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- The Confessions of a Beachcomber - 30/57 -


Another grandly free man sailed his cutter into the bay one fine morning. He knew the water and ran her on the sand, brought his anchor ashore and shoved her off, to swing lazily the while. When I paid him a ceremonious visit, I found that he had but one arm. The empty right sleeve was the more pathetic when I saw him mixing his flour for a damper, and in the cunning twists and wriggling by which the fingers freed each other of the sticky dough and other dextrous manipulations, I soon came to recognise that with his left hand he was as deft as many men with their right and left. He had sailed the boat ladened with wire netting and heavy goods from Bowen, 200 miles south, and was on his way to his selection, 100 miles further north. A wiry, slight man though a real "shellback," one who had been steeped in and saturated with every sea, was "giving the sea best," nerve-shaken, so he said--and yet sailing a cutter with but 3 or 4 inches of free board "single-handed." And he told the why and wherefore of his fear of the sea.

With a mate he had been for many months, beche-de-mer fishing, their station or headquarters a lonely islet in Whitsunday Passage, which winds about that picturesque group of islands through which Captain Cook passed in the year 1770. The twain had been out on one of the spurs of the Great Barrier Reef, and had been caught in the toils of adverse weather. After beating about for days they managed to make their station--hungry, thirsty, their souls fainting within them. Shelter and comfort were theirs, and it was no surprise to my visitor when his mate slept the next morning beyond the accustomed time. "Let him rest," he said. "He is dog-tired;" and went about the work of the day. He had himself known what it was to sleep eighteen and twenty hours at a stretch, for he had many times been worn by toil and watching and nerve-tension to the limit of endurance. And so the day passed, and the man in the bunk slept on. Peace and rest were his, and the busy man envied the calm indifference to the day's doings that he could not find in his heart to disturb.

"Won't he feel fresh when he does wake," he reflected. "He'll be a bit narked at having wasted a whole bloomin' day. I shouldn't be surprised if he was savage, because I didn't call him."

When the evening meal was prepared and everything in the tiny hut made orderly, it would be a pleasure for him to wake up and discover that he had been allowed to have his sleep out.

Ah! but his sleep was very sound and very silent--almost too stillful to be natural.

A touch on his shoulders, saying--"Andrew. Wake up, old fellow!"

No movement, or response. His feet--cold! cold! and his chest, too, cold!

The mate had found his port after stormy seas. His heart--worn out with stress and strain--had failed within him, and all day long his companion thought tenderly of him, making but little noise, thinking that his sleep was the sleep of a day, not the sleep of eternity that no earthly din may disturb.

The weather was still boisterous, but it was essential to take the body to Bowen, to render unto the authorities there conclusive evidence that death had been the result of natural causes. My visitor's nerves were then virile. But the time of stress and strain was at hand. He found himself alone on a remote Island. A grim responsibility forced upon him. Awful as the duty was, it had to be courageously faced, and performed as tenderly as might be. Instead of the enjoyment of comfort and rest, and days of busy companionship and revivifying hopes, there was the shock that sudden death inflicts, dramatic loneliness, dry-eyed grief, forced exertion, and the abandonment of brightening prospects.

With pain and infinite labour he succeeded in dragging and rolling the corpse to the beach. Thence he pushed it up a plank on to the deck of the cutter, and leaving his possessions to chance and fate, he, the wearied and bereaved one-armed man, set sail in violent weather across the open sea to the nearest port. At midnight the "great cry" of a hurricane arose. Lightning flashed over the stricken yeasty sea. A lonesome and grim quest this--full of peril. Did not Nature in the trumpet tones of a furious and vengeful spirit decree the destruction of the little boat as she bounced and floundered among the crests of those awful waves? Here was booty belonging to the ocean--prey escaping from the talons of the fiercest and most remorseless of harpies. So they shrieked and swarmed about the boat, howling for what was theirs. The strife was great, but not too great for the lonely man's seamanship. All the fiends of the sea might do their worst, but until the actual finale came, he would sail the boat--lifting her on the swell, eluding the white hissing bulk of the following sea.

When at last the boat ran into port, the sea had gained a moral victory, but the man gave to the authorities the mortal remains of his mate to be buried decently on land.

He told me that he felt cowed--he could never face the sea again. Once before he had given up "sailorising," not then on account of his nerves, but because ambition to possess a sweet-potato patch, pumpkins and a few bananas, melons, mangoes, had got hold of him. He had taken up a piece of land, but having no money his flimsy fencing was no barrier to the wallabies, and he abandoned the enterprise to them. Now he had abandoned his beche-de-mer project, had bought wire netting to keep out the wallabies, and would make a second effort to settle down. A little net fishing would help to keep him going. "As for the sea," said he, "I have had enough--too much. It is all right while your pluck lasts, but once get a shake, and you had better give it up. And the little boat!--I broke that rail as I was getting poor Andrew's body on board. She is all right, but for that--and she's for sale!"

In an hour, having concocted some stew and baked his damper, the single-handed nerve-shaken, old sailor set sail, and I knew him no more.

Another of poor old "Yorky's" adventures is worth telling. While out on the Barrier Reef, the black crew of his beche-de-mer boat mutinied, and knocking him and his mate on the head, threw them overboard. The sudden souse into the water restored "Yorky" to consciousness, and he swam back to the cutter whence the blacks had hastily fled in the dingy. It was a desperate struggle for a one-armed man to cling to and clamber up the side of the boat, but "Yorky" has never yet failed when his life was at stake. He won the deck at last, but at the expense of a broken rib and the flesh on the best part of his side tom bare to the bones. Still dazed, he chanced to look over the side, where he saw his mate's head bobbing up and down in the water. Hard as it had been for him to save himself, it was more difficult still to rescue the body from the sharks. Frantically using rough-and-ready methods, he hauled it on board, and disposed it as decently as circumstances permitted. "Yorky," great of heart, is quite unused to the melting mood. He admits that he felt pretty bad mentally. But whatever his feelings towards his sodden mate lying there with watery blood oozing from wounds on his head, exhibiting the marks of the necessarily rough-and-ready means that had been taken for his rescue, they had to be suppressed. Wet, dizzy, and sadly battered, with little more apparent reason for the possession of the breath of life than his companion, he set sail, slipped the anchor, and steered for the nearest port. Some distance on the way, to use "Yorky's" own and sufficient words--"The dead man came to life!" Both had to submit to the restraint of hospital treatment for many weeks ere physical repairs were complete.

How is it that a one-armed man, slight in physique, whose brains have been addled by blows with billets of firewood, whose side is raw and bleeding, and who has a broken rib hampering his movements, is able to achieve feats that would be surprising if performed by a whole and stalwart individual? "Yorky" has always been a wonder, and his life a series of adventures and arduous tasks, which seem to prove that the loss of a limb has been compensated for by hardihood and resourcefulness worth a great deal more.


"And laugh At gilded butterflies, and bear poor rogues Talk of Court news."

There were but three men and a dog in the boat, but the boat was overburdened. Not that the dog was big, or the men either. It was all on account of the day.

It was a day in which you wanted the whole realm of Nature for yourself--so full of sunshine and flitting butterflies was it--so beaming with the advent of summer, and her fervent greetings, so wondrously calm and clear. You felt selfish at the pleasure of it all. It filled you well-nigh to surfeit, yet you would have more of it. It was too delicious to squander upon others, yet how could one mind comprehend the grandeur of it all?

The white boat drifted on a blue and lustrous sea. The reef points tapped a monotonous scale as the white sails swang to the swaying of the gaff. Listlessly the boat drifted to the barely perceptible swell, regular as the breathings of a sleeping child. Sound and motion invited to slumber. The shining sea, the islands, green and purple, the soft sweet atmosphere, the full glory of a rare day, kept all the senses in tune.

There, 4 miles away, lay the island, and close at hand the turtle were ever and anon rising, balloon-like, from coral gardens to gulp greedy draughts of air, which not even the salty essences of the ocean could rob of its perfume.

Sometimes the boat did seem conscious of inconstancy, and anon with feminine frivolity she would coyly swing round to flirt with the islets close at hand. She would have her own way until the free breezes came, and somehow the wind still blows whereso'er it listeth, and will not be untimely wooed, though the sailor whistles with all the "lascivious pleasing of the lute."

Some atmospheric phenomenon, altogether beyond idle concern, lifted the islands afar off out of the water, suspending them in the sky. The languorous breadths of the sea gradually changed to silver, and under the purple islands the silver band extended, bright and gleaming, until it seemed to merge again into the blue of the sky. That was so, for was it not all visible--the purple islands, with the silver bands separating them from the sea. Yet under ordinary conditions those very islands are blue studs set in the rim of the ocean. What magic is it that uplifts them to-day between the ocean and the sky?

This was a day of gushing sunshine and myriads of butterflies. They flew from the mainland, not as spies but in battalions--a never-ending procession miles broad. You could fancy you heard in the throbbing stillness the movement of the fairy-like wings--a faint, unending hum. From the odorous jungle they came, flitting in gay inconsequence, steering a course of "slanting indeterminates," yet full of the power and the passion of the moment. They flitted between the idle boom and the deck, and up the gleaming sky in all the sizes that distance grades between nearness and infinity.

There were Islands near at hand and some afar off. What instinct guided

The Confessions of a Beachcomber - 30/57

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