The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 10 (January 1, 1936)
Limited Night Entertainments — Part VIII
He was the most restless of men, and a railway waiting-room at two o'clock in the morning was no place to provide an outlet for his superfluous energies.
He kicked the fire and drummed with his fingers on the mantlepiece; then he set off on a tour of inspection of the furnishings of the room. As he had done this four times already, he had evolved what might be called a routine. He read aloud the regulations regarding rabbits, and the times of the special trains running between Christchurch and Riccarton during Grand National week. He had exhausted the possibilities of these objects together with their ramifications, and he passed without comment to the Shipping Company's poster advertising Island Tours.
“Ever been to the Islands,” he asked, and receiving a negative reply, “well, you've heard a good deal about them, I dare say. All the nice romantic tales that you get from people who have been on pleasure cruises or stopped off a few hours from the mail boats. They tell you about the sunsets, which look all the better for being associated with rum punch. They tell you about the Papenoo and the glass-bottomed boats, and little Marie, who was so agreeable, and if you let them go on they'll probably tell you that they'd like to go back, and end their days listening to the surf and the twanging of guitars, and the nuts coming off the trees.
“They can have it for mine,” he continued, crossing to the fire and lowering himself into a chair, from which his long legs stuck out like the whiskers of a hermit crab.
“Because I once spent several very tiresome months listening to the surf on an island called Honu. Honu means turtle and that island was not much larger than a good sized turtle, but for all that it was neither small nor remote enough to escape the curse of civilisation; I refer to the embarrassment, to which a man may be subjected if he has insufficient means of support. You may think that if he has to be down and out, a man is better to be so on a nice warm beach in the tropics than, say, in Cashel Street, or footing it across the Plains. He is not. From Cashel Street he can at least walk into Colombo Street, and see something different. If he is tramping the country roads there is always the hope that there may be a job at the next house. In a place like Honu there is nothing —no change, no hope, just the everlasting sea-rim, and the beach and the slatting palms. Blue, white and green and, occasionally, the black of Mr. McHardie's pugaree. Mr. McHardie was the missionary, and I very soon began to avoid him, because it was hard to meet a man of my colour in such circumstances; Laroche, the trader too, but not for the same reason. I took to going inland to avoid the village when I wanted to get to the eastern side of the island, and, after a while, I stopped going to the eastern side because it was all the same when I got there—the same blue, white and green. I grew whiskers and my clothes fell to pieces, so I wore a loin cloth and burnt brown like a Kanaka, but I was of far less account than any Kanaka. Had I continued to live on Honu, I suppose I should have come to the stage when it would have been too much trouble to do anything but sit on the beach and scratch myself. I don't know. Things happened before I reached that stage.
“The only ships that came to Honu in the ordinary way were trading schooners and a bug-ridden little steamer called the ‘Thetis,’ and it was customary, the reef passage being a quarter-mile wide and easy to navigate, for them to come straight in as soon as it was daylight and anchor in the lagoon. It made it doubly surprising, therefore, when we awoke one morning and saw what appeared to be a large steam-yacht lying outside the reef. A white-painted ship with a clipper bow—and when the sun came up there was the sparkle of brasswork each time she rolled.
Now Honu regarded the arrival of any sort of vessel as an occasion demanding the observance of certain rites. First of all Laroche's Chinese house-boy chased the pigs out from beneath the billiard table in the Club—a title of courtesy bestowed upon the palm-hut behind the store—then he polished all the seventeen glasses and set them out in rows upon the counter. The native girls stuck flowers behind their ears, and the six outrigger canoes, which were all the island possessed in the way of sea-going craft, were manned ready to escort the visitor through the reef passage.
“We did all these things on this occasion and then found that our ritual had misfired, for the yacht just lay there without a soul showing about her decks, and when the canoes went out, a surly quartermaster armed with a rifle made signs to them to go back home.
“Everyone was naturally incensed at this, and when, towards 10 o'clock a small motor launch was seen to put off from the yacht we were still gathered round the store wondering what to do about it.
“You see, we were no Papeete or Apia with consular offices and so forth. All we had was a Union Jack which Mr. McHardie had hoisted on the mission house, a wireless station which had run out of petrol for its generating plant, and two old Martini rifles in Laroche's store.
“However, the launch was soon within hailing distance of the beach—we had no wharf—and an officer, who page 43 was not very much whiter than his three negro boatmen, stood up and bowed, and began to shout out a message which had evidently been written for him in English.
“‘My Captain conveys his regrets, Senhors, that neither he, nor any of his guests, is able to return your hospitable welcome. You be'old,' he made a dramatic gesture towards the yacht, which we observed had hung out some kind of green ensign, and also hoisted the yellow guarantine flag, ‘you be'old a ship stricken. One of our seamen died only yesterday of what you call small-pox.
“‘We, therefore,' he continued after a pause to refer to his paper, ‘ave placed ourselves in quarantine and request only that we may be allowed to replenish our supply of fresh water which is running low.’
You may be sure that this little speech caused some excitement, and presently a long-distance discussion began as to how they were to get the water off to the yacht without risk of infection.
“Finally it was agreed, the officer apparently had notes on this too, that we should load our six canoes with fresh water in casks and the motor launch would tow them out to the yacht where they would be unloaded and then turned adrift in the lagoon. None of our islanders would be permitted to make the trip to the yacht in the canoes.
“It was well after mid-day by the time the canoes were loaded, and a new complication arose.
“As the day advanced the sky had become overcast—for it was just at the beginning of the rainy season—what wind there had been died away and a leaden surf pounded the reef in a manner that betokened dirty weather. The yacht was rolling heavily, and it was obviously impossible to load the water casks outside. She sounded her whistle and signalled that she was going to make the reef passage
“This manoeuvre gave me the opportunity for which I had been waiting—all eyes were upon the yacht as she moved slowly towards the unbroken water of the passage—nobody noticed me slip down to where the canoes lay, and secrete myself aboard one of them.
“You see I was determined to leave the island of Honu at any cost, even at the risk of smallpox. I thought that once aboard the yacht they would not dare to put me back on shore, indeed, if I were lucky enough, I might be able to get aboard unseen and hide until we were safely at sea.
“There was nobody at all on the deck above my head, and scrambling out from between the casks I stood up, and as the next swell lifted the canoe, swung myself on to the bottom step of the gangway.
“Once on deck I made haste to find a hiding place, for I was in plain view of the men forward should they chance to look my way, to say nothing of any stray passengers who might come strolling round a corner. It struck me as strange that there were no passengers in sight, considering the stifling heat of the afternoon, and stranger still that three doors which I tried were firmly locked. Strange and awkward—for it seemed as though there was no place in that part of the ship in which I could hide.
“I had just about made up my mind to walk boldly forward and had taken a few steps, when I heard a rapping noise and saw a face at one of the deck cabin windows. And a very pretty face it was, too, although at the moment its owner was exceedingly angry or frightened, or both. She was making unmistakable signs and I hurried across and found that the window had been fastened with a patent catch fitted to the outside. I released it and it was jerked violently open from the inside.
“‘Thank God for a breath of fresh air,' said the owner of the face.
“‘It isn't too fresh,' I replied, ‘but if you've been shut up for long, I suppose it smells good enough. What are you doing there?'
“‘I might ask you the same question,' she retorted.
“‘Who, me? I'm a stowaway.'
“She looked at me very hard a moment. ‘You look more like a nature-man or something. Where have you come from?’
“‘Out of a canoe loaded with water casks, and I want to get hidden before they throw me back into it.'
“‘You fool,' she said, ‘get back to wherever you came from before anyone sees you.’
“‘Not a chance,' I replied, ‘I'm not afraid of smallpox.'
“‘Don't try to be funny,' she said angrily. ‘Get back to your boat.’
“‘I will,' I answered boldly, ‘when you tell me how you came to be locked in there from the outside.’
“At this moment voices sounded from the starboard side of the deck, the girl looked at me intently, then—
“‘Can you get through this window?' she asked.
“‘Never mind the buts—quickly—' and whiskers, loin cloth and all—I dived through that cabin window and found myself at the feet of the—well perhaps Honu had warped my judgment—but she certainly looked to me the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. More than that, she had nerve.
“‘Stay on the floor,' she said, and quietly shut the window while footsteps went tramping past. Then she sat down on the bunk and began to question me.page 44
“‘Where are we anchored?'
“‘Two miles off-shore in the lagoon of the island of Honu.'
“‘What about these water canoes—could I get ashore in one?'
“‘You could, but they wouldn't let you land—not with smallpox.' She made an impatient movement.
“‘What is this nonsense about smallpox?'
“‘Well you—I mean there's been a case on board this ship, hasn't there?'
“‘She puckered her brows a moment. ‘So that's what they told you?'
“‘Now listen,' she continued speaking rapidly. ‘This boat belongs to Hallam Jefferies. He's a millionaire, he is, or was, one of the most prominent figures in Californian society, and he's gone completely mad. Two months ago he arranged a pleasure cruise to Hawaii, a homely little affair with only five of us to keep him company, a writer, an actor and his latest wife (an old lady who ordinarily just drives from one bridge party to another), and myself, a professional tennis player. We, all of us, except the old lady, felt that the publicity would do us good, and we all knew Jefferies and each other moderately well before we started. We know him and each other a darn sight too well now, for we never went to Hawaii at all, but down out of the trade routes into Heaven knows what part of the ocean.
“‘You can imagine the state we were in when we realised the truth—that we had to go on cruising indefinitely at the pleasure of a madman who explained that we represented the types of people who were the most destructive to his peace of mind, and it amused him to see us in circumstances so destructive to ours. I don't know but that he is not, at times, the sanest of us—he certainly enjoys our efforts to escape, our bickerings and our hysterical outbursts. At first we tried to get at the officers and crew, but they are all Brazilians, Portugese half-castes and negroes, and completely abject. We tried to reason with Jefferies himself. That was what he enjoyed most. He made elaborate plans to put us ashore, and then upbraided us for being so ungrateful. He made us play bridge, dance, drink his wines and cocktails—tirt with each other—and go on cruising, until our oil fuel runs out—which may be weeks yet.'
“‘Surely,' I said, ‘he must get tired of it himself soon.’
“She bit her lip at this and did not answer for a moment, then—‘We hoped that, too,’ she said, ‘but a complication has arisen. Hitherto Jefferies has kept himself apart from us —forcing us into all kinds of stunts for his amusement, but never descending to our level. Now it seems he wants to join the frolic.
“‘This morning he called us on deck—showed us the island, and told us he was going to anchor. Then he said we were free to go ashore—and stay there if we liked—on one condition—that I marry him. Be married there and then by the little runt of a Captain who can't even speak English.
“‘Perhaps I need hardly tell you that while the other pillars of society were all for it, the idea didn't appeal to me, with the result that Jefferies bowed and smiled in the oily way he has and said “Very well, ladies and gentlemen—I very much regret that until this young lady changes her mind we must continue to cruise”—and he had us all locked up in our cabins until we get away from the land—or—'
“Her voice died away and in the silence I could hear the cargo winch still rattling as they swung the water casks aboard.
“Come on,' I said, starting to my feet, ‘there's still a chance, how do we get out of here?'
“‘The way you came in,' she replied and turning to the window cautiously peered out. ‘All clear,’ she said. I moved across and then hesitated. ‘I hate to mention it,’ I said, ‘but if you have any money you'd better bring it —Honu's a difficult place to get out of without it.'
“She moved towards the gangway and ‘Just a minute,’ said a voice behind us and the girl gave a little gasp —‘Hallam!’
“I spun round and struck at him, but he stepped back and covered me with an automatic pistol. He was a small man, bald headed, and he grinned with a crooked twist to his mouth. ‘I don't seem to recognise you,' he said, ‘but that won't prevent my shooting you if you make a move—who the devil are you and what are you trying to do?'
“‘I'm a British subject, and you're on British territory, and you can't hold this girl against her will.'
“‘You're a dirty sneak, and I'll give you just ten seconds to get over the side and swim back to your God forsaken island.' His face darkened with fury and he took a step forward—a step which brought him within reach of my feet. I grasped the rail behind me and aimed a kick at his wrist. The pistol went off and clattered on the deck. We both dived for it and I got in a short-arm blow which knocked the millionaire off his feet. page 45 I grabbed the pistol, but the sound of the shot roused the men forward, and the second officer, he that had come off in the motor launch, came running aft. I took a shot at him and he dodged aside round the deck house. I heard him go pelting up the ladder to the bridge. Jefferies came at me again, clawing, and foaming at the mouth—I beat him off but dropped the gun. As we scuffled for it, I heard shouting and the tramping of feet. I was too busy with the madman to bother just then. He was mad all right. He screamed like a woman as we rolled about the deck. I managed to get hold of the gun again, and battered him over the head with it—for a moment he lay still.
“I scrambled to my feet, expecting to see us surrounded. To my surprise the deck was deserted—but the shouting was still going on—and the crew forward had left the cargo winch and were knocking the pin out of the shackle that held the anchor chain. The engine room telegraph rang for full speed ahead, and then I understood.
“No need to look up at the black scud flying overhead—or listen to the humming roar that was rising above the confused sounds aboard the yacht, to realise that the leaden surf and menacing stillness of the afternoon had fulfilled their promise. To seaward the horizon had vanished and a black pall was sweeping down on the island of Honu.
“Overside the canoes were breaking away. I yelled to the girl to get down the gangway. The yacht began to gather way as I followed her. A canoe came twisting like a straw in a millstream and we jumped together, and then everything blackened out as the hurricane struck.
“That night was the most amazing and terrifying experience I ever had—and yet it had its romantic and gratifying moments. For ten hours the hurricane raged and then dropped as suddenly as it had begun, and when the dawn broke I found that whatever I might have been yesterday I was on an equal footing with the rest of the community now. We were all homeless, hungry and exceedingly ragged. For awhile the girl and I sat on the beach and watched Lorache, who apparently had only a pair of pyjama trousers to his name. Mr. McHardie and the native population came creeping back. Like land crabs emerging from their burrows they came, by twos and threes from the other side of the island to poke about among the uprooted palms by the shore of the lagoon in the hope of finding some of their belongings.
“But not a thing did they find—for the village had been wiped out as completely as if it had never existed. And so except for a few odds and ends of wreckage, had the yacht.
“The evening before, as the girl and I whirled ashore on the wings of the hurricane, later as we made a perilous, half-drowned landing and staggered among crashing palm trunks and flying sand and spray, to shelter, we saw the white painted ship trying to fight her way to sea. Saw her beaten off her course through the reef passage and the mountainous waves sweep over her as she struck the reef.
“Three days later the ‘Thetis’ called at Honu on her regular trip. Mr. McHardie stayed with his flock to rebuild the palm-hut settlement, but Laroche and the girl and I sailed for Papeete.
“It was a ten day voyage and the ‘Thetis’ was no pleasure-cruiser, but somehow we did not notice the time drag. On the contrary, when the girl saw what I looked like without my whiskers, and we had watched the phosphorescent wake and the old Southern Cross for several nights together, she decided that South Sea cruising was not so bad after all. In fact; we returned eighteen months later on our honeymoon!
They were talking about local industries in the smoke-room of an Auckland Club the other night. “I remember when the first New Zealand tobacco came on the market, nigh upon half-a-century ago,” remarked the ancient mariner smoking the big cherrywood, “the lines included both cut and plug—of sorts—also little smokes called ‘cigarillos’—just a bit of leaf with a filling of ‘cut-up.’ They had a fair sale—for those days—but the manager (an old friend of mine) told me it was the foreign labels he'd had printed and stuck on the boxes that sold them. No use, he said, to offer them as New Zealand made—no one would have looked at them!” What a change the years have wrought! To-day our beautiful New Zealand tobaccos—Cut Plug No. 10 (Bullshead), Navy Cut No. 3 (Bulldog), Cavendish, Riverhead Gold and Desert Gold—require no foreign labels to sell them! They sell at sight, and the demand is always growing. Not only is the quality superb but they're harmless no matter how freely you indulge. They're toasted!*