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The Meanness of Rosy by Joseph C. Lincoln

 

Cap'n Jonadab said that the South Seas and them islands was full of queer happenings, anyhow. Said that Eri's yarn reminded him of one that Jule Sparrow used to tell. There was a Cockney in that yarn, too, and a South Sea woman and a schooner. But in other respects the stories was different.

"You all know Wash Sparrow, here in Wellmouth," says the Cap'n. "He's the laziest man in town. It runs in his family. His dad was just the same. The old man died of creeping paralysis, which was just the disease he'd pick out TO die of, and even then he took six years to do it in. Washy's brother Jule, Julius Caesar Sparrow, he was as no-account and lazy as the rest. When he was around this neighborhood he put in his time swapping sea lies for heat from the post-office stove, and the only thing that would get him livened up at all was the mention of a feller named 'Rosy' that he knew while he was seafaring, way off on t'other side of the world. Jule used to say that 'twas this Rosy that made him lose faith in human nature.

"The first time ever Julius and Rosy met was one afternoon just as the Emily—that was the little fore-and-aft South Sea trading schooner Jule was in—was casting off from the ramshackle landing at Hello Island. Where's Hello Island? Well, I'll tell you. When you get home you take your boy's geography book and find the map of the world. About amidships of the sou'western quarter of it you'll see a place where the Pacific Ocean is all broke out with the measles. Yes; well, one of them measle spots is Hello Island.

"'Course that ain't the real name of it. The real one is spelt with four o's, three a's, five i's, and a peck measure of h's and x's hove in to fill up. It looks like a plate of hash and that's the way it's pronounced. Maybe you might sing it if 'twas set to music, but no white man ever said the whole of it. Them that tried always broke down on the second fathom or so and said 'Oh, the hereafter!' or words to that effect. 'Course the missionaries see that wouldn't do, so they twisted it stern first and it's been Hello Island to most folks ever since.

"Why Jule was at Hello Island is too long a yarn. Biled down it amounts to a voyage on a bark out of Seattle, and a first mate like yours, Eri, who was a kind of Christian Science chap and cured sick sailors by the laying on of hands—likewise feet and belaying pins and ax handles and such. And, according to Jule's tell, he DID cure 'em, too. After he'd jumped up and down on your digestion a few times you forgot all about the disease you started in with and only remembered the complications. Him and Julius had their final argument one night when the bark was passing abreast one of the Navigator Islands, close in. Jule hove a marlinespike at the mate's head and jumped overboard. He swum ashore to the beach and, inside of a week, he'd shipped aboard the Emily. And 'twas aboard the Emily, and at Hello Island, as I said afore, that he met Rosy.

"George Simmons—a cockney Britisher he was, and skipper—was standing at the schooner's wheel, swearing at the two Kanaka sailors who were histing the jib. Julius, who was mate, was roosting on the lee rail amid-ships, helping him swear. And old Teunis Van Doozen, a Dutchman from Java or thereabouts, who was cook, was setting on a stool by the galley door ready to heave in a word whenever 'twas necessary. The Kanakas was doing the work. That was the usual division of labor aboard the Emily.

"Well, just then there comes a yell from the bushes along the shore. Then another yell and a most tremendous cracking and smashing. Then out of them bushes comes tearing a little man with spectacles and a black enamel-cloth carpetbag, heaving sand like a steam-shovel and seemingly trying his best to fly. And astern of him comes more yells and a big, husky Kanaka woman, about eight foot high and three foot in the beam, with her hands stretched out and her fingers crooked.

"Julius used to swear that that beach was all of twenty yards wide and that the little man only lit three times from bush to wharf. And he didn't stop there. He fired the carpetbag at the schooner's stern and then spread out his wings and flew after it. His fingers just hooked over the rail and he managed to haul himself aboard. Then he curled up on the deck and breathed short but spirited. The Kanaka woman danced to the stringpiece and whistled distress signals.

"Cap'n George Simmons looked down at the wrecked flying machine and grunted.

"'Umph!' says he. 'You don't look like a man the girls would run after. Lady your wife?'

"The little feller bobbed his specs up and down.

"'So?' says George. ''Ow can I bear to leave thee, 'ey? Well, ain't you ashamed of yourself to be running off and leaving a nice, 'andsome, able-bodied wife that like? Look at 'er now, over there on 'er knees a praying for you to come back.'

"There was a little p'int making out from the beach close by the edge of the channel and the woman was out on the end of it, down on all fours. Her husband raised up and looked over the rail.

"'She ain't praying,' he pants, ducking down again quick. 'She's a-picking up stones.'

"And so she was. Julius said he thought sure she'd cave in the Emily's ribs afore she got through with her broadsides. The rocks flew like hail. Everybody got their share, but Cap'n George got a big one in the middle of the back. That took his breath so all the way he could express his feelings was to reach out and give his new passenger half a dozen kicks. But just as soon as he could he spoke, all right enough.

"'You mis'rable four-eyed shrimp!' he says. ''Twould serve you right if I 'ove to and made you swim back to 'er. Blow me if I don't believe I will!'

"'Aw, don't, Cap'n; PLEASE don't!' begs the feller. 'I'll be awful grateful to you if you won't. And I'll make it right with you, too. I've got a good thing in that bag of mine. Yes, sir! A beautiful good thing.'

"'Oh, well,' says the skipper, bracing up and smiling sweet as he could for the ache in his back. 'I'll 'elp you out. You trust your Uncle George. Not on account of what you're going to give me, you understand,' says he. 'It would be a pity if THAT was the reason for 'elpin' a feller creat— Sparrow, if you touch that bag I'll break your blooming 'ead. 'Ere! you 'and it to me. I'll take care of it for the gentleman.'

"All the rest of that day the Cap'n couldn't do enough for the passenger. Give him a big dinner that took Teunis two hours to cook, and let him use his own pet pipe with the last of Jule's tobacco in it, and all that. And that evening in the cabin, Rosy told his story. Seems he come from Bombay originally, where he was born an innocent and trained to be a photographer. This was in the days when these hand cameras wa'n't so common as they be now, and Rosy—his full name was Clarence Rosebury, and he looked it—had a fine one. Also he had some plates and photograph paper and a jug of 'developer' and bottles of stuff to make more, wrapped up in an old overcoat and packed away in the carpetbag. He had landed in the Fijis first-off and had drifted over to Hello Island, taking pictures of places and natives and so on, intending to use 'em in a course of lectures he was going to deliver when he got back home. He boarded with the Kanaka lady at Hello till his money give out, and then he married her to save board. He wouldn't talk about his married life—just shivered instead.

"'But w'at about this good thing you was mentioning, Mr. Rosebury?' asks Cap'n George, polite, but staring hard at the bag. Jule and the cook was in the cabin likewise. The skipper would have liked to keep 'em out, but they being two to one, he couldn't.

"'That's it,' answers Rosy, cheerful.

"'W'at's it?'

"'Why, the things in the grip; the photograph things. You see,' says Rosy, getting excited, his innocent, dreamy eyes a-shining behind his specs and the ridge of red hair around his bald spot waving like a hedge of sunflowers; 'you see,' he says, 'my experience has convinced me that there's a fortune right in these islands for a photographer who'll take pictures of the natives. They're all dying to have their photographs took. Why, when I was in Hello Island I could have took dozens, only they didn't have the money to pay for 'em and I couldn't wait till they got some. But you've got a schooner. You could sail around from one island to another, me taking pictures and you getting copra and—and pearls and things from the natives in trade for 'em. And we'd leave a standing order for more plates to be delivered steady from the steamer at Suva or somewheres, and—'

"''Old on!' Cap'n George had been getting redder and redder in the face while Rosy was talking, and now he fairly biled over, like a teakettle. ''Old on!' he roars. 'Do I understand that THIS is the good thing you was going to let me in on? Me to cruise you around from Dan to Beersheby, feeding you, and giving you tobacco to smoke—'

"''Twas my tobacco,' breaks in Julius.

"'Shut up! Cruising you around, and you living on the fat of—of the—the water, and me trusting to get my pay out of tintypes of Kanakas! Was that it? Was it?'

"'Why—why, yes,' answers Rosy. 'But, cap'n, you don't understand—'

"'Then,' says George, standing up and rolling up his pajama sleeves, 'there's going to be justifiable 'omicide committed right now.'

"Jule said that if it hadn't been that the skipper's sore back got to hurting him he don't know when him and the cook would have had their turn at Rosy. 'Course they wanted a turn on account of the tobacco and the dinner, not to mention the stone bruises. When all hands was through, that photographer was a spiled negative.

"And that was only the beginning. They ain't much fun abusing Kanakas because they don't talk back, but first along Rosy would try to talk back, and that give 'em a chance. Julius had learned a lot of things from that mate on the bark, and he tried 'em all on that tintype man. And afterward they invented more. They made him work his passage, and every mean and dirty job there was to do, he had to do it. They took his clothes away from him, and, while they lasted, the skipper had three shirts at once, which hadn't happened afore since he served his term in the Sydney jail. And he was such a COMFORT to 'em. Whenever the dinner wa'n't cooked right, instead of blaming Teunis, they took it out of Rosy. By the time they made their first port they wouldn't have parted with him for no money, and they locked him up in the fo'castle and kept him there. And when one of the two Kanaka boys run away they shipped Rosy in his place by unanimous vote. And so it went for six months, the Emily trading and stealing all around the South Seas.

"One day the schooner was off in an out-of-the way part of the ocean, and the skipper come up from down below, bringing one of the photographing bottles from the carpetbag.

"'See 'ere,' says he to Rosy, who was swabbing decks just to keep him out of mischief, 'w'at kind of a developer stuff is this? It has a mighty familiar smell.'

"'That ain't developer, sir,' answers Rosy, meek as usual. 'That's alcohol. I use it—'

"'Alcohol!' says George. 'Do you mean to tell me that you've 'ad alcohol aboard all this time and never said a word to one of us? If that ain't just like you! Of all the ungrateful beasts as ever I—'

"When him and the other two got through convincing Rosy that he was ungrateful, they took that bottle into the cabin and begun experimenting. Julius had lived a few months in Maine, which is a prohibition State, and so he knew how to make alcohol 'splits'— one-half wet fire and the rest water. They 'split' for five days. Then the alcohol was all out and the Emily was all in, being stove up on a coral reef two mile off shore of a little island that nobody'd ever seen afore.

"They got into the boat—the four white men and the Kanaka—histed the sail, and headed for the beach. They landed all right and was welcomed by a reception committee of fifteen husky cannibals with spears, dressed mainly in bone necklaces and sunshine. The committee was glad to see 'em, and showed it, particular to Teunis, who was fat. Rosy, being principally framework by this time, wa'n't nigh so popular; but he didn't seem to care.

"The darkies tied 'em up good and proper and then held a committee meeting, arguing, so Julius cal'lated, whether to serve 'em plain or with greens. While the rest was making up the bill of fare, a few set to work unpacking the bags and things, Rosy's satchel among 'em. Pretty soon there was an awful jabbering.

"'They've settled it,' says George, doleful. 'Well, there's enough of Teunis to last 'em for one meal, if they ain't 'ogs. You're a tough old bird, cooky; maybe you'll give 'em dyspepsy, so they won't care for the rest of us. That's a ray of 'ope, ain't it?'

"But the cook didn't seem to get much hope out of it. He was busy telling the skipper what he thought of him when the natives come up. They was wildly excited, and two or three of 'em was waving square pieces of cardboard in their hands.

"And here's where the Emily's gang had a streak of luck. The Kanaka sailor couldn't talk much English, but it seems that his granddad, or some of his ancestors, must have belonged to the same breed of cats as these islanders, for he could manage to understand a little of their lingo.

"'Picture!' says he, crazy-like with joy. 'Picture, cappy; picture!'

"When Rosy was new on board the schooner, afore George and the rest had played with him till he was an old story, one of their games was to have him take their photographs. He'd taken the cap'n's picture, and Julius's and Van Doozen's. The pictures was a Rogues' Gallery that would have got 'em hung on suspicion anywhere in civilization, but these darkies wa'n't particular. Anyhow they must have been good likenesses, for the committee see the resemblance right off.

"'They t'ink witchcraft,' says the Kanaka. 'Want to know how make.'

"'Lord!' says George. 'You tell 'em we're witches from Witch Center. Tell 'em we make them kind of things with our eyes shut, and if they eat us we'll send our tintypes to 'aunt 'em into their graves. Tell 'em that quick.'

"Well, I guess the Kanaka obeyed orders, for the islanders was all shook up. They jabbered and hurrahed like a parrot-house for ten minutes or so. Then they untied the feet of their Sunday dinners, got 'em into line, and marched 'em off across country, prodding 'em with their spears, either to see which was the tenderest or to make 'em step livelier, I don't know which.

"Julius said that was the most nervous walk ever he took. Said afore 'twas done he was so leaky with spear holes that he cast a shadder like a skimmer. Just afore sunset they come to the other side of the island, where there was a good sized native village, with houses made of grass and cane, and a big temple-like in the middle, decorated fancy and cheerful with skulls and spareribs. Jule said there was places where the decorations needed repairs, and he figgered he was just in time to finish 'em. But he didn't take no pride in it; none of his folks cared for art.

"The population was there to meet 'em, and even the children looked hungry. Anybody could see that having company drop in for dinner was right to their taste. There was a great chair arrangement in front of the temple, and on it was the fattest, ugliest, old liver- colored woman that Julius ever see. She was rigged up regardless, with a tooth necklace and similar jewelry; and it turned out that she was the queen of the bunch. Most of them island tribes have chiefs, but this district was strong for woman suffrage.

"Well, the visitors had made a hit, but Rosy's photographs made a bigger one. The queen and the head men of the village pawed over 'em and compared 'em with the originals and powwowed like a sewing circle. Then they called up the Kanaka sailor, and he preached witchcraft and hoodoos to beat the cars, lying as only a feller that knows the plates are warming for him on the back of the stove can lie. Finally the queen wanted to know if the 'long pigs' could make a witch picture of HER.

"'Tell 'er yes,' yells George, when the question was translated to him. 'Tell 'er we're picture-makers by special app'intment to the Queen and the Prince of Wales. Tell 'er we'll make 'er look like the sweetest old chocolate drop in the taffy-shop. Only be sure and say we must 'ave a day or so to work the spells and put on the kibosh.'

"So 'twas settled, and dinner was put off for that night, anyhow. And the next day being sunny, Rosy took the queen's picture. 'Twas an awful strain on the camera, but it stood it fine; and the photographs he printed up that afternoon was the most horrible collection of mince-pie dreams that ever a sane man run afoul of. Rosy used one of the grass huts for a dark room; and while he was developing them plates, they could hear him screaming from sheer fright at being shut up alone with 'em in the dark.

"But her majesty thought they was lovely, and set and grinned proud at 'em for hours at a stretch. And the wizards was untied and fed up and given the best house in town to live in. And Cap'n George and Julius and the cook got to feeling so cheerful and happy that they begun to kick Rosy again, just out of habit. And so it went on for three days.

"Then comes the Kanaka interpreter—grinning kind of foolish.

"'Cappy,' says he, 'queen, she likes you. She likes you much lot.'

"'Well,' says the skipper, modest, 'she'd ought to. She don't see a man like me every day. She ain't the first woman,' he says.

"'She like all you gentlemen,' says the Kanaka. 'She say she want witch husband. One of you got marry her."

"'HEY?' yells all hands, setting up.

"'Yes, sir. She no care which one, but one white man must marry her to-morrow. Else we all go chop plenty quick.'

"'Chop' is Kanaka English for 'eat.' There wa'n't no need for the boy to explain.

"Then there was times. They come pretty nigh to a fight, because Teunis and Jule argued that the skipper, being such a ladies' man, was the natural-born choice. Just as things was the warmest; Cap'n George had an idea.

"'ROSY!' says he.

"'Hey?' says the others. Then, 'Rosy? Why, of course, Rosy's the man.'

"But Rosy wa'n't agreeable. Julius said he never see such a stubborn mule in his life. They tried every reasonable way they could to convince him, pounding him on the head and the like of that, but 'twas no go.

"'I got a wife already,' he says, whimpering. 'And, besides, cap'n, there wouldn't be such a contrast in looks between you and her as there would with me.'

"He meant so far as size went, but George took it the other way, and there was more trouble. Finally Julius come to the rescue.

"'I tell you,' says he. 'We'll be square and draw straws!'

"'W'at?' hollers George. 'Well, I guess not!'

"'And I'll hold the straws,' says Jule, winking on the side.

"So they drew straws, and, strange as it may seem, Rosy got stuck. He cried all night, and though the others tried to comfort him, telling him what a lucky man he was to marry a queen, he wouldn't cheer up a mite.

"And next day the wedding took place in the temple in front of a wood idol with three rows of teeth, and as ugly almost as the bride, which was saying a good deal. And when 'twas over, the three shipmates come and congratulated the groom, wishing him luck and a happy honeymoon and such. Oh, they had a bully time, and they was still laughing over it that night after supper, when down comes a file of big darkies with spears, the Kanaka interpreter leading 'em.

"'Cappy,' says he. 'The king say you no stay in this house no more. He say too good for you. Say, bimeby, when the place been clean up, maybe he use it himself. You got to go.'

"'Who says this?' roars Cap'n George, ugly as could be.

"'The king, he say it.'

"'The queen, you mean. There ain't no king.'

"'Yes, sir. King AND queen now. Mr. Rosy he king. All tribe proud to have witch king.'

"The three looked at each other.

"'Do you mean to say,' says the skipper, choking so he could hardly speak, 'that we've got to take orders from 'IM?'

"'Yes, sir. King say you no mind, we make.'

"Well, sir, the language them three used must have been something awful, judging by Jule's tell. But when they vowed they wouldn't move, the spears got busy and out they had to get and into the meanest, dirtiest little hut in the village, one without hardly any sides and great holes in the roof. And there they stayed all night in a pouring rain, the kind of rains you get in them islands.

"'Twa'n't a nice night. They tried huddling together to keep dry, but 'twa'n't a success because there was always a row about who should be in the middle. Then they kept passing personal remarks to one another.

"'If the skipper hadn't been so gay and uppish about choosing Rosy,' says Julius, 'there wouldn't have been no trouble. I do hate a smart Aleck.'

"'Who said draw straws?' sputters George, mad clean through. 'And who 'eld 'em? 'Ey? Who did?'

"'Well,' says Teunis, '_I_ didn't do it. You can't blame me.'

"'No. You set there like a bump on a log and let me and the mate put our feet in it. You old fat 'ead! I—'

"They pitched into the cook until he got mad and hit the skipper. Then there was a fight that lasted till they was all scratched up and tired out. The only thing they could agree on was that Rosy was what the skipper called a 'viper' that they'd nourished in their bosoms.

"Next morning 'twas worse than ever. Down comes the Kanaka with his spear gang and routs 'em out and sets 'em to gathering breadfruit all day in the hot sun. And at night 'twas back to the leaky hut again.

"And that wa'n't nothing to what come later. The lives that King Rosy led them three was something awful. 'Twas dig in and work day in and day out. Teunis had to get his majesty's meals, and nothing was ever cooked right; and then the royal army got after the steward with spear handles. Cap'n George had to clean up the palace every day, and Rosy and the queen—who was dead gone on her witch husband, and let him do anything he wanted to—stood over him and found fault and punched him with sharp sticks to see him jump. And Julius had to fetch and carry and wait, and get on his knees whenever he spoke to the king, and he helped up again with a kick, like as not.

"Rosy took back all his own clothes that they'd stole, and then he took theirs for good measure. He made 'em marry the three ugliest old women on the island—his own bride excepted—and when they undertook to use a club or anything, he had THEM licked instead. He wore 'em down to skin and bone. Jule said you wouldn't believe a mortal man could treat his feller creatures so low down and mean. And the meanest part of it was that he always called 'em the names that they used to call him aboard ship. Sometimes he invented new ones, but not often, because 'twa'n't necessary.

"For a good six months this went on—just the same length of time that Rosy was aboard the Emily. Then, one morning early, Julius looks out of one of the holes in the roof of his house and, off on the horizon, heading in, he sees a small steamer, a pleasure yacht 'twas. He lets out a yell that woke up the village, and races head first for the Emily's boat that had been rowed around from the other side of the island, and laid there with her oars and sail still in her. And behind him comes Van Doozen and Cap'n George.

"Into the boat they piled, while the islanders were getting their eyes open and gaping at the steamer. There wa'n't no time to get up sail, so they grabbed for the oars. She stuck on the sand just a minute; and, in that minute, down from the palace comes King Rosy, running the way he run from his first wife over at Hello. He leaped over the stern, picked up the other oar, and off they put across the lagoon. The rudder was in its place and so was the tiller, but they couldn't use 'em then.

"They had a good start, but afore they'd got very far the natives had waked up and were after 'em in canoes.

"''Ere!' screams Cap'n George. 'This won't do! They'll catch us sure. Get sail on to 'er lively! Somebody take that tiller.'

"Rosy, being nearest, took the tiller and the others got up the sail. Then 'twas nip and tuck with the canoes for the opening of the barrier reef at the other side of the lagoon. But they made it first, and, just as they did, out from behind the cliff comes the big steam-yacht, all white and shining, with sailors in uniform on her decks, and awnings flapping, and four mighty pretty women leaning over the side. All of the Emily gang set up a whoop of joy, and 'twas answered from the yacht.

"'Saved!' hollers Cap'n George. 'Saved, by thunder! And now,' says he, knocking his fists together, 'NOW to get square with that four-eyed thief in the stern! Come on, boys!'

"Him and Julius and Teunis made a flying leap aft to get at Rosy. But Rosy see 'em coming, jammed the tiller over, the boom swung across and swept the three overboard pretty as you please.

"There was a scream from the yacht. Rosy give one glance at the women. Then he tossed his arms over his head.

"'Courage, comrades!' he shouts. 'I'll save you or die with you!'

"And overboard he dives, 'kersplash!'

"Julius said him and the skipper could have swum all right if Rosy had give 'em the chance, but he didn't. He knew a trick worth two of that. He grabbed 'em round the necks and kept hauling 'em under and splashing and kicking like a water-mill. All hands was pretty well used up when they was pulled aboard the yacht.

"'Oh, you brave man!' says one of the women, stooping over Rosy, who was sprawled on the deck with his eyes shut, 'Oh, you HERO!'

"'Are they living?' asks Rosy, faint-like and opening one eye. 'Good! Now I can die content.'

"'Living!' yells George, soon's he could get the salt water out of his mouth. 'Living! By the 'oly Peter! Let me at 'im! I'll show 'im whether I'm living or not!'

"'What ails you, you villain?' says the feller that owned the yacht, a great big Englishman, Lord Somebody-or-other. 'The man saved your lives.'

"'He knocked us overboard!' yells Julius.

"'Yes, and he done it a-purpose!' sputters Van Doozen, well as he could for being so waterlogged.

"'Let's kill him!' says all three.

"'Did it on purpose!' says the lord, scornful. 'Likely he'd throw you over and then risk his life to save you. Here!' says he to the mate. 'Take those ungrateful rascals below. Give 'em dry clothes and then set 'em to work—hard work; understand? As for this poor, brave chap, take him to the cabin. I hope he'll pull through,' says he.

"And all the rest of the voyage, which was to Melbourne, Julius and his two chums had to slave and work like common sailors, while Rosy, the hero invalid, was living on beef tea and jelly and champagne, and being petted and fanned by the lord's wife and the other women. And 'twas worse toward the end, when he pretended to be feeling better, and could set in a steamer-chair on deck and grin and make sarcastic remarks under his breath to George and the other two when they was holystoning or scrubbing in the heat.

"At Melbourne they hung around the wharf, waiting to lick him, till the lord had 'em took up for vagrants. When they got out of the lockup they found Rosy had gone. And his lordship had given him money and clothes, and I don't know what all.

"Julius said that Rosy's meanness sickened him of the sea. Said 'twas time to retire when such reptiles was afloat. So he come home and married the scrub-woman at the Bay View House. He lived with her till she lost her job. I don't know where he is now."

* * * * * *

'Twas purty quiet for a few minutes after Jonadab had unloaded this yarn. Everybody was busy trying to swaller his share of the statements in it, I cal'late. Peter T. looked at the Cap'n, admiring but reproachful.

"Wixon," says he. "I didn't know 'twas in you. Why didn't you tell me?"

"Oh," says Jonadab, "I ain't responsible. 'Twas Jule Sparrow that told it to me."

"Humph!" says Peter. "I wish you knew his address. I'd like to hire him to write the Old Home ads. I thought MY invention was A 1, but I'm in the kindergarten. Well, let's go to bed before somebody tries to win the prize from Sparrow."

'Twas after eleven by then, so, as his advice looked good, we follered it.

 
 
 

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