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Raromi, or, The Maori Chief's Heir

Chapter XVII. The Launch of the Kahawai

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Chapter XVII. The Launch of the Kahawai.

Falconer sat in his little cottage, trying with all his ability to find how to make both ends meet.

His little vessel finished and equipped for sea was the end and aim of his ambition, and he was struggling manfully and painfully in the mazes of bewildering calculations, fearing he should never arrive at the consummation of his hopes.

A thump at the cottage door interrupted these calculations.

The door being pushed open disclosed Scotty, followed by Nivens—old Nivens, he was mostly called—and both of them carrying loads, comprising the whole of the worldly effects of the shipwright.

Old Nivens was a character—an odd one. A cockney, and brought up in London, he had passed a lifetime in all kinds of adventures and hairbreadth escapes. Yet he was active and strong. He was also clear-headed and shrewd, and only needed separation page 112from drink to be a good companion, and do good, honest work.

While the wind whistled and roared outside, Nivens, Scotty, Falconer, and Mrs. Norris—who was a woman with clear views—sat round a roaring fire, and discussed their plans respecting the future.

'I say, skipper,' broke in Nivens, at length, 'I suppose you've laid in a stock o' rum, eh? We can "bowse up the jib" when the work's done, till all's blue.'

'Mrs. Norris keeps the key of the locker,' replied Falconer; 'she deals out the grog.'

'Come along, Mrs. Norris, out with the key,' cried Nivens; 'none o' your six-water grog and a tea-spoon—but a good nipper.'

'Here's the grog,' said Mrs. Norris, putting a small bottle on the table; 'this is the allowance, but it's real rum.'

'You don't drink then?' said the old man, looking round with astonishment.

'No,' said Falconer, 'not a drop for me—I want to keep my head clear for work.'

'Play us something on the concertina,' began Scotty, speaking to Falconer, who tried a jig, to which Scotty began to dance with great spirit.

'That ain't the step,' cried Nivens.

'No! How then? Shew me.'

'Look here, I'll give you the double shuffle, in a brace o' winks.' He stood up to dance.

'Play up, fiddlers!' he shouted.

Falconer brought all his skill to bear on 'Jack's the lad;' and away went Nivens, crossing, doubling, giving page 113toe and heel, with crossed arms, and head thrown back, in real man-o'-war style. He danced with great ease.

'Capital! Hurrah!' shouted Scotty.

Scotty tried another jig.

'That's a bit better like,' said Nivens, taking just a sip of rum and water; 'but your heels are too heavy, old son; a feller's heels must be as light as a feather.'

'Play us something, Nivens, and let me have a try,' added Falconer.

'I can't grind a tune out o' that 'ere wind-bag,' was the reply; 'if I had a flute, or bit o' fife, I'd give you a few "shanties" as 'ud lift your heels for you.'

'I have one,' said Falconer—jumping up to get it—'though I can't play it.'

Nivens took the flute and turned it over and over in silence; then he chuckled to himself.

'This 'ere flute cost money, good money, in its time,' said he; and he undid it, examined it, and put it together again.

When Nivens started with a jig, it electrified everybody, Mrs. Norris included, and sent Scotty and Falconer into uproarious fits of dancing.

Mrs. Norris looked on, nodded, laughed, and tapped her feet, and seemed for once to be happy.

Dog's-ear, since the adventure in the forest, had become intimate with Falconer. He called Falconer, Raromi, his son; and Falconer, on his part, became attached to the old chief, who spent much time at the cottage.

The old chief found out Falconer's plans respecting his new vessel. He had them explained to him.

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'You are my son,' said Dog's-ear; 'take what wood you like at Kai-wara-wara; cut down the trees, the Nga-ti-tama will drag them down for you. We will build Raromi's kaipake, and then we'll sing the toto-waka and drag her down to the water. I have said it.'

'Where shall she be built?' asked Falconer.

'At Kai-wara-wara,' replied Dog's-ear. 'At the entry of the glen, O Raromi—that is the place.'

'That is the place for us,' added Nivens. 'Old Copper-nose is right—right as a trivet!'

Nivens threw himself heart and soul into the work of building Falconer's little coaster. Living with those who treated him kindly, he tried to do his best; and he brought all his resources, all his great experience, to bear upon producing a craft that should do everything but speak, as he phrased it.

'And with nicest skill and art,
Perfect and finished in every part,
A little model the master wrought;
Which should be to the larger plan
What the child is to the man.'

Nivens' little craft was but a model, yet as perfect as he could make it. Of only fourteen tons, yet built to brave the stormy seas round Cape Terawiti, to run to Ahuriri on the east, or Taranaki on the west.

This will not be surprising, however, when it is known that craft of seven tons only1 engaged in the coast trade afterwards; craft that weathered many a storm of wind and rain. More surprising than this even is the fact page 115that men engaged in shore-whaling often took their open whaleboats across Cook's Straits in bad weather; often ran out to sea when it blew hard, and fastened to, and killed whales, where ordinary boatmen would never venture, nor ever dream of venturing.

It took all Mrs. Norris's skill, however, and all Falconer's courage and unflinching perseverance to carry on the building of the vessel with so few resources at his command, living principally on the produce of his partly-tilled land, and often pinched for food and funds.

Dog's-ear was delighted and astonished, as he walked round and surveyed the, to him, noble craft, as she stood in the yard completed as regards the hull. His tribe became so excited that they began a wild dance, and they went in a body and begged Raromi to fasten ropes to his little craft, that they might drag her down to the sea, as they did their war canoes, singing a toto-waka—a hauling song.

The evening before the launch, when all were talking and laughing together in the cottage, Nivens exclaimed suddenly, 'Why, Falconer, we've forgotten the name.'

'Yes; what shall her name be?' was the enquiry.

'The Kahawai,' replied Falconer. 'It's a good name, and if she slips through the water like a kahawai, I shall be satisfied.'

'Mark my words, Falconer,' added Nivens, 'that boat will sail well. She'll turn to wind'ard like a Deal lugger, and heave-to in a sea way like a Ramsgate trawler.'

His words came true. But Falconer little dreamt how his Kahawai would be proved, nor under what circumstances.

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When at length the Kahawai slid down the ways, and slipped into the sea like a duck, shooting out well, as if she meant to have a race on her own account, the assembled Maoris gave the wildest whoops and cut the fiercest antics of which they were capable; while Nivens and Scotty, being Englishmen, gave three hearty cheers, and went on board the Kahawai to join Falconer.

The Kahawai had been safely moored off-shore, and the three builders stood on shore admiring her, when Nivens roared out, 'The-ere she blows!'

'There again!' he cried out, greatly excited, as all whalers are when a whale is in sight; and then rushed to the dinghey.

'We must go after the whale,' said Scotty, 'and take Nivens, or we shall lose him.'

'Come along, then,' added Falconer. 'We'll take the whaleboat and a scratch crew. A good fifty-barrel sperm would put us on our feet at once.'

The whale had found its way into the harbour, and was quietly amusing itself, not having found out it was almost a prisoner.

'Jump in, lads!' cried Nivens. 'I'm "headsman"; Falconer "steerer"—I'll lay you on to a affy-graffy.'

The 'irons' and a good lance were placed ready, the whale-lines attached to the harpoon coiled down with great care, and the axe at hand to cut the line if it fouled—to prevent being dragged down. And five pair of strong arms sent the boat flying into the open harbour.

But other boats had put off. Half the sailors in the page 117place were whalermen; and the sight of a whale blowing was to them like the cry, Tally-ho! to a hunter—it stirred their blood as nothing else could do.

'What shall we do, Nivens?' was asked. Nivens was turning over a quid in silence.

'It's no use to fasten-on helter-skelter like,' was the reply. 'No; that won't do in this 'ere harbour.'

'There, see; Bill Green is fastened; but he'll have to cut away agin.'

Nivens was right. The whale 'sounded,' but finding the water shallow became alarmed, and flew about so wildly—made such sharp turns—that the boat fastened to the whale had to cut adrift again.

'Give way, lads! I see what's the game.'

Nivens steered straight across the harbour to the entrance—about a mile across. He then breathed his men, and told them to get ready for a 'spin.'

Whalers are the finest boat-racers in the world. Not only are their races for speed, but they are often of such length as would utterly exhaust the fine rowers at Putney and elsewhere.

I once saw two whaleboats row a race at Auckland on the Waitemata. The course was some five miles each way. It was rowed without a rest, and the crews came in neck and neck, and had to row the race again the next day.

The whale made a dart, and got into the wide entrance to the harbour, into deep water.

'Give way!' And Nivens' boat got outside; and the whale too; then, finding room, it took a rest.

Just then a strange boat shot out from the east side page 118of the harbour, and there was a race between the two boats; the whale rolling about meanwhile, and spouting at ease.

'He's fust, arter all!' cried Nivens, stamping with vexation, and throwing his quid away—but he was wrong.

'Never mind; keep your eye open, Falconer; and give the "iron" sharp when I cry out.'

'It's a rum crew,' said Nivens, speaking of the other boat. 'Who are they? Ah, missed! No! The headsman has jumped for'ard. He handles the "iron" (harpoon) beeutifully—they're fast!'

The harpooner missed the whale. This so enraged the headsman steering (he steers until killing time comes), that he jumped forward and lanced a harpoon with such precision as to gain Nivens' applause. But the boat swung round too much.

Down went the ponderous head! Round swept the enormous tail with fearful force on one side!—on that side was the strange boat!

Crash! went the tail into the boat. The fore part of it was smashed!

'Smashed up!' said Nivens, coolly. 'Give way, and pick up the hands.'

Nivens' crew gave a few sweeping strokes, and the boat was in the midst of the wreck. Three men were picked up at once.

'Where's Charlie? And Long Bill?' was the cry.

'There! There he is!'

The boat was now alongside some débris, out of which a poor fellow was drawn very carefully, for he was helpless and insensible. The other man was seen nowhere. page 119Search as they might, and did, he was never found—never seen more!

'I'll steer home,' said Falconer, 'and look after the wounded man.'

Nivens took the bow oar, and with lusty strokes the crew forced the whaleboat homewards.

'What, "gallied" (frightened), old tub-thumper?' shouted one of the Bar gang to Falconer, as the two boats passed each other.

'No! We've picked up the hands of a boat, smashed at the Heads—one hand badly hurt—we're running him home for the doctor.'

The wounded man moaned and moved uneasily. Falconer gave him some rum and water, which he drank eagerly; then he covered him up.

Falconer stood up steering (as whalers do), and looking down, saw the wounded man's left hand had slipped over at his feet, palm uppermost. He stooped to put it gently aside—there was the old scar right across the palm!

'It's Black Charlie!' said Falconer to himself.

'Poor mother!' said he, 'I am indeed bringing him home to you—but how? Shall I reveal him?

'No! not now. Let her find out the secret. When she has found it out, she will be prepared for it.'

1 1 I knew a craft of seven tons which was blown out into the Western Ocean for a week in a gale of wind; she returned in safety to Port Nic.