A Story Told By The Sea by W C Morrow
Story type: Literature
One night, when the storm had come up from the south, apparently for the sole purpose of renewing war with its old enemy, the Peninsula of Monterey, I left the ancient town, crossed the neck of the peninsula, and descended on the other side of the Santa Lucia slope to see the mighty battle on Carmel Bay. The tearing wind, which, charged with needles of rain, assailed me sharply, did nobler work with the ocean and the cypresses, sending the one upon a riotous course and rending the other with groans. I arrived upon a cliff just beyond a pebbly beach, and with bared head and my waistcoat open, stood facing the ocean and the storm. It was not a cold night, though a winter storm was at large; but it was a night of blind agonies and struggles, in which a mad wind lashed the sea and a maddened sea assailed the shore, while a flying rain and a drenching spray dimmed the sombre colors of the scene. It was a night for the sea to talk in its travail and yield up some of its mysteries.
I left the cliff and went a little distance to the neighborhood of a Chinese fishing-station, where there was a sand-beach; and here, after throwing off my coat and waistcoat, I went down to have a closer touch with my treacherous friend. The surf sprang at me, and the waves, retreating gently, beckoned me to further ventures, which I made with a knowledge of my ground, but with a love of this sweet danger also. A strong breaker lifted me from my footing, but I outwitted it and pursued it in retreat; there came another afterwards, and it was armed, for, towering above me, it came down upon me with a bludgeon, which fell heavily upon me. I seized it, but there my command upon my powers ceased; and the wave, returning, bore me out. A blindness, a vague sense of suffocation, an uncertain effort of instinct to regain my hold upon the ground, a flight through the air, a soft fall upon the sand–it was thus that I was saved; and I still held in my hand the weapon with which my old friend had dealt me the blow.
It was a bottle. Afterwards, in my room at Monterey, I broke it and found within it a writing of uncommon interest. After weeks of study and deciphering (for age and imperfect execution made the task serious and the result uncertain), I put together such fragments of it as had the semblance of coherence; and I found that the sea in its travail had yielded up one of its strangest mysteries. No hope of a profitable answer to this earnest cry for help prompts its publication; it is brought forth rather to show a novel and fearful form of human suffering, and also to give knowledge possibly to some who, if they be yet alive, would rather know the worst than nothing. The following is what my labor has accomplished:
I am Amasa D. Keating, an unhappy wretch, who, with many others, am suffering an extraordinary kind of torture; and so great is the mental disturbance which I suffer, that I fear I shall not be able to make an intelligent report. I am but just from a scene of inconceivable terrors, and, although I am a man of some education and usually equal to the task of intelligent expression, I am now in a condition of violent mental disturbance, and of great physical suffering as well, which I fear will prove a hindrance to the understanding of him who may find this report. At the outset, I most earnestly beg such one to use the swiftest diligence in publishing the matter of this writing, to the end that haply an expedition for our relief may be outfitted without delay; for, if the present state of affairs continue much longer with those whom I have left behind, any measure taken for their relief will be useless. As for myself and my companion, we expect nothing but death.
I will hasten to the material part of my narrative, with the relation only of so much of the beginning as may serve for our identification.
On the 14th of October, 1852, we sailed from Boston in the brig “Hopewell,” Captain Campbell, bound for the islands of the South Pacific Ocean. We carried a cargo of general merchandise, with the purpose of trading with the natives; but we desired also to find some suitable island which we might take possession of in the name of the United States and settle upon for our permanent home. With this end in view, we had formed a company and bought the brig, so that it might remain our property and be used as a means of communication between us and the civilized world. These facts and many others are so familiar to our friends in Boston, that I deem it wholly unnecessary to set them forth in fuller detail. The names of all our passengers and crew stand upon record in Boston, and are not needed to be written here for ampler identification.
No ill-fortune assailed us until we arrived in the neighborhood of the Falkland Islands. Cape Horn wore its ugliest aspect (for the brig was a slow sailer, and the Antarctic summer was well gone before we had encountered bad weather),–an unusual thing, Captain Campbell assured us; from that time forward we had a series of misfortunes, which ended finally, after two or three months, in a fearful gale, which not only cost some of the crew their lives, but dismasted our vessel. The storm continued, and, the brig being wholly at the mercy of the wind and the sea, we saw that she must founder. We therefore took to the boats with what provisions and other necessary things we could stow away. With no land in sight, and in the midst of a boiling sea, which appeared every moment to be on the eve of swamping us, we bent to our oars and headed for the northwest. It is hardly necessary to say that we had lost our reckoning; but, after a manner, we made out that we were nearly in longitude 136.30 west, and about upon the Tropic of Capricorn. This would have made our situation about a hundred and seventy miles from a number of small islands lying to the eastward of the one hundred and fortieth meridian. The prospect was discouraging, as there was hardly a sound person in the boats to pull an oar, so badly had the weather used us; and besides that, the ship’s instruments had been lost and our provisions were badly damaged.
Nevertheless, we made some headway. The poor abandoned brig, seemingly conscious of our desertion, behaved in a very singular fashion; urged doubtless by the wind, she pursued us with pathetic struggles–now beam on, again stern foremost, and still again plunging forward with her nose under the water. Her pitching and lurching were straining her heavily, and, with her hold full of water, she evidently could live but a few minutes longer. Meanwhile, it was no small matter for us to keep clear of her, for whether we would pull to this side or that she followed us, and sometimes we were in danger. There came an end, however, for the brig, now heavily water-logged, rose majestically on a great wave and came down side on into the trough; she made a brave struggle to right herself, but in another moment she went over upon her beam, settled, steadied herself a moment, and then sank straight down like a mass of lead. This brought upon us a peculiar sense of desolation; for, so far as we knew (and Captain Campbell had sailed these seas before), there was hardly a chance of our gaining land alive.
Much to our surprise, we had not rowed more than twenty knots when (it being about midnight) a fire was sighted off our port bow,–that is to say, due west. This gave us so great courage that we rowed heartily towards it, and at three in the morning, to our unspeakable happiness, we dragged our boats upon a beautiful sand-beach. So exhausted were we that with small loss of time we made ourselves comfortable and soon were sound asleep upon firm ground.
The next sun had done more than half its work before any of us were awake. Excepting some birds of lively plumage, there was not a living thing in sight; but no sooner had we begun to stir about than a number of fine brown men approached us simultaneously from different directions. A belt was around their waists, and from it hung a short garment, made of bark woven into a coarse fabric; and also hanging from the belt was a heavy sword of metal. Undoubtedly the men were savages; but there was a dignity in their manner which set them wholly apart from the known inhabitants of these South Sea Islands. Our captain, who understood many of the languages and dialects of the sub-tropical islanders, found himself at fault in attempting verbal intercourse with these visitors, but it was not long before we found them exceedingly apt in understanding signs. They showed much commiseration for us, and with manifestations of friendship invited us to follow them and test their hospitality. This we were not slow in doing.
The island–we were made to know on the way–was a journey of ten hours long and seven wide, and our eyes gave us proof of its wonderful fecundity of soil, for there were great banana plantations and others of curious kinds of grain. The narrowness of the roads convinced us that there were no wagons or beasts of burden, but there were many evidences of a civilization which, for these parts, was of extraordinary development; such, for instance, as finely cultivated fields and good houses of stone, with such evidences of an aesthetic taste as found expression in the domestic cultivation of many of the beautiful flowers which grew upon the island. These matters I mention with some particularity, in order that the island may be recognized by the rescuers for whom we are eagerly praying.
The town to which we were led is a place of singular beauty. While there is no orderly arrangement of streets (the houses being scattered about confusedly), there is a large sense of comfort and room and a fine character of neatness. The buildings are all of rough stone and are not divided into apartments; the windows and doors are hung with matting, giving testimony of an absence of thieves. A little to one side, upon a knoll, is the house of the king, or chief. It is much like the others, except that it is larger, a chamber in front serving as an executive-room, where the king disposes of the business of his rulership.
Into this audience-room we were led, and presently the king himself appeared. He was dressed with more barbaric profusion than his subjects; about his neck and in his ears were many fine pieces of jewelry of gold and silver, evidently the work of European artisans, but worn with a complete disregard of their original purpose. The king, a large, strong, and handsome man, received us with a kindly smile; if ever a human face showed kindness of heart, it was his. He had us to understand at once that we were most welcome, that he sympathized with us in our distress, and that all our wants should be attended to until means should be found for restoring us to our country, or sending us whithersoever else we might desire to go.
It was not at all likely, he said (for he spoke German a little), that any vessel from the outside world would ever visit the island, as it appeared to be unknown to navigators, and it was a law upon the island that the inhabitants of no other islands should approach. At certain times of the moon, however, he sent a boat to an island, many leagues away, to bear some rare products of his people in exchange for other commodities, and, should we so desire, we might be taken, one at a time, in the boat, and thus eventually be put in the way of passing vessels. With what appeared to be an embarrassed hesitation, he informed us that he was compelled to impose a certain mild restraint upon us–one which, he hurried to add, would in no way interfere with our comfort or pleasure. This was that we be kept apart from his people, as they were simple and happy, and he feared that association with us would bring discontent among them. Their present condition had come about solely through the policy of complete isolation which had been followed in the past.
We received this communication with a delight which we took no pains to conceal; and the king seemed touched by our expressions of gratitude. So in a little while we were established as a colony about three miles from the town, the quick hands of the natives having made for us, out of poles, matting, and thatch, a sufficient number of houses for our comfort; and the king placed at our disposal a large acreage for our use, if we should desire to help ourselves with farming; for which purpose an intelligent native was sent to instruct us. It was on the 10th day of May, 1853, that we went upon the island, and the 14th when we went into colony.
I cannot pause to give any further description of this beautiful island and our delightful surroundings, but must hasten away to a relation of the terrible things which presently befell us. We had been upon the island about a month, when the king (who had been to visit us twice) sent a messenger to say that a boat would leave on the morrow, and that if any one of us wished to go he could be taken. The messenger said that the king’s best judgment was that the sickly ones ought to go first, as, in the event of serious illness, it would be better that they should die at home. We overlooked this singular and savage way of stating the case, for our sense of gratitude to the king was so great that the expression of a slight wish from him was as binding upon us as law. Hence from our number we selected John Foley, a carpenter, of Boston, as the hardships of the voyage had developed in him a quick consumption, and he had no family or relatives in the colony, as many others of us had. The poor fellow was overcome with gratitude, and he left us the happiest man I ever saw.
I must now mention a very singular thing, which upon the departure of Foley was given a conspicuous place in our attention. We were in a roomy valley, which was nearly surrounded by perpendicular walls of great height, and from no accessible point was the sea visible. On several occasions some of the younger men had sought to leave the valley for the shore, but at each attempt the native guards set over us had suddenly appeared at the few passes which nature had left in the wall, and kindly but firmly had turned our young men back, saying that it was the king’s wish we should not leave the valley. The older heads among us discouraged these attempts to escape, holding them to be breaches of faith and hospitality; but the knowledge of being absolute prisoners weighed upon us nevertheless, and became more and more irksome. When, therefore, our companion was taken away, an organized movement was made among the young men to gain an elevated position commanding a view of the sea, in order to observe the direction taken by Foley’s boat. The plan was to divide into bodies and move simultaneously in force upon all the points of egress, and overcome, without any resort to dangerous violence, the two or three guards who had been seen at those points. When our men arrived at these places they encountered the small number it was customary to see, and were pushing their way through, when suddenly there appeared a strong body of natives, who drew their heavy swords and assumed so threatening an attitude that our men lost no time in retreating. A report of this occurrence was made to the colony, each of the parties of young men having had an exactly similar experience. While there appeared to be no good ground for the feeling of uneasiness which spread throughout the colony, a sense of oppression came over the stronger ones and of fear over the weaker; and, a council having been held, it was decided to ask an explanation of the king.
Other things of some interest had happened; among them, a surreptitious acquiring of considerable knowledge of the island language by me. For this reason I was chosen as ambassador to the king. My mission was a failure, as the king, though gracious, informed me that this plan was necessary in securing complete isolation from his people; and he instructed me to tell my people that any member of our colony found beyond the lines would be punished with death. In addition to this, the king, seemingly hurt that we should have questioned the propriety of his actions, said that thenceforward he himself would make the selections of our people for deportation. The man’s evident superiority of character impressed me with no little effect, and the sincerity with which he regarded us as belonging to a race inferior to his in mental and moral strength confounded me and placed me at a disadvantage.
When I took the news to the colony, a mood bordering upon hopelessness came upon our people. The ones of hastier temper suggested a revolt and a seizure of the island; but this was so insane an idea that it was put away at once.
Not long afterwards the king sent for Absalom Maywood, one of our young men, unmarried, but with a mother among us. Maywood, at first very low with scurvy on the brig, had drifted into other ailments, and was now an invalid and much wasted. I will not dwell upon the pathetic parting between him and his aged mother, nor upon the deeper gloom that fell upon the colony. What was becoming of these men? None might know whither they were taken and none could guess their after-fate. Behind our efforts to be cheerful and industrious there were heavy hearts, and possibly thoughts and fears that dared not seek expression.
The third man was taken–again a sickly one–this time a consumptive farmer, named Jackson; and some time afterward a fourth, an elderly woman, with a cancer; she was Mrs. Lyons, formerly a milliner in South Boston. Then the patience and hope which had sustained us gave way, and we were in a condition close upon despair. The cooler ones among the men assembled quietly apart and debated what to do. Our captain, a man quiet and brave, still the leader in our councils, and always advising patience and obedience, presided at this meeting. There was one dreadful thought upon every mind, but no man had the courage to bring it forth; but after there had been some discussion without any profit, Captain Campbell made this speech:
“My friends, it does not become us longer to seek to conceal the thought which all of us have, and which, sooner or later, must be spoken. It is a matter of common knowledge that upon many of the islands of these seas there exists the horrible practice of cannibalism.”
Not a word was spoken for a long time, and all were glad that it had come out at last. Not one man looked at his neighbor or dared raise his glance from the ground, and there was a weight upon the hearts of all.
“Nevertheless,” resumed the captain, “it is extremely difficult to believe that this evil is upon us, for you must have noticed that only the lean and sickly ones have been taken, and surely this cannot mean cannibalism.”
Some had not thought of this, and they looked up quickly, with brighter faces; whereupon Captain Campbell proceeded:
“You must have observed, however, that all of the sick and weakly have gone, and this brings a new situation upon us. I have an idea, which I will not give expression to now, and my desire in calling you together was to determine its correctness or falsity. For this purpose, some man of daring and agility must risk his life.”
Nearly every man present made offer of his services, but the captain shook his head and begged them all to remain quiet.
“It is necessary,” he added, “that this man understand the language, and I fear there is not one among you.”
Each man, taken aback, looked at his neighbor and then all at me, as I stepped forward. The captain regarded me gratefully and said:
“Let there now be a binding secrecy among us, for the others of the colony must not know now, and perhaps never. If our fear find a ground in truth, there is all the greater reason for keeping these matters secret among ourselves. Is that well understood? Then, Mr. Keating, the plan is this: When the next one of us is taken, you are by strategy, but in no event by violence, to escape from this imprisonment and discover the fate of that one and make report to us.”
A week afterwards (these things occurring now with greater frequency) Lemuel Arthur, a young man of twenty-two, was taken away about one o’clock in the afternoon. My whole plan having been studied out, I arrayed myself in the style of the natives, stained my skin with ochre, blackened my eyebrows and hair with a mixture of soot and tallow, and without difficulty slipped by the guards and found myself at large and free upon the island. I gained a high point and saw no sign of a boat making ready to put off with Arthur. When darkness had come I descended to the village. I kept upon the outskirts and remained as much as possible in shadow. I dared not talk with any one, but I could listen; and presently I learned something that made my heart stand still.
“It has been so long since we had one,” said a native to his fellow.
“Yes; and this one will be delicious. They say he is young and fat. Why, we have not touched any since the four men and their woman with the jewelry came upon the island from a wreck.”
“True; but this one will not go around among so many of us–many must go without.”
“What of that? Those not supplied now will have all the keener relish when their turn comes. All that are left now are good and fat, as the king has taken away all the lean and sickly ones. He would not allow the people to touch them, although some of them begged very hard. So, to make sure, they were placed in the kiln.”
So heavy a sickness fell upon me when I heard this that I was near upon a betrayal of my presence; and certainly I lost some of the talk which these men were having. Presently I realized that nothing indicating a horrible fate for my friends had been said; my own fears were sufficient to give a frightful color to their language. When I looked about me again they were gone, and so with much caution I moved to another part of the town, keeping always in shadow. At a certain place I heard another conversation, as follows:
“Does he know what they will do with him?”
“No; but he fears something. He does not understand the language. He tried to get away this afternoon to go to the sea-shore, where he thought the boat was waiting, and when they made an effort to keep him quiet he became very angry.”
“What did they do then?”
“They took him to the king, who was so kind that the young man became quiet. Our king is so gentle, and they always believe what he tells them,”–whereupon the fellow broke into a hearty laugh.
“And do the others suspect nothing?”
“There is doubt about that. Kololu, the farmer, has reported that they appear uneasy and disturbed, and hold secret meetings.”
“What do you think they would do if they should discover everything?”
“Revolt, I think, for they appear to be fighters.”
“But they have no arms, and we are more than a hundred to one.”
“That is true, and so no lives would be lost on either side. After the revolt they would merely be kept in closer confinement, and no harm would come in the end. They could be taken one at a time, as is the present intention.”
“They might refuse to eat sufficient, and hence become lean.”
“That would come about surely, but it would last only for a time; for you have noticed that even our own people, when condemned, though they lose flesh at first, invariably become reconciled to their end, and at last become fatter than ever.”
The words of this man, who was evidently a functionary of the king, inspired me with so great a horror that I could bear to hear no more; so I moved away, considering whether I should return to the colony and report what I had heard already or remain to see this ghastly tragedy to the end. As there was nothing to be gained by returning at once, I decided to stay, for through the horror of it all might come some suggestion of a means of deliverance.
I soon became aware, by the making of all the people towards a certain quarter, that something of unusual importance was afoot; so as best I could I worked my way around to the point of convergence, which was in the neighborhood of the king’s house, and there I saw an extraordinary preparation under way. A large bonfire was burning in an open place; standing around it, in a circle having a generous radius, were hundreds of the strange half-savages of the island, kept at their proper distance by an armed patrol; in a clear space at one side, on higher ground, was an elevated seat, which I surmised was reserved for the king. Manifestly a matter of some moment was to be attended to, having likely a ceremonious character. The most curious feature of all this affair was the activity of a number of workers engaged in dragging large, hot stones from the fire and arranging them in the form of an oblong mound. This mound had one peculiar feature: a hollow space, about six feet long and two feet wide, was left within it, and the men, under the instructions of a leader, were fashioning it to a depth approaching two feet, all the stones being very hot and difficult to handle, even with the aid of barrows.
While they were still at work, the great repressed excitement under which the people labored found an excuse for expression in the arrival of the king, who, tricked out in unusual finery, walked solemnly ahead of his attendants to his elevated seat. Then he gave an order which, from my distance, I could not hear. I pushed a little closer under the safety which the occasion lent, and overheard this conversation:
“How many will get some of it?”
“Only forty, I hear. You know the women are not allowed to have it.”
“The leading men will be supplied. It makes them strong and wise. The next one will be given to sixty of the men who carry swords.”
“And the next after that?”
“To more of the swordsmen; and so on until they all have had some, and then the common people will be taken in like rotation, but given a smaller allowance.”
At this juncture, a strange procession moved from the king’s house. It was led by two priests chanting dolefully; behind them walked four men, armed with curious implements–flails, no doubt. Then came four warriors, and behind them, firmly bound and completely naked, walked my young friend, Arthur; after him came six warriors. Arthur’s white skin showed in strong contrast to that of the brown men around him. His face was very pale, and his eyes, staring wide, swept a quick glance around for a stray hope.
The group stopped in front of the king; the natives faced and made an obeisance and awaited further orders. Before all this had been done, a man in front of me said to another:
“Those hot stones will cool, I fear.”
“There is no danger; they will keep their heat a long time. If they were too hot, they would burn it.”
“They are much too hot now, but it will be some time before they will be needed.”
“Will they use the sword first, as they did with those who had the jewelry?”
“No; the best part then was spilled. This is a new idea of the king’s. The flails will do just as well and will make it very tender besides. Our king is a wise man.”
By this time young Arthur (the king having given his order) was surrounded by the armed men, and between him and them were the four who carried flails. His hands had been bound to a strong post sunk in the ground. The king raised his hand as a signal, and the four men brought down their flails with moderate force upon Arthur’s naked body. These implements were heavy, and evidently care was taken not to break the skin. When the poor fellow felt the blows, he shrank and quivered, but uttered no sound. They fell again.
What was I doing all this time? What was I thinking? I do not know; but when the second blows had been delivered and Arthur had cried out in his agony, I sprang through the encircling line of savages, dashed into the midst of the group surrounding the prisoner, snatched a sword from a warrior, leaped upon the king and split his head in twain, turned, cut Arthur’s bonds, caught him by the hand, and fled at full speed with him into the darkness. Never had been a surprise more complete–the people had seen one of their own number, as they supposed, free the prisoner and murder their king. Soon there came a howl, and some started in pursuit; but–there was the body of the king, and the stones were hot and waiting! There was no longer authority! Our pursuers fell off, one by one, and the others, thus discouraged, gave up the chase. We ran to the shore, found a boat, and put out to sea.
We are free–we two; but to what purpose? We have no idea of the direction of the land; we are without food; we dare not return to our friends, for only in the desperate hope of our finding land can there be the least encouragement for their rescue. We have rowed all night; it is now well into the following afternoon; we have had nothing to eat or drink, and we are beginning to suffer; we both are naked and the sun seemingly will burn us up. I therefore make this record with material which I had been prudent to provide for such an emergency, and I shall now give it to the sea, with such earnest prayers for its discovery as can come only from a most unhappy human being in a desperate extremity.