CHAPTER XVIII  THE RAT HUNT

    They had dinner at noon. Paddy knew how to cook fish, island fashion, wrapping them in leaves, and baking them in a hole in the ground in which a fire had previously been lit. They had fish and taro root baked, and green cocoa-nuts; and after dinner Mr. Button filled a big shell with rum, and lit his pipe.

    The rum had been good originally, and age had improved it. Used as he was to the appalling balloon juice sold in the drinking dens of the "Barbary coast" at San Francisco, or the public-houses of the docks, this stuff was nectar.

    Joviality radiated from him: it was infectious. The children felt that some happy influence had fallen upon their friend. Usually after dinner he was drowsy and "wishful to be quiet." To-day he told them stories of the sea, and sang them songs--chantys:

    "I'm a flyin' fish sailor come back from Hong Kong,
       Yeo ho! blow the man down.
    Blow the man down, bullies, blow the man down,
    Oh, give us time to blow the man down.
    You're a dirty black-baller come back from New York,
       Yeo ho! blow the man down,
    Blow the man down, bullies, blow the man down.
    Oh, give us time to blow the man down."

    "Oh, give us time to blow the man down!" echoed Dick and Emmeline.

    Up above, in the trees, the bright-eyed birds were watching them--such a happy party. They had all the appearance of picnickers, and the song echoed amongst the cocoa-nut trees, and the wind carried it over the lagoon to where the sea-gulls were wheeling and screaming, and the foam was thundering on the reef.

    That evening, Mr. Button feeling inclined for joviality, and not wisliing the children to see him under the influence, rolled the barrel through the cocoa-nut grove to a little clearing by the edge of the water. There, when the children were in bed and asleep, he repaired with some green cocoa-nuts and a shell. He was generally musical when amusing himself in this fashion, and Emmeline, waking up during the night, heard his voice borne through the moonlit cocoa-nut grove by the wind:

    "There were five or six old drunken sailors
       Standin' before the bar,
    And Larry, he was servin' them
       From a big five-gallon jar.

       Chorus
    "Hoist up the flag, long may it wave!
       Long may it lade us to glory or the grave.
    Stidy, boys, stidy--sound the jubilee,
       For Babylon has fallen, and the slaves are all set free."

    Next morning the musician awoke beside the cask. He had not a trace of a headache, or any bad feeling, but he made Dick do the cooking; and he lay in the shade of the cocoa-nut trees, with his head on a "pilla" made out of an old coat rolled up, twiddling his thumbs, smoking his pipe, and discoursing about the "ould" days, half to himself and half to his companions.

    That night he had another musical evening all to himself, and so it went on for a week. Then he began to lose his appetite and sleep; and one morning Dick found him sitting on the sand looking very queer indeed--as well he might, for he had been "seeing things" since dawn.

    "What is it, Paddy?" said the boy, running up, followed by Emmeline.

    Mr. Button was staring at a point on the sand close by. He had his right hand raised after the manner of a person who is trying to catch a fly. Suddenly he made a grab at the sand, and then opened his hand wide to see what he had caught.

    "What is it, Paddy?"

    "The Cluricaune," replied Mr. Button. "All dressed in green he was--musha! musha! but it's only pretindin' I am."

    The complaint from which he was suffering has this strange thing about it, that, though the patient sees rats, or snakes, or what-not, as real-looking as the real things, and though they possess his mind for a moment, almost immediately he recognises that he is suffering from a delusion.

    The children laughed, and Mr. Button laughed in a stupid sort of way.

    "Sure, it was only a game I was playin'--there was no Cluricaune at all--it's whin I dhrink rum it puts it into me head to play games like that. Oh, be the Holy Poker, there's red rats comin' out of the sand!"

    He got on his hands and knees and scuttle off towards the cocoa-nut trees, looking over his shoulder with a bewildered expression on his face. He would have risen to fly, only he dared not stand up.

    The children laughed and danced round him as he crawled.

    "Look at the rats, Paddy! look at the rats!" cried Dick.

    "They're in front of me!" cried the afflicted one, making a vicious grab at an imaginary rodent's tail. "Ran dan the bastes! now they're gone. Musha, but it's a fool I'm makin' of meself."

    "Go on, Paddy," said Dick; "don't stop. Look there--there's more rats coming after you!"

    "Oh, whisht, will you?" replied Paddy, taking his seat on the sand, and wiping his brow. "They're aff me now."

    The children stood by, disappointed of their game. Good acting appeals to children just as much as to grown-up people. They stood waiting for another access of humour to take the comedian, and they had not to wait long.

    A thing like a flayed horse came out of the lagoon and up the beach, and this time Button did not crawl away. He got on his feet and ran.

    "It's a harse that's afther me--it's a harse that's afther me! Dick! Dick! hit him a skelp. Dick! Dick! dhrive him away."

    "Hurroo! Hurroo!" cried Dick, chasing the afflicted one, who was running in a wide circle, his broad red face slewed over his left shoulder. "Go it, Paddy! go it, Paddy."

    "Kape off me, you baste!" shouted Paddy. "Holy Mary, Mother of God! I'll land you a kick wid me fut if yiz come nigh me. Em'leen! Em'leen! come betune us!"

    He tripped, and over he went on the sand, the indefatigable Dick beating him with a little switch he had picked up to make him continue.

    "I'm better now, but I'm near wore out," said Mr. Button, sitting up on the sand. "But, bedad, if I'm chased by any more things like them it's into the say I'll be dashin'. Dick, lend me your arum."

    He took Dick's arm and wandered over to the shade of the trees. Here he threw himself down, and told the children to leave him to sleep. They recognised that the game was over and left him. And he slept for six hours on end; it was the first real sleep he had had for several days. When he awoke he was well, but very shaky.


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