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A short story by Louis Becke

Auriki Reef

Title:     Auriki Reef
Author: Louis Becke [More Titles by Becke]

One evening, not long ago, an old island comrade and I sat on the verandah looking out upon the waters of Sydney Harbour, smoking and talking of the old wild days down there in the Marshall group, among the brown people who dwell on the white beaches under the shade of the swaying palms. And as we talked, the faces of those we had known came back one by one to our memories, and passed away.


In front of us, with her tall, black spars cutting out clearly against the flood of moonlight, that lit up the waters of the quiet little bay, lay the old _Wolverene_--to both of us a silent reminder of one night not long ago, under far-off skies, when the old corvette sailed past our little, schooner, towering up above us, a cloud of spotless white canvas, as she gracefully rose and sank to the long sweep of the ocean swell.


"Poor old Tierney," said my friend, alluding to the captain of that little schooner. "He's dead now; blew his hand off with dynamite down in the Gilbert Group--did you know?"

"Yes. What a good fellow he was! There are few like him left now. Aye, few indeed."

"By the way, did he ever tell you about Jack Lester and his little daughter, Tessa?"

"Something of it. You were with him in the _Mana_ that trip, weren't you?"


"Yes," said my friend, "Brayley and I both. He had been up to Honolulu, sick; and he came on board of the _Mana_ and seemed so anxious to get back to his station on Maduro that Tierney--good old fellow as he was--told him to bring his traps aboard, and he would land him there on the way to Samoa. His wife had died five years before, and he had to leave his station in the care of his daughter, a child of twelve or so. Not that he fretted much about the station--it was only the little girl he thought of."

We smoked on in silence awhile. Then my friend resumed--

"I shall never forget that voyage. It was a night such as this that it happened--I mean that affair of the boat on Auriki Reef."

Fifteen years ago is a long time to try back, and although I had been told something of a strange incident that had occurred during one voyage of the Hawaiian schooner _Mana_ (she is now a Sydney collier), I could not recall the circumstances.

So then my friend told me the story of the boat on Auriki Reef.


"I have told you that Brayley was a man of few words. But sometimes as we paced the deck together at night, as the schooner skimmed over the seas before the lusty trade-wind, he would talk to me of his child; and it was easy for me to see that his love for her was the one hope of his life.

"'I am going back to England soon,' he said to me one night; 'there is but one of us left--my sister--and I would like to see her face again in this world. She is older than I--she is past fifty now.... And it is thirty years since I said good-bye to her... thirty years... thirty long years,' and then he turned his face away and looked out upon the sea. 'Just to see her, and then say good-bye again, for here I have cast my lot, and here I will die. If I were alone in the world perhaps I would take to civilisation again, but Tessa'--he shook his head--'she would wither and die in cold England.'"


"Ten days out we ran in amongst the Radack Chain of the Marshall Islands, and the wind falling light, and being surrounded by reefs and low uninhabited coral atolls, Tierney brought to, and anchored for the night. You know the spot, about nine miles due west of Ailuk, and between two sandy atolls covered with a scant growth of cocoanuts and pan-danus palms.

"The ship being all right the hands turned in, leaving only one man on watch, while we three white men laid down aft to smoke and yarn. It was a bright moonlight night, as light as day--just such a night as this. Away on our port quarter, distant about a quarter of a mile, was a shallow patch on which the surf was breaking. It was merely one of those flat patches of coral that, rising up steep from the bottom, have deep water all round them, but are always covered on the surface by a depth of one or two fathoms--c mushrooms,' we call them, you know. Well, it was such a wonderfully clear night that that shallow patch, with the surf hissing and swirling over and around it, was as clearly visible to us on the schooner as if it had been under our counter, not ten feet away."


"Covering up my face from the vivid moonlight with a soft native mat, I laid down, and after awhile dropped off to sleep.

"How long I had been asleep I did not know then--I learnt afterwards that it was nearly four hours--when I was awakened by a loud hail of 'Boat ahoy!' called out by some one on board.

"I was awake in an instant, and sprang to my feet.

"'What is it?' I said to Tierney and Brayley, who were standing close to me, looking out towards the breaking reef. 'Where is the boat that you are hailing?'

"Neither of them answered; Tierney, turning towards me for a second, made a curious half-commanding, half-imploring gesture as if to ask my silence, and then gripping Brayley by his shoulder, stared wildly at the white seeth of the breakers astern of us.

"A quick look along the decks for'ard showed me that all the native sailors were on deck and clustered together in the waist, as far aft as they dared come. Each man had hold of his fellow, and with open mouths and wildly staring eyes they stood like statues of bronze, in an attitude of horror and amazement.

"'What is it?' I commenced again, when Tierney slowly raised his clenched and shaking hand and touched me.

"'Look,' he said, in a strange, quivering whisper, 'in the name of God, man, what is that?'"


"I followed the direction of his shaking hand. It pointed along the broad, golden stream of moonlight that ran from close under our stern right across to the low, black line that we knew was Ailuk Island. For a moment I saw nothing, then, suddenly, amid the wild boil of the surf in Auriki, I saw a boat, a white-painted boat with a black gunwale streak. One person seemed to be sitting aft with his face drooping upon his breast. The boat seemed to me to be in the very centre of the wild turmoil of waters, and yet to ride with perfect ease and safety. Presently, however, I saw that it was on the other side of the reef, yet so close that the back spray from the curling rollers must have fallen upon it."


"Pushing Captain Tierney away from him, Brayley suddenly seemed to straighten himself, and taking a step in advance of us he again hailed--

"'Boat, ahoy!'

"The loud, hoarse cry pealed over the waters, but no answer came from the silent figure, and then Brayley turned towards us. His bronzed features had paled to the hue of death, and for a moment or two his mouth twitched.

"'For God's sake, Tierney, call the hands and lower the boat. It is nothing from the other world that we see--_it is my daughter, Tessa_.'

"In a second the old man sprang into life and action, and in a shrill voice that sounded like a scream he called, 'Man the boat, lads!'

"Before one could have counted twenty the boat was in the water, clear of the falls, and Tierney and Brayley, with a crew of four natives, were pulling swiftly for the other boat."


"In a few minutes they reached her, just as a big roller had all but got her and carried her right on top of Auriki. I saw Brayley get out of our boat and into the other, and lift the sitting figure up in his arms, and then Tierney made fast a line, took the strange boat in tow, and headed back for the ship.

"When the boat was within speaking distance, Tierney hailed me--'Get some brandy ready--she is alive.'"


"We carried her into the cabin, and as Brayley bent his face over the poor, wasted figure of his child, the hot tears ran down his cheeks, and Tierney whispered to me, 'She is dying fast.'

"We all knew that as soon as we looked at her. Already the grey shadows were deepening on the face of the wanderer as we gathered around her, speaking in whispers. Suddenly the loud clamour of the ship's bell, struck by an unthinking sailor, made the girl's frame quiver.

"With a look of intense pity the captain motioned to Brayley to raise her head to try and get her to swallow a teaspoonful of water. Tenderly the trader raised her, and then for a moment or two the closed, weary eyelids slowly drew back and she gazed into his face.

"'Thank God,' the captain said, 'she knows you, Brayley.'

"A faint, flickering smile played about her lips and then ceased. Then a long, low sigh, and her head fell upon his breast."


"At daylight we hove-up anchor and stood on our course for Brayley's Station on Arhnu. Just as we rounded the south end of Ailuk Island we saw the _Lahaina_, schooner, lying-to and signalling that she wanted to speak. Her skipper came aboard, and hurriedly shaking hands with us, asked if we knew that Jack Brayley's little Tessa had gone adrift in his boat ten days ago.

"Silently Tierney led him to the open skylight and pointed down to where she lay with her father kneeling beside her.

"'Poor man!' said the skipper of the _Lahaina_. 'I'm real sorry. I heerd from the natives that Tessa and two native girls and a boy took the whaleboat, for a joke like, and she said she was going to meet her father, as she had seen him in her sleep, an' she reckoned he was close to on the sea somewhere. I guess the poor thing's got swept to leeward by the current. They had a sail in the boat.'

"'Aye,' said Tierney, 'a squall must have struck the boat and carried away the mast; it was snapped off short about a foot above the thwart.'"


"When we ran into Maduro Lagoon three days afterwards our flag was half-mast high for Tessa Brayley, and for her father as well--for we had found him the next morning on his knees beside her, cold and stiff in death, with his dead hand clasped around hers."

[The end]
Louis Becke's short story: Auriki Reef