MoboReader> Literature > Rodman The Boatsteerer And Other Stories / 1898

   Chapter 4 No.4

Rodman The Boatsteerer And Other Stories / 1898 By Louis Becke Characters: 12745

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Nine years before, Prout, then one of the "smartest" Englishmen in the Hawaiian Islands, had been manager of the Kalahua sugar plantation on Maui. Out of his very loneliness in the world-for except his mother, in a far-away Devonshire village, there was no one in the outside world that cared aught for him-there grew upon him that quiet, reserved temperament that led the other white men on the plantation to call him in kindly jest, "Prout, the Hermit."

But although he never mixed with the men on the Kalahua Estate in the wild revelries with which they too often sought to break the monotony of their existence and celebrate a good season, he was by no means a morose or unsociable man; and Chard, the merry-hearted Belgian sugar-boiler, often declared that it was Prout alone who kept the estate going and the native labourers from turning on the white men and cutting their throats, out of sheer revenge for the brutal treatment they received from Sherard, the savage, drunken owner of Kalahua.

Between Roden Sherard and Prout there had been always, from the first day almost of the latter entering upon his duties, a silent, bitter antagonism. And the reason of it was known only to the two men themselves.

In those times the native labour for the Hawaiian sugar plantations was recruited from the islands of the Mid-Pacific, and from the chains of sandy atolls lying between the Bonins and the Radack Archipelago of the Marshall Group. On Kalahua there were some three hundred natives, and within a month of Prout taking charge, he had changed their condition so much for the better, that not one of the wild-eyed, half-naked beings who toiled from sunrise to dark but would give him a grateful glance as he rode through the cane fields. And Sherard, who rode with him, would see this, and scowl and tell Prout that as soon as his engagement terminated, he, Sherard, would bring back Fletcher, the former manager, "a man who would thump a kanaka into a pulp if he dared to look sideways at him."

"If you are not satisfied with me you can bring him here to-morrow if you like," Prout had said coldly to him one day. "I've managed bigger places than this in Demerara, and on no one of them have I ever seen a nigger struck. But then, you see, in Demerara the planters are Englishmen, and Englishmen as a rule don't shine at nigger walloping."

Sherard, a black-visaged Marylander, snapped his teeth together and, smothering his rage, tried to laugh the matter off.

"Well, I suppose you're right, Prout. I know I have got a good man in you; but at the same time, God never intended these damned saucy niggers to be coddled and petted."

Prout laughed ironically as he repeated Sherard's words "coddled and petted!" And then long-suppressed wrath boiled out, and, swinging his horse's head round, he faced the owner of Kalahua.

"Look here, Sherard, give me the control of these three hundred natives for the next two seasons and I'll stake my life that they'll do more work for you than you have ever had done by that brute Fletcher when he had five hundred here. Do you think that these people knew what was in store for them when they came here?-that in place of an encouraging word they would get a threat or a blow? That those of them who have wives and daughters can forget what has befallen them? Do you think that I don't know that you speak of me to your friends with contempt as 'a nigger-loving Britisher'? And yet, Sherard, you know well that, were I to leave Kalahua tomorrow, every native on the estate would leave too-not for love of me, but to get away from you."

Sherard laughed coarsely.

"You've got more in you than I thought, Prout. What you say is true enough. Let us quit quarrelling. I know you can do more with them than Abe Fletcher could; and I guess I'm not going to interfere with you."

But, for all that, Prout did not trust Sherard, and he made up his mind to leave the estate when his two years' engagement came to an end.

* * *

"The Mana is in Honolulu with a cargo of Line Island boys, Prout," said Sherard to him about a month or two after this; "I wish you would get away down there, and try to obtain some more hands. You talk the language like a Line Islander, and will have no trouble in getting all the men we want."

But when Prout boarded the labour schooner Mana there was not a native left. The other planters on Oahu had been there before him, and the master-Captain Courtayne-called him down to have a drink in the cabin.

"You are the new manager on Kalahua, hey? Well, I'm sorry you've had your trip for nothing; but, at the same time, I'm real glad to see Sherard left out in the cold. He's a bad man, sir, and although you might think that because I'm in this trade I'm not particularly soft, I can tell you that I'd be thundering sorry to see any of the crowd I've brought up go to him."

"Your feelings do you honour, Captain; but I can assure you that the Kalahua boys are well treated now," said Prout, as he took the cigar the seaman handed him.

The quiet manner and truthful look in Prout's face made the master of the schooner regard him intently for a few moments, then he said abruptly:

"Do you know Honolulu well?"

Prout did not; his visits there had been few and far between.

"Do you know any decent people here who could take care of my daughter for me till I come back from my next trip?"

"No, Captain, I do not."

"Take another whisky, sir, and I'll tell you the fix I'm in. You see I'm new to this business. I had a trading station down on one of the Ellice Islands where I've lived for the last twenty years. This schooner came there about six months ago, and the captain died in my house. As the mate couldn't navigate, and I am an old shell-back, I sold out my trading station, took charge of her, brought my daughter aboard and filled the schooner with Line Island labourers."

"Her mother is dead, I suppose?"

Captain Courtayne coloured and shifted about in his seat. "Well, no, not as far as I know; but, you see, down there in the south-east a man has to change his wives occasionally. For instance, if you marry a Samoa girl you must live in Samoa; she won't leave there to go and live on Nanomea or Vaitupu, where the people have different ideas and customs. And, as we poor traders have to shift about from one island to another s

ometimes, we can't afford to study a woman's whims."

Prout grasped the situation at once. "I see; your daughter, then, is your child by a former wife?"

"Just so. Her mother was a Hervey Island half-caste whom I married when I was trading on Manhiki. We drifted apart somehow-perhaps it was my fault. I was a careless, hard-drinking man in those days. But, here I am telling you a lot of things that don't interest you, when I ought to tell you at once what it is I thought you might help me with. You see, Mr. Prout, my little Marie has lived with me all her life. Since she was five years old she has never left me for a day, and I've done my best to educate her. She's as good and true as gold, and this is what troubles me-I don't want to take her away again in the schooner if I can help it. Do you think-do you know-of any English or American family here that would take her to live with them till I return from this voyage? I'm willing to pay well for her keep."

Prout shook his head. "I should advise you to take her back with you, Captain. How old is she?"

The captain went to the companion-way and called out:

"Marie."

"Yes, father," answered a girl's soft voice.

"Come below a minute."

Prout heard some one getting out of a hammock that was slung over the skylight, and presently a small slippered foot touched the first step of the companion-way; and then a girl, about fifteen or sixteen, came into the cabin, and bowing to him, seated herself by the captain of the schooner. Then, as if ashamed of the formal manner of her greeting, she rose again, and a smile lit up her beautiful face, as she offered her hand to him.

Prout, one of those men whose inborn respect for women often makes them appear nervous, constrained, and awkward in their presence, flushed to the roots of his hair as she let her soft hand touch his.

"That is Marie, sir," and the skipper glanced somewhat proudly at the graceful, muslin-clad figure of his daughter. "Marie, this gentleman says he does not know any English or American ladies here."

The sweet red mouth smiled and the dark eyes danced.

"I'm very glad, father; I would rather go away with you to sea in the Mana than stay in a strange place."

* * *

But Marie Courtayne did not go away; for next morning her father, through Prout, learned that the French Sisters were willing to take her as a boarder till the schooner returned, and so to them she went, with her tender mouth twitching, and her eyes striving to keep back the tears that would come as she bade her father goodbye.

"You'll go and see my little Marie sometimes, I hope, Mr. Prout?" said Courtayne, as he bade farewell to the manager of Kalahua.

Prout murmured something in reply, and then the captain of the Mana and he parted.

* * *

Three months later the American cruiser Saranac brought the news that she had spoken the labour schooner Mana, Captain Courtayne, off the island of Marakei, in the Gilbert Group, "all well, and wished to be reported at Honolulu." After that she, her captain and crew, and the two hundred Kanaka labourers she had on board, were never heard of again.

For nearly a year Prout and Marie Courtayne waited and hoped for some tidings of the missing ship, but none came. And every now and then, when business took him to Honolulu, Prout would call at the Mission School and try to speak hopefully to her.

"He is dead," she would say apathetically, "and I wish I were dead, too. I think I shall die soon, if I have to live here."

Then Prout, who had grown to love her, one day plucked up courage to tell her so, and asked her to be his wife.

"Yes," she said simply, "I will be your wife. You are always kind to me," and for the first time she put her face up to his. He kissed her gravely, and then, being a straightforward, honourable man, he went to the Sisters and told them. A week afterward they were married.

When he returned to Kalahua with his wife, Sherard met them on the verandah of his house, and Prout wondered at the remarkable change in his manner, for even to women Sherard was coarse and tyrannical.

From the moment he first saw Marie's fresh young beauty Sherard determined to have a deadly revenge upon her husband. But he went about his plans cautiously. Only a few days previously he had made a fresh agreement with Prout to remain for another two years. Before those two years had expired he meant to put his plan into effect. There was on the plantation a ruffianly Chileno who, he knew, would dispose of Prout satisfactorily when asked to do so.

* * *

When Marie's child was born, Sherard acted the part of the imperatively good-natured employer, and told Prout that as soon as his wife was strong enough, he was to leave the house he then occupied and take up his quarters permanently in the big house.

"This place of yours will do me, Prout," he said, when his manager protested; "and your wife's only a delicate little thing. There's all kinds of fixings and comforts there that she'll appreciate, which you haven't got here. D---n my thick skull, I might have done this before."

"Thank you, Sherard," said Prout, with a genuine feeling of pleasure. "You are very good to us both. But I won't turn you out altogether; you must remain there too."

Sherard laughed. "Not I. You'll be far happier up there together by yourselves, like a pair of turtledoves. But I'll always be on hand in the smoking-room when you want me for a game of cards."

The change was soon made, and Moreno, the Chilian overseer, grinned when he saw the white-robed figure of the manager's wife lying on one of the verandah lounges, playing with her child.

"Bueno," he said to Sherard that night, as they drank together, "the plan works. Make the bird learn to love its pretty nest. Dios, when am I to feel my knife tickling Senor Prout's ribs?"

"At the end of the crushing season, I think," answered Sherard coolly; "the brat will be old enough to be taken from her by then."

It is a bad thing for a man to "thump" either a Chilian, or a Peruvian, or a Mexican. And Prout had "thumped" the evil-faced Chileno very badly one day for beating a native nearly to death. Had he been wiser he would have taken the little man's knife out of his belt and plunged it home between his ribs, for a Chileno never forgives a blow with a fist.

* * *

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