South Sea Tales HTML version

The Heathen
I met him first in a hurricane; and though we had gone through the hurricane on the same
schooner, it was not until the schooner had gone to pieces under us that I first laid eyes on
him. Without doubt I had seen him with the rest of the kanaka crew on board, but I had
not consciously been aware of his existence, for the Petite Jeanne was rather
overcrowded. In addition to her eight or ten kanaka seamen, her white captain, mate, and
supercargo, and her six cabin passengers, she sailed from Rangiroa with something like
eighty-five deck passengers-- Paumotans and Tahitians, men, women, and children each
with a trade box, to say nothing of sleeping mats, blankets, and clothes bundles.
The pearling season in the Paumotus was over, and all hands were returning to Tahiti.
The six of us cabin passengers were pearl buyers. Two were Americans, one was Ah
Choon (the whitest Chinese I have ever known), one was a German, one was a Polish
Jew, and I completed the half dozen.
It had been a prosperous season. Not one of us had cause for complaint, nor one of the
eighty-five deck passengers either. All had done well, and all were looking forward to a
rest-off and a good time in Papeete.
Of course, the Petite Jeanne was overloaded. She was only seventy tons, and she had no
right to carry a tithe of the mob she had on board. Beneath her hatches she was crammed
and jammed with pearl shell and copra. Even the trade room was packed full with shell. It
was a miracle that the sailors could work her. There was no moving about the decks.
They simply climbed back and forth along the rails.
In the night time they walked upon the sleepers, who carpeted the deck, I'll swear, two
deep. Oh! And there were pigs and chickens on deck, and sacks of yams, while every
conceivable place was festooned with strings of drinking cocoanuts and bunches of
bananas. On both sides, between the fore and main shrouds, guys had been stretched, just
low enough for the foreboom to swing clear; and from each of these guys at least fifty
bunches of bananas were suspended.
It promised to be a messy passage, even if we did make it in the two or three days that
would have been required if the southeast trades had been blowing fresh. But they weren't
blowing fresh. After the first five hours the trade died away in a dozen or so gasping fans.
The calm continued all that night and the next day--one of those glaring, glassy, calms,
when the very thought of opening one's eyes to look at it is sufficient to cause a
The second day a man died--an Easter Islander, one of the best divers that season in the
lagoon. Smallpox--that is what it was; though how smallpox could come on board, when
there had been no known cases ashore when we left Rangiroa, is beyond me. There it
was, though--smallpox, a man dead, and three others down on their backs.