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19th Century American Whaling

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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXXI, No. 1 (Jan 1870)
pp. 53-56.

Ballou's Monthly Magazine. 53

. . . .



My watchmate Harry Langley and I went on shore one Sunday afternoon, our ship lying moored in the beautiful bay of Papeete, in the island of Tahiti. It was soon after its occupation by the French under the reign of Louis Philippe, and the raising of the protectorate flag over the territory of a people as yet partially unsubdued. Some mountain tribes still held out against the invaders; though the sovereign Pomare had submitted to necessity, retaining an empty title; a crown without a sceptre.

      The little shops and cabarets which had sprung up under the new regime were all open, for Sunday appeared to be the liveliest day of the week. Soldiers in gay uniforms were sauntering idly under the shade of the cocoa-palms, or singing in the little places of resort, hob-nob with sailors in white frocks from La Sirene frigate, moored in the bay. The sons of the soil, for the most part thoughtful and sullen, were also to be met with in considerable numbers; while the native women, their shining black hair encircled with bright-colored wreaths, mingled freely with the Frenchmen, seemingly ready to hug their chains – and their jailors, as well.

      Having disposed of a bottle of vin ordinaire, after the fashion of our own country, by perpendicular drinks, instead of spending an hour or two in sipping it, like the soldiers seated at the little tables near by, we started for a stroll, out of town. We intended to return by sundown, as at that hour, the regimental bands, reinforced by the musicians from the frigate, were to begin their evening concert in the park fronting the governor's mansion.

      We soon passed out of the stir and bustle of Papeete, and settled into a slow, leisurely walk, occasionally meeting and passing a soldier or two, more rarely a native, stopping frequently to admire the beauty and luxuriance of the scene, or to knock down an orange from its tree, and to suck the refreshing juice. We rambled on further than we had intended at starting, and coming to a retired spot, where the shade was invitingly cool, threw ourselves down for a rest.

      I had closed my eyes, and was fast losing my consciousness of surrounding objects, when I was roused by the voice of Langley.

54 Under Suspicion.

      "That young fellow must be practising for the stage," said he.

      I raised my head upon my arm, and followed the direction of my friend's glance, down the vista formed by the trees which grew in open order. Some two hundred yards from us, an officer, in the uniform of the "Infanterie de la Marine," was pacing back and forth under the trees, with drawn sword, making passes at empty air. Now and then he stopped and struck an attitude, plying his weapon with great skill and spirit, as if fighting an imaginary opponent. He did not appear to be aware of our vicinity, and, with a curiosity quite natural under the circumstances, we rose with one accord for a nearer view.

      By dint of Indian tactics, skirmishing in range of the largest trees, we managed to approach within fifty yards or less, and again ensconced ourselves in a position to see without being seen. The officer, a mere stripling, with beardless cheek and slender figure, still continued his performance or rehearsal, or whatever it might be, accompanied by words doubtless suited to the action. But so limited was our knowledge of the French language, that neither of us was much the wiser for this soliloquy.

      "Mad as a March hare," I whispered to Langley.

      "I hope not," he replied, "for if he should get sight at us, he might give chase. 'Twouldn't be pleasant to look at that shining small-sword over one's shoulder. But I don't believe he is quite a madman – only a Frenchman."

      "But here comes another!" said I. "Lie close."

      The young soldier put up his sword and advanced to meet the new comer, who was habited in naval uniform, as an aspirant or midshipman. He was also a young man, scarcely older than the other, though stouter in frame, and with a deeper tinge of bronze in his cheek.

      The two saluted each other politely, though not cordially; and, after exchanging a few words in a low tone, drew and measured swords. They then took their stands, confronting each other, and, as the weapons crossed, the expression in their set faces told the object of their meeting. They were, indeed, Frenchmen; but neither actors nor maniacs.

      "It's a duel to the death!" I whispered to my shipmate.

      "And we are the only witnesses. Strange that they should meet without seconds."

      "It's a secret affair, of course. They are forbidden to fight, and have stolen away to meet here alone, by appointment."

      "Hadn't we better show ourselves, and volunteer to see fair play?"

      "No," said I. "If they want to fight, I'm not going to interrupt them. And I must confess, I've a curiosity to see a live duel, though it seems a pity that one, perhaps both, of these fine young follows may be spitted like a robin, before our eyes, in a very few minutes."

      "Hush! they're beginning to play," said Langley. "It's too late to move now, we might be the means of killing one of them, by throwing him off his guard."

      By this time we had eyes and ears for nothing but the fight. With suspended breath we watched the agile movements of the combatants, and the flash of their deadly weapons in full play. They appeared to be very equally matched in respect of skill, and after a rapid succession of passes, they fell back for a momentary rest without having drawn blood.

      "We might enter on the stage, now," said Langley, "and save a fool's life – perhaps two."

      "No," said I. "It's only postponing the matter – they would meet again. Let them fight it out."

      For neither my comrade nor I entertained for a moment the idea of turning informer to prevent a second meeting of the fiery youths. Such a course would have been foreign to all the teachings of our seaman's creed. Besides, I must plead guilty to a full share of curiosity to see the result of the duel. I was a victim of that fascination by which all men are more or less affected in similar cases.

      Again the ringing sound of steel broke the stillness, as the duellists attacked each other with even greater vigor than before. But the superior strength and endurance of the naval officer now began to tell in his favor. He was also cooler and more wary than his antagonist, who, as he lost wind, also lost caution, and exposed himself to a deadly thrust. Too late I regretted that I had looked passively on to see a fellow-creature slaughtered, when I might have postponed, and perhaps prevented it. I can never forget the sickening feeling I experienced, as I saw the lifeblood of the young soldier dyeing the grass, while the sword dropped from his powerful grasp. A swaying motion of the body; a dull thud upon the grass; and the fight was

Under Suspicion. 55

over. The survivor carefully wiped the traces from his weapon; cast a look more in sorrow than in anger upon his late foe; and disappeared rapidly in the direction of Papeete.

      Langley and I, still obeying the fascination which had held us to the spot, approached the body as soon as the midshipman had passed out of sight. With a shudder I looked down into the young face, set in death, and still distorted in angry passion. I stooped over him and opened the breast of his coat, revealing the fatal wound from which the blood was oozing. His own sword lay where it had fallen, partly under his body. My shipmate pulled it out, thickly stained, with the blood of its unfortunate owner only, for his opponent had escaped without a scratch.

      We were both so absorbed that we had not observed the approach of a corporal and a file of soldiers, fully armed, as if coming in from some outpost or picket station. They were close upon us before we were aware of their presence, and we were seized, before we could think of either resistance or escape. We were both crouching over the body, I adjusting the coat upon the breast, with one hand inside, as if in the act of rifling the pockets, and Langley overlooking the operation with the bloody sword still in his hand. To explain the matter was out of the question, as they understood even less of our tongue than we did of theirs.

      One man was left to guard the body until the proper officers should be sent to examine it, and we two innocent seamen were marched into town, and delivered up at the provost-marshal's headquarters, charged with murder and robbery. We were not even allowed the opportunity of conferring together, but placed in separate cells at the guard-house.

      We were arraigned the next morning before a semi-military court of investigation. Our captain was present to see and hear, if not to understand; and an interpreter was provided, to make known to us the charge of which we were accused, as well as to translate our statements in reply to it. The corporal was summoned as the principal witness, and testified to the manner in which he had found the body of the sous-lieutenant Gautier, with the two men stooping over it. He told how he saw me, with my hand, as he supposed, in the breast-pocket of the deceased, and my shipmate, Langley, still holding the bloody weapon with which the deed must have been done. His statement was, of course, fully corroborated by those of his men.

      The sword taken from Langley was found to fit the wound. It was identified by the comrades of Gautier as his own, and the opinion was expressed in court that we must have taken it from his side while he was sleeping. It appeared in evidence that his pocket-book and other little matters were found safe on his person; but this was not worth much in our favor. The natural inference was, that we had been surprised and arrested before we had time to complete the robbery.

      Langley and I were kept at opposite sides of the room, to prevent the possibility of collusion, and were now called upon, one at a time, for our own statements of the affair. Of course they agreed exactly, inasmuch as each told the whole truth.

      "This story may be true," said the presiding officer of the court "At all events, the prisoners must have every chance to sift it to the bottom, that justice may be done. Could you recognize the man who, as you say, fought this duel with Gautier?" he demanded, addressing me through the interpreter.

      I thought I could; and my shipmate, in reply to the same question, was equally confident. A note was written and sent off at once, summoning all the midshipmen of La Sirene to appear in court.

      Some five or six came on shore and were confronted with us, but we were obliged to confess, without hesitation, that we had never seen either of them before.

      We learned, however, that a boat expedition had been sent away during the night on secret service, and that two midshipmen were among the officers in charge of it. One of these two might, perhaps, be our man; and we were remanded to the guard-house to await their return.

      But our captain was allowed to confer with us while in court; and, by a little management on his part, we learned the names of the two absent officers – Delavigne and Rigaud. This was done at Langley's suggestion, though I was at a loss to know of what consequence it could be to him.

      "Rigaud is our man," he whispered, as soon as he heard the two names.

      "How do you know that?" I asked, in surprise.

      "I have something to prove it, but I cannot show it to you here. I am sorry to inform upon him, as he will probably be dismissed the service in disgrace, if he does not meet with any other punishment. But I see

56 Tried by Fire.

no way to get ourselves out of the scrape unless by getting him into it"

      We had no time for further words, but were conducted again to our separate quarters. I was left to wonder at my shipmate's meaning, until another day cleared up the mystery.

      My door was thrown open, and, still guarded, I was conducted to the military hospital, where, by a gesture, my attention was directed to a wounded officer stretched upon a couch. A single glance was enough; and I signified to the interpreter that the duellist was before us. I passed on, and Langley, who came directly behind me, also recognized Rigaud at once. He had, it seems, been mortally wounded in a skirmish with a hostile party of natives at Tiarei, while on duty in one of the frigate's boats. He opened his eyes at the noise made by our party, and made some, inquiry of the surgeon who stood at his side. When informed of the reason of our being brought to the hospital, he raised himself in his bed, in spite of the surgeon's remonstrance against his making the exertion. He explained the matter in French to all present, then addressing us, somewhat to our surprise, in fluent English, "Boys," said he, "you need not go further to prove your innocence; for, as you suppose, I am the man who killed Lieutenant Gautier. It does not matter to explain to you the cause of quarrel between us, but, under the code of honor, as understood among military men, I could not avoid fighting him. He insisted upon a duel without seconds or witnesses. I have but a few hours to live, and I am glad to know that you were present and saw the whole affair. It to well that I have fallen honorably in my country's service, and thus escaped disgrace and expulsion. Fortunately, I have lived long enough to establish your innocence of the charge of murder; and I trust you are ready to testify that Gautier was killed in fair fight, standing an equal chance with myself."

      The sufferer fell back exhausted upon his bed, from which he never rose again. Almost his last words of consciousness were those addressed to us.

      Langley produced a gold ring which he had picked up on the sward by the body of Gautier. Inside the ring was engraved the name "A. Rigaud." He handed this to the dying man, who recognized it and returned it to my comrade, with a sign that he should keep it.

      The dying words of the young midshipman, spoken in the hearing of so many witnesses, of course satisfied every one of our innocence. We both signed and swore to a full statement of the circumstances of the duel, and returned to our ship, speculating upon what might have been our fate had Rigaud died before having seen us.

      Langley still preserves the marked ring as a memento of this strange incident; and the two young Frenchmen sleep side by side beneath the shade of the cocoa-palms at Papeete.

. . . .


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Under Suspicion.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 31, No. 1 (Jan 1870)
Pages: 53-56