The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne

Chapter Twenty Five.

The Sandal-Wood Party — Native Children’s Games Somewhat Surprising — Desperate Amusements Suddenly and Fatally Brought To a Close — An Old Friend Recognised — News — Romata’s Mad Conduct.

Next day the wood-cutting party went ashore again, and I accompanied them as before. During the dinner-hour I wandered into the woods alone, being disinclined for food that day. I had not rambled far when I found myself unexpectedly on the seashore, having crossed a narrow neck of land which separated the native village from a large bay. Here I found a party of the islanders busy with one of their war-canoes, which was almost ready for launching. I stood for a long time watching this party with great interest, and observed that they fastened the timbers and planks to each other very much in the same way in which I had seen Jack fasten those of our little boat. But what surprised me most was its immense length, which I measured carefully, and found to be a hundred feet long; and it was so capacious that it could have held three hundred men. It had the unwieldy outrigger and enormously high stern-posts which I had remarked on the canoe that came to us while I was on the Coral Island. Observing some boys playing at games a short way along the beach, I resolved to go and watch them; but as I turned from the natives who were engaged so busily and cheerfully at their work, I little thought of the terrible event that hung on the completion of that war-canoe.

Advancing towards the children, who were so numerous that I began to think this must be the general playground of the village, I sat down on a grassy bank under the shade of a plantain-tree to watch them. And a happier or more noisy crew I have never seen. There were at least two hundred of them, both boys and girls, all of whom were clad in no other garments than their own glossy little black skins, except the maro, or strip of cloth, round the loins of the boys, and a very short petticoat or kilt on the girls. They did not all play at the same game, but amused themselves in different groups.

One band was busily engaged in a game exactly similar to our blind man’s buff. Another set were walking on stilts, which raised the children three feet from the ground. They were very expert at this amusement, and seldom tumbled. In another place I observed a group of girls standing together, and apparently enjoying themselves very much; so I went up to see what they were doing, and found that they were opening their eyelids with their fingers till their eyes appeared of an enormous size, and then thrusting pieces of straw between the upper and lower lids, across the eyeball, to keep them in that position! This seemed to me, I must confess, a very foolish as well as dangerous amusement. Nevertheless, the children seemed to be greatly delighted with the hideous faces they made. I pondered this subject a good deal, and thought that if little children knew how silly they seemed to grown-up people when, they make faces, they would not be so fond of doing it. In another place were a number of boys engaged in flying kites; and I could not help wondering that some of the games of those little savages should be so like to our own, although they had never seen us at play. But the kites were different from ours in many respects, being of every variety of shape. They were made of very thin cloth, and the boys raised them to a wonderful height in the air by means of twine made from the cocoa-nut husk. Other games there were, some of which showed the natural depravity of the hearts of these poor savages, and made me wish fervently that missionaries might be sent out to them. But the amusement which the greatest number of the children of both sexes seemed to take chief delight in was swimming and diving in the sea, and the expertness which they exhibited was truly amazing. They seemed to have two principal games in the water, one of which was to dive off a sort of stage which had been erected near a deep part of the sea, and chase each other in the water. Some of them went down to an extraordinary depth; others skimmed along the surface, or rolled over and over like porpoises, or diving under each other, came up unexpectedly and pulled each other down by a leg or an arm. They never seemed to tire of this sport, and from the great heat of the water in the South Seas, they could remain in it nearly all day without feeling chilled. Many of these children were almost infants, scarce able to walk; yet they staggered down the beach, flung their round, fat little black bodies fearlessly into deep water, and struck out to sea with as much confidence as ducklings.

The other game to which I have referred was swimming in the surf. But as this is an amusement in which all engage, from children of ten to grey-headed men of sixty, and as I had an opportunity of witnessing it in perfection the day following, I shall describe it more minutely.

I suppose it was in honour of their guest that this grand swimming-match was got up, for Romata came and told the captain that they were going to engage in it, and begged him to “come and see.”

“What sort of amusement is this surf-swimming?” I inquired of Bill as we walked together to a part of the shore on which several thousands of the natives were assembled.

“It’s a very favourite lark with these ‘xtr’or’nary critters,” replied Bill, giving a turn to the quid of tobacco that invariably bulged out of his left cheek. “Ye see, Ralph, them fellows take to the water as soon a’most as they can walk, an’ long before they can do that anything respectably, so that they are as much at home in the sea as on the land. Well, ye see, I ‘spose they found swimmin’ for miles out to sea, and divin’ fathoms deep, wasn’t excitin’ enough, so they invented this game o’ swimmin’ on the surf. Each man and boy, as you see, has got a short board or plank, with which he swims out for a mile or more to sea, and then, gettin’ on the top o’ yon thunderin’ breaker, they come to shore on the top of it, yellin’ and screechin’ like fiends. It’s a marvel to me that they’re not dashed to shivers on the coral reef, for sure an’ sart’in am I that if any o’ us tried it, we wouldn’t be worth the fluke of a broken anchor after the wave fell. But there they go!”

As he spoke, several hundreds of the natives, amongst whom we were now standing, uttered a loud yell, rushed down the beach, plunged into the surf, and were carried off by the seething foam of the retreating wave.

At the point where we stood, the encircling coral reef joined the shore, so that the magnificent breakers, which a recent stiff breeze had rendered larger than usual, fell in thunder at the feet of the multitudes who lined the beach. For some time the swimmers continued to strike out to sea, breasting over the swell like hundreds of black seals. Then they all turned, and watching an approaching billow, mounted its white crest, and each laying his breast on the short, flat board, came rolling towards the shore, careering on the summit of the mighty wave, while they and the onlookers shouted and yelled with excitement. Just as the monster wave curled in solemn majesty to fling its bulky length upon the beach, most of the swimmers slid back into the trough behind; others, slipping off their boards, seized them in their hands, and plunging through the watery waste, swam out to repeat the amusement; but a few, who seemed to me the most reckless, continued their career until they were launched upon the beach and enveloped in the churning foam and spray. One of these last came in on the crest of the wave most manfully, and landed with a violent bound almost on the spot where Bill and I stood. I saw by his peculiar head-dress that he was the chief whom the tribe entertained as their guest. The sea-water had removed nearly all the paint with which his face had been covered, and as he rose panting to his feet, I recognised, to my surprise, the features of Tararo, my old friend of the Coral Island!

Tararo at the same moment recognised me, and advancing quickly, took me round the neck and rubbed noses, which had the effect of transferring a good deal of the moist paint from his nose to mine. Then, recollecting that this was not the white man’s mode of salutation, he grasped me by the hand and shook it violently.

“Hallo, Ralph!” cried Bill in surprise, “that chap seems to have taken a sudden fancy to you, or he must be an old acquaintance.”

“Right, Bill,” I replied; “he is indeed an old acquaintance.” And I explained, in a few words, that he was the chief whose party Jack and Peterkin and I had helped to save.

Tararo having thrown away his surf-board, entered into an animated conversation with Bill, pointing frequently during the course of it to me, whereby I concluded he must be telling him about the memorable battle and the part we had taken in it. When he paused I begged of Bill to ask him about the woman Avatea, for I had some hope that she might have come with Tararo on this visit. “And ask him,” said I, “who she is, for I am persuaded she is of a different race from the Feejeeans.” On the mention of her name the chief frowned darkly, and seemed to speak with much anger.

“You’re right, Ralph,” said Bill when the chief had ceased to talk; “she’s not a Feejee girl, but a Samoan. How she ever came to this place the chief does not very clearly explain; but he says she was taken in war, and that he got her three years ago, an’ kept her as his daughter ever since. Lucky for her, poor girl, else she’d have been roasted and eaten like the rest.”

“But why does Tararo frown and look so angry?” said I.

“Because the girl’s somewhat obstinate, like most o’ the sex, an’ won’t marry the man he wants her to. It seems that a chief of some other island came on a visit to Tararo and took a fancy to her; but she wouldn’t have him on no account, bein’ already in love, and engaged to a young chief whom Tararo hates, and she kicked up a desperate shindy. So, as he was goin’ on a war-expedition in his canoe, he left her to think about it, sayin’ he’d be back in six months or so, when he hoped she wouldn’t be so obstropolous. This happened just a week ago; an’ Tararo says that if she’s not ready to go, when the chief returns, as his bride, she’ll be sent to him as a long pig.”

“As a long pig!” I exclaimed in surprise. “Why, what does he mean by that?”

“He means somethin’ very unpleasant,” answered Bill with a frown. “You see, these blackguards eat men an’ women just as readily as they eat pigs; and as baked pigs and baked men are very like each other in appearance, they call men long pigs. If Avatea goes to this fellow as a long pig, it’s all up with her, poor thing!”

“Is she on the island now?” I asked eagerly.

“No; she’s at Tararo’s island.”

“And where does it lie?”

“About fifty or sixty miles to the south’ard o’ this,” returned Bill; “but I—”

At this moment we were startled by the cry of “mao! mao — a shark! a shark!” which was immediately followed by a shriek that rang clear and fearfully loud above the tumult of cries that arose from the savages in the water and on the land. We turned hastily towards the direction whence the cry came, and had just time to observe the glaring eyeballs of one of the swimmers as he tossed his arms in the air. Next instant he was pulled under the waves. A canoe was instantly launched, and the hand of the drowning man was caught; but only half of his body was dragged from the maw of the monster, which followed the canoe until the water became so shallow that it could scarcely swim. The crest of the next billow was tinged with red as it rolled towards the shore.

In most countries of the world this would have made a deep impression on the spectators; but the only effect it had upon these islanders was to make them hurry with all speed out of the sea, lest a similar fate should befall some of the others. But so utterly reckless were they of human life that it did not for a moment suspend the progress of their amusements. It is true the surf-swimming ended for that time somewhat abruptly, but they immediately proceeded with other games. Bill told me that sharks do not often attack the surf-swimmers, being frightened away by the immense numbers of men and boys in the water, and by the shouting and splashing that they make. “But,” said he, “such a thing as you have seen just now don’t frighten them much. They’ll be at it again tomorrow or next day, just as if there wasn’t a single shark between Feejee and Nova Zembla.”

After this the natives had a series of wrestling and boxing matches; and being men of immense size and muscle, they did a good deal of injury to each other, especially in boxing, in which not only the lower orders but several of the chiefs and priests engaged. Each bout was very quickly terminated; for they did not pretend to a scientific knowledge of the art, and wasted, no time in sparring, but hit straight out at each other’s heads, and their blows were delivered with great force. Frequently one of the combatants was knocked down with a single blow, and one gigantic fellow hit his adversary so severely that he drove the skin entirely off his forehead. This feat was hailed with immense applause by the spectators.

During these exhibitions, which were very painful to me, though I confess I could not refrain from beholding them, I was struck with the beauty of many of the figures and designs that were tattooed on the persons of the chiefs and principal men. One figure, that seemed to me very elegant, was that of a palm-tree tattooed on the back of a man’s leg, the roots rising, as it were, from under his heel, the stem ascending the tendon of the ankle, and the graceful head branching out upon the calf. I afterwards learned that this process of tattooing is very painful, and takes long to do, commencing at the age of ten, and being continued at intervals up to the age of thirty. It is done by means of an instrument made of bone, with a number of sharp teeth, with which the skin is punctured. Into these punctures a preparation made from the kernel of the candle-nut, mixed with cocoa-nut oil, is rubbed, and the mark thus made is indelible. The operation is performed by a class of men whose profession it is, and they tattoo as much at a time as the person on whom they are operating can bear, which is not much, the pain and inflammation caused by tattooing being very great — sometimes causing death. Some of the chiefs were tattooed with an ornamental stripe down the legs, which gave them the appearance of being clad in tights; others had marks round the ankles and insteps, which looked like tight-fitting and elegant boots. Their faces were also tattooed, and their breasts were very profusely marked with every imaginable species of device — muskets, dogs, birds, pigs, clubs, and canoes, intermingled with lozenges, squares, circles, and other arbitrary figures.

The women were not tattooed so much as the men, having only a few marks on their feet and arms. But I must say, however objectionable this strange practice may be, it nevertheless had this good effect — that it took away very much from their appearance of nakedness.

Next day, while we were returning from the woods to our schooner, we observed Romata rushing about in the neighbourhood of his house, apparently mad with passion.

“Ah!” said Bill to me, “there he’s at his old tricks again. That’s his way when he gets drink. The natives make a sort of drink o’ their own, and it makes him bad enough; but when he gets brandy he’s like a wild tiger. The captain, I suppose, has given him a bottle, as usual, to keep him in good-humour. After drinkin’ he usually goes to sleep, and the people know it well, and keep out of his way for fear they should waken him. Even the babies are taken out of earshot; for when he’s waked up he rushes out, just as you see him now, and spears or clubs the first person he meets.”

It seemed at the present time, however, that no deadly weapon had been in his way, for the infuriated chief was raging about without one. Suddenly he caught sight of an unfortunate man who was trying to conceal himself behind a tree. Rushing towards him, Romata struck him a terrible blow on the head, which knocked out the poor man’s eye and also dislocated the chief’s finger. The wretched creature offered no resistance; he did not even attempt to parry the blow. Indeed, from what Bill said, I found that he might consider himself lucky in having escaped with his life, which would certainly have been forfeited had the chief been possessed of a club at the time.

“Have these wretched creatures no law among themselves,” said I, “which can restrain such wickedness?”

“None,” replied Bill. “The chief’s word is law. He might kill and eat a dozen of his own subjects any day for nothing more than his own pleasure, and nobody would take the least notice of it.”

This ferocious deed took place within sight of our party as we wended our way to the beach, but I could not observe any other expression on the faces of the men than that of total indifference or contempt. It seemed to me a very awful thing that it should be possible for men to come to such hardness of heart and callousness to the sight of bloodshed and violence; but, indeed, I began to find that such constant exposure to scenes of blood was having a slight effect upon myself, and I shuddered when I came to think that I too was becoming callous.

I thought upon this subject much that night while I walked up and down the deck during my hours of watch, and I came to the conclusion that if I, who hated, abhorred, and detested such bloody deeds as I had witnessed within the last few weeks, could so soon come to be less sensitive about them, how little wonder that these poor, ignorant savages, who were born and bred in familiarity therewith, should think nothing of them at all, and should hold human life in so very slight esteem!

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31