CHAPTER XIX  STARLIGHT ON THE FOAM

    Mr. Button saw no more rats, much to Dick's disappointment. He was off the drink. At dawn next day he got up, refreshed by a second sleep, and wandered down to the edge of the lagoon. The opening in the reef faced the east, and the light of the dawn came rippling in with the flooding tide.

    "It's a baste I've been," said the repentant one, "a brute baste."

    He was quite wrong; as a matter of fact, he was only a man beset and betrayed.

    He stood for a while, cursing the drink, "and them that sells it." Then he determined to put himself out of the way of temptation. Pull the bung out of the barrel, and let the contents escape?

    Such a thought never even occurred to him--or, if it did, was instantly dismissed; for, though an old sailor-man may curse the drink, good rum is to him a sacred thing; and to empty half a little barrel of it into the sea, would be an act almost equivalent to child-murder. He put the cask into the dinghy, and rowed it over to the reef. There he placed it in the shelter of a great lump of coral, and rowed back.

    Paddy had been trained all his life to rhythmical drunkenness. Four months or so had generally elapsed between his bouts--sometimes six; it all depended on the length of the voyage. Six months now elapsed before he felt even an inclination to look at the rum cask, that tiny dark spot away on the reef. And it was just as well, for during those six months another whale-ship arrived, watered and was avoided.

    "Blisther it! " said he; "the say here seems to breed whale-ships, and nothin' but whaleships. It's like bugs in a bed: you kill wan, and then another comes. Howsumever, we're shut of thim for a while."

    He walked down to the lagoon edge, looked at the little dark spot and whistled. Then he walked back to prepare dinner. That little dark spot began to trouble him after a while; not it, but the spirit it contained.

    Days grew long and weary, the days that had been so short and pleasant. To the children there was no such thing as time. Having absolute and perfect health, they enjoyed happiness as far as mortals can enjoy it. Emmeline's highly strung nervous system, it is true, developed a headache when she had been too long in the glare of the sun, but they were few and far between.

    The spirit in the little cask had been whispering across the lagoon for some weeks; at last it began to shout. Mr. Button, metaphorically speaking, stopped his ears. He busied himself with the children as much as possible. He made another garment for Emmeline, and cut Dick's hair with the scissors (a job which was generally performed once in a couple of months).

    One night, to keep the rum from troubling his head, he told them the story of Jack Dogherty and the Merrow, which is well known on the western coast.

    The Merrow takes Jack to dinner at the bottom of the sea, and shows him the lobster pots wherein he keeps the souls of old sailormen, and then they have dinner, and the Merrow produces a big bottle of rum.

    It was a fatal story for him to remember and recount; for, after his companions were asleep, the vision of the Merrow and Jack hobnobbing, and the idea of the jollity of it, rose before him, and excited a thirst for joviality not to be resisted.

    There were some green cocoa-nuts that he had plucked that day lying in a little heap under a tree--half a dozen or so. He took several of these and a shell, found the dinghy where it was moored to the aoa tree, unmoored her, and pushed off into the lagoon.

    The lagoon and sky were full of stars. In the dark depths of the water might have been seen phosphorescent gleams of passing fish, and the thunder of the surf on the reef filled the night with its song.

    He fixed the boat's painter carefully round a spike of coral and landed on the reef, and with a shellful of rum and cocoa-nut lemonade mixed half and half, he took his perch on a high ledge of coral from whence a view of the sea and the coral strand could be obtained.

    On a moonlight night it was fine to sit here and watch the great breakers coming in, all marbled and clouded and rainbowed with spindrift and sheets of spray. But the snow and the song of them under the diffused light of the stars produced a more indescribably beautiful and strange effect.

    The tide was going out now, and Mr. Button, as he sat smoking his pipe and drinking his grog, could see bright mirrors here and there where the water lay in rock-pools. When he had contemplated these sights for a considerable time in complete contentment, he returned to the lagoon side of the reef and sat down beside the little barrel. Then, after a while, if you had been standing on the strand opposite, you would have heard scraps of song borne across the quivering water of the lagoon.

  "Sailing down,
    Sailing down,
    On the coast of Barbaree."

    Whether the coast of Barbary in question is that at San Francisco, or the true and proper coast, does not matter. It is an old-time song; and when you hear it, whether on a reef of coral or a granite quay, you may feel assured that an old-time sailor-man is singing it, and that the old-time sailor-man is bemused.

    Presently the dinghy put off from the reef, the sculls broke the starlit waters and great shaking circles of light made rhythmical answer to the slow and steady creak of the thole pins against the leather. He tied up to the aoa, saw that the sculls were safely shipped; then, breathing heavily, he cast off his boots for fear of waking the "childer." As the children were sleeping more than two hundred yards away, this was a needless precaution especially as the intervening distance was mostly soft sand.

    Green cocoa-nut juice and rum mixed together are pleasant enough to drink, but they are better drunk separately; combined, not even the brain of an old sailor can make anything of them but mist and muddlement; that is to say, in the way of thought--in the way of action they can make him do a lot. They made Paddy Button swim the lagoon.

    The recollection came to him all at once, as he was walking up the strand towards the wigwam, that he had left the dinghy tied to the reef. The dinghy was, as a matter of fact, safe and sound tied to the aoa; but Mr. Button's memory told him it was tied to the reef. How he had crossed the lagoon was of no importance at all to him; the fact that he had crossed without the boat, yet without getting wet, did not appear to him strange. He had no time to deal with trifles like these. The dinghy had to be fetched across the lagoon, and there was only one way of fetching it. So he came back down the beach to the water's edge, cast down his boots, cast off his coat, and plunged in. The lagoon was wide, but in his present state of mind he would have swum the Hellespont. His figure gone from the beach, the night resumed its majesty and aspect of meditation.

    So lit was the lagoon by starshine that the head of the swimmer could be distinguished away out in the midst of circles of light; also, as the head neared the reef, a dark triangle that came shearing through water past the palm tree at the pier. It was the night patrol of the lagoon, who had heard in some mysterious manner that a drunken sailor-man was making trouble in his waters.

    Looking, one listened, hand on heart, for the scream of the arrested one, yet it did not come. The swimmer, scrambling on to the reef in an exhausted manner, forgetful evidently of the object for which he had returned, made for the rum cask, and fell down beside it as though sleep had touched him instead of death.


PREVIOUS  UP  NEXT