Read CHAPTER III  -  THE BLIND MAN OF ADMIRALTY ISLAND of The Call Of The South 1908 , free online book, by Louis Becke, on

We had had a stroke ­or rather a series of strokes ­of very bad luck.  Our vessel, the Metaris, had been for two months cruising among the islands of what is now known as the Bismarck Archipelago, in the Northwestern Pacific.  We had twice been on shore, once on the coast of New Ireland, and once on an unknown and uncharted reef between that island and St. Matthias Island.  Then, on calling at one of our trading stations at New Hanover where we intended to beach the vessel for repairs, we found that the trader had been killed, and of the station house nothing remained but the charred centre-post ­it had been reduced to ashes.  The place was situated on a little palm-clad islet not three hundred acres in extent, and situated a mile or two from the mainland, and abreast of a village containing about four hundred natives, under whose protection our trader and his three Solomon Island labourers were living, as the little island belonged to them, and we had placed the trader there on account of its suitability, and also because the man particularly wished to be quite apart from the village, fearing that his Solomon Islanders would get themselves into trouble with the people.

From the excited natives, who boarded us even before we had dropped anchor, we learned that about a month after we had left poor Chantrey on his little island a large party of marauding St. Matthias Island savages, in ten canoes, had suddenly appeared and swooped down upon the unfortunate white man and his labourers and slaughtered all four of them; then after loading their canoes with all the plunder they could carry, they set fire to the house and Chantrey’s boat, and made off again within a few hours.

This was a serious blow to us; for not only had we to deplore the cruel death of one of our best and most trusted traders, but Chantrey had a large stock of trade goods, a valuable boat, and had bought over five hundred pounds’ worth of coconut oil and pearl-shell from the New Hanover natives, ­all this had been consumed.  However, it was of no use for us to grieve, we had work to do that was of pressing necessity, for the Metaris was leaking badly and had to be put on the beach as quickly as possible whilst we had fine weather.  This, with the assistance of the natives, we at once set about and in the course of a few days had effected all the necessary repairs, and then steered westward for Admiralty Island, calling at various islands on our way, trading with the wild natives for coco-nut oil, copra, ivory nuts, pearl-shell and tortoise-shell, and doing very poorly; for a large American schooner, engaged in the same business, had been ahead of us, and at most of the islands we touched at we secured nothing more than a few hundredweight of black-edged pearl-shell.  Then, to add to our troubles, two of our native crew were badly wounded in an attack made on a boat’s crew who were sent on shore to cut firewood on what the skipper and I thought to be a chain of small uninhabited islands.  This was a rather serious matter, for not only were the captain and boatswain ill with fever, but three of the crew as well.

For a week we worked along the southern coast of Admiralty Island, calling at a number of villages and obtaining a considerable quantity of very good pearl-shell from the natives.  But it was a harassing time, for having seven sick men on board we never dared to come to an anchor for fear of the savage and treacherous natives attempting to capture the ship.  As it was, we had to keep a sharp look-out to prevent more than two canoes coming alongside at once, and then only when there was a fair breeze, so that we could shake them off if their occupants showed any inclination for mischief.  We several times heard some of these gentry commenting on the ship being so short-handed, and this made us unusually careful, for although those of us who were well never moved about unarmed we could not have beaten back a sudden rush.

At last, however, both Manson and the boatswain, and one of the native sailors became so ill that the former decided to make a break in the cruise and let all hands ­sick and well ­have a week’s spell at a place he knew of, situated at the west end of the great island; and so one day we sailed the Metaris into a quiet little bay, encompassed by lofty well-wooded hills, and at the head of which was a fine stream of fresh water.

“We shall soon pull ourselves together in this place,” said Manson to Loring (the mate) and me.  “I know this little bay well, though ’tis six years since I was last here.  There are no native villages within ten miles at least, and we shall be quite safe, so we need only keep an anchor watch at night.  Man the boat, there.  I must get on shore right away.  I am feeling better already for being here.  Which of you fellows will come with me for a bit of a look round?”

I, being the supercargo, was, for the time, an idle man, but made an excuse of “wanting to overhaul” my trade-room ­always a good standing excuse with most supercargoes ­as I wanted Loring to have a few hours on shore; for although he was free of fever he was pretty well run down with overwork.  So, after some pressure, he consented, and a few minutes later he and Manson were pulled on shore, and I watched them land on the beach, just in front of a clump of wild mango trees in full bearing, almost surrounded by groves of lofty coco-nut palms.  A little farther on was an open, grassy space on which grew some wide-branched white cedar trees.

About an hour afterwards Loring returned on board, and told me that Manson had gone on alone to what he described as “a sweet little lake”.  It was only a mile away, and he thought of having a leaf house built there for the sick men and himself, and wanted Loring to come and have a look at it, but the mate declined, pleading his wish to get back to the ship and unbend our canvas.

“As you will,” said Manson to him.  “I shall be all right.  I’ll shoot some pigeons and cockatoos by-and-by, and bring them down to the beach.  And after you have unbent the canvas, you can take the seine to the mouth of the creek and fill the boat with fish.”  Then, gun on shoulder, he walked slowly away into the verdant and silent forest.

After unbending our canvas, we went to dinner; and then leaving Loring in charge of the ship, the boatswain, two hands and myself went on shore with the seine to the mouth of the creek, and in a very short time netted some hundreds of fish much resembling the European shad.

Just as we were about to push off, I heard Manson’s hail close to, and looking round, nearly lost my balance and fell overboard in astonishment ­he was accompanied by a woman.

Springing out of the boat, I ran to meet them.

“Mrs. Hollister,” said the captain, “this is my supercargo.  As soon as we get on board I will place you in his hands, and he will give you all the clothing you want at present for yourself and your little girl,” and then as, after I had shaken hands with the lady, I stood staring at him for an explanation, he smiled.

“I’ll tell you Mrs. Hollister’s strange story by-and-by, old man.  Briefly it is this ­she, her husband, and their little girl have been living here for over two years.  Their vessel was castaway here.  Now, get into the boat, please, Mrs. Hollister.”

The woman, who was weeping silently with excitement, smiled through her tears, stepped into the boat, and in a few minutes we were alongside.

“Make all the haste you can,” Manson said to me, “as Mrs. Hollister is returning on shore as soon as you can give her some clothing and boots or shoes.  Then they are all coming on board to supper at eight o’clock.”

The lady came with me to my trade-room, and we soon went to work together, I forbearing to ask her any questions whatever, though I was as full of curiosity as a woman.  Like that of all trading vessels whose “run” embraced the islands of Polynesia as well as Melanesia and Micronesia, the trade-room of the Metaris was a general store.  The shelves and cases were filled with all sorts of articles ­tinned provisions, wines and spirits, firearms and ammunition, hardware and drapers’ soft goods, “yellow-back” novels, ready-made clothing for men, women and children, musical instruments and grindstones ­in fact just such a stock as one would find in a well-stocked general store in an Australian country town.

In half an hour Mrs. Hollister had found all that she wanted, and packing the articles in a “trade” chest, I had it passed on deck and lowered into the boat.  Then the lady, now smiling radiantly, shook hands with every one, including the steward, and descended to the boat which quickly cast off and made for the shore in charge of the boatswain.

Then I felt that I deserved a drink, and went below again where Manson and Loring were awaiting me.  They had anticipated my wishes, for the steward had just placed the necessary liquids on the cabin table.

“Now, boys,” said the skipper, as he opened some soda water, “after we have had a first drink I’ll spin my yarn ­and a sad enough one it is, too.  By-the-way, steward, did you put that bottle of brandy and some soda water in the boat?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s all right.  Just fancy, you fellows ­that poor chap on shore has not had a glass of grog for more than two years.  That is, I suppose so.  Anyway I am sending him some.  And, I say, steward; I want you to spread yourself this evening and give us the very best supper you ever gave us.  There are three white persons coming at eight o’clock.  And I daresay they will sleep on board, so get ready three spare bunks.”

Manson was usually a slow, drawling speaker ­except when he had occasion to admonish the crew; then he was quite brilliant in the rapidity of his remarks ­but now he was clearly a little excited and seemed to have shaken the fever out of his bones, for he not only drank his brandy and soda as if he enjoyed it, but asked the steward to bring him his pipe.  This latter request was a sure sign that he was getting better.  Then he began his story.

Although six years had passed since he had visited this part of the great island, Manson knew his way inland to the lake.  The forest was open, and consisted of teak and cedar with but little undergrowth.  Suddenly, as he was passing under the spreading branches of a great cedar, he saw something that made him stare with astonishment ­a little white girl, driving before her a flock of goats!  She was dressed in a loose gown of blue print, and wore an old-fashioned white linen sun-bonnet, and her bare legs and feet were tanned a deep brown.  Only for a moment did he see her face as she faced towards him to hurry up a playful kid that had broken away from the flock, and then her back was again turned, and she went on, quite unaware of his presence.

“Little girl,” he called.

Something like a cry of terror escaped her lips as she turned to him.

“Oh, sir,” she cried in trembling tones, “you frightened me.”

“I am so sorry, my dear.  Who are you?  Where do you live?”

“Just by the lake, sir, with my father and mother.”

“May I come with you and see them?”

“Oh, yes, sir.  We have never seen any one since we came here more than two years ago.  When did you come, sir?”

“Only this morning.  My vessel is anchored in the little cove.”

“Oh, I am so glad, so glad!  My father and mother too will be so glad to meet you.  But he cannot see you ­I mean see you with his eyes ­for he is blind.  When our ship was wrecked here the lightning struck him, and took away his eyesight.”

Deeply interested as he was, Manson forbore to question the child any further, and walked beside her in silence till they came in view of the lake.

“Look, sir, there is our house.  Mother and Fiji Sam, the sailor, built it, and I helped.  Isn’t it nice?  See, there are my father and mother waiting for me.”

On the margin of a lovely little lake, less than a mile in circumference, was a comfortably built house, semi-native, semi-European in construction, and surrounded by a garden of gorgeous-hued coleus, crotons, and other indigenous plants, and even the palings which enclosed it were of growing saplings, so evenly trimmed as to resemble an ivy-grown wall.

Seated in front of the open door were a man and woman.  The latter rose and came to meet Manson, who raised his hat as the lady held out her hand, and he told her who he was.

“Come inside,” she said, in a soft, pleasant voice.  “This is my husband, Captain Hollister.  Our vessel was lost on this island twenty-eight months ago, and you are the first white man we have seen since then.”

The blind man made his visitor welcome, but without effusion, and begged him to be seated.  What especially struck Manson was the calm, quiet manner of all three.  They received him as if they were used to seeing strangers, and betrayed no unusual agitation.  Yet they were deeply thankful for his coming.  The house consisted of three rooms, and had been made extremely comfortable by articles of cabin furniture.  The table was laid for breakfast, and as Manson sat down, the little girl hurriedly milked a goat, and brought in a small gourd of milk.  In a few minutes Hollister’s slight reserve had worn off, and he related his strange story.

His vessel (of which he was owner) was a topsail schooner of 130 tons, and had sailed from Singapore in a trading cruise among the Pacific Islands.  For the first four months all went well.  Many islands had been visited with satisfactory results, and then came disaster, swift and terrible.  Hollister told of it in few and simple words.

“We were in sight of this island and in the middle watch were becalmed.  The night was close and sultry, and we had made all ready for a blow of some sort.  For two hours we waited, and then in an instant the whole heavens were alight with chain and fork lightning.  My Malay crew bolted below, and as they reached the fore-scuttle, two of them were struck dead, and flames burst out on the fore-part of the ship.  I sprang forward, and was half-way along the deck, when I, too, was struck down.  For an hour I was unconscious, and when I revived knew that my sight was gone for ever.

“My mate was a good seaman, but old and wanting in nerve.  Still, with the aid of some of the terrified crew, and amidst a torrential downpour of rain which almost immediately began to fall, he did what he could to save the ship.  In half an hour the rain ceased, and then the wind came with hurricane force from the southward; the crew again bolted, and refused to come on deck, and the poor mate in trying to heave-to was washed away from the wheel, together with the Malay serang ­the only man who stuck to him.  There were now left on board alive four Malays, one Fijian A.B. named Sam, my wife and child and myself.  And I, of course, was helpless.

“‘Fiji Sam’ was a plucky fellow.  Aided by my wife, he succeeded in putting the schooner before the wind and letting her drive to the N.N.W., feeling sure that she would be giving the land a wide berth.  Unfortunately he did not count upon a four-knot current setting to the eastward, and just as daylight was breaking we tore clean over the reef at high water into a little bay two miles from here.  The water was so deep, and the place so sheltered, that the schooner drifted in among the branches of the trees lining the beach, and lay there as quiet as if she were moored to a wharf.

“Two days later the Malays seized the dinghy, taking with them provisions and arms, and deserted me.  What became of them I do not know.

“Fiji Sam found this lake, and here we built this house, after removing all that we could from the ship, for she was leaking, and settled down upon her keel.  She is there still, but of no use.

“When we ran ashore we had in the hold some goats and pigs, which I had bought at Anchorites’ Island.  The goats kept with us, but the pigs went wild, and took to the bush.  In endeavouring to shoot one, poor Fiji Sam lost his life ­his rifle caught in a vine and went off, the bullet passing through his body.

“Not once since the wreck have we seen a single native, though on clear days we often see smoke about fifteen miles along the coast.  Anyway, none have come near us ­for which I am very glad.”

Manson remarked that that was fortunate as they were “a bad lot”.

“So we have been living here quietly for over two years.  Twice only have we seen a sail, but only on the horizon.  And I, having neither boat nor canoe, and being blind, was helpless.”

“That is the poor fellow’s story,” concluded Manson.  “Of course I will give them a passage to Levuka, and we must otherwise do our best for them.  Although Hollister has lost every penny he had in the world, his wife tells me that she owns some property in Singapore, where she also has a brother who is in business there.  By Jove, boys, I wish you had been with me when I said ’Thank God, I have found you, Captain Hollister,’ and the poor fellow sighed and turned his face away as he held out his hand to me, and his wife drew him to her bosom.”