylon is most likely snug at harbor at He-ow before this time. I suppose there are other English vessels about here though."

      "What makes the cask toss about so?" demanded Mr. Eldridge. "There's no swell in here to heave it round; it ought to ride as quietly as in a dock."

      It did indeed seem to be operated upon by some internal agency, for it danced about in the smooth water, now bung up, then half over to one side, while its quarters splashed heavily in the water, as first one, then the other head, rose and fell alternately. All doubts were soon set at rest, however, as to the nature of its contents; for it sprang up again, and seemed to be held there, while my old acquaintance, the brawny, tattooed arm, shot forth – not with clenched fist, as I had last seen and almost felt it, but with the fingers opened, and clawing the air with an expression of supplication. The enemy was inclined for a parley now, rather than a hostile sortie, and we were near enough now to hear faint guttural sounds issuing from the narrow sally-port, in tones of entreaty.

      "What did I tell you?" exclaimed Mr. Eldridge. "A floating bedlam! Here, Santy Anna! You'll have to hail that craft. Ask him how long he's out. I think he must be short of provisions."

      "I think he has suffered more from want of water," I replied.

      "He has shipped water enough on the passage, I'll venture to say," returned the mate, as we now shot alongside of the cask, and seized it by the chimes between the two boats. "I can hear the water swashing now in his ground tier, but it's not much good to him, either for ballast or for drinking purposes. Halloo, below there!" he shouted, pushing back the arm which still protruded through the only outlet. "Here's a man can speak your lingo! Hail him, Santy Anna."

      Santa Anna was the tub-oarsman of my boat, also a native of Anaa, or Chain Island, and had been thus christened when he was shipped, rather in a mere historical freak, than from any resemblance, real or fancied, to the Mexican dictator. He now took up the discourse, after I had cautioned him not to bring his face in direct range, or he might get some of his teeth loosened, as had so nearly been the case with myself on board the pearl brig.

      Water, it appeared, was the first and greatest want. The poor fellow's mouth was so parched that this was the only idea he could at present express.

      "Give us the boat-keg here," said Mr. Eldridge. "Tell him, Santy Anna, to turn his face right up to the bunghole, and we'll shove the nozzle into his mouth!"

      This plan worked to a charm, and a copious stream was poured down his throat, to his great satisfaction and speedy relief.

      "That will put new live into him," the mate said, "and he'll be hungry next. Here's some bread under the stern sheets, Shove a biscuit into his hand, Santy Anna, and he can eat and spin his yarn at the same time."

      "How are we to let him out of his cage here?" I asked.

      "We can't do it here," he answered. "We've got nothing to stave the cask with, and if we undertake to knock the hoops off with the boat-hatchet, we shall let in the water, and drown him before we can get him out. We'll sling the cask, and tow him along to the island where we are bound. Pass me that short warp Frank."

      The ponderous butt was soon slung in a seaman-like manner, and plunging buoyantly along in tow of the two boats; for we decided it would be time enough to hear his thrilling narrative after he should be liberated and somewhat refreshed. As yet, we could see no signs of life on the shore, and we concluded the place was not permanently inhabited. The few persons we had seen were doubtless here for some temporary purpose, or had been cast here by accident.

      "That's a rare craft to go to sea in," said I, "manned by a maniac, too – though that's all in keeping, for no sane man would be likely to make such a voyage."

      "Well, the craft has her good points," returned Mr. Eldridge, following the direction of my glance at the cask bobbing pleasantly along in our wake. "She floats light, and is not a bad sailer, right before the wind and sea. Double-ender, too, which is considered a great point in some kinds of service. But there's too much weather-roll to her, and it's as much as he wants to do to keep her 'this side up with care.' It those English hoops were a very little wider, she'd be a complete ironclad."

      "The old man is standing in close to the reef," said I, "and I presume he has got his glass to bear upon us. He thinks, now, that we've found some great prize – a cask of oil, perhaps, or a pipe of brandy – when the plain truth is, we've picked up a crazy Kanaka."

      My boat being in advance, we were the first to land, and taking the warp from the mate, we hauled the cask in, and soon parbuckled it up on terra firma, the poor prisoner being compelled to keep his treadmill going, to avoid revolving with it, as we rolled it up high and dry. Our boat-hatchets, vigorously used, soon slacked up the iron bonds, the head was forced out of its groove, and the dusky voyager was revealed to our view, crouching upon the mass of ragged and water-soaked blankets which had been his bedding while on board the brig. He could have had no use for them since leaving her, except to raise himself a little out of the water, by tossing them in a heap under his feet, for no human being could have slept in such a state of perpetual motion as his must have been, at least previous to his having drifted into the lagoon.

      He emerged quite deliberately from his prison, though we had all stood on our guard, apprehensive that he might dash in among us like a wild beast. But he seemed somewhat subdued by confinement and suffering, and we must have found him during a comparatively lucid interval. Indeed, Santa Anna, from the little conversation he had with him at the bunghole, had given his opinion that he was sane enough then. And his conduct, when liberated, seemed to confirm this belief. He ate and drank quietly, and so far as we could judge from appearances, neither his bodily nor mental health was seriously impaired, though his physical strength was of course greatly reduced.

      "Who knows," queried the mate, "but that starvation may be a radical cure for lunacy?"

      "Ay, or rolling over and over in a cask," I replied. "Which is it? for both modes of treatment have been combined in his case. If we can determine which, we may have made a great psychological discovery."

      "Now you've got me," said Mr. Eldridge; "that's too big a word for me. But look out!" he continued. "The fit is coming on again!"

      The maniac, for there was no mistaking the condition of his mind now, had dropped the piece of ship-bread which he had been eating, and risen to his feet. The frenzied glare of his eye was not to be mistaken, as he fixed his gaze upon our shipmate Santa Anna, and his fingers clutched the air wildly, while muttered sounds came from his lips, which of course were Hebrew to us, though not so to our Kanaka, who now, for the first time, appeared to recognize the features of his countryman. He stood warily on his guard, replying, in at low tone, to the words of the madman, his accents and expression seeming to me to be those of sorrow, rather than of either anger or fear. Something, either in his words or his cool manner of replying, appeared to exasperate the unfortunate lunatic still more; for, with the spring of a tiger, he threw himself upon his supposed enemy, every fibre of his weak and exhausted body quivering with rage and deadly hatred. Vainly he endeavored to clutch Santa Anna by the throat; he was met by equal activity and superior strength. Cool resolution was more than a match for his insane fury, and he was hurled back, to be seized end effectually held by several strong arms. At the same instant, an apparition came bounding from the clump of trees above, and rushing down the coral bank, the sight of which seemed to paralyze the two combatants with astonishment, while the maniac's muscles relaxed their convulsive tension, and he became docile as a lamb. There was no longer any need to restrain him by force.

      The peacemaker who had thus taken us all by surprise was a young woman of dark olive complexion and pleasing cast of features, which at this moment might have been called handsome, from their expression, as she stood between the two rivals for her hand, for such undoubtedly they were. Her arms were raised and extended, while her fine dark eyes rested with a look of pity upon the unfortunate madman, and then, as I thought, with even a more tender feeling upon our young shipmate. Her attire consisted merely of a snow-white tappa, or fold of cloth about the loins, while a wreath of bright yellow blossoms encircled her head, In brilliant contrast with the glossy blackness of her coarse, shining hair, fresh from the toilet, and redolent of cocoa-nut oil. Her figure, so completely revealed, was much too large and full to comport with our ides of feminine grace, though doubtless a model in the eyes of the islanders, with whom plumpness constitutes a chief element in female beauty.

      From what I had learned from the second officer of the brig, and had communicated to the mate, the tableau was the more interesting to us, as being, to some extent, intelligible. The girl herself was the first to break the silence, by addressing a question in a low, not unmusical tone, to Santa Anna, who answered by giving, as we supposed, an explanation of the circumstances which had led to the unexpected meeting of the rivals. We could understand the pantomimic part, of course, and wondered not at the surprise and evident emotion shown by our Pocahontas as her eyes rested long upon the open water-butt before her.

      She now turned and addressed a few words in the same low key to the madman, the effect of which was instantaneous. He burst forth into an impassioned speech, full of gestures and eccentric movements, some of which would have been ludicrous but that we knew the mental infirmity of the speaker, and respected the feelings upon a subject so serious to himself, in which his whole soul seemed to be absorbed. The replies of the girl, always in the same quiet tone, were short, serious and dignified, evincing, as we understood it, firmness in denial, mingled with regret at his hopeless infatuation. Each successive response seemed but to feed the flame of his insanity, until, excited to the highest pitch of delirium, he suddenly rushed past us all to the brink, and leaped into the smooth waters of the lagoon. We were almost inclined to smile at this freak, and to hope that his immersion might cool the fever of his passion; for who would think of an amphibious Polynesian, a professional diver, being drowned, either accidentally or intentionally, in this smooth basin, with his limbs free? He jumped into it, with his feet close together and his arms flat to his sides, descending to a considerable depth. We naturally ran to the brink of the lagoon, to look for his rising. A film came over my eyes, and my heart sickened as I looked down into the clear element, and beheld him in the same erect attitude, darting upwards with fearful velocity towards the surface – directly under a projecting spur of the coral, which here seemed to have been partially undermined, or to have been built out so as to overhang the abyss below! A faintness overpowered me for a moment, and I fairly sank upon the bank; but a loud outcry and confusion roused me again, to behold the dying form of the suicide – for so he undoubtedly was – drawn up on the ragged slope of the coral bank, his skul1 crushed as it was plain to me must be the case, from the momentum with which he was shooting upward when I last saw him.

      The girl was stooping over the nearly lifeless form her wreath torn from her brow, and her jetty hair falling in confusion about her shoulders. Her low plaintive wail was the only sound that broke the stillness of the picture now, save the short and broken gasps of the dying man; for the mate and our crew all stood round in silence, at a respectful distance from the chief mourner, as also did two other dusky women and three men who had joined the group, evidently the same party whom we had seen from the ship, as we ran down past the sea-face of the islet.

      "Sail ho!" said my boatsteerer, suddenly breaking the spell occasioned by the shocking occurrence which had overpowered us all for the time being. A brig under whole topsails and other easy working canvas, was running down the land towards the inlet by which we had entered with the boats. She had come suddenly into view, but was not more than a mile from us in a direct line, as she stood on in a direction parallel to the outer wall of the barrier, and her heavy black spars and hull, as well as numerous miner marks about her, were immediately recognized as those of the pearl-hunter. She sheered a little from her course to hail the ship in passing, and then stood boldly on, entering the mouth of the channel. It was evident, from the confident manner in which the Babylon was handled, that this was not her first visit to this lagoon. The plunge of her anchor, followed by the rattle of her chain-cable, was soon heard, and almost immediately her small boat, with the captain in her, was seen approaching us.

      Before she arrived, we had learned, through Santa Anna, that the party whom we found on shore were all from Anaa (or Chain Island), having come to this place on a visit in their canoe, as is not unusual in this archipelago, where the islands are numerous, and not distant from each other. These people all have a general knowledge of the geography of the group, and cannot be many hours after losing sight of their own island before seeing another. One of the men was introduced to us by our shipmate as the father of the young woman for whose sake he had expatriated himself, and who, he was satisfied, as he told me in confidence, meant to marry him at last, though she had formerly played fast and loose with him; for coquetry is to be found the world over, and by no means requires a high degree of civilization for its development. They had landed here only the day before, and their canoe being in process of repair, was not in condition for launching, which accounted for their not coming out to meet us.

      The captain of the brig was of course terribly shocked on landing among us, to learn the tragic fate of his crazy diver, though he naturally supposed he had perished ere this, at sea in the cask. It appeared that before reaching He-ow or Bow Island, to which he was bound when we parted company, the brig met with a heavy squall in the night, was thrown on her beam ends, and split some of her sails, and that in the confusion of the moment, the cask, not being well secured, had "fetched" to leeward, and gone overboard, its loss being hardly noticed until the pressing danger was over. The fury of the squall was soon past, but thick and rainy weather continued, and the cask could not be found, though he had spent a whole day cruising in search of it. Supposing by this time that it must have filled and drowned the poor diver, he gave it up. He then changed his purpose of anchoring at He-ow, and shaped his course for this lagoon, in which he had been successful on a previous voyage, and with which he was well acquainted.

      As the Sagamore was now drawing near us on the inshore tack, we pushed out and made our report of the strange events of the day. Our cruise was nearly up, and as Santa Anna was entitled, by agreement, to his discharge, the old man resolved to take on board the six natives of Chain Island, and touch there to land them. Before night we had them and their canoe on our deck, having buried the remains of the maniac on the islet, and had shaped our course for Anaa. The course of true love seemed likely to run smooth with Santa Anna and his young wah-heeny, and they were both quietly happy on the passage. She had paid her tribute of sorrow to the memory of her other unfortunate admirer, and soon recovered her wonted cheerfulness; for grief, however violently expressed at the moment, is short-lived with this class of people.

      "Our Pocahontas is a buxom looking lass," said Mr. Eldridge. "Her charms of figure are rather of the substantial than the sylph-like order. I don't think she'll pine much with grief, either, at the sad fate of that poor lunatic."

      "No," I replied. "I suppose her conscience feels clear about that matter, and it ought to, if she had never deceived him. She couldn't help it if he saw fit to lose his senses on her account."

      "No, that's true," he returned; "nor she couldn't foresee anything of the kind, either; for I suppose the case is so rare a one among them that she has never heard of one like it before. But they will land at their own home to-morrow, and when Santa Anna gets paid off for his season's work, they'll have tappa enough to start housekeeping in good shape. I mean to give her half a dozen cotton handkerchiefs for a bridal present."

      Some ten years after this, I went ashore among the Chain Islanders, and had little difficulty in recognizing my former shipmate, who was not much changed. But faint indeed were the traces of resemblance to the heroine of the tableau on the coral islet, in the unwieldy matron whom he now presented to me as his wife and the mother of his two children. She had nearly realized her fond husband's beau ideal of female loveliness, having little more outline to her figure than a tossed feather-bed, and was devouring the nauseous "hurrah" at a rate that promised shortly, unless she died of repletion, to make her the very belle of Anaa. Avoiding, of course, all unpleasant reminiscences, I made no allusion to the unfortunate diver who had fallen a victim to his admiration of charms which, at that early day, gave only a distant promise of the perfection now almost realized. But my belief is, that, notwithstanding her close connection with the tragedy which I have related, it had made a much less lasting impression upon her than upon myself, a mere uninterested observer.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: The Rivals: A Romance of the Chain Islands.
Publication: Flag of our Union
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 24, No. 22 (May 29, 1869)
Pages: 348-349