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A short story by Louis Becke

"The Dandiest Boy That Ever Stood Up In A Boat"

Title:     "The Dandiest Boy That Ever Stood Up In A Boat"
Author: Louis Becke [More Titles by Becke]

Nine years had come and gone since I had last seen Nukutavake and its amiable brown^skinned people, and now as I again stepped on shore and scanned the faces of those assembled on the beach to meet me, I missed many that I had loved in the old, bright days when I was trading in the Paumotus. For Death, in the hideous shape of small-pox, had been busy, taking the young and strong and passing by the old and feeble.

It was a Sunday, and the little isle was quiet--as quiet as the ocean of shining silver on which our schooner lay becalmed, eight miles beyond the foaming surf of the barrier reef.

Teveiva, the old native pastor, was the first one to greet me, and the tears rolled down his cheeks as he spoke to me in his native Tahitian, bade me welcome, and asked me had I come to sojourn with "we of Nukutavake, for a little while".

"Would that it were so, old friend. But I have only come on shore for a few hours, whilst the ship is becalmed--to greet old friends dear to my heart, and never forgotten since the days I lived among ye, nigh upon a half-score years ago. But, alas, it grieves me that many are gone."

A low sob came from the people, as they pressed around their friend of bygone years, some clasping my hands and some pressing their faces to mine And so, hand in hand, and followed by the people, the old teacher and I walked slowly along the shady path of drooping palms, and came to and entered the quiet mission house, through the open windows of which came the sigh of the surf, and the faint call of sea-birds.

Some women, low-voiced and gentle, brought food, and young drinking nuts upon platters of leaf, and silently placed them before the White Man, who touched the food with his hand and drank a little of a coco-nut, and then turned to Teveiva and said:--

"O friend, I cannot eat because of the sorrow that hath come upon thee. Tell me how it befel."

Speaking slowly, and with many tears, the old teacher told of how a ship from Tahiti had brought the dread disease to the island, and how in a little less than two months one in every three of the three hundred and ten people had died, and of the long drought that followed upon the sickness, when for a whole year the sky was as brass, and the hot sun beat down upon the land, and withered up the coco-palms and pandanus trees; and only for the night dews all that was green would have perished. And now because of the long drought men were weak, and sickening, and women and children were feint from want of food.

"It is as if God hath deserted us," said the old man.

"Nay," I assured him, "have no fear. Rain is near. It will come from the westward as it has come to many islands which for a year have been eaten up with drought and hunger like this land of Nukutavake. Have no fear, I say. Wind and much heavy rain will soon come from the west."

Then I wrote a few lines to the skipper.

"Send this letter to the ship by my boat," I said to Teveiva, "and the captain will fill the boat with food. It is the ship's gift to the people."

And then for the first time since the island had been smitten, the poor women and children laughed joyously, and the men sprang to their feet, and with loud shouts ran to the boat with the messenger who carried the letter.

"Come, old friend," I said to the teacher, "walk with me round the island. I would once more look upon the lagoon and sit with you a little while as we have sat many times before, under the great _toa_ tree that grows upon the point on the weather side."

And so we two passed out of the mission house, and hand in hand, like children, went into the quiet village and along the sandy path that wound through the vista of serried, grey-boled palms, till we came to the white, inner beach of the calm lagoon, which shone and glistened like burnished silver. On the beach were some canoes.

Half a cable length from the shore, a tiny, palm-clad islet floated on that shining lake, and the drooping fronds of the palms cast their shadows upon the crystal water. Between the red-brown boles of the trees there showed something white. The old man pointed to it and said:--

"Wilt come and look at the white man's grave? 'Tis well kept--as we promised his mother should be done."

Teveiva launched a canoe and we paddled gently over to the isle, which was barely half an acre in extent From the beach there ran a narrow path, neatly gravelled and bordered with many-hued crotons; it led to a low square enclosure of coral stone cemented with lime. Within the walls bright crotons grew thickly, and in the centre stood a plain slab of marble on which was carved:--

Walter Tallis,
boat-steerer of the ship _asia_.

Died, December 25, 1869, aged 21.
Erected by his Mother.

I sat on the wall, and looked thoughtfully at the marble slab.

"'Tis twelve years since, Teveiva."

"Aye, since last Christmas Day. And every year his mother sends a letter and asks, 'Is my boy's grave well kept?' and I write and say, 'It is well tended. One day in every week the women and girls come and weed the path, and see that the plants thrive. This have we always done since thou sent the marble slab.' She sends her letters to the English missionary at Papeite, and he sends mine to her in far away Beretania (Britain)."

"Poor fellow," I thought; "it was just such a day as this--hot and calm--when we laid him here under the palms."


On that day, twelve years before, the _Asia_ lay becalmed off the island, and the skipper lowered his boat and came on shore to buy some fresh provisions He was a cheery old fellow, with snow-white hair, and was brimming over with good spirits, for the _Asia_ had had extraordinary good luck.

"Over a thousand barrels of sparm oil under hatches already, and the _Asia_ not out nine months," he said to me, "and we haven't lost a boat, nor any whale we fastened to yet And this boy here," and he turned and clapped his hand on the shoulder of a young, handsome and stalwart youth, who had come with him, "is my boat-steerer, Walter Tallis, and the dandiest lad with an iron that ever stood up in a boat's bow. Forty-two years have I been fishin', and until Walter here shipped on the old _Asia_, thought that the Almighty never made a good boat-steerer or boat-header outer eny one but a Yankee or a Portugee--or maybe a Walker Injun. But Walter, though he _is_ a Britisher, was born fer whale-killin'--and thet's a fact."

I shook hands with the young man, who laughed as he said:--

"Captain Allen is always buttering me up. But there are as good, and better men than me with an iron on board the _Asia_. But I certainly have had wonderful luck--for a Britisher," and he smiled slyly at his captain.

Suddenly, we were chatting and smoking on the verandah, there came a thrilling cry from the crew of the whaleboat, lying on the beach fifty yards away.

"_Blo-o-w! bl-o-o-w!_"

And from the throats of three hundred natives came a roar "_Te folau! te folau!_" ("A whale! a whale!")

The skipper and his boat-steerer sprang to their feet and looked seaward, and there, less than a mile from the shore, was a mighty bull cachalot, leisurely making his way through the glassy sea, swimming with head up, and lazily rolling from side to side as if his one hundred tons of bulk were as light as the weight of a flying-fish.

"Now, mister, you shall see what Walter and I can do with that fish," cried the skipper to me. "And when we've settled him, and the other boats are towing him off to the ship, Walter and I will come on shore again and hev something to eat--if you will invite us."

The boat flashed out from the beach, swept out of the passage through the reef, and in twenty minutes was within striking distance of the mighty cetacean. And, watching from the verandah, I saw the young harpooner stand up and bury his first harpoon to the socket, following it instantly with a second. Then slowly sank the huge head, and up came the vast flukes in the air, and Leviathan sounded into the ocean depths as the line spun through the stem notch, and the boat sped over the mirror-like sea. In ten minutes she was hidden from view by a point of land, and the last that we on the shore saw was "the dandiest lad that ever stood up in a boat's bow" going aft to the steer-oar, and the old white-headed skipper taking his place to use the deadly lance. And then at the same time that the captain's boat disappeared from view, I noticed that the _Asia_ had lowered her four other boats, which were pulling with furious speed in the direction which the "fast" boat had taken.

"Something must have gone wrong with the captain's boat," I thought.

Something had gone wrong, for half an hour later one of the four "loose" boats pulled into the beach, and the old skipper, with tears streaming down his rugged cheeks, stepped out, trembling from head to foot.

"My dandy boy, my poor boatsteerer," he said huskily to me--"that darned whale fluked us, and near cut him in half. Poor lad, he didn't suffer; for death came sudden. An' he is the only son of his mother. Can I bring him to your house?"

Very tenderly and slowly the whaleboat's crew carried the crushed and mutilated form of the "dandiest boy" to the house, and whilst I helped the _Asia's_ cooper make a coffin, Teveiva sat outside with the heartbroken old skipper, and spoke to him in his broken English of the Life Beyond. And so Walter Tallis, the last of an old Dorset family, was laid to rest in the little isle in the quiet lagoon.

For two days our schooner lay in sight of the island; and then, as midnight came, the blue sky became black, and the ship was snugged down for the coming storm. The skipper sent up a rocket so that it might be seen by the people on shore--to verify my prophecy about a change in the weather.

Came then the wind and the sweet, blessed rain, and as the schooner, under reefed canvas, plunged to the rising sea, the folk of Nukutavake, I felt certain, stood outside their houses, and let the cooling Heaven-sent streams drench their smooth, copper-coloured skins, whilst good old Teveiva gave thanks to God.

[The end]
Louis Becke's short story: "The Dandiest Boy That Ever Stood Up In A Boat"