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Enderby's Courtship by Louis Becke

 

THE two ghastly creatures sat facing each other in their wordless misery as the wind died away and the tattered remnants of the sail hung motionless after a last faint flutter. The Thing that sat aft -- for surely so grotesquely horrible a vision could not be a Man -- pointed with hands like the talons of a bird of prey to the purple outline of the island in the west, and his black, blood-baked lips moved, opened, and essayed to speak. The other being that, with bare and skinny arms clasped around its bony knees, sat crouched in the bottom of the boat, leaned forward to listen.

"Ducie Island, Enderby," said the first in a hoarse, rattling whisper; "no one on it; but water is there . . . and plenty of birds and turtle, and a few coconuts."

At the word "water" the listener gave a curious gibbering chuckle, unclasped his hands from his knees, and crept further towards the speaker.

"And the current is setting us down to it, wind or no wind. I believe we'll see this pleasure-trip through, after all" -- and the black lips parted in a hideous grimace.

The man whom he called Enderby sank his head again upon his knees, and his dulled and bloodshot eyes rested on something that lay at the captain's feet -- the figure of a woman enveloped from her shoulders down in a ragged native mat. For some hours past she had lain thus, with the grey shadows of coming dissolution hovering about her pallid face, and only the faintest movement of lips and eyelids to show that she still lived.

. . . . .

The black-whiskered man who steered looked down for a second upon the face beneath him with the unconcern for others born of the agony of thirst and despair, and again his gaunt face turned to the land. Yet she was his wife, and not six weeks back he had experienced a cold sort of satisfaction in the possession of so much beauty.

He remembered that day now. Enderby, the passenger from Sydney, and he were walking the poop; his wife was asleep in a deck-chair on the other side. An open book lay in her lap. As the two men passed and re-passed her, the one noted that the other would glance in undisguised and honest admiration at the figure in the chair. And Enderby, who was as open as the day, had said to him, Langton, that the sleeping Mrs Langton made as beautiful a picture as he had ever seen.

. . . . .

The sail stirred, filled out, and then drooped again, and the two spectres, with the sleeping woman between, still sat with their hungry eyes gazing over toward the land. As the sun sank, the outlines of the verdure-clad summits and beetling cliffs stood forth clearly for a short minute or two, as if to mock them with hope, and then became enshrouded in the tenebrous night.

. . . . .

Another hour, and a faint sigh came from the ragged mat. Enderby, for ever on the watch, had first seen a white hand silhouetted against the blackness of the covering, and knew that she was still alive. And as he was about to call Langton, who lay in the stern-sheets muttering in hideous dreams, he heard the woman's voice calling him. With panting breath and trembling limbs he crawled over beside her and gently touched her hand.

"Thank God, you are alive, Mrs Langton. Shall I wake Captain Langton? We must be nearing the land."

"No, don't. Let him sleep. But I called you, Mr Enderby, to lift me up. I want to see where the rain is coming from."

Enderby groaned in anguish of spirit. "Rain? God has forgotten us, I ----," and then he stopped in shame at betraying his weakness before a woman.

The soft, tender tones again -- "Ah, do help me up, please, I can feel the rain is near." Then the man, with hot tears of mingled weakness and pity coursing down his cheeks, raised her up.

"Why, there it is, Mr Enderby -- and the land as well! And it's a heavy squall, too," and she pointed to a moving, inky mass that half concealed the black shadow of the island. "Quick, take my mat; one end of it is tight and will hold water."

"Langton, La-a-ngton! Here's a rain squall coming!" and Enderby pressed the woman's hand to his lips and kissed it again and again. Then with eager hands he took the mat from her, and staggering forward to the bows stretched the sound end across and bellied it down. And then the moving mass that was once black, and was now white, swept down upon them, and brought them life and joy.

Langton, with an empty beef-tin in his hand, stumbled over his wife's figure, plunged the vessel into the water and drank again and again.

"Curse you, you brute!" shouted Enderby through the wild noise of the hissing rain, "where is your wife? Are you going to let her lie there without a drink?"

Langton answered not, but drank once more. Then Enderby, with an oath, tore the tin from his hand, filled it and took it to her, holding her up while she drank. And as her eyes looked gratefully into his while he placed her tenderly back in the stern-sheets, the madness of a moment overpowered him, and he kissed her on the lips.

Concerned only with the nectar in the mat, Langton took no regard of Enderby as he opened the little locker, pulled out a coarse dungaree jumper, and wrapped it round the thinly-clad and drenched figure of the woman.

She was weeping now, partly from the joy of knowing that she was not to die of the agonies of thirst in an open boat in mid-Pacific, and partly because the water had given her strength to remember that Langton had cursed her when he had stumbled over her to get at the water in the mat.

. . . . .

She had married him because of his handsome face and dashing manner for one reason, and because her pious Scotch father, also a Sydney-Tahitian trading captain, had pointed out to her that Langton had made and was still making money in the island trade. Her ideal of a happy life was to have her husband leave the sea and buy an estate either in Tahiti or Chili. She knew both countries well: the first was her birthplace, and between there and Valparaiso and Sydney her money-grubbing old father had traded for years, always carrying with him his one daughter, whose beauty the old man regarded as a "vara vain thing," but likely to procure him a "weel-to-do mon" for a son-in-law.

Mrs Langton cared for her husband in a prosaic sort of way, but she knew no more of his inner nature and latent utter selfishness a year after her marriage than she had known a year before. Yet, because of the strain of dark blood in her veins -- her mother was a Tahitian half-caste -- she felt the mastery of his savage resolution in the face of danger in the thirteen days of horror that had elapsed since the brigantine crashed on an uncharted reef between Pitcairn and Ducie Islands, and the other boat had parted company with them, taking most of the provisions and water. And to hard, callous natures such as Langton's women yield easily and admire -- which is better, perhaps, than loving, for both.

But that savage curse still sounded in her ears, and unconsciously made her think of Enderby, who had always, ever since the eighth day in the boat, given her half his share of water. Little did she know the agony it cost him the day before when the water had given out, to bring her the whole of his allowance. And as she drank, the man's heart had beaten with a dull sense of pity, the while his baser nature called out, "Fool! it is his place, not yours, to suffer for her."

. . . . .

At daylight the boat was close in to the land, and Langton, in his cool, cynical fashion, told his wife and Enderby to finish up the last of the meat and biscuit -- for if they capsized getting through into the lagoon, he said, they would never want any more. He had eaten all he wanted unknown to the others, and looked with an unmoved face at Enderby soaking some biscuit in the tin for his wife. Then, with the ragged sail fluttering to the wind, Langton headed the boat through the passage into the glassy waters of the lagoon, and the two tottering men, leading the woman between them, sought the shelter of a thicket scrub, impenetrable to the rays of the sun, and slept. And then for a week Enderby went and scoured the reefs for food for her.

. . . . .

One day at noon Enderby awoke. The woman still slept heavily, the first sign of returning strength showing as a faint tinge in the pallor of her cheek. Langton was gone. A sudden chill passed over him -- had Langton taken the boat and left them to die on lonely Ducie? With hasty step Enderby hurried to the beach. The boat was there, safe. And at the farther end of the beach he saw Langton, sitting on the sand, eating.

"Selfish brute!" muttered Enderby. "I wonder what he's got?" just then he saw, close overhead, a huge ripe pandanus, and, picking up a heavy, flat piece of coral, he tried to ascend the triplicated bole of the tree and hammer off some of the fruit. Langton looked up at him, and showed his white teeth in a mocking smile at the futile effort. Enderby walked over to him, stone in hand. He was not a vindictive man, but he had grown to hate Langton fiercely during the past week for his selfish neglect of his wife. And here was the fellow. gorging himself on turtle-eggs, and his tender, delicate wife living on shell-fish and pandanus.

. . . . .

"Langton," he said, speaking thickly and pretending not to notice the remainder of the eggs, "the tide is out, and we may get a turtle in one of the pools if you come with me. Mrs Langton needs something better than that infernal pandanus fruit. Her lips are quite sore and bleeding from eating it."

The Inner Nature came out. "Are they? My wife's lips seem to give you a very great deal of concern. She has not said anything to me. And I have an idea----" the look in Enderby's face shamed into silence the slander he was about to utter. Then he added coolly -- "But as for going with you after a turtle, thanks, I won't. I've found a nest here, and have had a good square feed. If the cursed man-o'-war hawks and boobies hadn't been here before me I'd have got the whole lot." Then he tore the skin off another egg with his teeth.

With a curious guttural voice Enderby asked -- "How many eggs were left?"

"Thirty or so -- perhaps forty."

"And you have eaten all but those?" -- pointing with savage contempt to five of the round, white balls; "give me those for your wife."

"My dear man, Louise has too much Island blood in her not to be able to do better than I -- or you -- in a case like ours. And as you have kindly constituted yourself her providore, you had better go and look for a nest yourself."

"You dog!" -- and the sharp-edged coral stone crashed into his brain.

. . . . .

When Enderby returned, he found Mrs Langton sitting up on the creeper-covered mound that over-looked the beach where he had left Langton.

"Come away from here," he said, "into the shade. I have found a few turtle-eggs."

They walked back a little and sat down. But for the wild riot in his brain, Enderby would have noted that every vestige of colour had left her face.

"You must be hungry," he thought he was saying to her, and he placed the white objects in her lap.

She turned them slowly over and over in her hands, and then dropped them with a shudder. Some were flecked with red.

"For God's sake," the man cried, "tell me what you know!"

"I saw it all," she answered.

"I swear to you, Mrs Lan----" (the name stuck in his throat) "I never meant it. As God is my witness, I swear it. If we ever escape from here I will give myself up to justice as a murderer."

The woman, with hands spread over her face, shook her head from side to side and sobbed. Then she spoke. "I thought I loved him, once. . . . Yet it was for me . . . and you saved my life over and over again in the boat. All sinners are forgiven we are told. . . . Why should not you be? . . . and it was for me you did it. And I won't let you give yourself up to justice or any one. I'll say he died in the boat." And then the laughter of hysterics.

. . . . .

When, some months later, the Josephine, whaler, of New London, picked them up on her way to Japan, vi‰ the Carolines and Pelews, the captain satisfactorily answered the query made by Enderby if he could marry them. He "rayther thought he could. A man who was used ter ketchin' and killin'whales, the powerfullest creature of Almighty Gawd's creation, was ekal to marryin' a pair of unfortunit human beans in sich a pre-carus situation as theirs."

. . . . .

And, by the irony of fate, the Enderbys (that isn't their name) are now living in a group of islands where there's quite a trade done in turtle, and whenever a ship's captain comes to dine with them they never have the local dish -- turtle eggs -- for dinner. "We see them so often," Enderby explains, "and my wife is quite tired of them."

 
 
 

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