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Gascoyne, the Sandal-Wood Trader

Gascoyne, the Sandal-Wood Trader

Author:R. M. Ballantyne


The Great Pacific is the scene of our story. On a beautiful morning, many years ago, a little schooner might have been seen floating, light and graceful as a sea-mew, on the breast of the slumbering ocean. She was one of those low black-hulled vesse...
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  The Great Pacific is the scene of our story. On a beautiful morning,many years ago, a little schooner might have been seen floating, lightand graceful as a sea-mew, on the breast of the slumbering ocean. Shewas one of those low black-hulled vessels, with raking, taper masts,trimly cut sails, and elegant form, which we are accustomed to associatewith the idea of a yacht or a pirate.

  She might have been the former, as far as appearance went, for the sailsand decks were white as snow, and every portion of brass and copperabove her water-line shone in the hot sun with dazzling brilliancy. Butpleasure-seekers were not wont, in those days, to take such distantflights, or to venture into such dangerous seas--dangerous alike fromthe savage character of the islanders, and the numerous coral-reefs thatlie hidden a few feet below the surface of the waves.

  Still less probable did it seem that the vessel in question could belongto the lawless class of craft to which we have referred; for, althoughshe had what may be styled a wicked aspect, and was evidently adaptedfor swift sailing, neither large guns nor small arms of any kind werevisible.

  Whatever her nature or her object, she was reduced, at the time weintroduce her to the reader, to a state of inaction by the dead calmwhich prevailed. The sea resembled a sheet of clear glass. Not a cloudbroke the softness of the sky, in which the sun glowed hotter and hotteras it rose towards the zenith. The sails of the schooner hung idly fromthe yards; her reflected image was distorted, but scarcely broken, bythe long gentle swell; her crew, with the exception of the watch, wereasleep either on deck or down below, and so deep was the universalsilence, that, as the vessel rose and fell with a slow, quiet motion,the pattering of the reef points on her sails forcibly attracted thelistener's attention, as does the ticking of a clock in the deep silenceof night. A few sea-birds rested on the water, as if in the enjoymentof the profound peace that reigned around; and, far away on the horizonmight be seen the tops of the palm-trees that grew on one of those coralislands which lie scattered in thousands, like beautiful gems, on thesurface of that bright blue sea.

  Among the men who lay sleeping in various easy off-hand attitudes on theschooner's deck was one who merits special attention--not only becauseof the grotesque appearance of his person, but also because he is one ofthe principal actors in our tale.

  He was a large powerful man, of that rugged build and hairy aspect thatmight have suggested the idea that he would be difficult to kill. Hewas a fair man, with red hair and a deeply sun-burned face, on whichjovial good-humour sat almost perpetually enthroned. At the moment whenwe introduce him to the reader, however, that expression happened to bemodified in consequence of his having laid him down to sleep in asprawling manner on his back--the place as well as the position being,apparently, one of studied discomfort. His legs lay over the heel ofthe bowsprit; his big body reposed on a confused heap of blocks andcordage, and his neck rested on the stock of an anchor, so that his headhung down over it, presenting the face to view, with the large mouthwide open, in an upside down position. The man was evidently on theverge of choking, but, being a strong man, and a rugged man, and ahealthy man, he did not care. He seemed to prefer choking to thetrouble of rousing himself and improving his position.

  How long he would have lain in this state of felicity it is impossibleto say, for his slumbers were rudely interrupted by a slight lurch ofthe schooner, which caused the blocks and cordage attached to the sheetof the jib to sweep slowly, but with rasping asperity, across his face.Any ordinary man would have been seriously damaged--at least inappearance--by such an accident; but this particular sea-dog was toughin the skin--he was only awakened by it--nothing more. He yawned,raised himself lazily, and gazed round with that vacant stare ofunreasonable surprise which is common to man on passing from a state ofsomnolence to that of wakefulness.

  Gradually the expression of habitual good-humour settled on his visage,as he looked from one to another of his sleeping comrades, and at last,with a bland smile, he broke forth into the following soliloquy:--

  "Wot a goose, wot a grampus you've bin, John Bumpus: firstly, for goin'to sea; secondly, for remainin' at sea; thirdly, for not forsakin' thesea; fourthly, for bein' worried about it at all, now that you've madeup your mind to retire from the sea, and, fifthly--"

  Here John Bumpus paused as if to meditate on the full depth and meaningof these polite remarks, or to invent some new and powerful expressionwherewith to deliver his fifth head. His mental efforts seemed to fail,however, for instead of concluding the sentence, he hummed the followinglines, which, we may suppose, were expressive of his feelings as well ashis intentions:--

  "So goodbye to the mighty ocean,And adoo to the rollin' sea,For it's nobody has no notionWot a grief it has bin' to me."

  "Ease off the sheets and square the topsail yards," was at that momentsaid, or rather murmured, by a bass voice so deep and rich, that,although scarcely raised above a whisper, it was distinctly heard overthe whole deck.

  John Bumpus raised his bulky form with a degree of lithe activity thatproved him to be not less agile than athletic, and, with several others,sprang to obey the order. A few seconds later, the sails were swelledout by a light breeze, and the schooner moved through the water at arate which seemed scarcely possible under the influence of so gentle apuff of air. Presently the breeze increased, the vessel cut through theblue water like a knife, leaving a long track of foam in her wake as sheheaded for the coral-island before referred to. The outer reef, orbarrier of coral which guarded the island, was soon reached. The narrowopening in this natural bulwark was passed. The schooner stood acrossthe belt of perfectly still water that lay between the reef and theshore, and entered a small bay, where the calm water reflected the stripof white sand, green palms, and tropical plants that skirted its margin,as well as the purple hills of the interior.

  Here she swept round in a sudden, but graceful curve, until all hercanvas fluttered in the breeze, and then dropt anchor in about sixfathoms water.