Read CHAPTER II of The Tale of Timber Town , free online book, by Alfred Grace, on ReadCentral.com.

The Wreck of the Mersey Witch.

The Maori is a brown man. His hair is straight, coarse, black, and bright as jet. His eyes are brown, his teeth are pearly white; and, when he smiles, those brown eyes sparkle and those white teeth gleam. A Maori’s smile is one of Nature’s most complete creations.

But as Enoko poked his head out of the door of the hut, his face did not display merriment. Day was breaking; yet he could see nothing but the flying scud and the dim outline of the shore; he could hear nothing but the roar of the breakers, battering the boulders of the beach.

He came out of the hut, his teeth chattering with the rawness of the morning; and made a general survey of the scene.

“It’s too cold,” he muttered in his own language. “There’s too much wind, too much sea.”

With another look at the angry breakers, he went back into the hut. “Tahuna,” he cried, “there’s no fishing to-day the weather’s bad.”

Tahuna stirred under his blankets, sat up, and said in Maori, “I’ll come and look for myself.”

The two men went out into the cold morning air.

“No,” said Tahuna, “it’s no good there’s a north-east gale. We had better go back to the pa when the day has well dawned.”

The words were hardly out of his mouth, when a sudden veering of the wind drew the scud from the sea and confined it to the crest of the rocky, wooded cliff under which the Maoris stood. The sea lay exposed, grey and foaming; but it was not on the sea that the men’s eyes were riveted. There, in the roaring, rushing tide, a ship lay helpless on the rocks.

Enoko peered, as though he mistrusted the sight of his eye he had but one. Tahuna ran to the hut, and called, “Come out, both of you. There’s a ship on the rocks!”

From the hut issued two sleepy female forms, the one that of the chief’s wife, the other that of a pretty girl. The former was a typical Maori wahine of the better class, with regular features and an abundance of long black hair; the latter was not more than eighteen years old, of a lighter complexion, full-figured, and with a good-natured face which expressed grief and anxiety in every feature. “Oh!” she exclaimed, as a great wave broke over the helpless ship, “the sailors will be drowned. What can we do?”

“Amiria,” said the chief to her, “go back to the pa, and tell the people to come and help. We three,” he pointed to his wife, Enoko and himself “will see what we can do.”

“No,” replied the girl, “I can swim as well as any of you. I shall stay, and help.” She ran along the beach to the point nearest the wreck, and the others followed her.

Tahuna, standing in the wash of the sea, cried out, “A rope! A rope! A rope!” But his voice did not penetrate ten yards into the face of the gale.

Then all four, drenched with spray, shouted together, and with a similar result.

“If they could float a rope ashore,” said the chief, “we would make it fast, and so save them.”

The vessel lay outside a big reef which stretched between her and the shore; her hull was almost hidden by the surf which broke over her, the only dry place on her being the fore-top, which was crowded with sailors; and it was evident that she must soon break up under the battering seas which swept over her continually.

“They can’t swim,” said the chief, with a gesture of disgust. “The pakeha is a sheep, in the water. We must go to them. Now, remember: when you get near the ship, call out for a rope. We can drift back easily enough.”

He walked seawards till the surf was up to his knees. The others followed his example; the girl standing with the other woman between the men.

“Now,” cried Tahuna, as a great breaker retired; and the four Maoris rushed forward, and plunged into the surf. But the force of the next wave dashed them back upon the beach. Three times they tried to strike out from the shore, but each time they were washed back. Tahuna’s face was bleeding, Enoko limped as he rose to make the fourth attempt, but the women had so far escaped unscathed.

“When the wave goes out,” cried the chief, “rush forward, and grasp the rocks at the bottom. Then when the big wave passes, swim a few strokes, dive when the next comes, and take hold of the rocks again.”

“That’s a good plan,” said Enoko. “Let us try it.”

A great sea broke on the shore; they all rushed forward, and disappeared as the next wave came. Almost immediately their black heads were bobbing on the water. There came another great breaker, the four heads disappeared; the wave swept over the spot where they had dived, but bore no struggling brown bodies with it. Then again, but further out to sea, the black heads appeared, to sink again before the next great wave. Strong in nerve, powerful in limb were those amphibious Maoris, accustomed to the water from the year of their birth.

They were now fifty yards from the shore, and swam independently of one another; diving but seldom, and bravely breasting the waves.

The perishing sailors, who eagerly watched the swimmers, raised a shout, which gave the Maoris new courage.

Between the Natives and the ship stretched a white line of foam, hissing, roaring, boiling over a black reef which it was impossible to cross. The tired swimmers, therefore, had to make a painful detour. Slowly Tahuna and Enoko, who were in front, directed their course towards a channel at one end of the reef, and the women followed in their wake. They were swimming on their sides, but all their strength and skill seemed of little avail in bringing them any nearer to their goal. But suddenly Amiria dived beneath the great billows, and when her tangled, wet mane reappeared, she was in front of the men. They and the chief’s wife followed her example, and soon all four swimmers had passed through the channel. Outside another reef lay parallel to the first, and on it lay the stranded ship, fixed and fast, with the green seas pounding her to pieces.

When the Maoris were some fifty yards from the wreck, they spread themselves out in a line parallel to the reef on which lay the ship, her copper plates exposed half-way to the keel. “Rope! Rope! Rope!” shouted the Maoris. Their voices barely reached the ship, but the sailors well knew for what the swimmers risked their lives. Already a man had unrove the fore-signal-halyards, the sailors raised a shout and the coiled rope was thrown. It fell midway between Tahuna and Enoko, where Amiria was swimming. Quickly the brave girl grasped the life-line, and it was not long before her companions were beside her.

They now swam towards the channel. Once in the middle of that, they turned on their backs and floated, each holding tight to the rope, and the waves bearing them towards the shore.

The return passage took only a few minutes, but to get through the breakers which whitened the beach with foam was a matter of life or death to the swimmers. They were grasped by the great seas and were hurled upon the grinding boulders; they were sucked back by the receding tide, to be again thrown upon the shore.

Tahuna was the first to scramble out of the surf, though he limped as he walked above high-water-mark. Amiria lay exhausted on the very margin, the shallow surge sweeping over her; but the rope was still in her hand. The chief first carried the girl up the beach, and laid her, panting, on the stones; then he went back to look for the others. His wife, with wonderful fortune, was carried uninjured to his very feet, but Enoko was struggling in the back-wash which was drawing him into a great oncoming sea. Forgetting his maimed foot, the chief sprang towards his friend, seized hold of him and a boulder simultaneously, and let the coming wave pass over him and break upon the beach. Just as it retired, he picked up Enoko, and staggered ashore with his helpless burden.

For five minutes they all lay, panting and still. Then Amiria got up and hauled on the life-line. Behind her a strange piece of rock, shaped like a roughly-squared pillar, stood upright from the beach. To this she made fast the line, on which she pulled hard and strong. Tahuna rose, and helped her, and soon out of the surf there came a two-inch rope which had been tied to the signal-halyards.

When the chief and the girl had fixed the thicker rope round the rock, Tahuna tied the end of the life-line about his waist, walked to the edge of the sea, and held up his hand.

That was a signal for the first man to leave the ship. He would have to come hand-over-hand along the rope, through the waters that boiled over the deadly rocks, and through the thundering seas that beat the shore. And hand-over-hand he came, past the reef on which the ship lay, across the wild stretch of deep water, over the second and more perilous reef, and into the middle of the breakers of the beach. There he lost his hold, but Tahuna dashed into the surf, and seized him. The chief could now give no attention to his own safety, but his wife and Amiria hauled on the life-line, and prevented him and his burden from being carried seawards by the back-wash. And so the first man was saved from the wreck of The Mersey Witch.

Others soon followed; Tahuna became exhausted; his wife took his place, and tied the life-line round her waist. After she had rescued four men, Enoko came to himself and relieved her; and Amiria, not to be outdone in daring, tied the other end of the line about her waist, and took her stand beside the half-blind man.

As the captain, who was the last man to leave the ship, was dragged out of the raging sea, a troop of Maoris arrived from the pa with blankets, food, and drink. Soon the newcomers had lighted a fire in a sheltered niche of the cliff, and round the cheerful blaze they placed the chilled and exhausted sailors.

The captain, when he could speak, said to Tahuna, “Weren’t you one of those who swam out to the ship?”

“Yeh, boss, that me,” replied the chief in broken English. “You feel all right now, eh?”

“Where are the women we saw in the water?”

T’è wahine?” said Tahuna. “They all right, boss.”

“Where are they? I should like to see them. I should like to thank them.”

The chief’s wife, her back against the cliff, was resting after her exertions. Amiria was attending to one of the men she had dragged out of the surf, a tall, fair man, whose limbs she was chafing beside the fire. When the chief called to his wife and the girl, Amiria rose, and placing her Englishman in the charge of a big Maori woman, she flung over her shoulders an old korowai cloak which she had picked up from the beach, and pushing through the throng, was presented to the captain.

He was a short, thick-set man, weather-beaten by two score voyages. “So you’re the girl we saw in the water,” said he. “Pleased to meet you, miss, pleased to meet you,” and then after a pause, “Your daughter, chief?”

Amiria’s face broke into a smile, and from her pretty mouth bubbled the sweetest laughter a man could hear.

“Not my taughter,” replied Tahuna, as his wife approached, “but this my wahine, what you call wife.”

The Maori woman was smiling the generous smile of her race.

“You’re a brave crowd,” said the captain. “My crew and I owe you our lives. My prejudice against colour is shaken I’m not sure that it’ll ever recover the shock you’ve given it. A man may sail round the world a dozen times, an’ there’s still something he’s got to learn. I never would ha’ believed a man, let alone a woman, could ha’ swum in such a sea. An’ you’re Natives of the country? a fine race, a fine race.” As they stood, talking, rain had commenced to drive in from the sea. The captain surveyed the miserable scene for a moment or two; then he said, “I think, chief, that if you’re ready we’ll get these men under shelter.” And so, some supported by their dusky friends, and some carried in blankets, the crew of The Mersey Witch, drenched and cold, but saved from the sea, were conveyed to the huts of the pa.