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   Chapter 2 No.2

The Adventures of Louis de Rougemont By Louis de Rougemont Characters: 31474

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The three black pearls-The fatal morning-Jensen and his flotilla drift away-Alone on the ship-"Oil on the troubled waters"-A substitute for a rudder-Smoke signals-The whirlpool-The savages attack-I escape from the blacks-A strange monster-The Veielland strikes a reef-Stone deaf through the big wave-I leap into the sea-How Bruno helped me ashore-The dreary island-My raft-A horrible discovery.

This adventure made our Malay crew very anxious to leave these regions. They had not forgotten the octopus incident either, and they now appointed their serang to wait upon the captain-a kind of "one-man" deputation-to persuade him, if possible, to sail for fresh fishing-grounds. At first Jensen tried to persuade them to remain in the same latitudes, which is not to be wondered at, seeing the harvest he had secured; but they would not listen to this, and at last he was compelled to direct his ship towards some other quarter. Where he took us to I cannot say, but in the course of another week we dropped anchor in some practically unexplored pearling grounds, and got to work once more. Our luck was still with us, and we continued increasing every day the value of our already substantial treasure. In these new grounds we found a particularly small shell very rich in pearls, which required no diving for at all. They were secured by means of a trawl or scoop dragged from the stern of the lifeboat; and when the tide was low the men jumped into the shallow water and picked them up at their ease.

One morning, as I was opening the shells as usual, out from one dropped three magnificent black pearls. I gazed at them, fascinated-why, I know not. Ah! those terrible three black pearls; would to God they had never been found! When I showed them to the captain he became very excited, and said that, as they were worth nearly all the others put together, it would be well worth our while trying to find more like them. Now, this meant stopping at sea longer than was either customary or advisable. The pearling season was practically at an end, and the yearly cyclonic changes were actually due, but the captain had got the "pearl fever" very badly and flatly refused to leave. Already we had made an enormous haul, and in addition to the stock in my charge Jensen had rows of pickle bottles full of pearls in his cabin, which he would sit and gloat over for hours like a miser with his gold. He kept on saying that there must be more of these black pearls to be obtained; the three we had found could not possibly be isolated specimens and so on. Accordingly, we kept our divers at work day after day as usual. Of course, I did not know much about the awful dangers to which we were exposing ourselves by remaining out in such uncertain seas when the cyclones were due; and I did not, I confess, see any great reason why we should not continue pearling. I was inexperienced, you see.

The pearl-fishing season, as I afterwards learned, extends from November to May. Well, May came and went, and we were still hard at work, hoping that each day would bring another haul of black pearls to our store of treasure; in this, however, we were disappointed. And yet the captain became more determined than ever to find some. He continued to take charge of the whale-boat whenever the divers went out to work, and he personally superintended their operations. He knew very well that he had already kept them at work longer than he ought to have done, and it was only by a judicious distribution of more jewellery, pieces of cloth, &c., that he withheld them from openly rebelling against the extended stay. The serang told him that if the men did once go on strike, nothing would induce them to resume work, they would simply sulk, he said; and die out of sheer disappointment and pettishness. So the captain was compelled to treat them more amiably than usual. At the very outside their contract would only be for nine months. Sometimes when he showed signs of being in a cantankerous mood because the haul of shells did not please him, the serang would say to him defiantly, "Come on; take it out of me if you are not satisfied." But Jensen never accepted the challenge. As the days passed, I thought the weather showed indications of a change; for one thing, the aneroid began jumping about in a very uneasy manner. I called Jensen's attention to the matter, but he was too much interested in his hunt for black pearls to listen to me.

And now I pass to the fatal day that made me an outcast from civilisation for so many weary years. Early one morning in July 1864, Jensen went off as usual with the whole of his crew, leaving me absolutely alone in charge of the ship. The women had often accompanied the divers on their expeditions, and did so on this occasion, being rather expert at the work, which they looked upon as sport.

Whenever I look back upon the events of that dreadful day, I am filled with astonishment that the captain should have been so mad as to leave the ship at all. Only an hour before he left, a tidal wave broke over the stern, and flooded the cabins with a perfect deluge. Both Jensen and I were down below at the time, and came in for an awful drenching. This in itself was a clear and ominous indication of atmospheric disturbance; but all that poor Jensen did was to have the pumps set to work, and after the cabins were comparatively dry he proceeded once more to the pearl banks that fascinated him so, and on which he probably sleeps to this day. The tide was favourable when he left, and I watched the fleet of little boats following in the wake of the whale-boat, until they were some three miles distant from the ship, when they stopped for preparations to be made for the work of diving. I had no presentiment whatever of the catastrophe that awaited them and me.

A cool, refreshing breeze had been blowing up to his time, but the wind now developed a sudden violence, and the sea was lashed into huge waves that quickly swamped nearly every one of the little cockle-shell boats. Fortunately, they could not sink, and as I watched I saw that the Malays who were thus thrown into the water clung to the sides of the little boats, and made the best of their way to the big craft in charge of Captain Jensen. Every moment the sea became more and more turbulent as the wind quickened to a hurricane. When all the Malays had scrambled into the whale-boat, they attempted to pull back to the ship, but I could see that they were unable to make the slightest headway against the tremendous sea that was running, although they worked frantically at the oars.

On the contrary, I was horrified to see that they were gradually drifting away from me, and being carried farther and farther out across the illimitable sea. I was nearly distracted at the sight, and I racked my brains to devise some means of helping them, but could think of nothing feasible. I thought first of all of trying to slip the anchor and let the ship drift in their direction, but I was by no means sure that she would actually do this. Besides, I reflected, she might strike on some of the insidious coral reefs that abound in those fair but terribly dangerous seas. So I came to the conclusion that it would be better to let her remain where she was-at least, for the time being. Moreover, I felt sure that the captain, with his knowledge of those regions, would know of some island or convenient sandbank, perhaps not very far distant, on which he might run his boat for safety until the storm had passed.

The boats receded farther and farther from view, until, about nine in the morning, I lost sight of them altogether. They had started out soon after sunrise. It then occurred to me that I ought to put the ship into some sort of condition to enable her to weather the storm, which was increasing instead of abating. This was not the first storm I had experienced on board the Veielland, so I knew pretty well what to do. First of all, then, I battened down the hatches; this done, I made every movable thing on deck as secure as I possibly could. Fortunately all the sails were furled at the time, so I had no trouble with them. By mid-day it was blowing so hard that I positively could not stand upright, but had to crawl about on my hands and knees, otherwise I should have been hurled overboard. I also attached myself to a long rope, and fastened the other end to one of the masts, so that in the event of my being washed into the raging sea, I could pull myself on board again.

Blinding rain had been falling most of the time, and the waves came dashing over the deck as though longing to engulf the little ship; but she rode them all in splendid style. The climax was reached about two o'clock, when a perfect cyclone was raging, and the end seemed very near for me. It made me shudder to listen to the wind screaming and moaning round the bare poles of the sturdy little vessel, which rose on veritable mountains of water and crashed as suddenly into seething abysses that made my heart stand still. Then the weather suddenly became calm once more-a change that was as unexpected as the advent of the storm itself. The sky, however, continued very black and threatening, and the sea was still somewhat boisterous; but both wind and rain had practically subsided, and I could now look around me without feeling that if I stirred I was a doomed man. I clambered up the lower portion of the main rigging, but only saw black, turbulent waters, hissing and heaving, and raging on every side, and seemingly stretching away into infinity. With terrible force the utter awfulness and hopelessness of my position dawned upon me, yet I did not despair. I next thought it advisable to try and slip my anchor, and let the ship drift, for I still half-fancied that perhaps I might come across my companions somewhere. Before I could free the vessel, however, the wind veered completely round, and, to my horror and despair, sent a veritable mountain of water on board, that carried away nearly all the bulwarks, the galley, the top of the companion-way, and, worst of all, completely wrenched off the wheel. Compasses and charts were all stored in the companion-way, and were therefore lost for ever. Then, indeed, I felt the end was near. Fortunately, I was for'ard at the time, or I must inevitably have been swept into the appalling waste of whirling, mountainous waters. This lashing of myself to the mast, by the way, was the means of saving my life time after time. Soon after the big sea-which I had hoped was a final effort of the terrible storm-the gale returned and blew in the opposite direction with even greater fury than before. I spent an awful time of it the whole night long, without a soul to speak to or help me, and every moment I thought the ship must go down, in that fearful sea. The only living thing on board beside myself was the captain's dog, which I could occasionally hear howling dismally in the cabin below, where I had shut him in when the cyclone first burst upon me.

Among the articles carried overboard by the big sea that smashed the wheel was a large cask full of oil, made from turtle fat, in which we always kept a supply of fresh meats, consisting mainly of pork and fowls. This cask contained perhaps twenty gallons, and when it overturned, the oil flowed all over the decks and trickled into the sea. The effect was simply magical. Almost immediately the storm-tossed waves in the vicinity of the ship, which hitherto had been raging mountains high, quieted down in a way that filled me with astonishment. This tranquillity prevailed as long as the oil lasted; but as soon as the supply was exhausted the giant waves became as turbulent and mountainous as ever.

All night long the gale blew the ship blindly hither and thither, and it was not until just before daybreak that the storm showed any signs of abating. By six o'clock, however, only a slight wind was blowing, and the sea no longer threatened to engulf me and my little vessel. I was now able to look about me, and see what damage had been done; and you may imagine my relief when I found that the ship was still sound and water-tight, although the bulwarks were all gone, and she had all the appearance of a derelict. One of the first things I did was to go down and unloose the dog-poor Bruno. The delight of the poor creature knew no bounds, and he rushed madly up on deck, barking frantically for his absent master. He seemed very much surprised to find no one aboard besides myself.

Alas! I never saw Peter Jensen again, nor the forty Malays and the two women. Jensen may have escaped; he may even have lived to read these lines; God only knows what was the fate of the unfortunate fleet of pearl-fishers. Priggish and uncharitable people may ejaculate: "The reward of cupidity!" But I say, "judge not, lest ye also be judged."

As the morning had now become beautifully fine, I thought I might attempt to get out some spare sails. I obtained what I wanted from the fo'c'sle, and after a good deal of work managed to "bend" a mainsail and staysail. Being without compass or chart, however, I knew not where I was, nor could I decide what course to take in order to reach land. I had a vague idea that the seas in those regions were studded with innumerable little islands and sandbanks known only to the pearl-fishers, and it seemed inevitable that I must run aground somewhere or get stranded upon a coral reef after I had slipped the cable.

However, I did not see what advantage was to be gained by remaining where I was, so I fixed from the stern a couple of long sweeps, or steering oars, twenty-six feet long, and made them answer the purpose of a rudder. These arrangements occupied me two or three days, and then, when everything was completed to my satisfaction, and the ship was in sailing trim, I gave the Veielland her freedom. This I managed as follows: The moment the chain was at its tautest-at its greatest tension-I gave it a violent blow with a big axe, and it parted. I steered due west, taking my observations by the sun and my own shadow at morning, noon, and evening. For I had been taught to reckon the degree of latitude from the number of inches of my shadow. After a time I altered my course to west by south, hoping that I might come upon one of the islands of the Dutch Indies,-Timorland, for instance, but day after day passed without land coming in sight.

Imagine the situation, if you can: alone on a disabled ship in the limitless ocean,-tortured with doubts and fears about the fate of my comrades, and filled with horror and despair at my own miserable prospects for the future.

I did not sail the ship at night, but got out a sea-anchor (using a float and a long coir rope), and lay-to while I turned in for a sleep. I would be up at day-break next morning, and as the weather continued beautifully fine, I had no difficulty in getting under way again. At last the expected happened. One afternoon, without any warning whatsoever, the vessel struck heavily on a reef. I hurriedly constructed a raft out of the hatches and spare spars, and put biscuits and water aboard, after which I landed on the rocks. When the tide reached its lowest point the stern of the Veielland was left fully twenty feet out of water, securely jammed between two high pinnacles of coral rock. The sight was remarkable in the extreme. The sails were still set, and the stiff breeze that was blowing dead against them caused them to belly out just as though the craft were afloat, and practically helped to keep the vessel in position. The bows were much higher than the stern, the line of the decks being at an angle of about forty-five degrees. In this remarkable situatio

n she remained secure until the turning of the tide. My only hope was that she would not suffer from the tremendous strain to which she was necessarily being subjected. It seemed to me every minute that she would free herself from her singular position between the rocks, and glide down bows foremost into the sea to disappear for ever. But the sails kept her back. How earnestly I watched the rising of the waters; and night came on as I waited. Slowly and surely they crept up the bows, and the ship gradually assumed her natural level until at length the stanch little craft floated safe and sound once more, apparently very little the worse for her strange experience. And then away I went on my way-by this time almost schooled to indifference. Had she gone down I must inevitably have succumbed on those coral reefs, for the stock of biscuits and water I had been able to put aboard the raft would only have lasted a very few days.

For nearly a fortnight after the day of the great storm I kept on the same course without experiencing any unpleasant incident or check, always excepting the curious threatened wreck which I have just mentioned.

Just before dusk on the evening of the thirteenth day, I caught sight of an island in the distance-Melville Island I now know it to be; and I was greatly puzzled to see smoke floating upwards apparently from many fires kindled on the beach. I knew that they were signals of some kind, and at first I fancied that it must be one of the friendly Malay islands that I was approaching. A closer scrutiny of the smoke signals, however, soon convinced me that I was mistaken. As I drew nearer, I saw a number of natives, perfectly nude, running wildly about on the beach and brandishing their spears in my direction.

I did not like the look of things at all, but when I tried to turn the head of the ship to skirt the island instead of heading straight on, I found to my vexation that I was being carried forward by a strong tide or current straight into what appeared to be a large bay or inlet. I had no alternative but to let myself drift, and soon afterwards found myself in a sort of natural harbour three or four miles wide, with very threatening coral reefs showing above the surface. Still the current drew me helplessly onward, and in a few minutes the ship was caught in a dangerous whirlpool, round which she was carried several times before I managed to extricate her. Next we were drawn close in to some rocks, and I had to stand resolutely by with an oar in order to keep the vessel's head from striking. It was a time of most trying excitement for me, and I wonder to this day how it was that the Veielland did not strike and founder then and there, considering, firstly, that she was virtually a derelict, and secondly, that there was no living creature on board to navigate her save myself.

I was beginning to despair of ever pulling the vessel through, when we suddenly entered a narrow strait. I knew that I was in a waterway between two islands-Apsley Strait, dividing Melville and Bathurst Islands, as I have since learned.

The warlike and threatening natives had now been left behind long ago, and I never thought of meeting any other hostile people, when just as I had reached the narrowest part of the waterway, I was startled by the appearance of a great horde of naked blacks-giants, every one of them-on the rocks above me.

They were tremendously excited, and greeted me first of all with a shower of spears. Fortunately, on encountering the first lot of threatening blacks, I had prepared a shelter for myself on deck by means of the hatches reared up endwise against the stanchions, and so the spears fell harmlessly around me. Next, the natives sent a volley of boomerangs on board, but without any result. Some of these curious weapons hit the sails and fell impotently on the deck, whilst some returned to their throwers, who were standing on the rocks about fifty yards away, near the edge of the water. I afterwards secured the boomerangs that came on board, and found that they were about twenty-four inches in length, shaped like the blade of a sickle, and measured three or four inches across at the widest part.

They were made of extremely hard wood, and were undoubtedly capable of doing considerable injury when dexterously and accurately thrown. The blacks kept up a terrific hubbub on shore, yelling like madmen, and hurling at me showers of barbed spears. The fact that they had boomerangs convinced me that I must be nearing the Australian mainland. All this time the current was carrying the Veielland rapidly along, and I had soon left the natives jabbering furiously far behind me.

At last I could see the open sea once more, and at the mouth of the strait was a little low, wooded island, where I thought I might venture to land. As I was approaching it, however, yet another crowd of blacks, all armed, came rushing down to the beach; they jumped into their catamarans, or "floats," and paddled out towards me.

After my previous experience I deemed it advisable not to let them get too near, so I hoisted the mainsail again and stood for the open sea. There was a good supply of guns and ammunition on board, and it would have been an easy matter for me to have sunk one or two of the native catamarans, which are mere primitive rafts or floats, and so cooled their enthusiasm a bit; but I refrained, on reflecting that I should not gain anything by this action.

By this time I had abandoned all hope of ever coming up with my friends, but, of course, I did not despair of reaching land-although I hardly knew in what direction I ought to shape my course. Still, I thought that if I kept due west, I should eventually sight Timor or some other island of the Dutch Indies, and so, for the next three or four days, I sailed steadily on without further incident.

About a week after meeting with the hostile blacks, half a gale sprang up, and I busied myself in putting the ship into trim to weather the storm, which I knew was inevitable. I happened to be looking over the stern watching the clouds gathering in dark, black masses, when a strange upheaval of the waters took place almost at my feet, and a huge black fish, like an exaggerated porpoise, leaped into the air close to the stern of my little vessel.

It was a monstrous, ungainly looking creature, nearly the size of a small whale. The strange way it disported itself alongside the ship filled me with all manner of doubtings, and I was heartily thankful when it suddenly disappeared from sight. The weather then became more boisterous, and as the day advanced I strove my utmost to keep the ship's head well before the wind; it was very exhausting work. I was unable to keep anything like an adequate look-out ahead, and had to trust to Providence to pull me through safely.

All this time I did not want for food. Certainly I could not cook anything, but there was any quantity of tinned provisions. And I fed Bruno, too. I conversed with him almost hourly, and derived much encouragement and sympathy therefrom. One morning sometime between the fifteenth and twentieth day, I was scanning the horizon with my customary eagerness, when suddenly, on looking ahead, I found the sea white with the foam of crashing breakers; I knew I must be in the vicinity of a sunken reef. I tried to get the ship round, but it was too late. I couldn't make the slightest impression upon her, and she forged stolidly forward to her doom.

A few minutes later her keel came into violent contact with a coral reef, and as she grated slowly over it, the poor thing seemed to shiver from stem to stern. The shock was so severe that I was thrown heavily to the deck. Bruno could make nothing whatever of it, so he found relief in doleful howls. While the vessel remained stuck on the rocks, I was looking out anxiously from the rigging, when, without a moment's warning, a gigantic wave came toppling and crashing overboard from the stern, overwhelming me in the general destruction that followed. I was dashed with tremendous force on to the deck, and when I picked myself up, bruised and bleeding, the first thing I was conscious of was a deathly stillness, which filled me with vague amazement, considering that but a few moments before my ears had been filled with the roar and crash of the breakers. And I could see that the storm was still raging with great fury, although not a sound reached my ears.

Gradually the horrible truth dawned upon me-I was stone deaf! The blow on the head from the great wave had completely deprived me of all sense of hearing. How depressed I felt when I realised this awful fact no one can imagine. Nevertheless, things were not altogether hopeless, for next morning I felt a sudden crack in my left ear, and immediately afterwards I heard once more the dull roar of the surf, the whistling of the wind, and the barking of my affectionate dog. My right ear, however, was permanently injured, and to this day I am decidedly deaf in that organ. I was just beginning to think that we had passed over the most serious part of the danger, when to my utter despair I again heard that hideous grating sound, and knew she had struck upon another reef. She stuck there for a time, but was again forced on, and presently floated in deep water. The pitiless reefs were now plainly visible on all sides, and some distance away I could see what appeared to be nothing more than a little sandbank rising a few feet above the waters of the lagoon.

While I was watching and waiting for developments the deck of the vessel suddenly started, and she began rapidly to settle down by the stern. Fortunately, however, at that point the water was not excessively deep. When I saw that nothing could save the ship, and that her deck was all but flush with the water, I loosened several of the fittings, as well as some spars, casks, and chests, in the hope that they might drift to land and perhaps be of service to me afterwards. I remained on board as long as I possibly could, trying to build a raft with which to get some things ashore, but I hadn't time to finish it.

Up and up came the inexorable water, and at last, signalling to Bruno to follow me, I leaped into the sea and commenced to swim towards the sandbank. Of course, all the boats had been lost when the pearling fleet disappeared. The sea was still very rough, and as the tide was against us, I found it extremely exhausting work. The dog seemed to understand that I was finding it a dreadful strain, for he swam immediately in front of me, and kept turning round again and again as though to see if I were following safely.

By dint of tremendous struggling I managed to get close up to the shore, but found it utterly impossible to climb up and land. Every time I essayed to plant my legs on the beach, the irresistible backwash swept me down, rolling me head over heels, and in my exhausted condition this filled me with despair. On one occasion this backwash sent me spinning into deep water again, and I am sure I should have been drowned had not my brave dog come to my rescue and seized me by my hair-which, I should have explained, I had always worn long from the days of my childhood. Well, my dog tugged and tugged at me until he had got me half-way through the breakers, nor did this exertion seem to cause him much trouble in swimming.

I then exerted myself sufficiently to allow of his letting go my hair, whilst I took the end of his tail between my teeth, and let him help me ashore in this peculiar way. He was a remarkably strong and sagacious brute-an Australian dog-and he seemed to enjoy the task. At length I found myself on my legs upon the beach, though hardly able to move from exhaustion of mind and body. When at length I had recovered sufficiently to walk about, I made a hasty survey of the little island or sandbank upon which I found myself. Thank God, I did not realise at that moment that I was doomed to spend a soul-killing two and a half years on that desolate, microscopical strip of sand! Had I done so I must have gone raving mad. It was an appalling, dreary-looking spot, without one single tree or bush growing upon it to relieve the terrible monotony. I tell you, words can never describe the horror of the agonising months as they crawled by. "My island" was nothing but a little sand-spit, with here and there a few tufts of grass struggling through its parched surface. As a matter of fact the sand was only four or five inches deep in most places, and underneath was solid coral rock.

Think of it, ye who have envied the fate of the castaway on a gorgeous and fertile tropical island perhaps miles in extent! It was barely a hundred yards in length, ten yards wide, and only eight feet above sea-level at high water! There was no sign of animal life upon it, but birds were plentiful enough-particularly pelicans. My tour of the island occupied perhaps ten minutes; and you may perhaps form some conception of my utter dismay on failing to come across any trace of fresh water.

With what eager eyes did I look towards the ship then! So long as she did not break up I was safe because there were water and provisions in plenty on board. And how I thanked my God for the adamant bulwarks of coral that protected my ark from the fury of the treacherous seas! As the weather became calmer, and a brilliant moon had risen, I decided to swim back to the ship, and bring some food and clothing ashore from her.

I reached the wreck without much trouble, and clambered on board, but could do very little in the way of saving goods, as the decks were still below water. However, I dived, or rather ducked, for the depth of water was only four or five feet, into the cabin and secured some blankets, but I could not lay my hands on any food.

After infinite trouble I managed to make some sort of a raft out of pieces of wood I found lying loose and floating about, and upon this platform I placed the blankets, an oak chest, and one or two other articles I proposed taking ashore. In the oak chest were a number of flags, some clothing and medicine together with my case of pearls and the four medical books. But after I had launched it, I found that the tide was still running out, and it was impossible for me to get anything ashore that night. The weather was beautifully fine, however, and as the forepart of the ship was well out of water, I decided to remain on board and get an hour or two's sleep, which I needed badly. The night passed without incident, and I was astir a little before dawn.

As the tide was now favourable, I loosed my raft and swam it ashore. When I gained the island, I made another survey of it, to find the most suitable spot for pitching my camp, and in the course of my wanderings I made a discovery that filled me with horror and the anguish of blackest despair. My curiosity was first attracted by a human skull that lay near a large circular depression in the sand about two feet deep. I commenced scratching with my fingers at one side, and had only gone a few inches down, when I came upon a quantity of human remains.

The sight struck terror to my heart, and filled me with the most dismal forebodings. "My own bones," I thought, "will soon be added to the pile." So great was my agony of mind that I had to leave the spot, and interest myself in other things; but some time afterwards, when I had got over my nervousness, I renewed my digging operations, and in an hour or so had unearthed no fewer than sixteen complete skeletons-fourteen adults, and two younger people, possibly women! They lay alongside one another, covered by sand that had been blown over them by the wind.

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