CHAPTER IV  DUE SOUTH

    It was on the 10th of May, so quickly did things move under the supervision of the bedridden captain, that the *Raratonga*, with Lestrange on board, cleared the Golden Gates, and made south, heeling to a ten-knot breeze.

    There is no mode of travel to be compared to your sailing ship. In a great ship, if you have ever made a voyage in one, the vast spaces of canvas, the sky-high spars, the *finesse* with which the wind is met and taken advantage of, will form a memory never to be blotted out.

    A schooner is the queen of all rigs; she has a bounding buoyancy denied to the squarerigged craft, to which she stands in the same relationship as a young girl to a dowager; and the *Raratonga* was not only a schooner, but the queen, acknowledged of all the schooners in the Pacific.

    For the first few days they made good way south; then the wind became baffling and headed them off.

    Added to Lestrange's feverish excitement there was an anxiety, a deep and soul-fretting anxiety, as if some half heard voice were telling him that the children he sought were threatened by some danger.

    These baffling winds blew upon the smouldering anxiety in his breast, as wind blows upon embers, causing them to glow. They lasted some days, and then, as if Fate had relented, up sprang on the starboard quarter a spanking breeze, making the rigging sing to a merry tune, and blowing the spindrift from the forefoot, as the *Ragatonga*, heeling to its pressure, went humming through the sea, leaving a wake spreading behind her like a fan.

    It took them along five hundred miles, silently and with the speed of a dream. Then it ceased.

    The ocean and the air stood still. The sky above stood solid like a great pale blue dome; just where it met the water line of the far horizon a delicate tracery of cloud draped the entire round of the sky.

    I have said that the ocean stood still as well as the air: to the eye it was so, for the swell under-running the glitter on its surface was so even, so equable, and so rhythmical, that the surface seemed not in motion. Occasionally a dimple broke the surface, and strips of dark sea-weed floated by, showing up the green; dim things rose to the surface and, guessing the presence of man, sank slowly and dissolved from sight.

    Two days, never to be recovered, passed, and still the calm continued. On the morning of the third day it breezed up from the nor'-nor'west, and they continued their course, a cloud of.canvas, every sail drawing, and the music of the ripple under the forefoot.

    Captain Stannistreet was a genius in his profession; he could get more speed out of a schooner than any other man afloat, and carry more canvas without losing a stick. He was also, fortunately for Lestrange, a man of refinement and education, and what was better still, understanding.

    They were pacing the deck one afternoon, when Lestrange, who was walking with his hands behind him, and his eyes counting the brown dowels in the cream-white planking, broke silence.

    "You don't believe in visions and dreams?"

    "How do you know that?" replied the other.

    "Oh, I only put it as a question; most people say they don't."

    "Yes, but most people do."

    "I do," said Lestrange.

    He was silent for a moment.

    "You know my trouble so well that I won't bother you going over it, but there has come over me of late a feeling--it is like a waking dream."

    "Yes?"

    "I can't quite explain, for it is as if I saw something which my intelligence could not comprehend, or make an image of."

    "I think I know what you mean."

    "I don't think you do. This is something quite strange. I am fifty, and in fifty years a man has experienced, as a rule, all the ordinary and most of the extraordinary sensations that a human being can be subjected to. Well, I have never felt this sensation before; it comes on only at times. I see, as you might imagine, a young baby sees, and things are before me that I do not comprehend. It is not through my bodily eyes that this sensation comes, but through some window of the mind, from before which a curtain has been drawn."

    "That's strange," said Stannistreet, who did not like the conversation over-much, being simply a schooner captain and a plain man, though intelligent enough and sympathetic.

    "This something tells me," went on Lestrange, "that there is danger threatening the--" He ceased, paused a minute, and then, to Stannistreet's relief, went on. "If I talk like that you will think I am not right in my head: let us pass the subject by, let us forget dreams and omens and come to realities. You know how I lost the children; you know how I hope to find them at the place where Captain Fountain found their traces? He says the island was uninhabited, but he was not sure."

    "No," replied Stannistreet, "he only spoke of the beach."

    "Yes. Well, suppose there were natives at the other side of the island who had taken these children."

    "If so, they would grow up with the natives."

    "And become savages?"

    "Yes; but the Polynesians can't be really called savages; they are a very decent lot I've knocked about amongst them a good while, and a kanaka is as white as a white man -which is not saying much, but it's something. Most of the islands are civilised now. Of course there are a few that aren't, but still, suppose even that 'savages,' as you call them, had come and taken the children off--"

    Lestrange's breath caught, for this was the very fear that was in his heart, though he had never spoken it.

    "Well?"

    "Well, they would be well treated."

    "And brought up as savages?"

    "I suppose so."

    Lestrange sighed.

    "Look here," said the captain; "it's all very well talking, but upon my word I think that we civilised folk put on a lot of airs, and waste a lot of pity on savages."

    "How so?"

    "What does a man want to be but happy?"

    "Yes."

    "Well, who is happier than a naked savage in a warm climate? Oh, he's happy enough, and he's not always holding a corroboree. He's a good deal of a gentleman; he has perfect health; he lives the life a man was born to live- face to face with Nature. He doesn't see the sun through an office window or the moon through the smoke of factory chimneys; happy and civilised too but, bless you, where is he? The whites have driven him out; in one or two small islands you may find him still--a crumb or so of him."

    "Suppose," said Lestrange, "suppose those children had been brought up face to face with Nature--" '

    "Yes?"

    "Living that free life--"

    "Yes?"

    "Waking up under the stars"--Lestrange was speaking with his eyes fixed, as if upon something very far away--"going to sleep as the sun sets, feeling the air fresh, like this which blows upon us, all around them. Suppose they were like that, would it not be a cruelty to bring them to what we call civilisation?"

    "I think it would," said Stannistreet.

    Lestrange said nothing, but continued pacing the deck, his head bowed and his hands behind his back.

    One evening at sunset, Stannistreet said:

    "We're two hundred and forty miles from the island, reckoning from to-day's reckoning at noon. We're going all ten knots even with this breeze; we ought to fetch the place this time to-morrow. Before that if it freshens."

    "I am greatly disturbed," said Lestrange.

    He went below, and the schooner captain shook his head, and, locking his arm round a ratlin, gave his body to the gentle roll of the craft as she stole along, skirting the sunset, splendid, and to the nautical eye full of fine weather.

    The breeze was not quite so fresh next morning, but it had been blowing fairly all the night, and the *Raratonga* had made good way. About eleven it began to fail. It became the lightest sailing breeze, just sufficient to keep the sails drawing, and the wake rippling and swirling behind. Suddenly Stannistreet, who had been standing talking to Lestrange, climbed a few feet up the mizzen ratlins, and shaded his eyes.

    "What is it?" asked Lestrange.

    "A boat," he replied. "Hand me that glass you will find in the sling there."

    He levelled the glass, and looked for a long time without speaking.

    "It's a boat adrift--a small boat, nothing in her. Stay! I see something white, can't make it out. Hi there!"--to the fellow at the wheel. "Keep her a point more to starboard." He got on to the deck. "We're going dead on for her."

    "Is there any one in her?" asked Lestrange.

    "Can't quite make out, but I'll lower the whale-boat and fetch her alongside."

    He gave orders for the whale-boat to be slung out and manned.

    As they approached nearer, it was evident that the drifting boat, which looked like a ship's dinghy, contained something, but what, could not be made out.

    When he had approached near enough, Stannistreet put the helm down and brought the schooner to, with her sails all shivering. He took his place in the bow of the whale-boat and Lestrange in the stern. The boat was lowered, the falls cast off, and the oars bent to the water.

    The little dinghy made a mournful picture as she floated, looking scarcely bigger than a walnut shell. In thirty strokes the whale-boat's nose was touching her quarter. Stannistreet grasped her gunwale.

    In the bottom of the dinghy lay a girl, naked all but for a strip of coloured striped material. One of her arms was clasped round the neck of a form that was half hidden by her body, the other clasped partly to herself, partly to her companion, the body of a baby. They were natives, evidently, wrecked or lost by some mischance from some inter-island schooner. Their breasts rose and fell gently, and clasped in the girl's hand was a branch of some tree, and on the branch a single withered berry.

    "Are they dead?" asked Lestrange, who divined that there were people in the boat, and who was standing up in the stern of the whale-boat trying to see.

    "No," said Stannistreet; "they are asleep."

THE END


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