Illustration of Aimata
The Captain’s Last Love.
‘THE captain is still in the prime of life,’ the widow remarked to me. ‘He has given up his ship; he possesses a sufficient income, and he has nobody to live with him. I should like to know why he doesn’t marry.’
‘The captain was excessively rude to Me,’ the widow’s younger sister added, on her side. ‘When we took leave of him in London, I asked if there was any likelihood of his joining us at Brighton this season. He turned his back on me as if I had mortally offended him; and he made me this extraordinary answer: ‘Miss! I hate the sight of the sea.’ The man has been a sailor all his life. What does he mean by saying that he hates the sight of the sea?’
I was entirely at the mercy of the widow and the widow’s sister. The other members of our little society at the boarding-house had all gone to a concert. I was known to be the captain’s oldest friend, and to be well acquainted with all the events of the captain’s life. No polite alternative was left but to answer the questions that had been put to me.
‘I can satisfy your curiosity,’ I said to the two ladies, ‘without violating any confidence reposed in me—if you only have patience enough to listen to a very strange story.’
It is needless to report the answer that I received. We sent away the tea-things, and we trimmed the lamp; and then I told the ladies why the captain would never marry, and why (sailor as he was) he hated the sight of the sea.
THE British merchantman, ‘Fortuna’ on the last occasion when our friend the captain took command of the ship) sailed from the port of Liverpool with the morning tide. She was bound to certain islands in the Pacific Ocean, in search of a cargo of sandal-wood—a commodity which, in those days, found a ready and profitable market in the Chinese Empire.
A large discretion was reposed in the captain by the owners, who knew him to be not only thoroughly trustworthy, but a man of rare abilities, carefully cultivated during the leisure hours of a seafaring life. Devoted heart and soul to his professional duties, he was a hard reader and an excellent linguist as well. Having had considerable experience among the inhabitants of the Pacific Islands, he had attentively studied their characters, and had mastered their language in more than one of its many dialects. Thanks to the valuable information thus obtained, the captain was never at a loss to conciliate the islanders; and he had more than once succeeded in finding a cargo under circumstances in which other captains had failed. Possessing these merits, he had his fair share of human defects. For instance, he was a little too conscious of his own good looks—of his bright chestnut hair and whiskers, of his beautiful blue eyes, of his fair white skin, which many a woman had looked at with the admiration that is akin to envy. His shapely hands were protected by gloves; a broad-brimmed hat sheltered his complexion in fine weather from the sun. He was nice in his choice of perfumes; he never drank spirits, and the smell of tobacco was abhorrent to him. New men among his officers and his crew, seeing him studying in his cabin, perfectly dressed, washed, and brushed until he was an object speckless to look upon, soft of voice and careful in his choice of words, were apt to conclude that they had trusted themselves at sea under a commander who was an anomalous mixture of a schoolmaster and a dandy. But if the slightest infraction of discipline took place, or if the storm rose and the vessel was in peril, it was soon discovered that the gloved hands held a rod of iron; that the soft voice could make itself heard through wind and sea from one end of the deck to the other; and that it issued orders which the greatest fool on board knew to be orders that saved the ship. Throughout his professional life, the general impression that this variously-gifted man produced on the little world about him was always the same. Some few liked him; everybody respected him; nobody understood him. The captain accepted those results, and went on reading his books and protecting his complexion; and his owners shook hands with him, and put up with his gloves.
The ‘Fortuna’ touched at Rio for water, and for supplies of food which might prove useful in case of scurvy. In due time the ship rounded Cape Horn, in the finest weather ever known in those latitudes by the oldest hand on board. The mate, one Mr. Duncalf—a boozing, wheezing, self-confident old sea-dog, with a flaming face and a vast vocabulary of oaths—swore that he didn’t like it. ‘The foul weather’s coming, my lads,’ said Mr. Duncalf. ‘Mark my words, there’ll be wind enough to take the curl out of the captain’s whiskers before we are many days older!’
During a fortnight more the ship cruised in search of the islands to which the owners had directed her. At the end of that time the wind took the predicted liberties with the captain’s whiskers; and Mr. Duncalf stood revealed to an admiring crew in the character of a true prophet.
For three days and three nights the ‘Fortuna’ ran before the storm, at the mercy of wind and sea. On the fourth morning the gale blew itself out, the sun appeared again towards noon, and the captain was able to take an observation. The result informed him that he was in a part of the Pacific Ocean with which he was entirely unacquainted. Thereupon, the officers were called into the cabin. Mr. Duncalf, as became his rank, was consulted first. His opinion possessed the merit of brevity. ‘My lads, this ship’s bewitched. Take my word for it, we shall wish ourselves back in our own latitudes before we are many days older.’ Which, being interpreted, meant that Mr. Duncalf was lost, like his superior officer, in a part of the ocean of which he knew nothing.
The captain decided (the weather being now quite fine again) to stand on, under an easy press of sail, for four-and-twenty hours more, and to see if anything came of it.
Soon after nightfall, something did come of it. The lookout forward hailed the deck with the dreadful cry, ‘Breakers ahead!’ In less than a minute more, everybody heard the crash of the broken water. The ‘Fortuna’ was put about, and came round slowly in the light wind. Thanks to the timely alarm and the fine weather, the safety of the vessel was easily provided for. They kept her under short sail; and they waited for the morning.
The dawn showed them in the distance a glorious green island, not marked in the ship’s charts—an island girt about by a coral-reef, and having in its midst a high-peaked mountain which looked, through the telescope, like a mountain of volcanic origin. Mr. Duncalf, taking his morning draught of rum-and-water, shook his groggy old head and said (and swore): ‘My lads, I don’t like the look of that island.’ The captain was of a different opinion. He had one of the ship’s boats put into the water; he armed himself and six of his crew who accompanied him; and away he went in the morning sunlight to visit the island.
Skirting round the coral reef, they found a natural breach, which proved to be broad enough and deep enough not only for the passage of the boat, but of the ship herself if needful. Crossing the broad inner belt of smooth water, they approached the golden sands of the island, strewed with magnificent shells, and crowded by the dusky islanders—men, women, and children, all waiting in breathless astonishment to see the strangers land.
The captain kept the boat off, and examined the islanders carefully. The innocent, simple people danced, and sang, and ran into the water, imploring their wonderful white visitors by gestures to come on shore. Not a creature among them carried arms of any sort; a hospitable curiosity animated the entire population. The men cried out, in their smooth musical language, ‘Come and eat!’ and the plump black-eyed women, all laughing together, added their own invitation, ‘Come and be kissed!’ Was it in mortals to resist such temptations as these? The captain led the way on shore, and the women surrounded him in an instant, and screamed for joy at the glorious spectacle of his whiskers, his complexion, and his gloves. So the mariners from the far north were welcomed to the newly-discovered island.
THE morning wore on. Mr. Duncalf, in charge of the ship, cursing the island, over his rum and water, as a ‘beastly green strip of a place, not laid down in any Christian chart,’ was kept waiting four mortal hours before the captain returned to his command, and reported himself to his officers as follows:
He had found his knowledge of the Polynesian dialects sufficient to make himself in some degree understood by the natives of the new island. Under the guidance of the chief he had made a first journey of exploration, and had seen for himself that the place was a marvel of natural beauty and fertility. The one barren spot in it was the peak of the volcanic mountain, composed of crumbling rock; originally no doubt lava and ashes, which had cooled and consolidated with the lapse of time. So far as he had seen, the crater at the top was now an extinct crater. But, if he had understood rightly, the chief had spoken of earthquakes and eruptions at certain bygone periods, some of which lay within his own earliest recollections of the place.
Adverting next to considerations of practical utility, the captain announced that he had seen sandal-wood enough on the island to load a dozen ships, and that the natives were willing to part with it for a few toys and trinkets generally distributed among them. To the mate’s disgust, the ‘Fortuna’ was taken inside the reef that day, and was anchored before sunset in a natural harbour. Twelve hours of recreation, beginning with the next morning, were granted to the men, under the wise restrictions in such cases established by the captain. That interval over, the work of cutting the precious wood and loading the ship was to be unintermittingly pursued.
Mr. Duncalf had the first watch after the ‘Fortuna’ had been made snug. He took the boatswain aside (an ancient sea-dog like himself), and he said in a gruff whisper: ‘My lad, this here ain’t the island laid down in our sailing orders. See if mischief don’t come of disobeying orders before we are many days older.’
Nothing in the shape of mischief happened that night. But at sunrise the next morning a suspicious circumstance occurred; and Mr. Duncalf whispered to the boatswain: ‘What did I tell you?’ The captain and the chief of the islanders held a private conference in the cabin, and the captain, after first forbidding any communication with the shore until his return, suddenly left the ship, alone with the chief, in the chief’s own canoe.
What did this strange disappearance mean? The captain himself, when he took his seat in the canoe, would have been puzzled to answer that question.
‘Shall we be a long time away from the ship?’ he asked.
The chief answered mysteriously: ‘Long time or short time, your life depends on it, and the lives of your men.’
Paddling his light little vessel in silence over the smooth water inside the reef, the chief took his visitor ashore at a part of the island which was quite new to the captain. The two crossed a ravine, and ascended an eminence beyond. There the chief stopped, and silently pointed out to sea.
The captain looked in the direction indicated to him, and discovered a second and a smaller island, lying away to the southwest at a distance of under two miles. Taking out his telescope from the case by which it was slung at his back, he examined the place through his glass. Two of the native canoes were lying off the shore of the new island; and the men in them appeared to be all kneeling or crouching in curiously chosen attitudes. Shifting his range a little, the captain next beheld the figure of a tall and solitary man—the one inhabitant of the island whom he could discover. The man was standing on the highest point of a rocky cape. A fire was burning at his feet. Now he lifted his arms solemnly to the sky; now he dropped some invisible fuel into the fire, which made a blue smoke; and now he cast other invisible objects into the canoes floating beneath him, which the islanders reverently received with bodies that crouched in abject submission. Lowering his telescope, the captain looked round at the chief for an explanation. The chief gave the explanation readily. His language may be interpreted in these terms:
‘Wonderful white stranger! the island you see yonder is a Holy Island. As such it is Taboo—an island sanctified and set apart. The honourable person whom you notice on the rock is an all-powerful favourite of the gods. He is by vocation a Sorcerer, and by rank a Priest. You now see him casting charms and blessings into the canoes of our fishermen, who kneel to him for fine weather and great plenty of fish. If any profane person, native or stranger, presumes to set foot on that island, my otherwise peaceable subjects will (in the performance of a religious duty) put that person to death. Mention this to your men. They will be fed by my male people, and fondled by my female people, so long as they keep clear of the Holy Isle. As they value their lives, let them respect this prohibition. Is it understood between us? Wonderful white stranger! my canoe is waiting for you. Let us go back.’
Understanding enough of the chief’s language (illustrated by his gestures) to receive in the right spirit the communication thus addressed to him, the captain repeated the warning to the ship’s company in the plainest possible English. The officers and men then took their holiday on shore, with the exception of Mr. Duncalf, who positively refused to leave the ship. For twelve delightful hours they were fed by the male people, and fondled by the female people, and then they were mercilessly torn from the flesh-pots and the arms of their new friends, and set to work on the sandal-wood in good earnest. Mr. Duncalf superintended the loading, and waited for the mischief that was to come of disobeying the owners’ orders with a confidence worthy of a better cause.
STRANGELY enough, chance once more declared itself in favour of the mate’s point of view. The mischief did actually come; and the chosen instrument of it was a handsome young islander, who was one of the sons of the chief.
The captain had taken a fancy to the sweet-tempered, intelligent lad. Pursuing his studies in the dialect of the island, at leisure hours, he had made the chief’s son his tutor, and had amused himself by instructing the youth in English by way of return. More than a month had passed in this intercourse, and the ship’s lading was being rapidly completed, when, in an evil hour, the talk between the two turned on the subject of the Holy Island.
‘Does nobody live on the island but the Priest?’ the captain asked.
The chief’s son looked round him suspiciously. ‘Promise me you won’t tell anybody!’ he began very earnestly.
The captain gave his promise.
‘There is one other person on the island,’ the lad whispered; ‘a person to feast your eyes upon, if you could only see her! She is the Priest’s daughter. She was taken to the island in her infancy, and has never left it since. In that sacred solitude she has never looked on any human beings but her father and her mother. I once saw her from my canoe, taking care not to attract her notice, or to approach too near the holy soil. Oh, so young, dear master, and, oh, so beautiful!’ The chief’s son completed the description by kissing his own hands in silent rapture.
The captain’s fine blue eyes sparkled. He asked no more questions; but, later on that day, he paid a secret visit to the eminence which overlooked the Holy Island. The next day, and the next, he stole away to the same place. On the fourth day, fatal Destiny favoured him. He saw the nymph of the island through his telescope, standing alone upon the cape on which he had already discovered her father. She was feeding some tame birds, which looked like turtle-doves. The glass showed the captain her pure white robe, fluttering in the sea-breeze; her long black hair falling to her heels; her slim and supple young figure; her simple grace of attitude, as she turned this way and that, attending to the wants of her birds. Before her was the blue ocean; behind her was the lustrous green of the island forest. The captain’s vivid imagination supplied the inevitable defects of the glass. He looked and looked until his eyes and his arms ached. And when she flitted lightly back into the forest, with her birds after her, the captain shut up his telescope with a sigh, and said to himself: ‘I have seen an angel!’
From that hour he became an altered man; he was languid, silent, interested in nothing. General opinion decided that he was going to be taken ill.
A week more elapsed, and the officers and crew began to talk of the voyage to their market in China. The captain refused to fix a day for sailing. He even took offence at being asked to decide. Instead of sleeping in his cabin, he went ashore for the night.
Not many hours afterward, just before daybreak, Mr. Duncalf, snoring in his cabin on deck, was aroused by a hand laid on his shoulder. The swinging lamp, still alight, showed him the dusky face of the chief’s son, convulsed with terror. By wild signs, by disconnected words in the little English which he had learnt, the lad tried to make the mate understand him. Dense Mr. Duncalf, understanding nothing, hailed the second officer, on the opposite side of the deck. The second officer was young and intelligent; he rightly interpreted the terrible news that had come to the ship.
The captain had broken his own rules. Watching his opportunity, under cover of the night, he had taken a canoe, and had secretly crossed the channel to the Holy Island. No one had been near him at the time but the chief’s son. The lad had vainly tried to induce him to abandon his desperate enterprise, and had vainly waited on the shore in the hope of hearing the sound of the paddle announcing his return. Beyond all reasonable doubt, the infatuated man had set foot on the shores of the tabooed island.
The one chance for his life was to conceal what he had done, until the ship could be got out of the harbour, and then (if no harm had come to him in the interval) to rescue him after nightfall. It was decided to spread the report that he had really been taken ill, and that he was confined to his cabin. The chief’s son, whose heart the captain’s kindness had won, could be trusted to do this, and to keep the secret faithfully for the captain’s sake.
Towards noon, the next day, they attempted to take the ship to sea, and failed for want of wind. Hour by hour, the heat grew more and more oppressive. As the day declined, there were ominous appearances in the western heaven. The natives, who had given some trouble during the day by their anxiety to see the captain, and by their curiosity to know the cause of the sudden preparations for the ship’s departure, all went ashore together, looking suspiciously at the sky, and reappeared no more. Just at midnight, the ship (still in her snug berth inside the reef) suddenly trembled from her keel to her mast-heads. Mr. Duncalf, surrounded by the startled crew, shook his knotty fist at the island as if he could see it in the dark. ‘My lads, what did I tell you? That was a shock of earthquake.’
With the morning the threatening aspect of the weather unexpectedly disappeared. A faint hot breeze from the land, just enough to give the ship steerage-way, offered Mr. Duncalf a chance of getting to sea. Slowly the ‘Fortuna,’ with the mate himself at the wheel, half sailed, half drifted into the open ocean. At a distance of barely two miles from the island the breeze was felt no more, and the vessel lay becalmed for the rest of the day.
At night the men waited their orders, expecting to be sent after their captain in one of the boats. The intense darkness, the airless heat, and a second shock of earthquake (just felt in the ship at her present distance from the land) warned the mate to be cautious. ‘I smell mischief in the air,’ said Mr. Duncalf. ‘The captain must wait till I am surer of the weather.’
Still no change came with the new day. The dead calm continued, and the airless heat. As the day declined, another ominous appearance became visible. A thin line of smoke was discovered through the telescope, ascending from the topmost peak of the mountain on the main island. Was the volcano threatening an eruption? The mate, for one, entertained no doubt of it. ‘By the Lord, the place is going to burst up!’ said Mr. Duncalf. ‘Come what may of it, we must find the captain to-night!’
WHAT was the captain doing? and what chance had the crew of finding him that night?
He had committed himself to his desperate adventure, without forming any plan for the preservation of his own safety; without giving even a momentary consideration to the consequences that might follow. The charming picture that he had seen through his telescope had haunted him night and day. The image of the innocent creature, secluded from humanity in her island-solitude, was the one image that filled his mind. A man, passing a woman in the street, acts on the impulse to turn and follow her, and in that one thoughtless moment shapes the destiny of his future life. The captain, seeing the canoe on the beach, acted on a similar impulse, when he took the paddle and shaped his reckless course for the tabooed island.
Reaching the shore while it was still dark, he did one sensible thing—he hid the canoe so that it might not betray him when the daylight came. That done, he waited for the morning on the outskirts of the forest.
The trembling light of dawn revealed the mysterious solitude around him. Following the outer limits of the trees, first in one direction, then in another, and finding no trace of any living creature, he decided on penetrating to the interior of the island. He entered the forest.
An hour of walking brought him to rising ground. Continuing the ascent, he got clear of the trees, and stood on the grassy top of a broad cliff which overlooked the sea. An open hut was on the cliff. He cautiously looked in, and discovered that it was empty. The few household utensils left about, and the simple bed of leaves in a corner, were covered with fine sandy dust. Night-birds flew blundering out of inner cavities in the roof, and took refuge in the shadows of the forest below. It was plain that the hut had not been inhabited for some time past.
Standing at the open doorway and considering what he should do next, the captain saw a bird flying towards him out of the forest. It was a turtle-dove, so tame that it fluttered close up to him. At the same moment the sound of sweet laughter became audible among the trees. His heart beat fast; he advanced a few steps and stopped. In a moment more the nymph of the island appeared, in her white robe, ascending the cliff in pursuit of her truant bird. She saw him, and suddenly stood still; struck motionless by the amazing discovery that had burst upon her. The captain approached, smiling and holding out his hand. She never moved; she stood before him in helpless wonderment—her lovely black eyes fixed on him spell-bound; her dusky bosom palpitating above the fallen folds of her robe; her rich red lips parted in mute astonishment. Spell-bound on his side, feasting his eyes on her beauty in silence, the captain after a while recovered himself. He ventured to speak to her in the language of the main island. The sound of his voice, addressing her in the language that she knew, roused the lovely creature to action. She started, stepped close up to him, and dropped on her knees at his feet.
‘My father worships invisible deities,’ she said, softly. ‘Are you a visible deity? Has my mother sent you?’ She pointed as she spoke to the deserted hut behind them. ‘You appear to me,’ she went on, ‘in the place where my mother died. Is it for her sake that you show yourself to her child? Beautiful deity, come to the Temple—come to my father!’
The captain gently raised her from the ground. If her father saw him, he was a doomed man. Infatuated as he was, he had sense enough left to announce himself plainly in his own character, as a mortal creature arriving from a far-distant land. The girl instantly drew back from him with a look of terror.
‘He is not like my father,’ she said to herself; ‘he is not like me. Is he the lying demon of the prophecy? Is he the predestined destroyer of our island?’
The captain’s experience of the sex showed him the only sure way out of the awkward position in which he was now placed. He appealed to his personal appearance.
‘Do I look like a demon?’ he asked.
Her eyes met his. A half-smile trembled on her lips. The captain ventured on asking what she meant by the predestined destruction of the island. She held up her hand solemnly, and repeated the prophecy.
The Holy Island was threatened with destruction by an evil being, who would one day appear on its shores. To avert the fatality the place had been sanctified and set apart, under the protection of the gods and their priest. Here was the reason for the taboo, and for the extraordinary strictness with which it was enforced. Listening attentively to his charming companion, the captain took her hand and pressed it gently.
‘Do I feel like a demon?’ he whispered.
Her slim brown fingers closed frankly on his hand. ‘You feel soft and friendly,’ she said with the fearless candour of a child. ‘Squeeze me again. I like it!’
The next moment she snatched her hand away from him; the sense of his danger had suddenly forced itself on her mind. ‘If my father sees you,’ she said, ‘he will light the signal-fire at the Temple, and the people from over yonder will come here and put you to death. Where is your canoe? No! It is broad daylight. My father may see you on the water.’ She considered for a moment, and, approaching him, laid her hands on his shoulders. ‘Stay here till nightfall,’ she said. ‘My father never comes this way. The sight of the place where my mother died is horrible to him. You are safe here. Promise to stay where you are till night-time.’
The captain gave his promise. Freed from anxiety so far, the girl’s mobile southern temperament recovered its native cheerfulness—its sweet gaiety and spirit. She admired the beautiful stranger as she might have admired a new bird that had flown to her to be fondled with the rest. She patted his fair white skin, and wished she had a skin like it. She lifted the great glossy folds of her long black hair, and compared it with the captain’s bright curly locks, and wished she could change colour with him from the bottom of her heart. His dress was a wonder to her; his watch was a new revelation. She rested her head on his shoulder to listen delightedly to the ticking, as he held the watch to her ear. Her fragrant breath played on his face, her warm, supple figure rested against him softly. The captain’s arm stole round her waist, and the captain’s lips gently touched hers. She lifted her head with a look of pleased surprise. ‘Thank you,’ said the child of Nature, simply. ‘Kiss me again; I like it. May I kiss you?’ The tame turtle-dove perched on her shoulder as she gave the captain her first kiss, and diverted her thoughts to the pets that she had left, in pursuit of the truant dove.
‘Come,’ she said, ‘and see my birds. I keep them on this side of the forest. There is no danger, so long as you don’t show yourself on the other side. My name is Aimata; Aimata will take care of you. Oh, what a beautiful white neck you have!’ She put her arm admiringly round his neck. The captain’s arm held her tenderly to him. Slowly the two descended the cliff, and were lost in the leafy solitudes of the forest. And the tame dove fluttered before them, a winged messenger of love, cooing to his mate.
THE night had come, and the captain had not left the island. Aimata’s resolution to send him away in the darkness was a forgotten resolution already. She had let him persuade her that he was in no danger, so long as he remained in the hut on the cliff; and she had promised, at parting, to return to him while the Priest was still sleeping, at the dawn of day.
He was alone in the hut. The thought of the innocent creature whom he loved was sorrowfully as well as tenderly present to his mind. He almost regretted his rash visit to the island. ‘I will take her with me to England,’ he said to himself. ‘What do I care for the opinion of the world? Aimata shall be my wife.’
The intense heat oppressed him. He stepped out on the cliff, towards midnight, in search of a breath of air. The first shock of earthquake (felt in the ship while she was inside the reef) shook the ground he stood on. He instantly thought of the volcano on the main island. Had he been mistaken in supposing the crater to be extinct? Was the shock that he had just felt a warning from the volcano, communicated through a submarine connection between the two islands? He waited and watched through the hours of darkness, with a vague sense of apprehension, which was not to be reasoned away. With the first rays of daybreak he descended into the forest, and saw the lovely being whose safety was already precious to him as his own, hurrying to meet him through the trees.
She waved her hand distractedly as she approached him. ‘Go!’ she cried; ‘go away in your canoe before the island is destroyed!’
He did his best to quiet her alarm. Was it the shock of earthquake that had frightened her? It was not only the shock of earthquake, it was something more ominous still which had followed the shock. There was a lake near the Temple, the waters of which were supposed to be heated by subterranean fires. The lake had risen with the earthquake, had bubbled furiously, and had then melted away in the night. Her father, viewing the portent with horror, had gone to the cape to watch the volcano on the main island, and to implore by prayers and sacrifices the protection of the gods. Hearing this, the captain entreated Aimata to let him see the emptied lake, in the absence of the Priest. She hesitated; but his influence was all-powerful. He prevailed on her to turn back with him through the forest.
Reaching the farthest limit of the trees, they came out upon open, rocky ground that sloped gently downward towards the centre of the island. Having crossed this space, they arrived at a natural amphitheatre of rock. On one side of it the Temple appeared, partly excavated, partly formed by a natural cavern. In one of the lateral branches of the cavern was the dwelling of the Priest and his daughter. The mouth of it looked out on the rocky basin of the lake. Stooping over the edge, the captain discovered, far down in the empty depths, a light cloud of steam. Not a drop of water was visible anywhere.
‘Does that mean nothing?’ said Aimata, pointing to the abyss. She shuddered and hid her face on the captain’s bosom. ‘My father says,’ she whispered, ‘that it is your doing.’
The captain started. ‘Does your father know that I am on the island?’
She looked up at him with a quick glance of reproach. ‘Do you think I would tell him, and put your life in peril?’ she asked. ‘My father felt the destroyer of the island in the earthquake; my father saw the coming destruction in the disappearance of the lake.’ Her eyes rested on him with a loving languor. ‘Are you indeed the demon of the prophecy?’ she said, winding his hair round her finger. ‘I am not afraid of you, if you are. I am a girl bewitched; I love the demon.’ She kissed him passionately. ‘I don’t care if I die,’ she whispered between the kisses, ‘if I only die with you!’
The captain made no attempt to reason with her. He took the wiser way—he appealed to her feelings.
‘You will come with me to my own country,’ he said. ‘My ship is waiting. I will take you home with me, and make you my wife.’
She sprang to her feet, and clapped her hands for joy. Then she thought of her father, and sat down again in tears.
The captain understood her. ‘Let us leave this dreary place,’ he said. ‘We will talk about it in the cool glades of the forest, where you first said you loved me.’
She gave him her hand. ‘Where I first said I loved you!’ she repeated, smiling tenderly an thoughtfully as she looked at him. They left the lake together.
THE darkness had fallen again. The ship was still becalmed at sea.
Mr. Duncalf came on deck after his supper. The thin line of smoke, seen rising from the peak of the mountain that evening, was now succeeded by ominous flashes of fire from the same quarter, intermittently visible. The faint, hot breeze from the land was felt once more. ‘There’s just an air of wind,’ the mate remarked. ‘We will try for the captain while we have the chance.’
One of the boats was lowered into the water—under command of the second mate, who had taken the ‘bearings’ of the tabooed island by daylight. Four of the men were to go with him, and they were all to be well armed. Mr. Duncalf addressed his final instructions to the officer in the boat.
‘You will keep a look-out with a lantern in the bows. When you get a-nigh the island, you will fire a gun and sing out for the captain——’
‘Quite needless,’ interposed a voice from the sea. ‘The captain is here!’
Without taking the slightest notice of the astonishment that he had caused, the captain paddled his canoe to the side of the ship. Instead of ascending to the deck of the ‘Fortuna,’ he stepped into the boat. ‘Lend me your pistols,’ he said quietly to the second officer, ‘and oblige me by taking your men back to their duties on board.’ He looked up at Mr. Duncalf and gave some further directions. ‘If there is any change in the weather, keep the ship standing off and on, at a safe distance from the land, and throw up a rocket from time to time to show your position. Expect me on board again by sunrise.’
‘What!’ cried the mate. ‘Do you mean to say you are going back to the island—in that boat—all by yourself?’
‘I am going back to the island,’ answered the captain, as quietly as ever; ‘in this boat—all by myself.’ He pushed off from the ship, and hoisted the sail as he spoke.
‘You’re deserting your duty!’ shouted the mate, with one of his loudest oaths.
‘Attend to my directions,’ the captain shouted back, as he drifted away into the darkness.
Mr. Duncalf—violently agitated for the first time in his life—took leave of his superior officer, with a singular mixture of solemnity and politeness, in these words:
‘The Lord have mercy on your soul! I wish you good-evening.’
ALONE in the boat, the captain looked with a misgiving mind at the flashing of the volcano on the main island.
If events had favoured him, he would have removed Aimata to the shelter of the ship on the day when he saw the emptied basin on the lake. But the smoke of the Priest’s sacrifice had been discovered from the main island; and the chief had sent two canoes with instructions to make enquiries. One of the canoes had returned; the other was kept in waiting off the cape, to place a means of communicating with the main island at the disposal of the Priest. The second shock of earthquake had naturally increased the alarm of the chief. He had sent messages to the Priest, entreating him to leave the island. The Priest refused. He believed in his gods and his sacrifices—he believed they might avert the fatality that threatened his sanctuary.
Yielding to the holy man, the chief sent re-enforcements of canoes to take their turn at keeping watch off the headland. Assisted by torches, the islanders were on the alert (in superstitious terror of the demon of the prophecy) by night as well as by day. The captain would have risked certain death if he had ventured to approach the hiding-place in which he had concealed his canoe. It was only after Aimata had left him as usual, to return to her father at the close of evening, that the chances declared themselves in the captain’s favour. The fire-flashes from the mountain, visible when the night came, had struck terror into the hearts of the men in the canoes. They thought of their wives, their children, and their possessions on the main island, and they one and all deserted their Priest. The captain seized the opportunity of communicating with the ship, and of exchanging a frail canoe which he was ill able to manage, for a swift sailing-boat capable of keeping the sea in the event of stormy weather.
As he now neared the land, certain small sparks of red, moving in the distance, informed him that the canoes had been ordered back to their duty. Steering by the distant torchlights, he reached his own side of the island without accident, and, guided by the boat’s lantern, anchored under the cliff. He climbed the rocks, advanced to the door of the hut—and was met, to his delight and astonishment, by Aimata on the threshold.
‘I dreamed that the anger of the deities had parted us forever,’ she said; ‘and I came here to see if my dream was true. Oh, how I have been crying, all alone in the hut! Now I have seen you, I am satisfied. Kiss me, and let me go back. No! you must not go back with me. My father has his doubts; my father may be out, looking for me. It is you that are in danger, not I. I know the forest as well by dark as by daylight. You shall see me again at daybreak.’
The captain detained her. ‘Now you are here,’ he said, ‘why should I wait to place you in safety until daybreak? I have been to the ship; I have brought back one of the boats. The darkness will befriend us—let us embark while we can.’
She shrank back as he took her hand. ‘My father!’ she said, faintly.
‘Your father is in no danger. The canoes are waiting for him at the cape; I saw the lights as I passed.’
With that reply he drew her out of the hut, and turned his face towards the sea. Not a breath of the breeze was now to be felt. The dead calm had returned—and the boat was too large to be easily managed by one man alone at the oars.
‘The breeze may come again,’ he said to her. ‘Wait here, my angel, for the chance.’
As he spoke, the deep silence of the forest below them was broken by a sound. A harsh, wailing voice was heard, calling ‘Aimata! Aimata!’
‘My father!’ she whispered; ‘he has missed me. If he comes here you are lost.’
She kissed him with passionate fervour; she held him to her for a moment with all her strength.
‘Expect me at daybreak,’ she said, and disappeared down the landward slope of the cliff.
He listened, anxious for her safety. The voices of the father and daughter just reached him from among the trees. The Priest spoke in no angry tones; she had apparently found an acceptable excuse for her absence. Little by little, the failing sound of their voices told him that they were on their way back together to the Temple. The silence fell again. Not a ripple broke on the beach. Not a leaf rustled in the forest. Nothing moved but the reflected flashes of the volcano on the black sky over the main island. It was an airless and an awful calm.
He went into the hut, and laid down on his bed of leaves, not to sleep, but to rest. All his energies might be required to meet the coming events of the morning. After the voyage to and from the ship, and the long watching that had preceded it, strong as he was he stood in need of repose.
For some little time he kept awake, thinking. Insensibly the oppression of the intense heat, aided in its influence by his own fatigue, treacherously closed his eyes. In spite of himself, the weary man fell into a deep sleep.
He was awakened by a roar like the explosion of a park of artillery. The volcano on the main island had burst into a state of eruption. Smoky flame-light overspread the sky, and flashed through the open doorway of the hut. He sprang from his couch—and found himself up to his knees in water.
Had the sea overflowed the land? He waded out of the hut, and the water rose to his middle. He looked round him by the lurid flame-light of the eruption. The one visible object within his range of view was the roof of the hut. In every other direction the waters of the horrid sea, stained blood-red by the flaming sky, spread swirling and rippling strangely in the dead calm. In a moment more, he became conscious that the earth on which he stood was sinking under his feet. The water rose to his neck; the last vestige of the roof of the hut disappeared. He looked round again, and the truth burst on him. The island was sinking—slowly, slowly sinking into volcanic depths, below the utmost depth of the sea! The highest object was the hut, and that had dropped, inch by inch, under water, before his own eyes. Thrown up to the surface by occult volcanic influences, the island had sunk back, under the same influences, to the obscurity from which it had emerged!
A black shadowy object, turning in a wide circle, came slowly near him as the all-destroying ocean washed its bitter waters into his mouth. The buoyant boat, rising on the sea as the earth deserted it, had dragged its anchor, and was floating round in the vortex made by the slowly-sinking island. With a last desperate hope that Aimata might have been saved as he had been saved, he swam to the boat, seized the heavy oars with the strength of a giant, and made for the place (so far as he could guess at it now) where the lake and the Temple had once been.
He looked round and round him—he strained his eyes in the vain attempt to penetrate below the surface of the seething dimpling sea. Had the panic-stricken watchers in the canoes deserted their post without an effort to save the father and daughter? Or had they both been suffocated before they could make an attempt to escape from their cavern? He called to her in his misery, as if she could hear him out of the fathomless depths: ‘Aimata! Aimata!’ The roar of the distant eruption answered him. The mounting fires lit the solitary sea far and near over the sinking island. The boat turned slowly and more slowly in the lessening vortex. Never again would those gentle eyes look at him with unutterable love! Never again would those fresh lips touch his lips with their fervent kiss! Alone, amid the mighty forces of Nature in conflict, the miserable mortal lifted his hands in frantic supplication—and the burning sky glared down on him in its pitiless grandeur, and struck him to his knees in the boat. His reason sank with his sinking limbs. In the merciful frenzy that succeeded the shock, he saw her afar off, alive again in her white robe, an angel poised on the waters, beckoning him to follow her to the brighter and the better world. He loosened the sail, he seized the oars; and the faster he pursued it, the faster the mocking vision fled from him over the empty and endless sea.
THE boat was discovered, on the next morning, from the ship. All that the devotion of the officers of the ‘Fortuna’ could do for their unhappy commander was done on the homeward voyage. Restored to his own country, and to skilled medical help, the captain’s mind by slow degrees recovered its balance. He has taken his place in society again—he lives and moves and manages his affairs like the rest of us. But his heart is dead to all new emotions; nothing lives in it but the sacred remembrance of his last love. He neither courts nor avoids the society of women. Their sympathy finds him grateful, but their attractions seem to be lost on him; they pass from his mind as they pass from his eyes—they stir nothing in him but the memory of Aimata.
‘Now you know, ladies, why the captain will never marry, and why (sailor as he is) he hates the sight of the sea.’
From Belgravia January 1877 XXXI, No.123 pp257-274
First published Spirit of the Times, New York 23 December 1876
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